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.
WHAT his real name was, it doesn't matter. There were one or two cynical inhabitants of Nagaska who averred that he did not know himself; but that was a libel, though uttered in no carping or ungenerous spirit, for the man who was known as Jim Baxter was a long way the most popular person in that little community on the fringe of the North-West Frontier, where they farmed in a casual sort of way in accordance with the almanack, and a few of the more adventurous spirits did a little mild silver mining.
It was a sort of Sleepy Hollow, that little neck of valley between two ranges of mountains, and there life moved slowly, for they were a contented race, earning just what they wanted and no more, content to let the world go by as long as the snows were not too severe and a plentiful supply of firewood was to be had for the asking. Papers came to the little settlement occasionally, but if they failed to materialise from the station eight miles away, nobody troubled and nobody cared. Now and again they heard stories of crime and outrage, and on one occasion a notorious malefactor had invaded the settlement in search of food, and with the North-West Police hot upon his track. He had not looked in the least like the popular villain depicted by a highly-coloured press—in fact, he was insignificantly small, very ragged and dirty, and he had made no effort to hold up a peaceful community at the business end of a revolver. On the contrary, he had crawled almost on his hands and knees, and had begged for food like some harmless tramp, so that even the children had gathered round him quite fearlessly and without a shadow of hesitation. Still, he was a desperado, as his record showed, and, when the time came, put up an exceedingly pretty fight, during which two of the North-West Police had been severely wounded. But in the eyes of the people of Nagaska he had appeared more like a cat driven to bay by half a dozen dogs. And that, so far as the oldest inhabitant could remember, was the only bit of excitement Sleepy Hollow had ever seen.
But all this, of course, has nothing to do with Jim Baxter. He had drifted there eight or nine years ago, a tall, powerful man dressed in grey tweeds of a pattern unknown to Nagaska, though when Phillips, local superintendent of the North-West Police, first set eyes on him, he muttered something to himself that sounded like "Bond Street." For Phillips was an Englishman of family and a man of some means, and he belonged to the North-West Force only out of sheer love of the hardy life and an unholy thirst for adventure. He tried, in his genial, courteous way, to find out something about Jim Baxter, but that individual was not to be drawn. He admitted freely enough that he was an Englishman, and that there were powerful family reasons why it had become necessary for him to turn his back abruptly upon the land of his birth, to all of which Phillips listened sympathetically enough, though when he asked Jim whether he had ever worn His Majesty's uniform, the latter coloured up and reminded Phillips quite politely that there were limits to ordinary curiosity.
"All right, my friend," Phillips had said. "I don't want to barge in. But, you see, I am responsible for law and order in this part of the world, and I like to know as much as possible about newcomers."
"That's all right," Jim had replied. "I'm not a criminal and I'm not exactly a pauper—that is, I have enough to keep myself in clothes and food and an occasional glass of whisky."
With that the conversation came to an end, and Phillips went his way, with the intention of keeping his eye upon the stranger. But there was really no occasion, for the months went by and the years rolled on without any outbreak on the part of Jim Baxter, who settled down in the little community as if he would like to stay there all the days of his life. He did nothing except lend a hand occasionally up there in one of the small silver mines, but this was more to kill time than anything else.
He built himself a shack, where he spent most of his day reading—indeed, Jim's big box of books had given him quite the reputation of a scholar in those parts. But they were novels, for the most part, English classics ranging from Richardson down to Kipling, with a sprinkling of French literature. And with these for his sole companions Jim Baxter lived quite contentedly for upwards of nine years.
Not that he was, even in the slightest sense, a recluse. To begin with, he was exceedingly popular with the small handful of children there, who ran in and out of his shack at all times of the day without the slightest fear or hesitation. They would drop in to dinner or tea or supper, when Jim would tell them stories and see them safely home afterwards.
He was a familiar figure in the saloon, where it was said that he could hold more Canadian whisky than any two men in the settlement, which was no libel, though no man in that congenial company had ever seen Jim the worse for liquor during the nine years he had been there. He was a past master in the art of chaff and repartee, a big, easy-going, genial giant of a man who spent his money freely and apparently had no enemy in the world.
Whence he derived his means, no one knew, and no one particularly cared. Once a month he repaired regularly to Fort Falcon, the trading station some six miles away, where the police had their headquarters, and whence came supplies of all sorts upon which Nagaska depended. There he would transact certain business at the bank, and come back with his pockets full of dollar notes, which apparently lasted him for a month to the very hour. If there was anything of the man of action about him, he disguised it carefully, for apparently a more indolent man never breathed. And so things had drifted on for the best part of a decade, and it looked as if Jim had settled down to live and die there, when the thing happened that stirred Nagaska to its depths and brought it face to face with a peril which nobody had ever anticipated, but which was dire enough in all conscience. It was one of those bolts from the blue that swooped down out of a clear sky in the twinkling of an eye.
It was rather late autumn, a red and flaming autumn touched with gold, with just a touch of frost in the air to warn the people in the settlement of what was coming, so that outdoor workers pushed on in the usual leisurely way, the wood for the winter was gathered in, and the few odd animals belonging to the inhabitants had come back to the stables. A little later on the snows would come down in earnest, and for the next few months the little community of Nagaska would be cut off from the rest of the world, to sleep and hibernate, and eat and drink like so many squirrels till the spring thaw came and they could get into touch with civilisation once more. But this was entirely in accordance with the ordinary course of things, and so long as the little garrison was provisioned for the winter, nothing mattered.
There would be plenty doing in the course of a week or two, when every man, woman and child would be pressed into the service of the State, and every horse and vehicle busy on the road between Nagaska and the Fort. It was characteristic of the inhabitants that this was always left to the last moment, which mattered very little, because they knew almost to a day when the first fall of snow would take place. At least, that was the easy philosophy of the place, and they all acted up to it religiously. It never seemed to occur to anybody that one of these years Our Lady of the Snows might take it into her head to come down in her white and shining beauty a week or two before the annual advent of her court, in which case it might go mighty hard with Nagaska. It never had occurred to anybody, and by the same process of reasoning it never would, which is a form of philosophy not entirely confined to rude communities.
And, curiously enough, it was Jim, of all men, who raised the very point one evening soon after the frost came, as he lounged on an empty apple barrel in the saloon, with a glass of whisky in his hand, What would happen, he wanted to know, if the big snow came down suddenly?
"It never has," the oldest inhabitant said, "and, consequently, never will."
"Ah, but suppose it does?" Jim persisted. "It isn't impossible, Methuselah."
"Nothing's impossible in this world," the old man said solemnly, "but that's very near it."
"Very likely," Jim agreed. "But it might come—the big snow, I mean, when you couldn't get to the Fort perhaps for a fortnight."
"There's enough here to go on with," another optimist said, "enough for a fortnight."
"And after that you'd starve," Jim went on.
"Guess we should," another philosopher put in.
"But suppose there was nothing here," Jim returned to the point. "It's only a wooden shack, after all, and there are at least fifty barrels of petroleum out there. Supposing the saloon caught fire? It wouldn't last a quarter of an hour. And what should we all do then?"
The conversation was growing uncomfortable; it was felt by the slow-witted opportunists about the stove that Jim was trespassing on the debatable lands of good taste. So they bade him fill his glass again and talk about something else, which, in his amiable, obliging manner, he did. Then they went their way presently, each to his shack to sleep and dream and give no heed to the morrow. A big wind had got up during the evening, a raging gale from the north-east, with the smell of the snow in it, so that they were all eager enough to get under cover and feel the warmth in their bones again.
But not for long. For presently out there in the clearing appeared a spark or two of light, then a tongue of flame and a quick roar of a conflagration. Presently there was a report that shook the whole settlement, so that the men came hurrying out, hastily wrapping themselves in their skins, to see what convulsion of Nature had taken place.
And there was the saloon one blaze of fire. The flames ate up the dry wood greedily, they raced from beam to beam and room to room until presently they reached the barrels of petroleum in the sheds behind. Then followed a great sheet of dazzling fire, the roar of an explosion, and the place where the store had stood was just no more than a big handful of glowing ashes. The whole thing was over in a few minutes. Fortunately no lives had been lost, but beyond the small amount of food in every shack, not another mouthful remained in the settlement. Men talked over the calamity in low voices as they stood there, with heads down in the piercing gale, and muttered of what they would have to do on the morrow to make this thing good. It would be a case of all hands to the pump, so to speak, with every man and every animal on their way to the Fort in search of food. And with this decision uppermost, and with the houseless saloon keeper and his wife accommodated for the night, one and all turned their backs on the soul-searching gale and burrowed into their shacks like so many rabbits.
It was bitterly, bitterly cold, far colder than it ought to have been at that time of the year, and the voice of the snow was singing in the air. There would undoubtedly be a fall before morning, not heavy, perhaps, but it was coming, and Jim Baxter, as he turned into his buffalo skins, asked himself an uneasy question or two. It seemed strange that this calamity should befall within an hour or so of the discussion in the saloon. And if it did come in real earnest, then assuredly the little community at Nagaska was face to face with starvation. Then Jim put the matter out of his mind and went to sleep.
He woke up the following morning to the realisation of a white world. For a time, at least, it seemed to him, in a dim, uncomprehending sort of way, that the dawn was long in coming, before the real truth came home to him. Then he saw that the windows were piled high with snow, he could hear the hiss against them, and when finally he dragged himself out of his skins, he saw stark tragedy lying there before him.
For it was no herald of the coming winter that had come down on the gale in the still watches of the night, but the real thing itself—several feet of snow, with every sign of more to follow, and the north-west wind tearing round the house like a pack of angry wolves in search of their prey. It was intensely, bitterly cold, too—a freezing, biting cold that sent Jim headlong to the stove, where he piled up the logs and set about getting his breakfast.
This he did in his usual calm, methodical way, eating his bacon slowly and deliberately, filling his pipe afterwards. He knew perfectly well what Nagaska was face to face with, and not for a moment did he try to belittle the danger. He knew that the lapse of a day or two would see the end of the last ounce of food in Nagaska. He knew that the people over there at the Fort would not trouble anything about the settlement, for had not the authorities there every reason to believe that the big store in the village was amply supplied for all immediate needs, at any rate? And for the moment Fort Falcon would be busy looking after itself.
It was only a matter of six miles, but six miles of desolation and possible death for anyone who had the temerity to face the danger.
All this Jim knew perfectly well, and he knew perfectly well what he was going to do. The thought did not trouble him in the least as he sat there before the stove, smoking his pipe until at length it was finished, after which, with considerable difficulty, he made his way down to the little building which was parish room or school house—in fact, anything according to the point of view of the inhabitants. And there, as he expected, he found a little handful of men gathered round the stove, discussing the situation deliberately, with reminiscences of similar happenings.
There was no hurry, of course—nobody ever hurried in Nagaska. They would probably sit and talk and talk for hours. Jim stood there in the doorway, contemplating the ancient fathers with a humorous gleam in those sleepy eyes of his.
"Pretty bad, isn't it?" he asked.
"Well, I guess it is," the old man known as Methuselah drawled. "I've been here, man and boy, for nearly eighty years, and I disremember the big fall ever coming as early as this. And it is the big fall all right."
"So it seems," Jim said drily. "But say, boys, did you ever have the big fall before you got the winter provisions in before,?"
Old man Methuselah shook his head.
"Never," he went on. "We always goes by the almanack, and it's never throwed us down before."
"And you have never had a fire here before?"
"Well, that's an act of Providence," the old man said solemnly. "That's what it is —Providence."
"Very likely," Jim agreed. "But I've always been told that Providence helps those who help themselves. Now, look here, boys, it's up to us to do something. They won't worry about us over at the Fort, because they'll conclude that we have got enough to go on with for a week or two. Of course they don't know the store is burnt down, else they'd make an effort to get through to us with a few loads of provisions. Seems to me we've got to get to them."
"Ah, but how?" the old man asked. "It can't be done, Jim. There's no livin' man could face it. And, mind you, there's more to come, lots more."
"And meanwhile?" Jim Baxter asked.
The little group round the stove shifted uneasily. It was felt in a vague sort; of way that Jim was hustling, and anything of that sort was quite foreign to the ways and customs of the settlers in Nagaska, And yet there was not a single man there who did not realise the danger.
"How long can you last out?" Jim went on.
There were various opinions, more or less deliberately enunciated, but, generally speaking, it came out reluctantly enough that two days would see Nagaska on the verge of starvation. Jim beamed genially on the crowd.
"That's just what I want to get at," he said. "Now, we ain't going to starve—at least, the women and the kids ain't, if I've got anything to do with it. Somebody's got to go; the question is, who?"
They looked at one another apprehensively, for there was not a man there who did not thoroughly understand the lurking perils that lay in every yard of that six miles of snow. They began to discuss it with one another in whispers; they told tales of lonely settlers cut off in snows less deep than this, who had lain down and died within rifle-shot of their own shacks. And then someone a little more enterprising than the rest suggested that they should draw lots for it.
"Yes, that's right," Methuselah said. "And you can put my name in the hat, too."
"There's a fine old sportsman for you," Jim cried. "But there are not going to be any lots, not if I know myself. Listen to me, boys. Somebody's got to go, and there isn't one of you who is not married. You haven't all got children, but you've got wives. Now, I haven't either, not even relations in the proper sense of the word, and if anything happens to me I shan't be missed, except perhaps by the kiddies here. I'm a pretty useless sort of individual, but none of you have ever told me that. That's why I am going. And, what's more, I am going now. If I don't get there, you'll be no worse off, and if I do get there —well, I shall be no end bucked. So I'm going, whether you want me to or not."
They tried to dissuade him, they protested that every man should take his chance alike, but in his genial way Jim talked the others down; and so presently, with all the village to see him off, he set out on his errand across that white world, with the powder stinging in his face, and the wind smiting in mighty blows as he turned his eyes, in the direction of the distant pine ridge beyond which Fort Falcon nestled like some hawk on its eyrie. The pine ridge was guide enough, so that for the next three hours he fought unsteadily through the snow, that here and there was waist-deep, until the shades of night began to fall, and he had made four miles of his journey. By this time he was amongst the pines, that tossed and moaned overhead like things in pain. He had been most of the day coming so far, and now that splendid animal strength of his was beginning to fail. He was realising that he was not quite the man he had taken himself for, and he somewhat whimsically wished that his reputation as a champion whisky drinker had been a little the less merited. By this time his lungs were roaring like a pair of bellows, his eyes were nearly blinded by the white glare, and he was going over at the knees.
But still he struggled grimly and doggedly on, until at length he came, in the pitch darkness, to the crest of the ridge and between the flurries of snow looked down at the valley on the other side, where he could see the lights of Fort Falcon shining through the gloom. All this was encouraging enough, but, on the other hand, there were another two miles to go, and once Jim had put the shelter of the ridge behind him he encountered the full force of the gale.
It turned him round more than once as if he had been no more than a piece of paper. The piercing cold stabbed him to the bone. More than once he dropped to his knees, absolutely exhausted and worn out; then he struggled to his feet again, clenching his teeth and fairly sobbing with rage and disappointment to find himself thus baulked and broken with the haven absolutely in sight.
It was pitch dark by this time, so dark that he could only feel his way. He stumbled on mechanically down the slope until he was within half a mile of the Fort, where he collapsed altogether. He dragged himself slowly and painfully to the lee side of a hummock, where he was fain to lie down and rest. When he opened his eyes again, the sun was shining overhead, and the fury of the gale had abated. His hair and moustache were frozen to his face, and he had a curious sort of feeling that his ears were gone. He knew now that everything depended upon the final effort; he knew that he might win through, and he knew, too, that the end was near at hand as far as he was concerned. So on his hands and knees he crawled painfully along, until he fell in a huddled heap in front of the police station of the Fort. There he was picked up presently and carried into a room, where they laid him before the stove and tended him as carefully as if he had been a little child. They fed him and poured brandy down his throat, so that presently he came back to his senses again, and smiled to find that his efforts had not been in vain. Phillips was bending over him to catch the first words that came from his lips.
"Don't hurry," he said. "Take your time. Now, in the name of fortune, what's this madness, Jim?"
Slowly and painfully Jim explained. When he had finished, the troop looked from one to another in astonishment.
"I wouldn't have believed it possible," Phillips said. "I don't think there is another man on the American Continent who could have done it."
"That's good hearing," Jim panted. "At last I begin to realise what I was born for. Now, look here, Phillips, I'm done for. No, you needn't shake your head. I can see it in your face, and even if I couldn't I should know. You'll see to those people, won't you?"
"Of course I will," Phillips said. "We'll get all the teams out and rush supplies over to Nagaska within an hour. If the snow holds off, there's nothing to be afraid of. The doctor will be here presently."
Jim smiled faintly.
"Let him come if he likes," he said, "but I'm past all surgery. What's the good of pretending? You know it as well as I do."
"Well, you're pretty bad," Phillips admitted.
"I guess I am. I can hardly see you now."
"Poor old chap!" Phillips said. "Is there anything I can do for you? Any message? Anybody I can write to? You know what I mean."
Jim shook his head.
"No," he said. "There's nobody wants to hear from me; just say nothing and do nothing. Take my pocket-book, when I am dead, and destroy it, and that's about all."
It was, for those were the last words Jim Baxter ever spoke. And there was nothing in the pocket-book of any account, or so Phillips said. And there the record ends, except in the hearts of Nagaska, whence it will never fade.
THE LONG, flower-decked balcony of Lady Barchester's house in Chesterton Place was the most intimate spot in London—a sort of tropical paradise snatched from the warm Southern Seas. In the purple, velvety darkness late on that perfect June night, two people were seated there.
"This," Augustus Openshaw sighed, "is great."
"But dangerous, darling," Angela Gilliland whispered. "If any of those dancers wandered in—"
"Oh, that's all right," Gus Openshaw smiled. "I got Betty Barchester to fasten the window behind us, so that there would he no chance of interruption."
Angela Gilliland snuggled a little closer to the young man with the orange-hued hair and the golden freckles lavishly bestowed on that blunt, good-natured face of his. She was exceedingly fond of Gus, and none the less because she ought not to have been there at all. When a young man has to eke out a miserable existence on about a thousand a year, he has no right to entangle the affections of a beauty like Angela Gilliland, who in her own right was mistress of twenty times that sum. Not that it was anybody's affair but theirs and Mr. Benjamin Openshaw's, and thereby hangs a tale.
Now, Mr. Benjamin Openshaw was not only Gus's uncle, but guardian to the fascinating young woman who at that moment was perched ecstatically on the fortunate young man's knee. They sat there talking over their troubles, and trying to find some scheme by which to avert the threatening danger, and put a spoke in the wheel of Mr. Openshaw's programme at the same time. And as Gus said, it took a bit of doing.
"Now, look here, darling," he observed. "We can't go fooling on like this. Your father was a dear old chap, but he made a bit of a bloomer when he shoved all those dollars of his—I mean yours—into the hands of Uncle Ben. I ain't quarrelling with the idea of your money being tied up till you are twenty-five. Of course, we can wait for the next four years."
