APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
FROM Paradine's point of view—and that, after all, was the outlook that most concerned him—the tiny block of flats on Campden Hill was the breeziest and most picturesque prospect in London. For Capel Hill Court had at one time been what the auctioneers call a "desirable family residence standing in its own grounds," before the inside had been torn out and subsequently refitted with an electric lift and a commissionaire in scarlet uniform, a telephone switchboard, and what is known as "every modern convenience." The garden still remained intact, and Paradine occupied one of the pair of flats on the top floor, from the roof of which he could look down into the gardens and away over the high ground to the distant Surrey Hills. And it had been his whim to erect a tent on the flat roof, and surround himself with flowers and shrubs in imitation of the hanging gardens of Babylon. On summer evenings, when he was in the mood, he was wont to sit out there in ruminating solitude, and work out those brilliant problems of his for the benefit of suffering mankind. For Paradine was one of those fortunate individuals well endowed with this world's goods, who could afford to pick and choose in the field of surgical science—in other words, he was a brain specialist, attracted only by certain phases of cerebral disorders and diseases, or the troubles brought about by accident or catastrophe. Unless a case appealed to him, he declined to take it. He would have nothing whatever to do with the ordinary "mental" case, and turned his back resolutely upon fashionable "nerve" patients, brought about by luxurious living or that selfish introspection which is often the result of too ample means and too little healthy occupation.
It was rarely, indeed, that anybody shared Paradine's solitude on what he called his lonely mountain height. And his next-door neighbour was probably unaware of the fact that he also had an exit on the garden roof. For the next-door neighbour was no less a person than Professor Ionedes, the famous Egyptologist and recognised authority on prehistoric coinage. As a matter of fact, Paradine had hardly ever seen his neighbour, who was an elderly man of pure Greek descent, and a master of many languages. Paradine knew by repute, of course, that the flat adjacent to his contained the finest collection of gold coins in the world; he knew, too, that his neighbour was a somewhat eccentric recluse, and that he was frequently absent from London on one of his many excavating expeditions. And when Ionedes was in the metropolis, he rarely showed himself in society, he had practically no visitors, and was looked after in a perfunctory sort of way by a charwoman, who came over in the mornings to do the necessary cleaning and get the Professor's breakfast. The rest of his modest meals the great numismatist took in an obscure little restaurant in Kensington High Street. All this Paradine knew in the way of vague gossip which filtered to him from time to time through the medium of his own servants. He was aware, too, that some year or two before an attempt at burglary, doubtless with a view to the gold coins, had been made on the Professor's flat, and that since then the front door thereof had been fitted with a steel lining, beyond which it was impossible to penetrate without the possession of the master-key. All this interested Paradine quite in a languid way.
Certainly he was not thinking about it that perfect June evening, as he sat there under the shadow of his palms in a comfortable arm-chair, looking out dreamily across the gardens to the blue hills in the distance. As a matter of fact, he was working out the details of a case, the fine definite points of an operation which he had decided to make on a patient at that moment lying unconscious in a hospital off the Brompton Road. The train of thought was nearly complete, when it was rudely derailed by the sound of a noise and the heavy thud of a falling body, apparently just underneath.
Paradine jumped to his feet and looked eagerly about him. So far he could see nothing, for the well and sufficient reason that there was nothing to see. He peered down the wooden stairway which led through the water-tank in the roof of his own flat on to the ledge beyond, but he could see nothing there. He was about to return to his chair again, when he heard the heavy thud once more, coming unmistakably, or so it seemed, from the direction of the flat next door. Paradine crossed the leads and squinted through the gloomy skylight that was situated immediately over Professor Ionedes' flat. From all appearance, the glass skylight had not been touched for years, for the panes were dusty and grimy, and the woodwork fitted into the roof almost as if it had been fixed there. Paradine told himself that it was no business of his, before he recollected that the Professor was quite alone, that he was elderly, and that something might have happened to him. If this was the case, and the front door was closed, then it would be impossible for anyone to enter from the outside in the ordinary way. Reflecting on this, and the necessity for something to be done at once, Paradine bent down and devoted all his energies to raising the skylight. It gave way presently with a sudden jerk, and Paradine found himself looking down through the water-tank into a small sort of store-room below, which appeared to be empty, save for a few packing-cases and something that looked like a human form sprawling on the floor. There was no ladder leading from the roof into the room below. If there had been one, the Professor would probably have had it removed. As Paradine's eyes became accustomed to the same gloom, he saw the figure down there gradually raise itself, and a white, pleasant-looking face was turned eagerly upwards.
"What are you doing there?" Paradine asked.
"Well, I hardly know," the stranger replied. "Who do you happen to be, anyway?"
"Isn't it for me to ask questions?" Paradine said dryly. "I happen to be the occupant of one of these top flats. My name is Paradine, at your service."
"Very pleased to hear it," the man at the bottom of the shaft said thankfully. "If you wouldn't mind reaching down and giving me a hand, I'll come up and explain."
"Well, I think not. Not just at present, anyway. You see, I happen to be top dog for the moment, and, until you can convince me that my policy is wrong, I propose to remain so. You see, I know something of Professor Ionedes, on whose premises you are at the present moment, and, frankly, my dear friend, appearances are decidedly against you. Now, Professor Ionedes lives entirely alone; he is an old man, with a rooted aversion to visitors, which is, perhaps, inspired by the fact that his flat is full of gold coins, which take up little space, and are always worth their face value in the precious metal. Moreover, I know that no one could leave that flat without the Professor's sanction when once the steel-lined front door is closed. Therefore, when I find a stranger—even a well-dressed stranger with a charming manner like yours— attempting to leave the flat by such a dubious method as the skylight, my suspicions are naturally aroused. For all I know to the contrary, you may have murdered that picturesque old numismatist for the sake of his coins, and found yourself in a trap afterwards. Such being the case, I must decline."
"For Heaven's sake, listen to me!" the other man burst out. "I am not going to deny that part of what you say is true. I am not going to deny that I am cut off here, and that I am trying to escape by means of the skylight. I piled up some of these cases on the floor, and, when I was balancing myself on the top of them, the whole contraption collapsed and let me down badly. That was the noise that you heard. But when you accuse me of murdering the Professor, then you are talking absolute nonsense. As a matter of fact, he's not in the flat at all. I came here this evening to see him by appointment, and, after ringing the bell two or three times, a man came to the door."
"What sort of a man?" Paradine asked.
"A tall, dark chap getting on in life, with black hair and beard. When I explained my business to him, he asked me into the dining-room, and told me that the Professor would see me in a few minutes. Then he put some fez arrangement on his head and walked out of the flat, banging the front door behind him. I waited a quarter of an hour, and, after ringing the bell two or three times, it dawned upon me that something was wrong. So I started to explore the flat, and found that the place was absolutely empty. There wasn't a soul on the premises, either in the bed- or living-rooms. And when I tried to get out, and spotted that steel-lined door, with its spring lock, I knew that I had been trapped by some thief whom I had probably interrupted when I rang the front-door bell. I knew then that I was in a tight place, and when I found that one of the Professor's most valuable coin cabinets had been broken open, I was aware of my danger. When I recovered myself, I cast about for some means of escape. I knew I shouldn't be believed, I knew that I should be accused of taking what was missing from the cabinet, and that's why I hit upon the desperate expedient of getting away by the medium of the roof, and trusting myself to reach the street through the help of another flat, without being discovered. And that's the Gospel truth. Perhaps, if you weren't wearing a Bullingdon Club tie I shouldn't have the courage to tell you this."
"Oh, you were at Oxford, too?" Paradine asked.
"I was. Name of Felton."
"Not the Jimmy Felton?"
"The same, worst 1uck to it. And, now I come to look at you, I see a strong likeness to the chap that we used to call Tomahawk Paradine. Am I right?"
"I've heard worse guesses," Paradine said. "But look here, I can't take your word for all this, you know. You may have gone to pot, for all I know to the contrary. You might have taken to burglary as a profession."
"Oh, yes, I can see all that, of course. But I'm telling you the truth, Paradine. If you don't believe me, come down and see for yourself. Bring a revolver with you, if you like. Anyway, you won't find the Professor here."
Paradine weakened suddenly.
"All right," he said. "I'll take your word for it. Now, hold out your hand, and I'll give you a leg up."
The man called Felton scrambled to the roof with a sigh of relief, and sank breathlessly into an arm-chair. He availed himself generously of Paradine's invitation to sample the contents of the tantalus, and lighted a cigarette.
"Don't you want to go over the flat," he asked, "and satisfy yourself that the aged Professor is not weltering in his own gore? In other words, are you satisfied?"
"Well, partly," Paradine said. "If there had been any violence, you would not be sitting in that chair talking to me in this collected way. If there is anything wrong, you would be only too anxious to get away."
A deep groan burst from Felton's lips.
"As a matter of fact, I am in no end of a hole," he said, " and I want you to help me out, if you can. In fact, no one else can save me; and, upon my word, I don't believe even you can when the truth comes to be told."
"Let's have it," Paradine said encouragingly.
"Well, it's like this. I also am a collector of coins in a modest sort of way, and, without flattery, there are only two men in the world who know more of what I might call pre-numismatism than I do. Professor Ionedes is one, and a queer sort of semi-Arab Johnny called Ali Khan is the other. I have never met Ali Khan, but, in the light of events during the past hour or two, if he isn't the chap who let me into old Ionedes' flat, then I'll eat him, fez and all! But I'm getting on a bit too fast. Do you know anything about coins, Paradine?"
"Nothing whatever, I am sorry to say."
"Then I'd better explain. Now, I suppose Professor Ionedes' collection is absolutely complete as regards the gold coins extant before the beginning of the Christian Era. Ionedes has every one of the coins. There is only one gold piece that he lacked up to a year ago, and this he found in a mummy case whilst exploring in Egypt a few months back. He was exploring the same pyramid that Ali Khan was working on—in fact, they were both looking for that particular medallion that has been a tradition amongst numismatists for generations. And the Professor found it. Ali Khan said that the Greek found it before it was lost— in other words, they were both on the same track, and the Arab was beaten by a short head—a matter of seconds, I believe it was. Anyway, there was a fierce quarrel that nearly ended in physical violence. You will see why I tell you all this presently."
"Go on," Paradine said encouragingly.
"Well, the coin in question is called a Di-Drachma. It is a small gold disc with the figure of a turtle on the obverse side, and on the reverse a design that is not unlike the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid. It is a Lydian coin, and, experts say, the first token in gold ever struck in the world. When I tell you that there is no mention of coinage throughout the whole of the poems of Homer, you will be able to get some idea of the age of the coin. It was probably struck by Pheilon of Argos in B.C. 895. I don't know what the turtle means, but it is a symbol of some kind, of course. And this is the coin that numismatists have been trying to find for ages. And Ionedes has it, beyond the shadow of a doubt. When I say has it, I ought to have said had it, because it is no longer in his collection."
"How do you know that?" Paradine asked.
"Because it's gone, my boy, vanished— stolen from its place in the drawer by that blackguard Ali Khan, who opened the flat door for me, and subsequently shut me in. I told you that, when I found out how I had been trapped, I went all over the flat and found, amongst other things, that one of the Professor's cabinets had been forced open. In the space amongst the Lydian coins which was obviously reserved for the precious Di-Drachma in the cabinet was nothing but a pad of cotton-wool, and therefore I came to the conclusion that I had interrupted Ali Khan just at the moment when he had laid his hand upon the coveted coin. The old rascal was cunning enough, when he saw how the land lay, to make a clever exit, and leave me to face the infuriated Professor when he came back. Of course, he would swear point-blank that he had never seen me before, that he had never been in Ionedes' flat, and that my story is an absolute fraud. Now you see the position Fate has placed me in, and why I was so anxious to crawl out of the flat at any risk. But, of course, things can't stay as they are, and, at the same time, nobody would accept my explanation. Nothing would convince the Professor that I haven't stolen his Di-Drachma and cunningly hidden it till it was safe for me to go and pick up the beastly thing again."
"In fact, couldn't be worse," Paradine suggested.
"Oh, couldn't it? That's all you know about it. It can be a jolly lot worse. Look here!"
With which Felton produced from his pocket a roughly-cast gold coin of small size, bearing on one side the imprint of a turtle and on the other that of an irregular parallelogram. This he handed over for Paradine's inspection.
"This is the genuine Di-Drachma he said. "There can be no shadow of a doubt as to its authenticity."
"Then you did steal it, after all," Paradine exclaimed. "In that case, why did you tell me "
"Here, half a minute, old man. I am only proving to you how it can be ever so much worse than you thought, because that coin belongs to me, and I had it in my pocket when I called on the Professor this evening. What do you think of that?"
"Well, frankly, I don't, believe you," Paradine said bluntly. "Dash it, man, you can't expect me to swallow a story like that. You tell me that there is only one Di-Drachma in the world, and then you calmly produce another from your pocket, like a conjuror juggling with a couple of rabbits. And, moreover, you tell me that the original gold token has recently been stolen from the Professor's flat. My dear fellow, what particular brand of ass do you take me for?"
"I knew you'd talk like that," Felton said resignedly. "But don't forget that I voluntarily produced the coin which is in your hand. I wasn't bound to do it, you know. I could have gone away without your being any the wiser on the subject. But, because you have trusted me, I have put all the cards in this exceedingly complicated game on the table."
"That's true enough," Paradine admitted.
"Very well, then. Now, perhaps, you will let me go on. I bought that coin, strange as it may seem, from a little general shop in a back street leading off Theobald's Road. I bought it about a week ago. It is a tiny shop, where they sell dilapidated second-hand furniture and cast-off wardrobes and things of that sort—a dirty, dingy little place, where obviously the proprietor was struggling hard for a bare living. In fact, there was a sale going on at the time, under distress for rent. I happened to be passing by, and I looked in, and in a box of rubbish, tokens and cast-off medals, I lighted on that coin. To make a long story short, I bought the whole lot for half-a-crown. Oh, it's a genuine Di-Drachma, right enough, and you can imagine my delight when I discovered the value of my treasure. As soon as I had satisfied myself that it was genuine, I wrote to Professor Ionedes, and asked him if I might be allowed to have a sight of his famous Lydian token. Of course, I didn't mention what I had got, and in the course of a day or two I had a post-card from him, asking me to call upon him this evening at six o'clock. In the light of what I told you, it is quite evident that he forgot all about the appointment, or, what is much more probable, he was lured away from his flat by that scoundrel Ali Khan, who had all his preparations made for the robbery, which' he successfully accomplished. The rest you know. And now you can believe me or not, as you please. I admit everything is against me, I don't suppose that I shall be able to produce the man from whom I purchased that disc—he is probably lost sight of by this time—but I have told you my story, and I am going to ask you to help me all you can. What do you suggest I'd better do?"
"Oh, I don't know," Paradine said. "Are you prepared to leave this token in my hands?"
"Certainly, if you like. But what do you gain by that?"
"Well, it's a guarantee of your bona fides, for one thing. This matter will take some thinking over. You'd better give me your address where I can write to you, and I'll see the Professor for you in the morning. If we do anything in a hurry, the worst construction will be put upon it, and you may find yourself answering a charge at Bow Street. You leave it to me. I dare say I shall think of something."
But morning found Paradine still in two moods, and it was nearly lunch-time before his housekeeper came to him with an intimation that a gentleman wished to see him. In his dining-room he found a little man with nice manners and much politeness, who introduced himself as Inspector Close, from Scotland Yard, coupled with the information, pleasantly conveyed, that he was armed with a search warrant, and that he proposed to go over the flat, with a view to finding a gold coin which was missing from the residence of Professor Ionedes next door.
"I must tell you, Mr. Paradine," he said, "that this is a most unpleasant business, and I am bound to tell you, moreover, that, unless I am satisfied, I have a further warrant for your own arrest. But no doubt—"
"It can't be done," Paradine exclaimed. "I've got a most important consultation at five o'clock this afternoon, in connection with a patient who is lying dangerously hurt in a private hospital off the Brompton Road. I am a brain specialist, as you know, and the whole thing was fixed up on the telephone only half an hour ago."
Inspector Close smiled as the god in the car might have done. It was not a pleasant smile.
"It might be done," he said thoughtfully, "but it rests entirely with yourself. The Professor doesn't want to prosecute, if he can help it, and he is prepared to listen to any story, however improbable, if he gets his missing disc back. You see, it's like this, sir. Nobody can get into the Professor's flat without his own key, which is never out of his possession. He went out yesterday afternoon, intending to return at six o'clock, and when he came back, after being detained, he let himself into the empty flat, the door of which was properly closed, and evidently had been untampered with. Despite this fact, a cabinet had been forced open, and a unique coin extracted—in fact, the only specimen of that coin in the world. The Professor promptly telephoned to Scotland Yard, and I was sent round to investigate. It did not take me many minutes to discover that the flat had been entered through the skylight by someone who obviously had access to the roof. Now, your flat alone gives access to the roof, and the thief must have used your flat for the purpose of the robbery—in fact, it could have taken place in no other way. But, of course, if you can prove your innocence "
The detective shrugged his shoulders and paused eloquently. Paradine stood there, trying to grasp the points of this new and unexpected situation. It was all the more complicated by the fact that at that very moment he had the Di-Drachma in his waistcoat pocket. Nothing would be gained by the detective searching the flat, he knew, but if the officer of the law insisted upon taking him round to Bow Street, then the murder would be out, and nothing could prevent him standing his trial on a charge of stealing the coin. Just at that moment he was regretting at the bottom of his heart that the goddess of Chance had brought him in contact with Felton. For the next minute or two he did some pretty quick thinking, then he plunged his hand into his pocket and produced the gold coin.
"Is this what you are looking for?" he asked. "Because, if you're in search of a gold Di-Drachma, then this is one, beyond the shadow of a doubt. I don't know whether you would like to listen to my explanation or not—probably you would not believe it in any case—so, if you want me to accompany you as far as Bow Street, I am quite prepared to do so. But I must say that I have never been inside Professor Ionedes' flat, and that I decline for the moment to say how that coin came into my possession. Perhaps, on the whole, for the moment I had better say nothing. I am thinking at the present moment more about that case of mine. Now, if I am charged with that robbery, is it possible for me to get bail? I only mean till to-morrow morning, because I must go down to Brompton Road, as a human life probably hangs on my attendance."
"I think that will be all right, sir," Close said. "There could be no possible objection on the part of the police to accept bail for the appearance of so well-known a gentleman as yourself. I suggest that you write a note to a friend or two, asking them to come round to Bow Street this afternoon, and I will see that the notes are delivered. Probably, when Professor Ionedes gets his coin back, he will not be disposed to prosecute, in which case you will hear no more of the matter."
It was four o'clock in the afternoon before Paradine emerged from the seclusion of a whitewashed cell into the open air, accompanied by two indignant scientists of his acquaintance and an apologetic groveller in the person of Felton, who offered to do anything up to suicide, if by so sacrificing himself he could put matters straight. So far, nothing had been seen or heard of the Professor, and it was quite uncertain as to whether he would turn up in the morning to substantiate his charge or not, though Inspector Close was of the opinion that, as he had got his coin back, nothing further would be heard of the matter. Paradine listened calmly enough.
"Oh, don't worry me," he said to the distracted Felton. "If I hadn't been a good-natured fool, I should never have found myself in this mess. And, besides, I've got other things to think about. I must be off to Brompton Road now, in any case. If you want to help, the best thing you can do is to go plunging around and see if you can hit upon the track of that picturesque Arab who has been the cause of all the mischief."
With which, Paradine dismissed the whole thing from his mind, and made his way as promptly as possible in the direction of the Brompton Road and the private hospital there. For the moment, at any rate, he had put the whole of the trouble out of his mind, and was thinking of nothing else besides the interesting case which was waiting his attention. A flippant-minded surgeon, with a watch in his hand, met Paradine on the doorstep.
"You're a nice chap," he said. "I've been waiting for you for a couple of hours, with my own patients performing solos on the telephone every two minutes. Been lunching at the Carlo, I suppose, or something equally important.'*
"Weil, not precisely," Paradine said grimly. "Here, sit down and tell me all about it."
"He's a foreigner," the other man said. "Picturesque, middle-aged ruffian with a black beard. He was knocked down last night, somewhere in Kensington, by a motor lorry, and taken to St. Jacob's. The house-surgeon there saw that it was a case for you, and telephoned to know if he should send the chap round here. So they brought him on a motor ambulance, and he is upstairs at the present moment. I've been all over him myself, but for the life of me I can't find anything wrong anywhere. There are no bones broken and no signs of a fracture, but the man's unconscious and absolutely paralysed. The funny thing is that his colour is quite good, and his pulse and heart quite normal. And now I must be off."
It was quite a couple of hours later before Paradine had completed his diagnosis of the unfortunate patient. He was an elderly man, with clean-cut features and square, fighting jaw, an Eastern beyond question, as his swarthy complexion and black eyes testified. Paradine was not easily puzzled, but for a long time the source of the trouble baffled him. Then he went over all the ground again, and presently the frown lifted from his forehead, and he smiled.
"Ah, here it is," he said, turning to one of the nurses who was holding his instruments. "A small matter enough, but quite sufficient. There has been an injury to the spine right at the base of the brain, a minute displacement of the vertebrae. There's a hole there you can put your finger into. The brain itself is untouched."
"Are you going to operate?" the nurse asked.
"Perfectly useless," Paradine replied. "If that poor fellow moves half an inch, he will be dead. I can remove things, but no surgeon ever yet could replace an injured bit of spine. He is literally hanging on a thread. As I said just now, as soon as he moves he's done for. You'd better go through his belongings and communicate with his friends. Were there any letters or anything of that kind on him?"
"They are on the table there," the nurse explained—"one or two letters, evidently from some scientific society in the East, together with a watch and chain and a purse and a little case with a gold coin in it."
Paradine reached over eagerly and grabbed the shabby little leather case that lay on the table. He threw back the lid with trembling fingers, and there before his astonished and delighted eyes he saw a Di-Drachma. There was no doubt about it; the thing had been burnt too deeply in his memory for him to make a mistake. There it lay, with the imprint of a turtle on the one side and the crude mathejnatical design on the other. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, by sheer good luck Paradine had found the stolen medallion, and was looking down into the unconscious eyes of the thief himself. For beyond question Ali Khan was lying on the bed there, stricken down with mortal illness, no doubt inflicted upon him at the very moment when he was hurrying off from the Professor's flat with his ill-gotten gain.
Five minutes later Paradine had called up Felton on the telephone, and was hurrying back homewards as fast as a taxi could carry him. He had hardly rid himself of his glossy hat and immaculate morning coat before a pale and dishevelled Felton fell headlong into the dining-room.
"Mean to say you've found him?" he gasped.
