MARTIN HOUSE for the first time in a lurid life was conscious of a fear. It was as if some high tension wire in his mechanism had suddenly relaxed, throwing his whole mental machinery out of gear. Just for an instant, and then he was himself again.
Still, the precious diary had gone—two minutes before it had been lying on the library table in its tin case, with the folio leaves neatly bound with wire clips, just as House had brought it back from the neverlands, from the interior of Brazil, where no white man had ever set foot before. Some day, that nightmare story would be told, but there was much to be done first, and the harvest of the great adventure to be reaped. And if some enemy behind the financial scene had got away with that priceless diary with its treasured secrets, then those five scalding, blistering years, were as dust.
One moment, and House was himself again. He rang the bell, and Herad, the butler, entered. He stood there the very pink and model of what a well-trained servant should be. He might have been cast in a mould and carefully dried in the sun. There was nothing about James Herad to suggest the fires of adventure.
"Did you ring, sir?" he asked with the right shade of deference. "I thought I heard the bell, sir."
"Close the door, Jim," House said in a whisper.
James Herad had heard that tone before. He had heard it on the reeling deck of a sloop in the South Pacific, he had heard it when he stood with a service rifle in his hand, when he was hot, spent, and raging with thirst, with a murderous mob of Pathans within twenty feet of the crumbling stockade and death was grinning in his bloodshot eyes. And Herad was an understanding man.
"Is it trouble, Captain?" he asked.
"Jim, my big diary has been stolen. I was working on it when Rogers passed the window and called to me. He seemed rather upset about something, so I stepped through the window and stood not more than a minute talking to him on the terrace. It seems that a rat has gnawed a hole in the back of one of the small reptile houses, and the two Martinique blindworms are nowhere to be found. They are probably hidden away in the mossy slope by the summer house overlooking the sea. But never mind about them now. When I got back in here the diary was gone."
"Somebody in the house then," Herad suggested.
"Not a doubt about that, Jim. But who? Captain Haines and Mr. Swainson I would go bail for, and as to Mr. Milton you know how harmless and helpless he is. See that nobody leaves the house without being watched. Get Rogers to help you. He was with us out yonder, and is to be relied on thoroughly. Keep a strict eye on the village post office. The thief might try to mail the diary to some accomplice. It would have to go by parcel post, as, with the tin case, it weighs about ten pounds. Call up Mr. Bly for me on the 'phone."
House sat down a little later with a big black cigar to think matters over. The loss of the diary would mean something like ruin to him and his daughter Etne. Practically all that he had in the world had been sunk in the purchase of the pretty little estate on the Sussex coast, which he had invested in when he returned from that wild adventure in higher Brazil. He and Bly and the rest had realised their fondest hopes there, and at the present moment, were in negotiation for the Government concessions necessary to turn that daring raid through hitherto unexplored territory, into substantial advantage. Two companies had already been formed, and the cash of scores of trusting friends invested in the promising adventure. But if certain unscrupulous business men in the city, whom House feared, got wind of what was still more or less in the air, then the whole airy fabric might collapse altogether.
This blow had been dealt him by somebody under his own roof, and there the sting lay. The servants were absolutely innocent, House was quite convinced of that. Both Herad and Rogers were true as steel. The same remark applied to Effie, his daughter. There only remained, then, Captain Haines and his wife, and John Swainson and his, and House had known these men for years both in India, where Haines held a commission in the Gurkhas, and had married the only child of a wealthy Calcutta merchant. There remained only one, Aubrey Milton, who was by way of being a sort of protegee of House's, a mild, harmless kind of youth with no money to speak of, and a burning desire to become another Robert Louis Stevenson. He had given birth to a slim volume of poems of the inevitable neurotic type, and he was anxious for House to find him some light, congenial employment in Fiji or elsewhere, where he could bask in a tropical climate and witch the world with noble penmanship. He had come to House with a letter of introduction from a recently deceased old chum of the pioneer's of Australia, and it was characteristic of House that he had given Milton the run of his establishment. House could not see Milton with nerve enough to steal anything more dangerous than a pin.
