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.
NOW, given a palm-fringed beach in the brilliant sunshine, or in the soft light of the moon, for that matter, with Nature in her most melting and expansive mood in the background, one of three things might conceivably happen. It might be that here the poet had come with the intention of writing another "Lalla Rookh," or maybe a master of colour might have come there with the idea of painting a great picture; and, on the other hand, the whole thing might be regarded as the background for an unusually attractive scene in musical comedy. It all depends upon the point of view and the mood that you happen to be in. And certainly the palm-fringed beach on the island of Granta, in the Coral Seas, might easily have been adapted for any of these purposes, as it lay there that placid night, with the full moon shining as per contract from a glorious tropical night, powdered with stars and scented with subtle fragrance. It lay there, with the creamy sea fringing the long stretch of dazzling sand, with the palm forest stretching inland, and the deep green hills in the background, a vision of perfect poetry and a glancing loveliness, far enough removed apparently from human strife, a glorious jewel dropped into the heart of a sapphire sea, and glowing softly and tenderly in the mellow amber light.
So far there was no sign of the painter or the poet, and apparently the musical comedy suggestion was too remote to come within the range of practical politics. And yet presently, up the beach from the, lagoon on the left, there appeared a strange medley of human beings, as fantastic in that lonely spot as the figment of some amazing dream.
They came in single file across the sands, about a dozen of them altogether, led by a little man in evening-dress and a typical British sailor in white ducks and a yachting cap. The little man was small and slender, pale of face and fair of hair, parted mathematically in the middle, a little man, who surveyed the amazing picture before him through an eyeglass, which only seemed to accentuate the innocent bewilderment of his features.
The men in question were followed by a string of women, every one of them in evening-dress of the daintiest kind, Paris and Bond Street confections beyond the shadow of a doubt, lacy, diaphanous robes, that showed off gleaming arms and beautiful white necks to perfection, to say nothing of the perfect coruscations of jewels that shimmered alluringly in the moonlight. And here, therefore, was musical comedy in excelsis.
But these were no stage beauties gathered together to dazzle the eyes of the stalls and appeal irresistibly to gilded youth lolling on cotton velvet. Neither were they such things as dreams are made of, but palpitating beautiful flesh-and-blood Englishwomen, that represented collectively some of the very best blood in the kingdom. There they were, dazzling and shimmering and, sad to say, clucking like so many startled hens. And in the language of George III., when meditating over the apple in the dumpling, the wonder was how the deuce they got there. What were they doing in their full war-paint at that time of night on what might or might not have been a desert island in the ruby heart of the Coral Seas?
But everything is capable of an explanation—even musical comedy—and, as everybody knows, accidents will happen even in the best-regulated families. To go back a little while—a few months, as a matter of fact—the Duke of Grantham, that well-known sportsman, had married the only daughter of an American multi-millionaire, and on the strength of it had purchased the steam yacht Bendemeer, the very last word in luxurious ocean travel, and, at the end of his wife's first successful season in London, had set out on a voyage round the world, together with some of the choicest flowers culled from the garden of the British aristocracy. And in the course of time the Bendemeer had fetched up amongst a group of islands in the Coral Seas.
And there, on the night when this veracious story opens, every man of the party, with one exception, had left the yacht with the idea of hunting jaguars on the nearest island in the moonlight. It had been a happy inspiration on the part of some reckless sportsman, and had been taken up with enthusiasm.
"We shan't be more than an hour or two," the Duke had told the Duchess. "You can play bridge, or something of that kind, and we will leave Leckie to look after you. I don't suppose he feels like jaguars." The little pallid man in the eyeglass meekly responded that he didn't. He was no sportsman, or said he wasn't, and averred that the mere sight of a gun made him feel faint. He blinked at the Duke, and in his stammering way offered to take care of the ladies in the absence of the other men of the party. Whereat the women smiled audibly; for the idea of Bobby Leckie taking care of anything more festive than a rabbit struck them as being decidedly humorous. But Bobby Leckie took it all in good part and with a smiling good nature that rendered him a universal favourite even amongst sportsmen.
He sat on the moon-washed deck presently, basking in the smile of beauty and dazzled by jewels, until a sudden idea occurred to him. He propounded it eagerly.
"Tell you what," he said. "It's too fine to sit down there in the cabin playing bridge. Let's get out the steam pinnace and have a cruise round the islands. The moon will be up for hours yet, and the sea is like a sheet of glass. What do you people say?"
The suggestion was acclaimed with enthusiasm, and under the guidance of a reliable pilot, who rejoiced in the name of Bill Bradley, the expedition set forth. It really was a glorious night, and the steam pinnace, which really was a big petrol launch, scattered the knots under her forefoot until the yacht was lost to sight, and the boat was careering her way through uncharted seas in the hands of the blissful Bill Bradley, who was absolutely unconscious of the danger that he was running. They came under the lee of the island of Granta presently, within a mile or so of the beach, when, without warning, the boat bumped heavily on a hidden reef and slipped clumsily off again.
But the mischief was done, and it was only the speed of the motor boat that drove her up to the edge of the creaming sands before she began to fill, and the galaxy of beauty were safely landed. They were at least ten miles from the yacht on an unknown island, which might or might not have been inhabited, and they were naturally alarmed. Then, when the first feeling of fear had died away, they turned with one accord upon the unfortunate Leckie and tore him in pieces, figuratively.
He took it placidly enough, with that imperturbable good temper of his, but nothing could disturb him.
"Why blame me, dear girls?" he said. "I only made the suggestion. I didn't pile the boat up on a rock."
"But what are we to do?" the Duchess screamed.
"Oh, don't ask me," Leckie said. "We shall have to make the best of it till the men get back to the yacht and come out in search of us, which they are bound to do."
"They'll never find us," a fair-haired beauty in mauve and emeralds sobbed. "There are about a thousand of these islands here, and it would probably take the whole British Navy the best part of a year to rescue us. And, besides, what can we do in these clothes?"
"It's a warm night," Leckie stammered.
"Of course it is, idiot, or we shouldn't be here," the Marchioness of Somerfield said sarcastically. "Now, Bobby, here's a chance to show what sort of a man you are. Do you think you could play the hero, like the man in Barrie's delightful comedy? Do you think you could make fire by rubbing two sticks together, or cook turtle's eggs in hot ashes, or find water by twiddling a stick between your fingers? Could you build us huts made of grass? Because, if you can't, you are worse than useless. Still, we rely upon you."
"Dear lady, I c-couldn't," Leckie stammered forlornly. "If you gave me a t-turtle's egg, I shouldn't know what to do with the bally thing."
He sat down forlornly on the sand and looked about him so helplessly that the rest of the party forgot their misery for the moment and beamed on him almost affectionately.
"This reminds me of a toy theatre one of my brothers used to have," a girl in the party giggled. "He used to work it with pasteboard figures, and had a play, I think, called 'Alone in the Pirate's Lair.* Bobby, what on earth are we to do if the pirate suddenly appears from his lair?"
Leckie shook his head helplessiy. The heroic was not his line, and he frankly said so. There were those amongst the party who had not forgotten the fact that Leckie had gone to America at the outbreak of the Boer War and had stayed there for the best part of ten years, and there were those of his candid friends who averred that he might have been doing better work in South Africa. But, on the other hand, there were certain comrades who declared that Bobby had been sent out to Colorado by a London physician, either to die there of acute lung trouble or, at any rate, prolong a monotonous existence. But on this head Bobby had always been dumb—no gibe or sneer had ever drawn an explanation from him. It was as if he wanted the incident to be forgotten, a chapter in his life that he was ashamed of. Perhaps he was feeling his helplessness now, for he sat there on the sands playing irresolutely with a cigarette case. The sprightly girl in pink returned to the charge.
"Bobby, you haven't answered my question," she said. "What would you do for us if the pirate king appeared?"
"You had b-better ask him yourself," Bobby said, "because, if I am not mistaken, here the bounder is!"
There loomed across the sands in the moonlight a picturesque figure of a man in soiled white trousers and silk shirt, with a scarlet cummerbund round his waist, from which dangled a couple of holsters that palpably contained revolvers. He was a medium-sized man, with a black moustache and beard, and, indeed, he looked the musical comedy pirate to the life. He came forward and politely removed his cabbage hat.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he said in fairly good English. "What can I have the pleasure of doing for you? I am Don Jamie Rodgers, at your service."
Something like a groan seemed to escape from Leckie's lips, and certainly his cheeks grew paler. For the name of Rodgers was well known to him as a desperado of the Coral Seas who had a score or more of black records to his name. He was a pirate, a pearl stealer, a smuggler of opium, and worse. And out there in those waters, where supervision was practically unknown, and the British Navy had no jurisdiction, certain scum of the earth did much as they liked, and amongst that scum there was none whose name carried more terror than that of Rodgers.
Even as he stood there, leering with his malignant eyes on the huddled flower of the British aristocracy gathered together like so many frightened birds, he was appraising the jewels that they wore in that evil mind of his. Then Leckie rose to his feet and approached the rascal timidly.
"Am I mistaken, sir," he asked, "or is that the mast of a wireless station I can see yonder?"
"Something of the sort," Rodgers grinned. "A little installation of my own, but not a powerful one."
"Then perhaps you'll l-let me have the l-loan of it?" Leckie asked. "I—I want to c-communicate with our friends over at Granta Bar. Our yacht is there. And if you'll h-help us to g-get in touch with them, I am sure that the Duke will make it worth your while. What d-d'you say?"
Don Jamie beamed on the assembled company much as a giant might have beamed on a healthy gathering of young children destined to make him a hearty midday meal.
"Well," he said, "so far as that goes, it seems to me that I shan't want to trouble the Duke. You see, it's like this, mister—I have got all I want hanging round the necks of those young women yonder. D'you savvy, old boss?"
The old boss aforesaid savvied right enough—in fact, that is what he had been afraid of all along.
"Y-you mean r-r-robbery?" he protested.
"Well, that's as good a word as any other," the picturesque ruffian said cheerfully. "You see, when I tumbled just now to the fact that the stalls of the Garden Theatre in New York on an opera night had slopped itself all over this beach, it seemed to me as if it would have been flying in the face of Providence not to take the opportunity. And I don't mind telling you, pard, as me and my mates in the launch yonder have been having a pretty slim time lately, and when one of those American gunboats comes nosing around here, we've got to lie considerable close. And that's why I am going to borrow the few odds and ends belonging to them tony lady friends of yours."
As the cheery ruffian spoke, three other men appeared on the scene from the direction of a launch lying a little way off the beach. They were not quite, perhaps, so picturesque as their leader, but they were by no means the class of individual that the cautious man cares to meet in a lonely lane on a dark night, and from the grin on their faces it was evident that they had taken in the situation at a glance. It was in vain that Bobby Leckie stammered and protested, in vain that he threatened subsequent violence, for presently the whole party were hustled along the sands without ceremony to a half-dismantled hut on the beach, above which stood the rugged mast to which the primitive wireless installation was attached.
"Here, I say," Leckie said, " those l-louts of yours are frightening the ladies. They are afraid of those revolvers of yours. You might p-put them out of the way, because I and the other man are q-quite at your mercy."
"Call yourself a man?" the pirate said. "That other chap's hefty enough, but you —gee whiz! Here, Joe, this chap calls himself a man!"
The individual addressed as Joe grinned as he swept a bold, bleary eye over Leckie's slender proportions. He seemed to regard the joke as an excellent one. And so they went on in silence till they came to the hut, where the womenkind were swept without ceremony into a sort of stable in the basement, and Don Jamie, followed by his satellites, strode into the building where the wireless installation was situated. Evidently they seemed to have nothing to fear, for Leckie and the unhappy Bill Bradley brought up the rear, treading close on the heels of the man who had been addressed as Joe.
"I wish I had a revolver," Bradley whispered.
"S-so you will in a minute," Leckie replied. "K-keep close to me, Bill."
A moment later and Leckie trod, either by accident or by design, on the heels of the big ruffian in front of him. The pirate turned with an oath and the upraising of a fist as big as a shoulder of miitton. The little man with the eyeglass appeared to step back, then suddenly impelled himself forward like a shot from a catapult, and his fist crashed with a jolt. full on the point of his Antagonist's jaw. It was just as if a small and delicate piece of machinery, with all the weight of a big horse-power engine behind it, had been set in motion, for the big man went down on his back without a sound. A second later his revolvers were in Leckie's hand, and one of them was promptly shoved into Bradley's ready fist.
"Hands up, right away!" Leckie cried.
He spoke in a clear voice, with a ring of command in it and without the slightest suggestion of a stammer. His glass was still in his eye, but those pale features of his were set as grim as death, and the finger that he laid on the trigger of the revolver was steady as a rock. He seemed to have expanded as he stood there, quiet and immaculate, in his evening-dress, with the moonlight gleaming on the pearl studs in his shirt-front. Don Jamie turned and surveyed the scene with astonishment and a certain amused contempt.
"Here, drop that!" he cried. "Think yourself a hero in some stage play, perhaps. Oh, well, if you will have it, you little fool— why, you must!"
He whipped his hand behind him, and at the same moment Leckie pressed the trigger of his revolver. There was a little crack like a whiplash, a tiny spurt of flame, and the big man's right arm dangled helplessly at his side, for Leckie had shot him neatly and scientifically through the elbow joint.
"The next man who moves will get it through the brain," he said, in the same calm, even voice. "Now, I don't want to cause any more trouble than is possible, and I don't like murder, even when it comes to swine like you. Don Jamie, or whatever you call yourself, kindly step this way."
There was no help for it, there was nothing else to be done. The scoundrels were caught neatly enough in the little trap that Leckie had laid for them, and they were looking now quite uneasily into the rim of a pair of revolvers. With a scowl on his face and a muttered curse between his lips, the leader of the gang did as he was told.
"Now, then," Leckie said, "listen to me, if you please. You are not going to frighten those ladies any more, and you are not going to benefit by what a distinguished English statesman once called unearned increment. You will be good enough to send out a message for me to the Bendemeer, which you probably know is lying not very far off, and tell them on the yacht that we are safe. You will also tell them that you have been kind enough to place your launch at our disposal, of which offer we shall avail ourselves presently, and I have no doubt you will know how to get it back again. But that, my dear sir, will be your business. Have I made myself plain?"
Don Jamie nodded sulkily. Then a queer gleam flickered in his eye for a moment or two.
"Ah, I have thought of that!" Leckie said. "I see what is passing through your mind. But my friend, Mr. Bill Bradley here, will see to it that you send the correct message. He happens to be the handy-man of the yacht and, incidentally, the understudy of our wireless operator. He is also a man of exceedingly short temper, as humorists often are, and, if you try to fool him, you will probably be exceedingly sorry for it. Bill, you kindly escort this gentleman into the operating-room, and do the needful, keeping a careful eye on him at the same time. As he still has the use of his left hand, I should leave him to send the message. Now, you go on, and I will remain here and collect the rest of the weapons."
Bill Bradley grinned whole-heartedly, as a man does who is convinced that he has the best end of the joke, and, driving Don Jamie before him at the point of his revolver, disappeared into the hut. Leckie turned to the other men.
"Now, then," he said, "turn your backs on me and throw your guns in my direction over your shoulders. Thanks so much. So sorry to put you to the inconvenience. And now, having placed temptation beyond your reach, I am going to turn the key of this door on you, and sit here, enjoying a cigarette and contemplating the beauties of Nature, and if either of you try any little game on me, I fear that you will find the consequences exceedingly unpleasant."
Leckie sat there, in the tranquil enjoyment of his cigarette, and, perhaps, pleasantly conscious that the ladies, who were not far away, could see and hear all that had taken place. And this knowledge was not displeasing to him, especially when the fair-haired girl in mauve crept up to him presently and turned a pair of dazzling and admiring eyes upon him.
"Bobby," she whispered, "you are splendid! I really had no idea—I really hadn't. And I hope you will forgive me for laughing at you. Really, Bobby, if you look at me like that again, I shall have to k-kiss you!"
"I am quite defenceless," Bobby said blissfully. "R-rather bo kissed by you than anybody in the world."
It was fortunate, perhaps, at this moment that Mr. Bradley emerged from the hut with an intimation that the message had been sent and a reply received. Then, under the leadership of Leckie, the party went slowly in the direction of the beach, headed by the smiling boatswain and Don Jamie, who was thoughtfully prodded from time to time in the region of the liver by the point of the commandeered revolver. One by one the ladies were conveyed to the launch, and presently Leckie stood alone on the fringe of sand with the pirate chief, who regarded him with a mixture of concentrated rage and bewildered admiration.
"Well, you're a fair knock-out, you are," he said. "And me thinking all the time that you were no better than a scared jack-rabbit! Well, you can go back to your friends and boast that you are the first man who ever got the better of Jamie Rodgers. And that's a fact—yes, sir."
"Really?" Lepkie drawled. "Is that so? But I'm not worrying about it. Do you know, Mr. Rodgers, I hate getting my feet wet. And yet I don't see how I am going to get into that launch without ruining a pair of Court shoes and some silk socks that cost me a guinea in Bond Street. That's what's troubling me at the present moment. I give you my word of honour that I am not thinking about you at all."
In spite of his abject humiliation and the excruciating pain in his arm, Rodgers burst into a laugh.
"Well, I guess you're some boy," he said. "And I don't bear no malice. You've fairly held me up, and if I'd known—but, you see, I didn't. Say, stranger, ten or twelve years ago, before I started this game, I was up on the Yukon, gold prospecting with the very toughest crowd on the American Continent. There wasn't a crime in the, calendar that those boys weren't up to. But there was one chap, an Englishman, come up there, who was a fair terror to the whole bunch. I never saw him myself, but I heard of him often enough. From all accounts he was a little chap, about your size, an English swell, the boys said, as nobody could down. He wasn't a tough; he had an idea that he had come there to straighten matters out and turn the Yukon into a civilised community. It was some proposition, but he did his best to put the programme through—him without an ounce of strength, and weighing about a hundred and fifty pounds! They used to say he had come to America to die of some chest trouble, but decided to live and reform the States instead. Why, he'd go into the saloon amongst the toughs, with his glass in his eye and a revolver in his hand, and clear out the whole caboodle within five minutes."
"What was his name?" Leckie drawled. "Well, I don't rightly know, but I think the boys called him 'Little Billee with the Glass Eye.' Say, mister, I guess you must have been that man."
"I guess I was," Leckie said sweetly.
LORD RAYBURN turned the letter over in his hand, and a smile crept into those piercing eyes of his, for the great scientist permitted himself to be pleased.
"Now, this is a remarkable thing, Hayter," he said to his chief assistant. "Here is actually a letter from my great antagonist, Miguel del Viantes. He proposes to come and see me. I take it that this is an admission that all these years he has been attacking me unjustly."
George Hayter smiled behind his hand. He was well acquainted with the jealousies and bitter bickerings of scientists the world over, and there was not anywhere a scientist who was not aware of the deadly rivalry between Lord Rayburn and the eminent Spaniard. The fact that they had never met, and that they did not even know one another by sight, made little difference. Therefore Hayter listened discreetly.
"He wants to come and see me," the great man went on. "He says he is going to South America on an experimental mission, of which, of course, he says nothing, but he hints that possibly he may not return. It is his way of holding out the olive branch, I suppose. Anyway, he wants to see me, and, unless I wire him to the contrary, he will motor down here this afternoon. As the visit is entirely private—you will understand why he doesn't want people to know he has been here—you had better arrange for him to leave his car in the lane at the end of the shrubbery, and come here across the garden, through the conservatory. As he drives his own car, this should be easily managed. Then you can bring him here, and leave us alone together. You had better take the afternoon off, and come back about five o'clock. I am relying on your discretion, Hayter."
"Of course," Hayter murmured. "Does Del Viantes say what he is coming for?"
"Well, yes. He is deeply interested in those freezing experiments of mine. I gather that he particularly wants to have a look at the diamond that we are experimenting upon. But he does not say any more than that."
Hayter gave the desired assurance and vanished, leaving the great scientist to his own not unpleasant thoughts. This business was, in a way, the crowning glory of his career. It was soothing to his vanity to know that the great rival whom he had never seen was voluntarily seeking his advice—the advice of the man whom he had been attacking in the scientific press for years. The mere fact that the Spaniard was coming down to Tulham Place secretly made little or no difference.
So the pleased smile was still on Rayburn's face as he turned his back upon the laboratory and walked into the conservatory beyond. Both these buildings jutted out from the side of the house on to a sloping bank which led to a famous rose-garden, and the foundation consisted of a series of tanks and vaults, specially constructed, and something like a huge aquarium, in which Rayburn's freezing experiments were constantly going on. For Rayburn was a rich man, the head of an old family, and, apart from the estate, which would go elsewhere when he died, had a small fortune of his own, which he spent on his research work. And this small fortune would some day pass to his confidential assistant, George Hayter.
But Rayburn was thinking nothing of that at the moment. He wandered round the conservatory amongst his magnificent collection of orchids, of which he was, perhaps, more proud than of his scientific discoveries. He had an almost passionate love for those glorious blooms, and every hour he could spare from his life's work he spent amongst them.
