THE MAN in the white waistcoat and undeniable spats was pleased to approve of the Major, and in this his wife was graciously pleased to agree. As a rule the Vellacotts were particular with regard to their friendships, as benefitted second generation people, with offspring at Winchester and Magdalen College, Oxford, but the Major had a way with him that few people could resist. And the Majestic Hotel at Sandbourne did not take everybody in.
"I like this place very much," the Major remarked to Vellacott after dinner on the Saturday night, they having had a day on the links together. "Like you, I have dropped into the habit of running down here for the week-end: The golf is none too good, as you know, but it is convenient to town, and we can't all run to Rolls-Royce cars."
It was a pleasant bit of chaff and touched Vellacott on the soft spot, because he was proud of his Rolls-Royce car in which he always made his weekend journeys to Sandbourne. In the city he was a dealer in bullion and specie, to say nothing of occasional excursions in the realms of pawnbroking, which latter transactions were restricted severely to advances upon family jewels, collections of historic plate, and the like. A little later he found himself talking freely and eloquently on the subject of city business, to one who appeared to be as interested and intelligent listener.
"Yes," said the Major, pulling at his cigar. "Yes. Do you know, Vellacott, I was precious near going into the city myself once. I wish I had now. Certain anxieties, of course, but no adventures, and no risks——-"
"Ah, there you are wrong," Vellacott said eagerly, "Why, my dear fellow, handling valuables as we do, we've got to be on the alert the whole time. Only last year we were very nearly done out of twenty thousand pounds."
"I hadn't thought of that," the Major said. "I suppose your strong room is like a bank. All sorts of patent locks, and ingenious devices, and all that sort of thing."
Vellacott winked across his whisky and soda.
"You never can tell," he said. "My strong room is especially built in the basement, and goes right under the pavement, flush with the curb. Moreover, on top is a round sheet of glass just like a coal chute, about eight inches thick, and the police have been told that the electric light is burning in the strong room every night, and if the light goes out, they will know there is something wrong. But still, there are times—"
"Oh, quite so, quite so," the Major said. "It's rather funny that you should introduce this subject, because I am rather interested in a device suggested to me by a young friend of mine for getting even with the sort of gentry you speak of. You see, I was an engineer myself, and I am rather a dab at mechanics. If I had the capital, I should try and develop it."
At the mention of the magic words "capital," and "development," Vellacott pricked up his ears. He was never averse to a proposition in which the risk was small, and the profit proportionately great. He leaned eagerly forward.
"Tell me all about it," he said. "If you have got a decent thing, I can introduce the capital."
"Well, it's like this," the Major said. "In a few words, it is an entirely new form of burgular alarm. One of those simple things that the wonder is it has never been thought of before. You attach it to your telephone at night, and by leaving the receiver off the hook, a bell rings at the other end of the wire if the door of the room where the telephone is, indeed, the slightest interruption sets the telephone going. Now, suppose, for instance, you had a private wire from your office to your house at Sutton—"
"I have," Vellacott cried. "I have,"
"So much the better. I suppose a good many of your city magnates have private wires? Well, in that case, you might be disposed to try it. I can carry a wire from your 'phone into the vault, and if the door of the vault is opened, my device will give you instant warning in your private house. I suppose I need not ask if you have got an extension of your telephone at home into your bedroom? You have? Very well, then. In that case, if anything was wrong, you would be instantly aroused in the middle of the night—call up Scotland Yard, and within a couple of minutes, the police are on the spot. This is rather a lucky day for me, I think. Some of these days, when you have half an hour to spare, I'd like to give you an experimental test. What about Saturday afternoon, when the office is closed?"
Vellacott beamed pleasantly on his companion.
"Now, do you know, that sounds real good," he said. "If only your invention is not too expensive—"
"Less than five pounds," the Major interrupted. "We should open a sort of central office to which all you city men should subscribe, and where an extra wire from each big office would converge and be numbered. Now, by another simple device those wires would give an alarm in that central office, where a couple of operators would be at work all night, and those wires would be numbered. All the operator had to do is to call up Scotland Yard, and tell them that something is wrong, say, with number ten. What do you think?"
"Think!" Vellacott cried with an enthusiasm rare at his time of life, "I think you've got a fortune there! Don't mention it to anybody else. I'll speak to my—er—friend in the city, and he'll find the money fast enough. Now, how long do you think it would be before we could try the thing?"
"Oh, I don't know," the Major said. "I might manage to get the machine itself ready within a week. Yes, I'm quite sure I can. But one part will take a little longer. Still, I can get the instrument itself inside your strong room. But I shall have to see it first. But isn't it rather a shame for me to rob you of you week-end holiday?"
"Not at all, not at all," Vellacott said, "Now, shall you by any chance be down here next week-end?"
