Roy Glashan's Library
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"THE GOLD KIMONO" is one of four "lost" Peter Cheyney novels recently discovered in the digital newspaper archives of the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand. The titles of the other three are: "Death Chair," "The Sign on the Roof" and "The Vengeance of Hop Fi."
In 1937 the British magazine Detective Weekly published three short novels with the titles "The Gold Kimono," "The Mark of Hop Fi" and "The Riddle of the Strange Last Words," all under the by-line "Stephen Law," which is evidently a pseudonym used by Peter Cheyney. The first of these works is a version (presumably abridged) of the serial published in Australia and New Zealand.
The text used to create the present RGL version of "The Gold Kimono" appeared in The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, between October 5 and December 28, 1930. Typographical, OCR and other obvious errors have been corrected without comment.
Thanks go to the Australian bibliophile Terry Walker for processing the digital newspaper image files of the serial used to make this e-book.
—Roy Glashan, May 1, 2017
JOSIAH PEABODY, swinging along the cliff top running from Stranover to Hetton-on-the-Strand, noticed events only subconsciously. His conscious mind was much too busy to be aware of little things.
The sea mist, which had already enveloped the smooth sands; the few spots of rain which were falling—large occasional spots heralding a storm; the gusty wind, which, for the moment, was holding up the rain; all these things were to him only vague things.
Also, he was too familiar with his surroundings to be interested in them, for many week-ends during the year found Josiah Peabody on the Stranover-Hetton cliff road. Often he wondered why he did it, why he was so attracted to the lonely road and why he did not allow the unfortunate past to die as so many other things had died.
Kenkins, that medical materialist, had had the effrontery to voice this thought. Peabody had said nothing. He had only looked at Kenkins with his usual quiet smile, and that worthy possessed sufficient tact to leave the subject well alone. After that Kenkins kept his thoughts to himself. In any event he had little use for women.
O'Farrel understood. It was entirely plain to the nervously instinctive O'Farrel why this tall quiet man whose name was the only incongruous thing about him and whose inevitable smile served as a very effective mask for despair, wandered about the moorland roads which run across the country between Stranover, Hetton, Salthaven and the sea. When one says nothing one must needs think.
Peabody said nothing, and his thoughts came easier in these lonely places, where he conned over the things which had happened there, and vainly tried to arrive at some logical conclusion.
And a logical conclusion was impossible. Peabody realised that. There would never be an explanation. O'Farrel, on one occasion, heartened by a strange burst of confidence from Peabody, who, almost at breaking point, had actually broached the subject—O'Farrel had put the thing plainly.
"Why shouldn't she disappear, Peabody?" he had said. "There was every reason for it! Consider the matter from a proper point of view. Here you are in North Russia, a temporary Engineer Captain, serving at the fag end of a good looking war. Suddenly, there appears a woman. Very beautiful, very fascinating. She says she is running from the Bolsheviks. You believe her. She says that her entire family, with the exception of a brother who is a prisoner in Moscow, have been murdered by the said Bolsheviks. You believe her. She says she loves you. You not only believe her, but you also marry her on the strength of it, there and then. You return to England and you are demobilised. You plan a honeymoon, and you go to Stranover. Then, two weeks afterwards your wife disappears with all the loose change she can lay her fingers on. Well, why shouldn't it happen? The whole business has been so illogical that the ending was in keeping with the beginning. You knew nothing about her except what she told you. You know nothing about her now. Forget her, my Josiah. There are lots of other women in the world, besides which you are inclined to be a good-looking man, and they like strong, quiet specimens like you, my bucko! She may appear again, quite possibly. If she does I hope you don't meet her, that's all, for in your present state of mind you'd be at her mercy again. She'd have you on the end of a little string, my Josiah. Besides, how do you know that she hasn't got husbands all over the world. Very probable, I think!"
Deep in his heart Peabody thought that O'Farrel might be right. But it had been impossible to forget her. Wandering along the road, he had picked out spots where they had rested on long walks. Spots where they had picnicked. He had to remember. Peabody had, from boyhood, repressed every obvious emotion to such an extent that now he was quite unable to realise that whether the woman was good, bad, or indifferent, she was entirely necessary to him, that he loved her. To have admitted this to himself would have been emotional, and Peabody was never that.
To his left, over the wide stretches of moorland running back to Salthaven and the bleak hills beyond, the black clouds were flying. A heavy gust of wind flung the sodden leaves over the asphalt road. Peabody strode on, his pipe empty between his teeth, still thinking, still trying to worry something out. The rain, falling more quickly now, blew into his face and stung.
Further down, a narrow bye-road ran off across the moor, the road to Salthaven. Some way down this bye-road, standing within a rickety fence, he could discern in the mist the blurry outline of Sepach Farm, which he had intended should be the limit of his walk.
Sepach Farm interested him to-day. A square, two-storey building, deserted, and locally reputed haunted, the desolate place seemed in some way to fit into his mood. Life seemed rather like Sepach Farm, thought Peabody.
They had never entered the farm, but on one grey day—a day not unlike this, they had sheltered from the rain under the wide window-ledge of the low, first storey window. She had joked about the English weather....
From behind him somebody called, breaking into his meditation. Peabody stopped and looked round. Walking towards him he saw a short thick-set and florid-looking individual, wearing a well-cut suit of brown plus-fours and a cheerful smile. He was puffing, and seemed a little out of breath. Peabody wondered where he had sprung from. He had noticed no one on the road previously, but he surmised that the individual in plus-fours might have been on the moor behind the hedge which bordered the land side of the road.
As Plus-Fours approached he knocked out a stubby little pipe—rather like himself, that pipe, thought Peabody—against the palm of his hand.
"Sorry to interrupt your walk," said the stranger, "but does your name happen to be Truesmith?"
Peabody shook his head. "Sorry. It isn't," he said, with his usual smile.
"Ah," said Plus-Fours, "that's bad luck. I'm very keen to find a fellow called Truesmith. Expecting him to be about this part of the world to-day. Going far?" he inquired pleasantly, refilling his pipe.
"Just walking," said Peabody.
"Good exercise," said Plus-Fours. "Good exercise. Well, I'll be getting back, I think. Tea and crumpets. Thought of going to the Turkish Café, but I think I'll walk back to Stranover. I don't think I'm too keen on the Turkish Café. Are you?"
"Never been there," said Peabody.
"Haven't you, though?" said Plus-Fours. "I suppose you don't belong round here, although why anyone should notice the place I don't know, stuck away as it is on that ledge of cliff. Funny idea building the place at all. You don't know who it belongs to, I suppose?"
"No, I don't," said Peabody. He was still smiling, but his brain was rather seriously concerned with the gentleman in plus-fours. Somehow, to Peabody, there seemed some definite purpose in the conversation.
Why should he be Truesmith? The original question seemed to Peabody to constitute simply an excuse, but the following questions and the remarks about the Turkish Café surely had some motive other than idle curiosity? It was raining steadily now, and is was hardly usual for two strangers to stand in a rainstorm and talk about nothing.
"You can't have been down here lately," said Plus-Fours. "The Turkish Café is along the road here, on a sort of gallery cut in the cliff face. They meant it for a shelter at first, I think, and then someone bought it and turned it into a café. Funny idea. Very few people come far along this road unless they're going to Hetton, and people who go to Hetton aren't usually the people who want to drink tea. Of course, in the summer there are a few visitors. Ever come down here to the summer? You don't? Not a bad spot if the weather is all right."
Plus-Fours smiled amiably at Peabody. He looked rather like a big child, and a raindrop running down his nose gave him a peculiarly humorous appearance.
"Well, well, I'll be getting back to Stranover," he said. "You'll be pretty wet won't you," he added. "There's nowhere about here to shelter except the café, or at Sepach Farm... neither of 'em very attractive, I must say!"
"I don't mind rain," said Peabody.
"Quite," said Plus-Fours airily. "I think it's quite nice sometimes. We get too much of it in this country though. Well... good afternoon."
He nodded and, turning about, walked off abruptly. Peabody stood still until the mist had swallowed the gentleman in plus-fours. Then he turned and continued his walk.
SO somebody had started a café in a gallery cut into the cliff face? Peabody thought that Plus-Fours seemed extremely interested in this fact. He wondered whether he spent his afternoons hanging about the Stranover-Hetton road and talking to odd people about odd things.
About him the telephone wires on the left of the road whistled and sang in the weird way that telephone wires do. Peabody didn't like the sound. It reminded him of the ray and he did not like thinking about the ray.
He hated it because it constituted a motive. He wanted it to be forgotten like the rest of the business. If O'Farrel had known about the ray... if Peabody had told him that during that short honeymoon he had explained the ray to her, shown her the model, elucidated the various technical points. If O'Farrel had known this...
Peabody could picture him, could almost bear the words accompanied by O'Farrel's cynically humorous smile; could see the sudden halt in the reckless walk up and down the room.
"So that's why she went," O'Farrel would have said. "The logical explanation, my Josiah, at last! There always is one, you know. So the little Russian aristo who was on the run from the Bolsheviks and who married our Josiah, disappeared after, immediately after, little Josiah had explained all about the ray to her. Oh, ho! Of course she couldn't have heard of that ray before she married Josiah, could she? You poor chump! Haven't you heard that no government in the history of the world had ever made such wonderful use of women's beauty for the acquisitions of other people's secrets as our Soviet friends. And little Josiah fell for it!"
But O'Farrel did not know. He knew nothing of the existence of the ray. Peabody wondered whether he should have told O'Farrel about Irma knowing and understanding about the ray. In spite of the cynical humour, O'Farrel's advice was often worth having. And he knew women too, slightly too well (so he said). Peabody asked himself what O'Farrel's advice would have been. Of course he would have jumped at the ray as being the motive for the whole thing.
Was it the motive? The question had burned in Peabody's brain for years. Once more he began to add his facts, for and against. Suppose they had heard of the invention, somehow. Then it was quite natural that they should try and obtain it by any means. But would the events have worked out exactly as they had.
They didn't know he was going to marry her. Besides, he, himself, did not know that the ray was usable, practical. He had heard nothing from the British Government who had had the whole thing put up to them years ago, and who had said that if experiments proved successful he would be required for further tests.
He had heard nothing at all, and inquiry, recent inquiry, had evoked the same answer. But it was a motive, a very logical motive.
Peabody bit into the mouthpiece of his pipe and walked on. He was soaked through, for the rain was teeming down now.
On the seaside the mist was less heavy. In front of him, a few yards away, almost opposite the bye-road to Salthaven, he could see the upper part of a house showing over the cliff edge. He realised that it must be the Turkish Café, the café which the man in plus-fours had explained was built on a gallery cut into the cliff face.
Peabody was almost relieved to think about it. He wanted to think about anything but the ray and Irma. He would go there and have tea. As this thought struck him he became aware that he was not alone on the road, for a few yards in front of him on the moor side, a tall round-shouldered figure was moving, a figure whose head was sunk forward so that the man must have been walking looking always about a foot in front of his own feet, slouching along with its hands sunk into the pockets of a dingy green overcoat that cleared the ground only by a few inches.
Diagonally opposite to Peabody, he moved along with a peculiar restlessness showing in his gait. The restlessness of a man who is keen to get somewhere and lacks the necessary strength to hurry. The soft brown hat, pulled over the brow, was dilapidated, and his boots looked like two squelchy lumps which dragged themselves along the road in a weird and jerky manner.
Together they approached the bye-road to Salthaven. Peabody seemed certain that the man in the green overcoat would turn up the road. He wondered why the man had not cut across the moor and saved himself the longer walk. Still, he might be going to Hetton. But Peabody illogically enough, was certain that Green Overcoat was not going to Hetton. He was certain that he would take the bye-road. Perhaps he was going to Sepach Farm, thought Peabody, and this line of thought reminded him again (for some unknown reason) of Plus-Fours and his childish smile and little chubby pipe.
Immediately following this idea came the thought that this man might be Truesmith. Peabody, impelled by some mysterious motive, quickened his steps and walked gradually across the road till he was a pace behind the man.
Green Overcoat, although he most have been aware of Peabody's proximity, took not the slightest notice.
Peabody spoke. "Excuse me," he said smiling as usual, "but does your name happen to be Truesmith?"
The man in the green overcoat stopped dead, and turned half round.
Peabody noticed the dark, ill-kept beard, the shaven face, and the eyes, dark rimmed, and cornered with the viscous fluid of premature senility, eyes which glittered. At the corner of the man's mouth, on the lip, there was a white particle. Peabody recognised it as a piece of dried sunflower seed. The man had been chewing sunflower seed—a Russian habit.
Peabody sensed immediately that the man was Russian, that the green overcoat which he was wearing was a Russian army coat, converted for civilian use. The man stood silently, his mouth working. Then he looked, at Peabody and deliberately, and with unmistakable venom, spat. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his band, and, almost with care, replaced the hand in the tattered overcoat pocket.
"I am not Truesmit'," he said slowly and harshly. "No, I am not Truesmit', Captain Peabody."
He looked straight at Peabody's eyes. Then spat once more, turned on his heel and walked off. Peabody watched him turn up the Salthaven road. The man did not look back, but Peabody knew, somehow instinctively, that the Russian was going to stop at Sepach Farm. He found himself wondering how he knew this fact, but it was a certain thing, settled definitely in his mind, that the Russian would stop at the farm, and Peabody developed quite suddenly an idea to go after him and talk to him.
The man in plus-fours and his silly chatter, and this tattered, green-coated, devilish-eyed man had started something between them. They had drawn him into—something. Peabody wondered, rather vaguely, if his nerves were going a bit.
He stood quite still in the rain. He felt uncomfortable and unhappy. He disliked the afternoon, the mist, the lonely road—everything. He disliked the forced and cheery conversation of the man in Plus-Fours and his airy discussion of the Turkish Café, but much more he disliked this tall, shabby specimen with the burning eyes, this dirty ill-kept man who possessed some sort of pride and who spat so venomously and deliberately.
But the thing which perturbed Peabody most of all was the knowledge that this man, this Russian, knew his name. How did he know that he was Captain Peabody? Peabody had dropped the rank years before demobilisation. No one ever called him Captain.
He stood there trying to think clearly about the afternoon, trying to arrive at some conclusion, realising, as be did so, that there was no conclusion to be arrived at, but wanting all the time to go on after Green Overcoat, who had disappeared up the Salthaven bye-road, and who was jerking along somewhere on the other side of the mist.
He looked towards the sea. The mist had cleared still more. Opposite him on the cliff edge was a balustrade of stone running down with the steps which led to the gallery on which the Turkish Café stood. A sign swung in the wind on an iron pole by the side of the steps with the words "Turkish Café" painted on it.
Peabody fought down his desire to go on to Sepach Farm, and turning, abruptly walked towards the steps. Peabody, half way down the steps which led to the oaken door of the café, congratulating himself on having definitely renounced the idea of going after Green Overcoat and thoroughly decided that he would forget both that gentleman and Plus-Fours, stopped suddenly.
He found himself confronted with something else which required explanation, and he was sick of trying to elucidate things.
There were half a dozen steps and a small entrance porch between him and the café door, and lying half over the bottom step and half in the entrance porch was a black georgette gown. The diamante buckle at the waist glimmered a little as Peabody, walking carefully, descended the remaining stairs.
He picked it up. It had been lying there for some time, for it was soaked with rain. Peabody wondered how it had got there, and why somebody had not picked it up. He stood before the door of the café, which was closed, holding the gown in his left hand, and biting his pipe stem. He imagined the humorous picture he would present, entering the café with a gown in his hand.
He stood listening. A sound came from within the café. After a moment Peabody recognised it. It was the sound of a woman sobbing. Hoarse, racking sobs. He felt terribly uncomfortable.
He dropped the gown and began to ascend the steps leading to the cliff road. He was scared. He had no desire to enter the café. He was not interested in any woman who had something to cry about, but as he walked up the stairs he had that horrible feeling of being trapped.
Wherever he went he would walk into something. If he went up the Salthaven road there was the possibility of meeting the Russian. Peabody was now thoroughly decided that he did not want to see the man in the green overcoat any more. On the other hand, if he took the road back to Stranover he felt certain that he would meet the man in plus-fours with his airy smile and (so they seemed) ominous questions; behind him, in the café, the place he had selected as a means of forgetting or escaping from the other two, something even more unpleasant was afoot.
Undecided, be descended the stairs again and gave the door a push. It was locked. That decided him. Every man, even a man of the Peabody stamp, is a little curious. He wanted to know what the georgette gown was doing, lying there possessing, he thought, some weird animation of its own, lying in front of this locked door behind which some woman was sobbing.
Peabody stepped back and then flung his shoulder against the door. The lock was rotten; with a splintering of wood the door crashed open. A heavy perfume came to Peabody's nostrils. He stood, transfixed, gazing at the weird sight which met his eyes.
A LONG room confronted him, and a not unattractive perfume greeted his nostrils. His eyes had not accustomed themselves to the gloom of the place when he saw something move.
A woman got up from the armchair in which she had been huddled, at the far end of the café. She turned and passed through the curtains which shadowed the other end so quickly that Peabody was unable to realise anything about her except that she was tall, and that she was wrapped in a gold kimono, which she held closely about her.
The hangings fell to behind her, and he stood wondering, sniffing the heavy perfume which abounded in the place and gazing about him.
His first thought was one of amazement that any sane person should construct and furnish in such outlandish fashion what he had supposed to be an ordinary seaside teashop. The hangings round the walls were of silk and velvet. The lamps, shaded, and throwing a dim and mysterious light about the place—a light which seemed to make more for grotesque shadows than illumination, were of Turkish design and, he thought, valuable. The floor, which was of stained oak was covered with thick, expensive rugs. In a corner, furthest from him, burned a brass brazier on a tripod. It was burning a perfume and the wraith of smoke which floated up from it brought back some old memory to Peabody. At the far end of the café a heavy velvet curtain covered the entire width of the wall, but on the right-hand side he could discern the shape of a circular flight of stairs leading up, he supposed, to the one floor above—the floor which would be above cliff-top level.
And it was up this flight of stairs that the woman, the train of her gold kimono trailing after her like a snake, had disappeared.
It never occurred to him to go after her, to question her. To Peabody, the satisfaction of his elementary sense of duty was enough. He had heard her sobbing. He had entered with the idea of finding out what was the matter, and of asking what the black georgette gown was doing lying out there in the rain. Well, she had seen him enter and she had gone. Obviously she did not want to talk to him. That was that. Peabody thought now, having regard to the rather weird atmosphere of the café, that he would prefer another encounter with Green Overcoat or Plus-Fours to a conversation with this lady in the kimono who had cause to sob so bitterly.
