Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Hector MacLeod—The Rescue.
BIG BEN had just struck the hour of midnight when a slender, well-built youngster, with a great hound at his heels, turned out of Bayswater Road through one of the entrances of Hyde Park.
He made his way along the drive, which moves in graceful sweeps down towards the Serpentine and on past the magazine, over the bridge, finally passing out through Alexandra Gate into Knightsbridge.
The lad was moving along at a leisurely pace. The night was rather cold and chilly, and there were very few people about the Park.
Here and there on a seat one could make out the shadowy figure of some belated individual, and now and again a smooth-moving motor would rustle past, the rubber-tired wheels crunching on the hard gravel.
Once a solitary policeman passed the lad and hound, just as the two came beneath a lamp-post. The constable came to a halt and touched his helmet.
"Good-evening, Mr. Tinker!"
The youth smiled and nodded.
"Good-evening," he returned.
The constable stooped and patted the broad flanks of the dog. "How is old Pedro, eh?"
The hound snuffled his muzzle into the thick palm, then he and his young master went on into the shadows.
Hyde Park was a favourite place for Tinker and the dog to stroll in at night-time. One could always get a breath of fresh air and a clean pair of lungs in that vast breathing space of London.
"Better than being cooped up in a rotten old kennel, eh boy?" Tinker murmured to the animal by his side.
Pedro wagged his broad tail in complete agreement with that remark. They passed the Magazine and began to climb the slight rise that leads to the dimly-lighted bridge.
They were half-way up the rise when suddenly the vast silence was broken. Tinker heard a quick call, more of a sigh than a call, followed by a splash. Then a moment later another voice rang out:
Tinker made a grab at Pedro, but he was too late. He had ventured to unleash the hound, and Pedro was off at a tearing gallop up the slopes.
The lad broke into a run, and, reaching the bridge, darted off along its paved side. He saw a dark figure scramble on to the low parapet, and as soon as it was erect it turned towards him. "A woman in the water!" he called.
Then the next moment the hands had wedged themselves above the head and the figure had vanished in a long, beautiful dive into the dark waters below.
Tinker fumbled in his pocket and drew out a police-whistle, sending several sharp, clear calls out into the night. He heard an answering call from the drive beyond, and knew that it was his friend the constable who had heard his signal.
He was now quite close to where the stranger had leapt from the parapet, and he leaned forward, peering down into the Serpentine, listening intently.
Presently from beneath he heard a splash, then another, and his eyes growing accustomed to the darkness, he saw a round, wet object appear close to one of the arches of the bridge. "Come along, Pedro, well have to take a hand in this," Tinker shouted.
He whipped round and darted off along the bridge, almost colliding with the blue-clad policeman who had answered his call.
"Hallo, Mr. Tinker—is it you? What's the matter?"
"Someone in the water," said the lad. "Quick! Let's get a boat!"
They rushed off along the shore, leaping on to one of the landing-stages where a number of boats were tethered. Pedro was the first to leap into the boat, making himself comfortable in the bow, while Tinker scrambled into the stern and the constable dropped in the thwarts, grabbing at the oars.
A strong push saw the boat driven out from the landing-stage, and, pulling with a lusty strength, the policeman urged the boat through the water at a swift rate.
Tinker in the stern grabbed at the tiller-ropes, and he steered the boat towards the arches of the bridge.
Suddenly Pedro, in the bow, threw back his head and gave vent to a low-toned wouff!
"Steady on!" Tinker called, dropping the tiller-ropes and rising to his feet.
The policeman backed water just in the nick of time. A round wet head appeared close to the bow with another by its side. The constable quickly shipped one oar and the boat glided forward, then Tinker, leaning out, grabbed at the swimmer as he passed.
The boat tilted, and there was a brief tussle, then finally Tinker's strong arm prevailed, and the swimmer and his burden were brought close to the side of the little craft.
"Right-o! Hang on!" said Tinker.
There was a gasp from the man in the water.
"Take her first!" came a clear voice; and the policeman reached out and caught at the wet, sodden garments of the woman in the swimmer's arms.
She was drawn up out of the water and laid across the thwarts where she lay still and silent, her wet faced turned up towards the sky, her lips moving, little broken moans coming from them.
"That's all right," said Tinker. "In you get!"
He hooked his arm beneath a pair of broad shoulders, and tugged, the rescuer came up over the side of the boat to roll into the stern along with Tinker. The constable slipped the oars out again, and the boat was rowed back to the shore.
The rescue had been carried out with an extraordinary celerity, and a few minutes later the woman and her rescuer were landed on the bank.
"I am all right," the man said. "Don't trouble about me. Look after that poor creature!"
One or two casual stragglers had gathered, and presently a hand-ambulance came along. The woman was placed on it, then the policeman, with a nod to Tinker, turned away. "You will get this gentleman's name and address, Mr. Tinker!" he said. "I know you'll look after him all right!"
The ambulance moved off, and Tinker slipped out of his coat, holding it towards the rescuer. "Better get into this, old chap," he said, "then we will find a taxi, and I'll take you home!"
The stranger's teeth were chattering slightly, and he was glad of the extra wrap. He and Tinker pressed through the little knot of people, with Pedro at their heels, and they were fortunate enough to find a taxi moving through the drive. "Where to?" Tinker asked, as he entered the vehicle. The stranger shook his head.
"I have got no place to go to particularly," he said; "but you needn't trouble about me. I shall be all right!"
"Nonsense!" said the young detective, and, leaning out of the open window, he told the driver to take them to Baker Street.
About twenty minutes later they were in Sexton Blake's quiet chambers, and Tinker led his companion into his own bedroom and insisted on him changing.
He saw now that the plucky fellow was a youngster of about his own age. He had a pleasant, tanned face, and his speech, despite a slight Northern accent, was that of an educated individual.
"It's awfully good of you," the stranger began.
Tinker shook his head.
"Rubbish!" he said. "I am only lending you an old suit of clothes. If there is any credit to be got out of tonight's affair, you are entitled to it!"
He insisted on giving his companion a rub-down before the change was effected, and by the time that the stranger had completed his dressing, Tinker had managed to slip down and have a word with the old landlady, with the result that there was a steaming hot cup of beef-tea and a round of toast waiting, when they entered the quiet sitting-room.
Tinker drew a comfortable chair up to the fire and made the stranger seat himself in it and sip at the hot fluid.
"It was jolly lucky for that woman that you were so handy," Tinker said. "What happened?"
"Oh I was resting on a seat close to the bridge," the stranger explained. "I saw that unfortunate woman go past. I don't know how it was, but it seemed to me as though she was thinking of—of finishing everything!" His eyes went hard, and he looked into the fire.
"As a matter of fact," he said, in a strained tone, "I—I had somewhat similar thoughts myself!"
"You! Get out!" Tinker put in.
His guest turned towards him, smiling, revealing a set of white perfect teeth.
"Sounds a bit strange, doesn't it?" he said. "Still, it's true. Only, when I saw that poor creature clamber on to the parapet and throw herself into the water, everything seemed to change, somehow!"
"And so, instead of committing suicide yourself you rescued another would-be suicide?" said Tinker.
"That's about it!"
"You are not a Londoner?"
"Oh, no. I am from the North—Grangepool," the stranger returned.
"What brings you down here?"
"How long have you been here?"
"Where have you been staying?"
"I stayed at one of the Rowton Houses for the first six or seven days. But even sixpence for a bed was a bit too much for me at last. I've been sleeping in the Park since then!"
"But, I say, that's pretty rotten. Couldn't you find something to do?"
The stranger leaned forward, and in his hazel eyes a sudden fire burned. "Have you ever tried to get a job in London without a—without a character?"
"Can't say I have," said Tinker.
"Then you're lucky," the stranger returned, "for I can tell you it's a hopeless task!"
Tinker had had a great deal of experience of men, and he was able to make a pretty accurate guess at a person's character. The strong young features in front of him were pinched with hunger, but the eyes were wide and fearless, and the chin was strong. There was no suggestion of the criminal about the handsome countenance.
"Look here," Tinker said, "I don't want to interfere in your affairs, but perhaps I might be able to help you. In the first place, I am a sort of detective—that is to say, I help my guv'nor. His name is Sexton Blake!"
"I think I've heard of him," the stranger replied.
"The guv'nor is known all over the world!" said Tinker, "not only as a detective, but as one of the best!" He leaned forward slightly.
"And if you are in trouble, old chap, we might be able to help you," he went on. "You did a jolly plucky thing to-night— just the sort of thing that the guv'nor loves to hear about. You risked your life to save that woman—"
"Oh, I didn't think of it in that way!" the stranger broke in. "My life is not of much use to anyone!"
"Nonsense! Why, hang it, you are only about a couple of years older than me. What is your age?"
"You don't look as old as that!" Tinker returned. "Anyhow, twenty-one isn't a very extraordinary age. Certainly, you ought not to be fed-up with life yet!"
The stranger finished the beef-tea and laid the cup aside. He leaned forward, stretching his hands out towards the fire. Tinker noted that they were well-shaped and smooth, the hands of a man who had never done much rough work.
"You couldn't help me," his guest said at last. "Mine is a case that no one can interfere in, I'm afraid!"
"Well, anyhow, it might do you good to tell someone else about it," said Tinker, "and anything you might tell me will be quite confidential!"
His keen, alert countenance inspired confidence in everyone. The stranger, with another glance at it, nodded his head. "Perhaps you're right," he said. "Anyhow, if you really wish to hear my story, I'll tell it you!" He leaned back in the chair, looking musingly into the fire for a few moments.
"My name is Hector MacLeod," he began. "My father was once one of the most prosperous men in Grangepool. It was in the old days, when they used to send out whalers and sealers from Grangepool, and dad owned one of the finest vessels of the lot. They still talk about the Sea Foam in the old town. It had once been one of the fleet that had gone to the Arctic regions on an expedition!"
"What happened?" Tinker put in.