"I have," Paradine said, " and only just in time, too. It was a bit of sheer good luck. And upon my word, after all that has happened, I think we deserve it. As I told you this afternoon, when we were leaving Bow Street, I had a most important appointment at a private hospital in Brompton Road—a foreigner knocked down in Kensington High Street and seriously injured by a motor lorry. I went to see if an operation would be any good; but the patient was past all that kind of thing, and it's any odds he's dead by this time. I told the nurse in charge that I could do no good, and advised her to communicate with the man's friends. She showed me his letters and belongings, and also told me that he had been possessed of an old gold coin that he carried in a leather case. As I am particularly interested just now in old gold coins, I asked to see it. Here it is. I took the liberty of bringing it away with me, and if it isn't the Professor's missing Di-Drachma, then I am cruelly mistaken. What do you say?"
"Beyond the shadow of a doubt," Felton cried. "What blind good fortune that you should have been called in to attend the actual thief! Oh, that's the coin all right. Then I suppose the next thing is to go and see the Professor, and convince him that he has got my coin, and that this is his. He won't believe it unless we produce the actual token. So let's get along and finish it without delay."
It was some little time before the suspicious Professor, doubtless with the fear of violence before his eyes, consented to open his front door wide enough to admit the two intruders, and, indeed, he would probably have refused then had not Paradine produced the second coin and dangled it before his astonished and crestfallen gaze.
"Yes," he said, "that is a genuine Di-Drachma all right. And I thought that there was only one of them in the world—I mean the stolen one, which is now safe in my cabinet again. But please come inside, gentlemen, and let us talk this matter over."
At the end of half an hour the Professor expressed himself satisfied, though he still looked uncomfortable and ill at ease as he made the necessary exchange of coins, and, with a reluctance which he made no effort to conceal, handed Felton's property over to him.
"I suppose that that rascally Arab must in some way have obtained an impression of the key of my front door," he said, "otherwise I cannot account for the way in which he got into my flat. It is an extraordinary story altogether, and, but for the evidence in Mr. Felton's hands, I would never have believed it. To think that two of those coins were in existence! And the worst of it is that the value of mine is depreciated at least one half by the fact that there is a counterpart. Only a numismatist like Mr. Felton can understand my feelings. Now, Mr. Felton, I'm a rich man, and able to gratify my whims. Shall we say five thousand pounds for your Di-Drachma?"
"Done!" Felton said promptly. "It's yours."
It was a highly delighted Felton who followed Paradine into his flat a few minutes later.
"Funny story, isn't it?" he said. "Pity it can't be written, isn't it?"
"Nobody'd believe it if you did," Paradine replied, "and, if you ask me, you are jolly well out of it."
The door opening into Oldaker's sitting room opened and a figure crept in. Then the door closed, and a woman stood with her back to it, swaying slightly with her hand to her side as if she were short of breath. Visions of Charlotte Corday crossed Oldaker's mind. He looked for the quick gleam of a revolver, but none came. The woman moved a step forward with a quick movement, and threw off her long wrap. There was something dramatic about it.
"Princess," Oldaker exclaimed, "Princess Elizabeth of— What in the name—?"
"Betty," the Princess corrected eagerly. "Know that I am in the deepest trouble, my dear—Dick."
Something warm and rapturous played about Oldaker's heart. He was young and romantic; he was an Oldaker of Barons court, and the princess was beautiful. She must have known that herself, for Dick had told her so several times lately. They had seen a good deal of each other at Monte Carlo, and Dick had begun to dream dreams. And when one of the most daring and successful of aviators begins to dream dreams, he is in a bad way.
He knew he had no business to be in the Asturian capital at all. To suggest that the aviation ground there was better than a score of others was ridiculous. Besides, there was trouble brewing in Marenna. The Progressives looked like getting the upper hand, and King George had gone to Merum at a most critical time. Even his own followers were muttering of cowardice under their breath. There were many more delectable spots in Europe than Marenna just now. Still, Princess Elizabeth was there.
She came close to him, and laid her hands on his shoulders. It was a sweet, dainty pleading face, and there was something in the expression of it that set Dick's heart beating madly. And the glint in that golden hair!
"Dick," she said softly. "You love me, don't you?"
Princess or no princess, there was only one thing to do after that. Dick had the slender, palpitating figure cuddled up in his arms, his lips were pressed to hers. There was something intoxicating in the fragrance of the spungold hair.
"I've done it!" Dick smiled presently. "Good Lord! my cheek! I shall have to go away, Betty. King George—"
"I knew I should have to ask you," Betty smiled demurely. "My dear boy, the situation is not quite so original as you suppose. Besides, there were Oldakers in Baronscourt long before the Asoffs came to Asturia. And on your mother's side you are related to the wealthiest financiers in Europe. Even if only on that score—"
"Yes," said Dick, thoughtfully. "I've got a tidy chunk of bullion. And ever since we first met—"
"Yes, I know, dear; you loved me. And I loved you, Dicky. And I always get my own way—always."
"And so you came here this afternoon—"
"I came because my sister, the queen, is in great distress. They say that George has fled to Merum. He had to go there."
"Never heard that King George had been accused of want of pluck before, Betty."'
"My dear, the poor man is as brave as you are. They are an artful lot, those conspirators. They have stirred up a nest of trouble both here and at Merum. When George is at Merum Marenna thinks he has gone away into hiding, and when he is here, Merum thinks he has deserted her."
"But no man can be in two places at the same time, Betty."
"There, my dear Dick," she said demurely, "is where I fail to agree with you. If the king could be here at midnight the situation would be saved. He wants to come here secretly and quietly at a moment when the conspirators are absolutely certain that he is at Merum. Then news must come from Merum that George is on his way here. In the ordinary way it would be a matter of hours. And then within an hour or two of striking hard here he must be at Merum again. Consider the paralysing effect of the whole thing; look at the dramatic possibilities of the situation."
"But, my dear Betty, it is a physical impossibility. It can't be done!"
"Really, Dick? Can't you see the way? I have sent a message to the king. He will expect you. And you will get him here before midnight, and back to Merum before daybreak. And you, above all men, tell me it can't be done."
"It is fearfully risky," he said. "In the daytime I should think nothing of it. But as you point out, daylight for our purpose is useless. It's the striking moral effect you're after. You deal a staggering blow in two places at once. And to leave the foe marvelling how it is done is the way to final victory. But it's dangerous, Betty."
The Princess looked grave and troubled. There was a suggestion of tears in her eyes.
"I know it," she said. "Ever since the idea came to me I have struggled against my own feelings. I am pulled this way and that. If—if anything happened to you, Dick—"
"Don't think of that for the moment, dear," Dick said tenderly. "Go on."
"Well, I felt bound to ask. And you are ready to go. I hoped you'd say no and yet I'm awfully proud and glad to find you so willing. George's whole heart is in his work and my sister, the Queen, loves her people. It would break her heart if anything happened. George must be here tonight. I don't say he is being actually kept a prisoner at Merum, but there are obstacles placed in his way—trouble on the line, a sudden breakdown in the garage. You understand."
"You can communicate with the King?"
"My dear, I have already done so. By secret code. George knows exactly what I am proposing to you. He will be all ready. The great light in the castle at Merum will be your guide. Between the Tower and St. Simon's church, where there is an illuminated clock, are gardens, great gardens laid out in the Italian fashion ages ago. If you make no noise—"
"Oh, I shall make no noise. You should see my new engines. I suppose King George has a few people he can rely upon to keep silence."
"Oh, there are plenty of them, Dick. Then you'll do it?"
"Of course I'll do it, darling."
The Princess kissed him tenderly.
"You're a hero," she whispered. "My hero, and I'll marry you though all the armies in Europe try to stop me. There never was any man but you, Dick, from the day we met. And you are going to save Asturia. If you can do this thing there will be no more trouble here. And you will come back to the castle with him. He may need your services. And I would like to know that you are safe."
She slipped her wrap over her head again and vanished. The happiest man in Europe lighted a cigarette. He had promised to enter upon a mad enterprise. And he was not in the least afraid. When the gods throw a beautiful Princess into the arms of a mere mortal man it is clearly up to them to see the business through.
* * * * *
It was pitch dark and the hour near ten when Dick Oldaker picked his way through the Italian garden on the west front of the castle at Merum and fumbled in the direction of a lighted window on the ground floor. The window was open and Oldaker slipped through without hesitation. He dropped the blind back in its place and looked around him. From an American desk a man in uniform arose and approached the intruder with outstretched hand.
"You are the bravest man I ever met, Mr. Oldaker," the King said. "I congratulate you and I congratulate—the Princess Elizabeth. Oh, yes, she has told me everything. I shall not interfere. An Oldaker of Baronscourt is a fit mate for an Azoff any day. You had a safe journey?"
"Absolutely, your majesty," Dick replied, "My monoplane got here in an hour. There was no mishap at all. Your men appear to be discreet and silent. They did exactly as I told them."
The King, paced thoughtfully up and down the room.
"It is wonderful," he said. "Wonderful! With ordinary good fortune I shall strike two blows before daybreak that will end the trouble once and for all. When can we start back?"
"I am ready to start at this moment, your Majesty," Dick replied. "I have brought with me everything that is necessary for you in the way of clothing. The sooner we start the better."
"Then I will join you in the garden in ten minutes," the King replied. "I am supposed to be leaving for my capital at once by coach. The trains are broken down, there is no motor to be had. I shall merely go in my coach as far as the gates and then slip out, leaving the vehicle to proceed. I have a few faithful followers in the secret. Directly I am on my way the traitors in Marenna will be advised that I shall reach my capital some time tomorrow. Long before daybreak I shall be back here to deliver the second blow. I shall have the rascals yet."
Dick murmured his approval of these suggestions. Ten minutes later the King joined him in the garden. As the clocks at Marenna were on the stroke of midnight an astonished lackey staggered backwards as he saw the King come softly along the corridor of the Palace. The miracle had happened.
"Not a word," the King commanded. "Not a word to a soul as you value your liberty. Where is Nikolof and the rest of them. Tell me?"
The menial stammered something about the council Chamber, and the King strode on. A door at the end of the corridor opened, and a white face looked out. The face smiled dazzlingly and the blue eyes filled with happy tears as they fell on Dick.
There was a wave of the hand and the door closed again. Dick staggered along with his head erect and his heart swelling.
"Where shall I wait for your Majesty?" he asked.
"You shall come with me," the King said. "You shall see what you shall see. At any rate you'll see that your part has not been in vain."
The stream of the adventure was running bankful. Oldaker plunged into it with wholehearted joy. There was the uplifting sense that he was helping to make history. A little knot of men for the most part in uniform were gathered round a table illuminated by one shaded bunch of electrics.
The rest of the big gloomy apartment was in darkness. The King strode forward and grasped the neck of the man who sat with his back to the door, and dragged him from his seat.
"Who sits in my chair?" he cried. "Who but the twice-pardoned Lipski? So this is how my faithful ministers labour in my absence? What is the document you are considering? Oh, coquetting with Teutonia, are we? Rise, all of you. Mr. Oldaker, would you be so good as to pull back those curtains and open the window?"
A clock ticked heavily in the painful silence, the metallic jingle of the curtain rings as they clicked back sounded like pistol shots. A ring of pale-faced men stood round the table, silent, disconcerted, incredulity in their downcast eyes. Oldaker turned to the great quadrangle below the open window. In the velvet violet night electric lights gleamed everywhere, the streets were full of people, the theatres and halls were emptying. Suddenly the council chamber blazed with light, the brilliant uniforms were picked out from the street like striking stage pictures. The King, with his hand still on Lipski's neck, impelled him towards the window.
"You traitor," he cried. "Traitors every one of you. And so you tell my people I am deserting them while all the time I am at Merum fighting the rest of your gang. You thought that I was there still, that I could not possibly get away. But there are ways, there are ways."
The King's voice was pitched high, every word he said was carried to the street below. The roadway was blocked now by a breathless, hustling crowd. King George pushed the flaccid Lipski into the window recess and held him there. A ripple of cheers broke from the crowd below, it swelled into a deafening roar, it stopped as suddenly as if it had been cut with a knife. The star was on the stage and the audience eager to hear him.
"Behold a traitor," the King cried. "Lipski, whose life I saved. Behold the other liars cringing in the background. And these are the men by whom you were asked to choose someone to take my place. I hope you are proud of them. But I am back, and I am back just in time."
As the King paused, a vast sigh went up from the street, a sigh, and no more.
"They called me pleasure-loving and easy-going. It is a lie. Was I easy and pleasure-seeking for ten whole years when I lived in a tent defending my frontier and never during that time slept in a bed? For the Queen's sake I slacked the bow and took the month of holiday that I was conceited enough to feel I had earned. I was wrong."
A storm of protest broke from the street. The King smiled, and in that moment Oldaker knew that the battle was won. George whispered a word in his ear. Oldaker came back from the table a moment later with the secret treaty in his hand. The King crashed it down on Lipski's head so that the paper broke and hung round the traitor's neck like a ham frill. The crowd below rocked with mirth.
"Take him," the King cried, "and treat him as he deserves. We have done with him here."
He raised Lipski in his arms as if he had been a child and tossed him through the window. He fell into a thicket of laurels below. There was a wild rush in his direction as King George slammed the window down and pulled the curtain across.
"They will be making jest of this in the music halls to-morrow. Lipski's power has gone. Nothing kills a political reputation more than ridicule."
"And what shall I say to the rest of you?" he demanded. "Is there not one honest man among you? You thought I was no more than a blunt soldier unskilled in the ways of diplomacy. I was the Mars who had forsaken his arms at the call of Venus. I was warned against Lipski, but I trusted him. And when I came to my senses it was nearly too late. But for this brave and gallant gentleman here I should have been too late. It was he who solved the problem whereby I could be in two places at the same lime. Before daybreak I shall be back at Merum and Staffanoff will come with me to bear testimony to the truth of what I say—"
An old faded grey man in the background shuffled uneasily. A gentle bead of perspiration glistened on Staffanoff's great bald head. His dark eyes moved shiftily.
"Sire," he stammered. "If you will allow me to explain."
"No explanations," the King thundered. "These are your marionettes, but your's the cunning hand that pulls the strings. Come with me to Merum."
Staffanoff cringed and fawned. The King crossed the room and rang the bell. A moment later the room was filled with armed men. With a contemptuous gesture the King indicated his unhappy councillors.
"Take them all save Staffanoff," he commanded. "They are prisoners, and shall be treated as such. They are not to see anyone except the gaolers. Now go."
The room was empty presently save for the King and Oldaker and Staffanoff. The latter stood there with bent shoulders and a frame shaking like a leaf.
"I am an old man, sire," he groaned. "A very old man, your Majesty—"
"As if that is any excuse," the King cried. "You are coming with me to Merum, and in my presence you shall tell your fellow conspirators the story of this fiasco. You have room for another passenger, Mr. Oldaker?"
"More if necessary, sir," Oldaker said, "But one of the sort is enough."
"Good. Then follow me in the grounds, Staffanoff. Wrap yourself up well for the journey that is by no means a warm one. Here, my friend. You are no longer puzzled. Get in."
Staffanoff stood there in the darkness shaking with terror.
"But it is madness, your Majesty," he protested. "I am an old man—"
"And therefore you should not mind, Staffanoff. It is madness like this that has saved Asturia to-night. Come, get in, unless you would he gagged and bound first. Get in, I say."
It was nearly two hours later, and the scene had shifted to Merum again. There was the council chamber, another little knot of conspirators gathered round the table. The King took the hoary old traitor by the shoulders and sent him spinning into the room. A hoarse cry came from the table.
"Staffanoff," the leader muttered. "How did you get here? The King is on his way to Marenna. It is impossible for him to reach there before, well, before it is too late. Is there anything wrong?"
"Everything is wrong," Staffanoff stammered. "The King has been to Marenna—"
"Oh, the man is mad," another cried. "Three hours ago the King was here. He—"
"I tell you I am speaking the truth," Staffanoff shrieked. "Gentlemen, we have failed."
"Failed, then in that case the treaty with Teutonia—" The speaker broke off abruptly, his jaw dropped. For the King was in the room with eyes turned with contempt and yet full of cynical mirth upon him.
"Tell him where the treaty with Teutonia is, Staffanoff," he mocked.
"Hanging in tatters round Lipski's neck," Staffanoff whined. "And Lipski is in the hands of the mob in the street who mocked and jeered him. All Europe will be laughing at us to-morrow. They will make us into a vaudeville for the comedy stage. Lipski as the chief clown of the piece and the rest of us will be low comedians. The King was there. The King threw him out of the window to the mob below. And, heavens, how they laughed! And the rest of them are all under lock and key."
A quivering silence followed. There was that in Staffanoff's face, and the palsy of his voice that carried conviction to the most cynical spirit there. Not so long ago they had seen the King on his way to Marenna; at the earliest possible time he could not reach the capital before daylight. And yet he had been there and back again. What unknown force had he called to his aid. Oldaker could have told them, but there was no one there who associated the silent Englishman with this miracle.
The faint grey dawn was breaking in the east as Oldaker stood alone with the King. Something in the way of a belated supper was waiting for him in a private room. The King raised his glass.
"Here's to our friend. Oldaker, the saviour of Asturia," he said.
"I am afraid I cannot make that claim your Majesty," Oldaker said modestly.
"Oh, yes, you can. Without you and your Grey Bat I should have been powerless. Here's to the Grey Bat, the most wonderful aeroplane that was ever made by man—the Grey Bat that flew in the dark and never made the semblance of a mistake. The gallant little craft is safely housed again? And we can trust our faithful allies to keep the secret. Good again. A fine night's work, Oldaker, and an adventure after my own heart—and yours. And here's to dear little Elizabeth who suggested the whole scheme. And may you be as happy with her as you desire. Did I hear the telephone?"
A servant came in with a message for Oldaker. He was wanted by Marenna. The sun was shining brightly and the birds were singing as Oldaker crossed the hall.
"Is that you, Dick?" a sweet voice asked.
"Elizabeth," Oldaker responded. "Well, then Betty. My Betty! You are well and safe?"
"I am well and safe," the sweet voice said. "I want to tell you that I shall be waiting in the Palace Gardens this afternoon to see you, and—and, oh, my dear, my dear—"
WILFRED BARNES, eke of London University,M.D., looked despairingly out to sea. He was seated on the edge of a rotten verandah of a tumble-down bungalow on the margin of the Coral Sea down there, in the South Pacific, on the outer fringe of civilisation. In front of him was a stretch of white sand, with the whiter surf beyond, creamy and mantling in the sunshine, and behind him the swaying plumes of the palms, or, at least, they would have been the swaying plumes of the palms but for the fact that the little islet of Omolo lay in the centre of the anti-cyclone, and not a breath of air came to Barnes's almost atrophied lungs. He could feel the perspiration trickling down his forehead as he sat there cursing his fate and the imps of chance that had brought him all the way from London and Janet Blyth.
It was not his fault entirely. He had put his little capital into a practice largely built on bogus ledgers and apocryphal patients, so that, at the end of a year, instead of a comfortable living, with Janet by his side, he had found himself on the verge of bankruptcy.
When everything was disposed of, he found himself facing the world with a five-pound note, and looking a black future squarely into its forbidding eyes. Then, in a fit of despair, he had sold himself to Mark Gride, the eminent pathologist, for three thousand pounds. With the money went Barnes into practically three years' penal servitude, though he had not grasped it at the time. He had talked the matter over with Janet, and it had seemed to her that the opening was a good one. It meant, of course, three years' separation, with fifteen thousand miles of sea between them; but then Wilfred would be able to save every penny of the money, and, when he came back, be in a position to buy another practice more promising than the first one. And so Barnes had set his teeth grimly and come all that way to a little island on the edge of the Solomon Group, with the firm determination to make the best of things; and here he was, at the end of the first year, cursing his bonds and wishing, from the bottom of his heart, that Fate had never brought him in contact with the cold-blooded brute and unfeeling savage who was known to men as Mark Gride. Far better had he stayed in England and accepted a job as locum to some sixpenny doctor in the East End of London. And he had known something of Gride's reputation, too. The man in question had had a brilliant career at Cambridge and University College, where he had towered over his fellows like the intellectual giant that he undoubtedly was. But then he was ill-disciplined, intolerant, and brutal in his manner, and so callous in his methods as to bring him, in the course of time, before the Council of the College of Surgeons. There had been a pretty big scandal over some vivisection atrocities, and it was only Gride's amazing record that had saved him from professional disgrace. Fortunately for him, he was the possessor of ample private means, a mad enthusiast as far as his profession was concerned, a daring experimentalist and pioneer, and so it came about that he shook the dust of London from his feet and migrated to a region where he would be able to pursue his investigations in an atmosphere of greater freedom and less responsibility. And when he had offered the post of assistant to Barnes, the latter had jumped at the offer immediately.
The conditions were pretty stringent, too, though the pay was good enough. Barnes was to have three thousand pounds for three years' services, the money to be paid in one sum at the termination of the contract. If in the meantime Barnes decided to cancel the agreement, then he was to get nothing except his passage home. And if in the meantime anything happened to Gride, then the whole of the money was to be payable at once through the latter's solicitors in London, who had the necessary authority to deal with the case.
And then there followed for Barnes a year of hideous nightmare that racked his soul and filled him with the lust for slaughter a dozen times a day. For out there, in Omolo, Gride could do as he liked. He had his menagerie of beasts and reptiles, monkeys and the like, upon which he experimented with a cold-blooded malignity that amounted almost to mania. Indeed, in a fashion, the man was mad. He had no fear of the College of Surgeons before his eyes out there, and he seemed to revel in a refined cruelty which might possibly have been accounted for by the fact that between his spells of scientific research he had heavy bouts of drinking that brought him frequently to the verge of delirium tremens. The year was passing in a review before Barnes's eyes as he sat there, wondering if it was possible for flesh and blood to stand it any longer. A score of times he had made up his mind to quit the whole thing and return home without being a penny the better for all he had done. And then the vision of Janet would rise before his eyes, and he would grip his teeth and string himself to go on to the bitter end. Even then he probably might not have done so, had it not been for Denton.
This Denton was a cheery American naturalist attached to Columbia University, who was out there, in Omolo, studying the local butterflies. Perhaps he hated Gride as much as did Barnes, but his philosophy was a little wider than that of the Englishman; and, besides, the American was not called upon to take any part in those mumbo-jumbo rights and sacrifices of blood that Gride's seared and blackened soul revelled in. Still, he was a tonic to Barnes, and a sympathetic companion who kept him going from day to day.
He came on to the balcony now with a glorious puple-and-gold butterfly on the palm of his hand. It was a new and rare specimen, and his shrewd grey eyes twinkled as he contemplated it.
"Well, how are we getting on?" he asked cheerfully. "How's old Moloch this morning?"
"Infernally bad," Barnes said moodily. "He hasn't been sober for the last three days, though signs are not wanting that he is coming round. I've had a ghastly week, old chap—perfectly ghastly—an orgy of blood and cruelty that has made my very soul retch. And not a pennyworth of ansesthetic on the island, except the morphia that Gride uses to soothe his nerves after one of his outbreaks. I wouldn't mind if there were, but when I see those poor brutes—I tell you, Denton, I'm an infernal scoundrel to go on with it! And yet what can I do? I have sold myself for a price, and. Heaven knows, I am earning every penny of the money!"