And yet the daring and audacious thief was in the house somewhere. House said nothing of his loss, and watched his guests with a stealthy furtiveness of which he was half ashamed. But watch as he would, the next two days pending the arrival of his friend and partner, Eldon Bly, he could detect nothing by so much as the flicker of an eyelid.
Bly arrived late on the third night, when most of the party had retired for the evening. He came, alert, vigorous, a little atomy of a man, with a thin hawk-like nose, and a restless black eye, that seemed to see everything. A distinguished career in the Indian Police had preceeded his partnership with House since when the two men had been inseparable, and now their fortunes were bound up in the concessions which they were still negotiating with a none too honest South American Republic. Bly went straight to the point.
"Yes, I had the main facts from you on the 'phone," he said rapidly. "The danger is plain. If the Mason gang got hold of that diary, we are done. They have the money behind them, and can outbid us with those Government officials."
"Right," House interrupted, "but some information has reached London from here. Not much, because the lookout has been too keen, but enough to justify Mason in inspiring his reptile rag, the 'Financial Post' with an article on our companies. And the same group are actually booming our El Maduros shares. I expect they are looking forward to controlling that venture before long. Perhaps you would like to see it. I've got the paper here."
But, strangely enough, the paper in question, which had been on the library table most of the day, was not to be found. Evidently some one interested in such matters had removed it, and Bly was disposed to regard this as significant.
"Who could have taken it?" he asked. "What about the poet chap you were speaking of?"
"Oh, Milton," House smiled. "He's only a child. What's puzzling me, is how the thief, whoever he is, managed to convey to the Mason gang that he had the diary, and give them the information on which that 'Post' article was based."
"What about the telephone?" Bly asked.
"Good Lord. I had forgotten all about that," House cried. "The thief might have managed that when we were playing tennis. I think you are right, old man, as usual. He 'phoned that he had got hold of the diary, and as an earnest of the fact he gave them such information as would enable them to print that article. But Mason's lot are more or less powerless until they can handle the diary itself, and so long as it is still near at hand—"
"That's our safeguard," Bly said thoughtfully. "The thief has not moved for fear of rousing suspicion. He has hidden the diary somewhere, and is content to wait until the scent grows cold. Now just think what happened on the morning you lost the book. Were you enticed to leave this room?"
"I wasn't," House explained. "Rogers came along the terrace in a great state because he had lost those two Martinique blindworms you gave me. He knew they were the only pair ever seen in England, and how rare they were, and I was very angry with him. However, it was a rat that was to blame. Ate a hole in the back of the hutch. We've got one back but the other has vanished completely."
"Bad luck," Bly murmured. "Though I could never understand your craze for running a sort of menagerie here."
"None of them dangerous," House pleaded. "Besides, it reminds me of old times. I wasn't with Rogers more than a minute, but when I got back here the diary was gone."
Bly pondered the point for some time in silence. One thing was certain—the thief was in the house.
"I should like to sleep on it," Bly said. "Is the same old woman still in charge of the village post office?"
House nodded absently. If Bly was seized with one of his happy inspirations as seemed probable from the more or less inconsequent question about the village post office, he was not in the least likely to be communicative until he was more sure of his ground. He moved about amongst the other guests the next day, exchanging notes with Haines and Swainson, both of whom he knew, and he made himself agreeable to Aubrey Milton, who struck him as being the last possibility in the way of an ass. The man seemed to be perfectly harmless, a weed of a creature, full of little mannerisms and affectations just as one might expect in the minor poet and would-be literary man sighing for the congenial atmosphere wherein to write the masterpiece that was to set the world ablaze. His vapid manner, his silly eyeglass that constantly fell from his watery orb, and his flowing tie, a la Byron, palled on Bly presently, and he ceased to sharpen his wit on the unconscious Milton.
The 'Mute Inglorious Milton' retired presently to his favourite alcove on the edge of the cliffs behind the reptile house, where he was supposed to be engaged on the first of the great novels which was in time to shake the literary world to its foundations.
"A lovely spot, an ideal writing place, Mr. Bly," he simpered. "I am looking forward to having you all to myself there this afternoon, and talking about those amazing scenes of tropical beauty with which you are so familiar. Ah, the inspiration of them! I shall never rest until I also have seen them with these eyes."