"I'm not quite sure!" Hector MacLeod continued. "I was only about a year old when dad was ruined. From what I can make out, it was his skipper, a man called Nat Marle, who defrauded him. Marle sailed for the Seal Island, and never came back. I believe that the Sea Foam made an immense catch of seals, worth a tremendous amount of money, but it never returned to Grangepool. Dad lost everything, vessel and property, and it absolutely ruined him. He died about two years later. My mother never got over it, and she soon followed dad. I hardly remember her, for I was brought up by strangers!"
"Beastly rough luck!" said Tinker, who, himself an orphan, knew what it was to be alone in the world.
"Oh, I was fairly well treated!" said MacLeod. "It was a man named James Phillips, a bank manager, who took me in. I have lived with him ever since, and when I was old enough he gave me a position in the bank. He is one of the directors now, and is quite a wealthy man in Grangepool!"
"And you have been employed in his bank, have you?"
Hector MacLeod noted the hesitation, and smiled.
"I see what's at the back of your mind," he went on, "but you need have no fear. You think I have done something, but it's not true!"
His brown fists clenched, and he turned towards his companion.
"All I have been guilty of is falling in love with Ruth Phillips, the daughter of my employer!" he said fiercely. "At first her father did not seem to object. He even encouraged it. But about three months ago a big change came over him. He suddenly seemed to hate me, and he did his best to drive me out of Grangepool. I was not living in his home then. I'd taken lodgings for myself. But I used to see Ruth every day, and about a month ago her father told me I was not to see her again. I asked him why, but he would give no reason. He urged me to get another situation, and I refused to do so. At last it came to an open row, and he sacked me!"
Tinker watched the strong chin, and saw that it was set and grim, and he realised that perhaps some of Hector MacLeod's trouble had been brought about by his own obstinacy. "He wouldn't give you a character, then?"
"I wouldn't ask him for one," said Hector. "He treated me so badly that I would not be indebted to him for a thing! As it is, I owe him a lot, for he brought me up; but I'll pay it back some day!"
He stretched his arms above his head. Then his face changed, and a quiet smile crossed it. "That's really the whole of my story!" said MacLeod. "It's not a very exciting one, is it?" He hesitated for a moment, then suddenly he arose to his feet.
"There is something else!" he said. "I received a letter from—from Ruth a week ago. I wrote to her from the Rowton House that I was staying at, and she answered me. There is something in her letter that I can't quite understand!"
"Have you got it with you?"
"It's in my other clothes!" said Hector.
He left the room, and returned a few moments later with a sodden pocket-book in his hand, out of which he drew a bulky envelope. The envelope was grimed, and the letter inside gave many indications that it had been read and re-read over and over again.
Hector glanced at the letter for a moment, then, with a slight flush, removed the first two pages. "They—they really concern me!" he said.
Tinker half smiled to himself, for he saw the tell-tale flush on the tanned cheeks. "You can read the others!" Hector went on, handing the rest of the letter over. The handwriting was neat and clear, obviously feminine. It ran as follows:
Dad seems to be getting worse. He hardly ever stirs out of the house now, and he spends long hours alone at night walking up and down his room. I am sure that he has something on his mind, and his changed appearance frightens me. Last Sunday he dropped asleep in his chair in the study, and I went in with a cup of tea. I didn't dare to wake him, and while I stood there he began to speak in his sleep. I do not remember all he said, but it was something about prison gates opening and the dead past returning!
Have you ever heard of a place called Salcoth Island, dear? Dad mentioned that name twice, and something about a secret it contained.
It is all very dreadful, dear Hector, and I miss you so much! I am almost afraid to live in the house with dad now! You ought not to have left Grangepool, for I miss you dreadfully!
The rest of the letter was obviously private, and Tinker only glanced at it before he returned the sheets.
"Where is Salcoth Island?" he asked. Hector shook his head.
"I don't know," he returned. "Never heard of the place!"
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed the hour of two, and Tinker arose with a start.
"Well, we've had enough jawing for one night, I think," he said. "The guv'nor is away, and will not be back for a couple of days. He's gone down to see a friend of his, the governor of Laidstone Prison. His room is empty, so you might as well use it!"
"Oh, no; I—I—"
"Don't be an ass!" said Tinker. "The guv'nor won't object. Besides, you have no place to go to, and I'm hanged if I'm going to turn you out to-night! You have just got to stay!"
He bundled his guest into Blake's quietly-furnished room, and waited there until he saw Hector MacLeod safely between the sheets. When Tinker found himself in his own bedroom again, he began to undress slowly.
"I wonder what's at the back of all this?" the lad thought. "That chap isn't the sort of fellow that a man would turn away without cause. I believe he's as straight as a die, too, and if anyone is in the wrong it's the other party!"
It was Hector MacLeod's loneliness and destitution that really attracted Tinker to him, for in Tinker's memory was a period when, he too, had been lonely and destitute in London until that wonderful hour had come when he had first come in contact with his great-hearted, kindly master.
Tinker never forgot the hours when he was a waif, and he had always a soft corner in his heart for anyone in a similar plight.
"You are not the sort of chap that one could help very easily," the lad thought, remembering the stubborn chin and wide eyes, "but I'm going to do it, whether you like it or not!"
And so, on the following morning, after breakfast, Tinker took Hector MacLeod's affairs in hand.
"You might as well go down to your Rowton house first," he said. "There might be another letter waiting for you. I suppose you never thought of going to see?"
"Well, I—I owe one of the attendants a—a shilling," he said. "I didn't want to take it, but the man insisted, and I—I've never been able to repay him yet. I couldn't go there until I had the money to pay back!"
They went off to the Rowton house, which was situated in Hammersmith, and Tinker duly paid the kind-hearted attendant. There was a letter waiting for Hector, with the post-mark dated six days previous. As soon as he had broken the seal and read the contents, Hector turned to Tinker.
"There—there's trouble at Grangepool," he broke out. "I think I—I shall have to go back!"
"What it is?"
"Ruth's father has—has vanished!" said Hector. "But here! Read the letter!" It was written in a trembling hand, and was very short:
You must come back at once! Dad has gone, and I am distracted. He came home on Tuesday night as usual, and had dinner with me. He seemed to be in a better humour, but the nine o'clock post brought him a letter which altered everything. He went out at ten o'clock, and has never been seen since. I found the enclosed letter in his study, and sent it on to you, for you are the only one I can thrust now. Do come back at once!
There was another note enclosed, and as Tinker glanced at the heading his eyes lighted up suddenly, for it was the official paper which the prison authorities issue to the convicts in their charge. It was headed "Laidstone Prison!" and ran as follows:
The man from Salcoth Island will be calling on you by the end of the month. He hopes to hear good news.
No. 72,053—Joseph Smith.
"But how extraordinary!" Tinker broke out. "Laidstone Prison! Why, that's where the guv'nor has been staying for a few days!" They looked at each other in silence.
"I can't make head or tail of it!" said Hector MacLeod, "but I think I shall have to go back to Grangepool!"
"How far is it?"
"Oh, I should think the best part of three hundred miles! I can do it in ten days!" Tinker looked at his companion for a moment, then burst into a laugh, and caught at MacLeod's arm. "Going to walk it, are you, by Jove! You've got a nerve! You'll do it in less than ten days, old chap; on fact, you'll come along with me now, and I'll advance you the fare, and a bit over. And if you say a word against it, I'll give you a punch on the nose!"
This pugnacious threat was made in such a quaint manner that, after the briefest hesitation, Hector MacLeod laughed and held out his hand.
"You are a brick, Tinker!" he said. "I met a friend indeed when I met you, but some day I shall make it up to you all right!"
And that day was soon to dawn, for out of that strange meeting was to arise a curious and complex case. It was the beginning of an intricate problem, with many ramifications, for behind it all, and working secretly, were two great personalities. Who those two were the ensuing chapter will reveal.
A Secret of Long Ago.
A DEEP-TONED bell was rolling out its steady summons, the long notes echoing and re-echoing over the great expanse of moorland, and along the roadways and cart-tracks little squads of men were marching like so many gangs of ants heading for the nest.
They were the convicts returning at nightfall to Laidstone Prison. The grey bulk of the gaol stood stark, isolate, and remote on the edge of a long, rolling Yorkshire plain.
All around the prison the scene was fair enough. Great swathe of gorse bushes, long leagues of heather, and stretches of green turf. In the summer one could catch glimpses of browsing rabbits in the emerald grass, and here and there a lark would soar up into the blue sky singing its song of freedom.
The peace of a contented world hung like a cloud around the grey melancholy pile, but inside the high walls a stern, harsh discipline ruled, and the fettered souls of lawless men fretted in the silence.
In October, however, the mists began to gather around Laidstone, and on this evening the tolling of the bell sent little fugitive echoes twisting and aiming in the hollows and byways of the moor.
The great gate of the prison was open, and two armed warders stood, one on either side, watching the gangs of convicts as they came striding through, each with an armed guard marching in front and rear.
They filed on through the half-mist like vague shadows, passing into the yard and wheeling to right or left into the great gloomy buildings.
Close to the gates of the prison there stood a low-roofed structure, and at one of the windows a man was standing, watching the gangs file in. He was dressed in the prison clothes, and on his undersized, shrivelled body the loose-fitting garments hung in a shapeless way.
There was nothing to distinguish him form the herd outside except his face. It was an extraordinary one—a large, dome-shaped forehead, thick, beetling brows, beneath which two hard black eyes shone. There was a suggestion of the vulture in the visage—the small, pointed chin, the hooked nose, and the thin, expressionless lips.
His head was craning forward slightly, giving him a bird-like aspect, and he was staring at the groups of convicts as they passed.
Presently there came swinging on through the gate another gang. The man at the window peered out, and his eyes rested on a massive figure marching in the front rank. A giant of a man, he was, in his convict clothes, with bull-like throat, strong, merciless countenance.
Just for a moment the huge figure turned its head towards the low-roofed building. Raising a claw-like hand, the man behind the window tapped on the pane. The tall convict nodded a quick return to the signal; then the gang passed on, and the man at the window turned his head and glanced into the interior of the long chamber.