As Barnes spoke, Denton jerked his thumb significantly over his shoulder, and a moment later Gride appeared. He was shivering from head to foot in spite of the heat, his strong, intellectual face was green and ghastly, his chin was dingy with a five days' beard. And yet, though he was racked and broken by the brandy he had been drinking, the man's mind was clear and vigorous enough, and his great, strong will was dominating his tortured body.
"You were talking about me," he said suspiciously. "Oh, I can guess what Barnes has been saying. Let him grumble as much as he likes, I've got him all right. He is a sort of Jacob serving for Rachel. Ha! Ha! Go in the house and mix me a 30 injection of morphia. We are going to be busy to-night, Barnes. You had better clear out, Denton, and don't come here again till I send for you."
"It's a cordial invitation," Denton drawled, "and I shall have much pleasure in availing myself of it."
The American sauntered off with the butterfly in his hand, and the ghastly wreck with a five days' beard turned angrily upon his unhappy assistant.
"You just drop that," he said. "I'm sick of your whining. You are my servant."
"Your slave," Barnes said bitterly.
"Well, perhaps that's a better word. My slave for the next two years to come, and don't you forget it. Not that I am complaining about the way you do your work. Why, good Heavens, man, there are scores of young doctors who would give their heads for a chance like yours! Look what I've taught you! Look what you will be able to teach the snivelling sentimentalists in England when you get back! And yet you whine and whimper because I put a knife into a strapped monkey, without an anaesthetic, as if he were a human being. Look at Crim yonder! Is he any the worse for what he has gone through?"
As Gride spoke, he pointed a trembling forefinger to a chimpanzee perched on the edge of the balcony. The monkey seemed to know by some instinct that he was under discussion, for he chattered and gibbered and scolded in Gride's direction. As a rule. Grim was mild-mannered enough, and for Barnes the intelligent beast had quite an affection. But Gride he hated at the bottom of his simian soul. He had known what it was to come under the Professor's knife, and even at that moment, as he turned, Barnes could see the recent stitches of a comparatively new wound between the ape's shoulders.
"I wouldn't drive Crim too far, if I were you," he said. "Some of these days he'll do you a mischief. And he's powerful enough to do so, despite his gentleness."
Gride laughed harshly.
"I've flayed him a score of times," he said. "He'll never do any mischief—he hasn't got pluck enough. And I am not going seriously to hurt the best subject I've got. Now go and get me that morphia, and I'll show you something presently that no pathologist has ever dreamt of before. I'm going to show you a new serum; I am going to show you an absolute certain cure for cancer. You know" what I've been doing with that little banana monkey Mini. She's full of it. I'm going to cut her throat —it's the only way of doing it—and then you will be part-discoverer of the greatest healing power in the world. And yet people whine and snivel over vivisection, and pretend that the whole of humanity had better suffer than some furry little beast should be tortured. Then I'll have a shave and a bath, and we'll open a case of champagne for dinner. Now, get a move on."
Barnes came out presently with a hypodermic syringe, and injected the morphia into the arm of his chief. In less than a minute Gride was a new man. The green tinge left his cheek, the haggard look faded from his eyes, he paced up and down the verandah with the air of a man to whom the secrets of continents are revealed. Then he went into his own operating-room, and came back presently with a tiny monkey in a cage. He had under his arm a small leather dressing-case containing a set of razors and the necessary implements of shaving. Then, without a word, he took the tiny simian from its cage and laid it face upwards on bis knees. With a hand as steady as a rock, he drew the edge of the shining blade across the monkey's throat. There was just a little gasping cry, with a creepy suggestion of humanity in it, and the tiny creature lay dead.
"Behold, you see there is practically no flow of blood," Gride said, in the tones of a man who is demonstrating some everyday problem. "Not more than a tablespoonful altogether. But the precious serum is there on the fur, and we can easily cultivate from that. Simple, isn't it?"
"Horrible, ghastly!" Barnes shuddered. "But look at Crim! Take care of yourself!"
All this time the chimpanzee had been watching the proceedings with an intelligence almost weirdly human. He hopped down from his perch and advanced towards Gride with hands clenched and eyes aflame with anger. Then his mood seemed to change, for be stooped and picked up the razor and ran his paw along the edge much as a man might have done who is in the act of shaving. He dropped the weapon again, and, with a quick, strangled cry, disappeared in the hanging foliage of a palm. Something seemed to grip Barnes by the throat.
He stood there, holding himself in hard and sweating from head to foot with the nausea and horror of it. Not that it was anything fresh, but there were moments of high nervous tension, one little episode piled upon another, till it seemed to him that he could stand it no longer. He saw Gride stoop, and with a surgical knife cut the little blood-stained patch of hair from the dead monkey's throat, and place it carefully in a tin specimen case, which he dropped into the pocket of his filthy dirty linen jacket, together with the razor with which the thing had been done.
To Gride it was nothing, merely a trivial incident in the day's work. He lay back in the big basket-chair and half closed his eyes, for the morphia had him in its grip now, and the man was worn fine by the need of sleep. He could see nothing of the contempt and anger in Barnes's eyes. And yet, had Gride been possessed of one touch of humanity, one shred of human feeling, then a greater man he might have been. As it was, he was a kind of scientific Bismarck, with all that individual's brutal contempt for anything or anybody that came between him and the goal of his desire. He had all the massive intellectuality, too,, with the spiteful cruelty of a Marat, a highly organised machine with as much sensibility and feeling.
He closed his eyes, and muttered something to the effect that he needed sleep, and that on no account was he to be disturbed.
"All right," Barnes said. "And if you die in your sleep, I shall thank God for it."
"Yes, it would be a good get out for you," Gride chuckled. "In the meantime, go on with your dinner, and don't worry about me. And tell Cosmos I want him."
The middle-aged Kanaka boy who cooked and cleaned and did for the two Englishmen emerged from his black hole at the back of the bungalow and stood to attention.
"I am going to sleep for an hour, Cosmos," Gride said. "Don't disturb me anyhow. Bring out my shaving glass and the soap and some warm water, and put it on the table there, so that I can shave when I wake."
The Kanaka complied obediently. He placed the tackle by the side of his master. He stropped the razor and laid it on the table convenient to Gride's hand. The latter might wake up in an hour, or he might sleep there all night, as he frequently did after one of his drinking bouts. For the moment he was worn out, body and soul. When the fiery spirit reached him, he would drink for two or three days at a time, eating nothing and working night and day, forced on by driving pressure that he could not resist. In these abnormal conditions his brain was at its best and brightest. Then Nature would call a halt, and after a dose of the blessed nepenthe he would frequently sleep the clock round.
And these were times that Barnes looked forward to, hours that he had entirely to himself to think and dream and plan for the future. He was turning matters over in his mind now as he pushed his chair back from the dining-room table and lit his pipe. How much longer could he go on like this? he wondered. Would it be possible to continue to the end of his servitude? Or should he throw up the whole thing and go back to Janet, and tell her that he had failed? An hour or so passed; the great full tropical moon crept np over the edge of the lagoon and flooded the sweating palm beach with a light as bright as day. There was silence everywhere, and not a sound to break it save the murmur of the tide on the sand and the hum of insects in the air. Then presently Cosmos, in the black hole that he called his kitchen, began to sing some weird Kanaka song, and Barnes was glad, for there was something near and companionable even in the nigger's voice. Then his own storm of black thoughts began to drift away, and he stepped out through the open window into the flooded glory of the perfect night. How far away from strife and trouble it all seemed, how peaceful and attractive!
Gride still lay there, with his long legs outstretched and his big, massive head thrown back against the cushions of his chair. He was in for a night's sleep, evidently. Probably he would not wake again till far into the next day. He was as still and rigid as the fringe of palms behind the golden beach—almost ominously still, Barnes thought. Some night he would die like this, for the man had an aneurism of the heart, and he had always declared that, if the trouble gripped him at the same time as he was in the midst of one of his drinking bouts, he would go out like the snuff of a candle. Almost in a spirit of hopefulness—an emotion of which he was slightly ashamed—Barnes approached the man who held him in bondage. Then he staggered back with a choking cry in his throat.
It was practically daylight, and every little detail stood out clear-cut as a cameo. Gride lay there. Barnes could see his head thrown back, and his throat cut from ear to ear. The keen blade had swept through the carotid artery and had penetrated almost to the spinal column. The dingy linen jacket and the discoloured shirt were stained with blood, already beginning to congeal, and from this Barnes judged that his brutal taskmaster had been dead an hour or two. A few yards away, on the edge of the verandah, lay a bloodstained razor, as if it had been hurriedly thrown down there by the assassin in his flight. But for this evidence, Barnes might have concluded that Gride had taken his own life; but no man could have inflicted such a mortal injury upon himself and at the same time flung the lethal weapon so far away. No, beyond a doubt. Gride had been murdered, and Barnes's first fierce emotion was one of gladness.
Then he took a pull at himself, and his reasoning faculties began to assert themselves. Who could have done this thing? There were only six people on the island altogether—two inoffensive Kanaka boys besides Cosmos and the three Europeans— and from the moment that dinner had been served, Cosmos had not moved a yard from the kitchen. A wild desire for human companionship gripped Barnes like a plague. He stepped down from the verandah and fled like a hunted thing in the direction of the hut where Denton had made his headquarters, and where he gave employment to the other Kanaka boys. The American was seated outside his shanty, smoking a green cigar and drinking some cool, seductive-looking mixture from a long tumbler by his side.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "You look a heap troubled. Sit down and have a drink."
"Gride has been murdered," Barnes said hoarsely. "He went to sleep on the verandah instead of coming to dinner—you know his way—and when I went out just now, I found him with his head almost severed from his body."
"Not much loss, anyway," Denton drawled.
"Very likely, but that isn't the point. Who could have done it? Not Cosmos, I swear."
"And not my boys, either, for they haven't been outside the hut ever since I came back. It seems to lie between you and me, Barnes. I suppose you haven't seen red yourself—"
"I see red every day," Barnes said bitterly; "but my hands are clean, thank God. I can't think. I am wearied and worn out, and my brain is numb. Come over to the bungalow with me, like a good chap, and see what you can make of it."
But it was very little that the American had to suggest. They carried the dead man into his room and covered him over with a sheet, and then Denton began to ask questions.
"Tell me everything," he said, "and don't omit any detail, however small. There aren't many details in a case like this, and, if you don't mind, I'll take this razor home with me. I should like to put it under my microscope, and don't you forget that I am some naturalist as well as a collector of butterflies, and I know as much about this amazing household of yours as you do yourself. Now, there's only one thing for it. You go quietly off to bed and sleep, if you can, and I'll come and talk it over with you in the morning, and if you take my advice, you'll have a few grains of morphia yourself. If ever I saw anybody who needs a drug, you are the hairpin in question."
It was about eleven the following morning when Denton lounged up to the bungalow, cool and collected as usual, with a smile on his face and a general suggestion of being master of the situation.
"Well," Barnes said wearily—"well?"
"I think I've got it," Denton said. "I worried it all out last night, and I found something on the handle of that razor that confirms my suspicions. Where's Crim?"
"Oh, how do I know? And what on earth has the chimpanzee got to do with it? As a matter of fact, I haven't seen him this morning."
"Now, you just come with me and bring a gun. When we have found Crim, I'll go on with the story."
Since the previous evening the chimpanzee had not been seen. He had not even come in for his breakfast. They found him presently high up in the centre of a clump of cocoa-nut palms, from which he nodded and chattered and showed his teeth in defiance. He seemed to be filled with a rage and terror that was quite foreign to his usual friendly and peaceful demeanour. Without a word, Denton raised his gun and shot the simian clean through the heart.
"That's as good as murder!" Barnes cried, aghast. "What did you do that cold-blooded thing for?"
"Waal, I guess we couldn't haul Crim up before a court of justice," Denton said. "We couldn't bring him before a jury and the rest of the fixings. In these parts, when you meet a murderer, you just shoot him. It's rough-and-ready justice, but it's just as effective. And I shot your chimpanzee, because he it was who murdered Gride. Not that I care anything about Gride, but when an animal takes to that kind of thing, he never stops. Now, look here, sonny, it's like this. When you told me all those details last night, I began to see my way. To a certain extent I was rather fond of Crim—he was as near a human as makes no matter, and he hated Gride almost as much as you did. Look how the poor brute had suffered at the hands of that cold-blooded piece of human machinery. Look at the times he has been operated upon without an anassthetic, and him big and strong enough to strangle Gride as easy as I can stick a pin through a butterfly. I tell you, Crim was waiting his chance. Didn't he see the little banana monkey have its throat cut? And wasn't everything ready to his hand when Gride went to sleep on the balcony last night? Why, it was as if that chap had been giving Crim an object-lesson. And Crim took advantage of it. He watched Gride till he went to sleep, and then he took the razor and cut the throat of the man that he had hated and feared and loathed more than anything that crawled on earth. And he had his revenge all right."
"Seems almost incredible," Barnes said. "But how are you going to prove it?"
Denton took an envelope from his pocket.
"I told you I was a naturalist," he said. "Anyway, I've studied the habits of the simian, and I know what he's capable of. Besides, I took that razor home last night for a purpose, and in the haft I found what I expected to find—a few hairs, which I have examined under the microscope. And those hairs came from Crim, beyond the shadow of a doubt. And I think that ought to satisfy you, as well as it satisfies me. At any rate, you are free now, and if any man ever earned his money, that man's name is Wilfred Barnes."
IT was a beautiful prison in which Angela Patton lived, but it was a prison, all the same. Not that she had done anything wrong, from the point of view of the Draconian creed, but, to begin with, she was alone and friendless in the world, a slim, little, somewhat fragile creature, with the heart of a poet and the mind of a child who has yet learnt something in the hard school of adversity. She knew the bitterness of the bread of charity, and though the bread that she ate now was thin and white and exquisitely buttered, it was as if it had been dipped in the waters of Marah and flavoured with servitude.
She was fair enough, and sweet in her own dainty way, with a pleasant smile and a wistful glance in those grey eyes of hers, so that the young man who came from the library occasionally to change Sir John Osborne's books, and who had an artistic mind of his own, compared her to the Huguenot maiden in Millais' famous picture—in which the young man from the bookshop was entirely right, and wiser than he knew. For the rest, she was discreet and sane in her maidenly way, and those deep grey eyes of hers were pensive and thoughtful and full of a quiet intellectuality, that touch of soul which was one of her greatest charms. In happier circumstances she would have been beloved and popular, and, perhaps, when the good fairy came along, she was marked out to be the happy mother of children and the helpmeet of some good man, who would have loved her, and never been conscious of the fact that she was growing old.
As it was, she was a girl who had been educated, ever since she could recollect, in a big institution devoted to the orphans of artists and literary people and other improvidents who take no heed of the morrow, and are content to gather their rosebuds as they blossom casually by the roadside. For Angela had lost her parents many, many years ago, and of them she had only the dimmest recollection. There had been a little mother with blue eyes and a mass of golden hair, and a tall man with a brown beard, who made everybody laugh, and whom everybody liked, even the tradesmen who waited upon his doorstep in vain for the promised cheque that never came. But all this was a tangled mass of recollection, like a half-waking dream in the early sunlight of a summer morning. And now Angela was secretary and amanuensis to a selfish old valetudinarian, who wrote books that nobody read, and sent learned treatises to newspapers that never published them. The work was easy enough, for Sir John confined his efforts to two hours in the morning, so that Angela had the rest of the day to herself. She had her own small suite of rooms, and a servant to wait upon her, so that she was free to devote the balance of her time to her own literary work. Some day or other she would make a reputation as a writer of short stories, and then she would turn her back upon this lonely, dreary London, and take a delightful little cottage in the country. That was her dream, the one thing she had to live for; but it was a long way off yet, for the acceptances were few and far between, and the balance in the savings bank was a long way short of the hundred pounds which Angela had decided must be the amount of her capital before she cut herself adrift from Queen's Hostel, the old house in Chelsea where her employer lived. Meanwhile she was entirely alone in the world, not exactly unhappy, for she ived in an atmosphere of her own, but full of those vague longings and ambitions that every well-balanced girl in the same condition must feel.
It was a delightful atmosphere, too, a glorious old house hidden away not far from the Chelsea Embankment, a house that, in its day, had been famous as the twin residence of a man who had writ his name large in history, and whose tragedy had inspired many a writer of romance—a glorious old house, with big, rambling rooms with oak panels and painted ceilings, and quaint ingle-nooks with the same Jacobean furniture, none of which had been disturbed for the past century or two, and in itself represented a fortune. As a matter of fact, the Queen's Hostel had originally been two houses thrown into one, and now it was two houses again, the exact counterpart of one another, and somewhere on the wide landing, with its bedrooms leading from a broad gallery, was a panelled frame of a doorway which had once given access to the premises which, in the modern phrase, was now merely "next door." And it was this world "next door" that interested Angela so deeply, and around which she had spun more than one of those delightfnl little fantasies which had found their way into print, and which had induced one discerning editor, at least, to ask for more.
Angela had not the least idea who lived next door. She could have found out, of course, by consulting "The Post Office Directory," but that prosaic proceeding would have taken the romantic flavour out of it altogether. She liked to imagine that the white-haired lady next door, with her tall, commanding figure and black silks and flashing diamonds, was a French marquise of the old nobility, who had come there to hide some secret sorrow, and it would have been a terrible thing to have discovered that she was Mrs. Smith or Jones, or that she was the widow of some City knight who had made a fortune in cheese or butter, because the lady next door looked the part to perfection. She was wealthy, beyond the shadow of a doubt, for she had a houseful of servants, and a big car or two, in one of which she drove out most afternoons. Then there was an extremely nice-looking young man who came to the house next door most days, and who occasionally accompanied the white-haired lady on her drives. That a deep affection existed between these two, Angela had no doubt. She could see that from the way in which the two tenderly embraced when they met, and parted, for the young man did not live in the house, and occasionally he did not come near for days together. Quite half a dozen of Angela's short stories were written around the white-haired lady next door. And the romance was heightened by the fact that no other visitors called, so far as Angela could see.
And so it was that the whole thing grew upon the girl. It was the one spot of light and romance in her life, the one little link that connected her with the great world beyond. And so there gradually grew upon the girl's mind an almost overwhelming desire to know the lady next door. This was not idle curiosity on Angela's part— merely the working of the artistic mind in its search for the necessary material. Angela knew that the house next door was the exact counterpart of the one in which she lived—she had found out that her neighbour had purchased her house, as Sir John had done his, just as it stood, with its beautiful furniture and artistic treasures intact—so that she was enabled to visualise in her romantic mind a good deal that was going on upon the other side of that piece of panelling. She knew, too, that in the large room looking into the quadrangle the lady next door had her own sitting-room, in which was a piano, for many an hour had she stood on the landing there, listening to the strains of Chopin and Mendelssohn and the elder musicians, that came from the other side of the oaken barrier. And Angela was filled with a longing desire to see what was going on in the world next door. She had a sort of uncanny consciousness that her own escape into the golden universe of flowers and sunshine lay that way.
And one sunny afternoon she made a great discovery. The rays of light played upon the wall, and it was in these circumstances that Angela found out that what she took to be oak panelling was really a sliding door. It was some little time before she could get it to work, but she succeeded at last, and as the quaint-carved woodwork slipped back in its socket, she found herself gazing with wondering eyes into a room beyond.
It was not a very large room, and had evidently been divided at some recent period from the rest. It had all the same charm of age and mellowness as the remainder of the house—a room panelled with oak throughout, the walls lined with beautiful velvety soft mezzotints and quaint cabinets of blue china, with a square Persian carpet on the floor, and in the centre a writing-table, on which stood a photograph in an old silver frame. In one corner of the room was a small-model grand piano littered with music, most of it in manuscript, faded with age and faintly scented with lavender. It was all so beautiful and restful, all so home-like and inviting that, just for the moment, Angela forgot that she was a trespasser, and a mere curious spectator should have had no business there at all. She stood there, forgetful of all this, drinking in the beauty of it eagerly, heedless of the fact that she might be discovered at any moment, and then she stole across the room and bent eagerly over the photograph. This was so conspicuous and arresting that she felt instinctively that it must be something, some dominant note which, perhaps, had a bearing on the white-haired lady with the sad face. And then Angela forgot everything else in the thrill of a great and arresting discovery.
For the photograph was that of her own mother. She could not have been mistaken, because, upstairs in her own bedroom, she had another copy of the same picture, the one thing that she had left to remind her of her mother and the days which had now become no more than a blurred and occasionally tear-stained memory. The photograph was inscribed with the words: "Yours affectionately, Angela," and nothing more.
How long Angela stood gazing down at that picture, she did not know. It might have been ten minutes, it might have been an hour. Then she came back to herself with a start, and, with tingling cheeks and a flushed face, she suddenly realised the enormity of her offence. She closed the panel behind her again and fled incontinently to her bedroom, her cheeks ablaze and her heart aflame, and tingling from head to foot with all the dread delight of one who has made a great discovery.
For here was romance indeed—romance warm and palpitating to the finger-tips, a charming mystery beyond anything she had ever evolved in that nimble little brain of hers. She took out her own photograph of that dead mother of hers from her slender store of secret treasures, and any lingering doubts she might have had in her mind were set at rest. And then, for days to come, she pondered over this strange thing, wondering what the connection could be between that misty mother of hers and the sad-faced lady next door.
She was like a child who has wandered into a new and strange world—a world full of tender romance and mystery—much as if she had been another Alice. But though all this was delightful, it led Angela no further. Then gradually she found herself entering into the heart of the conspiracy. Every spare moment at her disposal was devoted to watching the movements of the lady next door. She became acquainted with the stranger's name. She was a Mrs. de Courcey, a widow, who was supposed to have had a good deal of trouble in her time, and who devoted her large fortune to works of charity. And more than once, when Mrs. de Courcey was out, Angela timidly made her way through the sliding panel into the mysterious room next door. She must have gone there a dozen times at least before the accident happened. She knew now that there was a spring attached to the sliding panel, and, when the great disaster happened, the panel had been pulled so far back that the spring refused to act, and the heroine found herself a prisoner in that delightful room, quite in the approved manner of dramatic precedent. In vain she struggled, till her finger-tips were sore and her nails were broken. She ventured out on to the landing, but a maid in the hall below drove her back into the oak-panelled room again, frightened and hunted, half unconscious with fear. And there she waited, till at length, almost with a feeling of relief, she heard a faint footfall coming up the stairs before the door opened again, and the nice-looking young man with the pleasant face entered. He stood for a moment with his back to the closed door, startled and surprised, and yet with something in his eyes that was almost fear.
"Who are you," he asked, "and how did you get here?"
"I-I don't know," Angela stammered. "Of course, I do know, but it's so difficult to explain. You see, I live next door. I am Sir John Osborne's secretary, and he dictates all his work to me. And I—I wrote stories in my spare time. The old house appeals to me, and I have thought about it till I have come to live in a sort of romance of my own. And I wanted to know Mrs. de Courcey so badly. She looks so kind and gentle, and I haven't a friend in the world. But that's not explaining. I discovered a few days ago, when I stood on the landing, that what I thought was panelling was really a sliding door leading from one house to the other, and I tried to see if I could open it. I did open it, and found myself in here."