He turned and walked out of the café, closing the door carefully after him. Outside, he stood for a moment in the porch considering. Before him, on the ground where he had thrown it, lay the black georgette gown getting very adequately spoiled in the rain.
Peabody, leaning against the porch and refilling his pipe, took himself to task and considered the necessity of getting himself well in hand once more. He came to the conclusion that he was an old woman suffering from a bad attack of nerves. He had encountered three people on an afternoon walk—rather strange people, he granted, but then all people were, more or less, strange. It was quite on the cards that the man in plus-fours was one of those peculiarly garrulous people who will stop and talk to anybody, anywhere; one of those people who love the sound of their own voices. The man in the green overcoat, well, he was probably some bad-tempered tramp, who knew his name through some coincidence—he might have served as interpreter attached to one of the British units in Russia, or anything like that. The world was very small, and there was probably some quite reasonable explanation for the black gown lying in the rain, and for the woman crying in the café. After all, women often cried, reasoned Peabody, and very often, he had heard (for he knew little about them) without any adequate reason at all.
It was all a lot of nonsense, he told himself as he began to mount the steps leading to the road above. Half way up he asked himself exactly where he was going. He had a decided disinclination to return to Stranover. He thought he would go on to Sepach Farm. Of course, the Russian would not be there. This, said Peabody to himself, was another of the silly ideas which he had developed during the afternoon. Why should the Russian be going to the farm? Subconsciously, Peabody's idea was to go and see if the Russian was there, but at the moment he would not admit this to himself.
At the top of the steps he stood looking about him and listening. There was no one in sight. The mist had blown away in front of him and he could see some little way up the Salthaven road. To his left, towards Stranover, the mist was still thick. To his right the bleak rain-lashed moorland lying towards Hetton looked ominous. The very sound of the pattering rain on the asphalt road was distasteful. Peabody thought that his surroundings looked like the sort of place where something not very nice could easily happen. The thought disturbed him and he put it quickly out of his mind.
He turned and looked down at the café door. It looked just as it had looked before, but the black gown lying there before it seemed strangely incongruous. Peabody had a half humorous desire to run down the steps, pick up the gown, fold it, and lay it carefully in a corner of the porch out of the rain.
He lit his pipe, shielding the match carefully with his hands, for the wind was high. Then he began to walk across the road. Halfway across the wind dropped for a moment and the rain descended in torrents. Peabody was getting fed up with the rain. His clothes were heavy with it. He crossed the road quickly and stood beneath a tree which afforded a little shelter and which stood in the angle formed by the Salthaven and Stranover roads. He sat down on the gnarled and clawlike root of the tree and puffed at his pipe.
He was deciding whether he should return to the café and shelter there, till the rain ceased—he expected the woman had finished crying by now, or whether he should walk up to the farm and shelter there. It had to be one of the two places. Peabody remembered with a slight distaste than the man in plus-fours had pointed this fact out to him. Then suddenly he ceased thinking.
Somewhere in the vicinity someone was whistling. Peabody listened carefully. Soon the whistling became more distinct. He could recognise the tune—"Annie Laurie"—and the whistler was evidently not in the least perturbed about the weather. He whistled slowly, giving each note its full value, and occasionally whistling a bit of the song several times in succession before continuing with the rest of it. Then, when he had got right through the chorus he would commence the process over again with a maddening sort of regularity.
And he was approaching. Peabody thought that he would emerge from the mist on the Stranover road, but he was wrong. The man came out from the corner directly opposite Peabody, evidently from the moor, and as he leapt the little ditch which bounded the road, Peabody recognised him—it was the man in plus-fours.
He was as cheerful as ever, and, with his round cheeks blown out to their fullest extent with his whistling he looked quite juvenile. His right hand was in his trouser pocket and in his left hand was a little chubby pipe. He stood for a moment looking towards the mist on the Stranover road, still whistling.
Suddenly he stopped—right in the middle of a bar—took his right hand out of his trouser pocket and moved it round to his right hip-pocket, at the same time putting the little chubby pipe into his left-hand jacket pocket.
Then he stood quite still with his head on one side. He seemed to have come to some decision.
He walked slowly across the road until he stood at the top of the steps leading to the café. He stood there for a moment, peering over. Peabody wondered if he had seen the black georgette gown, and if he, too, were curious about it. It seemed to have a strange effect on the man in plus-fours, for he stepped back a couple of paces, slipped his hand to his hip pocket, produced a medium-sized automatic pistol and a cartridge clip, and whistling again—this time quite softly, Peabody could just hear him—proceeded to load the clip into the pistol. This done, he replaced the automatic in his jacket pocket and, keeping his hand in the pocket, he moved slowly down the steps towards the Turkish Café door. He had evidently not seen Peabody, or, if he had, he had not taken the slightest notice of that gentleman.
Peabody got up and stood considering whether he should go on up to Sepach Farm or whether he should return to the café and see what the man in plus-fours who kept his hand so carefully on his automatic was doing. His thoughts were disturbed, however, by the sound of a shot.
Peabody's head cocked slightly to one side. The sound seemed to have come from the direction of Sepach Farm. He had just conceived this thought when he heard another shot. He stepped round the tree and looked towards the farm. It looked just the same. Turning round, he saw Plus-Fours standing at the top of the café steps looking towards the farm, still whistling quietly to himself. His right hand was still in his jacket pocket, and in his left hand he held the sodden black georgette gown. Peabody wondered why he had picked the gown up. From his position on the far side of the tree Plus-Fours could not see him. Peabody felt glad about this too.
Plus-Fours stood at the top of the steps for quite two minutes, then he turned and descended, once more disappearing from view.
Peabody stepped out from beneath the tree and walked rapidly up the Salthaven road, towards Sepach Farm. He was feeling sick of mysteries, and the idea of a practical move appealed to him. He had made up his mind to walk up the Salthaven road and, in passing, to take a look at the farm (what good he would do by "taking a look" at the farm never occurred to him), then cut across the moor and get to Stranover as quickly as possible and take a hot bath.
Probably the shots were occasioned by someone shooting on the moor. He supposed that people did shoot in the midst of rainstorms sometimes. Here again Peabody was deliberately deluding himself. It was practically certain that the shots had come from the farm, and Peabody had experience enough of shooting to know the difference between the sound of a sporting gun fired in the open and the very different noise made by a heavy-calibre pistol.
As he approached the farm he observed someone coming towards him. This individual was a tall, good-looking young man, dressed in a tweed suit which was well cut and nearly new. As he came closer Peabody saw that his face was fine and intellectual—the face of an artist—and that his hands were beautifully-shaped and white.
Peabody called out, "Good afternoon. Did you hear those two shots fired just now?"
The young man touched his cap—another foreigner Peabody surmised—and when the young man spoke he knew that he was correct.
"I did not... I heard no shots," said the young man smilingly. "It must have been your imagination."
"It wasn't," said Peabody, feeling, for some reason, quite hostile to the fellow. "I don't imagine things like that!"
"Don't you," said the young man, quite cheerfully. "Well, that that's isn't it? Good afternoon." He walked on down the road.
Russian again, thought Peabody. He was angry with himself for having spoken to the fellow, who had been as politely rude as possible.
Peabody stood looking after him. When he reached the crossroads he turned left, and went towards Hetton. The mist was fairly thick on that side and it soon swallowed up the young man in the tweeds.
At this moment, simultaneously with the disappearance of the young Russian, Plus-Fours appeared at the top of the café steps. He was smoking his pipe and had his hands in his pockets as usual. He stood for a moment looking about him and then walked off rapidly towards Stranover.
Peabody wondered what he had been doing in the Turkish Café, and if he had succeeded in finding out what was troubling the lady in the gold kimono who had occasion to sob so bitterly. Plus-Fours was what Peabody would have described as a "pretty cool card." Nothing seemed to perturb him very much, even when he had occasion to load automatic pistols. There was no doubt that Plus-Fours was up to something, was carrying out some definite idea, but what this idea had to do with the woman in the café and the man in the green overcoat, Peabody could not guess.
THE rain had abated somewhat by now and was drizzling steadily down as if saving its forces for another torrential downpour in a little while. Peabody, walking towards the farm, quickened his steps. Definite ideas were beginning to shape in his head with regard to the young Russian in tweeds. Coming down the Salthaven road he could only have been walking from Salthaven Junction six miles away, or from Sepach Farm. Obviously he had not walked from the junction, for his clothes were hardly wet. Therefore it seemed certain that he had been standing up for quite some considerable time in the vicinity of the farm, and must have heard the shots. What reason could he have for denying this?
A dazzling flash of lightning appeared just in front of Peabody, then a terrific crash of thunder, followed by the deluge of rain which he had been expecting. He increased his pace, and, half running, passed through the wooden gate of the farm, crossed the overgrown and weed-filled courtyard, and took shelter under the overhanging ledge of the first-storey window. The same ledge that Irma and he had used.
He looked at his watch. It was five o'clock and the evening shadows were falling fast. Lights were glimmering in Hetton Village, and as Peabody's eyes drew across he saw a bright spot appear in the upper window of the Turkish Café—the one window which appeared above the cliff edge. So someone was still there. Peabody imagined that the lady in the kimono, having got over her particular trouble, was carefully powdering her nose and removing any traces of the sorrow of the earlier afternoon.
He felt hot, and removing his cap, wiped his brow. Raindrops, collecting on the ledge above him, fell coolingly on his head. Rather a pleasurable sensation, thought Peabody.
He knocked out his pipe, refilled, and lit it, then stood, leaning against, the wall of the farm, smiling at himself. There was no doubt that his nerves were out of condition, and that he had exaggerated several unimportant events and people into a first-class mystery. He considered that after a hot bath and some food he would view the whole thing from a proper perspective and probably smile at himself for his qualms. There was no doubt, too, that this wandering about the roads and moorland had got to stop. It wasn't doing any good, but only opening old wounds, resuscitating old thoughts and memories which were better buried and forgotten. Kenkins thought him a fool, and Kenkins, even if he were a materialist was probably right. O'Farrel probably thought the same thing.
Peabody wondered what the enterprising O'Farrel would have made of the events of the afternoon, what logical story he would have strung between the facts which had occurred. Peabody was about to put on his cap, when suddenly he stopped and considered. For the last few moments the raindrops from the ledge above him had been falling onto his head with almost monotonous regularity. He was donning his cap because he was tired of the sensation, which (the thought flashed through his mind) was reminiscent of the Chinese water torture, but he stopped in the action of replacing his cap because he thought that something very peculiar was happening—the rain falling on to his head was becoming warmer and warmer. He stood perfectly still. He thought that his imagination was absolutely running away with him. He was a case for a nerve specialist—no doubt about this.
Another drop fell onto his head. It was quite a warm drop, he thought. He pulled out his handkerchief, ran it over his hair and looked at it. A nasty stiff feeling ran over the skin of his face and neck. He jerked himself upright. His handkerchief was red—red with blood.
He stepped out into the rain and looked above him at the ledge. He felt quite sick. He knew now that his nerves were not at fault. The events of the afternoon were only the beginning—things were really going to happen now. He knew what the shots had meant. The sound had come from Sepach Farm—he had been right there, and he had been standing under the window-ledge and somebody's blood had been dripping onto his head with horrible regularity, taking the place of the grateful rain.
Peabody had a desire to run; a desire to place as much space between himself, this farm, and the weird people who seemed to be hanging about the neighbourhood as possible. Then his unemotional self reasserted itself. He must know what it was all about. He must enter the farm and find out exactly what had happened.
He put the handkerchief into his pocket. Put on his cap and walked round to the dilapidated front door. It was half closed. Peabody kicked it open and entered.
HE found himself in a small and irregularly-shaped hall. A door immediately to his left opened into a ground-floor room running the entire length of the house.
He glanced quickly into this room and then began to mount the staircase which stood on the right-hand side of the doorway. It was a rickety and dusty stairway, and the recent muddy footmarks on the bare boards told Peabody that someone had used it since the rainstorm.
He had got over his feeling of sickness. The matter had now taken a turn which required practical effort, and doing things appealed much more to Peabody than thinking about them. As he mounted the stairs he was preparing himself for a sight, which, he told himself, would not be too pleasant. He walked up the stairs slowly, and, at the top, stood for an instant, stamping some of the rain from his shoes.
A passage ran from the top of the stairs to the back of the house. It was a long passage ending, apparently, in a dead wall. There were only two doors leading off the passage, exactly opposite each other. The one on the right, he knew, would be the door of the first-storey room, the room with the wide window ledge, under which he had been standing outside, the room in which he knew he should find something not very nice. He walked down the passage. The silence of the place seemed to Peabody to possess some peculiar quality. A heavy atmosphere seemed to pervade the place. He wished that the injured man would groan or do something to break the silence.
He was about to turn into the right hand room when something prompted him to glance into the room on the left. He did so, and received a distinct shock, for lying at full length in the middle of the empty room stretched out, with his long, thin, and dirty fingers clutching at the floor underneath him, with his head and face turned towards Peabody, and the piece of sunflower seed still sticking to his lip, lay the man in the green overcoat. Peabody, his first shock over, forgot for the moment about the other business, forgot the blood dripping from the window ledge in the other room, and stood looking at the Russian as he lay there, still malevolent, his tattered olive-green overcoat disarranged and caught about his shabby legs.
The explanation was fairly obvious, for the whole back of the overcoat was covered with a dark red blotch. Peabody stepped nearer and looked down at it. The man in the green overcoat had been shot through the back with a heavy calibre pistol Peabody thought. So that was the explanation of the shot—the first shot. Peabody realised that the explanation of the second shot would be in the opposite room. Just beyond the fingers of the Russian's right hand, lying where it had fallen from the nerveless grasp, was a Mauser automatic pistol, and just beyond the pistol the blood stains started.
He walked quickly across the passage and into the opposite room. The window was half open, and propped against it, half sitting on the window ledge, with a queer sort of smile playing about a mouth which was already beginning to sag, was a man of about 35 years of age. As Peabody entered the room he began to slip downwards from the ledge, and, as Peabody sprang forward to check his fall, slid with a bump to the floor.
He was alive and breathing heavily and hoarsely. Peabody, glad to do something, opened the fawn raincoat which was buttoned about the man. Underneath, the coat and waistcoat of brown tweed were soaked with blood. He also, had been shot clean through the body for Peabody could see that the side of the window against which his back had rested was bloodstained.
It came to Peabody that the Russian in the other room had done this. Had he shot this man through the back as he had turned to leave the room? But then who had shot the Russian? Peabody remembered that there had been a pause of perhaps half a minute between the shots. Who had been shot first, the Russian or this man? The man lay quietly on the floor, looking at the ceiling. Occasionally his eyelids flickered. His face was strikingly handsome—an experienced face, Peabody thought, with a firm jaw and well-set grey eyes which were already slightly touched by the film of death.
The thought of dashing out and endeavouring to secure help came to Peabody to be immediately dismissed. The man on the floor was beyond help, and to leave him would be foolish. He might manage to say something—something which might throw some light on the grim business which had taken place at Sepach Farm; for by this time Peabody knew that he was in the business, whatever it was, and he was part of it, and that fate had thrown these things across his path for the sole purpose of drawing him in, and making him play his little part.
With a great effort the dying man slowly turned his head towards Peabody, the queer half-smile still showing about his mouth. That he wanted to say something was obvious for his lips were moving although no sound came from them. Peabody, bending over him, strove vainly to get some idea, by the lip movements, of what the man wanted to say.
Presently his eyes closed, and Peabody thought that it was all over, but after a moment they opened again, and flickered weakly, closed, opened and flickered again. Suddenly Peabody realised, with a start that the man was signalling with his eyes, flickering the "calling up" signal in the Morse code;
He tapped the "answer" signal on the floor with his pipe-stem, the dots and dashes taking him back through the years to the war.
R... D...—tapped Peabody—R... D...
The dying man's eyelids flickered slowly, and Peabody prayed that he would have sufficient strength to send the message.
s-t-e-i-t-l-i-n-stop, said the slow moving eyelids, i-r-i-e-t-o-f-f-stop... 2-c-h-2-v-I-r-c-h-l-o-r-7-3-7-stop.
A convulsive shudder shook the signaller and his eyes closed, for a moment the humorous smile seemed to Peabody to deepen, then it faded away. The man was dead.
But in spite of the death which was in Sepach Farm, Peabody stood, his eyes wide with something which was nearly fear, writing down on a scrap of paper the message which had been so strangely sent, "steitlin, irietoff" .... these seemed to him to be names, surnames, and they meant nothing to him, but it was the last thing, the formula, which shook him. For "2ch2/VIR/chlor/737" was the formula which stood for the ray—Peabody's Ray, the ray which spelt instant and terrible death, and which was known to only two men!
HE stood looking at the piece of paper. Back to him came the droning of the telegraph wires of the earlier afternoon. That had reminded him of the ray, and that had reminded him of Irma. But even she did not know the formula, the formula by which the ray was known to Peabody and the one War Office expert. How then did this dead man come to be in possession of it?
One after another the incidents of the afternoon flashed through Peabody's mind. The meeting with the man in plus-fours, the meeting with the Russian, the man who lay dead in the other room, still malevolent, clawing at the floor, and who had known his name, the meeting with the young Russian whose cool insolence had annoyed him, the two shots, and then this!
And, worst of all, at the back of his mind lurked the motive. Was this the motive for Irma's disappearance? Was she responsible for this? Had the information which he had so foolishly imparted to her resulted in this double murder and the knowledge by at least one of the dead men of a formula which, under certain circumstances, might easily shatter the peace of the world?
And was this knowledge confined to one man? If this dead man lying before him had known it, why not others?
The vicious circle of thoughts chased round in Peabody's brain—Irma, the ray, and these dead men. And what was to be the next move?
Obviously, the police. They must be informed, and at once. But here again Peabody found himself thinking something without any logical reason for the thought. He found himself possessed of a decided disinclination to go to the police immediately.
The sequence of events during the afternoon and evening were beginning to exercise a peculiar fascination on Peabody. All these people were connected in some way with the crimes and each other. The man in plus-fours, the young Russian who had walked off so airily towards Hetton, the woman in the gold kimono. Each one of them, Peabody thought, had contributed in some way to this particular climax.
Peabody became practical and moved forward towards the dead man. Then he sank on one knee and began a systematic search of the body. He searched thoroughly, even half undressing the body in his efforts to find something. There was nothing at all—nothing; not even a laundry mark, and the tabs bearing the maker's name had been carefully removed from overcoat, suit, hat and underclothes.