It was the hospital of the prison. On either side were arranged long rows of narrow cots. At one end of the ward was a cubicle marked "Dispensary" and a fire was glowing at the top.
The little figure at the window turned and began to pace along the chamber.
A convict's life is necessarily a hard one, and a man has to be really ill before the authorities will allow him the privilege of rest. At that moment there was only one other man in the ward. He was lying on the cot nearest to the fire, and as the wizened little man came closer, the patient stirred uneasily and raised his head. "That you, matey?"
"My head's bad. Give me summat!"
The man on the bed raised himself slightly and looked up into the vulture-like countenance.
"Go on," he cried; "they won't know. Give me summat for my head!"
Across the features of the man above him there stole a slow smile.
"It's against orders," he returned; "but I'll give you something presently!"
"You're a good 'un—better than the doctor here. He doesn't know nothing, he doesn't!" The patient laughed weakly. "Anyone can see how he looks up to you in this sort of game," he went on. The attendant shrugged his shoulders.
"The doctor is in rather a difficult position," he returned. "Years ago, many years ago, he was a student in the hospital that I was head of!" The man on the bed gave vent to a chuckling laugh.
"Blow me, that's funny, that is! I thought there was summat like that in it," he said.
Then a sudden idea seemed to come to him. He reached out a weak hand and caught at his companion's sleeve. "What about me?" he said. "You ought to know. What's goin' to happen to me?" The vulture face twitched for a moment.
"If you want to know the truth, my friend," the attendant returned, "you are going to die!"
"No, no! For Heaven's sake, don't say that!"
"You asked for the truth, and I have given it to you!" The feeble hand on the attendant's arm tightened its grip.
"But I tell you I must not die—I ain't goin' to die! They were goin' to let me out they were. I only 'ad another two or three days to go; then—then—"
The voice broke off into a wailing cry.
"It's not a bit of use," came the cold voice. "If you don't believe me, ask the doctor!"
There was a long silence then.
"How long—how long do you give me to—to live?"
The lean-visaged attendant bent down, and the long, thin hands moved over the patient's face for a moment, raising the eyelids and peering into the dimmed pupils. "You may last another day," came the reply; "certainly not longer!"
The figure dropped back on the bed and tossed to and fro, the chest rising and falling, thin, broken sobs coming from between the parted lips.
"Come, come!" the cold-voiced attendant said. "After all, it means release for you doesn't it? You have been here long enough, Heaven knows. You were a 'lifer! weren't you?"
"Yes, yes; I've been in here the best part of twenty years!" The attendant sat down on the side of the cot and looked at the huddled figure. "I think you ought to be glad to die!"
"No, no; I heard they were going to let me out for good conduct. I was expecting to go this month, and I—I was looking forward to—to revenge!"
A sudden change come over the patient. The weak, childish expression on his face died away, and he turned towards his companion. "What's your name?" he asked. "I am not a name, I'm a number!"
"But you had a name once. Quick! Tell me! Mebbe it'll be worth your while!"
There was a moments's silence, then the vulture-like man leaned forward slightly.
"In London I was known as Professor Kew," came the reply; "But I doubt very much if you ever heard of me, my friend. You have been in prison nearly twenty years, and that's a long time! There was another silence, then the man on the cot turned his head again.
"Look here," he said, "if I've got to die, I've got to; but there's summat that's got to be done, and as I can't do it myself you'll have to do it for me!"
"What is it?"
"I want to square a little account of mine. Twenty years ago I did a man a bad turn, and I didn't reap any benefit of it either. It seems to me now that someone else has reaped that benefit, and I want to put things square!" The sunken eyes were fixed on Kew's face.
"There's a matter of twenty thousand pounds in this," the dying man went on, "and that's a big sum of money!"
"What is your story?" Kew asked.
"In here I am known as Joseph Smith, but my right name is Nat Marle. Years ago I held a master's certificate, and I was captain of a sealer that sailed from Grangepool. The Sea Foam was her name, and she was just as stout a boat as ever tackled the Arctic seas."
His head dropped back on the pillow, and his voice took on a softer note.
"Ah, but these were the good days. Hard work it was, and cold—lumme, yes, it was cold. But we got money. I can hear the roar of 'em now. I bet there used to be thousands and thousands of 'em—the mother seals and the young 'uns and the bachelors—all fightin' together. It used to be clubs in those days—hit among 'em with the clubs, laying 'em out right an' left—thud, thud, thud! I tell yer, there was money to be made then!"
It seemed as though the man would go on for an indefinite period in his half trance-like musings. Kew leaned forward and touched him on the shoulder.
"What about your story?" he asked.
The dying man aroused himself with a start.
"Yes, yes; I was forgetting. Well, one season I was in charge o' the Sea Foam, and we struck it rich, we did. Inside of a month we was absolutely packed up wi' pelts, the best haul that a sealer ever made. It was when we were just about to start for home that the thought came to me of all the money that was down there in the hold. I knew I could find a free market for the goods anywhere, and I went for'ard and talked it over with the men. They was all agreeable, and, to cut a long story short, I sold the Sea Foam and its cargo to an American skipper. I gave a fair share to the crew, and kept the rest for myself!"
"How much was that?"
The man on the bed leaned forward.
"The best part of twenty thousand pounds!" he said.
"What did you do then?"
"I went back to Grangepool," the patient went on. "I'd grown a beard and wore specs, so nobody recognised me. I slipped into a bank there, an' deposited the twenty thousand with the manager. His name was James Philips. He gave me a receipt for the money, and I cleared out o' Grangepool that same night!"
He drew a deep breath.
"I did another voyage, and this time went to the Russian parts. There's an island called Salcoth, and on it there's a hut where a half-caste Eskimo always lives, year in and year out. I had the Sea Foam's papers and the deposit note with me, and just to make things sure I left them in the hut. They are in a little steel box buried in the floor!"
"Yes; go on!"
"I was unlucky that trip. Two days before we got back to England there was a row on board!" The man's voice became stronger suddenly.
"I swear it was an accident, but I was among the mob, and in the fight the first-mate was killed. I struck the blow; but how was I to know that his skull was like a piece of tissue-paper? Anyhow, I was brought up to the Hull Assizes, and it was touch-an'-go wi' me. They might have hanged me, but instead of that they gave me the long stretch!"
"And so there's twenty thousand pounds in your name in the bank at Grangepool?"
"Yes. It's called the Grangepool and District Bank," said the dying convict.
"What about the manager—James Phillips? Does he know what's happened to you?"
"Yes. I wrote to him twice while I was waiting for trial, but he never answered my letters. But I saw him at the court—oh, yes, I saw him! He thought I didn't twig him there, but he was wrong. I wrote to him asking him for some money, but he never replied!"
A fierce look came into the man's face.
"I believe that if I had been able to use some of the money, I'd have got off," he went on; "but I hadn't the cash to get any tip-top man to look after me!"
"Then this bank-manager knows that you are a lifer! What has he done with the money?"
"Stuck to it, I'll swear," came the hoarse whisper. "It really belongs to my owner, Malcolm MacLeod. I swindled him out of it and it practically ruined him. Phillips knew me—knew who I was, but he kept that to himself. He stuck to the twenty thousand, and all these years I've waited!"
"What were you going to do?"
"I wrote to him only a few days ago—last Tuesday," came the grim reply. "I had heard that they were going to let me out soon and I warned Phillips that I was on his track. Then this thing happened, and you tell me I'm going to die!"
Kew was looking at the man intently. He lay on his back, a huge figure, almost filling the cot. The long confinement in prison had tinged the hair with grey, the cheeks were hollow, and the eyes sunken, but at one time Nat Marle, must have been a heavily-built, powerful-looking man.
"Yes, you are going to die," said Kew. "No one in the world can save you, not even I!"
"I—I must put things straight," the man on the bed murmured. "I know that my old master MacLeod had a boy, a baby he was when I left. The money ought to be his, it ought to be his. I'd like to give it back to him!" He looked up into Kew's face.
"Couldn't I manage that?" he said. "If I was to tell the governor here couldn't he—couldn't he arrange it?" Into the black eyes of the attendant there leapt a sudden malicious light. The story he had heard had caught at his keen intellect. Already Kew had planned one great move, and now the news that Marle had given him made his scheme take another shape. "I think I will tell the governor. He would arrange it!"
The man on the cot was talking half to himself, and Kew arose to his feet, glaring; down at the muttering patient. "Do you hear me matey?" Marle's voice range out. "Tell the doctor that I want to see the governor. He will be coming round presently!"
It was getting close to the hour when the surgeon made his evening visit. Kew glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. "Go on, matey; you'll tell the doctor, won't you?"
It seemed as though Marle, now that he had reached the end of his wasted life, was desirous of making restitution. It was certainly a belated penitence, but it was obvious from the anxiety in the voice that it was sincere enough. "All right, I'll tell him!"
Kew slipped away from the cot and shuffled down towards the dispensary. He disappeared inside, and as soon as the door closed behind him, his slothful manner vanished. He darted across to where a number of bottles stood on a shelf, and, with quick, certain fingers, took out one or two phials.
Bending down, Kew picked up a piece of cotton-wool. He had measured out several drops of the fluids from the various bottles into a test-tube, then lighting a spirit lamp, he held the test-tube in the blue flame. The liquid in the tube began to splutter, and from it there came up a yellow, pungent smoke.
Kew held the cotton-wool in the smoke for a few moments, then extinguishing the flame, he emptied the test-tube into the sink and rinsed it out.
He had just completed this task when the clock began to chime the hour of six. Kew hurried out of the little cubicle and walked towards the cot.
The sound of voices came to his ears, and he recognised the clear one of the surgeon. Darting to the bedside Kew lunged forward suddenly and placed the cotton-wool over the patient's mouth and nostrils. There was a feeble struggle, a choking gasp or two, then the heavy figure of Marle went limp and his hands relaxed, falling to his sides.
Kew withdrew the cotton-wool, and, keeping it at arm's-length, ran to the fireplace, dropping it in the flames. There spurted up yellow light for a moment, then the wadding consumed.