Angela paused, with the colour flaming in her cheeks. She was conscious of a desire to suppress the whole truth. The pleasant-faced young man smiled with an imp of mischief dancing in his dark eyes.
"To-day, you mean, I suppose?" he asked. "Well, no," Angela faltered. "To be quite truthful, I have been here several times. I come when Mrs. de Courcey is out. And I didn't realise what a shameful thing I have been doing till you came into the room. Do you believe me?"
"Of course I do," the young man said. "When you look at me like that, I must believe anything you say. And, after all, there is no harm done. And I want you to regard me as your friend. I want you to tell me everything. For instance, has that photograph standing on the table anything to do with your visits?"
Here was the touch of romance again, here was the hero who had placed his finger unerringly on the very heart of the mystery. Angela felt herself expanding like a flower.
"How did you guess that?" she asked eagerly.
"Surely you must be aware of the extraordinary likeness between yourself and that photograph," the young man said. "If you were dressed in the same way, and your hair was, done in the same fashion, you might pass for the original. And that's why you startled me so much when I came into the room. And I suppose you don't know that this room is a shrine, and that photograph there stands on an altar. But of course you don't. Perhaps I had better explain. Mrs. de Courcey is a distant relative of mine—in fact, she believes that I am her only relative in the world. She is very rich and kind-hearted and charitable, as I know, because she honours me with the spending of all her money. Some day it will come to me as a sacred trust, and I think I shall know what to do with it. You see, I happen to have money of my own, and therefore I have no ulterior motives. But when I knew Mrs. de Courcey first—twenty-five years ago—she was very different to what she is now. She was a woman in the pride of her beauty, witty and accomplished and much sought after—proud, too, as proud as a Lucifer. She married a man older than herself, and from him she inherited her fortune. He died in the course of a year or two, and left my relative with an only child, a daughter. It seems strange that I should be telling you these things, after I have only known you for a few minutes, but you will see presently how necessary it all is."
"I think I see it now," Angela murmured. "I am beginning to comprehend. And presently I will try and make you understand that I am not what you take me to be."
"I don't," the young man said, with a whimsical smile. "I want you to know how delightful and charming the whole thing is, and how glad I am to meet you in this unconventional fashion. It is the most charming story in the world! And to think that, if it had not been for the accident to that panel, we might never have met! Let me confess I know something about you. I have seen you going in and out of the house next door, and, being a young man of—er —susceptible temperament, I made a few inquiries. I know the sort of life you must lead with that selfish old beast Osborne. But I had never before met you face to face. If I had, I should certainly have stopped you, at the risk of giving offence, and asking you if you were any relation to the artist who was known as Giles Patton." "He was my father!" Angela' cried. "I knew it. I knew it directly I saw you standing there, like a beautiful picture in an old oak frame. And I knew, too, that my gracious lady downstairs had found what she has been praying for in this sanctuary of hers any time in the last twenty years. It seems almost like a sacrilege for us to be standing here, like two figures in a modern comedy, in a shrine which is devoted to tears and penitence. And now, my dear Angela —your mother's name was Angela—cannot you guess the name and identity of the lady who rules this house, or shall I—"
"No, no," Angela cried, "don't spoil it like that! I have dreamt some beautiful dreams in my time—dreams which I have in vain tried to put down on cold paper, but they never satisfy me afterwards. Let me tell you. That photograph is my mother's, beyond all doubt. I have one, too, in my bedroom, and more than once I have compared them. And now I know that Mrs. de Courcey is my grandmother."
"Of course. No other conclusion could be possible. There could be no other ending to a romance like this. Won't you sit down? You have a right in this sanctuary, if anybody has."
Angela was thankful enough' to drop into a chair, for she was trembling from head to foot with the surprise and joy and happiness of the moment, and the whole world was swaying unsteadily about her. Two unshed tears stood in her eyes.
"You are very, very good to me," she said, "and I am not used to it. You don't know what it is to find a friend when you have lived all your life amongst strangers, who regard you as a mere unit in a garden of children. For, you see, my mother died when I was very small, and my father followed her very soon afterwards. And then some artist friends of his managed to get me into a school which looks after the orphans of painters and musicians, and then I became a mere number. I suppose I was always shy and retiring, so that I was forced into a sort of world of my own till the time came when I had to get my own living. But, oh, if you only knew how lonely it was! It wasn't that the other girls were unkind, but that they did not understand me, because they could not enter into my little kingdom. And then, in the fullness of time, I came here, where, at any rate, I have a comfortable home and a not uncongenial occupation. And I have time on my hands to write my little stories and realise my ambition of saving a hundred pounds to take a little cottage in the country. I don't know why I tell you all this, except because you are so kind and sympathetic, and my heart is calling out for friendship."
The young man broke in hastily. He could see that Angela was on the verge of tears, and her frankness touched him.
"Oh, yes, I understand," he said hastily. "Mine was largely a lonely youth, too. And now it is my turn to speak again. Your mother met your father at an art school, and fell in love with him. Of course, that was long ago, in the days when your grandmother was full of family pride and in the zenith of her popularity. And when she found out everything, she was furious. She was still more furious when Giles Patton ran away with your mother and married her. And from that moment mother and daughter never met. Outwardly, at any rate, Mrs. de Courcey did not seem to feel her loss—she never mentioned anything to her dearest friends—but the wound rankled and festered, and went deeper as the years rolled by. For behind that outward coldness Mrs. de Courcey dearly loved her only child, and the time came when she fought with her pride and conquered it. All too late. When she set out to find your mother, it was only to discover that the erring daughter was dead, and that the cause of all the mischief was dead, too. Inquiries were made about you, but you had been taken away by another Bohemian, who was also dead, and Mrs. de Courcey was under the impression that you had eventually disappeared somewhere in the wilds of Australia. She spent any amount of money in advertising for you, and, no doubt, if an effort had been made to hide you, you would have been found; but, as no such thing had happened, it was impossible to trace you. The police told us at the time that such was often the case. And so Mrs. de Courcey, humbled and chastened, gave up the world, and came to live in this quiet street, where I could look after her, and she could spend her time and money in helping the very class of people to which you belong, or did belong a few minutes ago. And now you must come down and see her. She has not been out for a day or two—in fact, she is confined to her room at the present moment. You are not afraid to come, are you?"
"I am horribly afraid," Angela confessed through her tears. "What will she think of me when she knows?"
"She will see that it was the hand of Providence. When you come to think of it, it can be nothing else. Now, come along, and make a noble old soul happy."
Angela found herself presently in a big, sunny bedroom on the far side of the landing, standing blushing before an armchair, in which the grey-haired lady with the sad face was seated. She looked white and frail, but she looked whiter still as her eyes fell on the girl's flushed face. She half started to rise, and dropped back into her seat again.
"What does this mean, Edgar?" she asked. "Is there something the matter with my eyes, or is this child—"
"Now, pray be calm," Edgar de Courcey said soothingly. "The most extraordinary and amazing thing has happened. I went upstairs just now into that sanctum of yours to fetch down the photograph, as you asked me, and what should I find there but the original itself. Here is the original as she must have looked twenty years ago, staring, as I found her, at her counterpart like a beautiful little ghost. Yes, you've guessed it. This is your grandchild, Angela Patton."
"Indeed, indeed, I am," Angela said. "Can you ever forgive me? And yet I cannot regret the vulgar curiosity that led me into your sitting-room."
"You had better explain, Edgar," the grey-haired lady said faintly. "I am afraid I don't quite understand."
The young man proceeded to tell his story. He told it well and humorously, with artistic little touches that served to check the tears and bring the smiles back again to the lips of both listeners. And when he had finished he faded quietly and unostentatiously from the room, leaving the two women alone, with Angela seated on a stool at her grandmother's knee, and the slim, white, faded hand, with its flashing diamonds, resting tenderly on the girl's sunny hair.
"It is all so wonderful," Mrs. de Courcey murmured, "that I can hardly believe it. All these years I have been praying for a miracle something like this—praying in the illogical way that woman does, and almost despising herself in her own heart for her romantic folly. And yet I knew that you were in the world somewhere. I knew that you would come back to me, and give me back some of my lost youth and the happiness that I deliberately shattered, if only my penitence were deep and sincere enough. And Heaven only knows how deep and sincere it has been. It was my pride that held me back—a pride that I look back upon now with horror. It is the coldest thing that a woman can hug to her heart, and well I know it. But I won't say any more about it now. I can guess what sort of a youth yours has been, and it shall be my task to wipe out the recollection of it. You must come to me at once—you must tell your employer that my need is greater than his—then we will go off to a delightful house of mine in the country that I am longing for, and where I never go, because your mother was born there, and there her happiest days were spent. And we will take Edgar with us—Edgar, the good and kind, whom I cannot do without. And perhaps, later on, when you come to know him better "
Angela smiled behind her blushes. And, when the proper time came, it was Edgar himself who saw to that.
HE lay there with his head on his hands, spent to the world and weary to the verge of collapse. He had drifted in, earlier in the evening, out of the whirl and flurry of the blizzard, and, though the snow had melted from his cap and the bulky fur coat about his shoulders, his heavy boots were still caked and white, for the heat of the stove struck upwards, and even those in the corner of the saloon playing euchre steamed and stewed in the moisture, though their feet were almost frozen as they sat. Outside, a white world tossed and moaned; outside, the gale volleyed and hissed against the window-panes, and the reeling world trembled and staggered before the force of the storm. Beyond the saloon was a clump of pines, that bent and tossed before the stress of it all, and groaned and shivered like human bodies in agony. For the time, at least, the little mining camp on the Ekon River was wiped out, everything was at a standstill, and the miners gathered in the saloon, driven there for warmth and company, had taken their lives in their hands in crossing the shoulder of the bluff that lay not a quarter of a mile away.
There were, perhaps, twenty-five of them altogether, rough and uncouth men gathered from all parts of the world in search of the grinning little yellow god for whom they were all prepared to pledge their souls. In the vernacular, it was a pretty tough crowd, and, for the most part, every man there was content to hide his name under some modest pseudonym. There were Jakes and Bills and Broncho Charlies, full of rough friendship for one another, and yet each prepared to cut the other's throat cheerfully for the sake of that same grinning little yellow god that sets men mad and fires all the worst instincts that beset poor humanity.
But for the time being, at any rate, the fitful fever of the chase had faded out of men's minds, and they were huddled together there in the saloon for warmth and sporting companionship, like so many wild beasts freshly fed and watered, and for the moment at peace with all the world. Half a dozen of them lounged against the bar, talking and smoking, whilst the rest, poring over their greasy and fly-blown cards, were lost to their surroundings in the tense excitement of the moment. So it had come about that the tired and sodden waif lying there with his head on the table had drifted into the saloon without exciting the least curiosity, and without a word of greeting from anyone. He had poured a measure of some fiery spirit down his throat, he had eaten wolfishly, like one who has fasted to the verge of collapse, then he had thrown his head forward upon his hands, and was sleeping now as if the end of the world had come, and as if he were no more than a microcosm floating in illimitable cosmos. Just now and again a miner flung a glance at him over his shoulder, and the bar-keeper smiled carelessly. No one wanted to disturb him—every man had been through the same thing himself more than once—and if the sleeper had a story to tell, then they would hear it all in good time. And so he slept and slept while the gale roared outside and the pines tossed like things in pain.
Then the door of the saloon opened again with a flurry of snow and a keen, icy draught that set the stinking kerosene lamps dancing, and three other men entered. They glanced carelessly about the room through the low, drifting smoke for some point where they might rest, for they, too, carried the marks of the storm, and for the most part seemed to be almost as spent and weary as the sodden fur-clad figure lying there with his head on the table. And it was to this table they drifted eventually, and sat down and were calling for drinks, which were brought to them, and paid for by the big man with the clean-shaven, hatchet face and the keen black eyes. The big man had come in with a smaller man by his side—a smaller man who walked close by him, so that their coat-sleeves seemed to touch—and a close observer might have observed that there was reason for this, inasmuch as a link of steel bound one left wrist to the right of the other. Still, there was no ostentation about this connection, and apparently the big man with the glittering eyes was doing his best to shield the fact from general observation. The third individual slouched behind the other two, looking repugnant and truculent enough, though his eyelids drooped ever and anon, and there was a nervous grin on his lips that bespoke a mind none too much at ease. Had a novelist who knew the ropes been present, he would have said that here was the sheriff in possession of a prisoner, and that the third man making up the group was the informant who had brought the arrest about, in which the novelist would have been entirely correct, for the Sheriff, Michel Thornton, had just arrested George Setro for the murder of Jim Cuddis, and the man with the shifty eyes stood as King's evidence. And Setro, as he dropped into his chair opposite the slumbering man, knew that his shrift was short, and that, unless a miracle happened, rude justice would be dealt him before daylight, and his place in the cosmic scheme know him no more. All of which was mighty hard upon Setro, for the man was innocent, black as the evidence was against him, and he was fighting hard for his life.
It was quite characteristic of that rough-and-ready locality that sheriff and prisoner and leading evidence for the prosecution should sit round the table and drink together much as if they were partners in some lawful enterprise. And as they sat they chatted, more or less in a friendly manner, taking no heed of the sodden stranger who snored upon the table. And as to the rest of the men gathered there, they hardly glanced up from their cards, and the new-comers were forgotten.
"What's the next move?" the prisoner asked indifferently.
He put the question carelessly, but he was far from feeling as indifferent as he appeared. Characteristically enough, he had no emotion of animosity against the man to whom he was linked by that slender steel chain. All the rage and fear and anger that boiled within him were kept for the other man with the uneasy grin, who had talked glibly enough as they had come along on that perilous journey through the snow, for Setro, the Englishman, had an uneasy sort of feeling that it was this third man who had brought about all the trouble. But for the moment, at any rate, he took a pull at himself as he turned eagerly to Thornton, the Sheriff.
"Waal, I hardly know," Thornton drawled. "You see, it all depends. Stands to reason as it is my duty to take you down to Carton City. But to get there, we've got to pass through the Gulch, and if the boys there take matters in their own hands—waal, I guess they'll save the State the trouble of putting you on trial. Because, you see, Jim Cuddis, he was some popular down there in the Gulch, and the boys are annoyed with you, Setro, and they ain't making no secret of the fact. So I calculate that they'll take matters in their own hands."
The prisoner was grimly of the same opinion. And the worst of it was that appearances were dead against him. For a year or more he and Cuddis had been partners up yonder on the snow-line, where they had lived, almost apart from the rest of humanity, working their successful claim, and merely going down to the Gulch from time to time in search of provisions. In that inclement region for long periods together the partners were cut off from the rest of the world by the ramparts of the winter snows, and when, in the early spring, the first break had come, the man with the shifty eyes had gone up into the hills to see Cuddis on business.
He had come back at the end of a month or two with a strange story. He had found the miners' shack deserted, and no sign of Cuddis or Setro to be seen, but he had discovered, half a mile from the hut, the skeleton of a man with a bullet-hole in the centre of his forehead, and, from certain bits of evidence picked up in the vicinity, he had been forced to the conclusion that this was the skeleton of Jim Cuddis, picked clean by the wolves and the birds of prey that hovered over the mountains. At the same time there was no trace of Setro to be seen, and for many months no man set eyes upon him. Beyond doubt he had murdered his partner and gone off East with the heavy burden of gold dust which had been cleaned in the claim during the past year or so. And the man with the shifty eyes was indignant. He professed to be on intimate terms with the murdered man, and, indeed, he was known to have transacted business with him on several occasions. According to his story, he had gone up to the mountain to meet Cuddis in connection with an investment that the latter was contemplating, and in conjunction with which he held the papers, and it was this action on the part of the man with the shifty eyes that had led to the discovery of the murder.
The strange part of it was that, knowing his own guilt, and having got safely away with the plunder, Setro should have the temerity to return. Very likely he had come back for more spoil which he had been forced to leave behind him at the time he had committed the crime. The excuse that he had gone to England on business in connection with his partner and himself was held to be weak and flimsy, and, indeed, the more Sheriff Thornton examined it, the more damning did the admission seem, especially as Setro obstinately declined to divulge precisely what that business was.
"Better own up," the man with the shifty eyes suggested. "And there ain't much time, for sure. When the boys down at the Gulch lay hands on you to-morrow, they won't give you another chance. Let's have it, Setro."
"You shut up, Philpin!" Setro said savagely. "It isn't as if your hands were too clean. It's the truth I'm telling you, Sheriff, whether you believe it or not. When I came down from the mountains about a year ago, my partner was alive and well, and I thought it was all right till you came and laid hands upon me yesterday. I don't care what Philpin says—he's a poisonous skunk, as everybody knows. And I'm not saying he didn't see my partner from time to time when I was away, and I'm not saying that he didn't put some of his affairs in Philpin's hands. Still, if you give me a chance, I can prove that I was in England the best part of last year."
"There won't be time, sonny," the Sheriff said grimly. "And, besides, that don't prove that you didn't bore a hole in your own partner. He must have been lying dead there in the snow months before he was found. Still—"
Setro shrugged his shoulders helplessly. It would take months to prove the truth of his story, and he knew the boys at the Gulch well enough to feel that they would not wait as many hours. And, again, what was there to gain by betraying the confidence of his old partner? What avail to tell these rough-and-ready men that Cuddis had been an Englishman who had left his country under a cloud in circumstances that precluded his return, and that he had a daughter in England who had just left school, and that he (Setro) had gone all those miles to see her and explain exactly how matters stood? Of what avail to tell them that he and his partner had been successful beyond their wildest dreams, and that he had managed to clear up the trouble at home, and had come back to take Cuddis to the Old Country once again? Or that a pair of dewy grey eyes had looked into his with something more than gratitude in them, and that those grey eyes were drawing him like a magnet even at that hour of his deadly peril? So he sat there shrugging his shoulders indifferently, with the bitterness of death in his heart, and a growing feeling at the back of his brain that the whole thing had been set up for him by the man with the shifty eyes, who could have told a good deal more if he had pleased, but who was bent upon getting him out of the way; and if once this was done, then Stella Cuddis would never see a brass farthing of that gold for which the partners had worked so hard. It was all over now, the Fates were against him, and it was useless to struggle any longer.
His mind had suddenly grown vividly tense and clear. He was conscious of the acrid smell of the smoke in the saloon, the heavy breathing of the gamblers as they bent over their filthy cards, the mingled smell of sour humanity and the reek of cheap spirit. And this he saw all the more clearly because he knew surely enough that this would be his last outlook on life, that had grown all the sweeter and cleaner since his visit to England. As he bent forward, he could feel the packet of letters— those warm, affectionate letters from Stella Cuddis—crackling in his. breast-pocket. He found himself, in his heart, envying the sodden wisp of humanity lying there with his head on the table, unconscious of the grim tragedy that was running its course within a few feet of the straggling grey hair fringed round the edge of his battered fur cap. And as Setro looked up and caught the nervous grin on Philpin's face, he had a wild desire to reach over and batter those repulsive features out of all human semblance. Then the Sheriff spoke again. There was no feeling in his speech.
"Yes, you'd better own up," he said. "The cards are all against you, Setro."
"Do you think so?" Setro asked. "Well, I don't know. Seems to me that it's only Philpin's word against mine."
"And the evidence," Thornton went on. "Don't you go forgetting that we found the body of your partner with a hole in his skull. I ain't denying he'd been dead for months, and I ain't sayin' as how he wasn't picked clean by the crows and the timber wolves. But there he was, and you'd cleared out without sayin' nothin' to a soul. An' you comes back in the same quiet way without goin' near the Gulch, an' it's bad, Setro, it's bad."
"I'm not denying it," Setro said curtly, "and I am not blind to what's likely to happen when we get back to the Gulch. But, as I said before, it's only Philpin's word against mine. And how long has he had a reputation to be proud of? Is there one of the boys would sit down and play a game of cards with him? Is there one of them who wonld trust him as far as they could throw him? And that's the creature who wants the world to believe that my good old partner trusted him, and told him that he was afraid of me!"
"And so he did," Philpin protested. "Sent for me, he did, in secret, when you was down at the Gulch. And what he says to me was this: 'I'm not trustin' my partner Setro no longer. He's plannin' to rob me, an', mark my words, one night he'll put a bullet into me and skip with the boodle. An' I wants you to be my friend, Philpin. I wants you to take all these papers and documents, an' act for my relations in case I meet with an accident. There ain't no one to know this but myself, an' if I do pass in my checks, an' Setro comes along, talking about accidents an' snivellin' over the dear departed, you can just confront him with this here letter wot I've written and signed for you, an' makin' you my executor.' An' that's wot he says, an' I've got the letter to prove it."
Setro listened calmly enough; he was holding himself in now, conscious of the new peril that lay before him.
"You've got that letter in your pocket?" he asked.
"You bet I have, sonny," Philpin replied.
"Written by Cuddis himself?"
"I see him do it. In my presence it were, and handed over to me in the exact words wot I told you."
For the first time since the men had been sitting round the table Setro smiled. He was about to speak, when the man seated there with his head on the table stirred uneasily, and his right hand lay exposed for a moment before it slipped down listlessly to his side. Setro seemed to gurgle in the back of his throat, and his whole body twitched convulsively as if something were choking him. Then he grew calm again.
"I am not denying that it sounds convincing," he said. "But if it comes to that, let me put it in another way. I told you just now that I went to England on business, and that's as true as anything I ever said. And no one knew I was going, and why, except my own partner. But you found it out, Philpin, and used the knowledge for your own purposes. And you had plenty of time to work out your scheme while I was away. I am not accusing you of anything yet, but I can make out a case, too, if the Sheriff isn't in a hurry, and I don't see how we can leave the saloon before daylight. You went up to the shack in the early part of the winter, and you lured poor old Cuddis up there over the back of the divide. And you left him there amongst the snows—left him in the cache where we had stored food for distant expeditions, left him there treacherously whilst he slept, and got away with the dogs and sledges in a snowstorm, so that the trail would be obliterated. I say you did all this deliberately, knowing full well that you had abandoned a good man and a good friend to certain death, and then you came down to the shack. You found Spotted Fox there "
"Spotted Fox!" Philpin stammered. "Who's he?"
"The Indian trapper who worked for us from time to time, and helped us in the summer. Oh, come, don't tell me you never heard of Spotted Fox!"
"I seem to sense the name, Setro."
"Of course you do. Now, what I suggest is this: You shot Spotted Fox before you came down to the Gulch, just on the heels of the first big snowfall of the year, and the trail was nigh wiped out, and you shot that Indian deliberately, knowing that his bare bones would be found after the long winter was over, and knowing that the boys would assume that it was the skeleton of my old friend and partner, Jim Cuddis. With that idea uppermost in your mind, you shot Spotted Fox through the brain, and left him there outside the hut, and waited for me to come back again. And all through a long winter you had the time to drop your poison by degrees into the ears of the boys, and build up your case against me, knowing perfectly well that I should come back again. Isn't that true, Sheriff? Hasn't this man been with you again and again with scraps of circumstantial evidence against me, and stirring up the boys to lynch me as soon as I showed my face in the settlement again?"