"Yes, I suppose we can, Gus," Angela sighed.
Gus clicked his strong even teeth together as he thought of that fat, pompous old uncle of his, that elderly politician who still lived in hope that he might some day find himself endowed with Cabinet Rank. He was a heavy bore of the largest calibre, and he was the proud possessor of a son, another Gus, who was perhaps even a shade more serious and ponderous than his sire. And, quite within the bounds of honour, of course. Openshaw pere was exceedingly anxious to see the hope of his house allied to the dazzling beauty, and equally dazzling fortune of Miss Angela Gilliland.
"Is there no one who can manage it, Gus, dear?" Angela asked almost tearfully. "If you could only make him ridiculous. If you could only wound his family pride. If you could hit him through that Hamlet-like offspring of his!"
"That's a dashed good idea," Gus said. "Something in the public line, I mean, that gets in the newspapers. A stunt to make people laugh at him. Practical—or—got it!"
"Got what?" Angela asked.
"Why, the notion, the big idea. You know Jack Adair?"
Of course, Angela knew Jack Adair, the popular clerk in the Foreign Office, who led all the theatricals and generally presided as a sort of master of ceremonies over the gaieties of their particular set, and who eked out a rather slender income as one of the staff of a popular daily paper.
"Well, there you are then," Gus went on a little vaguely. "But Jack will do it, and he will see that it gets all the publicity it needs through the 'Morning Herald.' But mind you, it's going to take a bit of time. Let me see, isn't my distinguished cousin at present quartered in Rome?"
"British Embassy," Angela murmured. "In training for the Diplomatic Service, and all that."
"Good," Gus cried. "The great work begins to-night. Now, don't ask a lot of questions. And trust me implicitly. I am going out like another Sir Galahad, O.B.E., to take the road for the sake of my lady's bright eyes."
Ten minutes later, Gus was closeted eagerly with that brilliant young man, Jack Adair, in a quiet comer of the inner drawing-room. Then they left the house together and parted with much laughter at the comer of the street.
Half an hour later, the young man with the saffron-coloured hair and gold freckles stood by the side of the Serpentine looking down into the placid water. He was beautifully turned out with a shining topper covering his flaming locks, and with a light overcoat unbuttoned that showed the gleaming expanse of his shirt and waistcoat. And then he did a strange thing. He stooped down deliberately, removed his glistening pumps, and proceeded to divest himself of a pair of lavender socks shot with gold. This done, he rolled these articles up into a tight ball, and threw them into the water. A minute or two later, he was strolling towards his quarters with an air of absolute unconcern, until at length he found himself in Piccadilly. There he came face to face with a stalwart policeman who eyed him with astonishment.
"What's the gime?" the officer asked. "What are you playin' at? An' where are you goin'?"
"John o' Groats," Gus said. "Do I turn to the right or left, or do I keep straight on?"
"But what's the gime?" the man in blue repeated almost imploringly. "Look 'ere, you'd better come along o' me and see the sergeant."
"I decline," Gus said with dignity, "to see any sergeant. I am not interested in sergeants—they are the sort of people I have been in the habit of mixing with. My name is Openshaw, Augustus Openshaw. And if you don't happen to know it—"
Apparently the officer did, for his manner became a little more respectful.
"Well, sir," he went on. "It's no business of mine, of course, but I don't think, as Mr. Benjamin Openshaw will very much like it. And if you take my advice—"
At that moment another man in evening dress appeared upon the scene. With a twinkle in his eye, Gus recognised his inconsequent friend, Jack Adair. The latter stopped and regarded his confederate with a fine air of intense astonishment.
"What, do you mean to say you are actually going on with it?" he cried. "Look here, come along with me."
"I decline to come along with you," Gus said with dignity. "I have made a wager and I am going to carry it out. I am on my way to walk to Scotland, and if you will kindly tell me whether I turn to left or to right when I come to the end of the road, I shall be greatly obliged."
Without a word, Adair put his hand through his friend's arm and led him away with the air of one who is humouring a fractious child. He winked at the policeman over his shoulder and significantly touched his forehead.
"It works, old man, it works," Gus said. "I will tell you where to find me from time to time, but I don't think that I am going to walk quite all the way, and anyhow, I can manage to keep from permanent lameness if I carry a pair of running shoes in my tail coat pocket. Now, come inside and have a drink, and I will tell you—"
"Not on your life," Adair said. "It will take me all my time to reach the office of my rag if I am going to have that paragraph in all the editions tomorrow."
The countless readers of the 'Morning Herald' saw that striking paragraph as they sat at breakfast in their luxurious suburban homes:
DRAMATIC SCENES IN PICCADILLY.
"Early this morning a young man of distinguished appearance was discovered strolling down Piccadilly wearing immaculate evening dress, and in every way resplendent, save for the fact that he was entirely divested of footgear and socks. He explained to a bewildered policeman that he was engaged in a wager for an enormous sum to walk, just as he was, from Piccadilly Circus to the North of Scotland. We gather from our representative, who happened to be on the spot, that one of the conditions of the bet was that the journey should be accomplished in bare feet, and that the protagonist in question should wear nothing but evening kit, and that he should, thus apparelled, walk through every town that happened to be en route. This, our representative had first hand and, moreover, he elicited from the chief actor himself the fact that his name is Augustus Openshaw. We understand, therefore, that he is the only son of Mr. Benjamin Openshaw, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs who, we believe, is certain of Cabinet rank at an early date. Further particulars of this eccentric feat will appear in our later edition."
For the moment, the political world was standing still, there were no complications on land and sea, no lurid, salacious divorce case penciling, so that the 'Morning Herald' made a feature of the ridiculous stunt which they regarded as all their own. And, other papers kindly copied. The enterprising Openshaw was located here and there, he was seen in this town and that, sturdily plodding his way north, and occasionally encountered on country roads, where he prudently removed his unspiked running shoes at the slightest sign of life coming in his direction. Also, strange to say, no word of indignant expostulation came from the head of the family. And Gus found himself troubled and worrying.
* * * * *
The Right Honourable Benjamin, Openshaw had been absent for some time on the affairs of his country in Brussels. So, because he had not seen the English papers for so long, this terrible scandal had not approached his august presence. And then, when his work was finished, and he found himself with a little leisure, he turned eagerly to the British papers and read the whole horrible catastrophe in a state bordering on collapse.
So the Right Honourable gentleman packed his traps and fled precipitously homewards, bent upon righting this terrible wrong and perhaps hushing up a scandal which threatened to ruin his political career. And the first person he met as he crossed his threshold was his erring son, in propria persona, looking mildly through his spectacles, and bleating in his accustomed manner.
"This is a nice business!" Openshaw bellowed. "What do you mean by it, sir? What do you mean—"
"My dear father," the other Gus said mildly. "I am as much in the darkness as you are. I got an English paper in Rome some days ago, and directly I read the paragraph there, I hurried home as soon as possible. I can't understand it."
A sudden, light illuminated the great statesman.
"It's that rascally cousin of yours!" he breathed heavily. "One of those disgraceful practical jokes of his. A wager, perhaps. He would not give a thought to any position, or the due he owes to the family. I suppose Sommerson is here. Get him to telephone to your cousin and say he must come round here at once."
Sommerson, deeply concerned, and anxious for his chief's political welfare, managed to find Gus at his club and returned a moment later with the information that the delinquent would be on view within the next half-hour. He came cheerfully enough, smilingly hailing the aged butler and apparently oblivious of the fact that Benjamin's late wife's sister and ruler of the household had deliberately turned her back upon him. He knew that Angela was in the house somewhere, but deemed it policy not to ask after her—at any rate for the moment. He strode across the hall into the sacred domain where Benjamin Openshaw composed those majestic speeches of his, and stood in the Presence entirely unabashed.
"I suppose you know why I sent for you," Openshaw asked.
"Oh, Lord—yes," Gus said cheerfully. "About that little stunt of mine. Upon my word, I am sorry. But, after all do you think that it really matters?"
Openshaw fairly gasped.
"Matters!" he echoed. "Do you know sir, that my whole political career is at stake—to say nothing of that of your unfortunate cousin? I have been made a laughing stock of, sir! And as the head of the family I have been held up to ridicule. Do you know that 'Punch' has had something to say about it?"
"By Jove!—that is something like fame!" the recalcitrant Gus said cheerfully. "But why blame me?"
"Why blame you? Why blame you? You did it on purpose, sir—deliberately to injure your cousin."
"Here, steady on!" Gus said. "I didn't put that paragraph in the 'Morning. Herald.' I had to tell the police who I was, and they naturally jumped to the conclusion that I was your son. Of course, I know you don't care for these jokes, and in any case—"
"Joke, sir! Do you call it a joke? Some idiotic wager, I presume. The sort of amazing folly that you inconsequent idiots are always indulging in. It may be too late to save the family name, but at any rate, I can only try. You, sir, will have to make an abject apology. I order you immediately to write to that confounded paper, whose politics, by the way, are diametrically opposite to mine, and eat dust, sir!—eat dirt!"
"Well, I think that is only fair," Gus said coolly. "I'll make as abject an apology, as you like. Fact is, I came prepared to do so. So if you will sling me over a pen and some paper—"
Openshaw placed the desired material in front of his sinful relative, and Gus proceeded to write. If Mr. Openshaw had been less concerned with his own dignity and had been a little more observant than he was, he would have seen that Gus, who couldn't write three consecutive lines of prose to save his life, was getting on with amazing rapidity. He paused once in the flow of his splendid composition as if carefully polishing a period. As a matter of fact, Gus was what he would have called bunkered over his orthography, having been badly tripped by the word 'apology.' He finally decided to spell it with an 'o,' and proceeded cheerfully on his florid way. Then, with a certain air of triumph, he tossed the sheet across the table.
"There, what price that?" he asked.
It was a humble enough apologia, as even the outraged statesman was fain to admit. It was quite sufficient that it would restore him in the eyes of his fellow-men, and place the other Gus back upon his pedestal of stolid British respectability.
"Um!—very good!" the other man said. "Now, if you will sign that, I will see that it is duly posted. But I am not appeased yet, sir, I am not appeased yet. You will be good enough to abstain from coming here in future, and you and Miss Gilliland—"
Gus looked up suddenly with a fighting light in his eyes. He might have been confronted with a long putt on the last green for the match and the championship. His Irish hair gleamed in the sunshine filtering through the window, and his mouth grey hard.
"Oh, indeed," he said. "I see what you are driving at. But, look here, there are conditions. If I like to make a wager to walk to Land's End on my hands, it is nothing to do with you. And if newspapers like to make mistakes in people's identity, then it is no concern of mine. Now listen, uncle, I have known Angela all my life, and I have been dead keen on her ever since she was a kid with pigtails. And I am going to marry her. I am going to marry her with your consent or not. I know you can hold her money over for the next four years, but we can manage on my thousand quid per annum. Take a cottage near some decent golf links, and do with one servant. We have talked it over."
"Oh, you have, have you? And perhaps you have considered the consequences."
"Consequences. What consequences?"
"Well—er—let us say offspring," Openshaw suggested.
"Topping," Gus said delightedly. "By Gad, I never thought of that. A couple of natting youngsters would suit me down to the ground. I shouldn't mind a bit; bathing and feeding the little beggars. Awfully fond of kiddies, always was. And Angela, why, she'd be fairly potty about them. Now then."
"You mean to threaten me, sir," Openshaw demanded.
"Well, not quite that. But dash it, it's a poor rule that doesn't work both ways. You have got my apology there, and I am quite prepared to sign it and send it on to the editor of the 'Morning Herald.' There. Stick a stamp on it and get one of your servants to post it at once."
Openshaw looked a little less majestic.
"I am glad to see, sir," he said, "that you have some respect for the honour of the house. Why you came near, very near indeed, perhaps to depriving a country of a future Premier, at any rate, a Cabinet Minister. Still," he went on loftily, "I accept your apology in the spirit in which it has been offered, and I trust that time will heal the wound. I have nothing more to say, nothing. You can go, Augustus, you can go."
The fighting light crept back into Gus's eyes. Sooth to say, he had come there a bit ashamed of himself with the consciousness that he had not been quite playing the game. The whole thing had been a piece of inconsequent folly, and he was feeling rather ashamed of it. But, dash it all, if the head of the family was going to ride off like that, he would have something to say.
"Look here," he expostulated. "Why should I take all the blame? It isn't my fault that there are two Gus Openshaws, and it isn't my fault because my cousin is such a mutt. And now perhaps we can exchange documents. Here is a bit of paper in my pocket which I think you might sign."
He handed it over, and the potential future Premier began to read. His cheeks swelled up like those of an angry turkey cock.
"Colossal impudence," he cried. "You are actually asking me in writing to give my consent to an alliance with my ward! Because that is what this means. Miserable boy."
"Not at all, sir, not at all," Gus said. "It is only a little interchange of compliments. However, being a sportsman, I waive it. The apology can go, and you can tear up the paper which you have in your hand. I heard you say once, years ago, that in your early day you had some ambition of being a sportsman yourself. I begin to see now where you have been a failure."
The great man stood there with the sheet of notepaper in his hand. He looked into that pleasant, rugged, attractive face of his nephew's with a vague regret that his own son was not a little more like this young man who stood before him. He was bound to admit that Gus was behaving rather handsomely. He was actually abasing himself for the good of the family, and if he had refused to put his name to that apology, then Mr. Benjamin Openshaw would have been an everlasting object of ridicule, and the great man knew only too well what that meant in the world of politics. But there was his brother's son actually throwing away his sword and depriving himself of what might have been a deadly weapon.
And a sort of sudden liking for Gus seemed to spring spontaneously in that ponderous bosom of his. Something inside him was heaving like the ice on a river before the west wind. He was conscious that the crust of years was cracking, and here and there were dim memories of the time when he was a boy himself. He had also been at the best public school in England. He was recollecting now how he had dreamt of the day when he, too, might have been amongst the Bloods—a member of the Olympian band that constituted the first cricket XI, and perhaps the proud wearer of a footer cap. He had dreams of the day when he would do the hundred yards in even time... then he woke up.
He looked across the table with the nearest thing to a smile on his face that man had ever seen.
"My dear boy," he said, with a ponderous clearing of his throat. "You are behaving very well, indeed. An honourable course I should have expected from my brother's son. And—er—yes—um—I think, perhaps, on the whole, it would be better for me not to stand in your way, and I—er—rather think that you will find Angela alone in the drawing-room."
Gus took the stairs three at a time.
MRS. SHAN VANDERDKLE passed out of the palatial establishment of Macon. Freres in the Rue Rovill with some half-million dollars worth of pearls in her pocket. Nothing romantically historic, but really fine graded stuff which had taken years to collect. Nor was she particularly intrigued as to the settings. She 'guessed' that Tiffanys could see to it when she landed in New York. In the meantime, she was going to London for a spell.
It was Monsieur Jules Blinn, chief assistant, who saw her into the limousine waiting at the kerb. Then, without waiting to don his glossy hat, he walked down the street to the nearest telephone call box and asked for a certain number. Then—
"Is that you, M'sieur X?" he asked. "Z speaking, but yes. Ze madame she make ze purchase. Tres magnifique. Ze whole suite, yes. She take them wiz her to her pension unset. It is enough!"
The voice at the other end or the wire replied that it was. Whereupon, the immaculate Jules smiled and returned to his lawful vocations. With any average luck he was going to put something like six thousand pounds in his pocket.
Just how this was to be achieved calls for something in the way of explanation. Had they chosen, the Customs House authorities in New York could have given it. They could have told you, for instance, that the great game of jewel smuggling across the Atlantic was never more popular than at the present moment. Also, that great ladies with fathomless purses did not disdain to take a hand at the sport.
Now, some little time ago, the New York Customs awoke to the fact that in one way and another the State was being defrauded of something like ten million dollars a year by these gilt-edged smugglers. It was a pastime that hardly came within the criminal code, but none the less annoying for that. So it came about that wealthy ladies buying jewels in Paris and London were carefully shadowed, and it became discreetly known that shop assistants might add to their incomes without hindrance to present employment by reporting quietly in certain quarters as to big deals in gems on the part of America's fair citizens. And when it became known behind select counters that one fortunate assistant had netted over five thousand pounds as his share of a raid on a society lady smuggler in the New York Customs, being twenty-five per cent. of the spoil, other bright spirits began to sit up and take notice.
It was a ridiculously easy way of making money. Merely to report to a sheltered address on the purchases of certain ladies who were in Europe buying gems of price, and then, if a smuggling stunt was attempted, draw the the alluring percentage without coming out into the open to give evidence. It was a neat little scheme and New York Customs were reaping the benefit of it.
And this was why Monsieur Jules Blinn had spent a few moments in calling up a certain modestly anonymous individual at an address that New York had thoughtfully provided for such occasions.
Now, it is only fair to Mrs. Shan Vanderdkle to say that when that spoilt child of fortune came to Europe in search of some fine gems she had not the slightest intention of defrauding the revenue of her native land, or anybody else. She, of course, knew all about the heavy duty on precious stones, and wistfully recognised the necessity. Not that she wanted to pay it in the least. Neither did Mr. James Starlinger, for the matter of that.
Starlinger and his wife were two polished, travelled Americans staying at the Ritzor, and the lady of the pearls found them there when she returned from Paris. It took very little time for something like a friendship to spring up, which was only natural, considering that the Starlingers had taken up their abode at the Ritzor with the sole intention of establishing friendly relations with Mrs. Shan Vanderdkle. They knew precisely what she was doing in Europe and still more precisely, what had been her business in Paris.
To put it candidly, Starlinger and his wife were professional smugglers of jewels. It was a regular profession they had followed for years, and the Customs House authorities of New York were perfectly aware of the fact. But, up to the present moment, the authorities had had the worst of the game.
"So now you understand all about it," Starlinger said to the pearl lady, as they sat over an intimate luncheon in the grill room at the Ritzor. "You see, I have been perfectly frank with you, because I want, if possible, to save you paying something life a hundred thousand dollars when you get to New York. That is, of course, for duty. And, even after paying my fee, you would be more that half that sum in pocket."
"You mean. I should have to hand the stones to you—"
"Yes, that's the idea. And, when we reach New York, I hand them back again. You give me a cheque and there is an end of the business. Oh, you need not be afraid—we shall all travel on the same boat, quite openly, though, mind you, I shall be watched by one of the Customs House experts."
It sounded very thrilling to the lady of the pearls, all so open and above board that, after a little hesitation, she agreed to fall in with the suggestion. There was a certain amount of risk, of course, but this made the adventure all the more alluring.
"But aren't you afraid of being caught?" she asked.