The door at the end of the ward opened and Kew saw the surgeon appear. He was accompanied by a man in quiet blue-serge. They came up the ward together, and Kew, leaning in the shadows of the fireplace, watched them.
The surgeon bent over the patient. Marle was breathing thickly, heavily, with an ominous rattle in the throat.
There was a certain deference in the surgeon's voice as he called. Kew's mis-shapen figure straightened up, and he came forward slowly to the side of the cot. The surgeon pointed to the patient. "I think he is nearly finished, don't you?"
The vulture-like man leaned forward and pretended to examine the convict on the bed. The lips were parted and the breath was coming and going in thin gasps. "He may linger for an hour or two," said Kew; "but I don't think he will recover consciousness!"
At the sound of his voice, the man who had been standing beside the surgeon started slightly, and took a pace forward. Kew, still bending over his patient, turned his bird-like face, and looked up. Into the hawk-like eyes there flashed for a moment a look of utter hatred, which was answered by a stare from the steel-blue ones above him.
"You have met this—this man before then?" said the surgeon, turning to his companion.
The clean-shaven face was set and grim.
"Yes," said Sexton Blake. "I have met him before."
Kew had moved away from the cot now, and was standing in a sullen attitude at the window. His face was set in its usual expressionless manner. Only his eyes, quick and vivid, moved restlessly, first searching Blake's face, then lingering for a moment on the pallid one of the patient on the cot.
"All right, orderly. You had better call me when any change takes place!"
Kew bowed with a quick, sardonic smile, and the surgeon turned away, pacing off down the ward, accompanied by Blake.
"An extraordinary man that," said the doctor. "I have no doubt he is a criminal, but, well—he was one of the cleverest physicians in London!"
He was speaking in a half apologetic tone, and Blake smiled.
"I know Professor Kew very well," he said. "In fact, I, personally, am responsible for his present position. He was a clever doctor, but he was also a clever criminal, and the world is better for his absence!" He looked at the prison surgeon. "Personally!" he said, "I would not trust him in there!"
"Oh, but what harm can he do?" the surgeon asked. "He is very useful in the ward, and he certainly would be no good outside. He is physically unfitted for the hard work on the moors, but his long hospital experience makes him valuable where he is now!"
"Perhaps so," said the detective. "Still, I wouldn't trust him!"
They made their way across the wide yard, and, from the window of the hospital, Kew watched them go. His claw-like hands were folded until the knuckles gleamed dully through the white flesh.
"Blake!" he murmured beneath his breath. "So fate has sent that man across my path again, and just at the moment when I have practically completed my plans!"
His eyes fell on the man on the cot, and he laughed sullenly.
"That was a near thing!" he muttered. "Had you spoken, it would have spoiled everything. As it is, I made you dumb—just in the nick of time!"
In the governor's house that evening, Blake sat down to his last meal there. At about nine o'clock the surgeon joined them and, before seating himself, he made his report. "Convict No. 72,053 is dying, sir," he said. "I thought the poor beggar was doomed!"
"Yes, It's very hard lines on him," the governor returned. "He was a good-conduct man, and was going to be released very soon!"
"Is that the man I saw in the hospital this evening?" Blake asked.
"Yes," the surgeon returned, smiling at Blake. "Mr Blake doesn't like the idea of Kew being in the hospital, sir," he said to the governor. "He doesn't trust him!" The head of the prison, a blond giant, laughed.
"There are two of Mr. Blake's particular enemies at Laidstone just now, doctor," he said—"the man Kew and that huge fellow, who is a recent arrival, No. 24,750. In the outer world he was known as Count Ivor Carlac."
"I don't think I know him," said the surgeon. "At least, he has never come under my care!"
"Oh no!" he returned. "Ivor Carlac is hardly the man to be put in a hospital ward. He's a strong as a bull!" The governor puffed at his cigar.
"Yes, doctor. Mr. Blake has been trying to make me feel anxious. He doesn't like the idea of those two men being under the same roof, but I think I can trust my staff to keep their eyes on 'em!"
"I certainly hope so!" said Blake quietly, "for in my opinion those two men are the most dangerous criminals in the world. Both Kew and Carlac had long runs, and it cost me a great deal of time and trouble before I finally settled them!"
"Oh, well, you can leave it to me, Blake, my dear chap," said the governor. "Carlac and Kew are in Laidstone, and in Laidstone they'll remain! There has only been one attempt at escape made in this prison during the last ten years, and he was shot before he got a hundred yards away!"
He leaned back in his chair.
"It's impossible for anyone to escape at night," the head of the prison went on. "The walls are lighted up—a little idea of my own. A fly couldn't creep over the wall without being observed. Then, of course, during the daytime the work gangs are under a close guard. We are not so bad as Dartmoor, you know. There's not so many mists here, and I've made it a rule that when the fogs do come all work stops, and we use chains!"
He laughed—a rollicking, jovial sound.
"In fact," he added, "I can assure you that everything is just as it should be at Laidstone, and if Carlac and Kew can escape from here, then they will have to do so by some superhuman method!"
The worthy gentleman had every reason to be proud of his arrangements, but he had not reckoned with the cunning of the dwarf-like man in the hospital ward.
When Blake entered the train that evening at the quiet railway-station, he had a foreboding in his heart that he could not quench. He leaned out of the carriage window to catch a last glimpse of the huge pile of Laidstone Prison.
"There is something in the wind," he told himself. "Kew is plotting. I'm sure of it. I saw fear in his eyes when looked up at me, and that could only have been inspired by one thing. He must have some scheme afoot, and I am the only man that has ever checked him. By Jove, I'd give anything to prevent him from getting into the world again! The man is ruthless and merciless, and behind prison walls is the only place for him!"
Sexton Blake was soon to find out how correct his judgment had been.
Link by link a chain was being formed that was to encircle for a brief spell the lives of those two criminals with that of Blake and Tinker, young Hector MacLeod, and the other characters in Grangepool.
AT about nine o'clock in the morning of the day following, Blake's visit to Laidstone prison, the bell in the chapel began to toll, and its mournful notes came to the ears of the gang working on the lonely moor. There were only a few chimes, then silence, but the hard-featured men glanced at each other, and the whisper passed round: "No. 72,053 was dead!"
Rigid silence is enforced in all our prisons, yet by some mystic means the happenings in the prison pass from soul to soul, nor have the authorities ever been able to check that practice.
No. 10 gang, the one in which Count Ivor Carlac worked, were engaged in making a road—a broad, smooth track from the main highway to the prison.
Carlac was one of the barrow men, and the strength of the convict was visible in the way in which he handled the heavy loads on the barrow.
He worked, as a rule, in a sullen, aloof silence, and, as the warders observed, even the men in his own gang seemed to treat him as a superior being.
It was rather grotesque this deference, but it was, nevertheless, very real. Carlac's magnetic personality, that had brought him to the forefront of European criminals, could not be quenched even in the drab life behind prison walls. That morning, however, as the bell tolled in the chapel he paused to exchange a whisper to the man by his side.
"That's Smith, isn't it?"
"Yes; he's gone!"
A glint came into Carlac's eyes, and for the rest of the day he seemed as though he had found anew strength. He was indefatigable, and the grim-jowled warder in charge of the gang spoke to him at last. "You needn't overdo it," the man said; "you'll kill yourself if you go on at that rate!"
Carlac straightened his broad shoulders and glanced at the man. The warder had meant the remark kindly enough, but there was a sardonic smile on Carlac's face. "It pleases me to work hard," he said.
At dusk, when the work was over for the day, the gang fell in to be marched back to the prison. Carlac placed himself as usual in the leading file, the warder gave the gruff word of command, and the gang began to trudge wearily towards the prison gates.
Just as they entered Carlac shot a quick glance to the right. The door of the hospital was open, and standing in it was the wizened figure of Kew. An imperceptible signal passed between the two; then Kew nodded towards a rough gravel path.
There was a round white pebble lying directly in Carlac's track. The big convict stumbled, apparently tripped, and fell on his face. The gang came to a halt, and the warder whipped round with an angry word.
He was just in time to see Carlac pick himself to his feet again. There was a faint trickle of blood on the man's check, and the warder stepped up to him.
"What's the matter with you?"
Carlac lifted a hand and brushed it across his face.
"All right," he said; "I felt a little faint, but I'm all right now!"
The warder looked at him doubtfully, but Carlac straightened his shoulders.
"All right!" he repeated; and, apparently satisfied, the warder marched the gang on up the yard and into the prison.
Before the men were dismissed to their cells they were searched as usual, but this was a somewhat perfunctory ordeal. Carlac, with a little white pebble in his mouth, did not allow a muscle to relax as the warder ran his hands over the convict's clothes.
The gang was marched up to the second floor and along the iron corridor. Carlac's cell was an end one, and he passed into it, while the door clanged to behind him.
Stepping over to the hard wooden bed, the master criminal seated himself on it, then extracted the pebble from between his lips and looked at it.
To an ordinary observer it appeared just a common piece of flint, with the usual coating of chalk. Carlac began to scrape the chalk away with his fingers until at last he had a heap of white powder, just about as much as would cover a sixpence, in the palm of his hand.
He placed the powder carefully on one side, then thrust the bit of flint into a corner of his cell.
Half an hour later the clang of a heavy handle indicated that the final meal of the day was being brought round. Carlac leapt to his feet and scraped the white powder into his hand, glancing at it for a moment. "I must take the risk," he thought. "Kew is no fool. Here goes!"
A moment later the powder was placed on his tongue and swallowed. Carlac sat upright in his cell waiting. A sudden icy thrill ran through his bones from head to toe; he felt the cell swing round, and staggering to the door, he beat on it with clenched fists.
A half-strangled cry came from his lips that carried to the ears of the warder in the passage. The man came hurrying down, and opened the door of the cell.
Carlac was lying on his face, his fists clenched, his eyes closed. For a moment the warder thought the convict was dead. He dropped on one knee and leaned forward. Heavy laboured breathing came to him, and he leapt to his feet again.
Four minutes later a couple of convicts, carrying a creaking stretcher, came swinging across the yard, and entered the hospital ward.