"I ain't denying it," Thornton drawled.
"Very well, then. Mind you, I'm not bringing this accusation deliberately against Philpin, but what I am trying to prove is that a case can be made out against him as black as his case against me. After all, it's a pure matter of surmise in either respect. And if it comes to clean records in the past, then I'll back mine against Philpin's any day."
"That's so," the Sheriff said impartially.
"I'm obliged to you," Setro said dryly. "And don't forget that the man who accuses me has admitted that he himself found the skeleton of my old partner. And he has declared that Cuddis left everything in his hands, and that in certain circumstances my partner's wealth belongs to him. And I'm not denying that there is plenty of that wealth. We worked hard, and, between us, Cuddis and myself must be worth close on a million dollars. My share is in England, but most of Cuddis's money is in the bank at Carton City. And this man claims that he has the right to deal with every penny of it."
"So I have," Philpin said parenthetically.
"The right conferred upon you by a letter written and signed by my partner, and handed over by him months ago."
"You've played the ace," Philpin grinned.
"Very well, then. For the moment I am prepared to admit that the statement is true. But now tell me, either of you, what has become of Spotted Fox? Where is the Indian who was always hanging around the shack, except for the month or two when the snow was frozen hard, and he was out looking after his traps? Where has Spotted Fox vanished? What has become of him? He knew the country well, he was a man of infinite resource, and no snow or cold had any terror for him. He was an honest man, too and gold had no temptation for that faithful Indian. Then where is he? What has become of him? Why isn't he here to give evidence? I'll tell you. Because he's dead. Because he was shot by that yellow-faced scoundrel grinning at me, for the reason I have told you, and my dear old partner is lying somewhere up in the mountains, where he was treacherously lured to his death by Philpin, and where some day he may be found. But not yet—not yet. Not till I have paid the penalty of a crime I never committed, and yonder greasy ruffian has got away with his ill-gotten gains beyond the reach of the rightful vengeance of the boys. And there's just a chance that Cuddis is not dead at all; there is just a chance there was food enough in the cache to keep him alive till the summer, when he may return too late to save the gold he has struggled so hard for. And I tell you why he has slaved and worked all these years, denying himself everything except the mere necessities of life. There's many a good man here has proved himself to be a man who dare not show his face where he was bred and born."
"That's so," Thornton said candidly. "I don't mind saying that I'm one of them myself."
"And that is Cuddis's case," Setro went on. "He didn't leave much in England behind him that he missed, but he had a child—a girl of whom he was very fond. And nothing was good enough for her. His one idea was to make her a lady, and, by Heaven, he did it! It was to see her and explain everything that I went to England last year. And when I saw her—well, I could understand my partner's feelings."
The Sheriff looked up eagerly, scenting romance.
"You don't mean to say," he asked, "that you and she—"
"What business is that of anybody's?" Setro asked fiercely. "But it's true, all the same. And if you lay violent hands upon me— Still, it's no use talking like this. And I've done. I've got no more to say."
"Because there ain't nothin' to be said," Philpin sneered. "I've got the letter in my pocket—the letter wot Cuddis give to me when he told me I was the best friend he had in the world, and asked me to look after his affairs."
"Written and signed by himself?"
"Yes, pard, and in my presence, too."
"You lie, you dirty dog, you lie!" Setro shouted. "Cuddis never wrote a letter in his life. He never learnt to write. He could only read simple words. Out of your own mouth you are convicted, you murderous reptile!"
The man sleeping on the table suddenly raised his head and smiled at Thornton.
"Guess that's true, Sheriff," he said. "I never could write, more shame to me. And it seems to me as if you've got that steel bracelet on the wrong wrist."
CROSFIELD looked across the camp fire at his friend Norton with the light of battle gleaming in his eyes. They were away up there on the veldt, not a hundred miles from Kimberley, and the fruits of three years' unremitting toil lay in the hollow of Crosfield's hand. To the untutored eye they represented no more than half a dozen round stones like big marbles, but an expert would have had no difficulty in recognising the fact that those pebbles were diamonds of the purest quality—six bits of glorified glass that represented a king's ransom.
To all practical purposes these were the absolute property of the partners, though lawyers and people of that kind learned in the mysteries and devious ways of legislation might have held a contrary opinion. At any rate, there they were, and between them they represented a fortune of something on the outside of a hundred thousand pounds. They represented something more than that—they stood for the entire worldly wealth of those men, they stood for three years' unremitting toil and danger, thirty-six sweating, blistering months endured under a tropical sun and accompanied by every hardship and danger that is known in the vocabulary of the pioneer. Those dull stones meant peace and happiness in England, home and friends, and everything that those two had set out to win for themselves. And yet there was much to be done before Crosfield and Norton found themselves on the high seas in search of English woods and meadows and all that life holds most dear. Hence the hard glitter in the eyes of the two men, hence the fact that they were discussing the future in whispers with the air of conspirators against the law.
"What do you suppose they are worth?" Norton asked.
"Well, there ought to be fifty thousand pounds for us each here," Crosfield replied; "and, by every moral law, these stones belong to us."
"It isn't moral law we've got against us," Norton said dryly. "You may depend upon it that that rascal Blatter won't leave a stone unturned to get those diamonds back. He knows by this time that they are in our possession—in fact, he told me so last night. When D'Jin came here and sold us our own stones, we ought to have kept him and taken him down to Cape Town with us. It is fatal to have paid him before we had booked our passages."
"What's the boy been up to?" Crosfield asked.
"Well, you paid him fifty pounds for smuggling those stones through, didn't you— fifty pounds to a greasy nigger boy who has never previously seen a gold coin in his life? And what does D'Jin do? Bought himself a couple of wives and a bunch of cattle, and set up as a local magnate. Of course, Blatter was on him like a shot. He guessed at once that D'Jin had been handling diamonds, and he laid out for that conceited nigger. As far as I could gather, D'Jin gave the whole show away, and, when you were out after springbok this morning, Blatter came over here, foaming with rage, and asked for his stones back."
"They are our stones right enough," Crosfield said, "and if D'Jin did find them, they were on our land."
"Yes, but Blatter is prepared to swear that when he took this holding off our hands, we sold him the patch of blue ground as well. And he has got some sort of a map to prove his claim, and he is prepared to swear that the blue ground that runs from Hodder's Spruit to Hagfontein is part of his purchase. He says he bought all the land that Jan van Beers trekked in 1874, and that slim* Dutchman is ready to back him up. There's only one thing to be done."
[* slim (Afrikaans) - bad, nasty, worthless. ]
Crosfield's lips tightened ominously. They had sunk every penny they had there, and it was only quite lately that they had found traces of diamonds on that hitherto despised patch of ground of theirs; and this corner of the property they had reserved when, sick at heart and in desperate need of money, they had sold their holding to the wily Karl Blatter. But that slim German had known what he was doing, and he had laid his plans accordingly.
"So that's the game, is it?" Crosfield said, when he had heard everything his partner had to say. "Old man, I am not going to fight that fat blackguard in the local courts, and I am not going to give up those stones, either. They are as much my property and yours as the rifle that I hold in my hand. If we made this a legal matter, I can see that we are done. We shall never be able to stand up before all those perjured witnesses, and, so far as I can see, we have got everything in the way of diamonds that the blue clay yonder is likely to yield us. I can see the little place I'm after at home in my mind's eye as I sit here now, and you've got a girl over yonder, and I've got a girl yonder, and—well, I needn't say any more."
Crosfield lighted his pipe and set about preparing the simple mid-day meal. But there was danger ahead, and he knew it perfectly well; but the knowledge only gave zest to the adventure. And how near that danger was, transpired a little later in the afternoon, when the adventurers, sitting round their camp fire, were intruded on by a stranger, who came across the river riding a useful-looking horse, and who dismounted without further ceremony.
He was a stranger to the partners, a hard, lean, muscular man with grim jaw and penetrating grey eyes. From the way he rode, and from the fashion in which he carried himself, the partners rightly judged that the stranger had seen service.
"Good evening," he said. "Maybe you're not knowing who I am? But me name's Commissioner Costigan. An' I believe I am talking to Mr. Crosfield and his partner?"
"You've hit it," Crosfield said. "I don't remember ever having had the pleasure of seeing Captain Costigan before, but I am pleased to meet. 'The Goat' after all these years."
The stranger threw back his head and laughed heartily.
"Bedad," he said, "an' ye have the advantage of me! I haven't heard that name since I was at Eton, twenty-odd years ago. And, now, shure I know you both. Wasn't I in the boat with you the year we won that Ladies' Plate at Henley? And if me eyes don't deceive me, that's Nobby Norton? Well, well, it's a queer old world we live in. And when I was faggin' for you both all those years ago, it's little I thought I should ever be out here, chasing niggers and hunting round after Old Etonians who had so far forgotten themselves as to be robbing a hard-working German—bad luck to him!—of the fruits of his toil."
Five minutes later the old school-fellows were sitting round the camp fire, exchanging reminiscences. Then, as the shadows deepened, the merry twinkle died out of the Irishman's eyes, and he grew serious.
"Now, listen here, boys," he said. "I rode over to-day, knowing that you were clean and decent Englishmen, to see if I couldn't put this matter right. I suppose you know that I could have brought half a dozen troopers, and have had you locked up. Now, I know that one of you has got those diamonds on him, and, for your own sake, I am going to ask you to hand them over."
"We are not denying it," Norton said quietly; "but those stones belong to us. You know that Blatter is a blackguard, and that we have been swindled."
"An' who was sayin' you were not?" Costigan demanded. "But I must report the matter, and once you are in Cape Colony you will have no 'Goat' to look after you. And, mark my words, you will live to be sorry for it."
"We are going to risk all that," Crosfield said.
"Very well, me boy, then I won't say any more. Shure, there's no finer detective force in the world than the I.D.B. Preventative Force at Cape Town. Do you mind Jimmy Forsyth, who was in Caxton's House? Yes, I see you do. And a cunninger young devil never got out of an imposition. Well, he took a hand in the sport, and to-day he's serving ten years' sentence on the breakwater at Cape Town. I know it's hard, but it will be harder still if you try to run what you've got in your pockets through the harbour at Cape Town."
With which Costigan filled his pipe again and began to talk about other things. It was getting late now—so late that Costigan accepted an invitation to share the evening meal and a blanket for the night by the camp fire. And, as he talked on, Crosfield, opposite him, grew more and more quiet and thoughtful, as if he were debating some heavy problem in his mind. He sat there gazing into the fire, until presently Norton, who knew his every mood and fancy, saw a sudden gleam in his eyes and the faint whimsical smile that trembled on his lips.
"Costigan," he said suddenly, "you were always a good sportsman. Did you ever shoot an elephant?"
"Bedad, I never did," Costigan replied.
"We've spotted two," Crosfield said. "There's a big rogue of a chap that's done a lot of damage here. Now, I've got a couple of elephant guns here and a box of shells, and we might have a cut at him. Are you game?"
"Faith, I never laid hands on an elephant except in kindness," Costigan said solemnly; "but I don't mind acting as an umpire. So if you'll put me in a comfortable place with a pair of good glasses, it's happy I'll be to oblige you."
"That's all right, then," Crosfield said. "We'll show you a bit of sport, and then we'll all go down country together."
"It's leavin' here you are to-morrow?" Costigan asked.
"What's the good of staying?" Crosfield retorted. "We've sold our property, and the sooner I'm back in England, the better I'll be pleased."
"It's no good, old fellow," the Irishman said solemnly. "Blatter has sold his rights in your late property to the Diamond Fields Amalgamated, and they'll have your gore, if it costs them a million. There's too much of the rich red blood of Israel in that clan for you chaps to butt up against. But there— I've warned you enough already!"
"We're going through with it, all the same," Crosfield said doggedly. "Give me those cartridges, Norton."
Norton fished out a box of shells and the two elephant guns, and for the next quarter of an hour or so Crosfield was busy with a file and a small vice, which he attached to a broken bench. He was making dum-dum bullets, he explained; he was going to run no risks, so far as that rogue elephant was concerned, and, besides, he was just a little doubtful as to the driving power behind those German-made explosive bullets.
"They're all right, as a rule," Crosfield explained, "but occasionally a shell fails to explode, and you can't afford that sort of melodrama when you are fooling with an African elephant."
Costigan replied that it was all the same to him, so long as he was watching the sport from a safe distance through a pair of glasses, and with that the camp fire was made up for the night, and the three men rolled themselves up in their blankets. Very soon Costigan's regular breathing testified of the fact that he was asleep. Norton turned over and edged himself a little nearer to the side of his companion.
"What's the little game, old man?" he whispered.
"You leave that to me," Crosfield replied. "We are going to the Cape, and there were going to stay as long as the authorities care to detain us. But they won't find those stones, because they will be hidden where no man on earth will ever find them, and you can gamble on that."
Not another word would Crosfield say. They breakfasted leisurely enough the following morning, and, everything being ready, proceeded to call the handy Kaffir boy D'Jin into their counsel.
News had come in that the big rogue had raided a mealie field by the side of the waterhole during the night, and he was now resting in a patch of scrub half a mile or so on the other side of the stream. This being so, it would be no great matter to rouse the big beast and drive him in the direction of the scrub.
"All right," Crosfield said. "You can go and work the beast round to the scrub, and dig a pit in front. Do you hear? If anything goes, wrong, he will flounder into it, and we shall have him safe. Directly you get a move on, one of you boys had better come back and look after the ponies. They'll be on top of the knoll yonder. Off you go."
Crosfield led the way, closely followed by Norton, whom he posted on the left, whilst he himself went forward, being the better shot of the two, and took up his position upon the far bank of the stream opposite a belt of deep, swampy ground that bordered the patch of scrub in which the Kaffir boys declared the elephant was lying.
"Now% you stay here," Crosfield directed, "and wait. If he does break this way, you'll be able to stop him, though it's long odds that he will come straight across the brush directly he catches sight of me. I suppose Costigan's got a good view from the knoll yonder."
"He ought to be able to see everything, and there is no better pair of glasses in the colony than mine."
Crosfield crept on until he had come to the spot where he intended to take up his stand. Already on the far side of the swamp the Kaffir boys were moving in the scrub. The noise of their cries came down the wind, and Crosfield smiled grimly as he heard them. Then the patch of reeds opposite him seemed to move bodily, and a moment later the big elephant loomed in sight. He was obviously alarmed and uneasy, for he was trumpeting wildly as he came blundering towards the bush, his head up and his big tusks gleaming in the sunshine. Then he canght sight of the man standing there, and charged down upon him violently.
Apparently the scrub was less holding than Crosfield had anticipated, for it merely served to check the speed of the great pachyderm. He came ambling across the brush before Crosfield could get his rifle to his shoulder; then the huge beast swerved to one side, and kicked up his enormous legs like some colt might have done.
It was a broadside shot now, and obviously it was up to the marksman to get his prey behind the ear. He fired one shot, then another, and another, and as Norton heard it he started uneasily. To his trained ear there was something wrong, something perilously inadequate in the bursting charge of those shells. Three times more did Crosfield fire, and neither shot was followed by the clear report that should have gone with a properly-filled cartridge. It was obvious, too, that beyond arousing the elephant to a pitch of pain and madness, no vital mischief had been done.
It was up to Norton now to take a hand swore aloud. He was cursing that ineffective German ammunition by all his gods. He would have shouted to his companion, but already Crosfield had realised the danger.
He dropped his gun and sprinted along the open in Norton's direction as if all the fiends from the bottomless pit were after him. At the same time the practically uninjured elephant caught sight of his quarry, and charged after him through the scrub. Then, just as Norton got in a shell between the two wicked little eyes, the big rogue pitched forward and crashed headlong to the bottom of the pit that D'Jin and the other boy had so cunningly prepared for him. He lay there a huddled mass of flesh, past all mischief now.
"Well, that's the last time I ever use a German cartridge," Crosfield exclaimed. "What did you think of it, Costigan?"
"Be jabers, not much," Costigan grinned, "and it's glad I am that I didn't take a hand at the game. What are you going to do now?"
"Let him lie where he is," Crosfield said. "Of course, we are going to give you the tusks as a souvenir of the occasion, and a nice little present, too, if you only knew it. Get 'em off, D'Jin. And throw a few boughs and a big log or two over the brute's body. If you do the work properly, it'll be quite safe as far as any prowling beast of prey is concerned."
"What's the game, boss?" the grinning D'Jin asked.
"Well, I want that skull, at any rate. We are going down south presently, and we'll come back for it in a month or two. If you do what I ask you properly, the ants will see to the rest. What's that, Costigan? Oh, yes, you'd hardly believe it, but within a few weeks there won't be a scrap of that elephant left, once the ants get to it. When we come back, the skeleton will be polished as white as ivory. And now, then, we'll get down to the Cape as soon as D'Jin has finished."
It was three days later when, still accompanied by Costigan, the two friends crossed into Cape Colony by train. They were met on the border by a man who gave his name as Buckley, and who informed them, in a curt official way, that they could regard themselves as his prisoners on a charge of offences committed against the I.D.B. Act; also that in this particular case the information had been laid by the representative of the Diamond Fields Amalgamated. To which Crosfield listened with a smile on his face, and the information that the authorities could do as they pleased. Neither he nor his friend had any diamonds about them, nor were they ready to admit that they had ever handled anything of the kind. To all of which Buckley listened with a twinkle in his eye and a request to know if there was anybody in Cape Town who would be likely to come forward and offer bail. Crosfield responded that he didn't care, and that, so far as he was concerned, he was not prepared to ask favours from anyone.
For the next few weeks Crosfield and Norton spent their time as guests of the Government. They were searched with a thoroughness that allowed no loophole for escape, they wrote no letters, and were permitted to receive none. And so far no regular charge had been made against them, for the simple reason that there was no material evidence to go upon. But they were treated well enough, and had nothing to grumble about beyond the loss of their liberty.
It was only after they were released that they realised how thorough the search had been, not only as regards their persons, but also as concerned the neighbourhood from which they had come, and, indeed, Costigan subsequenUy reported that D'Jin had grown thin and haggard under the merciless cross-examination to which he had been subjected. But everything comes to an end in time, and there came a day when the adventurers were released, and were told that they could go where they pleased.
"Back to where we came from, perhaps?" Crosfield asked the discomfited Buckley politely.
"You can go to the devil, as far as I am concerned," that worried official responded. "Let me tell you this. I've been at this game for fifteen years, and I've had some bright intellects through my hands, but this is the first time I've been badly done. And if ever we meet in England, where you'll be safe, I shall be greatly obliged if you will tell me how the thing was worked."
"England's a long way off," Crosfield said. "But if we do meet there, perhaps you'll come and dine with Norton and myself at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, and then we might find ourselves in a position of greater freedom and less responsibility. For the present, good-bye, Buckley."
Ten days later the two friends were back again within half a mile of the spot where they had given their futile exhibition for Costigan's benefit. They had ascertained the night before, from the grinning D'Jin, that nothing had happened of any importance during the last month or so, and that, so far as he knew to the contrary, the body of the elephant was still in the pit that he had prepared for it. He was fain to admit that he had not been near the place himself, to which characteristic confession Crosfield listened with a smile. He dismissed the Kaffir presently, and, with Norton, made his way across the bush in the direction of the spot where the skeleton lay. It was just as he had expected. The ants had done their work thoroughly enough, and down there, in the bottom of the hole under the logs and brushwood, was a great gleaming heap of bones picked dry and clear. And Crosfield nodded approvingly; his smile was almost irritating to his companion.
"Now, perhaps, you will tell me what the game is," Norton said. "Why this interesting ceremony?"
"Well," Crosfield smiled, "we have come after our diamonds, which I told you were so safely hidden that no man could find them. And so they are. They are down there in that hole under that heap of bones. Ants can destroy most things, but they, can't eat diamonds. Now, don't stand there staring at me. Lend a hand and get all those logs and brushwood away, and help me to remove the skeleton. And go gently, because in the dust there the diamonds are lying, or we are the two unluckiest chaps in Africa to-day."
It was all done at length. The bones were carefully removed, and then Crosfield, on his hands and knees, began to sift amongst the dust. At the end of half an hour he straightened himself up and held out a trembling hand to his companion. In his grimy hand lay the six precious stones, the diamonds beyond the shadow of a doubt. Norton could do no more than gaze open-mouthed at his friend, and wait till the latter explained.
"It was like this," he said. "When Costigan turned up, I thought we were done. I had the diamonds on me, and he knew it. Of course, he played the game like the good fellow that he is, but he had his duty to think of, and it was a case of his wits against mine. And I knew perfectly well that he was not in the least likely to lose sight of us until he had handed us over to Buckley. If we had attempted to get away, he would have taken out a warrant for our arrest. So the obvious game was to go down to Cape Town and bluff it out. But that was no good unless we could save the stones. Then the inspiration came to me as the three of us were sitting here round the camp fire. Under Costigan's very eyes I extracted part of the bursting charge and shoved the diamonds into the cartridge cases in place of the bullets. Everything was in our favour—that bit of brush might have been placed there on purpose. So, when the time came, I just fired those stones into the shoulder of our four-footed friend and left the rest to chance. My idea was to come back here when those chaps yonder had to admit themselves beaten, and pick up the stones just as we have done. The odds were a million to one against anybody finding them in the meantime. At any rate, I knew those lazy Dutch devils wouldn't, and—well, there you are. There's only one thing now, and that's to get home."
"Not through Cape Town," Norton grinned.
"Not much," Crosfield said emphatically, "though I don't suppose they'd touch us again now if we did go that way. Still, we'd better be on the safe side. So I suggest that we make our way across country to Delagoa Bay and join a tramp steamer there. Carried unanimously?"
And there, down in Cape Town, Chief Inspector Buckley is still trying to puzzle out the manner in which those diamonds eluded him and found their way eventually to Chicago, where they now adorn the white throat of one of the greatest heiresses whose father ever made his pile in pork.
HEATHER took the drifting spray that sifted over the table like a cloud of mauve butterflies and crushed it ruthlessly in his hand. Later on he would realise that those delicate blooms represented a guinea's worth of orchids, and that they would certainly figure in his bill, for he had ordered a special dinner for two there at "The Majestic," and it was no fault of the management that Sir Thomas Salter, the great engineering magnate, had failed to keep his appointment. As a matter of fact, he had put Heather off at the very last moment by means of a telephone message to the hotel.
There was no help for it—Heather would have to sit down alone to an elaborate menu and the trilogy of extravagant wines, which even now were in the wine cooler by his side. Neither did it matter much that George Heather had practically his last ten pound note in his pocket. It had been an audacious thing on his part to ask the great man to dine with him at all; but then Heather was an engineer, and audacity builds many bridges. He had hoped to get a snug appointment from the great man, but now it looked as if he would have to go back to the Gold Coast and sweat out another five precious years of his life amidst the scum of humanity in a reeking atmosphere of filth and fever and all the soul-destroying degradation of that forbidding climate.