He re-arranged the clothing, straightened the body out, and stood regarding it. There was something quite attractive about what remained of the stranger in the brown tweed suit. The half-humorous smile still seemed to play about the firm mouth. Death, thought Peabody, had little terror for this man. It had been, it seemed to him, something which was to be expected, a move in the game, something which must be regarded as a semi-humorous possibility, and when it had arrived, his only thought had been to signal a few words, essential words, which would enable somebody else to take up the game where he had been forced to drop it.
And the game had to be taken up.
Peabody shuddered a little as he thought of the Q-Ray formula being known to all sorts of weird people, who would not scruple to use it for their own immediate gain. The Russian in the opposite room for instance. This thought sent Peabody quickly across the passage into the room on the other side. He stood looking down at the man in the green overcoat as he lay, face pressed sideways on the floor, still malevolent, still threatening. Eventually he turned the body over and examined the clothing carefully. As in the other case there was no clue. In one pocket of the green overcoat were a handful of sunflower seeds, and in the other an automatic clip, an additional one, evidently. Peabody remembered how the man in the green overcoat had thrust back his hand into his overcoat pocket when he had spoken to him on the Stranover road earlier in the afternoon. Possibly, thought Peabody, the Russian had been expecting to meet someone who might merit the attention of his automatic.
It was now nearly dark and the last of the evening's light was casting grotesque shadows about the floors and walls of this house of death. Peabody dropped the automatic to the floor and stood for a moment regarding it. The sight of it reminded him once more of the man in plus-fours—that strange person who hung about country roads, who stood whistling a song over and over again, and who, for some reason best known to himself, carried an automatic pistol too. An idea came to Peabody; he left the room and walked quickly across the passage and into the other room. Stepping gingerly over the body of the other man, he peered out of the window into the shadows of the courtyard, and across to the tree-bordered road beyond. On the other side of the road, beneath a tree, was a tiny light. A firefly, thought Peabody. Then, straining his eyes into the darkness, he managed to make out the silhouetted figure beneath the tree. It was as he had thought. Lounging on the other side of the road, smoking his little chubby pipe, was the man in plus-fours.
Peabody, drawing back from the window, and stepping gingerly across the body once more, stood in the middle of the room and thought.
Obviously he must go and find a policeman somewhere and tell him. He visualised himself telling some country policeman the events of the afternoon, leading up to the grand climax of the double murder. He visualised the arm of the law with an open notebook and an open mouth wondering exactly where he was to start making notes.
Having come to this conclusion Peabody filled his pipe, lit it and, with a last look at the dead man, walked out into the passage and prepared to descend the stairs.
Outside the wind was positively howling, and whenever it stopped for a moment a great gust of rain descended, beating upon the roof of the farm and splattering noisily into the puddles in the courtyard. Almost at the bottom of the stairs he trod on something—something hard which, as he put his weight on it, gave. He stooped and picked it up, looked at it for a moment, and then realised what it was. It was a diamante buckle, and it was the fellow to the one which he had seen upon the black georgette gown, which, unless someone had moved it, was still lying in the rain at the bottom of the steps leading down to the Turkish Café. Peabody wondered how it had come to the farm. It was funny how all these mysterious things seemed to be associated with each other. Peabody found himself wishing that the buckle could talk. He imagined that it might have a rather peculiar story to tell.
Then he slipped it into his pocket, and continued towards the door.
Arrived, he stood in the doorway straining his eyes across the courtyard. He could make out the rickety fence quite plainly, and, on the other side of the road he could see the dim spot of light which was Plus-Four's pipe, glowing in the darkness beneath the clump of trees.
Then, as he was about to step into the courtyard, cross the space between himself and Plus-Fours, and tackle that gentleman, something else happened. A figure came from out of the darkness from the direction of the Turkish Café, and before Peabody could quite see who it was he sensed that it was the woman—the woman in the gold kimono! She came out of the darkness and approached the broken wooden gate which led into the farm courtyard. Peabody found himself remembering something about the way she moved.
He stepped out of the doorway and took a couple of steps towards the gate. She had entered the gate when, looking up, she saw him, and he heard her sob.
Peabody, standing there in the rain, felt quite sick. He took an involuntary step towards her, then stopped, hesitating, not knowing what to do; and, while he stood, she turned and half walked, half ran to the gate, through it and down the road, back towards the Turkish Café.
Peabody turned back to the door of Sepach Farm and sat down on the step, his head between his hands. For the whole of his little world—the little world which he had built up during the last few weary years—had fallen in. He felt rather like a child; he did not know what to think, what to do.
For the woman in the gold kimono was Irma—his wife!
IT was some minutes before Peabody was able to regain control of his feelings. Then he got up and walked slowly towards the gate, passed through it, and stood in the road, uncertain what to do.
His first impulse had been to dash off down the road to overtake Irma, and to ask her for an explanation of this amazing business; but his logical mind, functioning even in this time of distress, told him that she was not likely to tell him the truth. The realisation that his wife was mixed up in this business; that there was some connection between her and the two murders at the farm, stung Peabody. One idea was predominant; he must not go to the police until he had found out what was the connecting link between Irma and the deaths, for although he would not admit this to himself, Peabody was trying to make himself believe that there was still a chance that his wife was innocent of complicity in the crimes. He was trying to give himself time to protect her.
An idea suddenly came to him. There was little likelihood of anyone visiting Sepach Farm before next day. If he could cross country to Salthaven he could catch the nine o'clock express and be in London by 11 that night. He had made up his mind that he would go to O'Farrel, that he would tell him the whole story, disguising one fact only, the fact that the woman in the gold kimono was his, Peabody's, wife. Peabody felt sure that he could rely on O'Farrel's assistance; he felt certain that the romantic mind of Etienne would immediately seize on the tangled skein of the afternoon's happenings, and unravel it. Peabody thought that it would be possible for O'Farrel and himself to return that night to Sepach Farm, hide the bodies temporarily, and then he, Peabody, would go to the Turkish Café, and would elicit something from Irma which would enable him to come to some definite conclusion as to her guilt or otherwise.
Having come to this conclusion, Peabody felt better. Looking down the road towards the sea, he saw a light glimmer above the cliff edge. This light he knew would be in one of the top rooms of the Turkish Café. Irma had got back, but would she stay there, or would she, knowing that he was in the neighbourhood, try to make her escape? Once more he dismissed the idea of going to the Turkish Café, and, turning on his heel, strode up the road, walking quickly.
Half a mile up the road he branched across country, walked over the wet moorland, brushing through the wet gorse-bushes, occasionally tearing his clothes, which were again thoroughly wet. He was beginning to feel a little better. He was, at least, doing something definite. He realised now that some unkind fate had planned a sequence of mysterious events that had drawn him into a net from which he must somehow cut himself clear.
Ten minutes after Peabody had left the farm the man in plus-fours, who had been waiting patiently, nibbling his pipe-stem as usual, on the opposite side of the road, crossed it, walked across the farm courtyard, and entered the farm. He was still whistling "Annie Laurie" under his breath. Once in the farm he ascended the stairs, and, walking into the room on the left of the passage, stood looking at the body of the Russian as it lay on the floor. His face betrayed no sign of emotion whatever.
After a few minutes' scrutiny he crossed the passage and walked into the other room, and looked for some minutes at the body of the man in the fawn raincoat.
After a while he descended the stairs, walked round to the back of the farm and, pushing his way, walked out on to the moorland. He stopped by a clump of trees and whistled. A few minutes later a figure emerged from the bracken near by.
"Good evening," said the man in plus-fours. "Things aren't so good."
The other man, a broad-shouldered individual who looked as though he might have been a sailor, scratched his ear reflectively.
"Anybody hurt?" he asked. "There was a couple of shots somewhere round here about two hours ago. I thought of going into the farm."
"You don't have to think," interrupted the man in plus-fours. "I will do all the thinking that is required, and some thinking has got to be done pretty quickly. At the present moment Sepach Farm, in addition to its other advantages, is acting as a temporary morgue. The thing is how I am to keep the local police from sticking their noses into something that doesn't concern them. There is something else, too. There's a man, a rather nice-looking man, strangely enough, hanging about this place. I met him on the Stranover road this afternoon. He went into the farm; he has just left there, and, if I know anything, is cutting across country to catch the nine o'clock from Salthaven. This fellow perturbs me; I don't know who he is, or what he wants. He's a nuisance."
The man in plus-fours refilled his pipe and lit it. After some moments' reflection he spoke again.
"You had better get back to Stranover, Stevens," he said. "There's nothing else can be done to-night, but before you go, push the motor-bike on to the road. I am going to catch that train from Salthaven, too. You had better stand by at Stranover until I telephone you."
The man went off, and reappeared after a moment, pushing a motor-cycle. Five minutes afterwards the man in plus-fours rode off rapidly through the darkness, along the Salthaven road, and Stevens, shaking himself like a wet dog—for he had spent the whole afternoon on the moor—tramped on on his long walk back to Stranover.
As his figure disappeared along the cliff road, another figure appeared from the direction of Hetton village. It walked quickly to the top of the flight of steps which led to the Turkish Café.
After a moment's hesitation the young man ran down the steps, and knocked on the door of the Turkish Café. The door opened, and, outlined in the doorway, the woman in the gold kimono gazed at the face of the man who stood before her. Then, with a little cry, she collapsed in a dead faint.
The young man who was none other than the second Russian—the man who had informed Peabody that he had heard no shots at the farm—produced a small toothpick from his pocket, and stood picking his teeth, calmly regarding the prone figure on the floor before him. After a moment, he stepped over the woman, dragged her into the café, shut and locked the door and sat down. Presently she stirred; her eyes opened.
The young man smiled sardonically, and lit a cigarette. "Well, Madame Steitlin," he said in Russian, "what have you to say?"
THE nine o'clock train was just about to pull out of Salthaven station, and Peabody, alone in his carriage, was congratulating himself on the fact that, at least, he would have time and opportunity to think. He was not allowed to think for long, however, for at the last moment the carriage door opened, and the man in plus-fours jumped in. He was still looking quite pleased with himself, and there was still a raindrop perched perilously on the end of his nose.
He puffed vigorously at his pipe, and sat down in the opposite corner of the carriage, regarding with great interest the photographs on the other side of the carriage.
Peabody recovered from his surprise at seeing this mysterious individual, once more made up his mind to come to a complete understanding with him.
"I'd like a few words with you," he said, abruptly. "I don't know who you are or what you are, but it seems to me that you have spent the greater part of this afternoon and evening in following me about. When you first spoke to me this afternoon I thought you were just a chatterbox; afterwards there seemed to be rather more behind what you said than I thought at the time. There has been some pretty weird business going on in the vicinity of Sepach Farm and I believe you've got something to do with it. Incidentally, I may as well tell you that I'm going to make it my business to see that the police are informed of what has happened this afternoon."
The man in plus-fours blew a perfect smoke-ring across the carriage.
"Well, of course, you know best," he said gently, "but, do you know, I've always found that it's an awfully good thing not to interfere in matters which don't concern one. I might as well say that I don't know what you were doing hanging about the Stranover road this afternoon, but I would not think of saying such a thing, for the very simple reason that it isn't my business. Live and let live, is what I say."
"I've no doubt," said Peabody, "that this is a case of live, and let not live. There has been murder done this afternoon; somebody is responsible; for all I know it may be you."
"Exactly," said the man in plus-fours, blandly. "It's pretty obvious that people don't get murdered unless somebody's done it. But, by the way, where has this murder taken place?"
Peabody looked straight into the grey eyes of the man in the plus-fours.
"There has been murder at Sepach Farm," he said, "and you know it."
"I don't," said the man in plus-fours "and if there's been a murder at Sepach Farm what have you done with the body?"
Peabody sat back and gasped.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Well," said the man in plus-fours, "when you were in the farm, or, rather, when you were just leaving it, you know, when that weird woman in the gold kimono came up the road, I was trying to light my pipe under the trees on the opposite side of the farm. I could not do it because of the wind, so after you left the farm I went in just to light my pipe, you know, and I looked all over the place, and I could not see anybody. Still, you never know, perhaps somebody moved them."
"I see," said Peabody, "I said that a murder had been committed, and yet you, who have seen no bodies, refer to 'them.' So you did see the two bodies at Sepach Farm? I believe..."
The man in plus-fours leaned over towards Peabody. His jaw had set in quite a determined manner, and his eyes were very hard.
"Now, look here," he said, "let's finish with this nonsense. Whatever you have seen, or whatever you have heard this afternoon and this evening, if you value your own skin, I advise you to keep it to yourself. In other words, mind your own business. What has happened at Sepach Farm has got nothing to do with you. As a matter of fact, I don't know why you've been hanging about the place, neither do I care, but I tell you this, and I mean it. You say you are going to the police—all right! Go to them, tell them your story about Sepach Farm, tell them your story about the shots and bodies! I tell you they won't believe you. They will tell you that you are mad; that you are suffering from hallucinations. Try it, and see. In the meantime, take a tip from me and keep away from Sepach Farm. It never was a very healthy place if the tales they tell in the neighbourhood are true, and it's certainly not likely to be a health resort now."
And, with these remarks, the man in plus-fours got up, put on his cap, knocked out the little chubby pipe, and walked down the corridor of the train towards the dining-car.
Peabody, knowing that there would be no meal served on the train at this hour, wondered, why he had gone, but, presently, glancing down the corridor into the dining-car, he saw the man in plus-fours, sound asleep, a beneficent smile on his countenance, at peace with all the world.
Peabody, in spite, of all his suspicions, had to admit that this weird individual certainly did not look like a murderer.
He leaned back in his seat, trying vainly to make some sense out of the jumble of weird events which had transpired during the day. He was terribly worried, and the thought of Irma, recurring every two or three minutes, almost drove him mad. It was with a sigh of relief that he saw the lights of Victoria Station come into view.
Arrived, he dismissed everything from his mind except the story he was to tell O'Farrel. He would tell him nearly everything: that Irma, when she had left him originally, knew the secret of the ray; but he would not tell O'Farrel that the woman in the gold kimono was Irma. For some reason which he could not explain, he wanted to keep this knowledge to himself. He could bear that O'Farrel should think that Irma had stolen the secret of the ray, but he could not bear that Irma should be suspected of the murders at Sepach Farm, although deep inside, Peabody himself thought that she had played some part in the double crime.
O'FARREL, clad in a brilliant crępe-de-chine dressing gown, his feet poised on the end of his writing desk, lay back in his chair, and listened with rapt attention to the story which Peabody told.
Then he selected a cigarette from the box on the table, inserted it in a long holder, and smoked for some minutes.
"All very interesting," he said eventually, jumping up from his chair and walking up and down the room, "but may I ask this? Why do you consider that your wife has anything to do with this business? You say that, before she left you, years ago, you had told her the secret of this ray, and the fact that this unfortunate individual signalled to you the formula doesn't necessarily mean that he obtained it from her. It may have been stolen from somewhere else."
Peabody realised instantly that O'Farrel had put his finger on the one weak spot in the story. Had he told O'Farrel that the woman in the gold kimono was his wife, the connection between her and the knowledge of the ray formula on the part of the murdered man at Sepach Farm would have been obvious; but he said nothing.
O'Farrel regarded Peabody intently for a moment; then he continued: "Beyond that, the whole thing is rather interesting. Briefly, I take it your story is this: You are walking along a road and are accosted by a stranger in plus-fours, who asks you a lot of ridiculous questions. Further along the road you meet another stranger, a Russian, with a limp. By some means or other he knows your name. Further on you find a black georgette gown lying in the rain in front of a mysterious café, in which some enterprising lady, dressed in a gold kimono, is having what is usually described as a 'good cry.' A little later—on your way to the farm—you pass a young foreigner, probably a Russian, you think. His clothes are quite dry, which would seem to indicate that he had been standing up at the farm; but he says that he has heard no shots,-although you say he must have heard them. Add to this a couple of corpses on the first floor, and our plump friend in plus-fours hanging round generally, and it would seem that we have the makings of a very fine story."
O'Farrel blew a smoke-ring into the air, and watched it sail across the room.
"There is only one thing that I am certain about," he went on continuing his restless pacing. "I think I can elucidate the mystery of the georgette gown."
"Can you?" said Peabody. "What is the explanation?"
"My dear fellow," said O'Farrel, "if you wanted to keep a woman in a certain place what would you do?"
"I should lock her in," said Peabody.
"Exactly," said O'Farrel, "and that is why the door of the Turkish Café was locked; but whoever locked the woman in the gold kimono in the Turkish Café made doubly certain by taking away her clothes. That is the reason that she was dressed in a gold kimono, and that is the reason that the individual who locked her in, in his hurry, dropped her georgette gown outside the door. The same individual, to whose clothes one of the diamante buckles on the gown had probably stuck, dropped this buckle at Sepach Farm at the bottom of the stairs, where you found it. Therefore," said O'Farrel, "I would say that the young man in the dry clothes was with the woman in the gold kimono at the Turkish Café before the rain started, just before you spoke to the man in the plus-fours. He goes off, after having locked our lady friend up in the Turkish Café, and dropped her gown outside, straight up to Sepach Farm, either does a little bit of shooting himself or sees somebody else do it, waits till the rain is over, and then walks back towards the Turkish Café, probably for the purpose of releasing the lady. When he sees you, however, in order to divert suspicion, he turns off and goes towards Hetton village. Very interesting."
"It is," agreed Peabody, "but the thing is, what are we going to do? My idea was that if we returned to-night to the farm we could hide those bodies."
O'Farrel spun round.
"Why, Peabody," he said, "this isn't a bit like you. Your duty is, obviously, to inform the police; yet I find you coming to me with some scheme about hiding bodies."
"I don't think you've told me the truth," said O'Farrel, "or, if you have, it hasn't been the whole truth. Another thing, you insult my intelligence by suggesting that Kenkins lends us his assistance. I don't like Kenkins. He reminds me of a logical elephant both from the mental and the physical point of view, and I'm certainly not going to be mixed up in any crime investigations assisted by Mr. Kenkins. Therefore, Peabody, my lad, you will have to do without my help."
O'Farrel stuck another cigarette into the long holder, and grinned at Peabody.
Peabody was amazed. He had thought that O'Farrel would jump at the chance of being in on a first-class mystery. He realised that O'Farrel had quickly discovered the weak part in his story, and was convinced that he had not told the whole truth, but even this did not explain O'Farrel's unwillingness to embark on anything which looked like an adventure.
For a moment Peabody was inclined to tell O'Farrel the whole truth; to inform him that the mysterious woman in the gold kimono was Mrs. Peabody, but after an instant's hesitation he resolved on his policy of silence.
"You go round, and get old Kenkins to help you," said O'Farrel. "He's the fellow for you. In the meantime I'm fairly busy. I've got to think out the ending of a short story to-night, and get it finished before twelve. Come back and tell me when you have elucidated the mystery."