Carlac's heavy body was lifted on to one of the cots, and the surgeon was hastily summoned. The unconscious man's appearance suggested a touch of apoplexy, and Kew, standing on the other side of the cot, nodded his head as the surgeon gave his verdict.
"It's only a temporary collapse," the doctor said. "Whose gang does he belong to?"
"To mine, sir," said the warder.
"Has he been taken like this before?"
The warder shook his head.
"No, sir; but he was working rather hard to-day. In fact, I told him not to overdo it. Then he had a bit of a collapse as he entered the gates!"
"Oh, well; that's all right! Twenty-four hours will see him on his feet again!"
The doctor wrote out a prescription and handed it to Kew, who took the paper without a word. During the two years that Kew had served in that prison he had been of exemplary character, and, little by little, the young medical officer had commenced to trust the man.
"You know what to do, orderly," the surgeon said, as he turned away. "You can let me know if his condition changes for the worse!"
He left the hospital, followed by the warder. As soon as they were gone a swift change came over Kew's attitude. His meek manner vanished, and he darted up the ward into the dispensary, returning a moment later with a tiny glass of amber-coloured liquid.
Raising Carlac's head he poured the liquid between the lips, then held him steady for a moment. There was a tremor and movement from the massive convict, and Carlac opened his eyes, staring round him dazedly for a moment. Gradually his eyes fixed themselves on Kew's face, and dawning intelligence entered them. "All right, my friend," said Kew. "We arranged that very nicely!" Carlac caught at the claw-like hand.
"I thought you—you had tricked me," he broke out. "That drug was lightning-like in its effect!"
"I meant it to be," said Kew, with a sardonic smile. "Our worthy doctor was assured that it was apoplexy. You are safe for twenty-four hours. Get up!"
Carlac swung himself round and stood up. He had to clutch at Kew for a moment, but gradually his reeling brain righted itself, and he raised his arms above his head. "Wonderful!" he said. "I feel as fit as ever. All trace of the drug seems to have gone!"
"The antidote was as strong as the drug," said Kew. "Besides, I want you to have all your strength; you'll need it!" The master-criminal dropped back on the cot again, glancing into Kew's eyes.
"We must come to some sort of understanding," he said. "So far, I have trusted implicitly to you. I received your message and agreed to come in with you; but I want to know more now!"
Each of the criminals was of strong personality, and Kew realised that he had a man of his own calibre to deal with. "Right!" he said. "I have put all my cards into it. Listen to me!" He pointed towards a door at the end of the ward.
"Convict Smith died last night," said Kew. "He was unconscious to the end. Had he not been unconscious, what I am about to suggest would not have been worth while!" "Go on!"
Very briefly Kew told Carlac the strange history that the man Marle had revealed to him. Suddenly the vulture-like man arose to his feet.
"It gives me a reason for escape," he said, in a thin voice. "For over a year I have been planning this—waiting for someone like yourself to come and help me. Marle's story simply makes the scheme I have worth while. If you and I can get out of here, I promise you that we shall be rich men!"
He looked into Carlac's face.
"You are very like Marle," he said, "and with very little alteration I can make you to exactly resemble him as he appeared here. Anyhow, this bank manager, Phillips, has already been warned that Marle was coming back for his money. I think that Phillips must have gone crook and stuck to the money himself. But even if he hasn't that doesn't matter. In a hut on Salcoth Island there is hidden the ship's papers of the Sea Foam, and also the deposit note given to Marle by Phillips twenty years ago. When we escape from here we will go to Grangepool first, and tackle Phillips. Then twenty thousand pounds will be ours!"
He threw back his head and laughed, his yellow teeth gleaming.
"Twenty thousand pounds is quite a decent little sum to start into business with again—eh, Count Carlac?" The massively-built criminal nodded his head.
"Yes," he returned; "twenty thousand pounds is a tidy sum. But you haven't yet told me how we are going to escape!" He glanced around the ward.
"Don't you know that Laidstone Prison has a reputation of never allowing a single soul to get away from it? The governor prides himself on that!" Kew's face lifted up into a slow smile.
"The governor's pride has to have a fall," he returned. "You and I will be able to clear out of this place to-night!"
"What do you mean?"
"Listen to me!" said Kew. "At about nine o'clock this evening the big laundry-van comes in to take away the soiled linen. It is a motor-van!"
"After the man has collected all the washing from the staff quarters, he comes to the hospital here. I have usually a couple of baskets for him. Of course there's a warder, but he waits outside watching the van!"
"The van man comes in here, takes the baskets out, and puts them into the van; then drives off. The hospital is the last place that he calls at!"
Kew stepped into the centre of the ward and beckoned to Carlac. "Come along," he said, "and I'll show you what I mean!"
He led the way down the ward into an ante-room. There were a couple of huge laundry-baskets standing in one corner. Kew raised the lid of one, revealing the fact that it was full of soiled linen. Then he stepped up to the other and opened it. It was empty. "Watch!" he said.
A moment later the professor had stepped into the basket and dropped the lid over him. His small monkey frame was easily concealed in the capacious basket. Presently he pushed the lid up again and stepped out.
"This is my plan," he said. "The van comes to a halt at the door there. The warder usually lounges outside. He does so because he is afraid that someone may slip into the van while the driver's back is turned. The van man comes in here and takes the baskets away. Now this is my plan. I am going to let him take out the first basket; then as he comes in here again to take out the second one, I'm going to attack him. You must be waiting just inside the ward, and as soon as I signal to you, you must come and change into the driver's clothes. It will have to be quick work, Carlac—only just time to put on the long coat, and with the peaked cap drawn down over your eyes you will be safe from detection. I'll get into the basket and you must carry me in the basket and place it in the van!"
"What sort of motor is it?" Carlac asked.
"A Daimler!" Kew returned.
Carlac nodded his head.
"That's all right, then!" he returned. "I have driven a Daimler many times before!"
Kew seated himself on one of the baskets, and glanced at the man who was to be his confederate.
"What do you think of the plan?" he asked.
"It has every chance of success," the count returned.
It was ten minutes past nine before the heavily-laden laundry van, having completed its round of the dismal prison, came to a halt outside the door of the waiting room of the hospital. The armed warder who had stolidly trudged round behind the van lowered his carbine, and nodded to the van man as he passed. "Thank goodness that's the last call, my man!" he said. "I shall be glad to get back to my supper!"
"So shall I!" said the van man, as he stepped up to the door and turned the knob. He entered the anti-room, to find Kew waiting for rum. "How many to-night?" the man asked.
Kew pointed to the two baskets, and the laundryman, a hefty fellow, tilted one of them up and, swinging it on to his broad shoulder, stalked through the doorway to his van. He slid the basket into its place, pushing it well into the interior, so as to leave room for the second one.
Kew had stepped aside as the man left the room, and from his pocket the criminal drew out a small tube. There was a plunger at the end of the tube, fully drawn. Kew, leaning against the wall, waited.
The van man entered again, and as he passed through the door Kew slid his foot forward and pushed the door to. It swung into its place noiselessly, and the van man was just leaning over the second basket as Kew turned.
Two quick, cat-like paces brought the professor to where the laundryman was bending forward. The tube was aimed and, with a quick thrust of his palm, Kew pressed the plunger forward.
A little, feathery spume of yellow smoke shot out from the tube, enveloping the head of the van man. There was a choking gasp, the man's hold relaxed, and he rolled over on to the basket, then to the floor.
The door leading to the ward opened, and Carlac leapt through it. Kew was already bending over the inanimate form, tugging at the buttons of the coat.
In less time than it takes to tell, Carlac had dressed himself in the long overcoat, and had drawn the peaked cap over his eyes. "Lift him up! Come along!"
Kew reached for the man's feet, and Carlac took the shoulders. Then, at a run, they carried the unconscious laundryman into the ward, and laid him on the cot that Carlac had recently vacated, drawing the sheet over the head.
They rushed for the small room again, and Kew leapt into the basket, drawing the lid down, while Carlac turned the key in the little padlock.
A moment later the powerful criminal had slung the heavy basket on to his shoulder, and was stalking out through the door. He went round to the back of the van, placing the basket on the tilt and pushing it into the interior. Then, leisurely he raised the tilt, adjusting it into its place and lowering the flap of the canvas.
The warder lifted his carbine and slung it over his shoulder.
"All right now?" he said.
"Yes," Carlac returned, with a nod of his head as he made towards the front of the motor.
The warder stood aside, watching Carlac at work. It was just as well for the master criminal that he knew the engine. He found the magnetic switch, turned it on, then adjusted the throttle. Passing round to the front of the bonnet, he gave a swing to the starting-handle and the powerful engine commenced to hum.
A moment later Carlac had swung into his place, slipped the first gear into position, and the heavy laundry-van lumbered slowly forward, out through the prison gates, turning to the left of the broad highway.
Carlac heard the clang of the iron gates as they closed behind him, and the heavy van, gathering speed at every turn of its wheels, went thundering on down the dark road.
The man at the wheel was smiling to himself as he steered. The tang of the fresh night air on his face was like a breath of freedom, and the peace of the moors was like the cold joy in his heart.
For seven miles he drove the van forward; then coming to a halt at a lonely part of the road, where a thin growth of trees stood, he leapt from his seat and went round to the rear of the van.
He lowered the back, then, clambering inside the vehicle, he unloosed the padlock, and lifted the lid of one of the baskets. Kew rose up out of the darkness like a wraith.
There were one or two beads of sweat on the vulture face, and he raised a hand and brushed them aside.
"Very warm inside there!" said Kew. "But you have done quite right. How far have you come?"
"About seven miles," said Carlac.
Kew stepped out of the basket, and turned towards the other one that had been taken from the hospital. With a quick wrench, he undid the lock and lifted the lid. Then, rummaging through the soiled linen, he produced a couple of clothes. "Where did you get these?" Carlac asked with surprise. Kew smiled grimly.
"One suit belongs to the governor of Laidstone, and the other to my friend the doctor," he said. "I told the doctor a few days ago that I had found a new fluid that was very useful for renovating old clothes, and I cleaned one or two suits for him. He was so pleased with the result that he told the governor about it, and they sent these two suits to me to be cleaned."