He was still wandering, like some gigantic bee, from flower to flower, when a couple of hours later the far door of the conservatory opened, and from the concrete roofs beyond, which were approached by a flight of steps, Hayter appeared with a tall, thin, foreign-looking man in his wake. The stranger came forward with a smile behind his gold-rimmed glasses, and held out a thin, brown hand.
"May I have the honour, my lord?" he asked.
"Oh, certainly, certainly," said the flattered Rayburn. "This is an historic meeting, Señor Viantes. I quite appreciate the broad spirit that brought you here, and I am only too delighted to ignore the past in the interests of our mistress, the Goddess of Science. Yes, I think you can go, Hayter. I don't think the señor and myself are likely to come to blows."
Hayter discreetly smiled and vanished. With his best manner Rayburn turned to his visitor. He was a very great gentleman, and, when he chose, his manner was as irreproachable as his scientific knowledge.
"I bid you welcome, señor," he said, "and I do hope you are in no great hurry."
"I sail to-morrow," Del Viantes explained.
"Oh, indeed. I trust that, at any rate, you can give me an hour or two. Now, are these flowers anything in your line? I am very proud of my orchids—in fact, I think I value them more than any possession I have. Every moment of my spare time is occupied in here. There is not a collector in the world who does not write to me when he has found anything new—at least, amongst the class of orchids in which I am interested."
"They are rarely beautiful," Viantes said, with a touch of real enthusiasm. "It is a charming hobby, and I can quite understand how it fascinates you. But, alas, I am a poor man, and have no money to spend on anything. But that plant over yonder is extraordinarily beautiful."
"Ah, you have hit upon the gem of my collection; you have a real eye for the beautiful. Now, this is an orchid of the class Gynandria Monandria. That is a marsh orchid from South Africa, and the only one of its kind yet discovered. I prefer them to the epiphytes, exquisite as they are. And "that, of course, is a cypripedium.'"
As Rayburn spoke, he laid his hand almost lovingly on a long spike of bloom that shot upwards a foot or more in height in a series of shaded mauve blossoms with centres and cups graded away to the hue of virgin gold. The exquisite mass clung to the stem and trembled like a cloud of butterflies. Over it Rayburn hung with the rapt adoration of a mother bending over the cradle of her child.
"I am glad you can understand my enthusiasm," he said. "These blooms are almost sacred to me. Ah!"
As Rayburn spoke, his foot seemed to slip on the damp tiles of the conservatory, and as he jerked forward he touched the stem of the plant, and the topmost spray of blossoms broke off as if they had been severed with a knife. He whitened, with an expression almost of pain on his face, then recovered himself and forced a smile to his lips.
"Take that little spray," he said, "and put it in your buttonhole as a memento of the occasion. But I would not willingly have done that to oblige an emperor."
Viantes slipped the spray into his buttonhole and followed his host through the laboratory.
"Pray be seated," Rayburn said. "We have an hour or two before us, and are not in the least likely to be interrupted—in fact, I have respected your wishes to the letter. As you suggested, not a soul knows you are here, except my assistant, and I have sent him off for the afternoon. Your little car is in the lane, I presume, and nobody is likely to notice it there—in fact, the lane leads to nowhere, and is hardly used once a month—and therefore this meeting is as secret as it can be. I am not likely to mention it, unless you give me permission to do so, though perhaps some day this meeting may be historic. But that is for you to say, señor."
"I am profoundly grateful," Viantes murmured. "How deeply grateful I cannot say in words, but I think my presence here is a practical expression of my confidence."
"The feeling is mutual," Rayburn smiled. "And now pray tell me what I can do for you?"
The Spaniard hesitated just for a moment. "To be quite candid, my lord," he said, "I came down here consumed with curiosity to see that diamond which I understand you are experimenting upon. It is no secret, of course, because the scientific papers have been discussing it for weeks. Am I to understand that you claim to remove a flaw in a superimposed diamond by freezing it so many degrees below zero?"
"Well, I think so," Rayburn said cautiously. "But I am not far enough in my experiments yet to speak with any confidence. Still, I have seen enough to encourage me."
"It is a very valuable stone, I presume."
"Very," Ray burn said—"a matter of twenty thousand pounds, I suppose. If I succeed, it will be worth at least three times as much, and if I fail, no harm is done."
"But," Viantes suggested, "you might damage it. It might fly into a thousand fragments if it was subjected to a very intense cold. What of that, my lord?"
"Then, in that case, I shall be the loser," Rayburn smiled. "I should have to find that sum of money, which, between ourselves, would absorb my private means, because, when I die, this place of mine and my income must go to my successor. And my assistant would be all the poorer, which would be very hard upon him, seeing that he knows of my intentions, and that he is going to be married very shortly."
As Rayburn finished, he rose to his feet and, unlocking a drawer in his writing-desk, produced a great diamond. It was a magnificent stone, and as it lay winking and sparkling on the table, Viantes' eyes narrowed behind his spectacles, and his mouth quivered like that of a cat stalking a bird.
"A wonderful gem!" he murmured.
"Yes, a royal gem. Now, it was lent to me by a firm of Court jewellers for the purpose of my experiment. You must understand that it is what is called a superimposed stone—that is, two layers placed one upon another, and joined by spirit gum or something of that kind, much as they join a series of glasses from which telescopic lenses are ground. Originally the diamond was much bigger; but it met with an accident— a fracture in the centre—so that it was necessary to split the stone in two and join it up again. Of course, this detracted from the value, but only an expert could tell and discern the tiny spot of moisture that was created in the process. Now, my idea, as you know, is literally to burn out that moisture by frost, and therefore, in one of my tanks which lie out yonder beyond the conservatory, I propose to subject the stone to a freezing process a hundred degrees below zero; and when that is done, I am sanguine that the flaw will have vanished. If you have another half-hour or so to spare—"
The sentence was never finished, for the Spaniard was on to Rayburn like a flash, as the latter bent over the table, a knife gleamed in the air, and the great man collapsed to the floor, stricken between the shoulders to the heart, and lay there dead without a single sound.
* * * * *
It was nearly six o'clock before Hayter, feeling a little uneasy, knocked at the laboratory door without receiving any reply. He flew round to the back of the house, with the idea of approaching the laboratory by a flight of steps leading up to the big tanks with their concrete tops. The motor-car in the lane had disappeared, and this only added to Hayter's uneasiness. It was nearly dark now, so that Hayter noticed nothing except that the lid over the manhole of one of the great freezing tanks had not been slipped back, and this he hastily readjusted.
"I suppose I am to blame for that," he murmured. "Well, it doesn't so very much matter."
Just by the conservatory door lay a spray of three or four blooms of the priceless Gynandria Monandria. Hayter stooped and mechanically placed it in his buttonhole.
"Now, how did that precious treasure get here?" he asked himself. "Lord Rayburn would as soon have cut off his own hand as given away one of those beloved children of his."
He forced the catch on the conservatory door and hastened into the laboratory. A moment later he was bending over the dead body of his chief with that calm, self-centred feeling that comes to most of us in the presence of sudden and unexpected death. There were certain things to be done, and Hayter went about them quite methodically. Then his eye caught sight of the open drawer with the key still in it, and with a strange suspicion in his mind he searched in the little cotton-wool nest for the big diamond which ought to have been there.
Five minutes later he had aroused the household and was holding Scotland Yard at the other end of the telephone, and barely half an hour afterwards he was telling his story to an inspector of police.
"Let me have that again, Mr. Hayter," Inspector Jones said. "I want to be quite clear. Señor Viantes came down here, at his own suggestion, to meet a man who has been his greatest enemy for the last twenty years."
"You have seen the letter," Hayter said curtly.
"Oh, yes. Now, what sort of a man is this Spanish scientist? As mad as most of them, I suppose?"
"Madmen don't steal historic diamonds," Hajter said. "I don't want to teach you your business, Inspector, but that man stole the diamond, and probably at the same time dropped the spray of orchid which I have in my buttonhole, and which I picked up, as I told you, outside the conservatory door when I was forcing it. To my mind, the thing is quite plain. Lord Kayburn has been murdered, and the murderer escaped in his car, which he brought down here alone for the purpose of getting away quickly. Now, it seems to me that it is up to you to go back to London and interview Señor Viantes without the slightest delay. That is my opinion."
"Perhaps you are right," the Inspector conceded. "And as you saw the Spaniard, you had better come along."
It was quite late in the evening before Hayter and Inspector Jones found themselves in Bloomsbury, face to face with the Spanish scientist in the latter's sitting-room. But directly Hayter entered the room his face fell.
"There is some mistake here, I am afraid," he murmured. "If this is Señor Viantes, then I have never seen him before. It was not he who called upon Lord Rayburn."
"That is very good of you, sir," said the slight man with the piercing grey eyes who stood confronting his intruder. "A policeman was here just now who refused to believe my identity. I am Miguel del Viantes, as I can bring a dozen people to prove, and I have been in London all day. Do you think I would stoop to go near Lord Rayburn? A clever man, no doubt, but a humbug, sir, and a good bit of a charlatan."
"I don't think we need go into that," Hayter said coolly. "And you, sir, are prejudiced, in any case. Still, Lord Rayburn has been murdered and robbed of a valuable diamond, and as you are apparently the gentleman you claim to be, we are wasting our time here. What do you say. Inspector?"
There was no more to be said, and nothing to be done but to make as graceful an exit as possible and lose no time in seeking a clue elsewhere.
But the days went on till a month had elapsed, and no trace had been found of the clever criminal who had so cunningly made use of the Spaniard to commit a successful crime and get away clearly with his prize. And it was by no means a pleasant month for Hayter, either. He was cognisant of the fact that he was being dogged and watched, and there were many signs that the police held him under suspicion.
For practically everything depended upon his uncorroborated testimony. Nobody had seen the murderer but himself, no one had ever seen the slightest trace of the car, and as to the letter which the Spaniard was supposed to have written, that might easily have been forged by anybody. And, again, the diamond had vanished. It would take all the dead man's fortune to make the loss of it good, so that all Hayter's dreams of a happy and comfortable marriage had vanished into thin air.
Still, he was allowed to go on with his research work at Tulham Place, and, indeed, he had had more than one plain hint to the effect that he had better stay there for the present. Inspector Jones had been mightily curious on the subject of what he called the clue of the broken orchid, coupled with the fact that the body of Rayburn had been found by his chief assistant, who had also discovered the fact that the diamond was missing.
And so matters drifted on till the end of November without the slightest clue to the identity of the real culprit. Who he was, and whence he came, no one knew, though Del Viantes had hinted vaguely at a foreign assistant who had been in his employ for some little time, and had been discharged for flagrant dishonesty.
It was a fine morning at the end of November when Hayter was interrupted in the laboratory by the entrance of one of his mechanics.
"Sorry to trouble you, sir," he said, "but aren't you going to open Number Three Tank to-day? It's been frozen for the last three months at two hundred below zero, and that bacteria must be ready now. Shall I get on with it, sir?"
"Perhaps you had better," Hayter said languidly. "Draw the slide back from the roof and take the iron shutters down from the front pf the tank. Let the light play on it as much as possible. I'll come along presently."
The assistant vanished only to return, a quarter of an hour later, with starting eyes and a peculiar green tinge on his cheeks that spoke of some unreasoning terror. He clutched Hayter by the shoulder.
"For Heaven's sake, come along with me, sir!" he said hoarsely. "No, sir, there's nothing wrong with the big tank, but when you see what is inside it "
The slide on the top of the tank that flanked the outer door of the conservatory and the iron shutters had been removed. Now that the light shooe through the roof, and the sunshine glittered on the specially prepared glass front, the ten-thousand-gallon tank revealed itself in the shape of a huge block of ice as clear as crystal.
But Hayter was not thinking of that—he was gazing with protruding eyes and a strange creeping of his spine at an object crystalised in the centre of the ice. It was a human form with hands upraised and grey face congealed into an expression of terror that seemed alive and appealing mutely for assistance. Every limb and feature was as clear as it had been months ago, when the sham Del Viantes, hastening away from Tulham Place, had stepped in the gloom over the open trap-door that Hayter had left, and had thus gone unconsciously to his doom. The weight of his body, no doubt, had carried him through the upper crust of the ice in an early stage of its formation, and his feet had evidently stuck in the foot or so of gelatine at the bottom of the tank.
The man had been dead all these months, without the shadow of a doubt. He looked hideously and repulsively alive as he stood there, like a chrysalis in the centre of a transparent cocoon. Even a spray of orchids in his buttonhole retained their freshness and the delicate shades of mauve and gold.
"Well, I have had some curious experiences in my time," Inspector Jones said, an hour or two later, in somewhat shaky tones, as he stood before the unshuttered tank. "And, anyhow, it's all pretty plain now. Very likely his lordship gave a spray of his orchids to the man who murdered him, and the fellow, in his haste to get away, blundered into the tank. I shall be greatly surprised if we don't put our hands on the diamond, too, before we are through with this business."
It was nearly twelve o'clock the following day before the conditions were favourable for the removal of the unknown murderer from the tank, after which the body was laid on the table in the laboratory. It was Inspector Jones's unpleasant task to go over it in search of the missing treasure, the finding of which would establish Hayter's innocence beyond all doubt. But for a long time there was no sign of the stone, till the Inspector removed the spray of orchids from the dead man's buttonhole.
"Wonderful how they keep their freshness, isn't it?" he asked. "Some time ago I saw a bouquet of flowers that had come all the way from Australia frozen in a block of ice, and they might have been picked the day before. Hullo, here we are!"
As he spoke, the Inspector turned over the spray in his hand, and with a grunt of satisfaction plunged his little finger into the centre of one of the deep cups, and displayed a small round object carefully wrapped in cotton-wool.
"The missing stone," he exclaimed, "beyond the shadow of a doubt. I am glad to have my hands on this, Mr. Hayter, for your sake, because, you see—"
"Yes, I know," Hayter said grimly. "You needn't say any more about that. The man lying there, whoever he is, came down in a little two-seater car. He came alone, because I met him in the lane. What became of the car?"
"Well, that puzzled me, too," Jones admitted. "But, of course, the fellow had a confederate. That sort of robbery was too big a thing for one man. Probably the confederate loitered about till he got alarmed, and went off to save his own skin, as such men always do. But really it doesn't matter. To prove the identity of this criminal will be another question altogether. Personally, I don't believe it ever will be proved."
And, as usual, Inspector Jones was right.
WHAT Stephen Fox particularly wanted to impress upon Geraldine Benson was the fact that, although a man knows very little about a horse, it does not necessarily follow that he is an ass. And this is a point of view that the enthusiastic admirer of the equine race finds it exceedingly difficult to understand. To the sportsman who confines himself to man's best friend there is no other point of view and no other branch of athletics—the rest are merely a waste of time. This point of view, probably, had never occurred to the somewhat spoilt and wilful beauty who presided occasionally over the destinies of her father's big ranch in Texas. That is to say, when she was not in New York, or at Orange Beach, or in Paris, she was at home generally in her riding habit, and usually astride of a horse that was worth anything up to ten thousand dollars.
Old man Benson, like most American fathers, utterly spoilt his daughter, which was quite natural, seeing that she was his only child, and old man Benson was by far the richest man in that part of the world. In the language of the boys, he was "no slouch," either as a man of business or as a man of the world. Neither was he the typical Western farmer to whom the pictures have accustomed us, for he represented the third generation, and was a very cultured gentleman indeed. All sorts of people came to the ranch from all parts of the world, and the hospitable owner of the estate was always glad to see them, especially when his daughter was at home to share the honours of the house, and this was usual in the autumn, before Geraldine proceeded to Orange Beach with the rest of the fashionable world.
And so it came about that Stephen Fox happened along in due course, and put in a whole month at the ranch. He came for two reasons—first, because he had a letter of introduction from a famous English statesman, and, secondly, because he had met Geraldine in New York, where he had made up his mind to induce her to change her name as soon as possible.
He was a young man of good family enough—a fine specimen of the English athlete, neat and trim, perfectly self-assured, and, withal, modest enough, but unfortunately he knew little of horses, and cared less. It so happened that certain family misfortunes had tied him somewhat largely to town life, until chance smiled on him, and he found himself, at twenty-five, in possession of a fine family estate. But if he knew nothing about horses, he was quite at home with every other branch of sport, and he was a magnificent shot with rifle and revolver, and there was no man whose reputation stood higher with the Alpine Club.
It was, perhaps, a mistake on the young man's part to follow that wilful young woman to her native heath. She liked him —in fact, she liked him immensely—but then he was only one of a large and enthusiastic crowd, all equally anxious to lay siege to the Benson dollars; and, whatever her faults were, Geraldine Benson was no fool. Emphatically she was not going to marry any man who was after her fortune. She knew, of course, that Fox was fairly well off—that is, comparatively speaking—which was in his favour, and when he appeared she was pleased enough to see him. She was living just then in the open air, leading a healthy, simple life in connection with a magnificent black horse that she managed to perfection, though it seemed to Fox that she was running unnecessary risks with a mount that would have been too much for many a man who had been brought up all his life in the vicinity of a stable. But Geraldine only laughed and made fun of Fox's fears. She could not induce him to mount anything more formidable than a farm filly; and when once he had made something of an exhibition of himself in connection with a splendid three-year-old, she showed her open contempt.
It seemed to her that Fox was actually afraid. She could see that he had lost something of his healthy tan, and that there was a cold perspiration on his forehead. Oh, yes, he was afraid, right enough, and Geraldine did not forget to let him see that she was aware of it. And from that moment his fortune seemed to droop. He was treated with open contempt, he was left severely alone—so severely, in fact, that Miss Benson went off to Orange Beach without the formality of saying good-bye to him.
She might have been annoyed, and she might not, and there was the problem that fairly maddened Fox. Did she regard him as a coward? he wondered. But he need not have wondered at all, because that was exactly her point of view.
As a matter of fact, she was angry and disappointed and, perhaps, more distressed than she would have liked to admit. For she had never allowed a man before to go quite so far as Fox had gone, and that proud little heart of hers was sorely wounded. She blamed herself bitterly for allowing her affections to stray in the direction of a man who frankly lacked courage. And this, in the eyes of a daughter of the West, was an unpardonable sin. She would go away down to Orange Beach and forget all about him.
At the same time Fox made up his mind that he would go away, too, and forget all about her, with the inevitable result that he presented himself at Stephano's Hotel, at Orange Beach, a fortnight later, where, at dinner, on the first night of his arrival, he was coldly and unmistakably cut by his late hostess.
It was tragedy—stark tragedy—and Fox's soul was bitter within him. He knew perfectly well that he was no coward, he knew perfectly well that he was being badly treated, but for the present there was nothing to do except wait for an unkind Fate to give him a last chance. And quite unexpectedly the Fate aforesaid played straight into his hands.
Now, behind the five or six miles of smiling paradise that lie between the sea and the mountains at Orange Beach is a big swamp given over to various flowers of gorgeous beauty, an amazing collection of butterflies like so many brilliant jewels flung from the lap of Nature in her most profligate mood, and a few wild animals, such as bears and the like, which found their way occasionally from the swamps through the wide belt of trees, where honey was to be found. No man had ever dared to cross those swamps— that is, no visitor—only a shy native or two, and at the back of the swamp rose the rampart of hills, some peaks of which are above the snow-line. And in this belt lurked a few lawless individuals, cattle thieves and the like, who had been forced into hiding, where they maintained a precarious existence, and where they were hunted down from time to time, when the law-abiding inhabitants of the cattle belt summoned up energy enough to make a raid. And amongst these desperadoes were two, named respectively Pete and Silas, who occasionally looted Orange Beach when food was scarce, and who conceived the brilliant idea of kidnapping Miss Geraldine Benson and holding her up to ransom. And this they actually did one sunny afternoon, when the girl was idling her time away over a book in a secluded corner of the beach. They snatched her up and, stifling her cries with a shawl, carried her across the swamp up into the hills, and all this in the broad light of day. They and they alone of white men knew the only path across that traitorous morass—having learnt the secret from an old peon, whom they had thoughtfully disposed of—so that they were not afraid of pursuit, as, before the telegraph and telephone could get in action against them, days must of necessity elapse, and their captive's plight grow steadily worse. Their idea was simple enough. They were going to demand fifty thousand dollars as a ransom, and a free passage to—well, anywhere, as long as they could leave the South American continent behind them.
Meanwhile there was nothing to be done except notify the authorities right and left, and organise a movement against the miscreants from the mainland. This, of course, was a matter of some considerable time, and Fox fretted and fumed, writhing at his own helplessness and burning to do something for the woman who had treated him so badly, and for whom he had such tender feelings. He actually made one or two attempts to cross the swamp, escaping suffocation and a horrible death by the skin of his teeth on two separate occasions before he gave it up. He fell into the habit of passing most of his mornings on the edge of the swamp, brooding there and racking his brain for some way of crossing over to the firm, rugged ground on the far side. If he could only accomplish that, he had no fear as to the rest. It would be no great matter to track the rascals down then, for they would not be very far off, and if he could only confront them with a revolver, he was quite prepared to leave the rest to chance.