Peabody got up. More surprised at O'Farrel's attitude, he thought the best thing he could do would be to go round and see if Kenkins would assist him—Kenkins whom O'Farrel described as a logical elephant, but whose logic was often as useful as O'Farrel's Irish intuition. At the same time he felt intense disappointment in not having O'Farrel's help.
He shook hands with O'Farrel, who walked with him to the front door.
Outside, in Gower Street, a taxicab was crawling past.
"There's a cab," said O'Farrel, "jump into that, and you will be at Kenkins' place in five minutes. Give him my love, and say I hope his pet rabbit dies! Good-night!"
As Peabody stepped into the cab O'Farrel shut the door. He had thrown off his air of lazy nonchalance, and dashed up the stairs of his flat three at a time. Inside, he rang for his man.
"Sparks," said he, "go round to the garage and get my motor-cycle. See that the petrol tank's filled, and bring it back here as quickly as you can. I'm going to the country; I may be a few days. Be quick, Sparks!"
Sparks disappeared, and O'Farrel, going into his bedroom, changed quickly into a tweed suit. Fifteen minutes later, after having consulted a road map, in the face of a head wind, and with the rain beating on his mackintosh, O'Farrel rode rapidly over Waterloo Bridge. There was a smile on his face. Before him lay the mystery of Sepach Farm, and O'Farrel liked mysteries but he preferred to handle them alone.
PEABODY, smoking his pipe in Kenkins' consulting room, was gratified by the reception of his story. Kenkins was a great believer in Peabody, and had signified his willingness to help in any way he could, more especially when he heard that O'Farrel had refused to have anything to do with the mystery. Kenkins, who had a certain heavy contempt for the airy persiflage of O'Farrel and his semi-cynical attitude towards life, felt rather pleased that he was to have the opportunity of assisting Peabody.
"You know, Peabody," said Kenkins, "there is one thing I can't understand, and that is the remark that this man in plus-fours made to you in the train. You remember he said, 'You say you are going to the police. All right! Go to them, tell them your story about Sepach Farm, tell them your story about shots and bodies. I tell you that they won't believe you. They will tell you that you are mad, that you are suffering from hallucinations.' Well," said Kenkins, "that is a funny thing for him to say. If he were not bluffing it could only mean one thing, and that was that he knew that for reasons best known to themselves, the police would do their best to keep this business at Sepach Farm quiet, even if it meant telling you that you did not know what you were talking about. I propose we call the bluff."
"How?" asked Peabody.
"Oh! That is simple enough," said Kenkins. "Let's go round to Scotland Yard, tell them the story, and see what they say. They can easily get into touch with the local police."
Peabody thought for a moment; he realised that, if Kenkins' idea was not correct, by going to Scotland Yard he would be raising a hue and cry. At the same time, it was obvious to him that the police had got to know sooner or later, and he knew, too, that if he acted quickly, and returned to the farm, after going to Scotland Yard, he could assist Irma to escape, if necessary, before police inquiries were made. After all, he knew that it was impossible for her to have any hand in the actual murders.
"All right," he said eventually, "let's go to Scotland Yard now. We will soon see if the man in plus-fours was bluffing or not."
Things move quickly at Scotland Yard, and five minutes after passing the portals Peabody and Kenkins were sitting in Sir John Scarrell's office, he having been summoned from the House nearby.
Peabody, who was getting rather tired of telling his story, waited impatiently to hear what the Assistant Commissioner would have to say. Sir John Scarrell pressed a button on his desk.
"Your story is an amazing one, Mr. Peabody," he said, "and I shall have to ask you to wait for half an hour while I investigate."
He turned to the police-inspector who had entered the room in answer to his bell.
"Get through to the Chief Constable at Stranover, Jevons," said Sir John, "and ask him to get into touch with Hetton-on-the-Sands station. I want a responsible officer sent up to a place called Sepach Farm near Hetton, to report on any out-of-the-way occurrences which may have transpired this afternoon and evening in that district."
The inspector went off, and Peabody and Kenkins waited patiently. Twenty minutes afterwards, Sir John Scarrell, in response to a message, left the room, and when he returned he was smiling rather peculiarly, Peabody thought.
"Mr. Peabody," he said, "I don't know whether you are trying to pull our legs, but the inspector in charge of Stranover Station informs me that there are no bodies at Sepach Farm, and that, far from any murders being committed there this afternoon, his police-sergeant, a most responsible officer, was actually standing up from the rain in Sepach Farm at the time you tell me these weird events happened."
Peabody rose to his feet amazed.
"Perhaps," went on the Assistant Commissioner "you are not very well, your nerves may be out of order. I have known people suffer from hallucinations before."
Peabody was about to speak but Kenkins jabbed him with his arm.
"I think you may be right," said Kenkins suddenly to Sir John Scarrell, "my friend, Peabody, has not been at all well lately, and I think it is quite possible that he has been imagining things. He needs a holiday. Come on, old man. Sorry to nave disturbed you, Sir John."
So saying, Kenkins took the astonished Peabody's arm, and led him swiftly out of the building. Outside he summoned a cab.
"That clinches it, Peabody," he said, "the man in plus-fours was right. There's something on at Sepach Farm, something that's so big that even the police are trying to keep this business quiet. By Jove! I'm beginning to see things now. Don't you see? The man in plus-fours knew what was going to happen at Sepach Farm that afternoon, he was looking for somebody, possibly trying to stop it happening. I should say that the man in plus-fours is a detective. Anyway, there's nothing to be done at the moment, but I looked up the A.B.C. before we came out. There's a train to-morrow to Stranover at 6.30 in the morning, and I propose we catch that. In the meantime, you'd better sleep at my place. We'd better turn in as soon as possible."
This was easy to say, but they sat in front of Kenkins' fire until two thirty, discussing the strange turn which events had taken. Peabody guarded his tongue carefully so that he should not give away his own particular secret.
At the back of his mind there still lurked some little amazement that O'Farrel had turned the whole thing down so inexplicably. Peabody might have been still more amazed had he known that the moment he ascended Kenkins' stairs on his way to bed Etienne O'Farrel had already arrived at Sepach Farm!
IN spite of the fact that another drizzle of rain had begun and that he was thoroughly tired after his fast ride to Sepach Farm, O'Farrel felt quite pleased with himself as he pushed open the rickety wooden gate which led to the farm courtyard.
On the journey his mind had been busy with the story which Peabody had told him, but O'Farrel, whilst having the greatest belief in Peabody's integrity, certainly did not consider that his friend had told him the whole truth.
First of all, it was entirely unlike Peabody to get mixed up in an affair like this one unless there was very good reason, and, candidly, at the moment O'Farrel could see no reason. The idea had come to him that possibly Peabody was endeavouring to shield someone, but who this somebody was O'Farrel had not the slightest idea.
He had refused his assistance to Peabody because his quick brain had told him that it was not very much use helping to solve a mystery when all the cards were not laid on the table. Secondly, the idea of being associated with the large and, to his mind, logical Kenkins did not appeal to O'Farrel in the slightest degree. But he was intensely intrigued with the whole business, and, in spite of the fact that he was very stiff and slightly wet, he was enjoying himself. O'Farrel loved mystery, and the bleak and deserted farm, standing on this lonely stretch of moorland, seemed to him to form an adequate background for the startling events which he was certain would take place there.
He crossed the courtyard, pushed open the farm door, and stood in the hallway flashing a small electric lamp, which he produced from his pocket, about him. After a moment he began quietly to ascend the stairs, his electric torch in his left hand, and his right-hand round the butt of a small automatic pistol which he had slipped into his pocket before he left his rooms.
It had occurred to him that, as two people had already been shot at Sepach Farm, there was a possibility of more shooting taking place, in which case he had made up his mind to be the first person to shoot. At the top of the stairs he stopped suddenly, and switched off his electric torch, for under the crack of the door on the left of the passage, the door of the room in which Peabody, had told him the Russian's body lay, there came a gleam of light.
O'Farrel tiptoed along the passage. Arrived at the door, which was closed, he knelt down quietly, and endeavoured to look through the key-hole. This, however, was impossible, as the hole was filled with the accumulated dust of years. After a second's thought he stood up, drew his pistol from his pocket, kicked open the door and stepped suddenly into the room.
The Russian still lay on the floor, his hands outstretched, clawing at nothing, and on the other side of the room, leaning against, the wall, her face drawn with fear and anxiety, was one of the most beautiful women that O'Farrel had ever seen. She was dressed in an exquisite black day-gown, a strange attire for that time of the day, O'Farrel thought. He slipped his automatic back into his pocket and took off his cap.
"Good evening," he said cheerfully, "have I the pleasure of speaking to the lady in the gold kimono?"
"Why do you call me that?" she asked.
O'Farrel grinned. "You do not look the type of woman who would wear a gown such as you are wearing for the purpose of visiting this farm," he said. "I therefore conclude that you put it on in rather a hurry; shall we say, because, possibly, your other and more suitable kit had been removed. After all, even that gown is more suitable than just a gold kimono."
"How do you know that I wear a gold kimono?" she asked.
O'Farrel did not answer for a moment. He had noticed that her accent was foreign, and an idea had come to his quick brain, an idea which would explain Peabody's peculiar attitude, the idea that this woman was Peabody's wife. He took his cigarette case from his pocket, stepped casually across the body of the Russian and offered her a cigarette.
"That will do your nerves good; cigarettes are awfully good for the nerves," said O'Farrel, as he lit it for her.
He took a cigarette himself, blew a few smoke rings into the air, and then spoke, watching her closely as he did so.
"I knew that you were the woman in the gold kimono," he said eventually, "because I was told that such a person was in the vicinity of Sepach Farm this evening, and by the description I should say that this lady was you."
She leaned against the wall. O'Farrel thought that she might faint any moment.
"Who told you that?" she whispered eventually.
"A very good friend of mine." said O'Farrel, "and surely, a very good friend of yours—Josiah Peabody."
O'Farrel sprang forward quickly, and caught her as she fell.
He had a little flask of brandy in his pocket and he poured a few drops between the beautifully curved, pale lips. In a few minutes she returned to consciousness.
O'Farrel, going to one of the downstairs rooms, returned with a chair, which he dusted. She sat down on it and in a little while seemed better. The brandy had brought a little flush to her cheeks. O'Farrel thought that she looked more beautiful than ever. Presently she commenced to sob quietly. O'Farrel, realising that she was safe for the moment, walked into the room on the other side of the passage, and looked at the body of the man in the fawn overcoat lying where Peabody had left it. After a few minutes, during which time he hoped that the woman in the other room had regained her composure, O'Farrel returned.
"Now look here, Mrs. Peabody," he said, "because I am certain you are Mrs. Peabody, I am not a detective, I am not a spy, I am a friend of your husband. He told me all about this business this afternoon, omitting the rather important fact that you were his wife. I realise now why he was diffident about going to the police. Being a friend of his, I am inclined to help you as much as possible, even if you were mean enough to steal that ray formula which he seemed so perturbed about, but, in any event, it stands to reason that there's got to be an inquiry into all this business. Things don't happen like this in England without somebody being for the high jump. Don't you think that you'd better tell me the truth? It would be much the best thing to do."
She sat silently, gazing straight in front of her, her long fingers plucking at the tiny handkerchief in her hands.
O'Farrel moved a little nearer to the body of the Russian, and knelt down, looking at the red blood stain on the coat. Then he looked at her again.
"Did you do this?" he asked.
She thought a moment, and then looked about her like a caged animal seeking some way of escape. Eventually she nodded.
"Yes," she said, "I killed him."
O'FARREL lit another cigarette. "You know," he said, "you're much too pretty to tell fairy-stories, especially to Etienne O'Farrel, which, by the way, is my name. This fellow here," he continued, pointing at the body with his foot, "was shot by a revolver or automatic pistol of the largest calibre—a '.45. Incidentally, he was shot at a few yards range. I can see that because the back of his coat has been burned. Now, the most casual glance tells me that that hand of yours isn't big enough to go round the butt of a large-sized revolver, so I conclude, after the manner of Sherlock Holmes, that you aren't speaking the truth.
"One thing, however, is obvious," went on O'Farrel, growing more cheerful every moment. "It isn't the slightest bit of good hanging about this farm, it's much too depressing. It's also fairly obvious that Peabody and that ass, Kenkins, will be returning here at any moment. You don't feel like meeting the enterprising Josiah just at this moment, do you? Therefore, I suggest that you let me take you back to this mysterious Turkish Café of yours, and let you give me your word to stay there until I return for you. Probably Peabody and Kenkins will have arrived by that time, and then we can try and straighten things out. By the way, what exactly were you doing here?"
She looked up. "I was waiting for somebody," she said.
"Were you?" said O'Farrel. "May I ask who?"
She shook her head. "I can't tell you," she said.
"All right," said O'Farrel, "we will talk about that later. In the meantime let's go along to your café. I suggest that a cup of tea would do you a great deal of good. If you are expecting anyone to come here I will tell them to join you at the café. Come along."
So saying, O'Farrel took the woman's arm and led her out of the farm down the road, and into the Turkish Café.
Arrived there, he busied himself making her some tea. She sat gazing straight before her, thoroughly numbed with fear. O'Farrel considered that there was not the slightest possibility of her trying to escape. She was beyond that.
Having himself prepared the tea, he made her drink a cup, and, with a cheerful farewell, left the café, and quickly made his way back to the farm. Here he wasted no time. He took off his mackintosh, put on a pair of gloves, turned the body of the Russian over onto its back, and commenced a systematic search. There was nothing on the body, not even a coin in the pocket. O'Farrel, disappointed, rose to his feet, stepped back, and scratched his head in perplexity. He shrugged, and was about to leave the room, when he noticed something which made him stop. One of the heels on the dead man's boots looked higher than its fellow. O'Farrel took his pocket-knife from his pocket, inserted it at the top of the heel where it joined the boot, and twisted it. A little chuckle of delight broke from him as the entire heel came off the boot. The inside was hollowed out, and in the cavity was a tiny oilskin packet. O'Farrel undid it with fingers which trembled a little with excitement. Inside the oilskin was a small piece of parchment. On the parchment in one corner was a printed red star and a number, and pencilled beneath it was "Rothenstarmer, 736 Tottenham Court Road, London, England."
O'Farrel put the piece of parchment in his pocket. Then he stuck the heel back on the boot and turned the body over again on to its face, leaving it exactly as he had found it. Then he walked into the other room and searched the body of the man in the fawn raincoat. There was nothing to be found there, and he returned to the other room and put on his mackintosh.
O'Farrel believed in acting quickly. He believed that the address on the piece of parchment was one which the dead Russian had intended to visit, and he believed that the star and the number constituted an identification mark. It was obvious, thought O'Farrel, that if the Russian had already visited the address in Tottenham Court Road, the piece of parchment would not have been so carefully concealed in the heel of his boot. It had been concealed there in order that it might evade any search. It seemed to O'Farrel that the next thing for him to do was to return to London immediately, visit the address in Tottenham Court Road, and, if necessary, produce the piece of parchment as evidence of his bona fides. He felt certain that at this address lay some important clue.
He walked over to the window which looked out to the front of the farm where he had left his motor-cycle. As he did so the moon appeared from the clouds, and cast a silvery beam of light on the strip of moorland which ran by the side of the farm. Standing under a tree, his pipe in his mouth, and his hands in his pockets, was an individual whom O'Farrel had no difficulty in recognising from Peabody's description as the man in plus-fours.
For a moment the idea came to him to go and speak to this strange individual but, on second thoughts, he dismissed the idea from his head, and, running quickly down the stairs, he left the farm, started up his motor-bike, and set off for London. Behind him lay the Turkish Café, and in it a woman who was waiting for something or somebody. O'Farrel felt a great pang of pity for her. Why, he hardly knew.
He realised that she would be expecting him to return, but in O'Farrel's heart was a deep-seated desire to solve the mystery of Sepach Farm before Kenkins arrived, and he was going to consider nothing but this end.
Crouched over the handlebars of his motor-cycle, with the wind and rain blowing in his face, taking the corners at a perilous speed, O'Farrel sped back towards London.
He was supremely happy.
IT was nearly five o'clock when O'Farrel, tired out and covered with mud, rode slowly down the nearly-deserted Tottenham Court Road in search of 763.
He had come up to London at an almost impossible speed, and had been so intent on keeping his motor-cycle upright on the slippery roads that he had thought very little about the interview which now lay before him.
O'Farrel had no delusions as to the danger of this interview. He realised that the man from whose body he had taken the piece of parchment was not likely to be in touch with individuals noted for their gentle outlook on life.
Eventually he found the house. It was a dirty old-fashioned place, standing back in a mean alley. On the door was a rickety knocker mended with a piece of rusty wire. O'Farrel, who believed in doing things first, and considering them afterwards, rapped loudly on the door, and waited.
After a few minutes he heard voices and a shuffling of feet, and then the door opened.
Framed in the doorway, which was dimly lit by a naked gas-jet flickering further down the passage, was an old woman. Her face was lined and dirty, and her eyes were like those of a snake. O'Farrel, thinking it best to say nothing, held out towards her the slip of parchment. She looked at it for a moment and then beckoned him in, closing the door quietly behind him. Then she went down the passage, and knocked on another door at the end of it. The door was opened slightly by someone on the inside.
"He's come," O'Farrel heard the old woman whisper.
After a few moments' muttered conversation the door was pushed wide open, and a man stepped into the passage. As he stood directly under the flickering gas-jet O'Farrel was able to study him carefully. He was a short broad-shouldered individual dressed in an old double-breasted blue suit, beneath which showed the grimy collar of a dirty grey-flannel shirt. His face was almost the colour of a Chinaman's, but the broad nose and thick lips spoke of a touch of negro ancestry. He advanced, and looked steadily at O'Farrel.
"I am Rothenstarmer," he said. "Why have you come? Are you from Steitlin? Why is he not here himself?"
He spoke in a tone of authority.
O'Farrel handed him the piece of parchment.
"Steitlin's held up," he said. "This afternoon he fell, and twisted his ankle badly. He sent me."
"Yes," said Rothenstarmer, "and what did he send you for? We're sick of waiting for Steitlin. For two months we've heard each week that Steitlin would be here next day. Always next day. Now he's come there's an accident— something else stopped things moving. We shan't always be so patient. You had better come inside."