He dropped from the van into the road and, selecting one suit of clothes, tossed the other to Carlac.
"We could not have gone very far with the broad arrow on us," he said, "but with these we are safe. We had better change now!"
He slipped into the woods, and Carlac did the same. A few moments later they emerged again, dressed in the stolen clothes. Kew was carrying his convict garments over his arm, and he told Carlac to bring his discarded suit with him.
"There is a bridge about four miles farther on," the professor explained—"a bridge that has a very low parapet. We are going to enact a small tragedy there!"
Carlac gathered his clothes and placed them on the seat of the van. Then he and Kew climbed into their positions, and Carlac took the wheel once more.
About twenty minutes later they reached the bridge and, just as they gained the centre of it, Kew held up his hand. "I get out here," he said, "and I want you to just fix it up so that the van will go over there into the river. Can you manage it?" A deep laugh broke from Carlac's lips. "Yes, I can manage it!"
Kew slipped from his seat, and Carlac engaged the first speed again; then, allowing the engine to race for a moment, he slipped in the clutch and swung the steering wheel round hard to the left. The heavy vehicle barged forward, and Carlac swung from his seat, hung on to the wheel until the front of the bonnet was only a yard away form the low parapet, then, opening the throttle to the full extent, Carlac leapt for safety.
The huge Daimler van went butting at the parapet full tilt. There was a crash and a jar, then the low wall gave way, and the heavy motor went hurtling into the stream below.
Kew was leaning over the edge of the parapet lower down, and as the black mass went headlong into the river, the lean head nodded and a claw-like hand was waved in a mocking farewell.
"It'll make quite a startling headline!" he said, as he came towards Carlac.
"THRILLING ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE!"
"TWO CONVICTS MEET TERRIBLE DEATH!"
"All the better for us if that does happen, for it will give us a clear run," he said.
They went on across the bridge, trudging along the dark roadway until they reached a point where the road splayed out in three different tracks.
"We will go north," said Kew. "Grangepool lies north, and that is our happy hunting-ground for the moment!" Side by side in the darkness they went on, to vanish at last into the silence of the night.
A Guilty Conscience.
GRANGEPOOL is a seaport town, with a splendid history, although modern commerce has chosen now to ignore its quiet little haven. In the good old days of the past, Grangepool owned a vast fleet of whalers and sealers, vying even with Dundee in that respect.
It has still a fair coast trade, and many of the coal-grimed vessels that ply in and out were at one time used on the old whaling expeditions.
The town itself is a straggling collection of houses around the harbour. There is the old town and the new town, a more modern division placed somewhat higher up the cliffs.
The house of James Phillips was in the new portion of the town—a handsome red-brick structure, standing in its own shaded grounds.
One afternoon, about two days following the escape of Carlac and Kew from Laidstone Prison, Hector MacLeod was seated in the drawing-room of the house, while Ruth Phillips poured out tea.
She was a strikingly beautiful girl—tall, slender, and, despite the pallor and the anxious expression in her eyes, her face was a most attractive one.
"I don't know what I should do without you, Hector," Ruth sighed. "It was so good of you to come back at once!" The young man flung a quick, loving glance at his companion.
"Why I'd come back across the world in answer to a word from you darling," he said. "You know that!"
He caught at the tiny hand that was holding the teacup and pressed it. Ruth drew her chair a little closer and sat down.
"You haven't heard anything, I suppose?" she began.
"Not a word! I have been down to the bank again this morning and made inquiries. Fortunately they haven't missed him yet. The note that he sent has made everything all right for the time being."
James Phillips was now the managing director of the big bank, and at first Ruth had had a vague fear that all might not be well with the concern. But, beyond a few courteous inquiries, the bank had not troubled about their head man, chiefly because a letter had been slipped in the letter-box on the Tuesday night, in Phillips's handwriting, which had stated that urgent private business was calling him away, and he might be absent for some time.
It was this fiction that Ruth had to keep up among her many friends and acquaintances in Grangepool, It was a difficult position for the young girl to fill, but so far she had carried it out faithfully enough.
No hint of her suspicions or fears had been allowed to escape her red lips, and Hector MacLeod was the only one who shared her confidences.
Half-way through the tea the electric bell on the front door whirred, and a few minutes later a trim maid-servant entered, bearing a silver salver.
"Doctor Kay," Ruth read, glancing at the card. "What does he want, Mary? Who is he?"
"I don't know, Miss Ruth," the maid returned. "The gentleman said he wanted to see Mr. Phillips. I told him he was not at home but that you were in, and he said he would like to have a few words with you!" Ruth arose to her feet.
"I think you had better see him in here, dear," said Hector.
Ruth turned and nodded to the girl, and a few moments later the door of the drawing-room opened again and two men appeared. They were Professor Kew and Count Ivor Carlac.
Kew was dressed in a well-made frock-coat and was wearing a pair of dark glasses. He had made but very little attempt to disguise himself, for his features were not of the type that could be easily altered.
The man behind him, however, would hardly have been recognised as the huge convict that had marched at the head of gang 10.
Kew's disguising of Carlac was a masterpiece of ingenuity. The hair had been tinted to a slight iron grey at the temples; the hawk-nose had been broadened, the eyebrows altered, for they were now heavy and pendulous.
Kew had studied the face of the man Marle, and Carlac's countenance was now almost an exact duplicate.
The vulture-like man came across the room with his little bird-like steps and bowed to Ruth.
"Good-afternoon, Miss Philips," he said in his chirping voice. "I hope I do not disturb you. Let me introduce my friend, Mr. Free!"
Carlac bowed to Ruth, and the girl indicated two chairs.
"Pray be seated," she said. "I understand you have called to see my father. He is not at home just now!" Then, turning towards Hector, she introduced him. "This is Mr. Hector MacLeod!"
It might only have been imagination on Hector's part, but he fancied that Kew started slightly and the thin face was turned in his direction, while a pair of hard eyes peered at him from behind the smoked glasses. "Mr. Hector MacLeod," Kew reported. "I wonder if you are any relation of Mr. Malcolm MacLeod?"
"I am his son!"
"Did you know my father?" Hector put in.
"I never met him," said Kew slowly, "but I have heard about him. He was a well-known man in Grangepool once, I believe?"
"Yes," the youngster returned.
Kew's lips twitched for a moment. To him there was a certain grim humour in this meeting, for here was the boy who, if Marle's story was correct, had been defrauded out of the very money that Kew and Carlac were now in search of. "And your father, Miss Phillips," Kew went on. "I understood you to say he is not at home. Will he be back soon?" Ruth caught a warning glance from Hector.
"I don't know," the girl returned. "He has been called away on very important business!"
Again Kew's lips twitched. He knew that Marle had sent off the letter of warning to Phillips immediately he had heard that he was about to be released. "When did he go?"
"He left Grangepool last Tuesday week," said Ruth. And Carlac and the professor exchanged glances. So far they had had no proof of the truth of Marle's statement, but now the fact of Philips's sudden flight seemed to indicate that the dying convict's story was true enough.
"And you have no idea when he will be back?"
"I'm afraid not," said Ruth.
She was half frightened of the lean face that was staring into hers. She looked at it now, noting the cold curve of the chin, the long, curiously shaped head. A criminal, evil visage.
"Oh, well, in that case we might as well go," said Kew, rising to his feet. "Our business was not very important and can wait!"
He bowed politely to Ruth, an action followed by Carlac; then after a nod to Hector MacLeod, Kew and his companion left the drawing-room.
As soon as they had vanished Hector rose to his feet and went to the window. He was just in time to catch a glimpse of the two men as they passed down the gravel path.
They were a strangely-assorted pair. Carlac, broad-shouldered, burly, masterful; Kew, slim, delicate, tripping along, trying to keep pace with the strides of his companion.
"Who on earth are they, Ruth?"
"I don't know, Hector," the girl said, coming to his side. "I have never seen them in my life before!"
"I don't like the look of them!"
"Neither do I. That little man is a—a terrible creature. I felt his eyes on my face all the time and he—he seemed to almost hypnotise me!"
"I wonder what the dickens they are after here?" Hector went on. "They are not Grangepool men, although they seemed to know about my father!"
"Yes; so they did. That was rather strange, wasn't it?"
"I can't make it out," the youngster returned. "Dad was well known in Grangepool, but he has been dead so long. Why should two strangers know about him?"
It was certainly rather curious that these two men should have known of his father, and after he left the house and made his way back to his humble lodgings, Hector found his brain returning to that question again and again.
"They were evil-looking beggars," Hector thought, "of course, they were polite enough, but, by Jove, I think what they are is stamped on their faces clearly enough. The big fellow looked like an ex-convict—by Jove!"
A sudden inspiration had flashed into his mind. He remembered the mysterious message that Phillips had received, the letter that Ruth sent on to him whilst in London.
"Can it be possible?" the lad thought. "By Jove, I think I'm right. They are in search of Ruth's father and he is hiding himself from them!"
He made up his mind that he would call on Ruth the following morning and let her know his suspicions. It would have been wiser had he gone back the same night, but he did not want to be seen at Phillip's house too often.
The servants knew that there had been a quarrel between Hector and Mr. Phillips, and the former did not want them to think he was taking advantage of the owner's absence.
Yet it would have been better had he pocketed his pride that evening. For about ten o'clock Ruth, seated in her father's study, heard the clatter of the letter-box, followed by a double knock on the door.
She knew that the servants had retired for the night, and, rising to her feet, she went to the hall. In the letter-box she could see the outlines of an envelope, and she hurried to the door and opened it.
There was no one in the porch and although she went to the top of the steps and looted down the avenue, she found it was quite deserted.
Ruth went into the hall again, and, closing the front door, she opened the letter-box and withdrew the envelope. It was thumb-marked and dirty, but the handwriting brought a quick thrill into the girl's heart.
It was that of her father. Standing in the dim light of the hall Ruth hurriedly tore the envelope open and drew out the sheet of paper.