"I have never been within miles of it yet," Starlinger smiled. "Now, at the present moment there is a man in this room who is watching us under the impression that I am trying to persuade you to be a party to this little scheme. He knows all about me, which may seem something of a drawback, but, as I know all about him and he flatters himself that I have not the least idea that he is connected with the Customs, that is where I have the advantage. He is a new man, engaged solely to track me across the Atlantic when I sail in a few days on the Auricula. That is the boat we are all going by. Just cast your eye upon the man in the blue serge suit over there, under the palm. His name is Hank Crowl, though he has not the least idea that I am aware of the fact. He thinks he is going to land me presently with Mrs. Vanderdkle's pearls in my possession, but he never made a greater mistake in his life. I have got the sweetest, prettiest little stunt you ever heard of. I am not going to tell it to you because it would make you nervous. Leave it entirely to me, and you will have no cause to be dissatisfied."
The man called Hank Crowl, especially appointed by the New York authorities to keep his eye on Starlinger, was perfectly satisfied with the way in which matters were progressing. He had a free hand, practically unlimited expenses, and, knowing that Starlinger was not leaving England for a few days, decided to slacken the bow, and enjoy himself. He was rather keen on seeing the night-side of London, and all he was seeking was a companion to help him with his laudable pursuit. And in the fine sportsman who called himself Gayford he seemed to have discovered his ideal.
He had found him at a loose end in the lounge of the hotel. From what he could gather the young man was in London on business in connexion with his own firm in Colombo. It was rather a slow, dragging business, entailing a long stay in London, so that Gayford more than once had expressed a half-desire to run over to the States to see if he could pick up a few dollars there. And it was some evenings later, after the conversation previously recorded, that Crowl walked into the lounge of the Ritzor to find Gayford there, seated over a cigar.
"Say," Crowl asked. "Got anything on to-night?"
"Rather expecting to meet a man here," Gayford explained. "If he turns up I'm fixed. It he doesn't then—but what do you want to do? Anything fresh to see?"
Crowl replied to the effect that he thought of putting in an hour or two at Maxton's one of the most rapid and yet sinister night clubs in the West End.
"Well, why not go on there," Gayford suggested. "I can come on about twelve or a bit after."
With that Crowl went on his way, and, shortly after twelve, Gayford put in an appearance at Maxton's. He discovered his new-found friend seated alone in a corner of the big dancing saloon with his head buried on his breast and apparently steeped in a profound melancholy. In other words, the American was monumentally drunk. Gayford exchanged a rapid glance with a waiter close by, and demanded a taxi. He managed to convey his burden to the lounge at the Ritzor, which was now deserted, and intimated to the night-porter that he was going to see his friend up to bed.
"Seems to want a bit of attention, sir," the night-porter said critically. "I have never seen a gentleman much worse."
"Yes, that is why I am going to see him to his room," Gayford said. "I will just remove his coat and shoes and collar, and leave him to himself. Perhaps you will have a look into his room later on. I don't want to be dragged into an unpleasant business. Looks to me as if he was drugged."
With that, Gayford shoved a pound note into the porter's eager palm, and, between them, they got the somnolent Crowl safely to his bedroom. It was considerably more than an hour later when Gayford finally left the room and sought the seclusion of his own apartment.
"I think he will be all right now," he told the night-porter. "I have made him as easy as possible. But one never knows. If there is anything wrong, call me, will you?"
But apparently nothing out of the common happened, and it was a surprisingly fresh-looking Crowl that came down to breakfast the following morning. He crossed cheerfully over to the table where Gayford was seated.
"Oh, here you are!" he said. "What the dickens happened to me last night? I was in Maxton's with a bunch of girls, and we sure did sling the bubbly round. And then, all of a sudden like, my memory seemed to go. When I woke up this morning—"
"I brought you home. Found you sitting in the comer of the dance-room like patience on a monument. If you get hitting it up like this I shall have to take you in hand altogether. I shouldn't mind a run across the water for a week or two. My business is a bit hung up, and I can spare the time."
"Then why not come along?" Crowl said. "You come along with me, and I will show you a bit of comedy later on that will be something to talk about when you get home again. I can't go into details now, but it will be worth your while."
"Dashed if I haven't a great mind to come," Gayford said. "If you are going to start in the course of a day or two—"
"Going to start from Liverpool on Saturday night," Crowl interrupted. "Sail on the Auricula. If you like to go down to the office and book a cabin. I will come with you."
Gayford being quite agreeable, the two set out on their errand. They passed the table in the dining room where the two Starlingers were breakfasting and Crowl smiled to himself as he pictured the discomfiture of that distinguished-looking individual when he came to confront him in the Customs House at New York. But there would be plenty of time for that. Then, on the Saturday morning, Crowl and his companion took train from Euston and, just before dark, found themselves comfortably on board the Auricula. It was a quick and pleasant voyage without any particular incident, so that Crowl had nothing to do but sit down and keep a close eye on Starlinger and his wife. And in this he was backed up by more than one authority on board. There were at least a dozen subordinates moving about the ship, more or less under Crowl's direction, though, as far as anybody could judge, no word had ever passed between them. All the same, the Auricula had been thoroughly searched, and if Starlinger had only known it, so was his baggage, and even the suit-case of himself and his wife in their cabin. Perhaps he did not know this, but if so, he gave no sign.
Crowl made no sign either. He knew, as well as he knew that there was a sky above him, that somewhere on board the Auricula those precious pearls were concealed, and that Starlinger would make every effort to get through the Customs with them. But this time, for once, he was going to be disappointed. He was going to have the surprise of his life. He would not be lost sight of during the whole of the voyage, and when he presented himself at the Customs, he and his wife would be shepherded carefully on one side and searched with a thoroughness that would prevent so much as a pin getting past the eagle eye of authority.
* * * * *
It was still daylight when the ship at length came to anchor and the placid calm on deck had given place to bustle and confusion. Down below in his cabin, Crowl waited. He was just a little eager and anxious, because this was his first big case of the sort, and he was more than anxious to make good. All his preparations were completed, he merely had to step out of the cabin with that neat expanding suit-case in his hand and stand by the long counter where the passengers' intimate baggage was examined, and wait until Starlinger and his wife appeared on the scene. Then, just as he was about to climb on deck, Gayford came through the doorway.
"Well, old man," he said breezily, "are you ready? No use hanging about here any longer, what? Where are we going to stay? What's your usual pub?"
Crowl responded to the effect that he usually put up at the Bilter Mansions when he was in New York. He expected to be there for a day or two on business, after which he was going on to his home in New Jersey. But he made no effort to move, despite all Gayford's signs of impatience.
"Oh, come on," the latter exclaimed. "No sense in hanging about here like this. I am dying to have a look at little old New York. Here, get a move on."
With that, Gayford grabbed his companion's suit case and started for the companionway, carrying a case in either hand.
"I'll carry it, you needn't bother," he said. "What the dickens are you waiting for? Get a move on."
"Well, you see, I have a little business to do first," Crowl said rather hesitatingly. He was beginning to find this breezy companion of his a little bit of an encumbrance. "Matter of fact. I am waiting to see a man—"
"Oh, in that case I'll push on," Gayford cried. "Look here, suppose I pass these two bags through the Customs and then take a taxi as far as Bilter Mansions and book a couple of rooms?"
"Oh all right," Crowl said a little briefly.
At that moment, an official put his head inside the cabin door and nodded curtly in Crowl's direction. Without a reply, Crowl bustled out of the cabin, followed by Gayford, and then proceeded down the gangway and thence into the covered Customs House. A long line of impatient passengers stood there waiting to have their baggage examined, and at the end of the queue, were Starlinger and his wife, bearing their intimate possessions.
"This is going to take a bit of time," Gayford said. "Something special is it? Here, let me get a move on."
He elbowed his way through the crowd and slapped his suit case on the counter in front of one of the officials there. He unlocked the case and flung it wide open, as if defying the enemy on the other side of the mahogany to do his worst. It was a long examination too, though there was nothing in the suitcase except personal belongings. But the official examiner was taking no risks. He probed the suitcase with needles, he measured the thickness of the bottom with a little ivory rule, so that it was a good quarter of an hour before the case was locked again and the official permit stamped on it. Then Gayford returned to his companion, who was standing at the end of the counter with a fine assumption of indifference.
"Evidently took me for one of those smuggling thieves," Gayford exclaimed indignantly. "By James, at this rate, some of those people will be here all night. But say, Crowl, what about your suitcase. How am I going to get that through?"
Crowl smothered an impatient exclamation and flung his suitcase on the counter. At a sign from him, one of the disengaged officials came forward and proceeded to affix the seal on the case without the formality of opening it.
"There, don't stop to talk," Crowl said, as he saw the gaping astonishment on his companion's face. "I will explain it all when we are having dinner to-night. Off you go."
Without another word, Gayford vanished past the barriers and flung the two suit-cases into a waiting taxi. Directly he had vanished, Crowl approached Starlinger and his wife and curtly motioned them to follow. A bunch of officials had gathered round, apparently out of nowhere, and Starlinger smiled as he saw them.
"Why this special attention?" he asked.
"None of that," Crowl snapped. "You just come with me. We want those pearls, my lad. I am not mentioning any names, but you know what I mean. The pearls from Paris."
"Oh, very well," Starlinger said with a shrug of his shoulders. "Come along Naomi, we had better get it over. At any rate, we shall get through a great deal quicker than I expected."
For the best part of two hours, with the aid of male and female searches, Starlinger and his wife were examined to the bone. Their personal belongings were subjected to a scrutiny that was absolutely microscopic. And then, very reluctantly, the eagles relinquished their prey. Without the slightest sign of triumph, Starlinger and his wife passed the barrier and, hailing a taxi waiting there, drove off having given the driver directions to take them to the Armadale Hotel. But strange to say, they never reached that fashionable caravanserai. Without a word said on either side, the taximan piloted down town until they came to a modest apartment house in Lexton Avenue. And here, for the moment they vanished from the ken of the authorities.
* * * * *
It was just one hour later, under cover of the darkness that a manly figure, bearing a suitcase in his hand, let himself into the apartment house and proceeded to the sitting-room upstairs where Starlinger and his wife were seated over a cosy meal. They rose smilingly to greet the newcomer.
"Well, Danster, old man," Starlinger cried.
"Yes, Danster, alias Gayford," the newcomer laughed. "I dare say you wondered where I had got to, but I had to cover up my tracks. And how did you enjoy the third degree?"
"Oh, it wasn't a very pleasant experience," Starlinger confessed. "Still, they weren't quite as bad as they might have been. And they didn't find anything, of course."
"No, of course they didn't," Jackie Danster grinned. "Because there was nothing to find. Now, if they had kept their eye on me and not been so infernally anxious to lay James Starlinger by the heels, they would have done a great deal better, because—"
As he paused, he laid the suit case on a side table and proceeded to open it. Then the contents were thrown out, leaving nothing but the empty receptacle with its leather lining. Then Starlinger took a knife from his pocket, and, cutting some of the stitches in the soft leather, drew from underneath a length of hollow cane, which was plugged at either end with cotton wool. This he removed and shook out the contents.
And there lay Mrs. Vanderdkle's pearls!
For a few minutes the trio stood by the table, more or less lost in admiration.
"It was a great stunt wasn't it?" Starlinger chuckled.
"About the neatest you ever pulled off," Danster agreed. "A real priceless stunt getting Crowl to bring that stuff all across the Atlantic in his own suit case. But you couldn't have done without me, old man. I had to play up to Crowl, and I had to see that he got properly soused that night at Maxton's. And I had to shove the pearls in his own suit case when he was lying insensible in bed, and made a really good job of it."
"And afterwards?" Naomi Starlinger asked.
"Oh, afterwards was easy. It wanted a bit of bluff to get away with that suit-case but I managed it, and I managed it all the easier because Crowl was in such a breakneck hurry to keep an eye upon you and be in at the death when you came to be searched. He let me walk off with that suit-case with the idea of taking rooms at the Bilter Mansions for both of us, and he never dreamt what was in the case, when he got that Customs House johnny to O.K. it. And I flatter myself that my expressions of astonishment when he did so was a fine piece of acting. Lord, if they had only known! The thing right under their nose, and—oh, well what's the good of making a song an dance about it. Anyway, you get your money and I get mine, and all I've got to say is I would like to have a job like this every week of my life. Open that bottle of fizz, old man, and let's drink to Mrs. Vanderdkle and her pearls. Here's luck to both of you. And here's luck to old Crowl, waiting for me so patiently at Bilter Mansions."
ONE thing old William Lane could never forget and that was the fact that Connie Danvers was Miss Danvers of Holsworthy Manor. She might be to-day the mere housekeeper of a tenant farmer in the shape of her brother Walter, and that the old place was let on a long lease to those odious Samley-Gedge people, but the basic fact remained. Lane might be a rich man now, as he undoubtedly was, but he had been born under the shadow of the Manor and moreover he was the foster brother of the last but one of the prosperous and mighty Danvers in those days nearly seventy years ago, when things were very different. And because of that and because he had neither kith nor kin he was intensely proud of the fact that Connie and her brother treated him as an equal.
Over half a century ago he had emigrated to Australia with his father, and had been left as a mere lad entirely without education to face the world alone. He had done well in one way and another being naturally shrewd, and in the course of time had made a fortune of no small dimensions, after which he had come home to settle down in the village of his birth, with his confidential secretary, Godfrey Curtis, whom he had originally found in some Australian bank and brought with him to England to look after his monetary affairs. The coterie was made up by one Sam Crichton, an old schoolfellow of Walter Danvers, who had joined him in the more or less vain hope of making a competence out of the one farm Danvers had retained when he let the old place on a long lease in the hope of clearing off the mortgages in time. It was a very fine let to those odious and vulgar Samley-Gedge, husband and wife, who had come into that part of the country more or less, so Gedge said, because he had known Lane out in Australia and had, indeed, once been a sort of partner of his. The Gedges seemed to be very wealthy and hospitable in their vulgar way, and made much of Lane who, however, was not too responsive as Connie Danvers did not fail to notice. Anyway, their coming was more or less due to William Lane and Connie was not ungrateful.
But dear old William Lane was a different proposition altogether. He was one of nature's gentlemen, and did more good in the neighbourhood in a month than the Danvers had done in generations. So that he was a welcome guest at the farm where he bought Connie's butter and eggs and poultry with a lavishness which made her blush to take his money. It was some consolation to know that most of her produce went in charity.
Both she and her brother were very fond of old William Lane. So was Sam Crichton, Walter Danvers' partner. But it never once crossed the mind of either of them that some of these early days they might benefit through this one-time employee on the family estates. His money, of course, would go to Godfrey Curtis, who was to all practical purposes the old man's adopted son. When Lane died Curtis would return to Australia and settle down there with his own relatives. And that would be that. They all liked Curtis, who was a fine chap, and persona grata at the farm. Honest Sam Crichton was a little jealous of him, though he would not have had Connie guess it for the world. But then Connie was something more than a lovely and well-born maid, and women have a natural instinct for that sort of thing. That fine individual Sam Crichton would have been amazed and dismayed had he realised that Con had discovered his secret long ago, though never by word or look had he betrayed his feelings. Dear old Sam! And when a girl begins to think of a man she respects and admires as 'dear old Sam' or anything else—. Moreover Godfrey Curtis was at present in Australia on business connected with his employer and would not be back for many months to come. And there was a girl on the other side. Which secret he had confided to Connie.
But it was weary uphill work at the farm. The fact was more or less forced from Walter Danvers one night shortly after Curtis's departure for Australia as he smoked his pipe in the dining-room.
"I feel like chucking it sometimes," he sighed. "The rent we are getting from those Gedge people pays the interest on the mortgages and small reductions of same, but it is a devil of a pull. Why don't you chuck it, Sammy, and leave me to carry on?"
Sam Crichton shook his honest, handsome head, and flushed. He was watching the lovely figure in the big armchair with a pile of darning on her knee. What would Connie be like in twenty years' time, he asked himself. All that work and drudgery.... He managed to voice his thoughts in a few discreet words.
"Don't you worry about me," Connie laughed. "According to all the precedents dear old Lane must leave me everything when he dies. Especially if Godfrey Curtis fails to come back. Don't frown, Walter, I am only jesting."
"Much more likely to leave it to that Samley-Gedge lot," Walter growled. "They are all over him these days."
With which Walter rose and drifted moodily out.
"It is a bit hard," Connie sighed.
"On you," Sam said. "If I wasn't here perhaps things would be easier. I haven't said a word—"
"No, you are always quite the grande seigneur, Sam," Connie said, demurely. "You are too proud, Sam. There is a certain pride that spells conceit. That's yours, Sam. Placing yourself on a pedestal and admiring the statue from a distance. So poor that you could never ask a girl to marry you. That would not be playing the game from the statue point of view. But if the girl cared for you, isn't there something to be said from her point of view? Do you realise, Sam, that you have been making love to me for the last two years and more?"
Sam reddened through his tan like a schoolboy.
"Me!" he cried. "M-m-making love to you! I wouldn't dare. I swear I have never said a single word—"
"Not one, Sam," Connie said, demurely. "But, then, you see, love recognises no language limits. In the Victorian novels the hero always spoke of a lifetime's devotion. But what was the use of that so long as it led to nothing. A girl might have all that and die an old maid all the same. And no true girl ever hankers after that. Oh, I know that you study me—"
"Who wouldn't?" Sam said, sotto voce.
"Thank you, Sam. That was very pretty and sincere. There is nothing that you will not do for me. You are always on the look-out to save me trouble. You have rather nice eyes, Sam, and they talk, if you don't. They were quite eloquent just now when I was gabbling all that nonsense about Mr. Lane's money. Sam, are you not ashamed to sit there as if I was not worth answering?"
Sam's honest soul was bathed in illuminating light.
"I couldn't ask you to marry me," he said, firmly.
"Purely as a matter of argument, why not?" Connie asked. "We are both poor and, I hope, very honourable. This, of course, is a great drawback in life's progress, but I think that it makes for happiness in the end. And if I am going to be a dairymaid all my life, why shouldn't I have somebody to look after me and, equally, why not somebody to look after you. Eh, Sam?"
Sam seemed to hear the words from a long way off. The afterglow of a gorgeous sunset filled the room and framed Connie like a picture. Then from the outer world the sound of hurried steps and Walter burst into the room.
"Lane," he cried, "poor old Lane. Dining at the Manor with the Gedge family. In the library afterwards transacting some business with his host. I met Harrison, the butler, running for a doctor. A most ghastly thing."
With a little cry Connie sprang to her feet.
"You don't mean to say?" she gasped, "that—"
"Dead," Walter whispered. "He just fell back and died."
* * * * *
It was something more than a nine days' wonder in the village. The poor old gentleman was dead and gone and scores of local poor would miss him terribly. Gossips standing at cottage doors asked one another what would become of his money. He hadn't a single relative in the world, for, had such been the case, he would have looked such relations up and they would have benefited. What was to become of the Hospice and all the wonders it contained?
Then, as is inevitable in country places, rumour began to get busy. Everything had gone to that there Samley-Gedge! They had been partners in business years ago in Australey. A crying shame, it was, and him making such a fuss of the poor young squire and his sister. 'Sides, them Gedges had money enough already. And not one penny for the poor of the parish as promised.