He led the way through the door at the end of the passage. Stepping over the threshold, and down two stone steps, O'Farrel, following Rothenstarmer, found himself in a big room which looked as if it might have been a cellar. The place was furnished with a few rickety tables, chairs, and old packing-cases, and, sitting about this place, dozing, asleep, or talking in whispers, were the most villainous crew that O'Farrel had ever seen in his life. Here and there through the dim light O'Farrel saw the face of a Chinaman or a negro, malevolent, bestial faces. At the far end of the room, leaning against the dirty wall, smoking, was a young man who looked as if he might at some time have been a gentleman.
O'Farrel was experiencing a decided thrill. His plan seemed to have worked. This man Rothenstarmer evidently believed that he was the accredited messenger of the dead Russian: the man for whom they were waiting; the man whose name was apparently Steitlin. He realised that he must be very careful. He had but to make one slip and he knew that he might expect short mercy from the assembly before him.
Rothenstarmer banged on the table. Those who were asleep woke up; those who were talking abandoned their conversation and looked with interest towards Rothenstarmer.
"Listen, comrades," said Rothenstarmer, "once more we are delayed. Apparently, as I told you this morning, Steitlin has arrived. In the meantime I am told that he has hurt himself—his ankle is twisted—so that, once again, we must wait; but I have told Steitlin's messenger, who is here, as I tell you now, that we will not wait much longer. For months we have worked in order to bring about the situation which now exists, and, come what may our plan must be put through within the next twenty-four hours. This is the message, comrades, that I propose to send to Steitlin. Unless, by to-morrow afternoon, Steitlin is here with definite instructions for us, to-morrow night we will go to Sepach Farm and we will carry through the business ourselves. Do you agree?"
A low murmur of assent came from the assembly. It sounded to O'Farrel like the growl of a hungry animal. Rothenstarmer turned to him.
"You hear?" he said.
"I heard all right," said O'Farrel, bluffing as well as he could, "but Steitlin cannot be blamed for falling down a flight of steps and twisting his ankle. Also, you know, be has been ill; besides, what is the hurry?"
Rothenstarmer laughed. "Hurry?" he said. "Are you mad? Look!"
He pushed into O'Farrel's hand a copy of the evening paper, and pointed with a grimy finger to a paragraph on the front page.
O'Farrel took the paper from his bands, and read:—
No 6 Destroyer Flotilla, having finished the tactical exercises announced last week, will shortly return to its base. This Flotilla has now been at sea for five weeks. It is expected in the English Channel to-morrow night."
O'Farrel nodded. "You're right," he said. "There isn't very much time, is there?"
"There's not," said Rothenstarmer. "Six times, for some reason or other, we've had to put off our great stroke, the day for which we've planned, the day which will show the world that the Thirteenth International exists, and possesses both brains and courage. Take our message back to Steitlin and tell him that, whether we receive instructions from him or not, to-morrow night will find us at Sepach Farm. Good-night, comrade."
He put out a grimy hand, and O'Farrel shook it heartily. Rothenstarmer then led the way back to the front door.
O'FARREL, standing once more in the Tottenham Court Road, was glad to breathe the clean night air after the stifling atmosphere which he had just left. He found himself more intrigued than ever. What was the connection between the dead man at Sepach Farm and this villainous crowd who sat in cellars in the Tottenham Court Road? What was the connection between them and the fact that a torpedo flotilla would sail into the English Channel the next night? O'Farrel was tired out. He ached in every limb, but the excitement of the whole business acted on his nerves like a tonic. He knew that miles away in the Turkish Café the unhappy woman was waiting his return. O'Farrel wondered if anything exciting had happened since he had been away. He made up his mind that he would return to Stranover—and at once. He refilled his petrol tank at a night garage, and set off, for the second time that night, to Sepach Farm.
Crouched over his handle-bars, O'Farrel realised very certainly that something definite had got to be done before the next night. He smiled cynically to himself as he visualised what the atmosphere would be like when, in addition to the mysteries which had already taken place, Rothenstarmer and his gang appeared on the scene. Of one thing O'Farrel was certain—they would be going there for no good!
In the meantime he busied himself with working out some plan of campaign with regard to the woman in the gold kimono. Knowing that she was Peabody's wife, O'Farrel felt that it was his duty to his friend to keep her out of any further trouble. In his mind a plan had already begun to take shape, which was this: That, on his arrival, after seeing her, he would hire a car, drive her to the hotel at Stranover, and go back to the farm where he was certain he would find Peabody and Kenkins. O'Farrel chuckled to himself when he imagined Kenkins' face, and the surprise which would be registered thereon when he, O'Farrel, told them the story of his night's adventures, and showed them what a wonderful fellow he was, and what a march he had stolen on the pair of them.
These thoughts cheered him considerably, and, as the miles sped by, he found himself exulting in the excitement which had occurred, and which would probably continue through the next day. In his heart O'Farrel knew now that, having advised Peabody and Kenkins of the state of affairs as he knew them, they must inform the police that some more mysterious business would shortly take place at the farm. Having done this, O'Farrel imagined with a touch of regret that their part in the Sepach Farm drama would be finished.
His return journey was rapid, and he altered his route, enabling him to stop at Salthaven Station and inquire of the solitary sleepy porter at what time the first rain from London arrived. The train left London at 6.30 he learned, and it was a slow train, arriving at Salthaven at 8.45. O'Farrel imagined that Peabody and Kenkins would come down on this train, and would cut across country from Salthaven to the farm. Having obtained this information, he re-mounted his motor-cycle and continued his journey down the Salthaven road.
Dawn was just breaking as O'Farrel approached the farm, the top of which showed ghost-like out of the slight sea-mist which lay over the countryside. As he passed the farm and the top of the Turkish Café came into view above the cliff edge, he saw a light twinkling in the window. O'Farrel, swayed by some unknown motive, pulled up at the farm, entered it, and went upstairs. His idea was to see if the place was as he had left it, or if any other intruders had been there since his previous visit.
But the place was unchanged. He examined the hall and stairs for muddy footmarks but there were none and upstairs the bodies lay as he had left them. He descended the stairs and returned to his motor-cycle, which after a moment's thought, he pushed into a clump of bushes on the other side of the road. Then he walked quickly towards the Turkish Café. As he was about to descend the stairs which led to the café door, the door opened, and a figure appeared. O'Farrel saw that it was the young man whom Peabody had described to him, the man in the tweed suit, the man who had not heard the shots at Sepach Farm. O'Farrel descended the stairs quickly, and stood face to face with the other.
"Good morning," he said brightly, "how do you do?"
For reply the young man aimed a sudden blow at O'Farrel, who ducked, and in a moment the pair were struggling fiercely. O'Farrel, who was in good condition, felt that he was more than a match for his adversary, but it was obvious to him that the other knew little of the science of boxing. As the young man aimed a wild blow at O'Farrel, the latter sprang aside, and closing suddenly, he upper-cut his adversary fiercely. The young man crumpled up and dropped to the ground, almost senseless. O'Farrel, leaning up against the cliff-side to recover his breath, gazed with some amazement at the recumbent figure before him.
"Well, my friend," he said eventually, as the man struggled to his knees. "I think you are much too precious to be allowed to escape. I think I am going to tie you up, and deposit you at Sepach Farm for a bit. That seems to be the headquarters for everybody in this neighbourhood."
O'Farrel took off the leather belt which he wore round his mackintosh, and with which he intended to bind the young Russian's hands, and advanced for the purpose of carrying his scheme into execution. As he did so, the café door opened, and the woman appeared; but she was not the sobbing, piteous woman of the night before. She held her head proudly, and in her right hand was a small automatic pistol.
"I don't think so," she said quietly. "You will let him go, and if you try to stop him I shall shoot you."
O'Farrel grinned and shrugged. By this time the young man had regained his feet and stood, rubbing his jaw. Then, at a signal from the woman, and with a malevolent glance at O'Farrel, the young Russian ran swiftly up the steps leading to the cliff road, and disappeared from view.
With the departure of the mysterious young man the attitude of the woman changed. The hand holding the pistol dropped to her side, and O'Farrel thought, as he stood looking at her, that there was a look of entreaty in her eyes.
After a moment he spoke:
"Well, my lady of the gold kimono," he said, "I think I know your secret."
He lit a cigarette casually, watching her out of the corner of his eyes. "That young man is the man who did the killing at Sepach Farm," said O'Farrel. "Why are you trying to shield him? I'm afraid it won't be much use. We don't allow double murderers at large in England you know."
"He did not kill both..." she murmured... "not both... only Steitlin."
She stopped suddenly; and then as suddenly seemed to come to a conclusion. She turned to O'Farrel.
"You are a friend of Captain Peabody—my husband," she said brokenly. "I will tell you the truth."
She turned and led the way into the café, and O'Farrel followed.
WHEN the 8.45 train arrived at Salthaven Junction and Peabody and Kenkins stepped out on to the platform, the slight mist, which seemed to hang over the moorland perpetually, and the continual drizzle of rain, made Peabody more depressed than ever.
During the journey down, the association of his wife with the murders at Sepach Farm had taken ominous shape in his mind, and even the rather forced cheerfulness of Kenkins (so obviously forced that it depressed Peabody more than ever) cheered him not at all. They walked down the road towards the farm in silence. Peabody's mind was already on the scene within the farm as he had last seen it. The philosophical Kenkins, whose medical mind was entirely unperturbed at the thought of seeing dead bodies, was endeavouring to figure out why the calm and rather conventional-minded Peabody was so interested in this affair.
Arrived at the farm Peabody pushed open the rickety gate, and, ascending the stairs, led the way towards the room on the left of the passage. On the threshold he paused with an exclamation, and, turning quickly, walked into the opposite room. Kenkins, looking round the doorway, saw the reason for Peabody's surprise—the bodies were gone!
Kenkins produced a pipe from his pocket, filled and lit it.
"This rather upsets your ideas doesn't it, Peabody," he said. "Scotland Yard tell us that the local police know nothing of any murders at Sepach Farm; yet, between the time you left here last night and now, someone has removed two particularly heavy corpses. If what you have said is correct there are only three people beside ourselves who knew of the existence of these bodies. They are the woman in the gold kimono, the man in plus-fours, and—"
"And who else?" asked Peabody.
Kenkins grinned. "Etienne O'Farrel," he said, with a cynical smile. "I have been thinking about O'Farrel and I have realised why he refused his assistance. The fact of the matter is he didn't want to be associated with me in this business; he doesn't like me; I'm much too logical for that scintillating young Irishman—too heavy. It would be like O'Farrel to come down here immediately after you left him last night and interview this mysterious lady who has a predilection for wearing gold kimonos, and, if he thought sufficiently of her, assist her in removing the bodies.
Peabody said nothing. He had a decided idea that the logical Kenkins might be right.
"Now, look here," Kenkins continued, "let's take it that O'Farrel did come down here, and that, at least, he knows something about the removal of these bodies. Knowing that the young man is very fond of comfort, I will wager that at the present moment he is doing himself very well as regards breakfast at the nearest hotel or inn. Do you know of one?"
"That would be the Crown Inn at Stranover," said Peabody, "there's nowhere else."
"All right," said Kenkins, "let's go over there. If we find O'Farrel there we can, at least, discover what he's been doing since you left him last night."
Peabody nodded. He was thoroughly discomfited at the turn which events had taken. The tangled skein was becoming more tangled, and he could see no way out.
They left the farm, and started on their long walk across the damp moorland. They had walked two miles, and were passing a thick coppice, when, suddenly, Peabody stopped and put his hand on Kenkins' arm. From the coppice there emerged an individual—the man in plus-fours. He was looking as cheerful as ever, although very wet, and the little chubby pipe was hanging out of the corner of his mouth as it had been when Peabody first saw him. Peabody commenced to speak, but the man in plus-fours stopped him with a gesture.
"Now, look here," he said, "I told you last night in the train, Captain Peabody, that wise men mind their own business. I told you that Sepach Farm at the moment was a particularly unhealthy place, and I told you that if you went to the police and told them your story they would tell you that you were suffering from hallucinations. Well, you went to the police, and they told you that, but, in spite of my warning, I find you hanging about here again. I have had enough of you, and I'm going to take steps to insure that your interference is at an end."
Four particularly stalwart individuals appeared out of the coppice. Peabody attempted to struggle as two of them approached him, but he was soon overpowered. Kenkins, always logical, noticed the stalwart and somewhat disciplined bearing of the men. He thought that they might have been soldiers, or sailors possibly.
Within five minutes Peabody and Kenkins, with their hands trussed behind them, were being led towards a deserted shed which stood at the bottom of Deep End field, two miles from the farm. Arrived at the shed, they were unceremoniously pushed inside, and the door locked behind them. Peabody sat down on a pile of wood with a muttered curse. The whole thing had got beyond him, but Kenkins, always observant, noticed that the lock on the shed door was entirely new, almost as if someone had known that the shed was to receive prisoners.
WHEN he had locked the door of the shed at Deep End the man in plus-fours stood, with his hands in his pockets, thinking deeply. One would have imagined that he was as perplexed as Peabody. After a minute he spoke a few words to the four men who, touching their caps, walked off across the moor towards Stranover. The man in plus-fours, who looked very tired, shook some of the rain from his coat, and struck off diagonally towards the large patch of gorse which stood on the south side of Deep End field. As he approached, two men came out to meet him.
"I have just locked the enterprising Peabody and another fellow in the shed," said the man in plus-fours. "What they are doing down here I don't know. Peabody went along to Scotland Yard and interviewed Sir John Scarrell. Scarrell rang through to the Chief Constable at Stranover. I was there and told him what had happened at the farm. I told him, too, that the matter must at all costs be kept out of the hands of the local police; that, somehow, he must persuade this Peabody that the whole thing was a myth or a matter of nerves, or something; rather a difficult thing to do, I grant you. The whole thing is beyond me," the man in plus-fours continued. "I think..."
"It seems simple enough to me, Grant," said one of the other men. "You know that Steitlin was coming to Sepach Farm. It is fairly obvious that he was going to meet somebody. That somebody apparently saw him and Philipson. If this fellow Peabody walked into the farm casually, it is fairly obvious that he would go to the police about it, and if, after Scarrell had told him that he was suffering from hallucinations, he still believed in his own story, what is more logical than that he should return and bring somebody with him to verify it?"
Grant grinned. "There will be precious little verification!" he said. "I had the bodies taken to the Stranover police mortuary this morning, but I wish to heaven I had seen and spoken to Philipson before they got him. Philipson was the only man who really knew anything about this Steitlin business. My instructions were to follow Steitlin from the time he left Helsingfors until he arrived in England, I was on the same boat. Directly Steitlin landed I telephoned Philipson, who told me to meet him at Sepach Farm at 6 o'clock. He told me also that Steitlin would make direct for the farm. I stuck to Steitlin as far as Stranover, but I lost him there, and made up my mind that I would get on to the farm ahead of him. On the road I passed this fellow Peabody, and, thinking that he might be one of Philipson's men, I asked him the code question: 'Do you know a man named Truesmith?' His replies convinced me that he knew nothing of the matter. I left him, and cut across the moorland towards the farm, but a mist came up, and I lost my way. I walked back to the cliff road, and, as I arrived, there were two shots at Sepach Farm. This fellow Peabody was just coming up the steps from the Turkish Café. He thought I had not seen him, and stood up from the rain under a tree. I went down the café steps and found at the bottom a black georgette gown lying in the rain. Then I made up my mind I would go up to the farm and report to Philipson, but this Peabody was ahead of me. He went into the farm, and came out just at the moment that the woman came up the road from, the Turkish Café. When she saw him she turned tail and went back. Peabody, after a bit, cut across country for Salthaven Junction. I was not certain at the time, as to whether he had anything to do with the woman or not, so I went to the station on my motor-cycle, went up to town by the same train, and en route advised him to keep his mouth shut.
"One thing stands to reason," he continued, "something's going to happen at this farm. What it is only Philipson knows, but he's dead, but I'm going to hang on here until it does happen, and Mr. Peabody, who, if our London people know what they're talking about, is quite an innocuous individual, is going to stay in the tool-shed with his friend until I do know.
"I've got to find out why Philipson was at the farm waiting for Steitlin; I've got to find out what Steitlin wanted at the farm."
"You know all you want to know about Steitlin," said the man who had not yet spoken.
"I don't," said Grant. "I know that Steitlin is a member of the Thirteenth International, the most select murder-club employed by the scum of Soviet Russia. I know that he was responsible for the blowing-up of the Lithuanian Embassy last year, and I know that there are about fifteen murders tacked on to his name, but I don't know what he wants at a deserted, empty farm, stuck here on the English sea-coast, and I wish I did. He was a dangerous man, was Steitlin."
He knocked out his pipe on the palm of his hand.
"Bracknell," he said, "go back to Stranover and keep that fat station-inspector amused and happy. Hang on there till you hear from me. You, Tesswood, go over to Salthaven Junction and keep your eye on any new arrivals. I rather fancy we shall have some company at Sepach Farm before the day is out. So long!"
The two men went off. Grant, his hands in his pockets, moodily walked back towards the farm. He was very perturbed, although he was not of a nature—as no man is after fifteen years in the Secret Service—to be upset by unimportant happenings, but the situation at the farm worried him; he was in the dark.
He approached the farm from the moorland side, pushed his way through the gap in the fence, and walked across the courtyard towards the door. As he reached the farm door it opened, and, with a beneficent smile on his face, Etienne O'Farrel stepped out. O'Farrel looked quite pleased with himself. He was getting quite a kick out of life.
"Well," said Grant, his hands in his pockets, his feet wide apart, "what the devil do you want here, and who are you, anyway?"
O'Farrel examined his fingernails of his right hand with care.
"You funny little man," he said. "I'm getting rather tired of you. I've heard that you've been hanging about this farm since last night. I don't like people who hang about."
"You don't," said Grant. "Well, what are you going to do about it?"
O'Farrel did not reply, but he acted very promptly. Closing his fist, he hit the unfortunate Grant squarely between the eyes. The man in plus-fours went down like a log, and O'Farrel, whistling cheerfully to himself, went inside the farm. He returned after a moment, carrying a piece of rope with which he trussed up the unfortunate Grant. In the far end of the courtyard, on the moorland side, stood a dilapidated barn, and into this O'Farrel dragged the unconscious Secret Service man, whom he placed on a pile of old sacks which stood in the corner. Then, with his cap over one eye, and whistling more cheerfully than ever. O'Farrel walked off in the direction of the Turkish Café.
In thus disposing of Grant, O'Farrel had carried out his usual routine of doing things first and considering them afterwards. He was suspicious of Grant, and yet he had no means at the moment of finding out exactly where Grant fitted into the jigsaw of events at Sepach Farm. He believed, however, that within the next few hours he would put his finger on some point from which he could start a real investigation, and he considered that this investigation would be easier with the man in plus-fours out of the way. Too many people were curious about the murders at the farm, O'Farrel thought, and he believed in the elimination of the unimportant.