"I shall enjoy it immensely," Bly said drily.
He strolled away from the tennis ground presently and made his way towards the village, mooning along with the air of a man whose mind is an absolute blank. He gazed absently into the windows of the village shops until he drifted into the general store that did duty as the post office. It was quite empty as it generally was at that time of day, and the old lady in the horn spectacles behind the counter hailed him eagerly as an old acquaintance.
"Bless me if it ain't Mr. Bly," she exclaimed, "How be you, sir? Come down to see the captain again, yes, yes."
Bly sprawled over the counter talking in his most genial manner. Then gradually he contrived to lead the gossip into the channel he desired. Has Mrs. Lacy a general post office directory by any chance? He wanted the telegraphic registered address of a firm in London whose code he had forgotten. It was a long address, and he didn't want to waste money on superfluous words. Mrs. Lacey had unfortunately nothing of the kind but she was in sympathy with what Mr. Bly was asking for. And surely some of those addresses were strange reading. The captain—meaning House—sent off some funny ones now and then. But there was one gentleman who came in a few days ago and sent off a telegram, to a place in London with a registered address that fairly gave the good-natured old gossip the creeps. Of course she ought not to talk about it, but then Mr. Bly was different to most people, and he would not mention the fact. But the man she was speaking of had actually sent a wire addressed to 'Bloodshed, London.' Fairly made her creep, it did.
"What sort of a man?" Bly asked with a quizzical smile. "Did he look like a pirate? Was he armed?"
Bly's tone was jocular, but he was really interested.
"You're a rare gentleman for your joke," the old lady laughed. "I couldn't rightly say, sir. In motoring things, he were, and them goggles. And he sent that telegram, he did."
It was all quite wrong, of course, but Bly stayed there until he had contrived to have a good look at the original copy of the wire addressed to 'Bloodshed, London.' With the thin spidery writing clearly photographed on his mental retina, he strolled back to the house shortly before lunch time, just as Milton was crossing the tennis lawn on his way back from the alcove on the edge of the cliffs where he had presumedly been working. Bly retraced his steps until he came to the secluded spot which was immediately behind the range of glass houses, originally an aviary, where House kept his snakes and the few South American animals that formed his menagerie. In the alcove was a newspaper or two, and some sheets of original manuscript which Bly rightly judged to be in Milton's handwriting. He smiled in a pleased manner as he unblushingly read the poem on which the budding genius had been working. Then he folded up one of the newspapers and placed it in his pocket.
A little way off, Rogers was at work. He looked up and touched his hat as Bly approached. These two were old friends, and had been in many a tight place in the bad lands of unexplored Brazil together.
"Very pleased to see you again, sir," Rogers said. "We've lost one of them snakes of yours, I'm sorry to say, sir."
"Ah, so Mr. House told me. It's rather a pity, seeing that the Martinique blindworm is practically unique. I understand that you found the other one. I wouldn't give it up yet, Rogers."
"I haven't, sir," Rogers said. "He's probably hiding in the long mossy grass by the alcove. We haven't had any rain for over a month, and Sally, as I call her, must have moisture. She could snuggle down in that thick moss and hide for days, but when the rain comes she'll come back to be fed; that's if she's alive still."
Rogers moved off to his work, and for a moment Bly stood earnestly regarding the small square of thick mossy turf in front of the alcove. Undoubtedly the blindworm had come that way, when it had escaped, in preference to crossing the asphalt that surrounded the menagerie on the other three sides, and doubtless, had buried itself in the thick carpet of moss that underlay the course turf. Then Bly's keen trained eye made out the grooved track the snake had made in crossing the open ground. The track stopped suddenly and vanished underground. Prone on his face, Bly fumbled in the moss and parted it carefully with his fingers, using them as a comb. In the sunshine something glistened like a thin piece of rope made of gold and shimmering blue and emerald. Then there was a hiatus of an inch or two, and then the jewelled rope began again, to end once more some twelve inches further on in nothing. It was like a string of jewels on a broken thread, fractured in three places. But only eyes as keen as those of Bly would have detected it.