And then, on the third day, a ray of hope came his way. As he sat under the shade of the trees on the edge of the swamp, he saw a brown, woolly mass coming in his direction. It was a bear—an ordinary brown bear— which had actually crossed that treacherous, smiling greenery in search of honey. For an hour or two Fox watched keenly. He saw the bear attack a nest of wild bees and surfeit himself with the sweets inside; then he turned his snout in the direction of the morass, and seemingly plunged into the thick of it. But where a bear could go, a man could follow, so that Fox did not hesitate a moment. He tracked the bear very slowly and cautiously into the thick of that shuddering horror that smiled so fairly and yet hugged so terrible a danger to its verdant breast. Taking a letter or two from his pocket, Fox tore them up into minute fragments, dropping one or two here and there, so as to make a trail and render his return journey safe. At the end of two hours he was on the far side of the swamp, faint and weary, worn out and smothered with mud and slime from head to foot. But there was no wind to blow his tracks away, so that, with any luck, the return journey was fairly easy.
But it is one thing to go one way over virgin soil, and the other to come back in reverse conditions, so that Fox was only half-way across when the darkness fell, and he dared not go another yard. He sat himself down on a big tuft of grass and waited all through a night which seemed as long as eternity. He could hear all sorts of hair-raising sounds going on around him, the slimy, oozy crawling of snakes, and once the unmistakable cough of an alligator. He sat there reflecting bitterly as to what Geraldine might say if she could see him at that moment, and if she would be inclined to call him a coward any more. He did not underrate what he was doing, neither did he make too much of it. As a matter of fact, it was a wonderful piece of pluck and endurance in the face of unseen terrors that might have struck fear into the heart of any man.
The long night came to an end at length, the sun rose, and Fox's spirits with it. Very slowly he made his way back, tracing his course by the aid of those precious scraps of paper, and finally reached his bedroom before anyone in the hotel was about. Then he changed and bathed and had a long sleep, after which he slipped a couple of revolvers in his pocket and made his way straight down to the swamp again. And there, on the fringe of the wood, was his old friend the bear once more. And once more did Fox follow, his pockets plentifully filled with torn paper now, so that he blazed a wide white trail on both sides of the track until he reached the other side.
It was all straightforward going now, up a long rocky ravine that led him presently into a narrow gorge in the hillside, and round the mountain path cut in the side of the cliff, a path so narrow that here and there Fox's shoulder brushed the side as he went along. There were some hundred yards or more of this, with a sheer drop on the one side of at least three hundred feet. It was safe enough and easy enough for a member of the Alpine Club, but Fox was worried in his mind as to how Geraldine would negotiate it if he were fortunate enough to effect her rescue. But all that for the moment was a small issue. He pushed doggedly along until he came at length to a grassy little plateau, on the far side of which stood a dilapidated hut, which was clearly inhabited, for smoke was comings from the chimney. Then a big man, carrying a Winchester rifle in his hand, came out of the hut and strode up the valley. As he had a game-bag slung over his shoulder, and a dog trotting at his heels. Fox came to the conclusion that the big man was bent on supplying the larder. Given any luck, therefore, he would probably not be back for some hours yet.
So it was going to be one man against another. And once that one man was out of the way, then the rest would be easy. All the same, Fox crept cautiously across the open space, taking advantage of every bit of cover, until he was within a yard or two of the door of the hut. He could see that this was slightly ajar, he could see there was somebody moving about inside, carelessly and freely, as if utterly indifferent to danger. But then clearly these men were not expecting anything in the shape of a surprise. They had not anticipated the possibility of a frontal attack in any case, and an advance upon them from the rear would mean a long business. So the man inside the hut was whistling and singing to himself.
It was only for a moment, however, and then Fox moved swiftly forward and stood in the doorway. He had his revolver in his hand now, and the big, gaunt figure in the shadow of the hut was covered before the man himself realised that he was face to face with an armed and resolute stranger.
"Put up your hands," Fox said.
The man immediately dived for such cover as was afforded by a table, and from underneath this he fired at Fox twice in rapid succession. But he was too flurried and too unsteady for anything like fine work, so that both shots passed harmlessly by Fox's head. Then he in his turn pressed the trigger and shot his antagonist neatly just beneath the knee of an, exposed leg which had been incautiously left within sight.
Immediately the man dropped his left hand with a cry of rage and pain, and, heedless of further danger, rubbed the wounded spot tenderly. Then Fox, grim and determined, fired again, and shot his man through the right shoulder. The revolver dropped from his fingers, and every ounce of fight went out of him. Fox strolled coolly into the hut.
"Now, then," he said, as he picked up the fallen weapon—"now, then, listen to me. Oh, I know you are in great pain, but that is your own fault. But I know you are all alone, because I watched your friend go off with his dog and his gun. And now, please, where is the lady?"
"What lady?" the man asked truculently. His face was white and set with pain, and Fox could see that the sweat was running down it. "What lady? Say, who're you getting at? There ain't no lady here."
"Oh, yes, there is," said a cool, calm voice from somewhere in the background. "I'm here, a prisoner in the little lean-to shed at the back of the hut."
The man on the ground smiled in a bitter sort of way and made some attempt to hump his shoulders.
"All right, stranger," he said. "I don't know how you got here, unless you came in an aeroplane, but you are top dog, and I am not squealing. Take her and get back the way you came. I guess you must know a considerable deal about these here parts, for you are the only man on the coast that could find his way across them swamps. You see—"
"Oh, never mind about that," Fox said. "I am here, as you have learnt to your cost; but I've no time to argue with you, so I am just going to lock you in here and leave the key in the door, so that your friend can find you when he comes back."
With which Fox turned abruptly away and went round to the back of the hut, where, a few minutes later, he released Geraldine Benson from her prison-house. He wanted to get away now as quickly as possible, and to find himself round the bend of that dizzy cliff path before the other man returned. He might be away for hours, but, on the contrary, he might come back at any moment; and, burdened as he was with a frightened and nerve-stricken girl, it would never do to invite anything in the shape of a conflict until the danger zone was passed.
But it was no frightened, timorous young woman who emerged from that restricted hiding-place, no creature in the last stage of mental prostration. Geraldine stood before him neat and cool, and almost spotless in her linen dress, her hair as neat and tidy as if she had just come down to breakfast in the morning.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" she said.
There was nothing particularly friendly in her voice, either. She just stood there quietly, almost offensively, regarding Fox with a critical look which was a poor reward indeed for all that he had done for her.
"Apparently," he said. "Rather strange, is it not, that I, above all men in the world, should be able to do you a service? And I think that you must admit that it is a service."
"Yes, I suppose it is—indeed, I am sure of it. Still, Mr. Fox, I am greatly obliged to you. At any rate, you have relieved me from a great unpleasantness."
"What's the good of talking like the hero and heroine of a melodrama?" Fox asked impatiently. "It would be all very well on the stage, but I want you to realise that we are in great danger here. That other man might come back at any moment—he might even be watching us now."
"Yes, there's certainly something in that," the girl said. "But how did you get here?
I have been coming to Orange Beach on and off ever since I was a child, and I have always been told that those swamps were impassable, except to one or two natives, who have kept the secret for their own sakes."
"A very pardonable curiosity," Fox said, "and one that I can gratify as we go along. This way, please."
He fell in line by the girl's side, and rapidly they went down the slope and up the other side, till they came at length to what appeared to be an impasse of rocks.
"We can't go this way," Geraldine protested.
"Nevertheless, this is the way by which you came," Fox replied. "There is no other way."
"Perhaps so; I don't know. You see, I was blindfolded, and those men carried me part of the way. Oh, Mr. Fox, I couldn't do it—I couldn't indeed! I could never walk along that narrow ledge. The mere thought of a cliff always makes me faint and giddy. Call me a coward, if you like!"
It was strange to see how distressed she was, how white her beautiful face had grown, and how filled the clear grey eyes were with terror, It was a revelation in its way, and it drew Fox nearer to her than he had ever been before.
"No, I won't call you a coward," he said quietly, "though I think that once you applied that epithet to me. You see, it's largely a matter of habit. I have seen men who have displayed the highest courage in certain circumstances who have been quite helpless in others. But really this is no time to go into that sort of thing. If you value your life and safety, you will have to crawl along that narrow ledge for a hundred yards or more. After that the rest is plain sailing. Come, Miss Geraldine, you're not going to funk it now."
"I—I dare not!" the girl said almost piteously. "Oh, I am a coward—I who thought I could face anything! Isn't there any other way?"
"None," Fox said sternly. "And you've got to come, whether you like it or not. They brought you this way, but you didn't know the danger, because you were blindfolded. And now I'm going to blindfold you again, and you are going to be carried on my back like a sack. Oh, it's perfectly safe—it's only a matter of nerve. Why, out in the Alps we should think no more of that than we should of climbing up the side of a grass bank. Come, take your courage in both hands!"
All the haughtiness and aloof contempt had left the girl now. She was white and shaking from head to foot, and Fox could almost hear the beating of her heart as he bound his handkerchief about her eyes. But she was obedient enough to do exactly what he told her, as she locked her hands round his neck, after which they moved forward along the narrow ledge till the danger was passed, and Fox set her on her feet again. He tore the handkerchief from her eyes and smiled into her face.
"There!" he said encouragingly. "Nothing in it, after all!"
"Oh, please don't laugh at me!" the girl said. "Another minute, and I should have fainted—I who never did such a thing in my life! And yet, perhaps, you will believe me when I tell you that I was not really frightened when those men got hold of me, and I have managed to keep my head ever since. Of course, they told me what they were after, and they promised me I should come to no harm, but I don't mind confessing that I was rather proud of my courage. Perhaps you will say now that I haven't got any courage."
"I should say nothing of the sort," Fox replied. "No girl who lacked courage could ride the horses you are accustomed to, and no girl could go through what you have endured without showing signs of it. I knew a man who displayed the most marvellous bravery in connection with a mining accident of which he thought nothing, because, you see, he was an engineer and accustomed to dangers underground. But it so happened that that man couldn't swim, and when I took him on a river in a small boat—by way of enabling him to catch a train—he sat white and silent, and confessed to me afterwards that he had never felt more frightened in his life. And that was one of the bravest men I ever met. As I said before, it is all a matter of habit. Of course, it's fun to put a man like myself for the first time in my life on the back of an unbroken brute of a horse, but it wasn't particularly funny for me, and I don't apologise for making an exhibition of myself. I want you to understand that there are two points of view, and it's only fair that one should try and understand the other fellow's. But come on—we haven't finished yet."
It was a very quiet and subdued Geraldine whom Fox preceded across the stony ground in the direction of the swamp. She was evidently thinking matters over, and regarding the philosophy of life from a fresh angle altogether. But she began to show signs of nervous hesitation once again as Fox plunged into the swamp and bade her to tread carefully in his footsteps. There was something fearfully nerve-racking in the green silence of the place, with its tufts of rushes and oily, silent pools, and here and there the sinuous gleam of a snake.
"Are you q-quite sure?" the girl faltered.
"Absolutely," Fox said. "I came here across the swamp, of course, and I can find my way back again. If you look on both sides of you a little way ahead, you will see what looks like the trail of a paper-chase. Well, I placed those bits of paper there, so that there should be no mistake. Yes, I know it's a horrible place, and I know what a fearful death lurks on both sides of us; but we are going to win through, for all that. And you'll never guess how I found the way, so I'll tell you. I followed a brown bear that came over to the woods in search of honey. I followed in its fresh tracks and laid the trail as I went. Yes, it took some doing, and more than once I had to hold on to myself to keep from turning back. I knew that, if I once let my imagination get hold of me, I should funk it, so I kept steadily on till I got on the other side. But getting back was worse. I wanted to locate where you were, and I cut it rather fine. Do you see that flat tuft of rushes over yonder? Well, I spent the night there, when it got too dark to go any further, and I don't want to do it again. Anything more utterly lonely it is impossible to imagine. But come along—I ought not to have told you this just yet."
"And you did all this for me?" Geraldine asked.
"Well, of course," Fox said simply.
She did not speak again until they were well across the swamp and in the thick fringe of woods at the back of the hotel. There was no one in sight, for it was over-early yet, and most of the guests were still at the breakfast table. It was just before they emerged into the glorious sunshine that Geraldine paused and looked Fox in the face. He could see that she was all white and trembling, and that those usually frank and fearless eyes of hers were full of tears.
"I wonder, can you ever forgive me?" she faltered.
"There is nothing to forgive," Fox said. "We have both made a mistake, and we are both too proud to admit it. That's why I came down here to see yDu, and I suppose that is why you refused to speak to me. But I think I have proved—"
"Proved! Of course you have," Geraldine said impetuously. "And if I had cared less—"
"Oh, then, you do care?"
Geraldine said nothing, but smiled unsteadily, at which he caught her in his arms and kissed her, and together they walked quietly out into the sunshine.
THERE was no light in the big room except the deep orange glow of the fire on the broad stone hearth, so that the rest was merged in the shadows—shadows velvety black, with suggestions of light here and there such as Rembrandt loved to paint. A fine, big room, radiating comfort and luxury, and refined silence, as if the world were very far away; which, indeed, it was, for the old house nestled on the edge of Whinborough Common, over against the golf-links, the only house within two miles of where it stood.
On either side of the fire were deep arm-chairs, merely suggested in that velvety gloom; in the big bay window a roll-top desk, which was the only modern note in the house. And round about that roll-top desk there played, presently, little violet specks of light in thin, dagger-like flashes, hardly visible in themselves, but quite sufficient for their purpose. There came, too, suddenly, a touch of the keen October air, as if a window had been suddenly opened. And after that a faint creaking sound as if, perchance, the top of the desk had been pushed back very quietly and cautiously, followed by a fat and greasy chink, as if two coins had come in contact one with the other. Then a minute disc of violet light concentrated itself upon a little heap of sovereigns and the crisp outline of a bank-note or two. All this with no more sound than a mouse would have made behind the old oak panelling there at the back of the velvet-black shadows; but it was sufficient for one man there.
He leant forward out of the depths of his big arm-chair where he had been seated, listening and sniffing up the damp pungency of the dew-drenched night, seated there as if he had been part and parcel of the shadows. There was just a tiny click, and the room was flooded with light.
"Come along," the man in the arm-chair said. "Sit there in the chair opposite me." He spoke quietly enough, in a slow, clear-cut voice that had in it a vibration of command and perhaps a certain suggestion of cruelty. The other man, standing by the desk with the electric torch in his hand, wheeled suddenly round and stood there with parted lips and terror in those watery brown eyes of his.
"Roger Broadley!" he gasped.
The words were faint enough, but they carried to the ears of the man sitting in the big arm-chair. He made no sign, the suggestion of a smile was still upon his lips, and those merciless flint-blue eyes of his were turned steadily upon the man with the torch in his hand. The smile was so fixed and the blue eyes so steadfast that the intruder was puzzled to know whether his startled expression had been heard or not. His first impulse was flight by the open window at the back of the desk, or, alternately, through the open door. But the craven fear that had paralyzed the man called Canton all his life held him now, and he cursed himself silently for his want of purpose. He was afraid to turn and fly, afraid of the bullet that might follow him, or the strong, nervous hand that might pluck him back. Very slowly and reluctantly he crossed the room and dropped unsteadily into the chair on the other side of the fireplace. He was still puzzled and dazed, and almost madly anxious to know if the other had recognized him. And there were urgent reasons why he should not be recognized
But he could see no gleam of remembrance in the concentrated lightning of those flint-blue eyes. And with that Canton began to pull himself together again. With any luck he might be able to bluff himself out of it yet.
"Fairly got me, haven't you?" he hazarded, with a certain uneasy assumption of ease. "Know me, perhaps?"
He spoke with just the suggestion of a lisp, a slight defect due toa missing front tooth. The big man in the opposite arm-chair smiled—smiled in a horribly capable, assured manner that brought the sweat out on Canton's face again. For the other man was so big and strong, so capable and certain of his ground. And those blue eyes burnt and seared like so many live wires in the heart of the craven opposite.
"We won't discuss that for the moment," Broadley said. "And we need not waste time in guessing the reason that brought you here. That torch of yours and the open desk yonder with the gold and notes lying there would be proof, I think, satisfactory to any magistrate of ordinary intelligence. Now, this is the first time I have ever had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman of your profession. Have you been brought up to it, or was it, so to speak, forced upon you?"
Canton almost smiled. Obviously this man, whom he had every cause to fear, had not recognized him. Indeed, why should he? Canton argued, for they had never met face to face, though Canton knew Broadley well enough by reputation. The mean little face, with its narrow, shifty eyes and unsteady lips, grew more resolute, and hope began to bud again.
"Well?" Broadley said. "Well? Of course, you needn't talk unless you like. I suppose you know I am alone in the house. My man is away with the car, at Oxbridge Station, waiting for a friend of mine. So, you see, we are quite alone, and merely man to man. There is nothing to detain you. You can go, if you like. Why don't you?"
Canton snarled bitterly.
"Oh, yes, I know all about that," he said. "You are a bigger man than I am, and you wouldn't talk like that if you weren't armed. Directly I turn my hack upon you, I shall get one through the shoulder. You can't fool me!"
"I am not trying," Broadley said, quietly. "I am stating a self-evident fact, if you only knew it. You have me at a great disadvantage."
Canton snarled again; he would have liked to have risen up and struck this sneering antagonist of his between those merciless blue eyes. He would have liked to disfigure that clean-shaven, humorous face, with its faint suggestion of cruelty about the corners of the lips. But he was afraid, and he cursed himself for his fear. He knew himself to be a sneak and a coward, as he had been all his life. He sat there sullenly till Broadley spoke again.
"Very well, then," the latter said. "I have given you every opportunity. I have told you you could go if you like, and that you had me at a great disadvantage. But you are the class of criminal who never knows when he hears the truth; in fact, doesn't understand when he does hear it. You think you are my prisoner. Well, we'll let it go at that. I am quite alone in the house, and feel in the mood for company. Now tell me something about your past life. From your accent, I should judge that at one time you were what is called a gentleman?"
The little spurt of hope burnt more clearly in Canton's breast. He was still in deadly fear of the man opposite, afraid of his strength and his coolness; but it might be possible that a plausible tale, well told, would pave the path to freedom. And George Canton was quite good at that sort cf thing. It was just the sneaking line of policy that his soul loved.
"You are quite right there," he said, "I was a gentleman at one time. Public school and university; though, if you don't mind, I won't say which."
"Oh, I don't mind in the least," Broadley smiled. "It would probably be a lie, in any case. Go on."
"You may not believe it," Canton said, "but I was brought up for the Church. And at one time I was honestly under the impression that I should make a success of it. But somehow it didn't seem to work, and when I found myself in London at the age of twenty-three with a fair income and quite good prospects, I drifted gradually into evil ways, until nearly everything was gone and I had lost most of my friends."
"And then you married?" Broadley suggested.
"Then—then you know?" Canton gasped.
"My good man, surely that was a reasonable guess. Men of your type always marry. For some occult reason, known only to Providence, the average waster seems always in a position to command the love and affection of some good woman. I have seen it over and over again. And she clings to him till the end, where she would tire of a man worthy of the name. Of course you married. And of course, you broke the heart of the woman who gave herself to you—though you going to deny it."
"I didn't," Canton retorted. "I tell you I made a mistake; perhaps we both did, for the matter of that. I had lost nearly all my money, as I told you, and all my friends, and I was beginning to get tired of the life I was leading. It seemed to me that if I could meet the right woman there was a chance for me yet, because I was still young and I had not done badly, at school and Cambridge. And I did meet her; at least, I thought so. To begin with, she knew a good deal about my past, and was quite prepared to overlook it. And, mind you, I had still a few hundreds left. My idea was to go into business and settle down and become a respectable member of society. And I believe I should have done so if my wife had helped me."
"And she didn't?" Broadley asked, mockingly.
"Not after the first few months," Canton went on. "Perhaps it wasn't altogether her own fault. I was too easy with her, too fond of her, and allowed her to have her own way too much. She hadn't the least notion of the value of money, and everything she wanted she just got. We were living in a flat in Bloomsbury, where my family had had a lot of property at one time, so that my credit was good, and my wife could get all she needed. It was the old story: a foolish man over head and ears in love with a silly woman, vain and frivolous, who had only one object in life, and that was to enjoy herself. You can imagine how I suffered with the little money I had going out every day and nothing coming in, because my business efforts were a failure. You see, I wasn't made for business, I wasn't trained for it; and though I tried hard enough, God knows, I lost one situation after another."
Canton paused and sighed eloquently, the my sigh of a man who has told his tale before and found it good. He reflected that perhaps he might touch the heart of the man opposite to a pitch of something more than freedom. And, above all, he had the feeling that Broadley had not recognized him.
"Go on," Broadley said. "I am always interested in the human document, especially when it has frayed edges."
"Well, the time came at last," Canton proceeded, "when things reached a crisis. I had no money left, and when my pretty doll of a wife discovered that, she threatened to leave me. Just at that time I was in the office of a big firm of jewellers. It was not that I was getting much, but my employer trusted me. More than once he had sent me to a great house in the West-end with gems to deliver on approval. That night I came home with a pearl necklace in my pocket. It should have been delivered that evening at the house of one of our great millionaires, but her ladyship was out of town, or gone to some big function, so I took the case home with me. Would to Heaven I had done nothing of the kind! Would that I had said nothing to my wife about it, for she stole that necklace when I was asleep, and tried to sell it. Of course, she was found out; of course, she was discovered and prosecuted for the theft. I was arrested too, and the people who prosecuted me tried to make out that she was a tool in the matter, and that I had merely used my wife as a shield to hide my own crime."