That Grant might be on the side of the forces of law and order had occurred to the young Irishman; yet he believed the chances that he was in league with the murderer or murderers were just as great. He was taking no chances and he felt relieved that—at any rate for the moment—there would be no further interference from the individual who now lay, cursing quietly to himself, in the barn.
IT was the logical Kenkins who discovered a means of escape from the tool shed in Deep End field.
Peabody had contented himself with sitting down and cursing and then glumly considering the hopelessness of the situation, but Kenkins, having managed to wriggle his feet out of the cords which had bound his ankles, wandered about the tool-shed looking for some means to free his hands, which were tied behind his back.
Eventually he found a jagged nail sticking out from the side of the shed which suited excellently, and, by standing with his back to it, and working, the ropes against it, after three-quarters of an hour's work he succeeded in getting his hands free. He then freed Peabody from his bonds, and they jointly considered how they might get out of the tool shed. This was fairly easy, for the boards were old and rotten, and in one corner of the shed had already begun to crack.
A determined onslaught on this weak spot with a chopper, which they found in the shed, soon made a hole large enough for Peabody to wriggle through. Kenkins followed with difficulty, and arrived on the other side bathed in perspiration after his struggles. Outside they stood looking at each other; neither had any set plan in his mind.
The mist had now risen, and the sun was trying to shine through the clouds. Peabody, walking round the shed, saw something, and signalled to Kenkins. To their left about a hundred yards away, and almost between them and Sepach Farm, stood another of the old-fashioned barns, which had evidently been used for storage purposes when the farm was inhabited. Approaching this barn furtively, and with occasional glances over his shoulder, was the young man whom Peabody immediately recognised as the young Russian he had met on the Salthaven road the afternoon before. He drew Kenkins back behind the cover of the tool-shed, and, looking round the corner, he saw the young man enter the barn. Kenkins, after Peabody had told him who the young man was, considered for a moment. "Look here, Peabody," he said eventually, "it's ten to one that this fellow was actually in the farm at the time those murders took place, and I think that it's very probable that he either committed them himself, or he knows who did. Let's capture him! We are two to one, and, after all, if he thinks that the game's up, he may talk."
Peabody agreed. He was feeling so hopeless about the whole business that he was prepared to take any steps which might bring them to some definite conclusion.
After a short consultation they separated. Peabody, making a wider detour, worked his way over the moorland and round to the other side of the barn, whilst Kenkins, taking advantage of such cover as the bracken and gorse provided, took the direct line. When they arrived they saw that the barn door was slightly open. They listened, but not a sound came from within, and, after a moment, Peabody pushed open the door, and they entered. The barn was quite dark inside except for a patch of light which came through the open doorway. They peered into the darkness, but heard and saw nothing. Suddenly an electric torch was flashed into their eyes.
"Come in, gentlemen," said a quiet voice, "but don't try any tricks. I have you covered, and I should not mind shooting either or both of you in the slightest degree."
As their eyes became accustomed to the darkness, they saw the young man, this Russian who spoke English so well, sitting on an overturned wheel-barrow on the other side of the barn, a large automatic in his hand, smiling.
"May I introduce myself?" he said. "My name is Irietoff."
Peabody started involuntarily. So this was Irietoff, one of the names which the man in the fawn rain coat had signalled before he died.
"I should put that gun down if I were you," he said. "You won't gain anything by any more shooting."
Irietoff smiled, and, in spite of the fact that neither Peabody nor Kenkins had any reason to like him, they felt irresistibly drawn to this insouciant young man who sat there dangling the heavy automatic between his fingers with a particularly good-humoured smile playing across his well-cut features. He extracted a cigarette case from his pocket with his free hand, then a matchbox, deftly struck a match, lit his cigarette and threw the case to Kenkins.
"Help yourself, gentlemen," he said. "Incidentally may I know the reason for this visit?" His smile became even more bland.
"Now, look here, Irietoff," said Kenkins, "don't you think it's time that all this play-acting ceased? My friend here saw you coming down the Salthaven road yesterday afternoon. Immediately after two shots were fired and two people killed at Sepach Farm. You said that you didn't hear those shots. We know that you must have heard them. Although it was raining hard, your clothes were not wet, and the only place where you could have sheltered from the rain was at the farm. You either killed those men yourself, or you know who did it. The best thing you can do is to tell the truth."
The young man considered for a moment; then, still smiling, he looked up.
"I don't know if you are police-officers," he said, "and I don't care very much. Perhaps I killed somebody at Sepach Farm; perhaps I didn't; but, if you are police-officers, I would like you to know that the lady who keeps the Turkish Café had nothing to do with these killings. I mention this because I may have been seen talking to her, and I should not like her to be mixed up in this affair."
"That's very nice of you," said Peabody. "May I ask why you are so careful of this lady's reputation?"
Irietoff grinned. "That's my business," he said, "and I don't wish to discuss it with you. Personally, I quite realise that I must be captured sooner or later. I am a stranger in England, I have been here only a few days. I have no friends, and my work is done."
His face became serious for a moment.
"I came to this country for a purpose," he continued. "I came to kill Steitlin and I have killed him."
During the time that Irietoff had been speaking Kenkins had been edging imperceptibly towards him. Irietoff, concerned with what he was saying, his hand, which held the automatic hanging listlessly by his side, was taken by surprise as Kenkins, with a sudden leap, sprang upon him, knocking him off the wheel-barrow. Peabody sprang to his friend's assistance, and in a moment, the Russian was disarmed. He appeared to accept his capture with equanimity, and made no attempt to struggle, which, indeed, he could not do, seeing that the large Kenkins was sitting comfortably on his chest. Within a few minutes their captive was trussed up as securely as possible with the pieces of rope which Peabody fetched from the tool-shed. Kenkins, quite satisfied with the proceedings, wiped the perspiration from his brow.
"Well, Peabody," he said, "what's the next move?"
Peabody considered. "Well, we've got the man who murdered Steitlin," he said, "although, I must say, I prefer the murderer to the murdered. If this fellow didn't kill the other man I'd like to know who did. I think the best thing I can do is to leave you here with this fellow while I get over to Stranover as quickly as possible and try to find out what O'Farrel's been up to."
"All right," said Kenkins, "but be as quick as you can; I'm not too keen on being left in the middle of moors with murderers."
Peabody grinned, "I won't be long," he said, and made off across the moor towards Stranover.
ONCE out of sight of the barn and Kenkins, Peabody changed direction, and, turning to the left, made his way away from the moor towards the cliff road. He struck the road about five hundred yards from the Turkish Café, in the direction of which he now walked rapidly. Peabody was feeling better. Irietoff's remark that the woman had nothing to do with the murders at the farm had cheered him, and he felt that the time had come for an explanation.
His heart beat rapidly as be approached the steps leading to the café. He visualised Irma, not as the woman in the gold kimono running through the rain towards a deserted farm, a woman associated in some way with murders and murderers, but as the Irma that he had known, the woman he had met and loved years before in Russia, the woman who had shared his honeymoon in happier days on these very roads and moors.
He ran down the steps quickly. The door of the Turkish Café was open, and he went in. He found the switch and turned on the light, illuminating the long richly-furnished room about which an atmosphere of perfume still lingered. The place was empty. Peabody walked across the room, through which he had seen her disappear on the occasion of his first visit, and up the winding flight of wooden stairs which led to the first floor; but there was no one there.
The two rooms upstairs consisted of a bathroom and a bedroom. Peabody, standing cap in hand, in the bedroom, almost sensed the presence of Irma there. The room was quietly elegant, and on the dressing-table Peabody noticed, with a catch in his throat, a large silver-framed photograph of himself in uniform—the photograph which he had given her. He looked round the room, but found nothing to indicate where she might be. A wardrobe was open, and inside hung the gold kimono. As Peabody was about to close the door, he noticed something lying in the corner of the wardrobe.
He bent down and picked it up. It was a small close-fitting felt hat, which, seemingly, had been thrown hurriedly into the wardrobe, or knocked down from a peg when the garment was removed. Beneath it was a crumpled piece of paper. Peabody picked it up and gave a start as he recognised O'Farrel's handwriting. He took the note to the window and read it.
Dear Lady-in-the-Gold-Kimono, (it said) things are moving rapidly. I have conveniently disposed of the gentleman in plus-fours, and now all is well. I shall be back in an hour with a car, and will take you to happier quarters for the time being.
Peabody stood regarding the note with a puzzled expression. It proved conclusively that O'Farrel had been at work, and apparently, had dealt with matters with his usual rapidity. Peabody was glad In his heart that Irma had been taken away from the morbid atmosphere of the Turkish Café. The next thing was to find O'Farrel.
He left the café and set off briskly along the Stranover road. It was nearly midday and the sun was shining. Peabody, to his great surprise, found himself whistling. For some reason, which he could not understand, he felt quite cheerful. It was ten minutes past one when he arrived at the Crown Hotel at Stranover. He greeted the portly landlord, who was slightly surprised at the sudden reappearance of his guest who had so mysteriously disappeared. Peabody explained that be had been called to London on business and promptly examined the hotel register. There, before him, was the bold and straggling writing which proclaimed that Mr. Etienne O'Farrel, of London, was a guest at the hotel.
Peabody asked the clerk the number of O'Farrel's room.
"Mr. O'Farrel's out, sir," the girl said, "but before he left be asked me to give you this note. He said you'd be along shortly."
Peabody laughed outright. O'Farrel was certainly clever. He had guessed that Kenkins would know of his determination to solve the Sepach Farm mystery by himself, and knew that Peabody would eventually try to find him. "O'Farrel thinks of everything," mused Peabody as he tore open the envelope.
Dear old Peabody (he read):
I expect by this time that that oaf Kenkins would have guessed that I would come down here by myself. Of course I did. You didn't think I was going to be left out of a first-class mystery like this, did you? And, my lad, I'm doing very well. I've practically solved the whole thing. By the way don't worry about the lady in the gold kimono. She is quite safe, but I rather fancy that she doesn't want to see you just at the moment. Meet me at Sepach Farm at 12 o'clock to-night, by which time I think I shall have the whole business cleared up. Tell Kenkins to go to blazes!
Peabody put the note in his pocket and made for the hotel garage. His intention was to drive back, pick up Kenkins and the captive, and hand Irietoff over to the local police. Candidly, Peabody could not see how O'Farrel could have solved the mystery without capturing Irietoff, which he certainly had not done, but Peabody thought that matters could stand as they were until O'Farrel turned up that night, when they could compare notes.
Peabody understood that Irma did not wish to meet him at the moment, but he felt more settled in his mind about her now that he was certain she was safe.
At 1.30 Peabody stopped the car, which he had hired, outside Sepach Farm, and, cutting across the courtyard, passed the small barn in the corner, in which at this very moment Grant, the unfortunate individual in plus-fours, was a prisoner, made his way towards the big barn on the moor where he had left Kenkins. He felt that Kenkins would be thrilled and annoyed at the new developments, for Kenkins disliked O'Farrel just as much as the cynical O'Farrel disliked Kenkins, and it was with a smile on his face that he kicked open the barn door. The sight within, however, removed the smile rapidly. Leaning up against the wheelbarrow, and trussed up with yards of rope, was the portly form of Kenkins. Irietoff was gone.
"Who did this, Kenkins?" asked Peabody, as he proceeded to untie the portly medico.
"Who," spluttered the infuriated Kenkins, "who, but that young swine O'Farrel! A quarter of an hour after you left here he arrived suddenly and demanded the release of Irietoff. When I asked him what the devil he meant, and why he wanted Irietoff released, he told me that it was to oblige a lady, and that I could jolly well mind my own business. Naturally, I refused, and before I could say a word, he set about me. If I had been fifteen years younger," said Kenkins, "I'd have given him a good hiding; as it is, I was no match for him.
"Anyhow to cut a long story short, after he had finished with me he released this fellow Irietoff. They tied me up, and off they went together. When I see O'Farrel again I'll tell him what I think of him. First of all, he says he isn't coming down here, then he comes, and having arrived here, he appears to have leagued himself with every odd murderer that he can find in this vicinity; and, as far as I can see," continued the disgruntled Kenkins, "the place seems to be positively teeming with them."
Peabody grinned and endeavoured to soothe the ruffled Kenkins' feelings. Of one thing he was certain: O'Farrel had some very good reason for releasing Irietoff, a reason which be did not wish to explain to Kenkins. Peabody imagined the delight with which the enterprising O'Farrel had tied up his ancient enemy, and left him in the barn.
In a few words Peabody told Kenkins of O'Farrel's note and the appointment at the farm at midnight. Kenkins and Peabody, walking back to the car, agreed that the best thing they could do was to go to bed and get some sleep, which they sorely needed, so that they would be fresh for anything which the night might bring forth.
Arrived at the car, they drove rapidly back to Stranover, Kenkins grumbling at the perfidy of O'Farrel, and Peabody at the wheel, his mind busy with thoughts of Irma, gazing before him at the long vista of road.
IT was half-past four in the afternoon when O'Farrel, whistling, and with his cap on one side, opened the door of the small barn in the courtyard, and, entering, regarded the trussed-up figure of Grant.
Grant, who had not forgiven O'Farrel for the extremely efficient manner in which he had been knocked out, regarded the young Irishman with a malevolent glance.
"I advise you to untie these ropes," he growled. "I've had about enough of you, and if you think you can go about knocking out and tying up members of one of His Majesty's services you will soon find your mistake."
O'Farrel grinned. "So that's it, is it?" he said. "I wondered exactly what you were, but you see I thought you were on Rothenstarmer's side."
"What's that?" said the man in plus-fours. "Rothenstarmer! What the devil do you know about Rothenstarmer?"
O'Farrel took out his cigarette case, inserted a cigarette between Grant's lips, lit it, and then one for himself. "I don't know very much about Rothenstarmer," he said, "but I do know I don't like his face at all, and that he and a party, who are rather undesirable friends of his, are coming down here to-night. In the meantime, supposing I do untie you, how do I know that you are telling the truth?"
"Go over to the police station at Stranover," said Grant, "and come back with the Inspector. You will find out soon if I am telling you the truth or not, and you will be kicking your heels in a police cell an hour afterwards, my young friend."
O'Farrel considered. "Well," said he, "that sounds all right to me, but joking apart now, if I untie you will you promise to be good?"
"If you don't untie me," replied Grant, "you will find there will be some more murders at Sepach Farm before another night is out."
This remark decided O'Farrel. He took out his pocket-knife, and cut Grant's bonds. The latter stretched himself and sat rubbing his chafed wrists.
"Now, look here," he said, "how are you mixed up in this business, and what do you know about Rothenstarmer?"
O'Farrel, taking a seat beside Grant, told him briefly of his search of the two bodies the night before, and of Rothenstarmer and his gang in the Tottenham Court Road.
"You see," said O'Farrel, "this business has become a sort of competition between that ass Kenkins and myself. As a matter of fact," he continued, smiling quite happily, "I expect I've been doing all sorts of things to annoy you, as, for instance, my releasing Irietoff."
"Irietoff!" exclaimed Grant. "So he's here. Where is he?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you," said O'Farrel. "You see, I gave him my word I wouldn't. The fact of the matter is this: I expect you know about this mysterious lady in the gold kimono. Well, whatever happened at Sepach Farm, I am certain she knows all about Rothenstarmer but she would not say a word until I promised to bring Irietoff, the young Russian, back to her. You see," said O'Farrel, "I'd already taken her to a safe place. She told me that she was going to meet Irietoff in that big deserted barn about two miles from here, so I said I'd go and fetch him. When I got there I found Kenkins on guard. Naturally, he wouldn't let me have Irietoff, so I had to be a bit rough with him."
Grant gazed with amazement at O'Farrel. "You've got your nerve," he said, with a touch of admiration in his voice. "It seems to me that we've all been running round tying each other up. I'd put that fellow Peabody and the other man, who, I suppose, is the Kenkins you refer to, in the tool-shed in Deep End field, but apparently they escaped. But tell me, when are you going to see this pair—the woman and Irietoff—again?"
"Well," said O'Farrel, "I've had a big idea about this business. I thought I'd get everybody together in the same place. You see, this fellow, Rothenstarmer, said that he and his crowd would be down here to-night. What they are coming down here for I don't know, but for some reason or other he showed me a cutting about a torpedo flotilla coming into the English Channel. I can't make out the connection. Now I've got an appointment with Peabody and Kenkins at Sepach Farm at twelve o'clock to-night, and I've made an appointment with the woman in the gold kimono and Irietoff to meet me at the Turkish Café at a quarter-to-twelve. You'd better come along, too. It looks as if we might have a pleasant evening," said O'Farrel.
Grant considered for a moment; then he looked at O'Farrel, and his face was grave.
"Now, look here," he said, "I'm going to trust you, because I've got to trust you. Things are pretty bad round here and unless something is done very quickly they're going to be worse. This Rothenstarmer is an agent of the Thirteenth International, one of the worst murder-clubs the world has ever known. What they're going to do down here, and what they're going to meet Steitlin for I don't know, but it was for no good. You say your motor-bike is hidden near here. Well, do this. Ride, over to Salthaven Junction and speak to Sir John Scarrell at Scotland Yard. Tell him that you are ringing up on my instructions, and tell him that, whatever happens, Rothenstarmer and his gang must be arrested in London, and not allowed to get down here to-night. It's fairly obvious, I think, that they won't be down here before evening. When you've done this, get the next train to London, go to the Yard, see Sir John, and tell him exactly what has happened down here up to date."
"That's all very well," said O'Farrel, "and I'll do that willingly, but what about my appointments to-night?"
Grant grinned. "Don't you worry about your appointments," he said; "I'll keep them for you, and I promise you that your friend, Kenkins, shall know of the extremely important part which you've played in this business. If you like to return to-morrow morning you will find me at the Crown at Stranover, and I'll let you know what's happened. Now, off you go, and get a move on."
O'Farrel hurried off. He was tingling with excitement. He was not at all surprised to learn that Grant was a Secret Service agent He hurried to the clump of bushes where he had left his motor-bike, and, after some difficulty, for the machine was very cold and wet, he started the engine and dashed off up the Salthaven road.
Dusk was falling, and the mist beginning to rise again. As O'Farrel sped swiftly along the road, he turned over in his mind the dramatic events of the last twenty-four hours. O'Farrel, as a writer, had always believed that truth was stranger than fiction, and it was being amply proved that his belief was correct.