He gently touched the severed edges, and at the same time was careful not to move them. In that moment a fine flash of illumination had come to him, and, if he were not altogether mistaken, he had not only solved the mystery of the missing diary, but found the thief at the same time. It was one of those instances of luck that generally go to the man with the intimate knowledge.
It was nearly teatime before Bly had his chance to speak to his host alone in the library.
"Well," the latter asked eagerly, "I could see that you were on to something by the look in your eye when you came in to lunch. Mean to say that you have got to the bottom of it?"
"I believe I have," Bly said modestly. "But I can tell you more about that when I have had a look at your copy of the post office directory of registered telegraphic addresses. After that I want a strip of thin cardboard about a foot long and some three inches wide. Yes, I think that the diary is safe now."
House asked no questions. He knew Bly better than that. He produced the book that Bly required, and waited for further instructions. They were not long in coming.
"Look up 'Bloodshed, London,'" Bly snapped. "I think that they will prove to be old friends of yours."
"Mason, Blood, and Evershed," House announced presently. "That's the firm that Mason is head of. And a very fine nom de plume, too. Is this what you expected to get?"
"I should have been a bit sick otherwise," Bly said drily. "About a week ago somebody staying in this house sent a wire to Mason addressed to his firm, to the effect that the sender was staying in these parts for the present, and that he would communicate through the usual channel, but 'Bloodshed, London,' was on no account to try and reach the party who sent the wire from here. I know what I am talking about because I have seen the original wire, thanks to my friendship with Mrs. Lacy, of the post office. Now which of the men who are staying here arrived on a motor cycle?"
"Swainson did over a week ago, his wife coming by train. Mil—arrived here the same night, and so did Haines."
"Is the poet man enough to mount a petrol driven machine?"
"Yen, I think he had Swainson's out one morning for an hour just after he came," House explained, "But why?"
"All in good time," Bly laughed. "Now get me that piece of cardboard, and go back to your guests again as if nothing had happened. If I am successful, just before dinner, as I expect to be, I will give you the tip and directly after dinner I want you to join me in the library for a few minutes. So long."
Bly vanished with his slip of cardboard, and House was left to possess his soul in patience as best he could. But in due course, he caught a triumphant gleam in Bly's eye and joined him in the library, leaving the guests enjoying their after dinner smoke on the terrace. Bly said nothing, but pointed to a square object on the table, a tin box that had apparently just been dug out of the wet ground. House gasped in astonishment.
"The diary!" he gurgled. "Good Lord, Bly, how—?
"Presently," Bly smiled. "Meanwhile there is something else to be done. Ask the poet to come this way."
House beckoned to Milton through the open French window, and that individual drifted in with his inane smile and the usual suggestion of aloof superiority that marked him always. But, as his shallow blue eyes lighted on the tin case on the library table in the direction of the door, it was a different man altogether who turned a fighting face towards Bly. The dilletante had vanished, a man of action suddenly stood in his place.
"No, you don't," Bly said between his teeth. "You stay here if you want to keep a whole skin, my friend. Now then—how long has your name been Aubrey Milton, and how did you contrive to get that forged reference from the late Mr. Brightwell, of Sydney? Come, you know what I mean—the letter of introduction that gave you the entree into this house?"
"Really, I don't understand you," Milton drawled. "Mr. Brightwell was an old friend of my father's and I stayed with him in Australia. If you doubt my bona fides—"
"We will come to that presently," Bly said grimly. "In the meantime, let me ask you a further question. And don't forget that I am in a position to force a reply. How long have you been in the pay of Mr. George Mason, of the firm of Mason, Blood, and Evershed? What did he offer you in exchange for Mr. House's diary?"
"Never heard of the man," Milton said indifferently.
Bly turned with a look almost of regret to House.
"Very sorry," he murmured, "but I am afraid that we shall have to make a police matter of this after all. You'll have to give this man into custody, House. Of course you want to avoid a scandal, but there are limits. I'll look after this chap whilst you call up the police at Brighton on the telephone."
Milton wilted slightly. But he was game still, and in spite of it all Bly respected the new Milton far more than the old one.