Well, it didn't matter much—nothing seemed to matter at that particular moment. It was more hard on Kitty than on anybody else—dear little Kit, with whom he had discussed the future so buoyantly in Kensington Gardens only an hour or two before. Well, that dream was ended—for the present, at any rate. He would go back to the Gold Coast next week, and— Well, in the meantime he might just as well eat the extravagant dinner that he had ordered, and make the best of what the Fates had in store for him. Now that the worst was past, he ate his way calmly through the elaborate menu until he reached the coffee and the 1820 brandy, and there began to steal over him the benign feeling of satisfaction that only a good dinner can give.
He lay back in his chair presently, watching his neighbours with a certain hard and cynical amusement. And then presently it seemed to him that a man seated by himself a little distance off was regarding him with a close attention that was almost flattering.
The individual in question was beautifully turned out, and had about him that faint, indescribable air of prosperity that is implied more than spoken. He was a young man—no older than Heather himself—though his hair was thinning at the top, and there were certain lines about the corner of his mouth and round those unsteady eyes of his that told their own tale. A moment later the stranger rose from his seat and came in the direction of Heather's table. A fine moisture was standing out on his forehead in beads, and the hand that held his cigarette was shaking strangely.
"May I speak to you?" he asked. "Thanks. Waiter, bring me a liqueur brandy. Well, I see that you recognise me. You do, don't you?"
"You are quite sure of that?" Heather asked.
"Wonderful how small a place the world is," the stranger went on. "Queer how often you meet the very last person you expect to see."
"It is very awkward at times," Heather said.
"Yes, isn't it? Especially when you were quite sure that the other chap had been dead and buried for the last two or three months."
"Oh, you thought I was dead, did you?"
"My dear chap, I was absolutely sure of it. When I got down to the camp, after Brass and Crossley had been done in, I found nothing but the remains of your hut, all burnt to a cinder, and your guns all broken and useless. Most of your papers were charred beyond recognition, and, besides, that native boy of yours told me that the hut had been attacked by the niggers, and that you had been shot and thrown into the flames. If it hadn't been for the photograph of you and the girl, I might have had my doubts, because, you see, I never happen to have met you face to face. But there was that photograph in a leather case, and, of course, I had a description of you. You know who I am, don't you—Wilberforce?"
Heather hesitated just for a moment. He hadn't the remotest notion who this man was, but the story had a familiar ring about it. It was a common type of story along that awful coast, which Heather knew almost as well as he knew Piccadilly. And there was something more behind it—of that he felt certain. Moreover, he had done a certain amount of magazine work himself, and here he appeared to have stumbled over the edge of a romance which might be well worth the telling. And undoubtedly this man with the shifty eyes and moist, clammy skin was telling no more than half the truth. He had the air of one who was trying to justify himself in the face of a serious accusation. And he, somehow or other, had come into possession of one of those photographs of Heather and Kitty which had been taken three years ago by Lesterre. Obviously the thing was worth going into.
"Oh, so you are Wilberforce?" he asked. "Really? And you picked up my photograph when you got down to the hut that evening?"
"I did," the other man said. "Directly I got it in my hand I said to myself, 'It's Chambers—Chambers and his girl, beyond the shadow of a doubt.' So I put it in my pocket, thinking that perhaps it would be useful later on. Of course, I was absolutely certain that you had perished with all the rest of them when those traders turned the natives against us and tried to rob us of the ivory. Now, how on earth did you manage to get away, Chambers?"
Heather hesitated just for a moment. That there was something sinister about this, and that there was more to come, he had not the shadow of a doubt. He could see that in the shifty eye and the sinister smile on the other man's face. "We will come to that presently," he said. "Meanwhile, it doesn't follow that the name you know a man under in Africa is the same under which he passes in London. So perhaps you had better address me as Heather."
"I am Wilberforce still, at any rate," the other man said.
"I congratulate you," Heather said dryly, "And what really became of our friends Brass and Crossley after I was done with? You are not going to tell me that you did not get the ivory through all right?"
The man called Wilberforce seemed to be swallowing something at the back of his throat. His shifty eyes dropped again, and once more that peculiar ingratiating and sinister smile creased the corners of his lips.
"If anyone tells you that I played the dirty on the other chaps, it's a lie. I did nothing of the sort. I am not exactly a plaster saint, but— Well, those chaps are dead and gone now, and I can give you no more than my bare word. And I don't know that their names really were Brass and Crossley. They only knew me as Wilberforce because I said that was my name. As a matter of fact, it is; but out yonder, as you know, we are not particular about that sort of thing."
Heather did know it, and smiled accordingly. Whoever this man was, and however credible his tale might be, he was listening to a man who was familiar with every inch of the ground they were talking about.
"But the other fellows had good friends amongst the natives, I suppose?" he asked. "For instance—"
"Ah, you are going to speak of Mombassa. I had forgotten Mombassa for the moment. I suppose it was that faithful nigger who helped you to get away?"
"Shall I tell you what he told me?" Heather asked. Who Mombassa was, he had not the least idea, but he was in the mood to get to the bottom of this thing now. "Or perhaps you are not curious to hear?"
A queer green tinge spread over the other man's face. Then the rusty spur of a bankrupt self-respect pricked him, and he spurted into a little spate of anger like damp gunpowder fizzling on a hot plate.
"Oh, well," he said, "if you prefer to take the word of a nigger to mine, of course— Don't be annoyed, old chap. My nerves are not what they were, and I am doing far too much of that sort of thing."
He flicked a shaky forefinger in the direction of his liqueur glass, which the waiter had already refilled more than once, and the uneasy, self-conscions grin was on his face again. He did not, perhaps, know that Heather was reading him like an open book, and that he stood before the other perfectly self-confessed as a scoundrel who had betrayed his three colleagues into the hands of the natives, sent them to their death so that he could get off with the spoil And that he had done so was evident by the fact that he was dining here, dressed in purple and fine linen, evidently a welcome and honoured guest, and obviously a man of means. He was telling Heather plainly enough that he had deliberately planned the murder of his comrades, or, at the very best, he had stood coldly on one side, and had got away with the spoil whilst the other men were fighting for their lives. And there was another thing. Who was the man called Chambers, and how on earth had that photograph of Kitty and himself found its way into that solitary hut previous to the tragedy? Heather had been proud of the photograph at the time, and had given a dozen or more to his friends, scattered all over the world, but, so far as he could remember, not one of those photographs had found its way to the Dark Continent.
"What can a chap do when he's all alone in the world?" Wilberforce went on. "I admit I've been a bit of a rotter. I was one at Harrow, and they fired me there. And they fired me out of the Army, too, and so I gradually got down to this. I suppose I ought to be happy enough. When I got back from Africa with all that stuff and sold it, I was worth nearly a hundred thousand pounds. But my mind's going, my boy. The doctor told me that, if I didn't leave the brandy alone, I should die of softening of the brain. But I can't, old chap, I can't! I'm a lonely man, and I sit at home and dream. And when I dream, I must drink. I can't go back to my own people. They are rich and respectable, and only yesterday my own sister cut me in the street. They would be glad to know that I was dead, and they'll have their wish before long, And, you know, though it gave me a fearful turn when I saw you to-night, sitting at this table like a man come back from the dead, I was glad to have a chance to talk to you. And I don't care much what Mombassa told you—I don't care much about anything. But this is something like the truth. We got wind of what those niggers were after, we knew they were going to attack us that night, and we knew that the Arabs had bribed our boys and armed them against us. So they sent me up from the camp to the place on the river where the ivory and the rest of the stuff was waiting in the canoes, and I was to bring the lot down to the camp. As a matter of fact, most of the valuables had been stored on the raft, which we were going to float down the river to the fort. You remember the spot? There's a fork in the stream just above Comba, and here the river divides, and joins again about a mile lower down. There isn't a faster-running drop of water in Africa. You know it?"
Heather nodded. He knew that atmosphere well; he could feel the pressure of it on his shoulders like a thick grey blanket, stifling his breath and taking all the elasticity out of his limbs.
"Of course I know it," he said. "I can smell the odour of those infernal crushed marigolds even now. But go on."
"I emptied the canoe off the raft and shoved it down into the stream. And then, somehow, in the darkness and the confusion—put it down to my own state of funk, if you like—I took the wrong bend in the stream where it forked, and when I got opposite the camp, on a little island, instead of being close to my pals, as I had expected, and where they would have had a chance to join me, I found myself on the other side of the eyot, quite four hundred yards away from the others, and I give you my word of honour that I never realised what had happened till I discovered my mistake. But I couldn't have gone back if I would. No man born of woman could have hauled the raft back up against the stream."
Heather nodded, and the other man went on.
"Of course, I had to go forward. I managed to stay the course of the raft for a minute or two, and look through the bushes towards the camp. Then a fire blazed out from somewhere, and everything became as light as day. I saw the camp rushed by our boys and some of the Arabs. I saw Brass shot through the heart, and Crossley cut to pieces. And I don't hold myself guilty in the least. Not that it much matters now, anyway. When I got down to your little dug-out, I found nothing but what I told you, and after that I set off down stream, and reached the fort about daylight. And—and that's all. What do you think of it?"
"A, very plausible story," Heather said coldly. "The phrase is not original; it is occasionally used by a judge after he has listened to a prisoner giving evidence on his owm behalf. I repeat, a very plausible story."
"You don't believe a word of it?" Wilberforce asked.
"Only a few details. No doubt you meant well enough at first, but you don't ask me to believe that a man who knew every inch of the ground as well as you did took the wrong fork in the river? You didn't. You got away with the spoil, and your pals lost their lives. No, it doesn't matter in the least how the man you call Chambers got away. It's not a pleasant story, Mr. Wilberforce, and it isn't a pleasant object who is telling it, as you would admit if you could see yourself in the looking-glass. Still, it isn't for me to judge you. Now, have you done anything to make amends? I suppose you knew something about your friends?"
"About as much, as I wanted to know"—Wilberforce laughed harshly—"and they knew much the same about me. I knew they had both been in trouble in this country, and that Brass and Crossley were assumed names. They were under the impression that mine was, too, and we let it go at that. Curiosity out yonder is not the sort of weakness people are given to. So there was nothing for it but to come back home and settle down to a life of pleasure. Pleasure! Good Heavens! And all I can do is that." He touched his liqueur glass again and smiled bitterly. "I come here every night and dine in solitary state, and afterwards I go to bed and sleep as best I can. And some night I shall die in my sleep, so the doctor tells me. I ought not to touch a drop of alcohol—it's fair poison to me. But I can't let it alone. And until I met you to-night I have never had a chance. Of course, you are entitled to half that money, and you can have it to-morrow with pleasure. Would you like to come round to my rooms now and talk it over? What do you say?"
"I'll have a look at that photograph, at any rate," Heather said. "And as to the rest, I have got a little confession to make to you."
Wilberforce rose with a sigh of relief.
"Not now," he said. "Not here. Waiter, order me a taxi at once. Come along. Chambers, or Heatger, as you like to call yourself. It's all the same to me."
Ten minutes later Heather was seated in a luxuriously appointed dining-room in Carlisle Mansions, with the photo by Lesterre in his hand. Beyond doubt it was the same that he and Kitty had had taken before he had gone out on that last job to West Africa three years ago. He waved Wilberforce's cigarettes and whisky and soda on one side.
"Presently," he said. "Now, listen to me, Mr. Wilberforce. That is my photograph all right, and also that of the lady whom I am engaged to. It was taken by Lesterre when we were first engaged, on the eve of my departure for Africa. There were about two dozen done altogether, and I suppose I must have given away quite half of them to various friends. And I have friends in my line all over the world. But how that photograph found its way into the hut you speak of, I have not the remotest idea. It is one of the things that no one can understand. Not that it matters."
"You left it in the hut yourself, of course. Could any explanation possibly be easier?"
"I didn't, because I was never there. I told you my name was Heather, and it always has been. I am not Chambers—I don't know anything about him. When you met me to-night, you jumped to the conclusion that I was Chambers because you recognised me from the photograph. Well, I'm not. I know the locality you speak of, because business has taken me there—a vile hole I was only too glad to get out of—but I assure you that we have never met before to-night, I am not the man you take me for, and your confession has been merely wasted. No, stop a minute. I need not say that I shall respect your secret. I'll go away presently, and there's no reason why we should ever meet again."
"Don't say that," Wilberforce almost pleaded, "and don't despise me more than you can help. Heavens, if you only knew what a relief it has been to me to get that confession off my soul! Try and realise how lonely I am, and there is no place in the world where you can be so lonely as in London. And I swear to you. Heather, that you are wrong. I didn't deliberately betray those chaps. I had drunk my nerves into fiddlestrings, and, when the pinch came, I was no better than a white-livered coward, and that is why I more or less left the others to their fate. And they weren't worth saving, either. They were no better than myself. And you won't leave me? Look here, I gather you are up against it, I gather that you are going out to that infernal place again because you are in need of a job. Well, don't go. Stay here with me, and I will make it worth your while. As things go, I am a rich man, but I would sacrifice cheerfully every penny I have for a real friend. I'll lend you the money, if you like, or I'll give it to you, and you can purchase yourself a sound partnership at some engineering firm here at home. It won't be for long, because I am done for. A few weeks at the outside, and my troubles will be all ended. I have disregarded what the doctor told me; I drink and drink, and my heart is hopelessly gone. One of these nights I shall go to bed, and when they come to call me in the morning—"
Wilberforce waved his hand comprehensively. Beyond doubt he was an object of pity, a thing to be sorry for, despite all his enviable surroundings, and Heather found himself more moved towards him than he cared to confess.
"Ah, well," Wilberforce went on, "I won't press you any further. But if you could come and see me now and then, I should be more than grateful. And I must do something with that money. I want someone to have it who will make better use of it than I have done. Do you know what I was going to do—what I had done, practically? I was going to leave everything to the girl in that photograph. For a year that photograph has been on my desk, and gradually I have fallen in love with the girl in it. You have no idea what a companion she has been to me. Of course, you will say I am talking hysterical nonsense, but this is the first time in two years that I have confided in a soul. Now, I am a dying man. I am going to the sea to-morrow, to stay a spell in a home. I know perfectly well that I shall never come back. It's too late, my boy. If I had met a man like you a year ago, perhaps But why go on? Will you do me a little favour? Will you tell that young lady my story, and bring her round here to see me when I come back, if ever I do come back? She won't want any persuading. A girl with a face like hers would never hesitate to give a kind word or a helping hand even to the most degraded wretch who ever found himself in the gutter. Now, will you do this for me?"
"I will," Heather said impulsively. "I have heard some strange stories in my time, and I have mixed with some strange people, but I have never had so remarkable an experience as this, and, though it may not sound common-sense, I believe what you say. I believe you are telling me the truth. I believe this all the more because I know what that awful climate and what the stuff men drink out there can bring the best of chaps to in time. I am not going to preach, Wilberforce. And—well, you go off to the seaside, as you have arranged, and in a week or so I'll come down and see you. And I promise you that I'll bring Miss Vaughan along; I know she'll be interested in your story. And it may not be too late yet if you will only try and hold yourself in hand. You are a rich man, and, from what I gather, it is not impossible for you to discover anyone who is entitled to a share of that money. Don't be down-hearted. With any luck, there should be many years of usefulness before you yet. Now, give me the address where you are going to, and leave the rest to me."
"You are a good fellow, Heather," Wilberforce said unsteadily. "Now, if you will, in return, give me Miss Vaughan's address, I won't bother you any more to-night."
For some time after Heather had gone Wilberforce sat down to his desk and was busy writing. Then he rose with a sigh of weariness and satisfaction, and glanced hesitatingly in the direction of the spirit stand. It was only for a moment that he hesitated, then he poured himself out half a tumbler of neat spirit and drank it greedily.
"Why not?" he muttered. "It can make no difference now—nothing can make any difference now—and perhaps—nay, certain— it is all for the best."
* * * * *
Heather and his companion alighted at Southbourne, and made their way through the broad, leafy streets in the direction of Cliff House. There was a sparkle of expectation in Kitty Vaughan's blue eyes and a tender smile upon those sensitive lips of hers, for she and Heather had been discussing Wilberforce on the way down, and Kitty's heart was full to overflowing with the pity she was feeling for the lonely man who was so eagerly awaiting their arrival. She was not thinking of herself or Heather just then, she had forgotten that before long George would be on his way to West Africa again, and that the waiting years lay before her once more. That was not Kitty's way when others were in trouble.
A neat servant-man threw open the door of the pleasant house standing in the gardens back from the cliff, and his face was solemn as he read the card that Heather handed to him.
"Doctor Westcott will be very pleased to see you, sir," he said. "I believe he was going to write to you. Mr. Wilberforce? I am very sorry to tell you, sir, that Mr. Wilberforce is dead. He died in his sleep last night. We found some papers by the side of his bed which were addressed to you. I think one of them was the gentleman's will, which the doctor and myself witnessed a day or two ago. But perhaps you and the lady had better come inside, sir. Yes, it was quite a peaceful death."
THE individual known from Great Barrier Reef to the New Hebrides, and from Trobiand to the Three Kings as "Buck 'o the Islands" lounged on the deck of the yacht Nevermore discoursing learnedly upon the beauty of Aristophanes, one of whose plays lay on his immaculate knee. Over against him in another deck-chair sat Hilary Drake, known through the islands as "Pintail," listening good-naturedly to what he did not understand. But then Drake always was a good-natured man, a man of qualities and quantities, especially the latter, and perhaps the best-tempered pirate in the whole of the Coral Seas. He was by way of being the right-hand man of Jim Lovelace—" Buck o' the Islands" aforesaid—Chief of Staff, High Commissioner—in fact, a sort of Pooh Bah to the expeditionary force which had its headquarters on board the Nevermore.
To put it quite frankly, from the point of view of effete Western civilisation, the owner and crew of the Nevermore were pirates, and the Nevermore had been nosing about in those golden seas for the last few weeks, seeking for adventure, and it seemed to Lovelace as if he had found it. They were really lying up now on the lee of Discovery Island, waiting for events. They had passed, late in the afternoon, between two pillars of basaltic rock into the lagoon beyond, and lay there in the sweltering heat on a sheet of water as smooth and flawless as a mirror. There was no beach there, nothing but the volcanic rampart, some sixty feet in height, sheer at the edge as if it had been cut by a knife, except for one flight of steps leading up to the island—a flight of steps that could have been defended by one man against a ship's crew, and this Lovelace did not fail to notice. Above the terrace of shining rock were the cocoanut palms, and beyond that the jewel beauties of Discovery Island, flashing and glittering like some great gem flung down there on the bosom of the South Pacific. The lagoon itself, with its trending shore, was not less than gifteen miles in diameter, and a land-locked harbour large enough to hold the fleets of the world. And it was this rampart that Lovelace and his crew were going to storm presently, if the god of battle smiled on their side.
Lovelace jerked a finger over his left shoulder towards three boats that lay in the west of the lagoon.
"There they are," he said. "The Yankee and the Spaniard and tbe Chinaman are all there, waiting for their prey. They will land at dusk. Nobody lands here in the daylight, because Hellmer only knows the way up the cliffs, and no white man has ever been along those cliffs in daylight. I wormed that out of Lin Chin. They are landed in boats after dusk, and taken up to Hellmer's bungalow, where they are filled up to the chin with 'square-face,' after which the auction begins. But no one stays the night. The business is knocked off in an hour or so, and those chaps are escorted back to their boats by a dozen or so of specially-selected Kanakas armed with Lee-Enfields. Oh, Hellmer is pretty thorough, like all the rest of his accursed race."
"What's the game?" Drake asked.
"Well, at present I haven't any plans," Lovelace confessed. "Here, take these glasses and see if you can spot any place all round the lagoon where it is possible to land."
Drake took the powerful Goetz binoculars and carefully swept the ten miles or so of sheer basalt that fringed the blue waters of the lagoon. But that keen eye of his could make out no sign of a break anywhere. So the two men sat there on deck till the darkness began to fall, and they were still debating the knotty point as the graceful lines of the yacht faded into the gloom, and night shot down upon them like a violet blanket. In the stillness they could bear the sound of oars as the boats put out from the three other craft lying there on the face of the lagoon. Precious time was passing, and as yet nothing had been done. Then Lovelace, who had ears like a hare, lifted his head suddenly and held up a warning finger.
"Do you hear anything?" he whispered. "Call for lights and keep the deck clear. Unless I am mistaken, somebody is swimming out to us from the shore."
The ship's lantern was placed on the deck by the side of the big chairs, and the two men sitting round it waited. Then in the gloom something seemed to move up the ladder, and a shadowy outline came towards the light.
As the figure emerged into the yellow circle, a quick exclamation broke from Lovelace as he rose to his feet. Accustomed as he was to quick, dramatic surprises, here was one that shook him for a moment out of his studied calm.
"Good Heavens," he exclaimed, "it's a woman—an European woman, and a beautiful one at that!"
She stood there panting for a moment in the circle of light, a slim, graceful figure, golden brown as to her limbs and black as to the hair that streamed over her shoulders. She wore a simple bathing-dress of some black material, cut low in the neck and high above the knees. She was exceedingly fair to look upon, absolutely self-possessed, with the free manner of the Southern Sea, and yet with that daintiness and charm that marks birth and refinement all the world over. She was utterly devoid of self-consciousness, too, with a suggestion of one who passes a deal of her time in the water. Indeed, she could not have swum less than six miles, and that in a sea which is not free from the wandering shark.
"I am sorry to alarm you," she said, speaking in slightly broken English with a French accent, "but I saw your boat, or I should say your yacht, and, behold, I knew you were different to the men who come here. So, when it got dark, I made up my mind to swim out and ask you to help me."
"It will be a distinct pleasure," Lovelace said. "Here, Drake, go and get a wrap from somewhere."
"I will take no harm on a hot night like this," the girl said, with a charming smile. "Half my time I live in the water. It is, alas, the only place that is left to me. But surely I am speaking to Mr. Lovelace."
"The same, at your service," the bewildered Lovelace responded. "I am desolate—I am ashamed to say that—"
"That you have forgotten me, is it not? The last time I saw you I was staying with the Treehawks. Lady Treehawk was at school with me in Paris, and before I came back here she asked me to visit her. Now do you remember?"
"Oh, it's all coming back to me now," Lovelace lied politely. "I have forgotten your name,"
A charming little smile rippled on the girl's cheek.
"Yes, I see you have," she said demurely. "I am Vivette Lesterre, the daughter of Antoine Lesterre of this island."
"Indeed!" Lovelace exclaimed. "But I thought—What about the German, Hellmer. Isn't he—"
"He was my father's overseer. Eighteen months ago he murdered my father, and I have been kept a prisoner on this island ever since. Would it fatigue you if I told you the story?"