"And the jury believed it?" Broadley asked, dryly.
"They did, sir; they did," Canton whined.
"They said that my wife was absolutely innocent, and that when I sent her with those pearls in her pocket to sell them to a notorious receiver of stolen goods for five hundred pounds I did so because I was too much of a coward to take them myself. I remember that the judge was particularly hard on me."
"I can imagine it," Broadley smiled. "I can imagine him saying that you were a particularly poisonous type of humanity, and a scoundrel of the worst kind who never hesitates to shield himself behind an innocent and injured woman."
"But you don't believe it, sir?" Canton asked, with some anxiety. "You have heard of hard-working men who have been ruined by their wives?"
"Many a time," Broadley said. "And so, you are one of that class, are you? Evidently a sad case. But I interrupt you. What was the upshot of the tragedy?"
"I got five years," Canton said. "And they acquitted my wife, the judge saying that he was convinced that she was absolutely innocent. You see, being a pretty woman with friends, she could call all sorts of evidence in her favour, and she did. Why, when the jury acquitted her, there was actually applause in court. Not that I minded; I still loved her far too well to want to see her suffer."
Just for a moment the two steel-blue eyes turned fully on Canton's face blazed, and the strong, capable hands on the elbows of the arm—chair clenched till the knuckles stood out like ivory. Then the humorous mouth smiled again.
"Your sentiments do you credit," Broadley said. "I quite understand, the strong man suffering in silence for the sake of a shallow and frivolous woman. My good sir, the thing has been done in scores of novels and plays, and will go on appealing to the gallery as long as there is a cinema palace left. So you went to jail, and the woman escaped scot-free. And what happened afterwards ? Did you seek her out, did you find her in rags and poverty, and take her back to your broad, manly bosom and wipe her tears away?"
Canton winced, hut wisely ignored the sarcasm. He was fighting for his liberty now, and therefore declined to be ruffled hy such a little thing as that.
"I did find her, sir." he said. "And she did come back to me for a short time. But I had to leave her; I had to leave her because she was past all endurance. I gave her every penny that I had, and we parted for ever."
"I wonder," Broadley said, softly, "I wonder if, on the face of God's earth, there is a slimier seoundrel than yourself? You did nothing of the kind, Canton."
"Then—then you recognize me!" the other gasped.
"Oh, I recognized you right enough. I knew who you were directly I turned the light on and you uttered my name under your breath. We have never met face to face, but you have seen me and you knew who I was at once. If you had known that this bungalow belonged to me, I hardly think that you would be sitting here to-night. I heard you speak only once when I was in the next room to you on an occasion that you might remember, and that little lisp of yours betrayed you—and the way in which you whispered my name. And, Geroge Canton, you can take it from me that I never forget. When Nature deprives a man of one sense, she generally makes up for it by strengthening another. You rascal, how dare you lie to me!"
Canton put up hands as if to ward off a blow. He knew that all his efforts were in vain, he know that he could expect no mercy at the hands of this man. He looked around wildly for some avenue of escape, anywhere to get away from those blazing eyes and that hard face that now was as cruel as the grave. But he could see no sign of an opening anywhere.
"Now, let me tell you the story, Broadley said, coldly and incisively in words that seemed to drop like little bits of ice along Canton's spine. "Let us collaborate. You see, I am rather practised at that game. I think I can add a touch or two of realism to that glib narrative of yours."
"Just as you like, sir," Canton said fawningly.
"Then, in that case, let us begin at the beginning. It is twelve years ago—twelve years ago to-night, strangely enough—that I became engaged to be married. You know what Agnes Westley was like, so I will not waste time in painting her portrait for you. She was as good as she was beautiful, in every way a perfect woman, and she loved me. My prospects were then perfect, there was no cloud on the horizon anywhere. Really you had better go before I murder you."
Canton looked hopelessly into the heart of the fire and then round the big room, with its bookshelves and pictures and the glint of china in the cabinets, and his jaw worked convulsively. He burst out suddenly:—
"You are torturing me, you devil!" he said. "You know I cannot get away, you know I am in your power!"
"Very well, then," Broadley said, more evenly. "You have had your chance, and when you realise what you have lost and how you lost it—but never mind that. Let me go on. Where was I? Yes, I was talking of Agnes Westley. I didn't know then that she knew you. I didn't know that you were planning and contriving to come between us until it was too late and I had lost her, owing to those lies of yours and those forgeries that she believed. And for two years I did not know where she was, until wrote to me for money. She would not have done so but that you forced her, and it was only then that I learnt the story. When I called to see her in London I found her in miserable lodgings, for your money was all gone, and you were in desperate straits to find food for your wife and yourself. You were in bed at the time, you remember, and l heard you speak. I heard those rasping tones of yours with that unmistakable lisp, which I have never forgotten, and which, somehow, I knew I should hear again. And even then, low as you had fallen, and badly as you had behaved, Agnes was doing her best to he a good wife to you. I helped her, as you know, hut she would only take sufficient for her bare needs, and I left her, promising to see her again. The next day she was arrested in an attempt to get rid of those pearls which you had stolen. You told me a lie just now when you said you were a trusted servant. You stole those jewels, and, like the coward and cur that you are, you did not dare to take them to your employer who had commissioned you to steal them. You knew that the police were watching you; you deceived your wife, and she fell into the hands of the police. And your defence was that you were a poor and struggling man who had been ruined hy an extravagant wife, who took advantage of your love for her to spend all you had. You contemptible scoundrel, you vile and filthy dog! Never was there a man who had a more loyal helpmate, though she had discovered the trick you had played upon her long before. But you were not ashamed to stand up in the dock by her side and tell the judge much what you were telling me just now hefore you realized that I had recognised you, and when you were hoping to play upon my clemency. But the evidence of the police was too strong for you, and the unhappy woman who stood in the dock with you was acquitted. The police behaved very fairly so far as she was concerned, and she left the court without a stain on her character. Everybody believed that she was innocent and that she did not know what she was doing when she attempted to get rid of those pearls. And so you got your deserts, and she was free. And, knowing this, you come here to rob me and still further vilify the woman who behaved so loyally to you. In the face of all this you expect me to let you go. But not quite like that, Mr. Canton. I am working out a little revenge of my own, and when you realize how I am bringing it about, then I think I shall be satisfied. Now, have you anything more to say?"
Once more Canton looked round the room, once more he weighed up the chances of a struggle with the man who sat opposite him in the big arm-chair. But it was all useless, all so futile that he resigned himself in a sullen despair. What was the use of speaking, what was to be gained by an appeal to that grim-faced man with the merciless blue eyes who sat in the big chair opposite?
"You say nothing," Broadley went on. "And so I had better finish my story. From time to time I helped Agnes, until you were free, and then I persuaded her to accept a certain sum of money at my hands and go abroad. You came back just about that time and robbed her of every penny she had. You robbed her and left her to starve. And she would have starved but for me; though, mind you, I did not find out this till long afterwards, when she was dying of fever—dying alone and friendless in a little cottage in the country. It is nothing to you that I contracted that fever, and that, in one way, I have never been the same man since."
Canton listened miserably enough, still with a desperate hope that something might happen in his favour, until presently he could hear the sound of wheels in the distance, and a car pulled up in front of the bungalow. Then there were voices in the hall, and a moment or two later the door of the library opened and a man in the uniform of a chauffeur came in.
"Ah, here you are, Rufford," Broadley cried. "Did I hear Mr. Stern's voice?"
"Yes, sir," the man called Rufford said. "He has gone up to his bedroom to wash his hands. I told him as I was looking after you, and that supper would be ready in the dining-room directly he came down. But I beg your pardon, sir."
"Oh, don't go away," Broadley went on.
"You are not intruding, Rufford. In fact, if you are quite ready, I want you to look after this visitor of mine. He is quite an involuntary guest, a kind of Autolycus— that is, Rufford, what you call a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. In other words, a burglar, who found his way in through the window under the mistaken impression that the house was empty. We have been having quite an interesting chat, Rufford, and I find that the gentleman is an old acquaintance of mine."
"That's very clever of you, sir," Rufford said. "You have had a narrow escape, I think."
Canton listened dully. It struck him that Rufford's words concealed a certain cruel irony.
"Well, perhaps I have, Rufford," Broadley said. "But, then, appearances are deceptive, and our friend here, fortunately, does not know as much as you and I. You had better take this fellow and tie him up and lock him in the larder. I believe there are iron bars to the window. Then you can telephone for the police, and keep an eye on the fellow till they come. And if he slips through your fingers, Rufiord, I shall be exceedingly annoyed. I am not a vindictive man, as you know, but I have peculiar reasons so far as this scamp is concerned."
"I think you can rely upon me, sir," Rufford said.
"I think I can. Is that Mr. Stern calling? All right, Walter, I am coming. Go into the dining-room and wait for me, and we'll have some supper. I think that's all, Rufford."
"Very good, sir," Rufford replied.
Broadley rose quietly from his chair and crossed the room slowly and deliberately, touching the back of a chair here and there until he felt his way out into the hall. It was all done so quietly and withal so cautiously that Canton for the moment hardly understood. Then understanding came to him as he turned with a sudden savage energy to the imperturbable Rufford.
"What—what's the matter with him?" he asked.
"Didn't you know?" Rufford replied. "He has been like that ever since an attack of scarlet fever years ago. My master is stone-blind."
IT was a great nuisance, of course, especially for a young man in the first flush of a glorious manhood, properly gilt with a fine overlay of necessary dollars, but there was no help for it. It did not necessarily follow that Perry Brogden was any the less of a business man because his life was entirely devoted to pleasure and the seductive joys of New York. Because he came from a race of business men—the instinct was in his blood—and, rich as he was, he did not view with equanimity the idea of sacrificing a million or two simply because he was too lazy to stretch out his hand and get it. Still, it was the season in New York, the hospitalities of Fifth Avenue were in full blast, and the theatres were more than usually alluring. All this naturally appealed to the fine, athletic young man, who was wont to come up smiling at breakfast-time on the morning after the night before, and declare with perfect truth that he had never felt more fit in his life. Moreover, he belonged to all the exclusive clubs, and there wasn't a single dowager in Fifth Avenue who would not have been delighted to call Perry Brogden her son-in-law.
And now he had come into still more money, left him by a typical backwoods uncle, the genuine "hayseed" who had made his money somewhere north of Patagonia, where he had died after forty years in a wilderness without one solitary glance of Western civilisation. This uncle had been the owner of the Island of—well, let us call it Terra Incognita, a long slice of country, picturesque and romantic, between Brazil and Patagonia, where he had devoted his energies to something like a million head of stock. As a matter of fact, Brogden had never seen him; but this neat little accumulation of dollars had come his way now, and it was up to him to look after it. His idea was to get out to Terra Incognita with a view to making an inventory of things there, and sell the property as quickly as possible to the best advantage. He knew something about ranches, for he had once spent the best part of a year in the role of an amateur cowboy on the plains of Texas, before his father had died and the lure of New York had proved too strong for him.
He didn't in the least want to go—he had no desire to turn his back upon the theatres, where he was favourably known, and where a score or more of actresses called him by his Christian name—but he was wise enough to see the necessity of grace before meat, so to speak, so he hired himself a steam yacht and set off for the long journey beyond the reach of civilisation, taking with him one Larry Hack, a genuine Texas cowboy whom he had made friends with, and who would not only be a friend and companion, but a sound judge of the fat beeves and wool-bearing sheep that formed the population of Terra Incognita. There was an old overseer there, it was true—a dour, sour Scotsman with a taste for solitude—a handful of peons, and certain natives who did much as they liked on the island, so long as they did not interfere with the course of business.
The yacht came, in the course of time, to the little natural harbour, and the overseer was looked up by Perry Brogden and his fidus Achates in a dilapidated old hacienda where Havelock lived and divided his time impartially between his work, his whisky, and certain theological books of the school made popular by Ernest Renan and his satellites. He was a crabbed man, hard as nails, exceedingly bad-tempered, but, withal, industrious and honest, as your Scotsman is the world over.
"You'll no stay here long, I'm thinking, Mr. Perry," he said, as they smoked a pipe together. "It's a mighty fine climate the noo, and a bonny picture, but it's dull—aye, it's dull—and if you could stand it—"
It certainly was a beautiful picture, with those great frowning cliffs on the verge of the sea, and the deep fertile valleys fringed with forest trees behind, a marvellous natural picture and a perfect setting for any romance that might happen along, and Brogden was greatly impressed by it.
"It's grand," he said—"grand! Absolutely made for adventures. Do you ever have any, Mr. Havelock?"
"Never one in forty years," Havelock said. "Hoots, mon, there's nothing here to stir the sluggish blood. We used to have wee bit trouble with the natives, who are part Patagonian Indians, ye ken; but we let 'em alone, and they let us alone. And if we miss a beast or a sheep sometimes—why, it doesn't much matter, and no questions are asked. But maybe it is not your intention to stay here."
"Certainly not," Brogden said emphatically. "I'll just remain long enough to make an inventory, with a view to selling the whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel. How long do you think that'll take me, Havelock?"
"Ah, well," Havelock said guardedly, "perhaps a week, perhaps a month. But we'd better say a month. Because, ye ken, the spirit moves me sometimes, an' it takes a week of whisky to lay it again. Forby, I may keep sober for a fortnight, and then ye'll be all right."
"Oh, take your time," Brogden said. "Meanwhile Larry Hack and myself will do a bit of prospecting. You've got some nice-looking horses here, I see. Just pack us enough grub and blankets to keep us going for three or four days, and we'll have a run round the island. I don't want to interfere with your work, and you needn't hurry over it, either."
For the next few days Brogden and his companion ranged far and near over the glorious country, at one time down in the well-watered valleys, where the grass was nearly knee-deep, and the contented herds were fattening, at another killing game in the forest that fringed the slopes, and anon along the higher ranges, that were capped with snow. It was a glorious life in one of the most glorious climates in the world, and the air, fine as champagne, sang in the veins of the adventurers.
"Aye, it's real grand, this," Larry Hack said. "Knocks spots off Texas. All we want now is a convenient bar and an occasional mix-up, just to make things happy and comfortable. The better I feel, the more I spoil for a fight. Not that we're likely to get it here, anyhow."
"I'm afraid not, Larry," Brogden said regretfully. "The few Indian chaps we've met are picturesque-looking enough, and the right type, according to the pictures, but they are most disgustingly peaceful."
"Well, I guess we've got to make the best of it," Hack said. "Anyway, it's good to be out in the open air again, with a fine horse between one's knees, and, perhaps, with the blessing of Providence, we shall hit something up yet."
A day or two drifted by, until at length they emerged out of the valley past a wide, sweeping plain along the edge of the cliffs, which were broken here and there by sudden declivities and rocky ramparts that fringed the shore. A mile or so ahead, on a bold promontory, stood an old farmhouse, or hacienda, which appeared to be deserted and more or less falling into decay, a house built there, no doubt, in the old days by some sanguine settler, before the advent of old man Brogden, with his new methods and keen business habits. The two men lay there on the grass, smoking their pipes after a hearty tea in the early afternoon, and idly debated as to whether it would be better to push on and make the picturesque ruins their headquarters for the night, or stay and camp where they were. They were still talking it over idly, when Brogden sat up suddenly.
"Here, what's going on over there?" he asked. "I can see figures moving about like bees outside a hive, and—well, if that place isn't on fire, I'm much mistaken."
Surely enough a thin wisp of smoke rose from the hacienda and drifted idly on the amber air. It increased in volume presently, until a dense black pall hung overhead, and yellow tongues of flame lifted themselves above the broken timbers of the house. Round about the blaze a score or more of figures danced excitedly, buzzing around like wasps that had been smoked out of their nest. Brogden grabbed eagerly for his glasses.
"They're Indians," he said, after a long inspection. "Here, Larry, look for yourself. They're Indians on the war-path, and they've set the place on fire. Here is your adventure, my boy—something wrong over there."
"Yes, they're Dagoes, right enough," Hack drawled, "And, by all that's holy, they've got guns, too! There's something going on inside that old building that's got their dander up considerable. Now, shall we cut in and take a hand, or shall we just sit quietly here and see how the land lies? It would be a thousand pities to miss the fun."
By way of reply, Brogden snatched the glasses from his friend's hand and glued them to his eyes.
"It's no ordinary scrap," he said. "There's something going on here that I don't like the look of at all. Look, there are women there! White women, too! American girls dressed in white, and ladies, I should say!"
Amazing as it seemed, it was even as Brogden said. With the aid of the powerful glasses he could see everything that was going on. He saw the natives rushing the building they had set on fire, he saw one of the shuttered windows open, and two girls standing on the verandah, clinging to one another and evidently terrified to the verge of distraction. Then he saw half a dozen men rush frantically towards the blazing mass and snatch up the girls in their arms.
A moment or two later a man appeared, a man dressed as a tourist, in a neat grey flannel suit, a man who had a cigarette in his mouth and in either hand a revolver, which he emptied indiscriminately into the crowd opposite. In Larry's language, he was no slouch of a shot, for half a dozen of the foe suddenly collapsed and lay there on the grass, taking no further interest in the proceedings. Almost immediately there was another rush, and the man in the grey suit was overpowered in his turn and rendered harmless. Then the whole party slowly began to move towards the cliffs where the rocks shelved down to the shore.
"Well, that chap ain't no slouch as a revolver shot," Larry said, speaking in the tones of an expert. "But say, boss, are we goin' to stop frozen here, or are we goin' to hustle round and strike a blow for civilisation?"
"Of course," Brogden said, "it's no use butting headlong into a fray like this. There are only two of us, and we are none too well off for ammunition. If we do anything rash, we shall share the same fate as the rest. No, we must stalk them, and try to take them unawares."
The horses were picketed in a little grove, the provisions hidden, and then, very slowly and cautiously, Brogden and his companion crept through the long grass in the direction of the spot where the Indians had gathered together in a circle, in the centre of which were their captives, bound and helpless. The whole thing was amazing—a sort of spectacular dream, and the last thing in the world to be expected in that peaceful spot.
"Seems almost like a nightmare," Brogden murmured. "Now, who, in the name of Mike, can those people be, and what are they doing here? The man in the grey suit might have just stepped out of his club, and those two women are most beautifully turned out—white muslin dresses, suggestive of Paris, and all the rest of it. I have never seen anything like it outside the theatre before."
"Well, we'll soon know," Larry said cheerfully. "Wbat we've got to do is to get as close as we can and lie low till it gets dark. I don't suppose they'll trouble to post any sentries. Guess they look upon themselves as absolutely safe, which is where we come in later on, when they lie down with clear consciences for a good night's rest. And we, with a couple of revolvers apiece, ought to be able to round up the bag and balance the accounts of those chaps nicely."
"Yes, that's a very good programme," Brogden said impatiently, "especially if they play the game according to the rules. What are they up to now?"
As he spoke, one of the girls in white was jerked to her feet and led away, shrinking and protesting, in the direction of the low cliffs, which hung sheer for twenty feet or so over the edge of the sea. Through the glasses it was plain to see the fear on her face and the look of dumb anguish in her eyes. But her struggles and protestations were— apparently all in vain, for she was urged on, not without violence, towards the edge of the sloping cliff where it came within some twenty feet or so of the sea beneath. And all this was being watched with the keenest interest by the two men, anxious and willing enough to take a hand, but quite conscious of the fact that any interference on their part might lead to unpleasant consequences to themselves without benefiting the hapless victim in the least. They could only sit there and sweat, and swear, and grind their teeth, hoping against hope that something might happen to give them a real chance.
And then gradually they began to understand what was the real intention of those dancing, yelling fiends on the edge of the cliff. They could see that the leader of them—a big man who appeared to belong to another nationality altogether—had passed a rope or a lariat under the woman's arms, and that she was being lowered over the edge of the cliff until she was suspended six or seven feet above the sea. Then the end of the rope was made fast on the top of the cliff, and the woman, helpless and impotent, was left to her fate.
Hack drew a long, deep breath.
"Do you begin to spot what the game is, boss?" he whispered. "Those devils are going to leave that woman there to drown. As the tide rises, so will her fate be sealed. And all we can do is to sit here looking on like a pair of dudes in the stalls of a New York theatre! I have seen some pretty cold-blooded things in my time, but never a stunt like this. Guess that woman's got some secret they want her to tell, and they'll leave her there to drown or call out before it is too late. Here, say, I can't stand this!"
"What are you going to do?" Brogden asked.
"Well, I guess I'm going to crawl back as far as the camp and get hold of a Winchester. You just freeze yourself here till I come back. I ain't no slouch as a shot, as you know, and from here I calculate I can lob a bullet into that big bully in the sombrero, and fix a receipt stamp to his little account. And there ain't no hurry, either. It brings the blood into your face, but I calculate that poor girl's got to wait a spell. And maybe we can save her yet."
Larry Hack was back in a few moments with a rifle in his hand. He gazed long and earnestly in the direction of the speck of white suspended there between heaven and earth over the side of the cliff. Then his lips began to twitch and his eyes to sparkle.