Not that Walter Danvers or Connie had expected anything. Such a thought had never occurred to either of them. Still the late William Lane had hinted at such great things that Walter took the first opportunity of speaking to his burly tenant on the subject. The big man with the heavy red face and small gimlet eyes smiled.
"Wonderful how these things get out in these villages," he said casually. "I have not mentioned the matter to a soul and I am sure my wife hasn't either. Still, the will has to be proved and it will be public property then so you might as well know now. You see, years ago Lane and myself did a lot of speculating together. We were both poor struggling men and for a time things were all against us. And when the luck turned and we both stood on firm ground we had a bit of a quarrel. I might have been wrong, but Lane was sailing a bit too near the wind for me. However, he is dead and gone now, poor chap, and I'll say no more. The very night he died, he came up to the Manor and showed me his will in which he left everything to me. He was going to alter it and make all sorts of provision for the poor here and so on when he just laid back and died as you heard at the inquest. All he intended to do but didn't put down in writing shall be done, Danvers, you can bet on that. I told my solicitors as much when I wrote to them enclosing the original will. I regard poor Lane's wishes as a sacred duty. I shall see that nobody suffers."
Danvers made no comment though he went his way by no means easy in his mind. Intimate as he had been with the late William Lane, the latter had never said much about his past in the way of business details. But more than once he had alluded to Gedge in a way that was not exactly extravagant in the way of appreciation. They exchanged visits and dined with one another, but—. And now apparently Lane had left his quondam partner everything. Well, the world would know all about that in good time. And, in any case it was no business of his, Walter decided.
Yet the proving of the will in the Probate Court dragged on in the inert, languid manner peculiar to legal processes and at the end of a year the estate was still in the hands of the Court. Some difficulty in getting in contact with the witnesses to the document, Walter understood. The will had been made years before in the back of the Australian beyond and these witnesses had more or less vanished into darkness. Nor had the will been made by a lawyer but was on a single sheet of foolscap paper in the handwriting of the testator himself. Still, Walter understood from Gedge that as the signature and handwriting was not in dispute it was only a question of time before the Court would presume the genuineness of the testament and pass it for probate.
There was only one man who could throw any light on this very dubious darkness and he was far enough away. Not one word had reached the home from from Godfrey Curtis since his departure over a year ago, and probably now he would never visit England again. He had not even left his address behind him, so that chapter was closed and the romance of William Lane ended.
And then, one fine morning in October following the old man's death—that is, October in the following year—Curtis walked into the home farm dining-room as if he had never left. They were just sitting down to luncheon, and welcomed him with open arms.
"Give an account of yourself," Walter cried.
"The short and simple annals of the poor," Curtis quoted. "Fifteen months hard work—no more. Then, when my mother came back completely restored to health after a long illness, I deemed it time to run over here, if only to visit the grave of that dear old man."
"Then you knew all about it?" Connie asked.
"'Why, of course. From the local paper which I had sent out to me regularly. Of course, I ought to have written to some of you, but you know how one forgets such things. And you hadn't my address, either. And so Gedge comes into all that money! Over Six Hundred Thousand Pounds! Rather rough on some of us, eh? But Gedge hasn't got it yet."
"No, but he will in a month or so," Walter pointed out grimly. "Did you happen to know anything about this will?"
"Not a word," Curtis confessed. "Though I can throw a lot of light on it if I am asked to. However—"
With which Curtis changed the conversation as if so far as he was concerned, the subject was finished. He was uncertain as to how long he would stay in England, but, as to that, he could be more definite the following night after he had seen a firm of solicitors in London on the morrow.
It was just after noon next morning as he entered the offices of Steel, Brights, and Steel, and asked to see one of the partners. It was a Bright he saw, and what he had to say deeply interested that gentleman. He was still more interested in a memorandum which Curtis placed on the table before him.
"Now, this is in my writing. Mr. Bright," he said. "It was taken down from dictation, and the date is 23rd July last year, as you can see. The signature at the foot is that of my late employer, Mr. William Lane, of The Hospice, Caveaham. It was dictated the morning following a heart attack. My employer suffered that way. Your legal experience will tell you that the memorandum was intended as the basis of a will the old gentleman intended to make. Sort of instructions to counsel. It was intended that I was to come up to town and see your firm with those instructions, but I didn't come, because I was suddenly called away to Australia. I was to come to you because of the high reputation of your firm, and the fact that you are solicitors to the Danvers estate. In ordinary circumstances that memorandum might be accepted by the Court as a real will. I seem to have read of such cases."
"Quite," the lawyer agreed. "But not in case of a properly signed and witnessed will which provides for a contingency the very opposite to the instructions in your memorandum."
"But the memorandum is witnessed by my late employer's butler and housekeeper," Curtis pointed out. "Highly respectable people, whereas no witnesses to what we may call the genuine will are to be found at all."
"Precisely. But considering that the will that Mr. Samley-Gedge seeks to prove is actually in the testator's own handwriting—"
"Even that mountain might be got over," Curtis interrupted, with a smile. "Listen to my prologue, or, rather, my epilogue."
Mr. Bright listened politely until at a pregnant sentence from Curtis he jumped from his seat and appeared to go in off the deep end with a vehemence the like of which that decorous office had never seen before.
"Does anybody else know this?" he demanded.
"Not a soul," Curtis replied.
"Then we must get to work at once. I'll lock that memorandum up in the office safe if you don't mind. Thank you. Now put on your hat, and come with me as far as Somerset House. I want to have a good look at that will of Mr. Lane's."
* * * * *
Nobody seemed to know anything definite, but it was common talk that there was something wrong in connection with the testimonial intentions of the late William Lane. Somebody had entered a caveat—whatever that might mean—against the will, and the case was coming on for hearing before Christmas. And if this meant that Gedge was going to lose all that money, then a hundred per cent. of his neighbours would be pleased.
But Mr. Samley-Gedge wasn't going to lose. Nor did he make any secret of the fact. Nor were the poor in the district going to suffer. Their care would be a sacred duty. The Hospice where Lane had lived would be turned into a cottage hospital properly endowed, as Mr. Lane had always promised, though the scheme was not mentioned in his will, which, however, had been made twenty years ago in Australia at a time when he and Gedge were more or less partners. He was not going to say much, but the neighbourhood would know all about it within a very short time now.
It was 'The Southern Daily Messenger' that afforded those interested in the progress of the case all the information they required. Through that paper they learnt for the first time of the memorandum that formed the base of the action which Godfrey Curtis and others were taking to annul the will. In brief, the memorandum, duly signed and witnessed in July the previous year, provided that the estate should be equally divided between Walter Danvers, his sister, Samuel Crichton, and Godfrey Curtis, in equal shares, subject to certain charities and that the estate should be administered by the public trustee.
This was exciting enough, but there was more to follow when, on the second day of the proceedings, Godfrey Curtis went into the witness box to give his evidence. 'The Southern Daily Messenger' gave the following almost verbatim account of the proceedings:—
Mr. Godfrey Curtis, an Australian, and late secretary to the testator, then entered the witness box and, under examination by Mr. Walbrook, K.C. (for the plaintiffs) testified that for some years he had acted as confidential adviser to Mr. Lane. He had resigned his post as cashier in the bank where Mr. Lane kept his account to take up the post. Mr. Lane was an entirely self-made man, with little education, and therefore, needed assistance as his wealth grew. Acting under witness's advice, the testator realised most of his assets, and on coming to England, invested practically all of his money in War Bonds. The dividends were collected through the dead man's bankers, so that he was saved the trouble and worry as to his investments. Witness had never heard of the will propounded by the defendant Gedge until he read about it in a paper which reached him in Australia, though he knew that many years ago the testator and Gedge were in some sort of speculative business together. The memorandum in which the action was founded was dictated to him (witness)a few days before he was suddenly called home to Australia in consequence of illness in the family, and was more or less inspired by a heart attack which the testator had had, and witness had ventured to expostulate with him on the fact that he has never made his will. On the strength of that the memorandum was dictated to witness by the dead man, and, as a precaution, signed and witnessed by Lane's butler and housekeeper, who, however, were not informed as to its contents.
A COURT DRAMA.
Cross-examined by Sir Charles Morley, K.C.: Kindly look at this document. You see what it is?
Witness: Yes; the original of the contested will.
Sir Charles: So you say. You are familiar with Mr. Lane's signature. Do you dispute the one to the will?
Witness: Had I seen it anywhere else I should have said without hesitation that it was my late employer's signature.
Sir Charles: I am greatly obliged to you, sir. Will you be so good as to examine the body of the document. Have you any doubt that it is in the handwriting of the late William Lane?
Witness: Every doubt. In fact, I know it is not.
Sir Charles: And why, pray?
Witness: For a very good and sufficient reason. An illiterate man can easily learn to scribble some sort of signature, but it does not follow that he can write.
Sir Charles: Do you mean to suggest—
Witness: I am not suggesting anything. The calligraphy in the body of this document is not Mr. Lane's, for the simple reason that he could neither read nor write.
* * * * *
The poor old man's secret had been well kept. The one thing in life of which he was ashamed. Not even Gedge had guessed it. But the evidence, taken on commission from certain bank officials in Australia, had been sufficient to establish the forgery, and the case collapsed as Curtis left the witness box. And when the nine-days wonder was over and Gedge in custody and his shaky financial position disclosed, Walter Danvers and Connie went back to the Manor, though the latter is not likely to remain there long.
HARTLEY DRUMMOND, standing in the shadow of the plantation, watched intently the beautiful, lithe, sinuous animal holding the dead rabbit in her hand. The fact that it was his rabbit and had been poached in the spinney did not prejudice Sir Hartley against the huntress. Rather was he filled with a certain admiration for the tall girl in the vivid scarlet blouse. From the far side of the hedge came a drift of wood smoke, and the crackle of burning sticks. A man's voice was muttering something, and a woman was answering him shrilly. Here were three gaudily painted caravans, and as many dingy tents, for a horde of travelling gipsies had stopped here, and Drummond's keepers were much annoyed about it.
The girl strode almost noiselessly across the bracken; her bare feet gleamed like ivory against the vivid green. Came to her a moment later a man in a cloth cap and a muffler about his throat. She tossed the rabbit to him with a contemptuous gesture, and made as if to turn away when he caught her by the shoulder. It was something in the way of a caress, a touch of affection which might mean love in the wild, but it seemed to act upon the girl as if someone had put a match to the dark masses of her hair. As the man's hand tightened upon her shoulder she turned her head and hit the brown fingers savagely.
"Don't touch me again," she panted. "I have told you about it before. Why can't you leave me alone? Why can't you all leave me alone, for the matter of that? Keep your kisses for Meg Stanley: she'll welcome them fast enough."
THE young man laughed inwardly. He was not in the least angered or moved by this spurt of flaming passion. He might have been no more than a dog on which another one had turned in scorn and contempt of amatory advances. Without another word he picked up the rabbit and disappeared in the direction of the camp. The girl sat down on a fallen tree and took a slim volume from her pocket. A cracked voice calling for one Miriam brought a snarl to her lips as she threw the book down and darted towards the spot where the tents were pitched. Drummond was conscious of an intense curiosity to see what manner of literature this beautiful vixen of the woods affected. He could hear Miriam being shrewdly scolded for some dereliction of duly; someone was scoffing at the girl and demanding to know whether she meant to pass the whole day poring over 'that muck.' Obviously the speaker was alluding to the book which lay face downwards on the fallen tree. Drummond took it up in his hand and glanced at the cover.
"Swinburne," he muttered. "Now what on earth——"
The girl was coming back again. He dropped the volume and discreetly vanished. Here was a problem startling as it was unexpected. Drummond was a sportsman and a country gentleman, but he was a wide reader and a philosopher as well.
And he knew the wild, and the strange creatures that dwelt therein in many parts of the world. He knew that some of the inhabitants of the jungle were gregarious, like the rabbits and the rats and coyotes and wild dogs of the Western prairies. He knew that they snarled and fought and made war on one another much the same as men do, and this strange instinct fascinated him.
But there were other creatures in the wild not gregarious. There were the hawks and the vultures, the leopards and the panthers, playing their lone hand or travelling in small parties much as the gipsies in yonder camp were doing. There were town rats and country rats, and to this latter clan the gipsies belonged. They could hibernate with the rest in the holes and burrows of the town till the spring came a-calling and the smell of the rising sap sent them aflame for the clear sky and the open road. They were a fairly wild, untamed lot, as Drummond knew, for he had had a fancy once out in Hungary to go camping with them. These people here spoke a different language but they were the same race, with the same swarthy, clear-cut features and dark hair and eyes. In the ordinary course Drummond would have given the girl Miriam no further thought, but a wandering Romany who makes clothes pegs and vicariously poaches rabbits in the intervals of reading Swinburne was a human document not to be lightly put aside.
The problem was still with Drummond as he sat in his library smoking his final cigar before turning in. He would like to have seen more of this girl; he would like to have questioned her as to where she had learned to read, and who had inspired her with the neurotic beauties of the poet. He would have been surprised to know that the girl was standing in the darkness not five yards away, looking through the window into the library with shining, covetous eyes. She was still there when Drummond pulled the window to and switched off the light.
It was some half an hour later when he came down again with an uneasy feeling that he had not properly fastened the window. He was thinking of the gipsies, probably. He made no noise in his slippered feet as he put his hand round the door and flicked on the light. And there, curled up in a big arm chair with a dark lantern in her hand, was the gipsy girl. She had a costly edition of Shelley in her hand. Her scarlet blouse made a vivid spot against the brown leather of the bookcases, her bare legs were still glistening with the dew, her little pink toes wriggled uneasily. She looked up from the tangle of her hair.
"It's a fair cop, mister," she said half defiantly. "But I'm doin' no 'arm; God's truth, I ain't."
"No, I suppose not," Drummond said. "But you'll admit that I have the right to ask you a few questions. I take it that this is not your first visit here."
He half expected her to lie, but those bold clear eyes had in them no sinister light of prevarication.
"Every night for the last week," she said. "I see you here one evening as I came around by the house. Been borrowing a few cabbages from the garden, I 'ad. Your blind was up, and I looked in. And when I see all them beautiful books——"
"So you are a book lover like myself, eh?"
"Love 'em," the girl said. Her eyes were sparkling now. "Anything in print almost. I dare say you wonder where I learnt it all. When I was 12 I had something the matter with my spine. For two years I was in one of them 'omes. And they learned me to read and write, and they give me pretty well every book I wanted. I've got scores of books in the caravan. When ever I'm near a town, and I've got a few coppers to spend I find a second-'and bookstall—but look 'ere, you ain't going to charge me, are you?"
"You wound my sense of hospitality," Drummond smiled. "My dear child, you are perfectly safe here. Do you know, your case is very interesting? Your present mode of life must be horrible to a clever girl with an artistic temperament. Now I have friends and influence; there are schools and institutions——"
"I couldn't do it," the girl cried, "indeed, I couldn't do it, mister. It's in the blood. I didn't know what that meant till I began to read; didn't know why I felt so restless and miserable in that hospital. And they were very good to me, ay, as good as gold. Might have been a princess. And all the time my 'eart was out 'ere in the sunshine. And when they brought me flowers I seemed to see the daffodils and blue-bells in the woods—oh, don't send me to school. A month in the stir I could stand all right. Only if you've got any pity, don't send me to school."
She spoke in a voice vibrant with passionate entreaty. She seemed to be regarding Drummond as the avenging instrument of the law devising some terrible punishment for venial sin. But he understood her—understood a great deal more dearly than she knew. For the wild was to him an open book, and he had heard its call many a time before to-night. There was a kindly feeling in his heart for the beautiful half-shy, half-savage girl in the red blouse.
"You can make your mind quite easy," he said. "You are not going to be punished. This little adventure shall be a secret between us, and if, during the rest of your stay here, you should happen to wander this way at night, and the window's not securely fastened——"
The girl smiled, showing two rows of teeth white as the kernel of a filbert. Then her face overcast like an April sky.
"It's too late," she sighed. "Must think myself lucky to have been here so many times already. We are moving along Ashdown way to-morrow. Always moving, we are."
Drummond was frankly sorry to hear it. There was something about this child-woman that fascinated him. It seemed a thousand pities that with her dark beauty and fine intelligence, to say nothing of her artistic dreams, she should be condemned to the inevitable end that awaits the female creatures in the wild. She would meet her mate some day and they would get up the smoke tents of Ishmael for themselves and wander and wander till the end came. He could see her beauty lined and scarred with the stress of the storm and the fret of existence. He could see her and the male wolf scouring the wild for the daily meal, see her bent under the weight of the child slung across her breast in the inevitable parti-coloured shawl. Her hair would be grey some time, she would grow foxy and cunning, sly and glib of tongue, a haunter of back doors and a preyer upon silly moon-faced domestics dreaming dreams founded on fiction as expounded by the "Housemaid's Companion."
"It seems a thousand pities," Drummond said. "I am not quite sure that my weak good nature is not depriving the world of a genius. You are very young yet, Miriam. Two or three years at school and you may be writing the poetry that you so passionately admire. You might become a novelist, another Borrow. Oh, with a mind like yours you might be anything."
"Oh, I know," the girl said simply. "I have lain awake and thought of it scores of times. I can sleep in the darkest wood, and, yet the town frightens me. All these stone walls and brick 'ouses give me the 'orrors. Seems to me sometimes that I'm not one girl, but two. I want to read and I want to write, but I want the open road most of all. No, it would never do, mister."
And Drummond could see that, too. He knew the utter folly of any attempt to cage this wild bird. It was as if one chained an eagle in an aviary and tried to tame him with bird-seed. The simile struck Drummond as humorous, and he smiled a little sadly.
"I am quite with you," he said. "If you ever do change your mind, be sure you write and let me know."
The girl rose to her feet and frankly accepted Drummond's outstretched hand.
"I must be going now," she said. "You have been so very good to me, mister, and I am very grateful. Maybe we shall meet again some day. I dare say we shall work this pitch again in a year or two. I should like to see all these books again before I die."
She looked round the well-filled shelves yearningly, with just a suggestion of mistiness in her eyes, much as if she were parting with some well-beloved friends.
"You are sure you won't change your mind?" Drummond asked. "You would prefer to go back to your relatives?"
"They are no relatives of mine," the girl said. "My own people are somewhere up in Scotland. When I came out of hospital I found these Stanleys, and I have been with them ever since. It's all the same, you know; it's all one clan."
"It seems a very great pity," Drummond murmured.
She turned to him with a certain fierce sorrow.
"It isn't because I will," she said, "but because I must. Ever read anything of Thomas Hardy? You have? Remember the first chapter of 'The Woodlanders'? Well, you've got it all there. And you know why I've got to go wandering and wandering, and—oh, I can't explain it. Mister Hardy would understand."
She turned away without another word and vanished into the night. In some vague way she seemed to leave a void behind her.
"Very strange," Drummond murmured as he went thoughtfully to bed. "I should like to follow that child's career, but, of course, we shall never meet again."