Suddenly, a few yards before him, lying across the road, O'Farrel saw a tree trunk. He cut off his engine, put on the brakes; then, as several figures sprung out from the sides of the road, he endeavoured to disengage himself from the bicycle but it was too late. As something struck O'Farrel on the head he saw before him, for just one moment before he lost consciousness, the malicious, snarling Rothenstarmer. Then the world became blank.
KENKINS, lying very nearly fully-dressed in his bed at the Crown Inn, Stranover, turned over the events of the day in his logical and quiet way. Kenkins was thoroughly dissatisfied with the whole business.
With the capture of Irietoff he had imagined that Peabody and himself were in possession of one of the main actors in the drama, and that, through him, the truth would soon be known.
The enterprising O'Farrel, however, by releasing Irietoff, had upset Kenkins' calculations. O'Farrel's remark that he was releasing Irietoff in order to "oblige a lady" made Kenkins furious each time he thought of it. Although Kenkins had not made the acquaintance of the woman in the gold kimono, it was obvious to him that the woman was connected with the business, and he thought that the impressionable O'Farrel, having fallen in love with some impossible person at first sight, had now allied himself with the opposing forces, and that he, Kenkins, must therefore regard O'Farrel, for the moment anyhow, as his enemy.
Kenkins was curious. He had not seen half enough of Sepach Farm to please him. He had not seen the Turkish Café of which Peabody had told him, and deep-rooted in Kenkins' mind was an idea that the secret of the whole business lay in the Turkish Café.
He looked at his watch. It was nearly eight o'clock. An idea occurred to Kenkins, Why should he not get up and say nothing to Peabody, drive over to the Turkish Café and do a little investigation on his own account?
He quickly put the idea into practice, and ten minutes later found him driving along the cliff road in the car which Peabody had previously hired. Far down the road he could see a light twinkling in an upper room in the Café. Kenkins drove the car on to the edge of the moorland and left it by some trees. Then he continued his way on foot towards the café. As he stood at the top of the steps leading to the café door, the sound of two voices came up to him—one a man's voice, hard and collected, the other the tremulous voice of a woman. Cautiously Kenkins crept down the steps. The Café door was half open. He listened intently. A figure moved inside the door, and Kenkins recognised it—it was Grant, the man in plus-fours.
"I am sorry to have found it necessary to have brought you back here again," Grant was saying, "but I warn you your position is a serious one. Apparently you, assisted by this Mr. O'Farrel, have aided the man Irietoff who may be wanted on a charge of murder."
Kenkins crept down the remaining steps, and across to the door. Peering through, he saw Grant, his pipe still hanging out of his mouth, facing the woman, who, her hands clasped, sat in a chair.
"Another thing," continued Grant, "I understand you've been living down here, running this café. Now it stands to reason that you would do very little business down here. What was the real idea in the Turkish Café? Tell me that."
The woman looked up. "I was waiting for Steitlin," she said.
"What for?" asked the man in plus-fours.
"I was waiting for Steitlin," she repeated, "to kill him if necessary. I didn't do it; someone else did it for me, but I would rather have killed Steitlin than he should have used the ray, for that's what he came here for."
"My God!" said Grant, "not the Q-ray!"
"Yes," she whispered; "don't you see what they were going to do? The ray is concealed between the eaves of the roof of Sepach Farm. They selected that place because it's supposed to be haunted. No one ever came near it. When it was ready they were going to await the opportunity and use it. I knew the ray was here, and I came back to England and opened this café so that I could wait, and so that when Steitlin came I could kill him."
Grant whistled. "Jove!" he muttered. "Now I know why Rothenstarmer's coming down to-night."
He turned to the woman. "Stay here," he said. "I'm going to take a look at this ray. I'll be back in fifteen minutes. If you've told me the truth you'll be all right."
He turned to the door, and, passing Kenkins, who had drawn back flat against the cliff wall, dashed up the stairs and up the road towards Sepach Farm.
The whole thing was clear in his mind. Shortly after midnight the torpedo flotilla would come into the Channel. Grant understood now what Rothenstarmer had meant by the newspaper cutting. They were going to use the ray on the flotilla!
He reached the farm gate, pushed it open, crossed the courtyard, and stepped from the door into the farm. Hardly across the threshold, he stopped with a jerk. The hall of Sepach Farm was lit up by a guttering candle in an old bottle. Seated round the place were a dozen men, and, facing him, an automatic pistol in his hand, stood Rothenstarmer!
Rothenstarmer grinned cynically.
"Pleased to see you, Mr. Grant," he said. "We're collecting people like you. I shall have an opportunity of paying off one or two little scores I have against you. Do you remember that little incident in Vienna in 1921?"
Grant smiled. "I made you laugh the other side of your face then, Rothenstarmer. How long did you get—ten years, wasn't it? And you escaped. I'll see you get taken better care of next time."
The smile faded from Rothenstarmer's face.
"There isn't going to be any next time,'" he snarled. "I'm going to finish you to-night, Grant. We'll have no more of your meddling. Take him away!"
Two of the men seized Grant, and led him to the barn in the courtyard. As his eyes fell on the recumbent figure of O'Farrel his hopes fell to the ground. There was no chance of help.
KENKINS, standing at the top of the steps by the Turkish Café, considered whether it would be best for him to follow Grant to Sepach Farm, but after a moment he dismissed this thought from his mind.
It now seemed obvious, by the snatches of conversation which he had heard, between Grant and the woman, that, at any rate, she was definitely implicated in the stealing of the ray. He, therefore, set off quickly for the car with the intention of returning immediately to Stranover and notifying Peabody of what he had overheard.
Strangely enough, at this very moment, Peabody was looking for Kenkins!
Like Kenkins, Peabody had been unable to sleep. Lying on his back, gazing at the ceiling, he had gone over the events of the last forty-eight hours, and from the mass of conflicting points be had deduced one definite fact. These three people, Steitlin and Irietoff and the other man who had been killed at Sepach Farm, were connected in some way by the Q-ray. Peabody had been so distressed at meeting his wife that he had, in the excitement which had followed, almost forgotten that the ray was probably the cause of all the trouble. Directly Irma had appeared on the scene it had taken second place. It seemed obvious to him that his wife had either given or sold his secret to someone for some reasons best known to herself, and that the result of this had been the murders at the farm. But even if this were so, what was she doing in the neighbourhood? Why was she living at the mysterious Turkish Café? It occurred, quite suddenly, to Peabody that he had never thoroughly searched Sepach Farm—even the logical Kenkins had not thought of that. Peabody remembered that he had only looked into the one downstairs room, and had searched only the two rooms in which he had found the bodies. Further along the passage on the first floor at the farm was another room on the right, and on the left he remembered seeing an odd sort of loft reached by a wide step-ladder leading from the passage. It was now obvious to him that it was necessary that the place should be thoroughly searched, and if this were to be done the search should certainly take place before the meeting at midnight.
This idea took hold of Peabody's brain so strongly that he got up from the bed on which he had lain fully dressed, and walked across the hotel passage to Kenkins' room, expecting to find that worthy sound asleep; he was amazed to find Kenkins' room empty. The bed had certainly been slept on, for there was the imprint of Kenkins' large body, but inquiries downstairs soon elicited the fact that Kenkins had taken the car and gone. Standing somewhat undecided in the hotel lounge, Peabody came to the conclusion that Kenkins, thinking along the same lines as himself, had either gone back to carry out a further search at the farm, or had gone to the Turkish Café, where his natural curiosity might easily lead him. In any event, Peabody made up his mind that he would return to the farm; if he found Kenkins there, all well and good; if not, he could wait until midnight. He made up his mind to walk across the moorland, and a glance at his watch showed him that it was a quarter to ten.
He walked briskly. For once, the moorland seemed quite attractive. There was no sign of rain, and the moon, shining brightly, caused the trees and gorse to cast long shadows over the greensward. Striding along, Peabody wondered what the end would be. It was obvious to him now that those in authority in London must be aware of the happenings at the farm, and that, however much the matter had been kept out of the hands of the local police, there must be an accounting soon, and it was Irma's position in this accounting that troubled Peabody.
The ray had become to him a thing of secondary importance, and he now realised and admitted to himself quite honestly that his main idea had been the protection of Irma.
But, even supposing that she were guiltless of any hand in, or any connection with, the murders, it seemed to Peabody that his own position was hopeless. He realised now, in his rather conventional way, that he still loved Irma, but that all his vague ideas that he might one day find her and that they might take up the threads of their lives together again, were simply hopeless ideas. It seemed definite to Peabody that she had married him simply to obtain the secret of the ray, for he had discussed it with her in the old days in Russia before he brought her to England, and he knew that, with the shadow of this inexcusable theft between them, this plot, in which their marriage had been, as far as she was concerned, merely a move in the game, would stand between them forever like an ominous shadow. A great bitterness came over Peabody, and for once he felt almost a desire for revenge. To-night, when he saw Irma for the last time, he made up his mind that he would tell her what he thought of her, and then he would dismiss her forever from his mind. But even as he thought this he knew it was impossible. He would never be able to forget her.
Standing on a rising slope of the moorland, Peabody looked down to where the gorse-covered grass led up to the tool-shed, which he could see plainly in the moonlight, in which he and Kenkins had been held prisoners. Beyond it he could discern Sepach Farm, looking more ghostly than ever in the moonlight. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter past ten, and he made up his mind that he must hurry.
At the bottom of the little hill was a clump of trees. As Peabody entered the shadows, he thought for a moment that he saw a movement, but he dismissed this from his mind as being due to imagination. He was nearing the other side of the little wood, when, as he passed a tree, a foot shot out and neatly tripped him.
Peabody endeavoured to regain his feet, but before he could do so an unseen hand struck him a blow on the back of the head which half-stunned him. Out of the darkness came other hands, and in a few moments he was being half-dragged, half-led across the country towards the farm.
He stumbled along, trying to clear his brain and think clearly. He was hardly surprised. Nothing which might happen in this vicinity could surprise him any more.
When the farm was reached, he was led across the courtyard where he could see the shapes of men standing about in the darkness. The door of the barn in the corner was opened and, by the light of the oil lamp which a foreign-looking man held within, he saw the figures of O'Farrel and Grant. Both were bound.
Peabody realised that the mystery of Sepach Farm was not over. A new phase had begun.
PEABODY was unceremoniously pushed into the corner in which the others sat. O'Farrel, his back against the wall, blinked vaguely, but Grant, the man in plus-fours, gave Peabody an odd smile.
"Well, Peabody," he said, "so they've got you, too. They're not a very nice looking lot, are they?"
Peabody looked at the other men in the barn. There were seven of them. They were the most villainous set of "toughs" that he had ever seen, he thought; men to whom human life would mean nothing at all.
"That damn woman's responsible for this; of that, I'm certain," continued Grant. "The information she gave me about the ray was simply to get me to go to the farm so that I might fall into the hands of this gang...."
Peabody's brain cleared. "The ray," he said. "The Q-ray." He turned to Grant. "So you think the woman is in league with these people?" he said.
Grant grinned. "I don't see what else l can think," he said. "I don't know who this woman is, but she told me she had taken this Turkish Café in order to wait for Steitlin, the Russian, the man who was killed. She told me that the Q-ray was here in the farm, and I, like a fool, came up to examine it. Well, I think to-night will be the end of us all. I wouldn't have minded so much, but they got O'Farrel first. I'd sent him over to Salthaven to get through to London. Still, if he had got there, it would have been too late to stop this gang getting down here; but the people in London might, at least, have sent help of some sort. As it is, we're cut off here; nobody knows we're here, and, if I'm not very much mistaken, the first unofficial experiment with the Q-ray will be made to-night. We shall have the satisfaction of knowing that it will be made, and possibly, a British torpedo flotilla destroyed by it whilst we sit here helpless. I expect you wish you'd rather taken my advice, and kept out of this business, don't you?" continued the man in plus-fours.
Peabody shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "You see," he continued wearily, "I'm the inventor of the ray. My whole life, and something which was dearer to me than life, has been bound up in that ray. I don't think I mind very much now what they do with me."
Grant looked at him. "My God!" he said. "Now I know why you were so interested."
O'Farrel grinned weakly at Peabody. "We're in for it this time, old bean," he said, "right up to the neck. By Jove! I'd like to find the fellow who hit me on the head. Hallo! Something's going to happen. Here's Little Lord Fauntleroy again."
Peabody looked up.
The door of the barn opened, and Rothenstarmer appeared. He walked over to where the captives sat, and regarded them cynically.
"Well, my friends," he said, "this is a great evening—one of the best in my life. Rejoice with me. Soon, all sorts of things will happen at Sepach Farm, and I'm afraid that you three gentlemen will not have the pleasure of seeing to-morrow's sun."
The smile faded from his face and he spat viciously. "You, Grant have crossed my path before; on several occasions you've had the satisfaction of knowing that you've thwarted the plans of our great International; the International which will one day rule the world. As for you two other fools, I don't know who or what you are, except that you appear to be allied to him," he said, pointing to Grant. "But to-night we shall be rid of the lot of you, and we shall have shown the world that the Thirteenth International is not to be trifled with."
He turned to one of the men who sat round him. "Bring in Irietoff," he said in Russian.
Two men appeared with automatic pistols in their hands, and between them walked Irietoff. He was still smiling, and he looked at Rothenstarmer with amused contempt.
Rothenstarmer kicked him viciously. "Laugh while you can, my friend," he said. "You will not laugh for long. The time of our revenge is here. You will not laugh in a little while."
"A rather late revenge, though," said Irietoff, in English. "You may kill me, Rothenstarmer, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that, first, I killed Steitlin."
Rothenstarmer stepped forward, and hit the young Russian across the mouth. Irietoff moved not an inch, and still smiled, although a thin stream of blood ran from his cut lip down his chin.
"Your time will come, Rothenstarmer," he said. "The forces of order all over the world are closing in on you and your childish gang of murderers. You've not long to go, and if I've done anything to help bring your foul activities to an end my life is well given."
At a signal from Rothenstarmer the two guards pushed Irietoff into the corner with the others.
"Untie their hands," said Rothenstarmer. "They cannot possibly escape now."
Rothenstarmer stood regarding them evilly, his lips twitching. Suddenly, outside in the courtyard, was a sound of voices; then the clear tones of a woman's voice came through the open door. A man appeared with another lamp, and into the barn came the woman—Irma. Involuntarily Peabody started forward, but O'Farrel gripped his wrist. The woman walked slowly and imperiously across the barn. Rothenstarmer took off his cap. The other men shuffled forward. She was apparently a person of importance.
She stopped, facing the four captives.
"Well, my friends," she said, "you've endeavoured to pit yourselves against the Thirteenth International, and you've lost. Poor fools!"
Rothenstarmer stepped to her side. He pointed to Grant. "This is the Secret Service man Grant," he said, "the man who foiled us in Vienna, madame. The others I don't know, do you?"
Her eyes wandered over the faces before her. Then they stopped, and looked straight into Peabody's. For a moment he thought he detected a softening in their depths, then knew how wrong he was when he saw the sneer come over the beautiful features. She turned to Rothenstarmer.
"Rothenstarmer," she said, "this fool is my English husband; Captain Peabody, the inventor of the Q-ray, the man from whom I stole the formula. This is an opportune meeting."
Rothenstarmer nodded. "Madame Steitlin," he said, "I have had no opportunity before to offer to you my sympathy with regard to your husband's death, but here"—he pointed to Irietoff—"is the man who shot him. He died for your cause. That is only one death, but to-night these four shall die, and, as the Q-ray leaps across the sea dealing death and destruction to this British fleet which passes to-night, Steitlin's death will be avenged. We shall give him a worthy funeral pyre of dead men, willed by the ray which you and he stole for our cause."
She nodded. Then she raised her eyes and they swept, once more, over the faces of the captives. Again Peabody thought that they lingered for a moment as they looked into his.
"You devil," he said thickly. "I trusted you... you fiend!"
She laughed. The sound cut Peabody like a lash.
"My poor, deluded friend," she murmured. "One cannot have omelettes without breaking eggs. You, unfortunately for yourself, and these people with you, are the eggs. It is necessary that you shall be broken." She shrugged.
"You are a fool," she said. "I am not even sorry for you!"
PEABODY gazed straight before him, his face distorted with pain. The realisation that this woman could be so double-faced had shattered every ideal which he had ever possessed. Then a terrible wave of anger surged over him. His eyes blazed, and he was about to speak when O'Farrel's hand gripped his wrist once more.
"Don't be a fool, Peabody; she's bluffing," murmured O'Farrel, and then stopped speaking as another commotion in the courtyard caused the crowd within the barn to look towards the door. Into the barn strolled a tall broad-shouldered man, heavily bearded and with a face, thin-lipped and cruel, but powerful. He looked round the barn until his eyes rested on Rothenstarmer, who stepped forward.
"I'm Galtzakoff," he said in a tone of authority, "Chief Commissar of the Thirteenth International. Are you Rothenstarmer?"
Rothenstarmer nodded, and took from Galtzakoff's hand a leather case which he examined carefully. This, apparently, was Galtzakoff's identification, and in a minute Rothenstarmer handed it back subserviently. The newcomer looked carefully at the captives, then back to Rothenstarmer. A sneer played over his thin lips.
"You're a poor fool, Rothenstarmer," he said. "It seems that I arrived at an opportune moment. It seems that this woman, this aristocrat, has already succeeded in deluding you as to her real motives. But for the fact that I have travelled post-haste after Steitlin in order to prevent his death, which, unluckily, I was not able to do, our plan might yet have failed."
Rothenstarmer, amazed, spread his hands. "How was I to know?" he said. "Everyone thought this woman was with us, that she was Steitlin's wife."
Galtzakoff laughed. "That was a little fiction," he said, "which emanated from this Irietoff, her brother."
He noticed Peabody start. "You're surprised, my friend, the inventor," he said, walking over to where Peabody stood, and looking at him with curiosity. "So you're the inventor of the Q-ray, the man whose work has made it possible for us to deal a master-stroke at this fleet of yours, this fleet which your ray, under our direction, will shortly wipe out." He smiled cynically. "Has she told you, my friend, how we knew that the mechanism for working the ray was installed at Sepach Farm? It's an amusing story.
"Years ago, during the Revolution, this woman, your wife, Irietoff's sister, escaped to north Russia. You met her and married her, but her brother was a prisoner in Moscow. You came to England, and our agents informed us that your invention was being considered by your British War Office. Oh! They were very clever, this War Office of yours. In order that no one should learn the secret of the ray, they installed the apparatus in the loft of this disused and deserted Sepach Farm. Here they were able to carry out their experiments without fear of interruption. Then, when the time was ripe, Comrade Steitlin came to England. Did you know that, whilst you were spending your peaceful honeymoon at Stranover one day, while you were out, Steitlin called at your hotel? He saw your wife. He told her that unless she obtained the formula of the ray from you, the formula by which the mechanism is set working, her brother in Moscow would die, and not a particularly nice death either," continued Galtzakoff.
