GERALD NETTLESHIP, private inquiry agent and general investigator, pending a promised appointment in connection with the Secret Service, and whilom a public schoolboy, regarded his pretty wife Ella with frank admiration. For she apparently had solved part of the problem that was worrying him sorely. If they could get hold of this five hundred pounds then the matter of the furnished flat they so greatly coveted would be solved, and they would have a house of their own instead of passing the approaching Christmas in lodgings. It had to be a cash transaction because the outgoing tenant—a friend of Nettleship's—was an Australian returning to his ranch after the war, and wanted the money. And Ella Nettleship was explaining how the desired sum might be obtained, and because she too had earned her living, till Gerald married her, in a private detective office, he listened with all due respect. He had been away in Manchester on business for the last week, and this new development had come as a startling surprise to him.
"Directly I read the notice in the Times," she said, "I went round and saw Sir Percival Kennelly at once. Very fortunately he was at home, and when I told him who you were and what we were both doing he was awfully nice—quite a dear, in fact? He at once agreed to give us a chance of getting to the bottom of the mystery, and offered a voluntary fifty pounds towards expenses. So, as you were away, I went down to The Grange at Overstrands and put in two days, investigating matters. And I believe, I really believe, Gerry dear, that I am on the track of the miscreants. As to the occult side of the mystery, we can rule that out at once."
"Of course," Nettleship laughed. "By Jove, 500 pounds reward! And nothing much in the way of expense. Good Heavens! I'd like to see you presiding over the turkey in our own flat at Christmas. Would you mind running over the details once more, Ellie?"
Ella proceeded to explain that the Grange at Overstrands was the property of Sir Percival Kennelly, a somewhat impoverished Baronet, who owned some considerable property on the East Coast, where he had sunk all he could raise in a golf course that had splendid possibilities, and that he was using the Grange as a dormy house in connection with the golf course, and he had obtained a license to sell all kinds of drinks. Until the course was perfect, and he could devote the beautiful old Grange for the use of golfers alone, he ran it as an ordinary public-house, with a bar where anybody could procure liquid refreshment. The house was in charge of a steward called Chiffner, an old retainer, who was quite beyond suspicion, and yet for some time past the most extraordinary things had been happening in the bedrooms of the old house after the golfing guests had retired for the night, so that the place was getting a bad name, and it looked as if much harm was being done to the links that a little time back appeared likely to become so popular. As this was a serious matter to Sir Percival, he had offered the reward of 500 pounds in the Times to any one who could solve the mystery. And before calling in the police he had offered Ella Nettleship a chance of earning the money wherewith to consummate the dream of spending the forthcoming Christmas in the flat upon which her heart was set.
So she had gone down to Overstrands ostensibly as a golfer, and had spent two nights in the Grange, where she had made her business known to the steward Chiffner, whom her detective instinct told her that she could implicitly trust. And there she ascertained that all the trouble arose in Room Five, and nowhere else. And in Room Five, sooner or later, Ella was going to pass the night. It was in this ancient apartment with its old portraits and pictures that the series of outrages had taken place. There were stories of ghosts and shadowy figures in the dead of night, and tales of visitors frightened out of their wits, to say nothing of various valuables missing, all of which was playing the very deuce with the golf club. And on no occasion had the locked door of Room Five been tampered with.
"What's the next move?" Nettleship asked, when he had mastered the story. "Shall we go down there in Christmas week on the suggestion of playing golf, and put up at the Grange? And why not engage Room Number Five, and see what is likely to happen?"
"Do you know," Ella murmured, "that is exactly what I thought of doing, but not quite in the way that you mean. We shan't eat our turkey in the flat this Yuletide, after all, but we shall have the money to take the flat over before Sladen starts for Australia, which will come to the same thing. No, we'll go down to the Grange on Christmas Eve, arriving very late—too late, in fact, to book a room at the hotel there, because they will have all gone. And I go on alone in a car, reaching the Grange about 11 o'clock. I tell Chiffner, who is more or less in my confidence, that I have had a breakdown, and he puts me in the haunted room for the night. In fact, that is all arranged with Chiffner."