And that was where Drummond was wrong.
The hour was late and Drummond was lingering over a volume of Maeterlinck philosophy, but it seemed to him that he could hear a faint cry somewhere outside under the cover of the darkness. There was a suggestion as if steel had come in contact with steel, then that cry again, followed by a moan of despair. Drummond dropped his book and sat up rigidly. If might be possibly the poachers at work and that one of them had met with some accident. He pulled up the blind and opened the window, so that the electrics cut a broad swathe of light into the heart of the purple darkness. At the end of the blinding lane, as something lay huddled on the grass, Drummond could make out the glint of steel, the dull polish of lacquer work, and then it was borne in upon him that someone had been riding across the grass and had come utterly to grief with a bicycle. The rider had evidently come headlong over, down a flight of steps leading to the stone terrace. Drummond hurried forward and raised the prostrate figure in his arms. He saw a white face in a tangle of black hair, he saw the slim figure of the girl in her scarlet blouse. He lifted her in his arms and carried her into the house. With some trouble he coaxed a few drops of brandy down the girl's throat, then she shuddered violently and opened her eyes.
"It was my own fault," she whispered. "I came here without a lamp. I couldn't find a lamp anywhere, and if I had I daren't have used it, so I had to take my chance. If those two had found out what I was doing they would have murdered me."
"But what is all the trouble?" Drummond asked.
"You are," the girl gasped. "It is Red Stanley; he hadn't long come out of jail. He was tramping to find us, and spotted this place on the way. And he persuaded his brother George as it was all right, and they're coming here to-night to burgle the place. I only knew this about two hours ago. You see, we are on the other side of Ashdown Forest camping near a village, and in the shed of the vicarage Red Stanley found some of the young gentlemen's bicycles. Do you see the game now, mister?"
"It begins to dawn upon me," Drummond smiled.
"That's it. Borrow the bicycles and ride over here without lamps. Probably not meet a soul the whole way. Then take all they can lay their hands on and get back again. On a dry night like this it wouldn't take half an hour to clean those machines, and nobody would ever know as they'd been taken out of the shed. And that's what brings me here. And I've broke my collarbone."
Miriam's face was white and set with pain, but her dark eyes were keen and alert; she was quivering with expectation.
"They're coming," she whispered. "You can't hear them, but I can. I knew they wouldn't be far behind. Ring the bell, rouse all the servants in the house. They're coming."
But Drummond had no intention of meeting this trouble except single handed. He picked up the girl again carefully and tenderly and carried her into a small room on the other side of the hall.
"Now you lie here and don't worry," he commanded. "I am quite capable of dealing with these friends of yours. I suppose the gentleman called Red Stanley made the same discovery that you did—in other words, that I am somewhat careless in fastening the library window. I'll put the light out and wait for them. Meanwhile you will be perfectly safe here. You are a brave girl, Miriam."
He walked back to the library leisurely enough and turned off the lights. Then he sat down patiently to await the coming of the foe. Half an hour passed, then the catch of the window clicked, and there was a smell of strong humanity in the room. Drummond could hear a hoarse whisper or two, caught a tiny pin-point of flame flashed from a torch upon his cabinet of coins. He reached out his hand for the switch, and the room was flooded with light. Before the astonished burglars could recover from their surprise he had locked the library door and dropped the key in his pocket. Then he strode across and stood with his back to the open window. He held something in his hand, but the discomfited intruders had not noticed it as yet. From their point of view he was simply an unarmed man, and consequently an easy prey for these wolves from the wild. Drummond recognised Red Stanley at a glance—Miriam's description seemed to fit him like a glove. The ruddy hackles on his crest seemed to rise; he extended a hairy hand in Drummond's direction. Then, without a word, he charged.
It was all strangely familiar. Drummond had slain many animals of this type, but they had usually been quadrupeds of equal intelligence and cleaner and sweeter in every way than this red ruffian who Drummond would have shot down without hesitation or a grain of pity in his heart. But then the wild is limited so far as civilisation is concerned, and the law of the town is prejudiced, so that the shot that Drummond fired slipped through the right wrist of the sanguine Stanley, and he bent double, moaning with the pain of it. There was to be no more fight, the beast was cowed, and so was the other animal crouching against the wall and snarling strange oaths in the Romany vernacular.
"Sit dawn," Drummond said crisply. "There is nothing much the matter with you, Mr. Stanley. A cold water bandage and a week's rest will put that wrist right again. You see, I know all about it. You had better take those bicycles back to the place where you found them and fade out of the county of Sussex without delay. I have my own particular reasons why I don't want to ring up the police and give you in custody. Now be off, both of you. I don't think you will want to come here again."
He threw open the window and the two marauders slunk out into the congenial darkness. The whole episode had not occupied more than five minutes. With a grim smile Drummond closed the window and drew the blinds. He did not go immediately back to the room where Miriam was lying; on the contrary, he walked up the stairs and along a corridor till he came to a door on which he tapped gently. It was opened presently by a handsome, motherly looking woman, who even in her dressing gown looked the typical housekeeper to the life.
"And what mischief have you been up to now, Sir Hartley?" she asked. "I heard a noise just now, and was coming down——"
"My dear soul, do," Drummond said. "I have just captured one of the most beautiful specimens of natural fauna you ever saw. In other words, it's a girl—a dear little gipsy girl with a broken wing—I mean, a collarbone. I want you to make her comfortable whilst I telephone for the doctor. I'll tell you the story to-morrow. I think it will astonish even you."
Mrs. Deane frankly doubted it. She was too accustomed to her beloved master's eccentricities to be astonished at anything. The story left her absolutely unmoved. But one thing the motherly, kind-hearted soul was certain of. Miriam could not go back to the clan again, and it was Sir Hartley's obvious duty to make himself responsible for her future and see that she went to school.
To all this Miriam listened with revolt in her eyes and the red flag of rebellion flying in her cheeks. She could see the logic of the situation clearly enough. She could not go back to the clan; she would not be safe from their teeth and claws if they got on the trail of the truth. She wanted to go to school, and yet she dreaded the bare idea of it. She was like the dipsomaniac who shudders and sickens in the presence of the brandy bottle, knowing full well that he is too weak to resist. She could see down the long avenues of knowledge and power and the grip on the heart of hidden things, and she could see, on the other hand, that discipline and the prim restrictions which would be as prison bars. And with it all she was passionately, almost unreasonably, grateful to Drummond for what he had done. She fought it out in a conflict which would have staggered Drummond had he been able fully to grasp it. She came to him when in a dim, nebulous way she was conscious that mind had conquered body.
"I'll do it, mister," she said. For some strange reason she could not or would not call Drummond Sir Hartley. "I want to go, and yet I don't want to go. 'Tisn't that you are not right, because you are. And I'll go—for three years—in a town."
Drummond ought to have been satisfied, but he was by no means easy in his mind. He could not shake off the impression of coming disaster even when encouraging reports of his protege's progress came to hand. She was a little wild, of course, and restive under the iron hand of discipline, but nothing worse than this. So that gradually Drummond's uneasy suspicions were lulled to sleep, and he allowed himself to join a hunting party on a six months trip in the African continent. It was many months before letters reached him, and out of his first mass of mail he picked out an envelope addressed to him in Miriam's bold handwriting.
It was no frank communication from a child, though it sounded spontaneous enough. The words came red hot from the heart of a woman. And before Drummond had turned the last page he knew that his experiment had failed.
Miriam had left the school. She had gone away out into the world dressed in the tattered skirt and red blouse, gone with bare feet no longer hardened as of yore. She had gone to join the tribe in the restless wanderings.
"I've tried and tried," she wrote, "and I want you to believe this if you believe nothing else. Because I'm no longer a girl, mister. I don't believe I ever was one, judging from the standard of your class. They knew so much more than me, and yet they knew so little. They could play hockey and tennis and golf, and yet they were frightened to go to bed in the dark. Silly, quivering little cowards every one of them. And from the very first I always felt like a hawk in a cage of canaries.
"If it hadn't been for the books and the learning I should have left long, long ago. And now I'll tell you a secret. When they were all asleep I would let myself out of my bedroom window by a rope and wander out into the woods. On summer nights it was good to swim in the river and lay snares for the rabbits. And nobody found it out, no one suspected.
"In winter it was not so bad. There was the rain and the snow, and the knowledge that the Lees and the Stanleys and the Smiths were all herding in some slum waiting for the spring and the call of the woods. But when the almonds were in bloom and the wind came up from the south, it seemed to tear me as if something had wounded me, and I was slowly, slowly bleeding to death inside. And now it is April weather, and down in the spinneys where I used to poach your rabbits the daffodils are blooming. I can see them nodding to me as I sit here in this stuffy little bedroom, and they are weaving a chain round me and dragging me with them into the heart of the country.
"And I am going, mister, as sure as the sun will rise on the morrow. Whether all your kindness to me will make me a happier woman in the future, whether I shall repent of what I'm doing, I cannot say. But the wild is calling me, and I suppose my mate is waiting somewhere out in the woods for Miriam. And I am perhaps the most ungrateful woman who ever returned a kindness so ill. So pity and forgive me, and I will say no more."
It was some two and a half years later that Drummond, skirting along the woods in the early evening, paused for a moment by the spot where he had first encountered the gipsy girl who was still to him a warm and vivid memory. Nothing appeared to be changed; the fallen tree on which he discovered the volume of Swinburne still lay there. He could see her now in the scarlet blouse and the rabbit in her hand as she moved towards the encampment. And as he stood there she came again as she had done before, the same Miriam and yet strangely changed. She was older and more mature, a little slower of step, and yet with the free stride of the woods, and round her neck was slung a shawl, and within it a burden that moved and breathed, and then Drummond knew that Miriam had been right and that the thing that she had seen with dim, prophetic eyes had come to pass.
She saw him almost as soon as he had seen her; she came forward half shyly and half defiantly. As he held out his hand she bent over it, and Drummond could see that tears were in her eyes.
"Forgive me, mister," she said, yet half defiantly.
"There was nothing to forgive," Drummond answered. "The fault was entirely mine. It is always the same when puny man attempts to interfere with the laws of nature. So you found him after all?"
Miriam's cheeks flamed. She bent with a certain arrogant pride over the palpitating bundle in her arms.
"Yes, I found him," she said. "I always knew I should. He's over there on the other side of the hedge making baskets. We've been together now for eighteen months. He's my husband, and I'm proud of him."
"I'd like to see him," Drummond said.
"No, no," Miriam protested. "At least, not in that way. Michael knows nothing of my story—he would not understand it if he did. I am just to him the mate he needed, and I knew it the first time we met away up there in Sherwood Forest. He just put his arm round me and kissed me, and we went away to a good parson up there who knows something of our ways, and we were married. And I don't regret it, mister. I can't!"
"And all the literary yearnings?" Drummond asked. "What about them? You no longer hanker to be a female Borrow, eh?"
Miriam smiled. Once more she glanced down at the bundle in her arms. She smiled again and touched it very tenderly.
"All the poetry and all the romance lies here," she said. "And no words can express it. Now as long as I have this I am no longer restless and dissatisfied. But you are a man, and that is the thing that no man can understand."
A voice in the darkness called out the name of Miriam and a few words in a liquid tongue that Drummond could not follow. He could guess, though, who the speaker was.
"That is your husband calling you," he said. "On the whole, perhaps I had better not see you again."
"I think it would be just as well," said Miriam.
She turned away and walked towards the camp with the rabbit still swinging in her hand.
BIG BILL KOGGS had sent off a day-message, prepaid, rush, to J. Claudius Bruno, at the Grand Central Hotel, Butte, Montana. The news thus communicated was as follows:
WHAT THE HELL,
JAKE? THE HOT SPRINGS HAS GONE COLD.
In due course there came a reply—day-message, collect—addressed to
"William Koggs, Hot Springs Hotel, Oluk Lake, Montana," and reading thus:
YOU MUST HAVE
LET THE FIRE GO OUT UNDER THE BOILER.
Big Bill crumpled the yellow sheet into a crinkly wad and hurled it into the dark fire box.
"So that," he observed, "is what’s haywire with this layout! Damned if I hadn’t ought to 'a' stayed in the garage business. Yessir, I ought to 'a' knowed any hotel that open cutout Jake Bruno sold me'd have a cracked cylinder an' a flat tire !"
"Tire flat?" asked a deep voice at his elbow.
"No, but I am," snapped Bill. "Here, you big Indian cheese, what you know about this ?"
"All 'bout it," said the one addressed. "Me build um."
"I said I'm thoroughly familiar with the hot springs, because I constructed them."
Even in his dirty shirt and torn overalls, which somehow suggested horses, the Indian retained his dignity. In his humbler moments he might have posed for a statue of Powhatan telling the early Virginians where to get off his hunting grounds.
"Well, I'll be scrapped for a mess o' junk!" breathed the former garageman. "So you can talk United States when you want to, eh?"
"Sure! Me go Carlisle."
"I said I'm a Carlisle graduate. You may have heard of me. The late Walter Camp once did me the honor of selecting me for all-American end."
"And you knowed all the time them hot springs had to be heated! Why the hell didn't you say sumpin'?"
"You no ask um."
"I said you didn't inquire of me. If you had, I should have informed you."
"Well, if you're workin' here, get busy and help steam up this percolator instead of talkin' so much, or our guests 'll all run out on us—yessir, all three of 'em!" ·
With the telegram from the recent owner as a nucleus, a fire was soon glowing in the grate, and the hiss of escaping steam announced that another wonder of nature had been saved for summer boarders. Mopping his brow, Bill Koggs studied the sputtering array of pipes and the dejected-looking pile of coal with a professional eye.
"So that's where the profits in the hotel business goes!" he remarked to himself. "This here boiler'll eat up forty dollars' worth o' coal per week keepin' the hot springs hot. No wonder Jake Bruno was willin' to sell the joint cheap; and she looked like such a bargain!" He turned to the Indian, who leaned gracefully against the door jamb. "So you rigged up this here steam kettle, eh, chief?"
"Your own idea?"
"Bruno say what do. Me fixum."
"I said Bruno conceived the plan of heating the springs. I merely installed the boiler under his directions."
"Well, as a mechanic, you're a fine car washer. That's a bum rig! We're losin' too much heat. I'll fix it better when I get time. You go with this place, do yuh?" .
"Sure," said the Indian.
Briefly he explained how, in the mornings, he consented to perform certain menial tasks in the saddle-horses-for-hire department of the hotel, in exchange for his room and board. This left him free to spend his afternoons parading before the admiring ladies in his more or less tribal finery, the while he disposed, at handsome profit, of genuine Indian bead-work which he obtained, postage prepaid, from a well-known mail order house in Chicago. He intimated his willingness to continue this arrangement under the new management.
Bill consented, tentatively. The hotel business was all new to him. He had much to learn, but with the aptitude of a good mechanic he was learning rapidly.
It had all sounded so inviting as the suave Bruno had presented it, while Big Bill deftly adjusted a carburetor and changed the oil, back there in Butte. No more struggling with faltering flivvers and misused motors, no more nicked knuckles and oily overalls, but fine clothes to be worn in the sunshine of a mountain resort as lord of the place! Bruno had mentioned the profits, too, and his own prosperous person was eloquent proof of the wealth to be obtained in the hotel business.
At the very first Mr. Koggs had been interested. Then, as the acquaintance between the two men ripened into the "Bill" and "Jake" stage, he had become convinced. At the last Bruno had tucked his friend's soiled check into the pocket of his faultlessly tailored suit, clapped his expensive fedora jauntily on his bullet-shaped head, and made for the bank.
"So this is what I bought!" Bill now reflected, as he stood on the wide porch of his hotel and looked off across the lake. "It ain't the first cost—it's the upkeep. For fuel consumption this baby beats any 1910 model on the lot. If I don't do sumpin' about it quick, she's goin' to ride me right into the poorhouse!"
THE season was still early, and Mr. Koggs took comfort in the thought that business might pick up as the weather grew warmer. As a matter of fact it did, but not enough to offset the cost of maintaining the big hotel and keeping the hot springs hot. Then the State of Montana kindly dumped a quantity of newly crushed rock on the highway from which a byroad led to Oluk Lake, and Mr. Koggs perforce became a garageman again. Hardly an automobile arrived at the Hot Springs Hotel but exhibited at least one lacerated tire and blown-out tube; so Big Bill donned his overalls once more and went to work, while dollars tinkled in the cash register, and the pile of discarded tires mounted in the garage.
The anxious pucker vanished from the hotel owner's besmudged brow as the ledger at last showed the venture breaking even—almost. An accountant would have mentioned such items as depreciation and interest, but Big Bill's bookkeeping was of the direct sort, free of encumbering technicalities.
As the summer days wore on, the stalwart Indian's attachment, at first tentative, became permanent. Tricked out in a Sioux war bonnet and Apache leggings, he made up as a scenic attraction for whatever shortcomings he might have as a stableman. Bill had more than once heard a sojourning dowager from east of the Mississippi remark, on beholding the statuesque figure:
"Ah, at last this is the real West!"
One drowsy afternoon, as Bill, having stoked the ever-hungry maw of the hot springs boiler, passed by the broad veranda on his way to replace two balloon tires on a newly arrived limousine, he was arrested by a sirupy contralto voice imploring:
"Chief, can you tell me what is the meaning of the name 'Oluk Lake'?"
The Indian stretched a dramatic arm toward the water.
"Oluk," he intoned, "in language of my people, mean 'serpent.'"
"Oh, how thrilling!" gasped the contralto. "Can you tell me why it is called Serpent Lake?"
The Indian glanced about the veranda, assured himself that his audience was attentive, and proceeded:
"Many summers ago wigwam of mighty chief Soaring Eagle stand by lake here. Long, long ago, so say story of my people, Soaring Eagle go away to war. He leave beautiful young squaw at home. Young chief Running Fox of 'nother tribe come along while braves all gone. Young chief Running Fox see beautiful young squaw. Young squaw listen to love talk of Running Fox. Many times young squaw go on lake in young chief's canoe.
"Bimeby Soaring Eagle come home. Him see um young squaw on lake in 'nother man's canoe. Soaring Eagle call in loud voice to spirits of water to punish young squaw. Out of deep come great serpent monster. Gulp! He swallow up young chief Running Fox. Gulp! He swallow up young squaw. Gulp, gulp! He swallow up canoe, and down go serpent monster to deep again. Pretty young squaw like you go on lake, you be plenty sure go with right man. Mebbe so bimeby serpent monster come back again. You like buy Indian beadwork?"
Big Bill chuckled and passed on to the garage. Presently the Indian joined him there.
"Some fish story," said Bill.
"Ugh!" said the Indian. "Story sell um beads."
"I said that that is one of my very best stories. It seldom fails to procluce a sale."
Big Bill flexed an inner tube absenly, his brow corrugated in thought.
"Think they's anything to it?" he asked.
"Ugh! No can tell."
"I said it's impossible to judge at this late date. Like most legends, it probably has some slight basis in fact."