The Major rather thought he would. He would probably turn up by the Friday afternoon, as usual, and thereupon, Vellacott made a proposal. They would dine together on Friday night, and, run up to London in the car after an early breakfast on the Saturday morning. If they started early enough, they could be in the city, inspect the strong room, and be back at the Majestic in time for lunch, after which they could play a well earned round of golf in the afternoon. To this suggestion the Major gave a cordial consent, and therefore, on the following Saturday morning, a little after eight o'clock, the two set out together in the Rolls-Royce car, and in due course arrived at the palatial offices in Moorgate-street.
"I have said nothing to my partner," Vellacott explained. "Neither have I mentioned the matter to my manager. This is the sort of thing that it is not well to talk about until it is accomplished. Now, come along, and have a look at the strong room."
With that, Vellacott dived down a flight of stone steps, and opened a massive door, which led into a room some twelve feet square. A light was burning in the room, and, overhead, the Major could see the disc of thick plate glass that Vellacott had explained to him. Round the strong room, on three sides, were small doors, and sliding trays faced with steel, and these, Vellacott had explained, contained not only masses of bullion, but some of the finest treasures in the world.
"I suppose every tray is locked?" the Major asked.
"Well, no," Vellacott said. "You see, if anybody could get through that door, they could get into the trays easily enough."
The Major asked no more questions, pertinent or otherwise. He took from his pocket a dainty little foot rule, and a note book, which he was exceedingly busy with for the next few minutes. There was something so businesslike about him that even Vellacott was impressed. Then he looked up from a mass of figures, and smiled with the air of a man who is quite pleased with himself, though he vouchsafed no information.
Half an hour later the two emerged from the vault and made their way into Moorgate-street, where the big car was awaiting them. Almost in front of the palatial premises of Vellacott and Co., a small group of workmen had congregated in the street. There were four of them altogether, and in their peaked caps was the badge of the Universal Electricity Company, the great corporation which supplied that part of London with its electric power. They had with them a closed-in truck, from the depths of which they had produced a sort of collapsible canvas tent, together with a mass of technical instruments, which the Major regarded with a favourable eye. It was evident that something had gone wrong with one of the cables, and that the gang of workmen was there to repair it. The Major stood watching them whilst waiting for his companion, and, presently he made a technical remark or two to the foreman.
"I am rather glad these chaps are here," he said to Vellacott when the latter emerged. "They have given me an idea. I find that the main cable is close to the kerb, and upon my word, I think it would be possible to run a tunnel for my apparatus inside the channel. That would give me just what I want without disturbing existing arrangements. Um—yes, that's a rattling good idea."
"Oh, that's all very well," Vellacott grumbled. "But these fellows are always pulling the streets about. Hi, foreman, I hope you are not going to be very long over this job."
"I don't think so, sir," the foreman said, civilly enough. "I hope we shall finish to-night. If not, it will be some time to-morrow morning. That's why we came to-day, so as not to interfere with you gentlemen in business hours."
With that Vellacott turned away, and, before long, the big car had left London behind it. It was a beautiful morning, and Vellacott was looking forward eagerly to his afternoon's golf. He had little or nothing on his mind, business was not pressing, and it was just possible that he might take Monday off as well.
"I'll telephone my partner first thing in the morning," he said. "I suppose you are staying on for the present?"
"I think so," the Major said. "As a matter of fact I was down here all last week. If this invention comes off, then I and a plus golfer of my acquaintance are buying a furnished bungalow close to Sandwich. If it does materialise, I shall be pleased if you will come down and join us occasionally."
Vellacott replied emphatically that he would. They were discussing the question on the Monday morning before setting out for the day's golf, when a pert page boy in a veritable rash of buttons solemnly summoned Vellacott to the telephone. He came back a moment or two later, white, trembling, and almost incoherent, and in striking contrast to the Major, who lay back in a comfortable armchair enjoying his second after-breakfast cigarette.
"Good heavens, what's wrong?" the latter asked solicitously.
"The most awful thing," Vellacott gasped. "Our strong room was broken into between closing time on Saturday afternoon and the early hours of this morning. Nearly fifty thousand pounds' worth of valuables stolen. They only found out about a quarter of an hour ago when my partner got into the office."
"I've got it," the Major cried. "Depend upon it, those men we saw in the road were not bona fide workmen at all, but a gang of audacious thieves, led by some technical expert."
"It looks like it," Vellacott groaned. "But how did they manage it? How on earth did they manage to get through the walls of the safe?"