"And what about me?" Nettleship asked.
"Oh, yes, I am expecting to meet my husband there, but he had been detained, and will probably get down by another car some time before morning. Now, mind, I have been in practically every bedroom of the Grange, and have taken measurements, and in Room Five I found that it is, without apparent reason, some nine feet narrower than the others in the same wing. What do you make of that?"
"Sounds like a clue," Nettleship muttered. "Is the place lighted by electricity, and does the haunted bedroom, where you are going to wait for me, boast an electric bell?"
Ella explained that there was no modern lighting, and that the bell was a pneumatic one with a long flex over the bed. So that if anything happened when she was supposed to be sleeping in the haunted room a ring at the bell would bring Nettleship hot-foot to her assistance. He would have to arrange to be hidden in the bar after the general company there had departed, all of which could be done with the connivance of the faithful Chiffner. With an arrangement like this Ella declared that she would be quite safe in Room Number Five if the 'ghost' in search of valuables made a raid on the mystery room in the night, as he was pretty sure to do when the apartment was occupied. So it was eventually arranged that Nettleship should go down to Overstrands under the pretence of golf and spy out the land.
And this he did, and as it was midweek found little difficulty in obtaining a room in the Grange itself. There he made friends with Chiffner, who, of course, was already in Ella's confidence. He played a little golf, but contented himself with asking a good many questions about people in the neighbourhood, especially such locals as made use of the public bar, which the owner of the Grange still retained until he had all his arrangements made.
Nettleship was looking over his 'Evening News' on the following afternoon, when he read something that brought him up all standing. "Have a look at this," he cried. "More trouble at the Grange last night. But read it for yourself."
Ella snatched up the paper and read as follows: "We have to report another mysterious occurrence at the Grange, Overstrands. Last night a travelling American on a golfing holiday presented himself at the Grange, there being only one room unoccupied, and that the mysterious Room Five, expressed himself anxious to sleep there, and that the story had no terrors for him. Moreover, he proclaimed the fact that he was armed, and an expert with a revolver. Two hours after he had retired, the steward was aroused by loud groans that appeared to proceed from the haunted chamber. On bursting the door open the unfortunate American was found unconscious, with a wound over his left breast. Up to the time of going to press, he had not recovered consciousness, and his condition is considered critical."
"What do you think of that?" Nettleship asked. "My dear girl, you really must not face a risk like that."
But Ella was obdurate. She was going through it now, whatever happened, and she pointed out the fact that no such surprise could possibly overtake her. It was shortly before ten o'clock on Christmas Eve, therefore, that an imperious lady, giving the name of Somerset, arrived at The Grange in a car, and explained in a haughty way that she had been delayed on the road by an accident. The steward was apologetic, and declared he had no room to spare, except the notorious Number Five, and that he could not expect the lady, in the circumstances, to take that.
"What nonsense," the visitor cried, "show me up to the room at once. Put my golf bag in the corner there, and carry my dressing-bag and jewel case upstairs."
Chiffner protested, all in vain, and presently the door of Room Five closed on the imperious lady, who was not seen again. Down in the bar a little later, the habitues were filing out through the front door. Just as this was closing on them a man walked in, as if he were a guest there, and followed the steward eagerly into the deserted bar.
"Well, Chiffner," he demanded, "how is everything going? I suppose my wife turned up?"
"That's all right, sir," Chiffner said. "Mrs. Nettleship, otherwise Mrs. Somerset, is up in her bedroom. It all worked beautifully. Everybody in the bar heard the conversation, especially the bit about the jewel-case."
"And what about your American visitor?" Nettleship asked. "Is he still here?"
Chiffner explained that the unfortunate man had been taken away in an ambulance, and that he was still unconscious.