Bill set his vulcanizer going and watched abstractedly as it sealed a neat patch over a ragged tear in the rubber.
"Oh, boy!" he murmured. "Wouldn't that oil the bearings?" He fixed the Indian with a rapt expression and exclaimed again: "Oh, boy!"
THE world rolled on for a week, during which William Koggs was little seen and the lordly Indian reaped a meager harvest of dimes and quarters from bored customers. Then, about the middle of July, the event occurred that put Oluk Lake on the map and the Hot Springs Hotel on the front pages of a nation's newspapers.
A party of sleepy-eyed fishermen, shoving off hopefully from the hotel landing at the first faint crack of dawn, came tearing back with a speed that stove in the starboard gunwale and roused the slumbering guests. A window was raised and an indignant voice shouted:
"Stop that racket!"
"It was thirty feet long!" replied the first fisherman.
"It had jaws like a shark!" cried the second.
"Flippers like a seal!" yelled the third.
"It was a sea serpent!" added the first.
"With red eyes!" bellowed the second.
"And a long tail!" roared the third.
Sounds of slamming doors and hurrying footsteps filled the hotel. A group began togather on the porch. Big Bill Koggs appeared, rubbing his eyes.
"What seems to be the trouble?" he inquired.
"It's thirty feet long!" replied the first fisherman.
"It has jaws like a shark!" cried the second.
"Flippers like a seal!" yelled the third.
"It's a sea serpent!" added the first.
"With red eyes!" bellowed the second.
"And a long tail!" added the third.
"It came up right beside our boat!" they concluded in chorus.
The story spread like measles. At the Hot Springs Hotel nothing else was discussed, and at each repetition the monster gained new anatomical details. By the time the breakfast dishes had been cleared away, there was no one at Oluk Lake who did not know that the creature, appearing first as a huge gray dorsal fin, had slithered up through the lapping waves in its entire enormity, lingered a few minutes on the surface, its sides pulsating as with deep respirations, and then sunk slowly from sight.
News of the phenomenon trickled out to the incredulous world, and nearby newspapers published the story with a wealth of amazing details. More cautious press associations sent it out, much condensed and qualified by "it was said" and "it was reported by alleged observers," to the great journals of the country. Learned scientists replied in the academic equivalent of "there ain't no such animal," and the debate attracted nation-wide interest.
Big Bill Koggs preserved an attitude of neutral skepticism.
"I ain't heard," he stated, "of no new sport model fish being put out this year. I'll have to see the thing first."
Just one week after the first appearance of the monster—on the following Friday, to be precise—the thing happened again. This time there was no room for doubt. Now that its rooms were all full and reserved in advance, the Hot Springs Hotel was renting tents to the overflow crowd. It may have been partly because of the uncomfortable sleeping equipment provided with this emergency housing that there was a crowd of early risers on the hotel porch and about the lake when, in the first light of a new day, the mysterious beast raised its awful gray bulk through the dark water, heaved its ponderous sides in rhythmic pulsations and then submerged.
This time the newspapers treated the affair more respectfully, and congestion at the hotel became acute. Among the early arrivals was Professor Ignatius Harvale, than whom no living authority could boast a closer intimacy with the extinct monsters of past ages.
"Tell me all about it," the professor commanded each and every individual to whom the unknown creature had revealed itself. "Your information may be the means of bridging the gap between the Jurassic and the Cretaceous dinosaurs. Think of it!"
Then he translated into perfectly unintelligible notes the eager accounts of the favored spectators.
"It is truly marvelous," declared the professor to Big Bill Koggs, as the proprietor vainly sought to escape to the boiler room. "I am convinced that this creature is a survivor from remote ages—nothing less than an icthyosaurus!"
"Icky what?" gasped Bill.
"Icthyosaurus, the dominant marine reptile of the mesozoic age, millions of years ago. Its fossil remains abound in certain European and South American strata."
"Gosh!" said Bill. "Millions of years old and still in runnin' order— that's some durability, ain't it, perfessor?"
Three representatives of rival feature syndicates pressed about them.
"What is it, professor?" they demanded as one.
The professor drew into his shell and closed the shell in the conventional pose of a fossilized oyster.
"I have been misquoted in the press so often," he stated, "that I dislike to make any direct comment. My published monograph on this phenomenon will appear at the proper time."
The reporters drew Bill Koggs aside.
"What did he say?" they insisted.
Big Bill was desperate. These men must be disposed of before the springs went cold again.
"He said," replied Bill, "that the critter's first name is Icky. I forget its last name, but it's millions of years old."
"Wow!" said a reporter, slapping his deadly rival on the back. "Icky! Oh, that's great! Won't that give the headline boys something to work on! Come on, gang, 1et's get together on this and cook up a good one!"
The result was all that P.T. Barnum could have desired, and more. Bill Koggs was obliged to telegraph a rush order for more tents—auto tents, pup tents, anything to house the frenzied crowd that surged around the Hot Springs Hotel and ate in relays in its spacious dining room. Mr. Koggs had no time even to compute his profits.
Friday at dawn being now established as Icky's regular breathing time, the next Thursday brought an influx that made the Hot Springs Hotel look like an overgrown gold camp. One of the fresh arrivals was conspicuous, even in this hectic throng, for the natty splendor of his attire. Finding Bill Koggs in earnest conversation with his Indian aid, the dressy guest approached with a let's-be-friends-again smile.
"Jake Bruno!" exclaimed Bill. "I didn't think you'd have the nerve to come here, after the dirty deal you give me!"
"Pshaw!" said Mr. Bruno. "That was a bit raw, wasn't it, Bill? Well, I've felt pretty bad about it, and I've come to take the place off your hands. I'll give you back just what you paid for it, Bill. How's that for a fair offer?"
"It's all wet," said Bill. "I'm makin' money on this here layout now, and I'm goin' to keep right on. You couldn't buy me out if you was as rich as you look, and you ain't."
With which remark Bill turned his back on J. Claudius Bruno and strode to the hotel garage, where his two assistants were busy changing tires.
Bruno's face reddened until it matched his tie.
"Damme!" the Indian heard him mutter. "Imagine that guy getting high hat with me! Well, he'll sell to me, or he'll wish he had, if I have to sink his pet sea serpent. No greasy garage mechanic can make a fool out of Claudius Bruno!"
FRIDAY dawned, as Fridays did at Oluk Lake. There was a streak of light above the eastern tree—tops, a ripple on the water, and a gray bulk emerging from the depths, blending with the dark water, but dimly visible to the eager crowd on shore.
From a hilltop beside the hotel a rifle cracked, and a bullet struck the water a few feet away from the behemoth of the deep. A second shot seemed to find its mark, for lcky shuddered horribly, listed to port, and vanished.
A cry of protest welled from the crowd, but the deed was done.
Big Bill Koggs, pushing his way to the front rank of spectators, ran head on into Professor Ignatius Harvale, who was frantic with indignation.
"To think," stormed the antiquarian, "that any one in this enlightened age would be so basely, so abysmally ignorant as to shoot the only living icthyosaurus! Think of the opportunity lost to science! Why, we have thousands of dead icthyosauri, but this was the only one alive—think of it!"
Grappling for the carcass was dis- cussed, but the lake near shore was deep and the proper equipment was lacking. It was suggested that the body might rise to the surface after a while. No one seemed eager to engage hand to mouth, so to speak, with a wounded and possibly angry icthyosaurus, so the crowd settled down to await developments.
The next morning an insomniac tent dweller reported that in the dead of night he had seen two large men, one looking like a bronze statue in the moonlight and the other dressed in a mechanic's overalls, meet before the hotel, go together to the garage, and presently emerge thence and push out on the lake in a boat. There had been a short glow of light over the water, as if some one in the boat had struck a match, and then the tent dweller had gone back and tried again to sleep.
The dawn of another Friday found the Oluk Lake population in breathless suspense. As the stars faded in the east, every vantage point on the lake shore and the hotel porch was occu- pied. Was Icky dead, or would he come up for his weekly breath of air?
A ruddy streak appeared over the tree—tops, and still the surface of the water was as a mirror. Then two men were seen getting into a boat and shoving off from the landing. They were Professor Harvale and J. Claudius Bruno.
"I want to see this thing close up," said Bruno.
"Your interest," stated the professor, "is no less keen than mine."
A tense silence gripped the crowd as the boat moved slowly over the glassy water. Day was dawning. Small objects were becoming visible. The monster was overdue.
Suddenly there was a shrill cry from the boat. The bow of the little craft tilted upward, and Bruno and the professor, clinging desperately together, splashed noisily into the water. Then the watchers on shore saw, beside the overturned boat, the ponderous mass of the monster from the deep. Paying no heed to the two wild-eyed creatures who stared at him over the bottom of their boat, Icky lingered on the surface, worked his great sides in undulating rhythm, and slowly sank from sight.
Bruno and the professor were dragged shivering into another boat, and a dense circle of humanity pressed around them on the landing.
"Marvelous!" said the professor. "It is truly an icthyosaurus. There's nothing else it could be. Most remarkable of all, I actually saw the place where the bullet pierced its hide. The wound is now marked by a red spot—think of it!"
Big Bill Koggs elbowed his way nonchalantly through the crowd.
"Did Icky show?" he asked.
"Did he?" echoed a bystander. "He attacked two men in a boat and dumped 'em in the water!"
"So it's you again," said Bill, gazing on the haggard features of Bruno. "What you tryin' to do to my Icky?"
"I w-w-wanted," chattered Bruno, "to s-see if it was real. Gosh, it is! Bill, I'll double my offer for this hotel!"
"Not enough," replied Bill. "Three times!" said Bruno. "You paid me ten thousand. I'll give you thirty."
"Sold!" said Bill.
The rest of the story may be told in three telegrams. The first, dated August 27, and addressed to "William Koggs, Acme Garage, Butte, Montana," was a day-message, prepaid, rush:
NOT SHOWED FOR THREE WEEKS. GUESTS LEAVING. HOW ABOUT IT?
Big Bill's reply—a day-message, collect, addressed to "J. Claudius Bruno, Hot Springs Hotel, Oluk Lake, Montana "—was prompt and instructive:
FORGOT TO BLOW ICKY UP.
FIND AIR PUMP AND RELEASE VALVE IN BOILER ROOM.
A week later Big Bill had another message—a night-message, collect—to send his friend at Oluk Lake:
SORRY TO LEARN
OF YOUR GREAT LOSS. ICKY WAS MADE OF OLD INNER TUBES.
YOU OUGHT NOT TO HAVE GAVE HIM MORE THAN TWELVE POUNDS PRESSURE.
THERE is still a mild feeling of surprise amongst certain circles of society at what is held to be the inexplicable conduct of Charles Montagu Stuart. So far as people can see, there is not the slightest reason why he should have given up his friends and his career and his beautiful estate in Devonshire to go and live on a more or less remote island a thousand miles or so from the Californian coast. There, is, of course, no scandal, because whatever Stuart's other failings may be, he is essentially a clean-living man, with a fine athletic record, and his property is absolutely unencumbered. It is usual in such cases to quote the old time-honoured phrase, 'cherchez la femme,' and in this respect it seems to the wiseacres that they have got to the bottom of the business. For, beyond all question, Mr. Charles Montagu Stuart is a married man, and not even his most intimate friend has ever had the privilege of seeing his wife.
Of course, all sorts of things are said about Mrs. Stuart. There are people who look solemn, and hint that they might say a good deal if they liked, but that it is best to be charitable. There are others who declare that Stuart has fallen a victim to an adventuress who possesses a great fascination for him. But this theory is slightly weakened by the fact that the Stuarts never come to England, where an assured position would be opened to the mysterious lady. As a matter of fact, nobody knows anything, and if society were really aware of the personality of Mrs. Charles Montagu there would be something like a sensation in Belgravia and Mayfair. For Charles Montagu Stuart can trace his descent without a shadow of a doubt back to the 'Merrie Monarch,' and, as far as blood is concerned, he is the equal of any prince whose name figures in the Almanach de Gotha.
It is now four years since people were beginning to ask themselves how much longer the state of things in the kingdom of Asturia was going to last. In these democratic times the world has little use for a scoundrel, even though he happens to be the occupant of a throne, and King Paul of Asturia was, perhaps, the choicest specimen of a finished blackguard that Europe possessed. Everybody knows how he came to the throne, and the act of bloodthirsty treachery that placed him there. In his day, King Paul must have been both clever and fascinating, or he would never have succeeded in persuading Princess Marie of Rheinbad to share his heart and throne. In the eyes of most people, the Grand Duke of Rheinbad is a philanthropist and a man of marked piety. There are others who regard him as a puritanical scoundrel, and one of the most successful humbugs who ever lived. At any rate, though the Grand Duke is a model of piety and the second son of a great reigning sovereign, he appeared to be quite willing, not to say eager, to see his daughter seated on the throne of Asturia. There were those who cried shame upon a match like this, but diplomatic reason prevailed, and Europe for the most part looked on complacently. Sentimentalists shuddered at the idea of a match between this drunken roue and a girl as bright and fascinating as the Princess Marie. But there it was, and there was an end of it. The Press no longer contained accounts of the princess's brilliant escapades. She was supposed to have settled down under the weight of her responsibilities and become a model queen. As a matter of fact, no slave in the Roman market, no poor Circassian girl sold into the terrors of the harem had a more cruel existence than Queen Marie. For three years this dreadful life continued, and then there was something like hope at last.
The people of Asturia had quite enough of it. They were getting tired of the king they seldom saw; they were groaning under oppression and tyranny which it was almost impossible to bear. Yet nobody who had a casual acquaintance of the city of Parva would have guessed the seething discontent which was festering beneath the surface. At any rate, Charles Montagu Stuart was not troubling himself much about that. For Parva just now was the gayest of the gay. There was one continual round of festivities. The cafes were thronged with a brilliant assemblage of visitors. There was little sign of poverty or distress here. Night after night Stuart was out somewhere or another. In his opinion there were no festivities elsewhere in Europe to compare with the public dances which were such a feature in the social life of Parva. And there was another reason, too. On one or two occasions lately Stuart had met a fascinating personality at these dances, and the flirtation had gone very far indeed. He had not the remotest notion who the girl was—but, then, in the brilliant Bohemian circle in which he mixed, a trifle like this mattered nothing. For the most part, these dances took the form of the bal masque, a favourite form of amusement to the Parvians, and thus the affair had the fascination which otherwise it might not have possessed. All that Stuart knew or cared was the fact that his lady friend was young and fascinating and beautiful, and he was not the less impressed because she had refused to give him her name, and had intimated that any excess of curiosity on his part would put an abrupt end to their acquaintance.
The last big dance which Stuart attended took place in the town hall at Parva on the night of November 14, 1903. Observing people noticed a very great lack of men, and that the military were more or less conspicuous by their absence. There had been strange hints and insinuations of late, and one or two diplomatists were having an anxious time of it. But this was not worrying Charles Stuart much, except that the anxiety was reflected to a certain extent in the beautiful eyes of his companion, who was obviously quite unhappy.
She had taken off her mask for a moment or two in the interval of a dance. She leant her golden head wearily against a bank of flowers. Evidently she was not herself tonight. Stuart was tender and sympathetic. He was wearing his very best manner, but could not win a smile from his companion.
"What is troubling you to-night, cherie?" he asked. "Why are you so sad? Is there nothing that I can do for you?"
The girl looked up, her eyes filled with tears. She replaced her mask hastily as a young officer in uniform bustled up and slipped a note into her hand. He was so young that even Stuart's feeling of jealously was disarmed. He saw the note opened, and after a hasty glance torn in to a thousand fragments. The mysterious woman's manner changed now; she became alert and vigorous.
"I must go," she whispered. "I cannot stay another moment. There is danger, and I must be at my post."
"And where may that be?" Stuart asked.
"At the castle," the fair stranger replied. "You did not know, perhaps, that I am connected with the Court. You may possibly have guessed it. But there is trouble on foot to-night—trouble so serious that all Asturia may be in a blaze to-morrow. And there is only one man to blame for it."
"You are speaking of the King," Stuart murmured.
The sensitive lips below the black velvet mask hardened.
"Who else?" she asked bitterly "Not that it matters in the least; there will soon be an end of all that. It only wants one brave man to put the match to the powder, and Asturia will be free. Hark! Did you hear that? What is it?"
Stuart strained his ears to listen.
"I am not quite sure," he said slowly. "It sounded to me very much like the sound of a rifle shot."
THEY were hurrying along now through the strangely silent deserted streets in the direction of the castle—that grim fortress that frowns down upon Parva, the stronghold from which many a tyrant ruler of Asturia has cowed his subjects by a display of armed force. There was a feeling of tragedy in the air, there was something ominous in the very silence of the roads and boulevards, which as a rule at that time of night teemed with life and gaiety. The glamour of adventure was upon Stuart now; his spirits rose as he strode along by the side of his companion.
They stood at length under the shadow of the castle walls. The woman stretched out her hand and knocked twice upon a small oak doorway. A man in uniform threw back the gate and started as he saw who his summoner was. He drew himself smartly up to attention and saluted gravely. Nevertheless, his aspect was suspicious and he hesitated just a moment as Stuart followed.
"Stay here," the woman whispered. "I many want you; on the contrary, I may not. It is good to know that I have at least one honest gentleman upon whom I can depend, and if anything happens to you to-night, your blood will be upon my unhappy head."
"I am prepared to risk that," Stuart said passionately.
The woman held out her hand, and Stuart caught it to his lips. A moment later and he was alone. The fraction of a second saw the place plunged in the deepest gloom. Stuart was standing there vague and mystified, in a darkness which could be felt. It was no pleasant position, but he was not going to draw back now. That great events were being born he did not doubt for a moment. It was just possible that not far off a handful of oppressed and impatient Asturians were making history with rapid and complete success. As he stood there, his ears strained, there suddenly uprose a tremendous cry—the still air hummed to the sound of rifle shots. Out of the darkness somewhere came a body of unseen men, palpitating and growling like so many wolves who scent their prey. How he progressed and where he was going Stuart had not the least idea. He only knew that he was carried off his feet by the rush, that he was borne up a flight of narrow stairs into a long stone corridor, at the end of which a solitary light gleamed. The atmosphere was heavy and pungent now with the smell of powder; a dropping volley of rifle fire was being carried on somewhere; there were yells and shrieks and groans and a steady crackling roar as if the place were on fire, and no attempt was being made to stifle the conflagration.
Stuart was past surprise now, therefore it was no astonishment to him to note that for the most part the men around him were private citizens in evening dress. But apparently they had left the thin veneer of civilisation outside; they were like so many ravenous wolves now, and each man grasped a magazine rifle in his hand. There were scores more behind, pushing and struggling until the narrow passage was choked and gorged with this stream of infuriated humanity. Stuart drew a long breath of relief when at length he was forced through the passage into a big flagged hall beyond, where a handful of soldiers in uniform were firing indiscriminately into the advancing mob.