"My dear Ruth," the letter ran, "I want you to open the second drawer of my desk and take out a note-book and a little bag of gold that you will find there.
"Do not a let a single soul know that you have heard from me. I am in great danger and have to leave Grangepool at once. I am staying at present at 23a, Ravell's Alley! If you take a tram down to the Old Town and get off at the terminus, Ravell's Alley is the third turning on the right. No. 23a is quite close to the docks. It's a very low neighbourhood, but I don't think there is any fear of you being molested. Anyhow, you are a brave girl and I know you will help your father. Bring me the money and note-book to-night. As soon as you have read this letter destroy it!"
Ruth crushed the paper in her fist and looked about her. Her face was bloodless, and in her eyes the gathering fear had deepened. What could it mean? Why was it that her father, the respected managing director of the local bank, had to hide in a dirty slum? The girl's heart was beating painfully, but her father had not been mistaken when he had chosen her as his confidante. The old town, especially that quarter in which Ravell's Alley was situated, was seldom visited by any of the better-class residents. It was really given up to rough polyglot sailors that came and went from the harbour. There were tales of dark crimes, of awful deeds having been committed in the ill-kept, badly-lighted slumways there. "Second drawer in the desk," Ruth repeated. "I must go and get the things at once!"
She darted off into the study again, and, finding the bunch of keys in the desk, she drew out the second drawer. A little canvas bag was the first object that met her eyes, and as she lifted it up the chink of gold came to her ears.
Below the bag was a note-book, just as her father had said. It was old and rather faded, but Ruth did not stop to do more than glance at it.
She closed the drawer again and left the study, hurrying upstairs, to return a few moments later wearing a dark cloak.
The pocket-book and bag were safely tucked away in the bodice of her dress, then, pinning a little motor cap over her tresses, Ruth went out of the house and turned into the quiet street.
As she emerged on to the edge of the pavement, she halted for a moment, glancing to right and left. The street was deserted, so far as she was aware, and she began to walk swiftly down the hill towards the main thoroughfare.
As soon as her back was turned a figure detached itself from a gateway belonging to a house opposite and began to move along the wall. As it passed the third house another figure, a taller one this time, emerged.
"She lied to us!" said Kew in a thin voice. "I thought as much. She is going to see her father now!"
"Perhaps you're right'" said Carlac, "although I did not think so at the time!"
From that moment that they had left the house, these two men had hung about. They had seen Hector MacLeod depart, and, at last, their long vigil had been rewarded by the sight of Ruth in her dark cloak.
The main thoroughfare was reached at last and they saw the girl step on a tram. It happened that there was another car running close behind the one that Ruth had entered, and Kew and Carlac boarded it.
The second tram was almost empty and the two men went up to the top, where, by looking through the window, Kew could keep his eye on the clanging tram ahead.
He saw that the electric sign above the foremost car proclaimed the fact that it was the Old Town they were heading for.
The long run down the steep slopes was completed and the terminus reached at last. Ruth stepped out of the front car and Carlac saw her glance around for a moment before going on into the dimmer-lighted streets beyond.
They were old hands at tracking, were these two, and the unsuspecting girl had no idea that she was being followed. She turned down into Ravell's Alley shuddering slightly as she plunged into its narrow, evil-smelling depths.
The unmistakable tang of the sea came to her, and at the end of the alley, she could see the high mast of some ship moored to the quay.
The girl crossed the passage, and, coming to a halt beneath a lamp-post, peered at the doorway opposite. It was No. 22, and hurrying on, Ruth stopped again in front of 23a.
Her knock on the door was answered by a figure in blue. It was dirty, dishevelled, with a growth of stubble on its chin. For a moment Ruth stared at it, not recognising her father, then Phillips put his hand out, and caught his daughter's arm.
"Ruth," he whispered, "good girl. Come in!"
She was drawn in through the narrow doorway, and the door was closed behind her. The two fugitive figures drew closer and waited in a dark doorway opposite. They had not long to wait. Three or four minutes later Ruth emerged, and now her father, in his dingy blue serge, accompanied her.
The girl was silent, her small hand resting in her father's arm, and they walked up to end of the alley. Carlac and Kew, watching from the darkness, saw a quick farewell take place.
Ruth flung one arm round her father's neck and clung to him for a moment, and the sound of a smothered sob came to the ears of the watchers. Then, disengaging herself gently, the man pushed the slender girl away and Ruth, with bowed head, hand over her eyes, tottered towards the lighted thoroughfare.
For a long moment Phillips stood in the shadow of the alley, looking after his daughter; then wheeling he began to retrace his steps.
He reached 23a, and found that the door was still open. He entered, closing it behind him, then turning in the narrow hall he stepped into the room on the left.
It was in darkness, and, fumbling in his pockets, Phillips struck a match. As he did so he saw two faces looming in the darkness in front of him.
With a muttered cry of fear, the man staggered back, the match slipping from his fingers. He turned and made a blind rush for the door; but he was too late. Before he could reach it, two powerful hands shot out, gripping at him, and he was hurled aside.
Another match spluttered, and the gas-jet above the fireplace was lighted, revealing the shabby interior of the room.
The man who had hurled him aside was now standing at the door, a massive figure he was, while underneath the gas-jet stood Kew. Phillips, drawing back a few paces, turned his head from side to side, eyeing the two men.
"What's the game?" he asked in a thick, trembling voice. "What are you after?"
Carlac took up his part then. With a quick movement he turned the key in the lock, then advanced across the room towards Phillips, at the same time removing his cap so that the light would fall on his close-cropped head.
"Don't you know me?" he said. "Twenty years in gaol makes a lot of difference to a man, but you ought to recognise me again!"
It was the crucial moment of their scheme, and Kew leaned forward slightly, his eyes fixed on the face of James Phillips. The bank manager stood stock still, staring into the hard face in front of him.
Carlac's nose had been broadened by the careful injection of hot wax beneath the skin, then it had been moulded and fashioned until it exactly resembled the squat nose of the dead man. There was also the mark of a scar on the left cheek, an old one. It was these marks that really brought success to the nefarious men.
Phillips drew a deep sigh, then spoke.
"You—you are Marle?"
"Yes," said Carlac; "Nat Marle, alias Joseph Smith. I've come to have a reckoning with you!"
The wretched man tottered to a chair and collapsed on it. Had either of the two men been capable of a spark of pity, they would have been moved at the sight of the terrible anguish in Phillips's face. The cheeks were hollow and the eyes sunken, the whole aspect that of a man in the depths of despair.
"You got my note?" said Carlac.
"Yes!" With a sudden energy Phillips drew himself to his feet. "Yes, I got your note," he said. "I have been waiting for you, expecting you. All these years I have been haunted by that one crime!" Carlac laughed.
"And all these years I have been thinking of it," he said, playing his part to perfection. "You haven't been so badly off, after all. It is I who have had to suffer. I've had twenty years in gaol. Now, what about it?" He leaned forward, his heavy face set in a grim look.
"Twenty thousand pounds!" Carlac went on, "that's what I want from you. Twenty thousand pounds and interest—interest for twenty years. That makes a tidy sum, Mr. Bank-manager Phillips, and you've got to hand it over!"
"I tell you—it's impossible, man!" the distracted managing director returned. "I haven't got such a sum of money in the world!"
"What have you done with it, then?"
"It—it saved me from ruin," said Phillips. "The very time when you came and deposited your money, I was on the verge of being found out. As it was, your twenty thousand saved me. I paid off everything, and the bank never discovered my defalcations!"
"But the money—I want the money!"
"I have not got it to give you!"
"But you can get it. You are managing director of the bank, and have the handling of all the cash!" Carlac glowered at the figure opposite him.
"If you were able to swindle twenty years ago, you are able to swindle now," he said. "That twenty thousand pounds is mine, and, by heavens, I mean to have it—do you hear?" The harsh, metallic voice rang out in the little room and Phillips looked fearfully around him. "Not so loud, man—not so loud. Someone might hear you," he said. "I don't care if they do!" Carlac returned. "All Grangepool will if you do not pay!"
Kew, who had been a silent observer of the scene, came forward now. He was rubbing his thin hands together, and he glanced at Phillips.
"You must not mind my friend, Smith!" he said. "He is rather inclined to lose his temper!"
"I am entitled to," said Carlac. "I want my money!"
"Oh, quite so—quite so!" Kew agreed, in his cackling voice. "But you will have to give Mr. Phillips time. I have no doubt he will be able to arrange something. Say, a little advance?" He was eyeing Phillips with his hawk-like stare. There were beads of sweat on the hunted man's brows, and he was trembling visibly.
"Just a little advance on the capital," Kew went on. "Perhaps two or three thousand pounds. You might manage that—eh, Mr. Phillips?"
"I must have time—time to think," the wretched bank manager broke out. "I am not a rich man. I never have been; and this crime has haunted me like an evil dream always!" He flung one hand above his head and turned his twitching features towards Carlac.
"I wish to heaven I had never seen you or handled your dirty gold," he broke out, dropping into the chair and covering his face with his hands.
There was a long silence in the room. Carlac, looking round it, saw a black bottle and a couple of glasses on a table near the wall. He went across to it and measured out a stiff peg, which he carried and handed to Phillips.
"Drink this," he said, "it's no good crying over spilt milk. You've had a good time of it, and I have only come to claim my due!"
Phillips caught at the glass eagerly and drained it. It was rum, strong and potent, and it brought back some of the wretched man's courage.
"Who lives in this house?" asked Kew.
"Nobody," Phillips returned. "It is my property. I am here alone!"
Kew crooked a finger, and he and Carlac went across to one corner and whispered together for a moment. Then Carlac returned and spoke to Phillips.
"Look here," he said, "we are going to stay here to-night, and you will have to do the same. Have you any money?" Feverishly Phillips slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out the bag of gold.
"This is all I possess," he said, handing the bag over. Carlac cut the string and titled the contents of the bag on to the table. There was sixty pounds in gold.