"'I am very sorry to hear that," Nettleship said. "But we are near the end of the trouble. Now then, get all your servants off to bed, and we will sit here until the bell rings. I should think that might be in about an hour. I don't suppose the man we are after will wait longer than that. Of course, he was in the bar when my wife arrived, and he won't be able to resist the lure of that jewel case."
But more than an hour elapsed, and a clock outside was striking one when there came quick metallic ripple, and the little red star, bearing the number five on the indicator, agitated violently. Nettleship jumped to his feet, which he had encased in rubber-soled shoes, and raced up the staircase, until he stood outside number five. Chiffner, who followed, remained as directed, at the head of the stairs, whilst Nettleship gently pushed the door open an inch or two. That it was not properly closed was part of the programme.
Meanwhile, Ella had gone to bed gaily enough, and she proceeded more or less leisurely to set out her toilette-table and open her dressing-case. The jewels—theatrical, specially borrowed for the occasion—were placed somewhat ostentatiously on a side table between the two windows. By the feeble light of a couple of candles she glanced carelessly about her. The fire, which had been lighted, had nearly gone out, nor did Ella make an attempt to restore the cheerful blaze. She looked round the room, with its fine oak panelling, and the half-length portraits let into the walls, and, even with her fine courage and resolution, she shivered slightly as she saw the sombre eyes of a certain Sir Godfrey Kennelly apparently turned upon her with a reproachful gleam. But she recovered quickly enough, for she was not there to worry about dead-and-gone Kennellys, so she proceeded leisurely to remove her dress and let down her hair. It was a bit strange, perhaps, in doing this that she stood close against the wall, right under the portrait of the famous Sir Godfrey, and then, instead of removing the rest of her clothing, she donned a nightdress over the costume she was wearing, and, with every semblance of being ready for the night, threw herself on the bed and blew out the candle.
And there for an hour or more she lay in the pitch darkness pondering over the situation, and quite ready and eager for what was going to happen next. All this time she held in her right hand a little silver-plated revolver, and in the hollow of her left palm she gently caressed the bulb of the pneumatic bell.
She was not in the least frightened, but merely strung up and ready for instant action. She knew that her husband was downstairs, because she had heard the bolt of the front door shot home twice, which was the signal to her that Nettleship put in an appearance, as arranged. And, moreover, according to plan, the bedroom door was not quite closed, and, from time to time she could just catch the sound of voices below. Gradually, as she lay there, with her eyes wide open, and her senses keyed up to the highest point, she began to make out, in the very dim light, the outline of certain objects in the bedroom. And so she lay there, until she began to be haunted with an uneasy dread that all these delicately laid plans were going to miscarry. Was it possible, perhaps, that 'the ghost' might be afraid to try another coup so soon after the successful raid on the unfortunate American?
And just when Ella was beginning to make up her mind that the solution of the mystery would have to be postponed, there came a slight noise that might have been made by a rat behind the wainscot, and, after that, somewhere about the place where she judged the portrait of Sir Godfrey to be, two tiny points of brilliant flame radiated into the room, thin and keen, like a pair of lances. They moved slowly, much as slender searchlights might have done, Ella caught sight of them, all that fine courage and resolution returned.
Here were the eyes, those sinister eyes looking out from the notorious portrait as more than one unfortunate occupant of the room had professed to see them. And those eyes had been responsible for more than one tragedy. But upon this occasion, however, they were exercising no hypnotic effect upon the woman who lay there watching them from the bed. As Ella lay perfectly still, watching intently, the eyes moved lower down, until they remained some five feet or so from the oak-panelled wall. It was only just for a moment that they seemed to hesitate there, for they advanced slowly into the room, and swept with brilliant intensity across the bed.
Ella Nettleship, with half-veiled eyes, lay as still as death until the lights were switched off in the direction of the dressing-table. Here they concentrated for a second or two, and it seemed to Ella that she could see a hand stretched out in the direction of her jewel case. Evidently she was not wrong, for she saw the lure lifted from the table, and, with that, she gently pressed the bulb in the palm of her hand.