Stuart could hear the pinging hum of bullets, he could hear the lead pattering dully against the stone walls; he saw more than one man throw up his hands, he saw more than one of those blazed shirt-fronts trickling red and bloody. It was all so swift and fierce, all in so short a span of time, that he could not grasp it yet. He saw the floor littered in black and white, like some ghastly tesselated pavement; he saw the little group of red uniforms wave and bend as the incoming rush poured over them. Then he saw a huge apartment, almost barbaric in its splendour, wherein stood a little man with red hair and a pimpled, blotched face like that of a ferret. The man was in uniform, with an order or two blazing on his breast, and, though Stuart was not acquainted with the personality of the King of Asturia, he wanted no one to tell that here was the man himself, and that his moments were numbered.
A frenzied roar went up from a hundred throats, but the King did not flinch. Whatever his vices were, he was certainly no coward. He stood there with his back to the wall, a revolver in his hand.
"Come here!" they yelled. "Come down and take it like a man. The Queen—where is the Queen? Let us make an end of the whole brood at the same time! The Queen!"
"No, no!" others cried. "She is with us! She is with us! Whatever you do, save the Queen."
These latter cries were drowned by the calls of the majority. There was another rush, which seemed to surge right over the man with the red hair. Stuart could see a dapper boot and a portion of the red silk sock quivering convulsively on the floor; then two heels came together, and the reign of King Paul of Asturia was at an end. A silence fell over the rioters now. They lifted up their late King and laid his body on the table. Just for an instant the storm ceased, but it broke out again presently with renewed vigour. By this time the more lawless of the populace had got a grip of what had taken place; they came surging in through the great iron gates; they filled the place with their hideous clamour. And above all the angry hum of voices there was that continuous, incessant roar which proclaimed the fact that the castle was on fire. There were thousands of people now yelling for the Queen. The lust of blood was upon them; common humanity was swept to the winds.
Stuart's blood was boiling within him. He sighed for a squad of cavalry now to sweep these cowardly wretches away. And what harm had the Queen done them? There was no solitary soul there more the instrument of fate or the sport of circumstance than was Queen Marie.
But the horrors were piling up now; the fire was drawing nearer, and the heat of the place was intense.
Stuart turned to fight his way out. It was useless as well as dangerous for him to stay any longer. He wondered sadly enough what had become of his late companion in this inferno. He was realising now what he had lost. He plunged along, distracted and desperate, till he came face to face with a wall or flame. There was a corridor dark as the throat of a wolf on his left hand, and along this he turned, caring nothing what happened. It seemed to him that he could hear the sound of footsteps in front, as if his ear caught the sobbing breath of one who was in distress. Surely a woman was here? He could catch the subtle fragrance of her hair. She would have darted past him, but he stretched out a hand and detained her.
"You can't go that way," he whispered. "The castle is on fire. Do not be afraid. I have not the honour of being an Asturian myself, but perhaps that is in my favour, for I am not a murderer."
A white arm suddenly dropped round Stuart's shoulder. He felt a palpitating body quivering against his own. A faint voice called him by name; and then Stuart blessed all his gods and his guiding star, for here, surely enough, was his lady of the domino!
"Steady," he whispered. "Hold up. For God's sake, don't give way now! Tell me which way to go, for I am going to save you."
They were outside presently under the cold, cool air of heaven; they were struggling through a dense mob of people, the woman clinging to Stuart's arm and dragging her faltering legs behind her as if in the very paralysis of fear. She had a military cloak around her shoulders, and a helmet on her head. The collar of the cloak obscured her features. With all the courage and tenacity of despair, Stuart fought his way forward till the fringe of the crowd was reached. A small boy raised a shrill shout. He danced along in front of Stuart and his companion.
"The Queen!" he screamed. "Here is the Queen!"
There was no time for hesitation. Stuart reached out a long, sinewy hand, and caught the gamin by the throat. He did not relax his grip till they turned at length into a shady by-road with trees on either side. Here they walked along side by side till they came at length to where the moon was shining on the sea.
FOR three whole days Stuart had seen nothing of his companion. She had sent him a message from her cabin from time to time that she hoped to be on deck to-morrow, when she would try and thank him for all his kindness. There were no European passengers on board that particular steamer, and Stuart was proportionately grateful. All be knew was that he had promised to accompany his mysterious friend to a certain island off the Californian coast, and what was going to happen after that he did not trouble to ask himself. In his masterful way he had his own views, but there would be plenty of time for expounding them later on. Meanwhile, he had been ashore, and had come back armed with a sheaf of papers, most of which were teeming with accounts of the recent events in Parva.
Stuart sat himself down in a shady corner of the deck, with a cigarette, to read. There were columns upon columns of it, all containing more or less excellent accounts of the death of King Paul of Asturia. A Republic had been proclaimed. The Asturians had made up their minds to manage their own affairs in the future. If there was any sympathy felt for anybody, it was for the Queen. On calmer reflection, people were beginning to find that the trouble was nothing of her doing. She had done her best for the people, but, after all, she had been powerless to stem the incoming tide; she had been deliberately sold by her hypocritical old scoundrel of a father to put money in his pocket. Stuart smiled grimly as he thought what the Grand Duke of Rheinbad's feeling would be when he came to hear what a free an enlightened Press had to say about him.
There was one deeper and more abiding mystery than all the others put together. The Queen had utterly and entirely disappeared; there was no trace of her to be found anywhere. Of course, it was more than possible that she had perished in the ruins of the castle, of which nothing remained but a few charred stones, to speak vengeance for a justly outraged people. The Queen had been seen in her private apartments just before the outbreak of hostilities, then she seemed to have vanished as completely as if the earth had swallowed her up. But still it was known that scores of unfortunate and innocent persons connected with the Court had perished in the flames, and yet, remarkable to say, no trace of the Queen's jewellery could be found either. Most of these jewels were historic, and a full description of them was given in the papers.
It was nearly dinner time when Stuart was finished. There was still more to read as he sat on the deck in the moonlight. Presently there came to his side a pale, white, beautiful figure, and a hand was placed in his.
"I am glad to see you again," he murmured. "Sit down here and let us talk, but don't let your mind dwell too much upon the past. You are safe enough for the future. I have been reading all that terrible business; it is even worse than I had expected. I shall dream of it for years to come. But for the terrible fate of the Queen, I should, perhaps——"
"What of the Queen?" the tall woman asked.
"Ah, of course, you don't know—you haven't read. They murdered the King, of course. Upon my word, when I come to understand things, I can hardly blame them. But the Queen has vanished; she has not left a single trace behind. Most people seem to think that she perished in the ruins of the castle."
The woman by Stuart's side looked thoughtfully out to sea.
"She would be quite content to accept that verdict," she said. "At any rate, she is at peace now. But don't let us talk about that now; let me try and thank you for all your goodness and kindness to me. You have never made the faintest effort to find out who I am, and for that I am grateful. All I want to do now is to forget, to go away from the hated past and to live a life of peace and seclusion somewhere where I can be my own mistress and attend to my own garden. I have no money, but I have many valuable jewels which I can dispose of to bring me more than enough for my requirements. If you will see me settled, then you will add one more debt, and, above all, I ask you to keep my secret. You are a gentleman, and I know I can trust you; in fact, I know who you are and all about you. Now, what do you think of these? Do you think I could dispose of a few of them at a time without attracting suspicion?"
She drew from her pocket a shabby case or two, and threw back the lids so that the jewels sparkled like streams of fire under the soft southern moonlight. Stuart started back as if something had stung him. For a moment he did not speak; he was silent until he saw that his companion had turned her troubled eyes upon him.
"Presently," he said in a strained voice. "First let me tell you something. It is a story of an Englishman of fortune and family who deemed himself impervious to woman's beauty and woman's wiles. Of course, he meant to marry eventually, for the sake of the name and the race, but that appeared to be a remote contingency. Then that Englishman went abroad and met his fate. He met her at a masked ball which shall be nameless; he hadn't the remotest idea who she was or what was her name. He knew she was a lady, or she would not have been connected so intimately with the Court circles. But I give you my word of honour that until a moment or two ago that foolish Englishman had no idea that he was making love to a real Queen. You believe me, don't you?"
The woman faltered and hesitated. The sad, beautiful face was suffused in a crimson blush.
"Shall I tell you the truth, Charles?" she whispered. "I did know you were in love with me—I have known it all along; but I know you will forgive me. Think that from my childhood till now I never had a single soul who cared a scrap for me. When I was old enough to understand, I was deliberately sold to a hateful scoundrel to put money in my father's pocket; and when you came along, and you did not know me, and you showed me what a good man's love can be, why, then the temptation was too great, and for once I allowed myself to be human."
"You cared?" Stuart cried.
"Well, why not? Do you suppose I am different from other people? Do you suppose I would have cared what people said? But then, the hands were too strong for me. My father would have hunted me all over the universe. Now, like everybody else, he deems me to be dead; he thinks that I went down in that awful cataclysm. And now let me make a confession. I was not going to tell you anything; I was going to let events take their own way; I was going to live like other women do, for love stretched out both hands to me, and from the bottom of my heart I was proud and grateful. But I might have known that happiness and myself were destined to be strangers. I will not ask you to forgive me. I suppose you recognised the description of the jewels, and came to the conclusion that I am—well, that I am what I am."
"And thank God for that!" Stuart said in a tone that he strove in vain to render steady. "Would I have you anything else? It is the woman that I love. Our secret is our own, and if we act discreetly no one will be any the wiser. Perhaps, later on, when it pleases a benign Providence to remove your father from his sorrowing subjects, we may come back to England again. Dearest, is there another word to say?"
She stretched out her hands to his.
"Not one," she whispered; "no, not one."
LEONARD ANTONY FOX sat in his weekend cottage on the edge of Swinford Heath golf links nursing a sprained ankle. He was quite alone in his luxurious nest, for he had deliberately sent his solitary factotum away for an hour or two so that he might have the place to himself when his anonymous correspondent of a few days before came to keep a more or less secret interview which had been arranged through the medium of the box office of a popular London daily paper. The sprained ankle was a bit of a nuisance, because the business might be part of a trap, but Fox was not the man to flinch whatever happened. He knew that sooner or later the man Swiney would seek to get his revenge.
Swiney was the one to be really feared—as to the rest of the gang Fox could afford to treat them with contempt. But, given the chance and a clear opening, Swiney would not hesitate at murder to get those diamonds back again.
Not that they really were his diamonds. Fox told himself, as he sat there in his lonely cottage late at night waiting the coming of his anonymous correspondent. By every law of right and justice, save the cold legal side of the affair, those stones were the property of Leonard Antony Fox. They had been found on the claim near Parrsberg, which he had located himself. He had been too busy to register his claim, and Swiney and his creatures had jumped it and completed the necessary legal forms with the Diamond Fields Commissioner.
It was not till this had happened that Swiney came out in his true colours. The diamonds a fortune in themselves, belonged to him and his unsavoury satellites. Fox could go to the devil so far as they were concerned, but not a cent was he going to get. They jeered at him for a fool who did not know how to take care of his own, and bade him begone.
But they had reckoned without the grit and dogged courage that comes of breeding and a public school training. Fox had gone out to South Africa to seek his fortune, and since luck had literally made love to him he was not going to throw her smiles aside without a struggle. So he held on to Swiney's gang, swearing and grumbling and abiding his time, what time the others called him a white-livered cur.
Then the hour came to strike, and Fox struck like a tornado. He fought the gang single-handed on the way down to Cape Town, a desperate affray with revolvers in it, and when the dust cleared away the stones were in his pocket, and Swiney lay by the roadside with a bullet through his lungs.
So Fox came back to England a rich man, after all. So far he had made no effort to get rid of the stones, feeling that he had not yet heard the last of Swiney. And, moreover in the eye of the law those diamonds were legally the properly of Swiney, who had registered the claim in his own name. Swiney was not the man to be shaken off as easily as that. Even the fact that he was badly 'wanted' in more than one country would not deter him from what would be at the least a nasty scandal. If there was only a way of getting rid of the scoundrel so far as England was concerned, Fox would be content. Something to drive him out of the country, never daring to return.
Fox sat there in his sitting-room under the electric light impatiently awaiting the advent of his anonymous correspondent. He came presently, humbly knocking on the front door and timidly entering at a shout from Fox. A little, red-haired man who carried his sly character on his weak yet cunning face. Jackal was written all over him. A parasite and hanger on of superior animals of prey and as cowardly as his prototype.
"Sit down!" Fox commanded. "So it's you, is it? Ginger Joe. Swiney's little dog. Come from him, eh?"
"It's not quite like that, sir," Joe cringed. "I'm out with Swiney, curse him! That's why I wrote to you. Done all his dirty work for years, and now nothing but the dirty kick out. Me as planned the details of that Mere Croft robbery."
Fox nodded—that famous burglary had been the sensation in the Press a fortnight ago.
"A fine haul that Joe," he said.
"Ay, I believe you. Not much risk and Swiney waiting round the corner for the swag. A fast car what was stolen and the boodle in a shabby suitcase smothered with foreign labels. What's that? Where's the stuff now? Ask Swiney. Left luggage office in some London terminus if you ask me. But not for long. The gang's cutting it thick at the Envoy Hotel. Private suite. Rich men from Australia game. By this time the Mere Croft stuff is in Swiney's hotel bedroom or I'm the biggest mug out. It was to tell you that and a bit more as brought me here tonight. Now next Thursday night about ten o'clock—"
"That's Peace Night," Fox interpolated.
"Course it is. That's why the gang chose it. There's going to be a big dance that night at the Envoy with about two thousand guests with Swiney and the rest of the gang very prominent. In the crush Swiney sneaks off and comes down here knowing you are on your back helpless like—"
"Oh he knows that, does he?" Fox smiled.
"Sure thing, boss. A fast racer will bring him here and get him back within two hours. As you ain't parted with the stones he thinks they are hidden here and means to get them. And he means to murder you at the same time. After that he can put up an alibi that no lawyer can shake. Seen on and off at the dance all the evening by lots of his new hangers on and standing fizz galore. And the rest of the gang helping. 'Seen Swiney?' 'I saw him five minutes ago in the cocktail bar.' Repeated loud. See the game? Easy as kiss your hand."
"Quite," Fox agreed. "But where do I come in? Why did you make up your mind to tell me all this?"
"Told you already," Joe grunted. "Gang turned me out and left me without a bob. On my uppers. Not daring to give them away. So I came here to ask you for fifty of the best so that I could sling it to America where I got friends. Is it a go?"
Ten minutes later Joe left the cottage with a roll of notes in his pocket, and Fox sat down to think.
"Less than a week to strike a real blow," he told himself as he sat in his chair. "Curse this ankle of mine, I'll get old Chris Cadell to run down and talk matters over. Nobody like old Chris in an emergency like this."
With that Fox turned to his elaborate wireless set, and for the next hour forgot his troubles in listening to Madrid.
* * * * *
Promptly to a telephone call the wily and volatile Cadell turned up the following night. A man of leisure now, he had played a fine part in the great war as an intelligent officer, and still loved an adventure for its own sake. Also he already knew all there was to tell about the diamond business.
"I see your point," he said, when Fox had described the matter of Ginger Joe's visit. "The last thing you want is a stink. Drive Swiney out of England for good and the incident is closed so far as you are concerned. With the facts of the Mere Croft robbery in your possession you can easily give the police the office and get him five years. After that when he has nothing further to fear he will be at you again."
"Bang on the bull," Fox agreed. "Just what I fear. Now can you see any way of driving Swiney abroad for keeps?"
A slow smile dawned on Cadell's keen sensitive face.
"The brain-wave works," he cried. "Came to me almost before you had finished your lament, listen to me."
It was a lot that Cadell had to say and he said it slowly and deliberately. When he had finished Fox grinned delightedly.
"Well, I'm dashed," he grinned. "Some scheme, old man, that. But where precisely do I come in?"
And Cadell proceeded to tell him. A grateful Leonard Antony Fox held out a hand almost reverently.
"Shake, learned Cadi," he whispered, "shake."
* * * * *
It wanted but a few minutes to eleven on the night of Peace celebrations that the crook known to a select circle as Swiney came slinking up to the cottage on the links like the wolf that he was with greed and revenge and murder in his heart. It had been no difficult matter to get away from the glittering turmoil of the great peace gathering at the Envoy Hotel. A big fur coat hidden behind a bank of palms in one of the dancing rooms, a deserted car in a aide street, and a convenient service staircase close by had enabled him to get away without being seen and thus away on his murderous errand. So far, so good.
He knew his route exactly. In disguise he had been over it more than once before. With any luck, the passing of an hour and a half would see him back in the hotel again, and in that time his two confederates would see to it that he was not missed. It was all a matter of a little careful camouflage. And then, when the big job was done, he and his gang would get away from England with the proceeds of the Mere Croft burglary plus the fortune in diamonds which Swiney was on his way to get now.
So far everything had moved according to plan. And here he was on the threshold of murderous adventure without a single hitch. He had pushed the fast racing car into a tangle of heather hard by Fox's cottage, and now stood outside it ready and eager to be getting along with his task.
Twice did he creep round the lonely cottage without hearing a sound from within. No doubt Fox had retired long ago, and, with any luck, was probably fast asleep. His man must also be in the same state of blissful unconsciousness in the cockloft above which served him for a bedroom. Very gently Swiney pushed back the catch of the scullery window and as gently stepped into the passage. So far the sinister gods of night were with him.
But the quiet was not entirely unbroken. From the sitting-room-hall houseplace came the faint strains of music. Dance music beyond the shadow of a doubt. Somebody playing there in the darkness. Strange sort of thing to do, Swiney thought.
"The devil," he muttered. "Not gone to bed then. But why should he sit there in the dark?"
There was nothing for it now but to take Fox unawares. Drop in on him and flash a light in his face and at the same time confront him at the business end of a revolver. Swiney crept on into the grateful warmth of the room, gaining courage as he proceeded. Nothing moved. There was no sound of breathing, no sound of a body moving in a chair. The sixth sense of the trained burglar told Swiney that he was alone. And then he understood.
A wireless set, of course. Swiney had never seen or heard one before, but he had read a lot about them. He could see the faint glow of the valves in the black gloom. Careless of Fox, no doubt. Gone to his room doubtless without switching off the L. T. and the aerial, and gone to bed in ignorance of the fact. So much the better, perhaps, Swiney crept forward.
Then there was a sharp click and the whole place sprang into a bath of dazzling light. In the ingle close to the wireless set Fox was seen seated in his armchair with a weapon in his hand and that weapon in a direct line with Swiney's head.
"Stand still," the crisp command came. "An inch and I fire. You are armed, Swiney, and as a burglar thus equipped I am justified in shooting to kill. Turn your back on me. Thanks. Slip a hand into your hip pocket and drop your gun on the floor. Once more thanks. Sit there and listen to me."
There was nothing for it but to obey.
"That's better," Fox smiled. "In a way I have been expecting you. The next move is yours. Go on."
Swiney was beginning to collect his scattered wits. After all, he had a few leading cards to play.