It was all coming back to Lovelace now. He began to remember the story of the little French beauty whom he had met just before the bottom fell out of his universe, and what Lady Treehawk had told him about her. She was the daughter of a brilliant French statesman, who had in some way entangled himself in a financial scandal, and had subsequently disappeared, to be heard of fitfully from time to time as a central figure in a romantic story set in the Coral Seas. He had apparently done well there, and had subsequently sent his only daughter home to Paris to be educated. It had all been nebulous enough at the time, but it was crystal clear now, on the deck of the Nevermore, in the violet darkness under the Southern Cross. And as Lovelace listened, his face softened strangely, though his lips were grimly set and there was a fighting light in his eyes.
"This must be looked to, Drake," he said. "Now, my dear young lady, I think you can trust me. I take it that you have some secret means of reaching the beach which is unknown to the genial pirate who governs Discovery Island?"
"Oh, yes," Vivette said eagerly. "There are many things that Hellmer does not know. Our bungalow he has taken for himself, and I have a tiny place some two miles away, where I am left entirely to myself, with one or two of my faithful natives. Hellmer does not trouble me. His one object is money, and when he has made enough he will probably go back to his Fatherland and leave the island to me. There is a way down to the beach from the brush at the back of my bungalow—a secret passage through the volcanic rock—that is known only to me and the Kanakas whom I can trust. And if you will follow me presently, I will show you the way, but not till I have prepared my people for your coming. Then away to the right yonder, in a line with the high peak, you will see a light. Pull for that light, and I will await you there."
With which the girl rose to her feet and strode across the deck of the Nevermore in the direction of the ladder. She laughed to scorn the idea that she would come to any harm as she let herself down the side of the yacht and dropped quietly into the smooth, warm water.
"Well," Lovelace said, "this looks like being some adventure. We are going to be the squire of dames. Now let's go below and tell the boys all about it."
It was just over an hour later that a boat put off from the Nevermore in the direction of a tiny light that gleamed from the foot of the cliff some four miles away. In the boat were Lovelace and Drake and one Captain Blossom, the latter a thick-set Englishman, with a chest like Hercules and the bull-dog strength of an international Rugger player, which, indeed, he had been in the past, though not known to his contemporaries by the name of Blossom. There were four other men in the boat, equally reckless and equally prepared to do anything in the way of a fight that came along. They pulled silently in the direction of the light, and beached their boat presently on the tiny spit of white sand where Vivette was awaiting them. In the background were one or two dusky shadows, evidently the friendly Kanakas whom the girl had mentioned. Then one by one they faded away in the darkness along a tiny cleft in the basalt rock that led upwards by rude steps to the cliffs beyond, and here Lovelace's fair guide halted.
"The hut is just over there," she explained. "I think I will wait till you return. Two of my boys shall guide you in the direction of the bungalow, and show you where Hellmer has placed his sentries."
"Oh, that's all right," said Lovelace cheerfully. "In an hour we shall be back here with your fortune. And then, perhaps, you may honour me with being my guest on the yacht, so that I can pilot you back between the New Hebrides, and in a day or two pick up the steamer which will take you to New Zealand. Am I impertinent, or would you mind telling me where you would go, once you find yourself back in England again?"
"To Lord and Lady Treehawk," the girl said. "I think I could trust him, don't you, Mr. Lovelace?"
"I should think so. If there is an honest man in the world—and in that respect I am on all fours with the late lamented Mr. Diogenes—then I should say that man is Jack Treehawk. By all means go back to him and tell him what has happened. Tell him anything so long as you keep my name out of it, and the names of my friends on the Nevermore.
They plunged on presently, with the Kanaka leading in the direction of the bungalow that they could see through the palms, one blaze of electric light. Then Lovelace, with his faithful band of followers behind him, stepped noiselessly on to the verandah and looked through the open windows into the dining-room beyond. There were only four men, all told, sitting in that luxurious apartment, with Hellmer, big and bloated and glistening in his thin vest and unstarched trousers, sprawling at the head of the long table, with Pardon, the Yankee skipper, Doggone, the Spaniard, and Lin Chin, the Chinaman, big and sturdy, yellow as a guinea, and wrinkled like the skin of a melon. On the table was a choice assortment of bottles of all sorts, and it was evident, from the noise and laughter that was going on, that the pearl dealers had been drinking heavily.
Upon this noisy, rowdy, blasphemous group Lovelace descended, bland, smiling, and immaculate, a monocle glistening in his eye, and his spotless white dandy clothes in fine contrast to the dingy garments of the rest.
"Salaam, sahibs," Lovelace said coolly. "I trust my presence is no intrusion."
Hellmer lifted his huge bulk and swore floridly,
"Buck o' the Islands!" he grunted. "Now, what in thunder are you doing here? This ain't no safe place for strangers, and so I tell you."
As the German spoke, he reached over in the direction of an electric bell on the wall. Lovelace put up his hand.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said quietly. "I am not armed myself, but there are others behind me in the darkness who are more fortunate. And if you want your sentries, then I tell you frankly they are otherwise engaged. Come, Herr Hellmer, there is no occasion to quarrel. I also have a fancy to do a little dabbling in pearls, and I think my financial credit is at least equal to that of the gentlemen I see around me. Won't you sit down?"
The question was almost a threat, and Hellmer, with an uneasy laugh, dropped into his chair again.
"Oh, all right," he muttered. "And if you like to bid for some of the pearls on yonder table—well, it is not for me to complain."
Lovelace's quick eye noted approvingly the mass of pearls laid out in glistening profusion on wash-leather bags lying on a little table. In any open market they would have realised at least a hundred thousand pounds, and one of them—three magnificent pearls fused together in the rough form of a cross—might easily have fetched a quarter that sum; and as Lovelace's eye fell upon it, his lips tightened and his brows gathered into an ominous frown.
"When are we going to begin?" he asked.
"Now," the German snapped. "We will take the first lot. Mr. Lin Chin, 2hat do you say?"
The Chinaman opened modestly, and by quick bids five thousand dollars was reached. Then the Spaniard bid another hundred, and Pardon, the American, capped it with fifty. But with every lot, as it came along, and with every bid, Lovelace went one better, until practically the whole of the glittering objects on the table had become his property at a price that staggered the local ring. They were not accustomed to do business with a man like this, and if looks could have killed the immaculate figure in the white ducks, he would have dropped dead at their feet. They were whispering ominously amongst themselves, and presently Lovelace noticed that a couple of revolvers lay on the table. It was the American who spoke first.
"I guess we're going to have no more of this," he said. "Say, stranger, what's the game? We haven't been running this show all these years to be bluffed by a guy like you. You are cramping the market. Clear whilst the going's healthy!"
Lovelace waved the suggestion aside pleasantly.
"I think not," he said. "Fact is, we're only just beginning. And I guess my money's as good as yours, though Mr. Hellmer will have to take my cheque."
"Nothing of the sort," the German growled. "Cheques don't go in Discovery Island. If you can't put down the dollars, then it's no deal."
"Nevertheless, you'll take my cheque," Lovelace said quietly. "Any other man in the islands would, as you know very well."
"Put up the big lot, Mr. Hellmer," the Chinaman said persuasively. "It was him what I come for. I'll offer you ten thousand dollee for um on the spot."
"I am going to have it for less than that," Lovelace said crisply—"in fact, I'm going to have it for nothing. That cluster of pearls belongs to me, and don't you forget it. Here, look at this, Mr. Hellmer. It's a photograph—a photograph of that cluster of pearls taken eighteen months ago by the late Antoine Lesterre, and shown to me by him on Loyalty Island. He'd only just found it, and because he wanted to buy a new steamer in a hurry, and hadn't the ready money on him, I advanced him ten thousand dollars on that pearl, and I've got his receipt for it in my pocket at this moment. If any of you blackguards like to see it, here it is."
The little group round the long table shuffled uneasily. They knew bluff when they saw it, but there was no bluff here, as every one of those hardened ruffians knew only too well. Hellmer boiled over, furious and foaming.
"You lie, you dog, you lie!" he hissed. "If that is so, why was the pearl not delivered to you?"
"It would have been if you hadn't murdered the owner in cold blood," Lovelace said coolly. "You came here broke and penniless, hunted from one island to another, hated and feared by every fellow-scoundrel in the Coral Seas, and Antoine Lesterre gave you a roof and work to do. And when the time came, you collected those half dozen ruffians of yours from New Caledonia, and shot your benefactor down as he sat at the table where you are sitting now. You can't deny it, and, even if you did, my proofs are beyond question. And now you know. All those pearls there belong to me—every one of them. Not that I am going to keep them—I shall merely hold them in trust for the daughter of the man whom you treated so vilely, the girl who has so long been a prisoner on this island. I am sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen, but disappointment is the common lot of all of us, and, besides, I have behind me an argument which you will appreciate, the only argument that goes in the Coral Seas—the logic of force. And now, you cold-blooded murderer, what are you going to do? What have you got to say?"
The big German was saying nothing. His great, bloated face wet and ghastly, and his huge limbs trembling with fear, he rose to his feet and backed steadily away from the table in the direction of the desk that stood in the angle of the wall. Just for a moment Lovelace could not quite comprehend what was going on, till he saw the German turn with a swiftness almost incredible for one of his bulk, and a second later the Englishman had a vision of the blue rim of a revolver in the direct line of his head. It had all happened as quickly as a flash of lightning, but out there in the velvet darkness someone, looking into the blazing room, had been quicker still. Before the German could crook his finger iu the trigger, there was a little whiplike crack and a tiny spit of flame from the gloom, and the big German collapsed like some great empty sack on the floor. He lay there quite dead, with a neat little blue mark plumb in the centre of his great beetling forehead.
The three men sitting round the table stirred uneasily, but none of them moved. It was up to them to take no hand in the game, and as the American muttered in his beard, "it was no funeral of his." The German had been fool enough to try force in the face of a superior foe, and he had paid the penalty accordmg to the unwritten law of the island. It was the inevitable end of all of them, the one sure thing they had to look forward to, and in all probability they were safe enough if they played the game according to the recognised formula. It was the American who spoke first.
"Waal, I guess he asked for that, Mr. Lovelace," he said. "It was bound to come sooner or later, and, anyways, it was a neat shot. If you'll kindly untie one of them guards, I guess I'll be getting back to my boat."
There was nothing more to be said or done, there was no further comment on what was, after all, the commonplace of the islands. Lovelace called his men in and gave them the necessary instructions. And then, as if he had been no better than a dead dog, three of the boat's crew picked up the carrion lying on the floor and took it out and buried it. Lovelace gathered up the pearls from the table and shovelled them carelessly into his pocket. Then he turned the lights out in the bungalow, and, with a friendly Kanaka to guide them, made his way back in the direction of the hut where Vivette was awaiting him.
"We have been quite successful," he explained, "and all that remains to you is now in my pocket. You will be troubled no more with Hellmer. He tried treacherously to shoot me, but one of my crew was a bit too previous for him. We buried him half an hour ago. And now, my dear young lady, if you are quite ready, we will get back to the Nevermore."
The golden days went on for a week or more, as the Nevermore swam in an azure sea through the New Hebrides in the direction of Loyalty Island. And day by day, until the mail steamer was sighted, Lovelace sat on deck talking to his fair companion, who listened as Desdemona listened to Othello, oft-times with grateful tears in her eyes. And then at length, when the steamer had been sighted, and Vivette's belongings had been put on board, she stood by the ladder with her hand in Lovelace's for the last time.
"I can never thank you," she said. "Ah, what a friend you have been to me! When I think that I am leaving the Nevermore for ever, and that I shall not see you again, I could sit down and cry my heart out!"
"Dear lady," Lovelace said, as he stood by the side with his hat in his hand, "dear lady, no woman has ever shed tears for me. And, besides, it is no very far cry to London."
"I regard that as a promise," the girl said, with shining eyes. "Not to-morrow, perhaps, but some day."
"He'll keep it," Drake chuckled. "He never broke a promise to a woman yet."
THE island of Bavia lay fused like some rare pearl in the heart of the golden Java Sea, that stretched away to the trembling horizon, with Ketapang looming out of it like a broken harp. Sea and sky blended together in a golden mist that lay light as thistledown upon an ocean of pathless blue, and everywhere was a suggestion of that golden land where it is always afternoon. And, looking down upon it from the back of the sloping beach, where the great tree-ferns trembled overhead, a man and a woman sat, as they had been sitting the last hour or more. He was young and lean and brown, with the sanguine eyes of youth that is ever seeking something, and not discouraged because so far he has not found it. And the girl by his side was small and dark and exquisitely made, a sort of Spanish Venus, in fact, with the dreamy sleepiness in her eyes that she inherited, perhaps, from some Velasquez ancestress. She was plainly dressed enough, in a linen skirt and jacket, and her luxuriant mass of dusky hair was innocent of any covering; her feet were bare, too, and the skirt of her dress came only a little below her knees, for she and her companion had been paddling in the lagoon at their feet in search of rare anemones, and, anyhow, it was Inez Barrington's mood never to wear shoes if it could possibly be avoided. She was at heart a creature of the fields and the woods, but there was breeding and pride of race in every line of her. She could speak freely enough, if she liked, of those Spanish ancestors of hers, and time had been when she had known the restrictions of school life in San Francisco; but that was before she had come out there to look after her father's house and keep that dreamy widower under some sort of affectionate subjection.
All that had happened five years ago, and in that time she had seen John Barrington's more or less prosperous tobacco plantation drifting into decay, and the army of workers driven away, one by one, till not more than half a dozen of them remained. She had been long enough there to see the hacienda become little better than a creeper-clad ruin, picturesque enough, no doubt, behind its luxurious blaze of blossoms, and still comfortable in a Bohemian sort of way. For, sooth to say, John Barrington was a dreamer and a visionary, and ever a seeker after the will-o'-the-wisp.
The two sitting there, looking out over the lagoon, had been discussing the shiftless Barrington, and, incidentally, the girl's future. There was just a tiny cloud now in those glorious dark eyes of hers, and a droop of the proud scarlet lips.
"Oh, this is a paradise, all right," Frank Preston said—"a paradise where I should be quite prepared to linger on, but for thought of the future. You know, we are all alike, Miss Barrington—all of us ever grasping for the phantom fortune and ignoring the chances that lie at our feet. I am the last man in the world to reproach your father."
The girl laughed gently and turned those velvety eyes upon Preston's face for a moment. There was something in that glance that stirred his heart just a little.
"I know," she said simply, "and sometimes I have meant to speak to you about it. Do you know, I never quite understood why you came here at all, and, for some reason, I have always regarded you as a man of independent fortune."
"Haven't a cent," Preston said lazily. "I am a sort of object-lesson, a kind of idle apprentice. For ten years I have been floating about the world, seeking my fortune, but not very strenuously, I must own. I drifted here through Burma and Siam, looking for the Dawnstar."
"So I have heard you say before," Inez smiled. "Mr. Preston, what precisely is the Dawnstar?"
"I am not altogether sure that such a thing exists," Preston explained. "It's a sort of religion, I believe, like the famous gold mines in the Yukon, or the fabulous diamond that someone is always going to find in South Africa. They talked of it in Siam, under a different name, and they whisper of it in Borneo. It's like those pearls your father is always talking about—the pearls that he firmly believes lie at the bottom of the lagoon at our feet."
"But his late partner found them," Inez said.
"Blind luck," Preston replied—"absolutely blind luck. There! Now listen to me. What right have I to blame your father because he has wasted his life trying to find pearls that don't exist, when I am doing exactly the same thing with regard to the Dawnstar? In our heart of hearts, neither of us believes that there are either pearls or Dawnstars."
"And yet my father's late partner found the pearls here," Inez said. "Not that I believe there are any left. But tell me— what is the Dawnstar?"
"Well, it's a fabulous orchid. Wherever I go in this archipelago, I can always find some superstitious native who has heard of it, or who has heard of somebody who has seen it. No doubt there is some basis to the legend, and I have been fool enough to spend the best part of a year in these parts trying to verify it."
There was a good deal of truth in what Preston said, but it was not the whole truth. He would never have stayed there so long, with the wanderer's virus in his veins, had it not been that he had given his heart to Inez Barrington, and that he was lingering there awaiting events. He perfectly understood how near the dreamy Englishman was to the verge of ruin, and how near he stood on the edge of the grave, and what would become of Inez afterwards was a problem that troubled Preston a great deal more than his search after the elusive Dawnstar. He had come there to investigate the legend, but it seemed to him that he had found something much more precious instead. And gradually his whole mind had become absorbed in Inez's future. He had been there for months, staying in the ruined old hacienda, seeing Inez day by day, studying all the beauties of that open mind of hers, and vainly regretting all his lost opportunities. There were the nights, of course, when he went out looking for the visionary Dawnstar, that was supposed to bloom only in the early hours between dusk and dawn; but so far he had not found it.
He smiled with an air of superior wisdom when he saw Barrington wasting his time and neglecting his property over the brooding hours he spent on the lagoon in search of those mystic pearls, and occasionally he was conscious of a certain contempt for his own weakness. And day by day he could see that the dread consumption that was sapping Barrington's life was advancing nearer and nearer, and the problem of Inez's future troubled him more and more.
"Let us be practical for once," Inez said. "What real good would the Dawnstar do for you if you found it?"
"Well, it would make my fortune, for one thing," Preston said. "It might be worth anything up to a hundred thousand pounds. There are men in England who tbink nothing of paying twenty thousand pounds for a new orchid. If I could get a few Dawnstars and distribute them judiciously, I should be a rich man. And, mind you, the thing actually does exist, because an Indian raja had one. It was destroyed by fire, but the thing undoubtedly was there, because a German collector I once met actually saw it. A lovely thing, Inez. Picture to yourself a plant that blooms in the early dawn or by artificial light, a plant that grows on slender threads no thicker than a cobweb, but strong enough to carry a cloud of blooms that resemble a collection of tropical butterflies. Twenty different blends of gorgeous colouring on one plant, and every separate bloom distinct. It rises in the primrose dusk from a handful of flat leaves, much as the Rose of Sharon blooms before it drops back into nothingness and leaves behind it what appear to be a few dusty, dead leaves. I believe it is an epiphyte—that is, a tree parasite—in other words, it clings to a dead stump. Or possibly it is a tuber. But I don't know. I am only telling you what I have been told. We might even be sitting on it at the present moment. You may laugh at me, if you like, but I believe it is here somewhere, and, if it is, I am going to find it. I wonder if your father has heard of the thing?"
"I think it is exceedingly probable," Inez smiled. "He has never mentioned it, but then he knows I have not much sympathy with those dreams of his. He is full of all sorts of stories of that kind—pearls in the lagoon, buried treasure, and all that sort of thing. I am perfectly convinced that, if my father had lived in the time of Jason, he would have volunteered to go off in search of the Golden Fleece. We will ask him, if you like. I am sure he will be enthusiastic."
They turned their backs on the golden sea presently, and wandered through the tree-ferns to the verandah of the house, where, amongst the bowery blooms that hung like dazzling jewels, they found Barrington, with his coffee and cigarettes, awaiting them. He was a small, slender man, with an eye of a dreamer and the peculiar waxen complexion of one who is far gone in consumption. With his scientific knowledge, it was patent enough to Preston that the end was not far off. For a little time they sat there talking, before Inez introduced the subject of the Dawnstar. Barrington's eyes lighted eagerly as he listened. At the same time his smile was one of toleration for the weakness of another.
"I have heard something about it," he said. "Indeed, I am not so sure I haven't seen the thing. When I go down to the lagoon in the early morning, dredging for those big oysters, I seem to notice certain flowers that are not familiar to me; and, when I come back, they are no longer there. But it is only in one place—as you go down ^ the path by the spring where Inez grows some of those rare ferns she is so fond of. There used to be some trees at the back of the spring, and I believe that the stumps of them are there still. But it's no use asking me. You are only wasting your time, Preston. Now, if you will come with me some night down to the lagoon—"
The dreamer was mounted on his hobby now, and for some time he babbled more or less incoherently of the treasures that lay in the depths of the lagoon, if only it was possible to find them. He told his audience for the fiftieth time how his partner had accidentally come upon a strata of pearl-bearing oysters in the lagoon, where it had been possible to dredge them up, and how that aforesaid partner had returned to England with a fortune in his pocket. But he did not know, or he forgot to say, that for a year or two afterwards every idle native who could command a canoe and a dredge had raked the floor of the lagoon until there was not a single bivalve left. It was all very pathetic and a little ridiculous, but Preston, looking across at that beautiful face opposite him, could see nothing but the tragic side of the situation.
And it did not seem ridiculous to him, as he lay awake that night; to think that Barrington's story had been the means of stirring his own latent hopes. Surely the Dawnstar was there somewhere, if he could only find it. And, if he could, then his problem and the problem of Inez's future would be solved. If he could once come upon the track of the Dawnstar, he would be able to speak the words which had been trembling on his lips for months, and put his fortune to the test. Not that he was afraid of what the answer would be, for Inez's nature was too frank and free to leave him with any illusions on that score. But come what may, and poor as he was, he was not going to turn his back upon the island of Bavia until he knew what was going to happen with regard to the woman whom he loved.
As he lay on his bed, waiting for the dawn, his mind was troubled with many things. He had not been quite candid with Inez when he had spoken to her in that detached way about the Dawnstar. He had not told her, for instance, that the search for that elusive flower was almost as great an obsession with him as the treasures of the lagoon were with John Barrington. He had not told her that he had been following up a legend for years. He had tracked it in various ways and in various languages half through Asia and, by way of Siam, to the island of Borneo. He believed in its existence thoroughly, though he would have been ashamed to admit it. Indeed, a certain deceased German collector had actually seen it.
Therefore, in all the months that Preston had been on Bavia, he had been looking for the Dawnstar night after night. Ever since the first day that he had entered the hacienda and had become a member of that somewhat Bohemian household, he had been out before dawn in the swamps and round the lagoon, always looking for the Dawnstar. And yet he was deeply sorry for Barrington, whom he could not but regard as a fool and a visionary. He was the only man about the place who knew that Barrington spent half his nights in secret visits to the lagoon, where he was wearing out the little strength that remained to him in dredging up oyster shells, and, apparently, never tired of his pursuit. If Barrington had devoted a tithe of his time to his estate, he might by this time be a prosperous man. But the pathetic part of the tragedy lay in the fact that Barrington had no illusions on the matter of his health, and that he was doing all this in the forlorn hope of being able to leave a competence to his only child.
And this was going on night after night; it went on still for weeks after the day when Preston had told Inez the history of the Dawnstar. It went on till one early dawn when Preston was out on his eternal search, and hanging more or less disconsolately around the spring, at the back of the lagoon, from whence the house derived its water supply. It was still dark, with the first suggestion of pallid rose in a morning sky, as Preston wandered down towards the lagoon in the aimless fashion that had become habitual to him—the aimless fashion of a man who begins to despair of his object. As he sat there, with a half-made cigarette between his fingers, Barrington passed him so closely that he could actually have touched him. The elder man was carrying some appliance on his back, and then, as Preston looked at him, he saw that the other was walking in his sleep.