Then she lay perfectly still for possibly ten seconds before she heard the door of the bedroom creak, and it seemed to her that she could catch the sound of her husband's heavy breathing. And if she were right, it was up to him now to do the rest. Then something whizzed across the room, there came a choking sort of cry from the direction of the dressing table, and, after a short struggle, a mighty object collapsed with a dull thud on the floor. Followed a rush across the room, and a heavy impact as two bodies came together, and immediately there was a grunt and a groan as the intruder and the newcomer grappled with one another. A curse broke out of somewhere in the centre of the velvety darkness, and then another cry that seemed to be squeezed out of the centre of the gloom with more groans that stopped suddenly in the midst of a heavy fall. But assuredly those curses did not proceed from Nettleship's lips, and with this comfortable feeling, Ella reached out her hand for the box of matches on the little table by the side of the bed, and lighted her pair of candles.
As the flare lifted and dimly illuminated the room, Ella saw a strange sight. A man was lying on the floor by the dressing-table with Nettleship standing over him. Around the unfortunate intruder's neck was a cord, at the end of which were two brass balls that seemed to be twisted so tightly that the man lying there could barely breathe. But be that as it might, he was absolutely helpless, and Nettleship, breathing heavily, was bending over him with the air of a conqueror.
"You can get up, Ella," he gasped triumphantly. "I've got him all right. That was a real lucky shot of mine with a lasso. I could just make out the shape of his head in the gleam of those little torches that he has fastened to his mask, and I chanced it. So you see that my two years amongst the Texas cowboys were not wasted. Here, come along, Chiffner."
The steward came promptly enough, for, standing outside, he had heard all that was going on. He helped to remove the choking lasso from the throat of the man lying there, and lifted him to his feet. He cried out suddenly, "Gaylor!" he exclaimed. "It's Jim Gaylor."
"Ah, precisely as I had expected," Nettleship exclaimed. "Ella, this is Mr. James Gaylor, the son of the late baronet's butler. A regular bad lot, and only recently back in the neighbourhood after a long term of penal servitude. When I learnt this fact from Chiffner, I was pretty sure who was at the bottom of all the trouble. I can't understand why they didn't suspect it before. You see, as he was born here, he must have known all about the house and the secret passage leading from the back of the old monastery to the back of this room."
"I didn't know it, sir," Chiffner said.
"Well, as you have only recently come here to look after the place, how should you? You are quite right, Ella, when you said there was a missing space of eight feet, and that is right behind Sir Godfrey's portrait, which is painted on a sliding panel. This chap knew all about it, and very good use of his knowledge he has made. All these months he has been able to play the ghost of the haunted room, and well he has done it, for he has done no work since he came out of gaol, and he seems to have had plenty of money to spend in the bar downstairs. He hung about there, night after night, waiting for some one to take Room Five, and once he knew that a visitor was there, then the rest was easy. Chiffner, you had better telephone to the police station. I can look after this man till you come back."
The unfortunate Gaylor seemed to be taking no interest in the proceedings. He lay on the floor, weak and helpless, and evidently still suffering deeply from the cruel pressure of the lasso about his throat.
Ella smiled up into her husband's face,
"You have done splendidly," she said.
"Well, in a way I have," Nettleship said. "But most of the credit belongs to you. It was you who found out all about that missing space, and gave me the clue to the secret entrance to the house. Well, I managed to find that, and when I discovered that one of the men who came to drink here was the son of the late baronet's butler it seemed to me that I knew exactly where to put my hand on the criminal. You see, he was just the sort of man to know all about the mysteries of the house, and his past made him suspect. Now, let's get him out of the way, and go quietly to bed. This ought to be a rattling good Christmas for us, and when it is over we'll just go back to London and get into that little flat of ours without further delay."