"Say, boss," he said, "you ain't no slouch as a swimmer."
Brogden admitted the compliment, which in his case was no compliment at all, because he really was an expert in the water.
"Yes, that's all right," he said, "but I don't quite see how it helps matters."
"Well, it's like this, general," Hack went on. "You drop into the water and swim out as far as the girl. You can't reach her from the sea, I know, but that's where I come in. Now, from where those chaps are they can't see what's going on, and, as far as I can guess, they seem to be getting pretty busy with the Bourbon. And they won't move till the girl cries out, which I don't suppose'll be till the water reaches her knees, anyhow. Long before that time you ought to be right handy there on the spot, and when the persecuted heroine drops into your arms, you can swim with her round the point. There's a bit of a sandy beach on the far side which you can just see, and you can land her there. You can do that, can't you?"
"Well, that ought to be easy enough," Brogden said. "I can get her ashore without a doubt. But how am I going to lay hands on her?"
"I'll tell you all that," Hack said. "I can creep within a couple of hundred yards or so along yonder ledge of rocks, and I'm going to shoot her free."
"Shoot her free?"
"Guess that's the programme, commander. I can hit that rope at two hundred yard? and cut it in a couple of shots, or I've forgotten how to shoot. Why, I've split a willow wand at three hundred yards before now, and won money over it. Oh, that's all right. Then you get along with the booty, and I'll skirt the camp and join you on the other side with the Winchester and our revolvers. We'll put up some sort of a fight, and maybe, with any luck, get away safely."
It was a desperate chance, but then the situation was desperate, and Brogden was not disposed to hesitate. He had no doubts whatever about his prowess as a swimmer, and he felt convinced that, if Larry's aim was sure, he conld manage to convey the unfortunate girl to safety without very much trouble. If she had ordinary pluck, she might listen to what he had to say, when he got near enough to her to explain, and once he had her safely in his arms he did not doubt the issue. Moreover, from where they were seated, the Indians could not see what was going on, and, so long as they remained where they were, the plan might go forward without hindrance. And once the girl was landed on the beach, and Hack joined his companion, they might have a real fair chance of getting away altogether.
The moment of danger would come, of course, directly Hack fired his first shot. That would certainly alarm the ruffians and bring them to their feet at once. But then, if Hack were cautious, he would be able to hide himself, and the search for him might, in fortunate circumstances, give Brogden the precious moments that he required.
All this having been settled, Brogden divested himself of most of his clothing and plunged boldly into the sea. A quarter of an hour's steady swimming brought him to the point of the cliffs over which the fair victim in white was suspended. He could see that her hands and feet were bound, and that she was supported by leather thongs under her arms. Apparently her captors were not entirely devoid of human feeling, for Brogden could see that the rope was padded. He could also see that the girl was exceedingly fair to look at, with regular features, which features, however, to his surprise, bore the evident marks of paint and powder. Evidently a heroine, no doubt, who was not familiar with the rough life of the South Pacific, and probably, with her unfortunate sister and the man in the flannel suit, had landed on that lone coast from some ship or yacht, which in all probability was not far off.
Those bonds were all in Brogden's favour. They would prevent the helpless heroine from dragging on him, so that, when the time came, she would be compelled to do exactly as he told her. He trod water easily and began to speak.
Hardly were the first words out of his mouth before there came the sound of a shot, followed by a second one, and then, as if by a conjuring trick, the rope broke, and the girl in white fell almost into Brogden's arms. He heard the wild scream that came from her lips as she disappeared under the surface, then, as she came up again, he caught her by the shoulders and turned her gently on her side.
"Don't be frightened," he said. "You are perfectly safe. You can manage to get the tips of your fingers on my shoulders, can't you? But, whatever you do, keep your nerve, and I'll have you out before you know what's happening."
"Is that so?" the girl said, and in a voice so astonishingly cool that Brogden was fairly startled for a moment. "I haven't the remotest idea who you are, but you are rather a comfort. Oh, I'm not going to lose my nerve. This sort of adventure is quite in my line."
Brogden went on marvelling, but said nothing. He wanted all his breath now, despite the fact that his task was an easy one, and that the girl was doing everything he could desire. He swam on steadily round the point, and was drawing into shallow water, when he heard a shout from the cliff, and, looking up, saw Hack gesticulating wildly there, utterly indifferent, apparently, to the fact that he was in full view of the foe.
"Get back, you fool!" Brogden panted.
"Too late," Hack said—"they've spotted me. They spotted me some time ago. And they've got a Maxim gun yonder! Heaven knows where they got it from, but it's there!"
Surely enough, what might have been a Maxim gun was trailing over the edge of the cliff, and what appeared to be another one suddenly showed its nose on the headland behind the gesticulating figure on the cliff. Already on the shelving bit of beach where Brogden intended to land was a band of Indians eagerly awaiting his coming.
They lifted him out of the water and, without further ceremony, rendered him helpless with ropes and rawhides. Then a moment or two later Hack, downcast and disconsolate, and much in the same sorry case, joined his commander.
They were dragged away up the cliffs to the impromptu camp, where the desperadoes were apparently doing themselves remarkably well out of a number of picnic baskets flanked by a small regiment of tempting-looking bottles, over which the big man in the sombrero effectively presided. He was apparently the leader of the gang—no doubt one of those South Sea desperadoes of European origin made familiar to civilisation through the medium of Louis Becke and other picturesque writers who have chosen the Pacific Ocean for the scenes of their stories.
For the moment, at any rate, the persecuted heroine had vanished, so had the other girl, and the man in the flannel suit was not to be seen.
"I think that'll about do," the man in the sombrero said, and immediately the two Maxim guns on either side of the camp vanished. "I think that'll do. Here, Joe, cut away those bonds and offer these gentlemen the hospitality of the circus."
"You want us to drink with you?" Brogden said. "Do you mean to say that you have the infernal cheek—"
"Oh, cut it out!" the chief pirate said genially. "You don't understand, of course. One of our chaps spotted you some time ago, but I didn't come round and exchange cards because, you see, we were busy. And when I saw what you were up to, then I let you go on, because it seemed to me that you'd embroidered some on our original scenario, and I guess we're always open to hints from intelligent strangers. Say, young man, you're a bit of a dandy with a gun, aren't you? When we saw what you were going to do, I didn't interfere, because I'm some of a sportsman myself, and I was ready to bet long odds you couldn't cut that rope at two hundred yards with rifle bullet. Well, yoa did, and I've got a record of it on the film— the thing that you took to be a Maxim gun. Guess you mistook a cinematograph apparatus for a weapon, eh? Well, it was a dandy shot, and it's going to improve our film some. You can see what our game was, but yours was a darned sight better, and if the Broad Highway Film Company have got any sense of gratitude—why, I guess they'll call you part-author of this big new film of ours, and see that you get a handsome royalty."
Brogden sat there with a cold, white light steadily filtering its way to the back of his intelligence.
"So that's the game, is it?" he asked. "Well, you fairly put it over my friend, Mr. Larry Hack, and myself. Yes, I see it's quite all right—I see, on closer acquaintance, that your wild Indians are all duds. But what on earth are you doing here? Why did you come all this way?"
"Local colour, my dear sir, local colour," the big man said. "The finest and most realistic firm in the world is the Broad Highway Film Company. And we're working on a big drama now that's going to make little old New York sit up and take nourishment. There's ten million dollars behind our firm, and the universe has got to know it. And round yonder point is a regular cinematograph ship that's taken us half round the world. I guess it'll be the finest panoramic effect ever seen on the screen, and it'll take two years to complete. Now, say, mister, did you ever hear of an actress called Crystal Rays, and another called Maizie Corn? Well, the first-named star is the lady you pulled out of the water, and the other one you haven't seen yet, and the dude in the flannel suit is our leading man. Some cast, eh?"
"You're right there," Brogden laughed, "I'm from New York, and I know. You might introduce me."
"Certainly, with pleasure, and the artist with the Winchester, the genius who's given us a new sensation in the shape of a thrilling picture. Look here, my champion shot, if you want an engagement at five hundred dollars a week with the Broad Highway Company—why, it's yours!"
ELLIS, standing in the doorway, gave a little sigh of admiration, with perhaps a tinge of envy in it. He could see a room half in shadow and half in the subdued light of the shaded lamps, a flicker of blue and orange from the clear fire, and by the side of it a woman, lying back in a deep, cosy chair.
Colonel Henderson's wife owned frankly to 40 years, and perhaps all the more joyously because she looked at least a decade younger. Her face lighted up now and again, and her lips parted in a smile at some remark by the man who sat at her side, with his long legs stretched out towards the cheerful blaze.
Colonel Henderson was a good ten years older than his wife, though she refused to admit it. He was a fine figure of a man, lean and well-knit, and his hair and moustache bore no trace of grey. Yet he had seen hard service in many lands, and his D.S.O. had been fairly won during the Boer War.
Ellis advanced into the room, and made his presence known. It was good to see the light of pleasure in Molly Henderson's blue eyes, and feel the grip of the Colonel's hand. It was good to sit there facing the cheerful blaze and listen to news of mutual friends. Then gradually the conversation lapsed, as it will between friends, and a long silence followed. It was Ellis who broke it first.
"Well," he said, "you have not asked me how the search has progressed."
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders just a little impatiently. "Oh, the Odyssey," he said. "Aeneas in search of the sentimental idea. My dear fellow, I have never had any sympathy with this scheme at all. To begin with, I can see nothing to be gained by it. Your brother is dead. And he has lain under the veldt now for nearly 13 years. His wife may be dead, too, for all you know. For the sake of argument, let us grant that she isn't. Say you find her, what are you going to do then?"
"Give her back that money," Ellis said. "It belonged to her, and I shall never be satisfied till she has the whole 20 thousand back again."
"Wasn't it more than that?" Henderson asked.
"Well, at one time it was, much more. We heard from Capetown that my brother was married, and that his wife had settled her money on him, but my mother and myself would not have known her if we had met her in the street. Well, she left her husband, heaven knows why, and Philip was heartbroken about it. Then the Boer War broke out, and we gathered from my brother's letters that his wife was entirely in sympathy with the foe. Finally he was left alone, defending his farm with perhaps a couple of English men, and supplying Kitchener with valuable information. And what did that woman do? She left the farm at dead of night, and deliberately betrayed her husband into the hand of the foe. They shot him as he was writing home to tell my mother this, and the unfinished letter reached us in due course. And you laugh at me because I have made it the business of my life to find that woman and give her money back to her. Is not that so?"
"Well?" Henderson said, half wearily. "Go on."
"Well, I am going to make a deliberate accusation against you, George. I am going to challenge you to deny that you know where Philip's wife is to be found."
Molly Henderson lifted a smiling, questioning face to her husband.
He smiled in turn. "I am not going to deny it," he said. "I can't—at least, not till Geoffrey has produced his proofs."
"I can do that," Ellis said, grimly. "Now, as you know, I have been travelling about the Transvaal, hunting for information for the last two years. But the war had removed so many landmarks. Whole families had been wiped out, and people disappeared in the most mysterious manner. Then I got hold of a Cape boy, an old man who remembered my brother, and he took me to the farm, where he died. In one of the ruined buildings I discovered a mass of documents in my brother's handwriting. And amongst them was a common luggage label. It was written by a woman and addressed to Colonel George Henderson at Paarburg, to be called for, and the initials in the corner were those of my brother's wife. A date is on that label, the very day that the woman I am in search of abandoned her husband to his fate. And if you want any more, let the thing speak for itself."
Very quietly Ellis laid the torn slip of paper on the table. Henderson picked it up and examined it carefully.
"I am not denying anything," he said. "I should say, without a doubt, that that label was addressed by your brother's wife, and it would be futile to deny that I am the Colonel Henderson in question."
"Then she did write to you!" Ellis cried, eagerly.
"You can't force me to speak, you know," Henderson said. "For many reasons I deplore this discovery of yours, and yet I cannot tell you why. Give it up, Geoffrey. If that money weighs on your conscience, give it me, and I will see that it reaches its destination. The woman you seek doesn't want it; indeed, I know that she wouldn't touch a penny of it. And I warn you that you will not get any further."
Ellis listened in moody silence, and then turned eagerly to Molly Henderson for sympathy.
"Won't you help me?" he implored. "Dear Molly, George cannot resist you, if you ask him."
"I do ask him," Mrs. Henderson whispered.
Henderson bent and touched his wife's forehead gently. "Listen," he said. "A woman comes to me in the hour of her distress, and appeals to me for protection. Does it matter whether she is good or bad; does anything matter beyond the fact that she is a woman? She came to me, knowing that I was prejudiced against her. She came in peril, with the stigma of the spy upon her. And because she appealed for my protection I gave it her, and I have never regretted it. You know that, Molly, don't you?"
"We have discussed the matter many times," Mrs. Henderson said, with a little catch in her voice. "Don't think we are callous or heartless, Geoffrey. We have not deliberately deceived you. We always hoped that you would forget, and that one of these days some nice girl—"
"There's a nice girl, now," Ellis said, moodily. "But you know I cannot speak to her yet."
"You are a fool," Henderson broke out. "A sentimental fool, who is wasting his life in the pursuit of shadows. And with that I have no more to say."
"I will make one more appeal to you," Ellis persisted. "You suggested just now that there might be a girl somewhere for me, and I have told you that there is. You say you are anxious for my future happiness, and yet all the time you are doing your best to prevent it."
There was something like pity in Henderson's smile, something sad in the expression in Molly's face.
"Well, Molly!" Henderson asked. "Geoffrey has made an appeal to you. What are you going to say?"
"It would be far kinder to say nothing," Molly Henderson murmured, after a moment's hesitation. "As you suggested just now, let sleeping dogs lie."
"But why?" Ellis protested. "Can't you see what a living tragedy the thing is to me?"
"Supposing you were a woman who had done something in the past and had suffered for it," Henderson suggested. "It is always the woman who suffers, you know, always the woman who pays. She may be living out her life in some remote part of the world, she may be the wife of some good fellow who knows nothing of that closed volume. She may be absolutely and entirely happy. You wouldn't grudge her that happiness?"
"What decent fellow would?" Ellis asked. "But is this fact or fable?"
"It's founded on fact, any way. And don't run away with the impression that your brother's case is unique, because more than one Englishman with a Dutch wife paid a similar penalty during that campaign. And the Boers are our blood brothers to-day, mind. I am going to ask you to listen to my story, and perhaps, when I have finished, you will not be so anxious to injure a person whom you have never seen, and who is known to you only by the name of Ruth Ellis."
"The story is worth listening to," Mrs. Henderson murmured.
"I will go back to a few months before the war," Henderson began. "I was in Cape Colony, remember, before the fighting began. And there I met a man whom I will call Trevor. He was a very charming and delightful fellow, a typical, well-bred Englishman, with the public school hall-mark upon him. He had plenty of ambition; perhaps he was a little too ambitious, for he rejected one or two excellent openings on the ground that they were not good enough. As a matter of fact, he was wasting his money, and was just a little too much inclined to spend his evenings in the club billiard-room, when he met a girl. I didn't know her then, but I heard she was a good type, and that her people were wealthy. They got married, and went up country, precisely as your brother did. I heard from him from time to time, though I never met his wife. You see, it was just then that we in the army began to see the red light ahead, and very full our hands were in consequence. But I did not lose interest in Trevor, and he wrote to me frequently. He was always the type of man to show his feelings; he belonged to the emotional class that must have sympathy. His letters gradually changed in tone; he was not getting on with his wife. He complained that she was frivolous and thoughtless, and fond of admiration. She hated the lonely life; there were violent quarrels and passionate scenes, and very vividly they were described. Trevor was a born novelist—anybody who read the letters would have known that. And I am bound to say that I took them all for gospel. They were deucedly convincing.
"I got those letters regularly," Henderson went on. "'They culminated some months later after the war broke out, with the declaration that the woman had left her husband and gone back to Capetown. After a bit, she was back again; indeed, the same thing happened twice more, and then Trevor was killed by a handful of wandering Boers during one of his wife's periodical absences. I thought I'd heard the last of her, but I was mistaken. Late one night an orderly came to me with the information that a woman had called on important business. It was a queer place for a woman, that desolate region, and I must confess that my curiosity was aroused; so the lady came into my tent, and introduced herself as Mrs. Trevor.
"She was quite candid; she knew perfectly well what her husband had written to me, for she had read every line of his letters before they were despatched. She spoke utterly without bitterness; she spoke as one who had suffered in silence at the hands of a madman. It was the old, old story. Trevor had taken to drink—the worst type of drunkard, the man who has savage spells with sober interludes. Geoffrey, I cannot convey to you in as many words what that poor woman had suffered. She had never left the man of her own accord, she had stood by him as long as it was safe; and had fought for his soul. And when she fled in fear of her life, and Trevor was writing whining to me and cadging for sympathy, he was sending her the most passionate and imploring letters, promising her anything if she'd only return. And her return from time to time was none the less noble, because he had killed all her love long ago. She was with him to the end. It came after a scene of violence greater than any that had preceded it, and she, a woman, was left all alone on the veldt. Trevor was shot at daybreak by the roaming Boers I speak of, and, at the last moment, conveyed an impression to me that he had been the victim of treachery on the part of his wife. But I know better; I have chapter and verse for everything I am telling you in my safe yonder. I don't suppose you would care to see it, and, in any case, it is no business of yours. And I think that's about all, Geoffrey."
Ellis looked up with a lack-lustre eye. He only dimly comprehended what all this was leading to.
"A sad story," he murmured. "But I don't see the application of it. It sounds like poor Phil's life over again, in a slightly different form. But, then, poor old Phil did not drink, and he would not have hurt a fly. Good heavens! you're not insinuating—"
"You are very blind, Geoffrey," Mrs. Henderson whispered.
Ellis collapsed trembling into a chair. "Heavens! Is it true?" he cried. "Is it true that all these years I have been sacrificing my life for one so unworthy? But it must be true. Forgive me, Molly, for all the pain I have inflicted upon the one woman who, after my mother, I love best in the world. And how am I going to tell her the truth?"
"Why tell her at all?" Molly Henderson whispered. "Phil's wife is dead. Ruth Ellis died of a broken heart, and lies in her grave out there on the veldt, Molly Henderson, thank heaven, is a different person altogether. And now, Geoffrey—"
Ellis advanced towards the speaker and placed his hands on hers. Then he lifted them to his lips. "Everything is buried on the veldt," he said. "And you will never hear me mention this again. I should like to come back in a day or two, when I feel more able—you know what I mean. And if I leave you now I am quite sure."
He was gone. The door closed behind him.
* * * * *
Henderson laid his hands on his wife's shoulders, and looked down into her eyes. "That was brave of you," he said. "He would never have got the story from me. Still, if you think it is for the best—"
"Oh, yes," Molly Henderson smiled. "It is good for him that he should hear the case for the prisoner. And I am sure I shall never regret that the story has been told. Geoffrey will tell nobody, not even the girl who is waiting for him. And, George, I think it was for her sake that the story was told."
THE car came leisurely down the road, and a pleasant-faced young man stepped on to the wooden platform and accosted the distinguished antiquarian respectfully.
"Dr. Donald McPhail, I think," he said. "I am Raymond Welton. Sir John Denmark asked me to come and meet you."
"Oh, indeed," the famous traveller and antiquarian said. "I haven't seen my old friend, Sir John, for three years; in fact, I don't believe I wrote to him after I went to Mexico. When you are buried out yonder a hundred miles from a town, amongst those Aztec ruins, it is not an easy matter to transmit letters. I hope that nothing serious is the matter?"
"Well, not as far as Sir John and Miss Denmark are concerned," Welton explained. "But it's a ghastly business. Miss Denmark has not been well the last few days, and her maid, Lydia Wrench, has been sleeping in her mistress's dressing-room, so as to be handy in case anything happened. Yesterday morning the maid was found dead in her bed. A doctor from Plymouth who had been called in to make the autopsy was utterly puzzled as to the cause of death. So Sir John asked me to come and meet you, and he hoped that you would not mind putting up at my cottage till the funeral is over. And besides, I shall be honoured if you will come. You see, I am by way of being a novelist, and Miss Denmark and I—"
"Oh, you are Welton, are you?" McPhail asked. "I know your mystery stories quite well. What's the name of that book of yours in which you introduce an Egyptian scarab? Have you got anything of the kind on hand just now?"
"Well, I have," Welton said. "And I was going to ask you to help me, because it is all about those mysterious Aztecs, and there's no living soul who knows more about those strange people than you do. At the British Museum I stumbled on an old manuscript written something after the Munchausen style by a traveller who professed to have been out in Mexico, in the Aztec country. There was some wild legend about a butterfly called the Black Prince. Of course, it is all fiction, but the idea appealed to me so strongly that I am making it the central idea in my new story."
"So you think the manuscript is all romance, do you?" McPhail asked, quietly. "You are quite right, Welton. There is no man alive who knows so much of the Aztecs as I do. I am very sorry to hear about Denmark's trouble, and it is exceedingly good of you to put me up. As an old traveller I am quite used to roughing it."