"Our plan succeeded. She got from you the formula, but she refused to give it to Steitlin until she was assured of her brother's safety. Steitlin took her back with him to Moscow, in order that she should know that her brother was released, and, in order to facilitate their journey, she was described as Madame Steitlin. We kept our word. Irietoff, this Irietoff," continued Galtzakoff, pointing to the young Russian, "was released, and left Russia; and then our clever Steitlin informed the lady that she was a prisoner. She had been foolish enough to think we should let her go, too. Unfortunately, she escaped, and we heard no more of her, but years afterwards our agents in this country informed us that she had taken the Turkish Café on the cliff road near Sepach Farm. Unluckily this news reached me after Steitlin had left for England, for I guessed that she was waiting for him to return to this country, and that she would stop at nothing to prevent Steitlin using the ray.
"Other complications arose. I discovered, too, that Irietoff had followed Steitlin to England. We knew what for. We knew that he would kill Steitlin on sight, and I hastened after our comrade in order to prevent him from walking into a trap. I was too late. But for this young fool," continued Galtzakoff, glaring at Irietoff, "your plans would have succeeded perfectly."
Irietoff laughed. "Do you think so, Galtzakoff?" he said. "I tell you that the British knew that Steitlin was coming. They were waiting for him."
"What do you mean?" demanded Galtzakoff.
"This," said Irietoff. "My sister told me that Steitlin had arrived at Stranover. I told her that I should kill him. She begged me not to, but asked me, instead, to go to the police and inform them of his arrival. I refused. What did I want with the police? I locked her in the Turkish Café so that she could not give any alarm. I waited for Steitlin, not in the farm, but in the tree in the courtyard which looks through the first-floor window. Through the window I saw a man, the man in the fawn raincoat. He was waiting for Steitlin, too. When Steitlin arrived there was some quarrel. I could not see what happened, but, as the man turned to leave the room, Steitlin drew a pistol from his pocket. As he fired at the back of the man in the fawn raincoat I fired through the open window a moment too late."
"So that was how Philipson died," murmured Grant in O'Farrel's ear.
Galtzakoff laughed. "What does it matter?" he said. "Our sentries are all round the farm. Apparently the authorities have done nothing. Every stranger coming into Salthaven or Stranover is accounted for. We shall not be disturbed. In an hour's time, at two o'clock, this torpedo flotilla passes Sepach Farm three or four miles out at sea. Luckily, I, myself, know the mechanism of the ray. I fixed it for that hour; at two o'clock the ray will work. It will destroy everything before it. The front of Sepach Farm will crumble into dust, as will the fleet, and as will you, my four friends. For I can conceive no better idea than to place this clever inventor, his wife, and his friends in the front room at Sepach Farm, the room where Steitlin was killed. You will be able to test the usefulness of your ray yourself, Captain Peabody!"
HE turned to the men grouped about him. "Is this a good plan, comrades?"
A murmur of approbation went up.
Grant looked at O'Farrel and shrugged.
"Not quite so good, O'Farrel," he whispered. "There's no chance of any help arriving now. Our instructions were to keep this business as quiet as possible, and my only hope was getting you through to London with a message." A sudden gleam came into Grant's eyes. He leaned over to O'Farrel. "Do you realise," he said, "Kenkins isn't here. Supposing—"
"Suppose nothing," said O'Farrel. "If there was a mistake to be made Kenkins would make it. He'd blunder into anything. I'd bet my bottom dollar they've captured Kenkins on the moor. It's no good thinking we shall get any assistance from him." He yawned.
"You know, Grant," he continued, "I came into this business for a thrill, and it seems to me I'm going to get one. Nasty fellow, this Galtzakoff. It's pretty rotten for you, too, Peabody," he said, "being done in by your own invention. What the devil did you want to invent the thing for?"
Peabody said nothing. He had moved to Irma's side. Looking into her eyes he could read the story of her years of danger and loneliness, years spent in trying to make up for the thing which she had been forced to do.
A great feeling of relief had come over Peabody. The fact that death lay in front of them did not trouble him. He knew that Irma loved him, and that they would meet their death together. There was a smile in her eyes. Peabody pressed her hand.
A man pushed his way into the barn and spoke to Galtzakoff.
"Everything's all right," he said. "We've a ring of men right round the farm. Everything's quiet, and no stranger has been seen near the place. I've been on the phone to the man at Salthaven Junction. Everything's quiet there. There hasn't been a telephone message for hours."
"Good," said Galtzakoff. He turned to Rothenstarmer. "Move these people into the farm," he said, "and tie them up. See that they're tied securely; it's one-thirty now. Rothenstarmer, when you've moved them into the farm, stay till a quarter to two. Then get back to London."
Rothenstarmer shrugged. "London will not be a very safe place for me," he said. "Already they suspect me."
"As you like. My motor-boat is moored at the foot of the cliff steps. I will wait in it for you. It is arranged that a tramp steamer shall be out in the Channel at three o'clock in the morning to pick us up, and after the ray has done its work we will set out for it. Send the other men back immediately the prisoners are in the farm. They can return in the same way as they came. I shall go down to the boat now," continued Galtzakoff.
"When all is ready join me there, and see that no one enters the loft at the back of the farm. The ray is set for two o'clock, and there must be no meddling."
He nodded to Rothenstarmer, then he returned to Irma. "Good-night, Madame Peabody," he said. "I wish you pleasant dreams. You have an English proverb, 'Happy is the bride whom the sun shines on.' It is, possibly, unfortunate that the ray, which will presently shine upon you and your so clever husband is a little more dangerous than the sun's rays. Good-night."
He bestowed an evil glance on Peabody, Grant, and O'Farrel, and, turning on his heel, left the barn.
Under Rothenstarmer's directions the captives were led across the courtyard into the farm, and up the stairs into the room on the first floor. Glancing down the passage, Peabody could see the short flight of wooden steps leading to the loft. He cursed himself for not having thoroughly examined the farm before. Here in this place which he had passed time and time again on his walks during the last seven years was his own invention, the Q-ray.
Four chairs were placed in the front room, and to these the captives were securely bound. Rothenstarmer, himself, examined their bonds carefully. He looked at his watch. "Nearly twenty minutes to two, my friends," he said. "You have twenty minutes to live. You may spend the time profitably in considering how much better off you would have been if you had not meddled with affairs which do not concern you."
"The men have all gone, Rothenstarmer," a man called from the doorway. "Shall I go?"
"Yes," replied Rothenstarmer. "Let the men pick up the cars where we left them, and return to London by different routes. You'd better go back by the train."
"What are you going to do?" the man asked.
Rothenstarmer grinned. "England will be a little too hot for me, I think," he said. "I shall go back with Galtzakoff to Russia. I shall go down to the boat now." He took off his cap in mock courtesy. "Good-night, my friends," he said, "and pleasant dreams."
They heard the footsteps of the two men descending the stairs, and the bang of the farm door as it closed behind them. A silence settled over Sepach Farm, and the sound of the sea, beating against the foot of the cliffs, seemed very far away.
O'Farrel grinned ruefully at Peabody.
"Rather a bad ending to the story this, Peabody," he said, "and I thought it was going to be such a good one. Still this ray of yours ought to be a pretty quick business, and we've all got to die some time. Mrs. Peabody, you look amazingly cheerful. I'm glad death comes very quickly—"
"Why should I not be cheerful?" she replied. "I have had many years of unhappiness, and, at last, wherever we're going, we shall go together." She looked fondly at her husband.
"Listen!" said Grant suddenly. "What's that!"
The noise of a motor came through the night air.
"That will be Galtzakoff's motor-boat," said O'Farrel. "They've started the engine. Clever devil, Galtzakoff. He knew there'd be some trouble flying about immediately the ray had functioned, and that he'd never be able to get out of the country. He's a wise man to make his getaway while the going's good."
The noise of the motor grew fainter, but as it disappeared they heard another noise, a quiet, regular tick, so quiet that they could only just hear it.
Each one sensed what it was. They looked at Peabody,
"That's the ray," he said quietly. "It has a mechanical clock attached to it. It can be set like an alarm clock. It starts to tick seven minutes before the time fuse explodes. It must be seven minutes to go now. At two o'clock the detonator will explode, and the explosion sets my ray working."
The moon, emerging from the clouds, sent a silver stream of light through the window, illuminating the front side of the dusty room. In the darkness the four waited silently for death.
THE minutes ticked slowly by. O'Farrel, realising the hopelessness of even any thought of escape, had accepted the inevitable, and had managed to tilt his chair back against the wall. He whistled softly to himself.
Grant, whose life had been spent in dangerous ventures, who had flirted with death on a dozen occasions, philosophically waited for the shattering explosion which would end his career, but to Peabody and Irma had come a great peace. Their two minds, which for years had been harassed and tortured with fears and doubts, were reassured, but soon when the novelty of this reassurance was passed a great regret came upon Peabody; a regret that at this very moment when life had taken on a new value it was to be ended.
Suddenly, O'Farrel tilted his chair from the wall.
"There was a noise downstairs. Did you hear it?" he said.
"Funny," said Grant, "I thought I heard someone move. Listen!"
The four strained their ears, but there was no mistake, somebody was ascending the stairs, and that somebody was fairly heavy, for the ancient stairs creaked and groaned under each step. O'Farrel, skewing round in his chair, managed, by the fitful light of the moon, to see the watch on Grant's wrist, which was tied to the side of the chair. It was one minute to two.
"My God!" said O'Farrel, "that sounds like Kenkins. Let's warn him for Heaven's sake; there's only a minute to go!"
He raised his voice, and bellowed, as loudly as he could, "Get out, Kenkins, and be quick; this place will be blown up in a minute," but the steps approached along the passage. The door opened, and the round, bespectacled face of Kenkins peered round its edge, followed in a moment by the rest of that gentleman. Kenkins was an extraordinary sight. He was plastered with mud from top to toe. His muddy face, running with perspiration which formed a series of miniature rivulets, gave him a most humorous appearance. He was breathing heavily.
"There's no need to worry," he said. "There's not going to be an explosion. I've seen to that."
He turned to O'Farrel with a small smile of triumph on his face. "What you fellows would do without me I don't know," he said.
"Never mind about boasting," replied O'Farrel. "Look after Mrs. Peabody, she's fainted."
Kenkins brought a pen-knife from his pocket, and cut the ropes which bound Irma to her chair. In a moment he had freed the others, and O'Farrel ran round to the back of the farm where there was a water-tap. They were so concerned with Irma that, for a moment, their wonderful escape was forgotten. In a few minutes Irma regained consciousness.
For a moment a look of fear passed over her face, but then, as the memory of Kenkins' cheerful message and the sight of Peabody's solicitous face bending over her, came back to her, she smiled. O'Farrel, taking off his raincoat, made a pillow for her, and she lay happily on the floor holding her husband's hand.
O'Farrel, still curious, left the room, walked down the passage, and, ascending the flight of wooden steps, stepped into the loft. It was full of a mass of disused furniture, bundles of straw, and all sorts of weird odds-and-ends, but the far corner, which had evidently originally been hidden by a packing case, had been cleared away. O'Farrel walked across the loft. An oil-lamp glowed dimly, showing the mass of mechanism which had been let into one side of the loft.
A hundred wires and steel tubes, intermingled, ran into a large steel cauldron-shaped apparatus. On the ground in front of the mechanism, and connected with it by a rubber tube, was a box, and inside this box a clock still ticked loudly. O'Farrel saw that the mechanism at the back of the clock had been removed. He returned to the others. Kenkins was sitting on a chair mopping some of the dust from his face. O'Farrel, taking a cigarette from his case, lit it, and approached his old adversary.
"Well, Sherlock Holmes," he said, "tell us all about it."
Kenkins looked up. "There isn't much to tell," he said. "You see, I'm not one of those fellows like you, O'Farrel, who go crawling about the place walking into every sort of trap that's laid for them. I'm logical. I have a brain, which, luckily, isn't sufficiently brilliant to prevent me making a fool of myself."
He turned to Peabody. "I left the hotel, Peabody," he said, "because I wanted to have a look at the Turkish Café. I heard a conversation between the lady, whom I now know to be Mrs. Peabody, and Grant here. At the moment I had not the remotest idea on which side they were, and I made up my mind to rejoin you as quickly as possible, and tell you what I had overheard. But when I got back to the Crown at Stranover I found you were gone. Then I decided to walk across the moorland in order that I might keep the appointment here at the farm at midnight. I'm not very good at climbing these hills and valleys," said Kenkins, "and, to cut a long story short, I tripped over a branch and fell down a hole... I nearly drowning in the pool of water at the bottom," he added, ruefully contemplating his wet clothes.
"I was shaken rather badly, and I lay for a moment before I pulled myself together sufficiently to get up. As I was about to climb out of the hole I heard voices, and soon, in the darkness, I perceived, a few feet away from me, two men. Further away to the left I could see in the moonlight another group of men, and away to the right still more. They seemed to be keeping in the shadow of trees and gorse-bushes. It occurred to me suddenly that Sepach Farm was surrounded, that, possibly, you, Peabody and O'Farrel had walked into a trap. I listened to the men, and eventually I heard one of them say that you had been taken to the barn. I realised that the situation was pretty desperate, that there was not, possibly, sufficient time for me to walk back to Stranover and summon aid, so I took a chance. I bided my time, and when two of the groups joined together in conversation I crawled through them, and started working my way towards the barn. I had a pretty tough time, too," said Kenkins. "Every thorn which could stick into me stuck into me, every branch which could hit me across the face did so. Anyway, I eventually crawled up to the back of the barn. I looked through a crack; a few yards from me I could see O'Farrel and the rest of you. I heard Rothenstarmer talking. Then I saw Galtzakoff arrive, and heard him tell you exactly what he was going to do with you.
"I realised that there was not a moment to lose. I crawled away from the barn, right round Sepach Farm, and climbed through a window at the back. Luck was with me. All Rothenstarmer's men were together in the barn or on the far side of the courtyard. I ran up the stairs quickly and into the loft where there was an oil-lamp, and saw where the mechanism of the ray was fixed. Luck favoured me. On the floor by the lamp was a paper written in French. It was a letter from Steitlin to Galtzakoff and it told him exactly how to set the ray in motion. It was obvious to me that the important part of the ray was the detonator at the back of the clock, and it took me a few minutes only, with the aid of my pen-knife, to unscrew the attachment, and take off this detonator, the explosion of which I understood would set the ray working. Then I descended the stairs, and got out of the window just in time to get away as Rothenstarmer and his men brought you four into the farm. That is all," said Kenkins.
"Now I'd be glad if someone would give me a cigarette."
THE party descended the stairs, and crossed the courtyard, passed through the battered gate of Sepach Farm, and stood on the road which led to Salthaven. The light of the moon was brilliant, and it bathed the surrounding moorland in a sheet of silver. To Peabody this seemed like an omen. To him, Sepach Farm and the drab country which surrounded it had been a place of misery and regret, but now, almost brilliant in the moonlight, it seemed to reflect his newly-found happiness. Kenkins and O'Farrel were, as usual, arguing.
"It's all very well," O'Farrel was saying, "but I still think you're an ass, Kenkins. If you had any sense, directly you put the ray out of action and knew that we were safe, you'd have made straight for Hetton Village, got help, and arrived back in time in order to cut off Galtzakoff and Rothenstarmer on their way to their boat. Fancy allowing those two precious devils to escape! Just like you, Kenkins! You never had a brain!"
Kenkins sniffed. "Haven't I? I'm a man of peace, a doctor. My business is to cure people, not kill 'em, but there are moments, when even a doctor has got to turn into an executioner. Galtzakoff and Rothenstarmer won't escape."
"What do you mean?" asked O'Farrel.
Kenkins took a long draw at his cigarette. "Just this," he said coolly. "When I unscrewed that detonator I noticed there was a small clock on the front of it which agreed exactly with the large one to which it was attached, the one connected with the ray itself. It seemed obvious to me that this clock worked the time fuse which caused the detonator to explode. So," said Kenkins with a grin, "I put the clock forward until the hands stood at half-past two, and pulled down the time-fuse lever according to the instructions in Steitlin's letter. After I knew you people were safe I ran like a lone dog down to the Turkish Café. You see, Galtzakoff's motor-boat was moored at the foot of the cliff steps, which are about ten feet to the right of the café. As I leaned over the edge of the café railings, fifty feet below me I could see Galtzakoff's motor-boat with a man in it. Presently Galtzakoff and Rothenstarmer arrived at the top of the steps, and the man got out of the boat and went up the steps to meet them. I took a chance," said Kenkins. "I aimed the detonator at the boat. I knew that if I missed it would only fall into the sea, and could do no harm, but luck was with me. The detonator hit the cushions in the stem of the boat, and bounced off right under the engine. Of course," said Kenkins, "the mechanism may have been injured, but if it isn't..."
He looked at his watch. It was twenty nine minutes past two. Then he looked at O'Farrel. Irma and Peabody had joined them. They had listened attentively to what Kenkins had been saying, and they all stood looking out to sea. Somewhere in the distance was Galtzakoff's motor-boat. They had not long to wait. From out at sea came a rumble, then far out for one second a blinding flash of light illuminated the dark ocean, then all was quiet.
O'Farrel lit another cigarette.
"Exit Messrs. Galtzakoff and Rothenstarmer!" he said. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, what about some breakfast?"
They set off across the moor towards Stranover. O'Farrel and Kenkins engaged in a long and wordy argument as to who had done most towards solving the mystery of Sepach Farm. With a grin Peabody realised that the pair would have food for quarrels for the rest of their lives, but he also realised that the enmity between Kenkins and O'Farrel was over, buried beneath the weight of those terrible moments before two o'clock at Sepach Farm.
Grant, his chubby little pipe still hanging out of the corner of his mouth, walked, deep in thought, with them. His part of the business was done, and done successfully. With the death of Steitlin, Galtzakoff and Rothenstarmer, the Q-ray was no longer a menace to the peace of the world. Philipson had not died in vain.
A little way behind walked Peabody and Irma. They said nothing, but as their steps took them across the moors, which they had walked so many years before in those happy honeymoon days, their minds were centred on the same thing. Sepach Farm, lying behind them, still ghostly and desolate in the moonlight, had stolen from them their happiness, and yet, in the strange manner of fate, it had brought it back to them once again. The voices of O'Farrel and Kenkins came dimly to them, although they were so near, as, hand in hand, they passed out of the turmoil and trouble of the past years, into the newly-found happiness which lay before them.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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