"Oh, all right," he swaggered. "About those diamonds. I'm not unreasonable. Share and share alike and say no more about it. The stones are here, of course."
"Not within miles," Fox said with a sincerity that carried conviction with it. "Intelligent anticipation my friend. But that bluff doesn't go. You came here for the lot and my life as well. Smart of you to realise so quickly that the dice were loaded against you and be ready for a deal, but I risked my life for my own and that I propose to retain."
"And if I go to the Courts about it?' Swiney sneered.
"Yes, I see the point," Fox agreed. "But you won't do that for reasons which I am going to make obvious. And I'm not going to hand you over to the police for another reason. This time I am going to get rid of you for ever."
As Fox spoke he stretched out his hand and slightly twirled a knob on his wireless. Instantly the music swelled until it filled the room. Beyond it was a din of voices and ripple of applause. From out of it rang a voice loud and clear:
"Hullo, Tony. Can you hear me, Tony?"
In the ether somewhere a clock was striking twelve.
"Sounds cheerful, what?" Fox asked. "A reveller calling to his mate. From some dance, probably. You recognise the cacophony of a jazz band. Somebody there is calling to somebody else who is not present. A sort of mild joke on the part of the said Tony's friend. Does it convey anything to you?"
("Hullo, Tony. Can you hear me, Tony?")
The constant cry was beginning to get on Swiney's nerves. There was a cursed trap behind this somewhere and he could not do more than merely sense it. He was feeling as helpless as a child who is being teased.
"I see you are puzzled," Fox went on. "Let me give you what is called a light. That Mere Croft burglary."
Swiney gasped and swallowed. The trap was in sight now.
"A fine coup," Fox smiled, "and a perfect getaway. Not a bad idea to hide the swag in your bedroom at the Envoy Hotel. There at the present moment, isn't it? And the rest of your gang ruffling it with the best of them on the dance-floor of the Envoy at the present moment. But not for long, Swiney—not for long. Ah!—I thought it was coming."
Again the voice spoke through space but with a difference.
"Listen, Tony! Our friends in blue have gone up to No. 47 bedroom and taken a party with them. I'm off now, Tony."
The voice faded away and was heard no more. Fox switched off the set. Swiney looked up swiftly, a horrible thought stirring him to the depths of his black soul.
"What's the game?" he demanded, hoarsely. "Where did that music come from? And who spoke?"
"Happen to remember my full name?" Fox queried.
"Course!—Leonard Antony Fox. Tony! Curse you! Listening to what was going on at the Envoy Hotel, were we?"
"Real clever of you to guess it," Fox purred. "And don't forget that my man in the ballroom mentioned a certain bedroom and gave the numbers. Yours, I think, Swiney."
Swiney burst into a torrent of futile oaths.
"Also my man at the other end spoke of a party in blue. Need I remind the wily Swiney that the police are so attired? The game is up, my friend. I laid a trap for you, and you have walked into it like an innocent child. I knew that you were coming here to-night and made my preparations accordingly. Also I knew all about that sensational burglary and where the swag was hidden. Even if my little scheme had failed your bedroom would have been raided to-night and your confederates arrested. They are under arrest at this very moment, and the stuff has been found in your room. And Scotland yard is after you."
"So you say," Swiney mumbled.
"So I have proved," Fox chortled. "The voice calling to Tony was my friend's voice. Direct from the Envoy Hotel. What he said passed in the general din, but I heard it. And when my friend gave the number of your room and spoke of the party in blue and their escort I knew that all was well with me. If you don't believe me, go back to the Envoy and see for yourself."
Swiney lay back in his chair utterly beaten.
"You cunning devil!" he breathed. "But you haven't finished yet. Why not nobble me with the others? Why this consideration for the man you have most cause to fear? Come, your ace!"
"Wrong!" Fox smiled. "I have no occasion to fear you—now. But I might have had, after you had served your sentence, if I had sent you to penal servitude with the others. You can serve it now if you want to and then worry me afterwards, but I wanted to give you a choice. That's why the trap was laid by means of my wireless. Now, which is it to be—a long term in prison or a sporting chance of getting out of England with no possibility of ever returning? It's for you to decide."
Swiney glared impotently at his tormentor.
"I'm done!" he confessed miserably. "Well, if the choice has to be made it won't be the stone jug. My name's Walker. But if ever I catch you—"
"Good night!" Fox smiled. "Not that way, please! Keep clear of your late revolver. You might be tempted, you know."
Without another word Swiney pushed out into the night, and once aboard his car turned to the south and held a course that pointed in the direction of the nearest port. With luck he had all the world before him and a total of much value in notes in his pocket always there for emergencies. And Leonard Antony Fox in his cottage slept the sleep of the just.
TO begin with, Mr. John Maggs, of somewhere in Bethnal Green, derived his inspiration from the 'gossip' column of his favorite evening paper. More than once he had derived considerable unearned increment from the same source. Paragraphs anent the rich and powerful and their treasures of gold and silver—especially gold stored away in remote country houses with owners blissfully unaware of the Maggs tribe on the lookout for such costly trifles. For that was precisely the sort of man John Maggs was. By day a worker in a garage, by night a lover of nocturnal rides on a motor bicycle but always with an eye to ultimate income.
He liked that bit in the evening Press about Sir Walter Rumbelow of Brayside, near Margate, and the account of his wonderful collection of gold coins. Not as numismatic specimens, but as sterling which he knew how to melt down and dispose of at its full market value. Portable, too, Maggs reflected.
So in due course, Maggs took a long week-end holiday together with his motor cycle. He located the cliffs of Bray from a guidebook, and found that Brayside was a large modern house on high ground overlooking the sea; indeed, the front of it was within three hundred yards of the cliff which at that point was as many feet above the tideway with two paths running along the basaltic bastion on which the house was perched. A score of yards below the wall, fencing Brayside from the cliff, was a sort of footpath which was a right of way and unfenced, and this path met with Mr. Maggs' decided approval. Firstly, because it was public and, in the next place, because a climb up the precipitous slope afforded an easy access to the grounds of Brayside House.
Of a second public path down below and not more than a score of feet from high water mark, Maggs knew nothing. It was no sort of concern, anyway. Nor was he particularly keen on the upper path save for the fact that it was a distinct convenience. He was not accustomed to cliffs and that alarming steep slope ending three hundred feet below in the sea made him giddy and gave him an unpleasant sensation in the pit of his stomach.
It looked to him that if a bloke happened to slip off the upper path he would be certain to drop to the bottom like a stone and dash his brains out on the rocks fringing the water. Had he known of the lower path not far above high water mark he might have been easier in his mind. Here and there, due to the passing of time or erosion, were long slides of slippery shale, and Maggs—not devoid of imagination—could picture a cove setting that grey avalanche in motion and after that—Blimey!
As a matter of fact the danger was not as bad as it looked. Maggs might have seen that had it not been for a thick fringe of larch trees far down the giddy slope. These half hid the sea and by so doing, heightened the suggestion of a sheer precipice. The more Maggs studied the situation the less he liked it.
But if he was to enter the grounds of Brayside House and come away again in comparative safety, there was no way save by the cliff path. That must form his entry and his egress unless he was prepared to take serious risks. And he was not prepared to take any risks that could be avoided.
Therefore, the attack must be made from the upper cliff path and once having made up his mind to this, Maggs proceeded to commit to memory the exact lie of the land. More than that, he contrived to enter the area of operations by the simple process of swarming up the few feet of cliff above the public path and climbing into the domain sacred to Sir Walter Rumbelow. Lying perdu in a thicket of heather and gorse, for—save the lawns and garden—the owner had left the terrain in its wild beauty, the marauder had a full view of the house. Facing him, and not more than a hundred yards away, was the library where he knew those precious coins reposed in their locked cases.
A big room with three long windows. Maggs knew this because he had learnt so much from a gossip in the village public house. Moreover, the gossip aforesaid was a jobbing carpenter who did work for Sir Walter from time to time. An old man, he had in his youth actually seen Brayside House built. Maggs regarded this Joe Gittens as a distinct manifestation of providence. He was as good as a guide and a plan of the house combined.
Let it not be assumed that Maggs was taking undue risks in discussing Brayside House and its owner with Gittens. When the inevitable happened—and Maggs was sanguine on that head—it was inevitable also that Gittens would open his heart on the subject to the stranger who asked so many questions anent the place and was so liberal on the score of alcoholic refreshment.
But that Maggs was prepared for and had fully discounted in advance. In reality Gittens had never seen the real Maggs or Watkins, as he preferred to call himself. As Watkins he presented a man with a thick thatch of silver grey plus Victorian side whiskers and a chin beard, the long upper lip being bare. Add a pair of brass-rimmed spectacles and the disguise was complete.
Nor did Magg's precautions end there. If the raid proved a success, it was necessary to provide some rapid means of transport to a haven of safety before Sir Walter's servants discovered their employer's loss in the morning. The motor cycle was ready and snugly hidden not far off, for Maggs had not been so unwise as to come into the village riding his trusty steed. A disused barn and a bale of rotten hay afforded the necessary cover.
Add to these strategic advantages the fact that Sir Walter Rumbelow was away from home for some days, and it will be seen that Maggs had little or nothing to fear—save one thing.
There was no moon and the weather for the time of year was mild, but there was a little more fog hanging about than the burglar liked. There was fog at night and far into the morning, that blanket of fog which is one of the characteristics of the south coast in late autumn, especially when there was no wind as at the moment. And this fact worried Maggs because he would be compelled to follow the cliff path round the headland after securing the swag because it was imperative to avoid the village and the motor cycle lay in ambush in an opposite direction.
The thought of that, to him perilous walk in utter darkness oppressed him like a nightmare. He knew that he could easily strike the cliff path after the raid, but if that cursed fog held, he might take a step too far and finish his career at the foot of the cliff and end as 'found drowned.' Still an occasional gleam from his flashlight might avert tragedy. But the fog held and on the third night, just before closing time, Maggs bade farewell to his village gossip.
"Just time for one more," he said heartily. "Make the most of it for I leave to-morrow. Back to work, old sport, more's the pity. Well, so long. Take care of yourself."
So, with every preparation made and his modest baggage on his back, Maggs set out on his errand. Up to a certain point the road along the cliff was easy—a wall on one side and a thick hedge on the other. Even in the fog no danger was to be feared so far. But, once beyond a wicket gate, the trouble began. So many yards would have to be traversed ere it was necessary to start climbing upwards at a right angle, until the boundary wall of Sir Walter's domain was reached. And these steps with his heart in his mouth Maggs counted. Just a hundred and seventeen of these he registered, then turned left and began to swarm up the heather clad slope until, with a sigh of relief he bumped into the boundary wall. He dropped over on the far side on to what seemed like turf under his feet. So far, so good.
He crept on and on in the dead silence of the place until the house itself loomed up before him ghostly in the fog. Maggs was feeling easier now for he possessed a fine geographical sense and, moreover, he had visualised the landscape inch by inch by daylight. It was as if he had the whole world to himself. And, in the midst of it, a haunted house, forsaken and deserted. Not a single glimmer of light to be seen anywhere. Probably the whole domestic staff had taken French leave and gone off to the weekly dance in the parish hall.
Not that Maggs was banking on this probability. He scouted round to the back of the house and thence to the garage, the door of which was open and no sign of the chauffeur in the blank window of his quarters overhead. No doubt Sir Walter had taken the car with him on his temporary departure from his home.
Then the house was deserted. What blinkin' luck. Given one uninterrupted hour, or less, and Maggs would be away round the cliff path in search of the hidden motor-cycle awaiting him. And, if his luck held good, he would be home and asleep before those servants had discovered the robbery.
Then back again to the front of the house. He stood on the ledge of the centre library window, working back the catch with a thin-bladed knife. It was as easy as kiss me 'and. The thick velvet curtains cautiously parted, Maggs was inside. There was a warm, comfortable smell of leather and underfoot a carpet so thick and soft that it was possible to move without the slightest sound. A quick flash round with a pocket lamp and Maggs caught his breath.
Yes, there the boodle was—glittering and winking in the glow, thousands of coins, a large proportion of them gold. It was compact stuff that could be easily stowed away in a big inside pocket, and every ounce of it saleable at its face value—at least two thousand pounds as mere metal; the find of a lifetime.
Maggs wasted no further time. Ere long most of those thin scraps of precious metal were transferred to his capacious pocket, and no sign of life within a hundred miles.
And then suddenly there came a sort of glow through the thick curtains and what sounded like the hum of a car. After that voices in the hall and a flash of illumination, as if somebody had switched on the lights outside the library.
"Dashed funny thing, Monty, old chap," one voice said. "But where the deuce is everybody? Withers, Withers, WITHERS."
The cry echoed through the house, but the mysterious Withers had no reply. Withers was non est.
"Nice game," the voice went on. "Dear old Nunky away and the servants off on some beano. Dashed if they haven't taken the faithful hound with 'em. You hang on here for a sec. Monty, whilst I go and have a look round."
"Righto, old fruit," the invisible Monty rejoined.
Maggs felt his way silently in the direction of the window. By sheer good luck he found his way there without disturbing any article of furniture en route. Who were these intruders, he asked himself, blowing in so unexpectedly. Relations of the old bloke, of course. And hadn't one of them said something about a dog? Maggs had seen no dog, he didn't want to see a dog—no right-minded burglar ever does. Noisy yapping brutes.
Maggs was outside the window now, intent on making his way without delay to the spot where the motor-cycle awaited him. Once astride of that, he had little to fear. There was just a chance that those toffs might enter the library and if they did.....
Maggs didn't want to think of it. All he wanted, like the Arabs in the poem, was to fold his tent and silently steal away.
Outside the fog still dripped and clung. But Maggs knew his way. He had only to follow his nose and reach the boundary wall, then drop over into the heather, make a bee line for the cliff path, and thence to the cycle and safety. He hated the idea of that cliff path in the fog and inky darkness, but, once clear, an occasional pinpoint of flame from the pocket torch would suffice to guide him to safety and the high road to home, sweet home.
He pushed on resolutely until the wall was close at hand. And then he was conscious of a sort of asthmatic wheezing a few inches behind him and something moist and damp and cold pressing against his left leg. Snakes in the heather, perhaps; Maggs had heard of such things—vipers that bit and sometimes killed people. It was only by sheer will that Maggs refrained from a shout.
But he must see what the perishin' thing was. Even if he ran a risk, he must know. He turned down the nozzle of his torch so that the pencil of light showed only on the ground, and then he saw something that brought his heart into his mouth.
There, within two inches of his leg, was an enormous bulldog showing a magnificent set of teeth in a ferocious grin.
"Erump, tump, tump," quoth the bulldog, in the rich, fruity baritone of his clan. "Erump, burp, parp."
With one wild yell Maggs flung himself over the wall and raced down the heathery slope in search of safety. All he wanted in that hectic moment was to place as much air and space as possible between himself and the animal, which he sub-consciously recognised as the 'faithful hound' alluded to in the fragmentary conversation he had heard in the library a few minutes ago.
In his headlong panic he raced across the cliffs without realising that he had crossed the path and plugged down the precipitous slope at the foot of which lay the sea. And, in so doing, he alighted on a wide bed of loose shale such as he had noticed when spying out the lie of the land. His feet slid from under him and, sprawling on the flat of his back, he set the shale in motion, and down he went as if he were slithering to perdition on the face of an avalanche. In vain he turned and twisted and clutched in an endeavor to obtain some sort of a grip, but the more he struggled the faster the loose erosion rumbled downwards towards the waves breaking on the rocks at the foot of the cliff. The crash and grind of the sea sounded in his ears like the crack of doom. In vain to cry out, in vain to scream for help with the fog blanketing his voice and black darkness before his eyes. A few seconds and there was an end of John Maggs!
Somewhere overhead the bulldog was wailing like a lost soul. But not so loudly as Maggs some 200 feet below.
Those few seconds of long-drawn out agony seemed like years to the unhappy marauder. Down, down he went with a crash and rumble of sliding shale until, in a state of mental paralysis, he shot clean over square bluff into space and, for a few moments, remembered no more. Then the crushing impact.
But not the crash he dreaded. Some hard substance struck him in the small of the back and knocked all the wind out of him. Something that seemed to sway and toss and yet hold him in a close grip. Not so far from the water either, because Maggs could hear the swish and suck of the tide unpleasantly close. Then, as his scattered senses began to reassemble, he recognised dimly the thing that had happened.
His fall had been broken and his body supported by the latteral branch of some trees perched on the cliff side. It was a wide, flat branch that smelt like fir of some kind. If he could only reach the bottom of it! But at the slightest movement the branch swayed ominously and the paralysing fear came back again. Another slip and the adventure would be definitely finished.
It was so dark, too, and the fog as thick as ever. Maggs could hear it dripping around him like the flopping of so many frogs. Not a breath of wind moving, silence everywhere.
It was 'ard, crool 'ard, Maggs told himself, with tears of self-pity in his eyes; but better, perhaps, than being a mangled corpse on the rocks below. All the same, he was just as much a prisoner now as if he had been chained by the leg or behind stone walls. Here he was with his pockets bulging with gold and that blinkin' motor cycle, and safety, only half a mile away.
Perhaps he might get away with it yet. If only he could see something of the lie of the land! But in his headlong flight from that perishin' dog he had dropped his torch. There was nothing for it but to wait till daylight and then see if it were possible to scramble up the cliff and make a dash for the cycle before the world began to wake to another morn. A slim chance, but not impossible. And hours of this yet.
Gradually Maggs dozed off. He had sunk deeper into his cradled bower, and no longer feared a fall. The doze faded into a dream and the dream into a sound sleep—
When Maggs finally awoke it was morning, early morning with a smudge of smoky light overhead and a lifting of the atmosphere, but no breath of wind yet and no fading of the blanket of fog. So thick was it still that Maggs could not see two yards beyond his nose. He could hear the ominous growl of the sea below and the cry of the gulls—beyond that, nothing.
If only that perishin' fog would lift!
Came at length sounds of life behind the thick curtain of blinding mist. Voices! A faint puff of wind. Another. Overhead a pallid sphere like a new cheese. The sun at last! Then the fog rolled back fold upon fold as a moving curtain might do and the palpitating Maggs could see at last.
"Luv a duck," he blubbered, "luv a duck. If I'd only knowed. Crool luck. An' me orl the time—"
He was lying on the lateral branch of a weather-scarred and stunted cedar-tree barely fifteen feet in height and overhanging the lower path, which was not far above high water mark.
Absolute safety in his grasp. Almost. But not quite.
For on the path, looking up at him and showing that splendid range of teeth, was the cause of all the mischief.
"Erump, tump, tump," said the bulldog. "Wrupp."
Along the path came a large man in thigh gaiters and rough shooting jacket—evidently a gamekeeping sort of person. He looked at the dog and followed the direction of his upturned, blunt nose. And saw Maggs on his perch.
"Seemin'ly," he said, "Seemin'ly you be the bloke what we 'uns be lookin' for. Come down."
"That's torn it," Maggs almost wept.
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).