Raymond Welton's cottage was no more than the owner claimed for it, but it was neat and clean, and the famous traveller's tiny bedroom looked out over the wide Atlantic that broke on the sands six hundred feet below. After a substantial meal McPhail lay back in a big basket-chair, smoking the coarse tobacco that his soul loved, and chatting confidentially with his young host, to whom he had taken a sincere liking.
"Most people would find it rather lonely down here," the professor said. "Not that I quarrel with that. By the way, who lives in that black old house on the brow yonder?"
"That's called Ravenshoe," Welton explained. "It was inhabited by a famous smuggler, whose dark exploits are still talked of by the fishermen. It was a fine place at one time, but only about half the house remains now. The man who lives there is a nephew of Sir John Denmark, and is, in fact, the only child of Sir John's dead sister. He's a queer and mysterious sort of man, very quiet and reserved, and no one knows much about him, except that he's supposed to be connected with some London finance companies. He bought Ravenshoe two years ago, when his wife left him, and he spends about half his time down here. According to Sir John he is an object of pity. I understand he was passionately attached to his wife, who simply walked out of the house one afternoon and declined to come back. More than that, she refused ever to see him again, or to explain her conduct to anyone. Curiously enough, it was this same Julian Rama—"
"What name did you say?" McPhail asked, suddenly.
"Rama. Queer name, isn't it? Julian Rama's father was a Spaniard from Mexico, and, I understand, claims direct descent from Acamapichtle, who was the second king of the Aztecs. Sir John says that Rama has a number of old Aztec manuscripts proving his claim, but these, I believe, he declines to show to anyone. When he hears who you are perhaps he will change his mind, though I doubt it."
"So do I," McPhail said, dryly. "However, that's neither here nor there. Would you mind, Welton, saying nothing of this, I mean as to who I am, to Mr. Rama for the present? It is just possible he has never heard of me."
"As to that, I can't say," Welton replied; "you'd better ask Sir John. At any rate, all I know is that it was when I heard Mr. Rama's story that I first conceived the idea of writing a novel round a mysterious man descended from the Aztecs, and who knows all the black magic and dark traditions which have been handed down from that mysterious race. To my mind they are quite as fascinating as the ancient Egyptian."
"Good Lord, yes," McPhail burst out, suddenly. "I should say they are. All the wickedness of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah and Babylon is wrapped up and packed away in the secret history of the Aztecs. The evil spirit called Tlactecolototl, which these people more or less worshipped, had, I firmly believe, at one time a being in flesh. I tell you, I've seen things myself. I have materialized certain essences and incorporate bodies, and have produced from them results which have made me loathe myself. But you mustn't run away with the impression that this Julian Rama knows as much as I do. Unless he has been out there, as I have done, he couldn't. Probably those documents are merely so many letters to him, and I have no doubt that he is proud of his own descent."
McPhail changed the subject abruptly.
"Now tell me, as a matter of curiosity, were there any marks of violence on the body of the unfortunate girl who died so mysteriously?" he asked.
"None whatever. I saw the poor girl as she lay in bed on her right side, and she seemed to have died peacefully in her sleep. There was nothing to be seen, as far as I could judge, beyond two tiny little marks behind the left ear, no bigger than the point of a needle. They were little reddish specks, white at the base, as if a gnat had stung her. You've got two such marks on the back of your own hand at the present moment."
McPhail glanced hurriedly at his hand, and then he smiled a curious twisted smile that showed his teeth.
"You are a curiously observant young man," he said. "And now, shouldn't we walk as far as Porth Place? I should like, at any rate, just to call and see my old friends."
The blinds were drawn in the long windows and the visitors found Sir John Denmark and his daughter pacing up and down the lawn. They welcomed McPhail cordially and insisted upon his coming into the house.
"You'll find us rather subdued at the present moment," the old Anglo-Indian said. "But, of course, Welton has told you all about it?"
"Oh, yes," McPhail explained. "A most mysterious case, from all accounts. I wonder if you'd mind if I had a look at the unfortunate girl who died so mysteriously."
"Well, I—I don't see why you shouldn't," the startled baronet exclaimed. "The poor child is still lying on her bed, and I'll take you up if you like."
McPhail followed bravely into the darkened room and proceeded to pull up the blind. Then he bent over the body and examined the dead features carefully with the aid of a strong glass which he took from his waistcoat pocket. His flint-blue eyes were bent intently on the tiny little specks under the dead girl's ear. But they were tiny specks no longer: they had developed into little red marks, capped with irregular scars, deep red, with a blue ring at the base.
"My God," McPhail whispered. "So that is it! Thank Heaven, I seem to have got here in time."
The door of the little cottage was thrown wide open so that the light from Welton's reading lamp shone out towards the sea. He had just thrown aside his pen with a gesture of disgust when McPhail came quietly in.
"You have been very patient for the last few days," he said. "And now, my dear Welton, if you have any questions to ask, fire away."
"A hundred," Welton said. "It is five evenings now since I accompanied you into the bedroom of that unfortunate girl, Lydia Wrench. And I saw how deeply you were moved, though I don't think anybody else did. At your suggestion I got Sir John out of the room, and you proceeded to remove one of those tiny sores from the girl's face and put it in your pocket-book. Can you wonder, therefore, that I was curious?"
"Go on," McPhail murmured; "go on."
"Then you asked all sorts of questions. You wanted to know if the dressing-room door was open all night, and whether the door leading into Miss Denmark's bedroom was closed or not. You wanted to know if Miss Denmark's windows were open, and she told you they were. And when Miss Denmark told you that she always pinned her window curtains together in the summer time, because she hated nocturnal moths and insects, and because she had got into the habit of doing that sort of thing in India, you were considerably relieved. Also, you suggested to her that she should keep the doors of her bedroom and dressing-room locked."
"Quite so, Welton," McPhail said. "The death of that poor girl was a mere accident; the pestilence that moved by night was not meant for her at all, but for Daphne Denmark. The mere fact that the girl was sleeping in the dressing-room was unknown to the monster that we have to fight. The danger is close at hand now; it will come as soon as the fading moon is well on the horizon. Therefore the enemy has to move, because he can do nothing unless the weather is hot and fine. I told Sir John that I was going out moth-hunting, and asked him if he would leave one of the windows open so that I could get back into the house. So, as soon as the moon is fairly high, you are going back with me to Porth Place, and we are going to watch and wait for the unseen terror of the night. We shall creep quietly into the house and take our places in the corridor where Sir John keeps his pictures. I have got an electric torch, and I can lend you one too. And make no mistake of the danger. I don't wish to frighten you, but there it is. And that's the sort of thing that tries people's nerve."
"All the same I am quite ready," Welton said, quietly. "I am fighting for the woman I love, and for the woman who loves me. I'd do anything for Daphne."
"I know. Now, if anything happened to Sir John, and especially if anything happened to Daphne, where would the bulk of the Denmark money go to?"
"Why, to Rama, of course. But you don't suggest that a man who is already married, and has a wife living—"
"I suggest nothing. I have been making inquiries; in fact, I've kept the telegraph office at St. Enoc busy during the last few days. You may be surprised to hear that Julian Rama is in desperate need of a thousand pounds."
"Oh, indeed," Welton exclaimed. "Is that why Rama has been in town all the week?"
"My dear fellow, he hasn't been in town at all. He's been here all the time. Like you, he lives all alone, at Ravenshoe, so that he can come and go as he likes, and a man who runs a motor-cycle as he does has only to disguise himself in goggles so that he might pass, even in the village, as a wandering tourist. I am going to show you something to-night that you have never seen before. On the face of it it is nothing but a photograph of a fresco on an old Aztec temple. That fresco I destroyed, but I took this photograph first. Isn't it good?"
The photograph displayed the figure of a woman in Aztec robes lying at full length upon a couch with a hard, white face turned upwards. On one temple something seemed to have perched, something that looked like the petals of a fallen flower, till Welton came to examine it more carefully, and then he saw that it was a gigantic butterfly. There was something weird, and yet so repulsive about it, that Welton shuddered as he gazed at it.
"There is a horrible suggestion about the whole thing," he said. "But it conveys nothing to me."
"It will later on," McPhail said, grimly. "My friend, that's the Black Prince. But come on, we are wasting time here. By the way, have you got any more of that honey that you gave me for tea last night? If so, you might bring a section with you."
Like two burglars they crept into the hall of Sir John's house and up into the gallery. Not a sound did they make, not a sign of their presence did they give, except just once, when McPhail flashed a ray from his electric torch in the direction of one of the bedrooms, after which he proceeded to deposit the section of honeycomb upon the mat outside.
"Sit there," he whispered. "On that oak chest. And take this long-handled Oriental fan in your hand. I have got one too—in fact, I've borrowed them off the wall yonder for the purpose. I'll take my place on the chest on the other side of the corridor, and when the time comes I'll give the signal. Only you're not to make the slightest noise. When I say the word, turn on your electric-torch and thrash about in the air with your fan as if your life depended upon it. I may tell you that it probably does. Now, then."
The electric torch was extinguished, and for a time the two men sat there breathing heavily in the violet darkness. And so it went on for an hour or more, till Welton could feel himself tingle in every nerve, until he felt that he must either rise from his seat and walk about or scream aloud.
And then, suddenly, a queer humming sound broke the intense silence. It was as if a gentle steady breeze was blowing against a highly-strung wire, or as if the two were listening to the dying vibrations of a tuning-fork. It was not a great noise, but in the darkness and silence of the place it struck on Welton's ears with a force that set him trembling in every nerve. It seemed to be all round and about, sometimes up in the roof of the gallery, and then again within a foot of Welton's grey, ghastly face. Then to his relief McPhail spoke.
"Now," he said. "For Heaven's sake, now!"
Welton sprang to his feet and thrashed the dark with the long-handled fan till his arm ached and the perspiration rolled down his cheeks. He was dimly conscious that McPhail was doing the same thing, and then suddenly the professor ceased and a long white ray from the electric torch cut into the darkness. Then something seemed to hum and vibrate, something dazzling in purple and red, and a splendour of spangled gold, followed by the dull impact of some flying body as it came suddenly against a downward sweep of McPhail's fan. For the first time McPhail spoke aloud.
"Got him!" he croaked, in a voice as hoarse as the drone of a circular saw. "Got him! He's past all danger now. Come and have a look, Welton; there's nothing to be afraid of."
Down there on the floor was a huddled mass of some fluffy material, a mangled heap of beauty and colour all blended into one shining and sticky mass.
"The Black Prince," McPhail explained, hoarsely. "The most damnably beautiful thing that ever came out of hell."
"But what is it?" Welton whispered.
"I can't explain here; and, anyway, we haven't finished yet. No, for Heaven's sake, don't touch it. There is nothing more exquisitely beautiful or more deadly poisonous on the face of the earth. And now do you understand what has been worrying me?"
"That devil Rama," Welton exclaimed.
"Of course. Now just wait a minute whilst I get a pair of thick gloves and remove all traces of that hideous mess. Then we'll go as far as Ravenshoe and have this matter out. Unless I am greatly mistaken we shall find the scoundrel at home."
As the two men walked through the moonlight, McPhail proceeded to enlighten his companion.
"It's like this," he explained. "In the ordinary circumstances you would never have got anything out of me about the Black Prince, though, of course, I was interested to hear that you had found that old manuscript at the British Museum. But when you told me all about Rama and the tragedy at Porth Place, then, I must confess, I was disturbed. That's why I asked to have a look at the unfortunate woman. And one glance convinced me that she had fallen a victim to perhaps the most insidious and powerful poison in the world."
"What do you call it?" Welton asked.
"Terafine. It is only found in one insect, and that is the Black Prince. I told Professor Skelton about it a year or two ago, and he made certain investigations on specimens supplied by me, and up to now those investigations are a profound secret. I recognized terafine at once, and the professor confirmed my opinion when he placed that little scab I sent him under the microscope. Then I knew beyond doubt how the girl had died, and I began to make further inquiries into the career of Julian Rama. I found that he was absent frequently in South America on mysterious errands which he said were in connection with a mining concession. And here he doubtless came across the Black Prince. And I found it myself; ah, yes!"
McPhail's voice trailed off for a moment into a hoarse whisper, and the old horror crept into his eyes.
"I don't want to dwell upon that time," he said. "Sometimes I dream of it in the night and wake up wet and cold. But yet I cannot wipe out of my mind the recollection of that evening in the old ruined temple, covered with creepers and orchids, where I first met the Black Prince—met it on the fourth night, under the light of the full moon; when I was watching all alone I saw the infernal thing. I saw a dozen of them, disporting themselves round the remains of a hive of honey which we had taken from a decayed tree. And I fought them, as in the old days they fought the wild beasts at Ephesus. I killed them all, and I buried them whilst my natives slept. I did not want my people to find that the legend was true; but from that day on I never entered an Aztec ruin except in the daylight. And now you know why I asked all those questions, and why I asked Sir John not to identify me with McPhail the antiquary. I didn't want Rama to know who I was, and I don't think he guesses. Come, let us get along, because our night's work is not finished yet."
As they pushed up the slope in the direction of Ravenshoe a fisherman came hurrying along the cliff and pulled up as Welton hailed him by name.
"What's the matter, Tyre?" he asked.
"It's a bad thing that's happened," the fisherman said. "I was going along the cliffs just now, in the direction of Marham, when I see a big car coming up the road with three men in it. One of them was Mr. Pascoe, over to Bodmin, who's Chief of Police there. And from what I could gather the other two were from London, and they had a warrant for Mr. Rama's arrest."
"Then he is a prisoner?" Welton asked.
"Well, no, sir; not in a manner of speaking. Mr. Rama, he must have been looking out for them, for when the car was a quarter of a mile away he comes dashing along on his motor-bicycle down the road and the car pushed on to cut him off. Then Mr. Rama, he swerves round over the headland yonder, so as to make a loop and gain the far side of the Marham Road, which takes him over the slippery grass down the side of the slope, and just then he turns quickly, and over goes the motor-bike and him with the cycle together down the cliff into the sea beyond. I was on my way to tell Sir John."
"Oh, we'll do that," Welton said. "You go down to the beach and see if you can be of any assistance."
As the fisherman vanished McPhail pushed on.
"Come along," he said. "We are not likely to be interrupted, and I couldn't sleep to-night till I have been all over that house. I am not fool enough to believe that that monster Rama has exhausted his supply with two of those loathsome insects. They are tropical insects, and could not live for long in a climate like ours, except in torrid weather, and only then when the moon is in the second quarter. But we have had some very hot nights lately, except for three evenings this week; and this afternoon it was so warm that I knew an attempt would be made to-night. And I was right."
"But if those things are so dangerous to handle?"
"Not to a man who is used to knocking about in motor attire. Mackintoshes and masks and thick gloves not only served Rama as a disguise, but acted as a protection as well. He stole down to Porth Place to-night with one of those infernal moths in a box; he had previously, no doubt, smeared the transom over the bedroom floor with honey, and the big window in the gallery was open. And now, come along and let us wipe out all records."
There was no difficulty whatever in getting into Ravenshoe, for the front door stood wide open, giving on the big hall of the deserted house and the dining-room beyond, where a lighted paraffin lamp stood on the table. In one corner of the room was a safe, the door of which was ajar, and this was crammed with old manuscripts covered with quaint inscriptions that McPhail's experienced eye immediately recognized as Aztec.
"There, what did I tell you?" he said. "Clear that safe out and push all the documents into that sack lying in the corner. Then open the windows and throw it out, and we'll come and recover it in the morning. Upstairs, I think."
They made their way up the wide staircase and searched every room there with the aid of their electric torches. McPhail appeared to be dissatisfied until, presently, he came to a door let into the oak panelling, a door with a catch and button on the outside which he proceeded to open. On the other side of the oak barrier was a network of fine steel in the form of a mesh, and from the room itself gushed a warm odour of hot steam which was mingled queerly with a faint sweet odour that seemed to fill the whole atmosphere.
"Ah!" said McPhail. "Here we are!"
He turned the brilliant lane of light from his torch upon the prison house behind the steel mesh, and almost immediately there arose that peculiar sharp humming musical note that Welton had noticed an hour or so before in the corridor of Porth Place. Then a shadow seemed to fall from the roof, and poised motionless with wings whirring so fast that they hardly seemed to move, and in that instant Welton was gazing with fascinated eyes at the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
It was a great moth, some ten inches across the wings, velvet black as to the body, with a broad band of royal purple exquisitely patterned like fine lace. Towards the base of the wings the blackness shaded away to a pale blue and the long body glowed beneath a mass of vermilion-coloured hair. On the head was an irregular star-shaped mark that might have been a tiny indented crown of pure gold. The great eyes of the moth trembled and scintillated like opals. It was at once beautiful, and yet sinister and repelling. It hovered there just for a minute or two, then fluttered lightly to the floor with wings outspread as if half-conscious of the admiration that it had created. And yet, alluring and beautiful as it was, Welton shuddered from head to foot as he regarded it.
"There," said McPhail. "So far as I know, only three men have ever gazed upon its like before. It is an exquisite thing, and yet deadly poisonous, as you know. Just one touch of that crimson body, and you would be a dead man within five minutes. It seems a pity to make an end of such a beauty, but it must be done."
"What are you going to do?" Welton asked.
"Burn the infernal place down," McPhail shouted. "Destroy it. Wipe it off the face of the earth. Probably if I turn the steam off, those moths will be all dead by morning; the chrysalids and caterpillars would perish, but I am taking no risks so long as this hot weather lasts. If hell opens and looks you in the face, blot it out. Smother it, and destroy it. Now, come with me down to the garage and we'll find a can of petrol and soak the dining-room with it. Don't you think it's the proper thing to do in the circumstances?"
"I'm with you," Welton said, between his teeth. "The whole thing is incredible; the sort of thing that could only happen in the pages of a book."
"And you're the man to write it," McPhail said, as a little later he tossed a blazing match through the dining-room window on to the petrol-soaked floor. "Here's a plot that nobody will believe, though you'll get every credit for your powers of imagination. And after all, it's a sound saying that truth is stranger than fiction."
A DISTINGUISHED novelist, who would rather make an epigram than a friend, always declared that Mrs. Harcourt's flat in Lowndes Gardens reminded him of one of the brilliant stage settings usually associated with a St. James's production, which description had just enough truth in it to carry a sting in its tail. And, indeed, perhaps there was just a suggestion of that glittering artificiality surrounding the home life of the famous actress in question, just a little bit too much gold and colouring; but the young man standing there, with his back to the flower-filled fireplace, noticed nothing of it.
He was not in a condition just then to notice anything but the glamour of the moment, for was he not taking Cecil Marne out to dinner, and convoying her subsequently to the first night of a new play at the Comus? He was good enough to look on, was this young man, with his clean-shaven, handsome face, lighted with a pair of clear, brown eyes, fearless and resolute, a young man with all the world before him and everything in his favour. He was beautifully groomed, of course, immaculate and speckless, the finished product of Eton and Oxford, just a fine specimen of a typical young Englishman, a little tanned and brown—an athlete, in fact, and potentially a leader of men.
He stood there, glancing carelessly about him, a little impatient and a little eager, and, perhaps, just a shade disappointed to find that Cecil was not already awaiting him. She came in presently, a dazzling vision of loveliness and beauty, clad in some pink diaphanous confection that mere man would have found it impossible to describe, but which seemed to be part of herself, as a woman's dress ought to be when she knows how to wear it. And it was not any particular classicality of outline or amazing regularity of feature to which Cecil owed her chief charm; still, it was a beautiful face, soulful and intellectual, and flushed with happiness and pleasure just now.
"I hope I haven't kept you waiting," she said, "but Mrs. Harcourt detained me. She has just gone."
"Oh, down to the theatre, I suppose," Alan Chamberlayne said. "Is she very nervous?"
"Well, not just at the last. I would give anything to have a position like that."
"You would like to go on the stage, Cecil?"
"Of course I should—it must be glorious. And I believe I could do it, Alan. Mrs. Harcourt says so. And, perhaps, some day—"
"I wish you wouldn't talk like that," Alan said. "I think you know—you must know by this time—why I come here so often, Cecil. You must know we are something more than friends. Now, don't you?"
The girl flushed slightly and turned her glowing face away from his. She was still at the parting of the ways, still hesitating with the seed of the dandelion in her hand, saying to herself: "I love him, I love him not."
"Oh, well," she said a little petulantly, "aren't you just a little bit old-fashioned, Alan?"
"I don't know—perhaps I am," Chamberlayne admitted. "Perhaps, if my mother had lived, it might have been different. I suppose I have an altogether too exalted idea of womankind. I don't understand them."
"Does any man?" Cecil laughed. "Do we understand ourselves? And yet you are just like all the rest of your sex. You seem to think that a woman's mission in life is to marry and settle down."
"Well, isn't it?" Alan asked.
"Oh, come along!" Cecil said impatiently. "If we are going to dine at the Ritz first, the sooner we're off, the better."
The big car was waiting at the door, and together they drove along the streets, in the dusk of the falling September night, in the direction of the hotel where they were to dine. They were going on afterwards to the Comus Theatre, to see the first performance of the new comedy in which Mrs. Harcourt expected to achieve one pf her greatest triumphs. A great night, a night to be remembered, and one destined, though Cecil did not know it yet, to mark an important turning point in her life.