So it had come to that, Preston thought. Barrington was obviously worn out; his face was pale and drawn, and ever and again a hollow cough broke from him. It was bad for him to be out there in the dews of the early morning—fatally bad, no doubt—but he crept along down to his boat like a man in the last stages of exhaustion, a man whose will was evidently stronger than his body. He made his way slowly and laboriously into the middle of the lagoon, and from the bank Preston watched him for some time until suddenly he saw the dark figure collapse and crumble as if it had been an empty sack, and then there followed the sound of a faint splash.
Preston was on his feet in a moment. He plunged headlong into the lagoon and swam out to the floating figure. It was a strenuous fight, but he had Barrington on the sand at length, still breathing, so he gathered the shrunken figure in his arms and carried him towards the house like a child.
His mind was set now only on getting Barrington into bed, so that any thought of the Dawnstar was very far away just then. But as he was passing along the little hollow amongst the tree-ferns at the back of the spring, a solitary flower, all gold and azure, that seemed to be floating invisibly in the air, a foot or two from the ground, caught his attention and held him there for a moment absolutely motionless. Then he turned his face resolutely away and plodded on doggedly in the direction of the hacienda.
He would not think of it. He would not believe anything till he had the burden in his arms safe between a pair of blankets. It must have been some figment of imagination, some phantasm born of the early dawn.
So presently he laid Barrington on his bed and warmed him, and forced brandy between his lips until the sick man opened his eyes and feebly asked what had happened. Preston made him comprehend presently— indeed, told Barrington how he had been watched night by night, whilst the latter listened and nodded before he sat up and grasped Preston by the hand.
"Not a word of this to Inez," he whispered. "I am a fool, perhaps, but then I have always been a fool—ever grasping for the shadow and neglecting the substance. Did you ever know an Irishman who did anything else? But I shall find it—I shall find it before I have done—yes, long before you find that Dawnstar that you were telling me about the other night."
Preston smiled almost bitterly. He knew that hopeful outlook only too well. He crept away presently to his own room, and slept far into the morning. For the rest of the day he seemed rather to avoid Inez. He sat on the verandah in the evening, listening whilst she sang to him, and retired early to bed, but not to sleep. He tossed about from side to side till it seemed to him that the window frame in his bedroom began to stand out sharply against the darkness, and he arose and crept from the house like a thief, and made his way down to the spring. For a long time he sat there watching, as far as possible, the dusky area where he had seen that spirit blossom the night before. He watched until the ebony dusk turned to violet, and the tree-ferns behind him looked like gigantic feathers grotesquely painted on the sombre sky. He watched until his eyes began to ache and water stood in them. Then very slowly and gradually, like an amazing conjuring trick that he had witnessed in some Eastern bazaar, a faint intangible something—a collection of intangible somethings—began to materialise slowly and mysteriously against an opaque purple background.
They came one by one, darting here and there like spirits, intangible, floating in nebulous space, and yet arranged in a sort of symmetrical order, one above the other, like so many painted blooms indented by an unseen hand in a great vase. They were detached, and at the same time formed, part of some harmonious whole, as if a painter had placed them there without supports. And, as Preston watched, he stiffened with an excitement that seemed to paralyse his very breathing.
He could see the colours of the blooms by now—azure, purple, violet, pink, all the hues of the rainbow with their various blends and shades. There must have been five-and-twenty blooms at least, magnificent, glowing, full of life and beauty, and yet apparently living alone in the air. There must be a support somewhere, as Preston knew, but the stems were so fine and slender as to be absolutely invisible. They were flowers of Paradise, nothing less, a gleam of beauty and colouring surpassing naturalist's dreams.
Preston dragged himself to his feet and took from his pocket a tiny glow-lamp to which a small dry battery was attached. Still trembling from head to foot in his excitement and admiration, he examined his treasure carefully and with the critical eye of the expert. He could see now, by the aid of the lamp, that those black filaments binding the glorious bouquet together were as fine and yet as strong as the metal filaments in an electric lamp. And then, as the dawn suddenly broke like a violet bombshell from behind the morning mists over the lagoon, those amazing blooms collapsed like a soap bubble, and nothing was left but a handful of tight green leaves clinging to a log of wood about the size of a man's thigh. Preston knelt almost reverently and raised the rotting log in his arms. A few minutes later it was hidden away in a dark corner of his bedroom and covered with a damp cloth.
He had found it now, the search of years was finished, and the future lay plainly before him. Being a naturalist, he had seen quite enough to know that the plant he had secured was a large one, and that, in the hands of any wise horticulturist, the thing was capable of subdivision. It meant that, once he was safely home again, a fortune awaited him. And yet, even in that moment, he was conscious of the fact that he probably owed his amazing luck entirely to the other man, whose failure had brought about his own splendid chance.
He said nothing about his find for the moment, and all the more so because Barrington was still confined to his bed, and likely to remain there for a day or two. But when dinner was over, and night had fallen at length, Preston expressed a desire to have his coffee on the verandah, and there, in the dusk, with Inez by his side, told her what he had seen the night before.
"You quite understand what I mean," he said. "We must get your father away from here. If he doesn't go, he will die. He must go back to England; he must have a winter in Switzerland. If we could get him back to some bracing climate, he might live for years. As it is--"
"Oh, I know, I know!" Inez sighed. "But what can we do?"
"You must let me do it for you," Preston said. "You really must. Did it never occur to you how kind you have been to me? I have been here for a year. I came as a total stranger, and you took me at my own valuation. I shall never forget it, Inez. And I believe I can help you."
"You have found the Dawnstar?" Inez asked demurely.
By way of reply, Preston rose and, going to his room, returned presently with the log, which he laid carefully down on the verandah. Then he turned upon it the light of the glow-lamp, which gleamed in the darkness through a violet shade exactly like the rays of the early dawn.
"Watch!" he whispered. "Watch!"
Very gradually the mass of dusty leaves on the log began to expand until they turned over and showed their glossy undersides uppermost. Then a bloom appeared, followed by another and another a little higher up, until the whole glorious thing leaped into life, a creation of such beauty and tenderness and exquisite colouring that Inez cried aloud.
"It is wonderful," she said. "There was never anything like it since the beginning of the world. Tell me all about it, Frank. How did you find it, and where? I wonder if I might touch it, or would it fade away like a dream?"
Preston snapped off the light, and in a few moments the dusty leaves lay at his feet again. He carried the log into his room, and returned presently to the lighted dining-room, where Inez eagerly awaited him.
"You have seen it now, and must believe,"' he said. "Inez, you have seen our fortune and our happiness."
As he spoke he looked into the girl's shining eyes, and she came forward and threw an arm around his neck.
"You mean that, Frank?" she whispered. "And you know—oh, yes, I have been waiting to hear you say that for a long time. And you know it, too."
Preston drew her close and kissed her. "Yes," he said simply, "I did. But can't you see that I could not speak before? I had no right to speak. But now it is all different. Now I have found something that is infinitely more precious to me than all the Dawnstars that ever bloomed. Not that I am indifferent to it, either, because it means happiness and fortune to us, and, I hope, many years of life yet for your father, because he is going to share it, because without him there would never have been you, and without him there never would have been a Dawnstar to light us on our way."
GORDON HARLEY was thinking it over. He sat there alone outside the camp, on the high ground overlooking the fever-stricken valley, where that distinguished patriot Don Miguel del Carados was constructing the railway which was eventually to make the State of Tigua prominent amongst nations. But that was a long way off yet—as far off as was the civilisation that the soul of Gordon Harley coveted. Just at that moment—in fact, at any moment during the last month or two—he was fed up with the man who had lured him away from Western joys to this, the most beautiful and at the same time the most monotonous spot on the continent of South America.
And that fat and oily Spaniard had been so plausible about the whole thing, too. He had painted Tigua as a sporting paradise—just the very place for a man of means who was looking for things to kill; just the sort of thing for a man who had recently come into a lot of money, and who had turned his back joyfully on the medical profession, and who hoped never to handle a stethoscope or study the colour scheme of a human tongue again. This had all taken place one starry night in the patio of a Charlestown hotel, where Del Carados was taking in stores for his pet railway. And, besides, he wanted a doctor badly. There were fifteea hundred workmen of sorts on the railway, mostly natives, with a few Europeans gathered without testimonials from various quarters of the globe, and if there was one drawback to that earthly paradise in question, it was an occasional outbreak of malaria in the rainy season.
"You come, along with me, my friend," the Spaniard had said. "You come and stay just as long as you like—a week, a month. I will put you up, and you shall be my honoured guest. The valley is a sporting paradise."
And Harley, having nothing else to do, and in the first flush of his new fortune, had gladly consented. He had come there by sea, of course, and up a yellow river flowing through a swampy country to the valley where the few miles of rails were under construction. It was a tedious journey, and a somewhat intricate one, but Harley had not worried himself much about that at the time, for his mind was full of jaguars and crocodiles, and such wild game, and, indeed, for the time being, he had all the sport he needed.
And then gradually the truth began to dawn upon him. Those fifteen hundred or so of men who toiled and sweated in that mango swamp, where the miasma rose at evening, and the whole universe reeked with the smell of rotting vegetation, were no more than so many prisoners. They were well fed, it was true, they had strong things to drink and pungent tobacco to smoke, and, as to the few Europeans, they were perfectly happy in the knowledge that they were well outside the long arm of the law. But without money it was impossible to get away. Even if they had possessed the necessary funds, it would have been equally difficult, because nobody but Del Carados and one or two of his trusted Mexicans knew the secret of the way down the river, for the Rava had many tributaries, and all but one of them led to the mud swamps, which meant desolation and death and the feasting of the vultures that abounded there.
But all this had come to Harley gradually. There was nothing brutal about the Spaniard, nothing of the slave-driver, for he was inclined to be fat and scant of breath, and, moreover, possessed a fine fund of humour of his own. He was candid, too. The scheme was to complete the railway up there into the mountains, and bring the copper ore down to the coast to be smelted. Once this was down, then the copper proposition was placed on a paying basis. This represented considerable wealth to the little tin Repubhc of Tigua, and in time much kudos for Del Carados, who began to see his way to the presidency of that delectable Republic, For Del Carados was a politician more than a statesman, which comes to much the same thing, and is a better paying proposition in the long run. And Del Carados had no ambitions. He did not want statuea in his honour, he did not hanker to become permanent President of the Republic—six months' manipulation of the national treasury funds filled up the measure of his ambition. In fine, he was a cheery, fairly good-natured rascal, who loved but two things in the world—his own comfort and a particularly fiery brand of Scotch whisky which was known in violent circles as the Clan MacTavish.
It was impossible, therefore, for anyone to leave the valley of the Rava River and the work on the railway save at the Spaniard's good-will and pleasure. He was essentially monarch of all that he surveyed, and before very long, it became quite plain to Harley that he might, unless some extraordinary piece of luck came his way, regard his appointment as medical officer to the forces as a permanent one. In other words, he was as much a prisoner as the humblest labourer who wielded a pick or a spade.
So far, there had been no outbreak of hostilities between the two men, though they perfectly understood one another, and Del Carados would smile his most genial smile when Harley crept back into the camp after three days' absence, a mere mass of skin and bone. Despite his weakness, and the fact that he had been looking death in the face for the last twenty-four hours, he had spoken his mind quite freely to Del Carados as they sat in the latter's hacienda over the evening meal. A bottle of the Clan MacTavish stood hospitably on the table, but Harley had waved it aside contemptuously.
"Now, listen to me," he said. "I have had about enough of this. I came here for two or three weeks as your guest, and to do a bit of shooting, also to act generally as a doctor until you could get someone to replace me."
"I could never do that," the Spaniard said genially. There was a menace in his tone at the same time.
"Oh, that's what you mean, is it?" Harley said between his teeth. "Well, it's just as well we should understand one another. I am a prisoner here. You know I can't get away without your consent, and I suppose I can stay here and rot, for all you care. I am not concerned with your native workmen, because they are happy enough, and as to your European scum I hold no brief. But you're a blackguard, Del Carados, and you know it. If you have no sort of sympathy with me, you might, at any rate, send those Americans down to the coast."
"And do without my evening's entertainment," Del Carados said, with a pained expression. "They came here cheerfully enough. I found them at Charlestown, stranded high and dry, with not a dollar between them. And am I not paying them fifty dollars a week? What more would you have?"
"Well, you are promising them fifty dollars a week, but Mrs. Vansittart tells me that neither she nor her husband have ever seen the colour of your money. Send them off, at any rate."
Del Carados smiled as he rolled himself a fresh cigarette. The humour of the situation evidently appealed to him. The Americans in question were two vaudeville artistes who had found themselves stranded owing to the backsliding of a manager and the subsequent disappearance of the treasury. They had been literally starving in Charlestown when the genial Spaniard had found them, and were only too glad to avail themselves of his glowing offer, which, it must be confessed, had been painted in alluring colours by one who was an artist in words. They sang and danced and played the Spaniard's jangling piano for his amusement night after night, what time he sat listening, soaked in his beloved Clan MacTavish, and applauded with large-hearted generosity and fine discrimination. The engagement of these people had been a stroke of genius on Del Carados's part, and he was not anxious to see the last of them.
"No, no, my friend," he said. "They are quite happy here; they have been happy here for nearly a year. What more could they have? They are well paid and well fed, and they have only to amuse me for an hour or so after dinner. And look you, Senor Harley, don't you go too far. We have been good friends up to now, but—"
And so for the moment Harley gave it up as a bad job. He was sitting out there, in the afternoon, under the shade of a big palm tree, chewing the cud of sweet and bitter reflection. He was contrasting himself, in his soiled and ragged linen suit, with the happy man who had set out, a year ago, to see the world, rich in health and pocket. And here he was, just as much a prisoner as if he had been legally sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. And there was no escape; he had tried that once, and he had no stomach to repeat the operation, for the horrors of that eight-and-forty hours in the mango swamps, with the snakes and the mud and the dull speculation in the eyes of the crocodiles, was still upon him. It was no wonder, therefore, that Del Carados was prepared to take risks, for he was safe enough, and far beyond the reach of any pro-consul.
Harley took a photograph of himself from his pocket and gazed at it with the sentimental eye of one who regards the features of some beloved dead-and-gone departed.
"And so that's me!" he murmured. "Good Heavens, impossible!"
"I was just asking myself much the same question," a voice broke in, as a woman came down the slope and seated herself by Harley's side. "I don't think my friends in New York would recognise me, Mr. Harley."
It was the vaudeville artiste who called herself Muriel Vansittart who spoke. She was slight and pretty enough, light-hearted and vivacious in the ordinary way, but pale and thin now, though there was a certain gleam of courage in her eyes that Harley had learnt to admire.
"Yes, it's pretty rotten, isn't it?" he said. "But what can we do? Try and escape? I have had some, thank you. I prefer to stay where I am."
"Yes, I know," the woman said. "Bill and myself—that is, my husband, Vivian Vansittart—have had over a year of it. Mr. Harley, I am going out of my mind. I can't put up with this much longer. You don't know what it's like when the rainy season comes on. The weather breaks up suddenly, the glass drops about twenty degrees in five minutes, and half the camp is down with ague. They would have been all dead long before now if it wasn't for the quinine. Why, I've seen them swallow as much as would stand on a dollar! I haven't had it, and Bill hasn't had it, because we are both absolutely T.T. But it's dreadful, and I can't stand another rainy season here."
"Pretty close now, isn't it?" Harley asked.
"Yes, the rains may come at any time. Now, Mr. Harley, listen to me. I have got an idea. You're a doctor, and know all about drugs. You have the run of the store, and you do pretty well what you like. Oh, I have worked the whole thing out; I have been lying awake at night, thinking it over for a week. Now, supposing one of these early nights, when that fat old scoundrel is enjoying himself and is full of whisky, you drop a few grains of something soothing in his glass."
"What good would that do?" Harley. asked.
"Oh, I am coming to that presently. Now, I've been making inquiries, asking artless questions, and I have discovered that Del Carados has only got two cases of whisky left. In about a week he will be sending down to the coast for another supply."
"You mean we might try—"
"Oh, no, I don't mean anything of the kind," the actress said impatiently. "Now, whisper!"
For a minute or two Mrs. Vansittart murmured eagerly into Harley's sympathetic ear. Gradually a smile that was cousin to a grin creased his lean, brown features.
"Well; it's worth trying," he said at length. "It's risky, but Del Carados would do anything rather than go short of the Clan MacTavish. We'll try it the very first day that the weather shows signs of breaking up."
That night, as they say on the cinematograph picture screens, the thermometer dropped nearly a score of points, and for a space Harley was busy in handing out doses of quinine to the shivering natives who clamoured about his hut. Then he crossed over to the hacienda and dined more or less riotously with his genial host and the two American artistes. It was nearly midnight before the Clan MacTavish had got in its genial work, aided by a few drops from a bottle in Harley's drug store, and the Spaniard slept peacefully in his chair. A few moments later the carefully-guarded key of the storeroom was abstracted from his pocket, and for the next hour or two Harley and his companions were exceedingly busy. Then they went off to their respective quarters, hoping for the best.
It was well towards midday before the Spaniard burst into Harley's hut. He was wild and unshaven, untrussed as to his points, and generally bearing about him the unmistakable signs of what is graphically described as "the morning after the night before." The illuminating metaphor can go no further.
"What you've done?"he foamed. "You've robbed me, you've swindled me! You break into my storeroom, you steal all my Clan MacTavish, you evaporate every grain of quinine! Is it a joke? Because it is like to be expensive. You dog, you tell me where those go, or I shoot you!"
The Spaniard's careful English had disappeared in the stress of his emotion. He was truculent enough, but at the same time there was an imploring gleam in his eye that was not distasteful to his prisoner.
"Oh, so you've found out, have you?" he said coolly. "Well, now, listen to me. You can shoot me, if you like, you yellow dog, and you can murder that plucky little American woman and her husband, but it won't bring your whisky back again, and you can't live without it. You'll be dead in three days without your diurnal bottle of Clan MacTavish. And that's not the worst of it, my cheerful old sport. You let those peons know that you've run out of quinine just at the beginning of the rainy season, and they'll tear you in little bits. Now, take my advice and look at the thing in a rational light. You lured me here under false pretences, and made a prisoner of me, just as you did those two American artistes. You haven't the least intention that any of us shall see the coast again until this railway of yours is finished."
"You will never see the coast again!" the Spaniard hissed " You will all be shot in an hour!"
"Oh, I don't think so, dear old thing. You daren't do it. Just think of having to live without your beloved whisky for a whole fortnight! No more long amber-coloured drinks dashed with soda and cooled with chunks of ice, no more happy evenings when you are beautifully fuddled with that comfortable Charles Dickens sort of feeling under that big yellow waistcoat of yours! My dear chap, you really couldn't do it. Now, don't check that natural humour of yours, but try and recognise the funny side of the situation. No drinks and no quinine, and a big riot amongst the peons the first time the glass goes down! Look here, I'll make a bargain with you. I've worked the whole thing out, and it's just like this. You send us down the river this morning as far as the Great Mango Delta. Give us a canoe and some provisions and one of your paddlers to put us on the right way. When we get down to the delta, we shall be all right. Now, if you'll do that, I'll promise on my word of honour to send you back word where the quinine and whisky are to be found. If you like to refuse, and you think you can do without your beloved Clan MacTavish for a fortnight, and you don't mind running the risk of being torn to pieces by the peons, well and good. It's for you to say."
Del Carados swore and threatened, he wept and cursed, and called down the vengeance of all the saints in his calendar on Harley's head, but the latter merely smiled. Then the Spaniard went away with a final threat of instant dissolution, only to return in an hour or two, looking more haggard and dejected than before, and prepared to make terms. He came with the Americans, possibly in the shape of hostages, but they were both as determined as was Harley himself. And so another hour or two passed in fruitless negotiation, till lunch-time arrived, finding Harley still master of the situation.
"It's no use," he said. "We've had this over half a dozen times already. And my friends here are just as determined as I am. Now, sit down, like a sensible man and the born humorist that you are, and talk the matter over. Have some lunch; help yourself to some of that chicken."
"I could not eat a mouthful," Del Carados said, in hollow tones. "I have eaten nothing to-day. My mouth, he is parched, and my tongue, he is dry as a piece of leather. Now, come, my dear friend, this joke has been carried far enough. Tell me where that whisky is, and where you've hidden the quinine, and all shall be forgiven."
"It is forgiven now," Harley said drily. "Even your bitterest enemy would be sorry for you if he caught sight of that face of yours at the present moment. But it's no good, Del Carados. We can't die more than once. Neither can you, but your death promises to be a lingering one."
Del Carados collapsed into a chair and openly bewailed the day that he was born. He tore his hair, he lapsed into strange tongues in a vocabulary that suggested the past master in the art of profanity, but all to no avail,
"If I could do that," Vansittart drawled, "guess I could command a record salary in one of the New York theatres. Say, Don, what's your figure for a course of lessons?"
Del Carados sat up suddenly. There was a certain air of dignity about him now as he spoke.
"I am beaten," he said., "Other great men have been beaten before me, but few of them know how to recognise it. Ladies and gentlemen, you have got the best of the future President of the State of Tigua. Behold, I capitulate—it shall be just as you desire. But before I accompany you myself as far as the Great Mango Delta, in the name of Heaven, I implore yon to find me one little drink, a ghost of a one "
"Not a drop," Harley said firmly. "No, the sheen of Clan MacTavish shall not shine for you until you have earned it. Now go off and get everything ready."
It was barely an hour later before a properly equipped and provisioned canoe dropped down the river, past the alligator swamps, in the direction of the delta. At the prow two stalwart paddlers were being urged on by the dejected Spaniard, whose melancholy, however, did not seem to interfere with his flow of expletives, so that it wanted still an hour to sundown when at length the Mango Delta was reached. From this point the Spaniard and his peons would make their way back on foot, and Harley calculated with grim amusement that Del Carados would have earned the cherished Clan MacTavish before he got it.
"We shall be quite all right now, Don, thank you," he said. "The way is clear enough. Now, you and your men had better get out, and we will tell you where to find that which is lost. You tell him, Mrs. Vansittart."
There was a pleasant smile on the little actress's face and a sparkle of amusement in her eyes as she leant forward and addressed the man standing on the bank.
"You won't have very far to look," she said sweetly. "You'll find your two cases of whisky hidden away in the storeroom behind other empty cases; and, as to the quinine, it is packed up in blue paper parcels and mixed with your sugar rations. You'll know it by the taste easily enough. You see, we hadn't any time to hide the stuff anywhere else, and we knew perfectly well that the storeroom was the last place where you would look for it. Good-bye, Don Miguel del Carados, good-bye, and, if we ever meet again, then I'll probably stand in the witness-box and give evidence against you. You don't look particularly happy now, and you'll look less happy still when an American gunboat comes nosing up the river, asking awkward questions."
Del Carados, from the bank, made a profound bow in his best Spanish manner, but the smile on his face was a sickly one, and the language that he used under his breath is, perhaps, best left to the imagination.
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).