"Think again," Bly said almost pleasantly, "think again."
"Well, put your cards on the table," Milton snapped.
"Right. About a week ago, just after you got here, you sent a wire to Mason, the scoundrel who is trying to ruin your host, the effect that you were safely landed here and would communicate in due course, but that Mason was not to try and get you here. You borrowed Mr. Swainson's mackintoshes and goggles, so that the sender of the message should not be recognised, but you wouldn't deny your own handwriting on the message. Then you managed to get hold of that diary, which Mason had heard of through the treachery of a clerk once in our employ, and very cleverly you did it. You are a brilliant psychologist, Mr. Milton. And your acting is uncommonly neat. Most men would have bolted with the diary, but you knew better than that. You hid it instead, waiting for the thing to blow over. And I found it by the merest accident in the world."
"So I see," Milton said quite pleasantly. "You are too many for me, Mr. Bly. I am on Mason's staff, and I volunteered to lay hands on the diary, which would have meant a fortune to the firm. Incidentally, perhaps one for myself. But how on earth—?"
"Heard enough, House?" Bly interrupted. "Better pitch this chap out, and tell the others he was suddenly called away. Motor him over to Brighton, what?"
Milton departed presently, unconcerned to the last and quite without shame. He had failed in his mission when on the very verge of success, and that was the one thing that worried his predatory soul. He was easy and smiling to the last, and seemed to bear no malice. There was something almost fine in the way in which he asked House to convey his regrets to the others that he had not the time to make his own adieux.
"Well, there's a pretty scoundrel for you," House cried.
"Let's hope it will be the last," Bly smiled. "My dear old chap, you have a perfect magnetism for the average rotter. They come round you like flies. And you are no fool either. Any rascal can get the tale over you. I can call to mind a score of Miltons."
"Never mind about that," House grinned. "Tell me how you managed to touch bottom over this business."
"It wasn't very difficult up to a certain point," Bly said as he lighted a cigarette. "Moreover, I had luck. And I didn't suspect Milton at first because he played his idiotic part so well that he fairly deceived me. But somebody in the house was pulling the strings, and somebody in the house was in possession of the diary. From the precautions you took it was obvious that the book was still on the premises. All the same, I thought that I could get something from old Mrs. Lacey, at the post office, and I did. I found out that somebody in these parts had sent a wire to 'Bloodshed, London,' which turned out on investigation to be Mason, Blood, and Evershed, the people we have most to fear. I contrived to see the original of that telegram, and made a mental photograph of the handwriting. A little later on, in the alcove where our ci devant poet worked, I found some of his manuscript. It was the handwriting of the telegram. That, of course, was blind luck. So was the finding in the same place of the copy of the 'Financial Post' you couldn't lay your hands on. So there was the thief properly earmarked."
"But how about the diary?" House demanded eagerly.
"I'm just coming to that," Bly went on. "I knew then who had the diary. That was something to the good. Then I ran into Rogers, who told me all about the missing Martinique blindworm. The other one had been found in the moss on the open patch by the alcove. It occurred to me that perhaps the mate was lying perdu in the damp, so I had a look for it. I found the track, and then as suddenly lost it. Then I found the worm dead, and, moreover, cut into three pieces with some blunt instrument, probably a spade. After it had buried itself in the moss, somebody had plunged a spade into the turf for some reason, not once, but at least three times. Why? To dig a hole. Why did somebody want to dig a hole there? It came on me like a flash. To bury the diary there. Close to the spot where Milton passed most of his time. I should never have found the snake, only the brilliant sunshine was full upon the place, and I just caught a glimpse of the glittering gaudy skin. Then with my strip of cardboard, I felt for the slender parting in the mossy turf, where the spade had done its work, and, surely enough, the cardboard went in quite easily. Up came the loose covering of moss, and there in a hollow lay the diary in its tin case. Of course, Milton had no idea, when using his spade, that he was cutting through one of the rarest snakes in the world. And the blindworm was too deep in the moss for him to see it wriggling, or, perhaps he was nervous and in a desperate hurry. And that's all there is to it, partner."