And meanwhile here they were at their destination, seated at a little table set out for two, with shaded lights and mauve orchids in reckless profusion. The place was full of diners, the whole of the big room was crowded with youth and beauty, an attractive scene that filled Cecil with pleasure, and brought a look of tenderness into those dusky eyes of hers.
"Do you know," Alan said presently, "that so far you have not met my father?"
"Would he be interested in me?" Cecil smiled.
"What a question! Of course he would. He knows all about you, and he is very anxious to see you. Won't you come down and stay a week-end at our place? It's the most delightful old place in the world, and I think my father and I value it all the more because we so nearly lost it."
"I have heard something of it," Cecil said. "Wasn't your father rather poor in those early days?"
"Terribly poor," Chamberlayne said. "He and my mother lived in lodgings in an obscure seaside town, trying to save enough money to pay the interest on the family mortgages. You see, my father met my mother in Australia, where she was on the stage, and married her. Oh, no, she was no great actress, but a young girl struggling for a living—anything rather than stay in a home that was cursed by drink and poverty. I don't remember her, of course. She died when I was quite a child, and then it occurred to my father to take up his profession. Fortunately, at an early age he had been called to the Bar, and from the first he was a great success. You know what he is to-day. I know you'd love him—everybody does."
"So—so you've told your father all about me?"
"Of course I have. I told him about you long ago."
Cecil made no reply for a moment. She had taken one of the orchid blossoms from the table and was aimlessly pulling it to pieces.
"Aren't you taking a good deal for granted?" she challenged.
"Well, perhaps, Cecil; but haven't I had reason to take things for granted? Haven't we been together practically every day since June, and haven't our friends recognised— Well, you know what I mean."
"Oh, it's impossible," Cecil said. "I mean—well, I mean that I'm a bit frightened. Oh, I am to blame, if you like. I have encouraged you, I have been fickle and shallow, incapable of understanding my own mind. If you like to ask me under these conditions—"
Chamberlayne rose slowly from the table. There was a certain grimness about his mouth and a little hardness in his eyes that set Cecil fluttering.
"Perhaps we had better be moving," he said curtly. "And thanks for the confession. We'll forget all about it now, but I will come and see you in the morning."
"Is that a threat?" Cecil laughed.
"No, it isn't—it's a promise."
The frown had gone from his face, and as they drove along in the taxi he might have been no more than the average polished Society young man doing his best to be agreeable to a pretty and fascinating girl. And, strange to say, it was this very change— the change that Cecil had hoped for—that filled her with all sorts of vague alarms. For Cecil knew her world, and Chamberlayne was not the first man who had made love to her. She had come, like so many brilliant and attractive girls, to regard homage from the opposite sex as her prescriptive right. and the sensation that she was merely a mouse, within reach of the claws of the cat, frightened whilst at the same time it strangely attracted her.
She was glad enough to find herself in the theatre, waiting for the curtain to go up. She glanced round the stalls and returned the nods and smiles of her many acquaintances. It was a full house, as she had expected, crammed from floor to ceiling, and everybody was there that was worth counting at all.
And then for the next hour or two Cecil forgot all about her anxieties and worries in the contemplation of the stage and the triumph of Helen Harcourt in one of the finest interpretations that she had ever given in her long and distinguished career. It was not that the play was anything amazing in itself—in fact, it was rather commonplace—but the soul of the artiste dominated it all, and the curtain fell finally on a veritable triumph.
Cecil drew a long breath of sheer delight. She had almost forgotten by this time that Chamberlayne was seated by her side. She turned to him presently with glowing eyes.
"Wasn't it marvellous?" she said.
"I suppose so," said Alan. "I am horribly out of date, but this sort of thing doesn't appeal to me much. I never can quite understand why people make so much fuss of actors and actresses. After all, they are only children of larger growth playing at make-believe, and they don't create the character. The author of the play does that."
Cecil rose impatiently and made her way in silence into the vestibule. She hardly spoke as the taxi purred its way along the streets in the direction of Lowndes Gardens. It was much the same when the flat was reached, and even Chamberlayne gave a sigh of relief when his hostess arrived and supper was announced.
Helen Harcourt came in a beautiful costume in which she had appeared during the last act, tall and graceful, and full of those magnetic qualities which made her what she was. She was radiant enough, gracious and friendly as usual, but never, in Chamberlayne's eyes, had she appeared more remote and aloof than she did at that moment. She was brilliantly witty, as usual, hard as a diamond and as dazzling, but this only deepened the impression in Chamberlayne's mind.
And so the meal went on to the conclusion. One o'clock struck somewhere, and at length Chamberlayne rose to go. He barely touched Cecil's fingers as he said "Good night" to her, and muttered something to the effect that he had work to do, and that he hoped to call on her in the morning. The last words were so cold that Helen Harcourt elevated her eyebrows.
"Good night, Alan," she said, with one of those rare smiles of hers that she always kept for him. "Good night, my dear boy. One moment—your tie is a little on one side. Let me put it straight for you. There!"
She rested her hands on his shoulders just for a moment, then, when she had finished her work, allowed her fingers to stray on his sleek hair and dropped a careless kiss upon his forehead. It was characteristic of a woman of her temperament, a woman who cares nothing for convention, but there was just a touch of intimacy in the action that roused some vague symptom of jealousy in Cecil's breast. Then Helen Harcourt flung herself back in a chair and lighted a cigarette.
"This has been a great night for you," Cecil said—"I should say the greatest in your career. I believe, if I were you, I should die happy."
"Would you?" Mrs. Harcourt sighed. "Ah, I am not at all happy this evening; on the contrary, I never felt more miserable."
"But why?" Cecil cried.
"Do you know what I mean? No, I am afraid you don't, Cecil. So we had better go back to first causes. Why have you quarrelled with Alan?"
The girl fairly staggered back before the directness of the attack. She had no time to fence or dodge, no time to summon up those little, lethal sophistries by which women deceive one another. The blood mounted to her cheeks, and her eyes grew dim. Then she was herself again.
"I don't quite understand what you mean," she said coldly. "I have not quarrelled with Alan."
"No? But you are keeping something from me now. You know what my ambition has been for you—you know that I wanted to see you happily married to the finest man I know. And now something has come between you. Won't you tell me what it is?"
"You are imagining these things," Cecil said. "I like Alan Chamberlayne immensely. I am sure that he is all you say he is, and more. But I don't want to marry him, dearest, and, above all, I want to go on the stage."'
Mrs. Harcourt sighed gently.
"I was afraid of that," she said. "My dear girl, I have had scores of young women to stay with me from time to time, and, after they have once seen me play, every one of them has wanted to go on the stage. Do you know what I earned for the first three years of my career?"
"What does that matter?" Cecil said petulantly.
"My dear, it matters a great deal. If fame and fortune are to do you, any good, they must come in the early thirties—after that it's too late. Ah, I know, and that is why I am so bitterly disappointed to think that you should have turned your back on your own happiness so deliberately as you have done. Fate gave me the same chance, and I also turned my back upon it. Shall I tell you the story?"
Cecil nodded. She was strangely moved by the torrent of bitter words that had fallen from her companion's lips, words that seemed to have a new shape and meaning, declaimed as they were by one who knew the utmost value of every syllable. And the great actress was playing now with a force and intensify that she probably had never displayed before, for she was playing, not to an audience, but to the soul of one girl, playing for the stake of human happiness.
"Very well," she said. "I'll tell you. But first give me another cigarette. I suppose it is the proper thing for the adventurous heroine to tell her story with a cigarette between her lips. At least, that is what the public expect, and you are my public for the moment, Cecil. I married a good man, who took me from a sordid home, and I, like the fool that I was, thought I was conferring a favour upon him. From the very first he spoilt me. Everything I wanted in reason I could have, though I knew he was saving all his income for a specific purpose, and when occasionally he remonstrated with me on my extravagance, I only grew angry and accused him of being mean. Mean! Good Heavens! Now I know he was one of the most generous men on this earth. And so it went on for two years— two long, dragging years—during which my husband grew poorer and more anxious, and then I left him."
"You mean you quarrelled?" Cecil asked.
"Oh, no, there was no quarrel. I have not even that excuse. I had made up my mind that he was a poor creature, absolutely unworthy of being the soul-mate of so brilliant a personage as myself, and so I left him.
"I must have cut him to the heart. can see his face now as I told him everything. It was to be an absolute parting. It was understood that we were never to meet again, and we never have. But I know where my husband is, and what he is doing, and I know now what has ever been a bitter humiliation to me. I know it was I who kept him down, who spent his money, and crippled him in a thousand ways. For the man I regarded as a poor, spiritless creature is to-day one of the most successful men in England. Directly he was free from me and the weight that I hung about his neck, he began to rise, and he has never looked back since. I am not going to try and coerce you—I won't attempt to influence you further. I merely wish to point out what a lonely, unsatisfactory life my own selfishness has built up for me; I want to save you from the same melancholy fate, if possible. With my eyes wide open I made the same mistake as you are going to make. With my eyes wide open I turned my back upon my husband and my child—"
"A child!" Cecil gasped. "How could you?"
"Ah, how could I? My dear, I have asked myself that same question many times. And I am glad to hear you speak like that, because it has proved to me that my story has not fallen on barren soil. Yes, it was part of the price I had to pay. It was my own suggestion. And now, when the shadows are beginning to deepen, and my hair is getting grey, I am alone in the world!"
"But you might go back," Cecil whispered.
"I shall never do that," Mrs. Harcourt said sadly. "It would not be fair to either of them; I doubt if it would be even fair to me. Why should I obtrude upon their lives after all these years? They are well and happy, they are devoted to one another, and there was no shadow on my husband's face when I saw him last, like there used to be in the old days, when I was dragging him down. No, he and the boy—"
"Your son!" Cecil exclaimed. "How strange it seems!"
"My son—yes. And, mind, this is a secret between us, which you are to keep till I give you leave to speak. And do you know why I tell you this? Because you love Alan Chamberlayne, you admire his many fine qualities, and you are afraid he may dominate you if you marry him. Of course he will; no husband is worth his salt who doesn't. And now I have finished. Do you want me to tell you any more? Do you want me to tell you why I like Alan so well?"
A great light suddenly leapt into Cecil's eyes, the lines about her lips trembled and wavered. Then, with a smile, she got up and reached for the telephone on the table. As she called the number of Chamberlayne's flat clearly and firmly, Helen Harcourt smiled, too, and there were tears standing in her eyes.
"Complete surrender?" she whispered.
"Absolutely!" Cecil laughed unsteadily. "Absolutely! Listen..."
ALL day long the stuffy little court house had been crowded with perspiring humanity eager to hear every word of the proceedings against Edgar Warner. True, up to then it was only a preliminary inquiry, but every man there felt that Warner was being tried for his life. Hour after hour the inquest dragged on till the dusk of the summer evening faded into night. Still the listeners sat patiently on, heedless of the flight of time. They were waiting for Warner to give his evidence, as he had expressed the intention of doing. The coroner had another engagement on the morrow, so that he was prepared to sit till midnight if necessary.
The facts were fairly simple. Mr. William Tuson had been found dead in his library. Obviously, he had come to a violent end. A blow on the head from some blunt, heavy instrument had fractured his skull, and, according to the medical evidence, he had died instantly. Tuson was by way of being a money lender, and he had a reputation for hardness and sharp practice in Langford. Warner was a musician and a song writer, and it was generally known that he had some grievance against Tuson over some business matters in which Warner roundly declared that he had been swindled. There had been a violent quarrel and subsequent litigation, followed by a threat on Tuson's part of making Warner a bankrupt. Certainly Warner was in the moneylender's debt—he had failed to meet an acceptance as it became due, and the acceptance, torn in two pieces, had been found in Warner's garden behind some bushes, the suggestion being that Warner had stolen the paper after he had made away with his creditor.
He denied stoutly that he had seen Tuson on the night of the tragedy. Tuson was known to have been alive and well at 11 o'clock in the evening in question, the insinuation being that Warner had called upon him after that hour, when everybody was in bed. Warner stoutly maintained that after supper he had not left his house. He was in the habit of staying up very late composing and playing, his wife and the one maidservant, on the contrary, always retiring early. In consequence of his very late hours, Warner had his own bedroom, so that he could sleep when he pleased. On the night of the tragedy he had been writing from 9 o'clock till half-past 1, when he retired. He declared that he had never been outside the house. But he had no means of verifying this statement. It would have been the easiest matter for him to have been away any length of time without the members of his household being any the wiser. It was on this evidence that Langford had come to the conclusion that Edgar Warner was guilty of the death of William Tuson. He had killed the man in order to obtain possession of that acceptance and thus destroy all evidence that he was in debt to the moneylender.
But there was one more witness to come. It was getting very late when a slim little woman in spectacles stepped up to the tables to give her evidence. Her name was Maud Matty, and her occupation telephone operator at the Langford exchange. She remembered the night of the murder quite well—on that evening she had been on duty in the exchange. About half-past 11 she had had a call from No. 110, who gave the number 166 as the one needed.
"What does this refer to?" the coroner asked.
"No. 110 is Mr. Warner's number, sir," Inspector Hames explained. "No. 166 is the number of Mr. Tuson's telephone. We regard this evidence as being of great importance."
The tired, perspiring audience thrilled. Most of them knew exactly what this meant. On the night of the murder at half-past 11 Warner had called up the dead man—the man subsequently found dead.
"Really!" the coroner exclaimed. "Are you quite sure of this, Miss Matty?"
"Quite certain, sir," the witness said quietly. "I took the call myself. I heard a question asked."
"You listened?" Warner put in eagerly. "You listened to what was passing?"
"Not exactly that. But I could hear. You called up Mr. Tuson and gave your name. You asked Mr. Tuson if you could see him at once for a few moments, and he gave you a reply to the effect that it was very late, but if you came at once he would see you."
The audience swayed with excitement. This was a dramatic surprise that they had not expected. Warner stood up deadly pale and defiant, his angry eyes challenged the witness. But she stood there coolly and collectedly, and evidently quite sure of her ground.
"I am prepared to swear that I never used the telephone all the evening," Warner cried.
"You will be good enough to be quiet," the coroner said. "The witness must not be interrupted. Now, Miss Matty, is there any possible proof of this?"
"I recognised Mr. Warner's voice," the operator proceeded. "In a small exchange like ours we get to know the voices of our subscribers quite well. Mr. Warner has a slot machine and he cannot call without putting in a penny. The call and the pennies are recorded automatically. There were five calls that day altogether, and if necessary, sir, you can come and see for yourself. The instrument cannot make a mistake."
Warner had no question to ask. He was utterly taken by surprise at the dramatic evidence; he could see how terribly it told against him. And here was some deadly mechanical contrivance that could not possibly be gainsaid. He could feel the rope about his neck.
"May I say a few words?" he asked when the witness had disappeared. "May I give evidence now?"
"I should strongly advise you not to," the Coroner said significantly. "If you will be advised by me, you will be legally represented at the next hearing. Have you any more witnesses, Inspector?"
"Not to-night, sir," Hames said. "I propose, with your permission, to take an adjournment at this point. Since the last witness came and volunteered her evidence yesterday, I have been making inquiries. I think it would be in the interests of the inquiry, and possibly in the interest of Mr. Warner also, if I asked him a few questions. I should like to know if he is right or left handed."
A general smile followed this apparently inconsequent query. But Hames was perfectly grave. The more astute amongst the spectators began to scent further dramatic complication here.
"I am right-handed," the puzzled Warner said. "I will write a few words if you like. And Inspector Hames knows that I am a right-handed cricketer and fisherman."
"I had forgotten that," Hames smiled. Warner was a local celebrity as a cricketer. "Now will you tell me if you happen to be deaf in the left ear?"
Once more a puzzled murmur ran round the room. Warner shook his head vigorously. He was not deaf in either ear, and he was prepared to undergo any fair test to prove it. With the right ear closed, Warner could follow a whispered conversation some fifteen feet away. Hames smiled with the air of a man who is perfectly satisfied with the condition of things.
"That is more than sufficient for my purpose," he said. "I shall be obliged sir, if you will order an adjournment of the case till Monday morning at 10 o'clock."
It was most exasperating for the audience, of course. They were turned out just in the moment when the case had assumed its most exciting form. And what did Hames mean by asking those extraordinary questions? They could not possibly have anything to do with the inquiry. As they filed out into the coolness of the night they morally condemned Edgar Warner to death. The coroner beckoned Hames to his side as he packed up his papers.
"I suppose you have worked all this out?" he said. "Still, after the evidence offered to-night, I was rather surprised that you did not apply for a warrant. On the girl's testimony, I should certainly have granted one."
"Then you regard Warner as guilty of the crime, sir?" Hames asked.
"Certainly I do. The evidence is absolutely overwhelming. It is all on record, too."
"Yes, I admit that," said Hames thoughtfully. "Now I am bound to confess that until Miss Matty came to me, and volunteered her evidence, I regarded Warner as guilty. Everything pointed that way. The finding of that torn acceptance was almost conclusive. It was after Miss Matty had told her story that I came to the conclusion that Warner had nothing whatever to do with it."
The coroner shrugged his shoulders. He could not follow the logic of it at all. It was strange to him that the most damning piece of evidence on the part of the prisoner should be construed into one of the main planks of the defence. Hames was a very smart officer and worthy of a better place, but he was carrying his modern methods and ingenious deductions too far.
Hames hurried along and caught up Warner as the latter was turning into his gate. The house was close on the roadside, with the hall window flush with the road. To keep out prying eyes, stained glass of sorts had been put in the window, but when the hall gas was fully on a dim outline of the interior could be seen. It was possible to make out the stair carpet and certain objects in the broad window ledge. One of the most conspicuous objects there was the telephone that had caused all the trouble.
"May I come in for a few minutes?" Hames asked.
"If you like," Warner replied, none too graciously. "There is nobody in the house. Directly people began to talk—as they did almost before the breath was out of Tuson's body—I sent my wife to her mother and the maid to her home. I have been doing for myself ever since. I suppose you haven't come for me?"
"No," Hames said. "On the contrary, I am here to assist you if I can."
Warner turned into his study. His hands trembled as he lit the gas.
"I am an innocent man," he cried passionately. "I swear to you in the presence of my Maker that I was not out of the house on the night of the murder. It would be an easy thing, quite the prudent thing, to admit having sent that telephone message and to declare that I changed my mind after. All this flashed across me in court to-night, and I could have done it easily. But I never sent that message. If this is to be my last word on earth, I never sent it, Hames."
"My dear sir, I am perfectly well aware of that," Hames said quietly.
Warner gazed at the speaker, as if doubting his meaning.
"You are one of the very few who regard me as not guilty?" he asked.
"I am certain of it," Hames said. "Mind you, I thought so at one time. I thought so until, curiously enough, the most damning evidence of all was tendered against you. Then I began to ask questions. I was about your house last night for an hour or more. I saw something, a little thing, that gave me an idea. That is why I asked you those questions to-night. If you had been deaf in your left ear I should have regarded you as guilty. As it is, I know that you are quite innocent."
"Oh, I give it up," Warner cried impatiently. "The thing is too wildly farcical for me. What on earth has my normal faculty of hearing got to do with it?"
Hames passed the question. All that would come quite plain in due course, he said. Meanwhile he wanted to know if Warner had used his telephone lately?
"As a matter of fact, I haven't," Warner explained. "It hasn't been used since the night of the murder—and not by me then, despite what the—girl from the exchange said. We had no occasion to call anybody, and by 11 o'clock in the day after the murder, my wife and my servant had left the house. I have not spoken to anybody over the line since. I am a poor man, as you know, and I look at a penny twice before I put it in the slot. It would have been different if that blackguard Tuson had not robbed me. I have discharged that bill that was picked up over and over again by music that I gave to Tuson for a song. He detained an opera of mine to which he was not in the least entitled. That rascal was the ruin of me. But that has nothing to do with it whatever. Why are you so anxious to know all about the telephone?"
Hames led the way out into the hall. The telephone stood in an angle on the broad window-ledge with the latticed panes behind it. The receiver hung over on the right hook.
"Now look at that," Hames said, as he pointed at the fact. "Why does the receiver hang on the right-hand hook? It should hang on the left. If you were left-handed it would hang that way, of course—in fact, it would be impossible to replace it in any other way. The obvious way is to ring with the right hand and put the receiver to the left ear. If you are deaf in the left ear you would reverse the receiver. Now, you are not deaf in the left ear and yet the receiver is reversed. I noticed this as I was prowling about the house last night—you can see the instrument quite plainly when your hall gas is lit. Now, you may say that this is a ridiculous detail. As a matter of fact, it is very important—for you. Miss Matty's evidence, which is going to hang you in the opinion of Langford, is going to save you in mine. What a remarkably lucky thing it is that you are not deaf in the left ear!"
And more than that Hames refused to say. For the present he was going entirely on theory, and even the most ingenious theories are apt to be misleading.
"Of your innocence I am assured," he said. "I am going to prove it before long, but I must do this thing in my own time and in my own way. I have a lot still to do to-night, but before I go let me give you one word of advice. Don't touch your telephone. On no account send a message."