"Oh, that's easy enough," the Major explained. "They came along with a covered truck, which very likely had been stolen from the Universal Electricity Company, and it would be very easy to get hold of a set of badges. See, the whole thing looks so workmanlike and methodical that the police would suspect nothing. When things are done in this cool way, people take it for granted. But don't forget that the offices of the Universal Electricity Company would be probably closed at one o'clock on Saturday, after which all the employees would be away and those chaps would have all Saturday afternoon and all Sunday to work. Then once down the manhole, within a foot of the outer wall of your strong-room, it wouldn't have taken long to clear all the earth away, and expose the steel side. And don't forget that those chaps had got a tent over the hole, under cover of which they could work without the slightest fear of interruption. They could make as much flame and as much smoke as they liked, because that always goes with electrical repairs."
"The safe," Vellacott moaned. "The safe. With a solid foot of radio-steel—"
"Yes, into which the flame of an acetylene welding plant would eat as if the steel were so much rotten cheese. And, mind you, those plants are portable. You may depend upon it that those chaps have been planning this coup for months. Really, the more I think of it, the more I admire them. And then again, look how cleverly they arranged to carry off the swag! They carry it in that covered cart of theirs, and put all their tools on the top, then they coolly push the cart through the streets of London for miles until they come to their lair. Nobody would notice them, nobody would take the slightest heed of a Corporation cart going through the streets in broad daylight. You have been the victim of an absolutely priceless fraud."
"I have," Vellacott groaned. "I have. But I mustn't sit here. I must be off to London at once."
"Yes, I suppose you must," the Major said reluctantly. "If you are going up in the car, I'll come along with you."
"That's very good of you," Vellacott said gratefully. "To tell the truth, I feel too shaky to go alone."
Apparently, the Major's diagnosis had been correct, for when the two silent voyagers reached Moorgate-st. the police had already come to their own conclusions. Inquiries at the offices of the Universal Electricity Company elicited the fact that no employees of theirs had been near Moorgate-st. on the previous Saturday. But a covered cart and certain plant were missing from their stores, and these had been discovered a few minutes ago by the police, abandoned somewhere in the north of London. It was a powerful little plant, and given the necessary time was strong enough to have eaten its way through the dome of St. Paul's.
"Neat, very neat," the Inspector said, half-admiringly. "No one seems to have seen these men, at least, not near enough to identify them. It's very hard to spot a man when he's smothered in grease and dirt, but one of my men says that their leader was a tall man and wore a black moustache."
"Ah, there you are," the Major put in presently. "Now I happened to be waiting for Mr. Vellacott, and, having nothing to do exchanged a few words with the foreman. He was a fair, blue-eyed man, with a scar on his left cheek, and was as clean shaven as I am. As to the others, I didn't notice them. But if I can do anything now, or at any future time, you can command my services. If you ran lay your hand on the right man, I can identify him fast enough."
There was little more to be said or done. For the moment the thieves had got clean away with the spoil, and though the Inspector seemed to be confident enough he had really little hope of effecting a capture. It was a dreary afternoon that the Major spent with Vellacott, and night closed down at length with nothing in the way of a clue.
"Are you going back to Sandbourne?" the Major asked.
Vellacott shook his head sorrowfully.
"I am afraid not," he said. "I have 'phoned my wife to return by train, and she is coming. I may get down to Sandbourne at the end of the week, but it is very doubtful. I simply couldn't play golf in my present distracted state of mind."
"That's natural enough," the Major agreed. "And if this little speculation of mine comes off I hope to see you at Sandwich."
And with that they parted. Vellacott to look after his business and the Major to transact some pressing affair which took him somewhere down into the East End. It was late the following evening when he found himself once more in the Majestic at Sandbourne, and, after having partaken of an exceptionally good dinner, he repaired to his bedroom, where he wrote the following letter:—-
Dear Morrison,—I have the greatest pleasure in telling you that I have been eminently successful with regard to that little business of mine. I am not disposed to go into details, because they don't matter, in any case, but I told you that I strongly objected to becoming one of the Poorer Poor when there are so many Richer Rich knocking about. They are not bad fellows to dine and play golf with, but that wouldn't prevent them from squeezing the last farthing out of you tomorrow morning if you ran up against them in business. It was one of these genial swine who caused me to leave the Indian Army some years ago, with considerable celerity and secrecy, and you are one of the few men who know the story. But I swore to get my own back one of these days, and I have done it—never mind how.
To cut a long story short, you can conclude negotiations for the purchase of that bungalow, and, if you will telephone me here any time within the next two or three days. I will send my cheque along for my share. Some good golf and an occasional run up to town will satisfy my requirements for the future. So let me know directly you are ready. All the best, Yours, aye,
P.S.—I want to ask one of my friends down to Sandwich shortly. He's five handicap, and not a bad chap as business men go. He's one of the Richer Rich, but not quite so infernally so as he was last week.