Warner gave the desired assurance, and Hames went his way. For the next hour or so he remained closeted with his detective staff. Being on the outskirts of a large seaport, Langford contained a floating population of undesirables in the lodging-houses and in the public houses, and it was as to the doings of these that Hames was interested. He wanted to know if any of them had been flash of money lately. It was in the course of the next morning that Hames sifted a mass of information on this point and began to see his way to act. He took the train as far as Sandmouth, and presently entered the office of the telephone company and asked to see the manager.
"I'm Inspector Hames from Langford," he said. "I will take it for granted that you know something as to the mysterious murder of Mr. Tuson, sir? Or shall I explain?"
"No occasion at all," the manager said. "I read all the evidence. As the case turns upon a telephone call, I was naturally interested. You'll find that they won't shake the evidence of our operator yonder."
"I shall be greatly disappointed if they do," Hames said gravely. "I know that that particular call went through. But it doesn't in the least follow that it was sent by Warner personally."
"Then who else would have sent it? The thing couldn't have been done without Warner's knowledge. He was in the house all the evening, according to his statement. It is a small house, too."
"A small house with the study within a few feet of the hall," Hames agreed. "I have a pretty sound theory of what really did happen, but I want to test it, of course. Now, the house next to Warner's is empty. Could you rig me up a temporary instrument there and connect it with Warner's house in such a way that I should get the call if anybody used Warner's telephone. Suppose he gave a call himself. I want your operator at the exchange to see that I get the message whoever it is sent to. And I want to be in a position to know if anybody uses Warner's instrument. Can you do that?"
The manager nodded thoughtfully. That would not be at all a difficult matter, he explained. If anybody in Warner's house called the exchange, the extension, to the next house would enable a listener to hear all that was going on. To switch the caller in Warner's house on to the temporary instrument next door was merely a matter of drilling the operator at the exchange. The manager promised that the business should have his immediate and careful attention. The necessary work should be done in the course of the day. It was getting dark when Hames finished some work at his office, after which he proceeded to write out a telegram as follows:—
PILMER, 17, HARROW-TERRACE. TROUBLE OVER OLD MATTER. CAN'T SHOW UP JUST YET. MATTER BLOW OVER PROBABLY. GIVE ME CALL TELEPHONE 1753 ABOUT 11 O'CLOCK TO-NIGHT. SAME OLD GAME. HOUSE EMPTY.
Hames consigned the message to one of his subordinates with certain definite instructions.
"Send the message off," he said. "And hang about near Harrow-terrace till the thing is delivered. As soon as that is done take two or three men down to 17, Dock Row; and arrest the man and his wife that you find there. See that this is done secretly and that nobody spots what you are doing. It is imperative that there shall be no fuss or curiosity aroused. That's about all, I think."
The telegram was despatched and delivered, and the arrests subsequently made to Hames's entire satisfaction. With a feeling in his mind that everything was going smoothly, he returned about 11 o'clock to the empty house next to the one occupied by Warner. He let himself quietly in by the door, and located the temporary instrument that had been placed there by the obliging manager of the telephone company. With the absolute assurance that he would get an important message presently, he sat down and waited. Within a few minutes after the hour the little bell rippled out.
"Your number 1753?" a husky voice asked.
"That's right. That you, Charlie? What's' up, old man? Your telegram gave me a rare fright."
"We're being watched," Hames responded in the same muffled tone. "Eh? Yes, I've got the very deuce of a cold tonight. You calling me from the old spot, I suppose? That's good! The cops have found out that the old man had a lot of brass in his desk, and it's missing. Don't you get splashing it about for a day or two. I'm lying low in Sandmouth for a little while keeping my eyes open. Can't stay any longer now, old man. Give me a call same way same time to-morrow night. So long."
At eleven o'clock the following night Hames was seated in Warner's study. The house was supposed to be empty, but as a matter of fact Warner had not left it. There were no lights anywhere. As the clock in the hall struck the hour of eleven Hames moved from the study into the hall, followed by Warner. Hames took up his place close to the telephone and waited. A few minutes later the window was opened from the outside very gently and quietly, and a hand fumbled for the bell-handle. Hames pounced upon it like lightning, and held it in a grip like a vice. A volley of curses broke out of the darkness, there was a sound as of violently scuffling feet. Lanterns flashed about outside.
"Put up the gas," Hames shouted. "The fellow is safe in the hands of my men outside. Bring him in, Parker. Ah, I think your name is Pilmer, late of Harrow-terrace. Well, my man, you are arrested on the charge of murdering Mr. Tuson and with subsequently robbing him of £143/4/9. You need not say anything unless you like, but your friend Charlie is in custody, and so is his wife. Rather foolish for poor Charlie to buy his wife a diamond ring in Langford, wasn't it?"
The discomfited ruffian cursed aloud, but Hames waved him aside. "Take him away," he said. "I'll follow presently. I want a few words with Mr. Warner first."
"How on earth did you manage it all?" Warner asked.
"Well, you see," Hames explained. "It was all that transfer of the telephone receiver from the right to the left-hand hook. The thing first struck me as untidy. I noticed it as I was prowling about your house. The telephone is so plain from the road when the gas is lit. Then it suddenly struck me that anybody could use that phone from outside by opening the old catch on the window. And anybody using it from the outside, unless they were left-handed, would have to turn the handle with the left hand, and hold the receiver with the right. As they were working the telephone from the wrong side, so to speak, there was no other way. And that's how the receiver came to be hanging on the wrong hook. Mind you, the thing is quite easily done by standing well back from the window with the flex at full stretch; in that case you would hear nothing. The penny was dropped in the slot quietly, and there you are. Those ruffians had planned what to do—they would easily know that you were at daggers drawn with Tuson, and that's why they called up on your phone imitating your voice. By that means they learnt everything they wanted to know. They killed the old man and robbed him; they found that bill of yours and left it where it would be detected and used as evidence against you. It did not take long to fix on the guilty parties, especially when I found two suspects who were spending money freely. I arrested one lot and tricked the other to come to the telephone to speak to me. He thought that he was talking to his pal, but he was merely talking to me from your house to next door, per the exchange. I got him to try on the same game to-night, so that I could catch him red-handed. He tumbled into the trap, and he has enabled me to prove my case up to the hilt. If I were you, in future I would not keep my telephone in so tempting and conspicuous a place."
Warner hung on to Hames's hand almost affectionately.
"I can't thank you," he said. "But all the same I am going to take your advice."
NOW, every man has a story to tell once in his life, though, as a rule, it is the one thing he is shy of talking about, and therefore the world is all the poorer by a certain amount of decorative fiction. Sometimes this story is a sort of solo, and sometimes forms part of an orchestra, so to speak; but in this particular instance it was a duet or a duologue, according to the point of view of the critic.
Ned Buckley and Patrick Macardie were great friends. They had been at school together; they were fond of the same sort of literature, beginning with Fenimore Cooper, and grading, by delicate stages, up to Stevenson—in other words, two healthy-minded public-school boys with a decided taste for adventure. And so it came about naturally enough that, before they settled down in life, this love of adventure had to be gratified; and it was gratified, as this veracious narrative will show.
They are getting on in life now—in the early forties, as a matter of fact—a little inclined to added girth, a little prone to ease in the evenings, and taking no more risks to-day than an occasional half-crown wagered on a golf match—that is, respectable citizens with a substantial stake in the country, men leading honest lives more or less luxuriously in the bosoms of rising, families, and taking a languid interest in current topics of the day. They wear top hats most of the week, Harris tweeds on a Saturday, and they are rather inclined to somnolence on Sunday afternoons; and though they are very great friends indeed, having business habits in common, one or two sharp observers have noticed that they do not particularly care to be alone together, unless they happen to have a golf club or a gun in their hands. And this is the cause of it.
About fifteen years ago, by sheer good luck, or so it seemed, Buckley and Macardie dropped on to what looked like a good thing. Now, a "good thing" in the English vernacular, means anything from a racing tip to the discovery of a hidden gold mine. And it was this last item that they seemed to have stumbled on.
It matters little or nothing how it came their way; it matters little or nothing how the plans fell into their hands; nor do difficulties and dangers appeal much to men well on the sunny side of thirty. At that time they were looking for something to do, something outside the ordinary City routine, and when, one summer holiday in Paris, they came upon a ragged and tough individual, who sold them certain information in return for the few francs which were necessary to purchase sufficient absinthe permanently to terminate a picturesque career, they did not stop to go into details, but decided to proceed to the southern extremity of the Red Sea at once.
They had health and strength, and love of adventure, and sufficient means to carry the thing through to a finish, which, indeed, might mean their extermination, but they were not troubling much about that. So therefore they found themselves, a few weeks later, skirting inland along the borders of Abyssinia, in search of their goal. And, for once in a way, they found it. It was indeed "all right." Not only was it "all right," but they had it entirely to themselves—they and about a score of carriers who had been impressed into the service. It was a lonely and desolate spot, three hundred miles from the coast, in a fair enough country, wonderfully wooded and sufficiently watered, which was rather an important matter in a torrid climate that was not very far removed from the arid and sandy desert. By the time their work was done, the provisions were running short, and signs were not wanting of a spirit of insubordination amongst the natives.
Buckley was a little hot-headed and impulsive, and he had a way of his own with the natives which those simple children of Nature were disposed to resent. They resented these methods still more when one evening they broke into the stores and abstracted a couple of bottles of whisky, with which they proceeded to drink themselves into a state of temporary madness. Then there were alarums and excursions, accompanied by a fusillade of revolver shots, resulting in the death of one or two of the natives, and the precipitate flight of the rest. Indeed, they fled so far that they never came back again, so that the two Englishmen were left entirely alone, nearly three hundred miles from their base, with an unreliable compass, and the very faintest idea as to where they were.
They had taken no particular precautions to mark their route, leaving that entirely to their native servants. They had a certain amount of provisions, and therefore a day or two elapsed before the peril of the situation began to dawn upon them.
They were scores of miles from the nearest human being, on the edge of a sandy desert, and with barely sufficient food to bring them down to the coast again. They had located their mine all right, and in ordinary conditions would have been mightily pleased with themselves, had not starvation at the end of a few days stared them in the face.
"Well, my boy, we're up against it, sure," Macardie remarked. "It'll be a big thing to get back to the fork of the river, but it's got to be done."
Buckley nodded gloomily. He was feeling none the more amiable because the whole catastrophe was entirely his own fault.
"How many days to get there?" he asked.
"Well, four at the least," Macardie said. "And then we haven't finished. We could manage then, in a way, because the canoes are there, and there are plenty of fish in the river. But there's another thing that's worrying me."
"What's that?" Buckley asked.
"Water, my boy, water. We haven't got enough to last more than another day, and, so far as I remember, we are two long marches from the nearest water-hole. Oh, it doesn't sound much, but that's going to be our trouble."
Macardie spoke cheerfully enough, but his heart was sore and heavy within him. They tramped on most of the afternoon under a torrid sky, dragging their provisions with them as best they could, till they came at length to a rocky spur in the foothills, where they pitched camp on the edge of a dense forest. They could see that here and there the trees had been torn away by tropical storms of wind and rain, and underfoot in the sheltered hollows the dead leaves lay knee-deep. Here and there was a flat plateau of living rock, where the foliage lay as level as it would have done on a billiard table. And away in the distance somewhere—though how far away they could not say—was the continuous sullen roar that could have come from nothing but a great waterfall. But it was a long way off indeed—they had heard it now for an hour or two in an increasing volume of sound, and, so far as they knew, a couple of days might have been between them and that mighty stream which represented to them almost more than life itself.
"We have got to find that," Buckley said.
"Oh, we've got to find it right enough," his companion replied, "and I guess we're going the right way. It might be a week off yet, and if it is—"
"Then we are done," Buckley remarked. The situation was beginning to get a grip upon him. He had more imagination than his mercurial companion, and he was. thinking just then of the precious pint or two of water that remained in the last of the skins. They sat down presently and made their camp for the night. They rose in the morning under a brazen sky, with a torturing sun blazing overhead, so that they were glad enough to remain there till late in the afternoon, when they pushed forward in what appeared to be the direction whence that volume of sound came. And when they settled down for the second night, still on that plateau of rock, with a flat valley between the rising banks, they divided a small cup of water between them, and sat down to the pretence of a meal.
They were fully alive to the danger now; they had gone mile after mile in almost sullen silence, glancing uneasily at one another, and both a little inclined to be quarrelsome. Their lips were getting dry and cracked, their tongues were swelling in their mouths, and tobacco had become a mere mockery. They would have to finish their water in the morning, and then— Well, they did not care to think of that. They did not care to think of the gold mine and all the dazzling prospects that it held out. They would have sold it cheerfully at that moment, and have held it well marketed, for a glass of the cold water that was so near and yet so far away.
And in the morning they finished their last precious drops of liquid, and turned their blackened and weary faces in the direction of the distant waterfall. It was getting nearer now—near enough to encourage them and put new life into those tired limbs of theirs—but then they had heard it for days now, and every hour was of vital importance. All that day not one word had passed between them as they plodded doggedly along. To eat was impossible. They laid out their food, looking at it languidly, and turning away from it with a sort of horror. The more mercurial Macardie had made a bold attempt to swallow a piece of biscuit, but the effort almost choked him, and he spat it out again. Buckley watched him with a curious sense of irritability that amounted to positive dislike. Then they exchanged a glance that was almost murderous.
They were very near the border-line. It wanted nothing but one word spoken at that moment to set them flying at one another's throats; but then speech was almost as impossible as food. And all the time in their ears was the maddening, luring roar of that waterfall. They could picture it near at hand, falling into the cool stone basin below; they could see themselves sunk to the mouth in it, cooling their parched throats with long, delicious draughts, and laving their weary bodies in it. It was torture, refined and exquisite, torture that was wearing on their fevered brains and driving them to madness.
They pulled up presently, dead beat to the world, on the ridge of rocks, and flung themselves down under the shelter of one of the great forest trees. Behind them the forest stretched away mile upon mile, and on the other side of the valley the sinister woodland was equally thick and forbidding. These two fringes of wood were not more than sixty or seventy yards apart, with a shelf of rock on either side trending sharply down into the flat valley, level as a pavement and feet deep in the leaves which the winter storms and gales had reaped from the forest. They lay there on a thick, smooth carpet that had something almost maddeningly monotonous about it. A quarter of a mile or so further on the ledge of rocks made a bold sweep round, so as to form a kind of natural amphitheatre, a lifting shoulder of basaltic rock that looked almost sheer in the distance.
Buckley passed a black tongue over his dry lips.
"It's over yonder," he whispered; "it's over beyond that ledge of rock."
Macardie regarded the prospect with a lacklustre eye.
"I dare say," he said listlessly. "I'm done. We are both done. I could scream. I don't know why, but I'd like to lay hands on myself—yes, or on you, for the matter of that. Just listen to it!"
Buckley clapped his hands over his ears—anything to shut out the siren call of those falling waters. They were calling close at hand now, but to all practical purposes that life-giving stream might have been a thousand miles away.
And they were utterly beaten. Flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and for all the water in the world they could not have gone another mile. And all the time that alluring music was in their ears, mocking them with its madness until they both broke into weak, hysterical laughter, and in thin, cracked voices began to sing. But their mirth was so horrible and mocking that presently they ceased.
"What's the good?" Buckley whispered. "We've done all men can do. Here, get out that bottle of brandy."
Reckless as he was, Macardie shook his head.
"What's the good of that?" he whispered. "You can't drink neat brandy, man. You'd never swallow it; and, if you could, it would only drive you mad."
"We are both mad now," Buckley said. "I am. Here, stand on one side! I'm going to have that brandy, if I kill you for it!"
Macardie struggled to his feet. So weak was he that he could only stagger in the direction of his friend and catch him feebly round the waist. And there they struggled together—if struggle it could be called—like two new-born kittens, like some immature animals in pain. They fought on, first one and then the other on top, until they were too exhausted to continue the struggle. They lay down side by side, not more than a foot apart, glaring insanely into one another's eyes. And then Buckley broke out into horrible tears.
"Give it me!" he implored. "Let me have it! We'll share the bottle between us, every drop of it, then we shall go to sleep and wake no more. We've disappointed those chaps long enough; they're waiting for us!"
As Buckley spoke, he pointed with a shaking forefinger to three or four great black objects wheeling round slowly and majestically in the brazen sky overhead. And there was no reason to tell Macardie what they were. He had seen them up there in the zenith for two days past—seen them in the evenings on the branches of the great trees, waiting with a certain dogged patience that was perhaps more terrible than any open attack by the great vultures would have been. For they knew—they knew how near the inevitable end was, and the beating of their wings was a sort of hideous requiem.
Macardie shook his fist feebly.
"Ah, you devils," he said, "you're waiting for us, are you? Well, you'll not have long to wait now. But you'll not have that brandy, Buckley. You've got to die like a man, so you can just make the best of it."
Buckley snivelled like a scolded child. His nerve was utterly gone now; he was a mere rag of manhood, and it was not for him to know that his companion was in little better case. But he dried his eyes presently, and lay there quite still, staring up hopelessly into the brazen sky. And then both of them, worn out and exhausted, fell asleep—an uneasy sleep, full of strange, haunting dreams, with no rest behind it, and no cease to that hideous torture until the sun rose again.
They rose simultaneously, gazing at one another with hopeless eyes, like a pair of human scarecrows, almost past speech, with lips that were cracked and blackened, and swollen tongues protruding through their teeth. They were almost too exhausted to move now—Macardie past motion altogether, so that when presently he saw his companion drag himself in the direction of the stores, he could do no more than follow him with a gleam of hatred in his bloodshot eyes.
He saw Buckley take the last bottle of the precious brandy from the case and withdraw the cork. Then, almost in a spirit of bullying bravado, Buckley crept back to his companion's side and held the bottle close to him.
A queer sort of angry snarl came from Macardie's lips as he shot out a hand and grasped the bottle by the neck. He was past feeling or caring now; it was all the same to him, only that the gleam of triumph on Buckley's face roused him to a sense of passing madness. He did not want the fiery stuff himself—he only wanted to prevent the other man from drinking it. He gave one wrench, the bottle came away in his hand, and with a final effort he threw it over the ledge of rock, so that it fell down the slope on to the flat surface of leaves below, and there it disappeared.
With a strength born of sudden rage, Buckley rose to his feet and disappeared over the edge in search of the bottle. He was too weak to make his way down, and so he rolled from top to bottom, until he came, with a crash, on the hard flat rock below, with its covering of leaves, where he disappeared altogether, vanished out of sight as if those leaves had been no more than a crust over some bottomless pit.
A quarter of a minute went by, half a minute, with no sign or sound from Buckley, And then, with a feeble glimmer of reason, Macardie dragged himself to the edge of the rock and looked down. He could see nothing of his companion, nothing but the carpet of leaves, that seemed, before his dim and hazy eyes, to ripple in some strange way, as if the whole surface had been disturbed by a passing wind. Then came the miracle.
Out from the middle of the mass of leaves a hand shot up, then another one, and followed the upper part of Buckley's body, just as if he were standing on a hard floor in a sea of dead leaves that reached far above his waist. Then he waded, with his chest pushed forward, towards the uplift of the rock, and presently came hand over hand up the slope, shouting and singing joyously on his way.
Just for a moment it seemed to Macardie's dazed vision that here was another form of madness. It seemed to him that Buckley's eyes had cleared wonderfully, and that his dry and cracked lips had become amazingly moist; and Buckley's clothes seemed to cling about him, and moisture was running from his shoulders. Oh, madness, beyond all question!
"Here, wake up!" Buckley cried, in a voice that was strangely strong and natural. "I've found it. And it's been there all the time. We've been marching side by side with it for two or three days. Come along!"
"What is it?" Macardie gasped. "You are wet."
"Of course I am!" Buckley shouted. "It's water down there—a stream of beautiful clear, cold water, but so smothered with leaves that you can't see it. What we thought was flat rock was nothing in the world but thick leaves floating on the stream. And here were we, trying to cut one another's throats, sheer mad for the sake of a drink, and it's all down there, waiting for us ! Here, come on!"
In his new strength Buckley lifted his companion in his arms and staggered down the slope again. He plunged Macardie through the sheet of leaves, right down in the cool depths below, where he drank his fill and revelled in the delicious coolness of it. Then, when the first feeling of ecstasy had passed, they climbed up the slope and made a hearty meal; and after that they tasted, for the first time for days, the delights of tobacco.
"It's quite plain," Buckley said. "You see what it is. We struck this stream at a right angle, and we naturally took that deep water for a great pocket of leaves lying in the valley between the hills. Well, we know all about it now, thank Heaven. This river runs under the amphitheatre yonder, through natural caverns, and pitches down on the other side of the range into the valley beyond. Hence the waterfall we've been listening to for days. Now, look here, this is a pretty bit of stream, and it's any odds, if we follow over the bluff yonder, we shall find a fertile valley on the other side. And where you find fertile valleys and big streams, you are pretty sure to find human life as well. That's our game, Mac. The river runs down to the coast, of course, and with any luck we'll strike it yet. And we've struck something better than that."
"What's that?" Macardie asked.
"Why, a shorter, simpler, and safer way of reaching our mine, of course. Just one more pipe, and then we'll push on. A close call, wasn't it, old man?"
And that is the adventure. And that is also why it is never mentioned between Macardie and Buckley, and why they are a little reticent and uncomfortable when they are alone together.
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).