"We will give you till to-morrow night," he said. "By that time you will have to hand over at least a couple of thousand. Your name is good enough for that amount in Grangepool, I know, and it will keep me quiet for a little while. You understand?" He leaned towards his victim. "Beg, borrow, or steal it," he said. "Only get it!"
Kew had left the room now, and with a candle which he had found he made a quick tour of the house. He found that it was a small cottage affair, with two rooms on the ground floor and two upstairs.
It was arranged then that Phillips should occupy one of the rooms, while Carlac and Kew slept in the other, and when Phillips entered the back room Carlac turned the key in the lock—a grim hint that the bank manager was a prisoner.
"It works!" said Carlac, when he and Kew found themselves alone. "We will make that man fork out to the last farthing!"
Kew had seated himself on the edge of a bed in the little room.
"You won't find it so easy," he returned. "I think his story is right; he evidently hasn't got the money himself Carlac laughed grimly.
"But the bank is rich enough," he returned, "and he is the managing director. We will bleed him to death. If he was dishonest once he can be so again!"
He drew out the bag of gold, and counting out thirty sovereigns dropped them into the claw-like hand of his companion. "That's the first," Carlac said—"the first I have earned for many a day. Let's hope it will not be the last!" In the other chamber James Phillips had removed his boots, and now he was walking up and down in the darkness with long, nervous strides.
He felt like a caged beast, and his heart was like lead within him.
From the moment the temptation had come to him, and he had made use of Marle's ill-gotten gains, James Phillips had vowed that never again would he allow himself to tamper with the funds of the bank.
For the first few years his crime had haunted him, but gradually, as the time went on, and he found himself rising, comfortable and respected, the crime ceased to trouble him.
Malcolm MacLeod had died, and Phillips had seen to the wants of his boy. It was the only way in which the wretched bank manager could make a return, and, in his way, he had carried out his compact faithfully enough.
It was only when that first intimation from Laidstone Prison had come that fear had entered his heart, and he had turned on Hector.
For the twenty thousand pounds that Phillips had used was really the property of the youngster, and, in his terror, Phillips had thought that it would be better if he were to get Hector MacLeod out of the way.
Then another note had arrived, and finally that dreadful one hinting of the nearness of Marle's release. Phillips had fled from his house at once, and had sought sanctuary in the little place in Revell's Alley. He had remained hidden during the day, and had only ventured out at night-time.
He had gone down to the docks, and, that very day, had arranged to join an out-going tramp. The vessel was due to sail with the turn of the tide at two a.m., and Phillips knew that it was now riding at anchor in the harbour, with the little tug waiting to draw it out into the Channel.
That was the reason that had made him write to his daughter for the sum of money, and the note-book which contained his story of his crime.
And now all his plans had collapsed about him, and he was in the hands of his enemies.
From somewhere in the distance a clock chimed, and he listened to the solitary boom of one o'clock. Within the next hour the cargo steamer would be sailing.
It was bound for San Francisco, and Phillips knew that it was from the city of the Golden Horn that the sealers sailed for the Russian islands.
His plan had been a desperate one. He had meant to make his way to San Francisco, and there ship on board a sealer in the hope of reaching Salcoth Island.
He knew that Marle had deposited all evidence against himself in the little hut, and if he could only reach the hut in time, and possess himself of the Sea Foam's papers, and also the deposit note, he could deny all knowledge of the old crime.
He paced on, up and down, finally halting in front of the narrow window. He could see the square yard beneath and, beyond it, a glimmer of the dark waters of the harbour.
He stood for a long moment staring into the dusk, then into his brain there leapt a desperate plot.
The Kittywake, the tramp vessel on which he had agreed to sail as common seaman, was lying in the centre of the harbour, a good mile from the quay. In his youthful days Phillips had been a fairly strong swimmer, but he had given up that pastime years ago.
But now, as he listened to the sluggish swish of the slow-moving waters, it came to him that this was his only chance. There was no other means of escape from these grim-jawed, merciless captors of his.
He realised what their game was—blackmail. Little by little they would bleed him, drive him into fresh crime, make him a fugitive and a criminal.
He saw the ruin of his home, and the disgrace of his daughter—the daughter whom he loved better than anything else in the world. It was really for the sake of the sweet-faced girl that Phillips had determined to be tempted no more. He loved Ruth with a passionate worship that was capable of the greatest sacrifices.
Leaning forward, Phillips drew the rusty catch aside and, inch by inch, lifted the lower half of the window. He saw that the low wall which divided the narrow courtyard of 23a from that of the next door, was some five or six feet below the level of the window and a little to the left.
He felt in his pocket to make sure that the notebook was there. Then, slipping through the window, he lowered himself out until he was hanging on the sill. A swift move of his body saw him swing out to the right, and his feet came in contact with the top of the wall.
He released his hold and his body swung on. It was touch and go whether he would fall into the yard below, but he managed to keep his balance and, doubling up his body, Phillips ran along the top of the crazy wall, reaching the end one.
The tide was rising now, and the water was lapping against the foot of the wall. He knew that it was fairly deep there, and he measured the distance.
As he did so, he heard a quick click from behind him. Turning round he looked at the house. The window of the other room was flung up, and he saw the shadowy outlines of a man's head and shoulders. An arm was outstretched and a hoarse voice sounded.
"Stop, or I'll fire!"
Only for the briefest of seconds did Phillips hesitate. Then, with a swift movement, he stretched his hands above his head, and his body poised in an arch. Crack!
Car lac pressed the trigger and the revolver barked. Quite clearly he heard the thud of the bullet as it found its mark. Then Phillips's body shot out from the wall, and they heard the splash of the water below.
Carlac darted across the room and opened the door, and he and Kew rushed down the stairs, making their way to the back of the house. They stumbled across the garbage-filled yard, finally reaching the end wall.
Carlac, with a cat-like spring, was on top of the wall in an instant, and, craning his bull-like head forward, the criminal listened.
Plainly to his ears there came the sound of steady breathing, and the splash of moving hands.
"I must have missed him," the criminal whispered, leaning down and stretching an arm towards his confederate.
Kew caught at the powerful fist, and, with an easy swing, Carlac drew his companion on to the wall by his side.
From the dark harbour they could still hear the steady progress of the swimmer as he made his way out into the darkness. They listened until it died away. Then Kew turned to his companion.
"We must get a boat and try to follow him," he said. "There's sure to be one about here. Come along."
The two were out in the alley by now, and a few moments later they turned towards the quay. The passed the vessel that Ruth had noticed, and, finding a flight of steps, saw a heavy skiff moored to the weed-covered side.
Carlac dropped into the thwarts, and Kew seated himself in the stern, releasing the painter. Carlac unshipped the heavy oars and began to pull steadily.
For half an hour they moved to and fro, and, at last, they found themselves close to a buoy in the middle of the harbour.
Suddenly there came to their ears the long shrill whistle of a siren, and the beating of heavy paddles. A panting tug-boat, sending a shower of sparks up from its squat smoke-stack, was moving down through the shipping, dragging behind it the huge black hull of a cargo steamer.
It was heading almost directly for the little skiff, and Carlac had to take to his oars to get out of the track.
Just as the tramp steamer passed, another skiff that had been dragged along behind the thrashing wake, was released, and it danced up and down on the foaming waters.
Five or six strokes brought Carlac close to the little boat, and he hailed it. It proved to be the skiff that had taken the pilot on board the tramp, and the figure in it swathed in oilskins, glanced rather doubtfully at Carlac, as the latter ran his boat against the side of the pilot.
"What are you after, mate?" the sailor asked. "Funny time o' the morning to be having a row, ain't it?"
"We are looking for a friend," said Carlac; "fell off the quay and was carried away into the harbour. We're afraid he must have been drowned." It was only a chance shot, but it brought an unexpected reply.
"Oh, that's it is it? Well, I can tell you he ain't drowned. He's on board the Kittywake. It was just touch an' go with him, but we managed to pick the beggar up."
"Was that the Kittywake that passed just now?"
"Where is she bound?"
"San Francisco is the first port it touches at," the sailor returned; "so it strikes me your friend will have a long time to wait before he sees you again!"
Carlac released his hold on the boat and they drifted apart, then the massive criminal took to the oars again, and rowed towards the docks in silence.
For the moment James Phillips had escaped from the toils, but only for the moment.
The Head of the Bank Meets Blake
"WHAT can I do for you, Sir Donald?"
Blake had looked up as the elderly, sprucely attired gentleman entered his consulting-room. The card which the landlady had handed to Blake bore the name of Sir Donald Bardale.
"I have come to consult you professionally, Mr. Blake," the baronet said. "In the first place I went to Scotland Yard, but they pointed out that the matter was hardly of sufficient public interest for the moment, and they advised me to come to you!"
Blake bowed and remained silent. Sir Donald seated himself on the chair, and placed his silk hat and gloves on the desk.
"I am chairman of the Grangepool and District Bank," he went on, "and my business with you is to ask you to try and help me to discover the whereabouts of our managing director, Mr. James Phillips!"
Blake drew forward a paper, and poised a pencil between his fingers.
"You say that Mr. Phillips has disappeared?"
"Yes," the baronet replied. "As a matter of fact, there is a little mystery attached to the matter. He was last seen at the bank some six or seven days ago. It might be a week or a little over, I'm not quite certain. He left a note, however, saying that he had been called away on important business, and we did not pay any particular notice to it at the time. Mr. Phillips had the handling of a great deal of the business at the bank, and we have every faith in him!"
"Then, when did you make up your mind that he really had disappeared?"
"Only yesterday morning," said Sir Donald. "I was rung up at about ten o'clock, and the chief cashier at the bank asked me if I would go down to the premises at once. I found Miss Ruth Phillips awaiting me there. She seemed very much distressed, and she told me that she feared some harm had come to her father!"
The portly gentleman fidgeted for a moment.
"Of course, anything you may say to me now, Sir Donald, will be treated with strict confidence," said Blake, with a slight nod.
"Yes, yes; I quite understand," the chairman of the Grangepool and District Bank returned, "But, well—my position is rather a difficult one. You understand that I do not for one moment cast any sort of doubts on the conduct of Mr Phillips. As a matter of fact, the books at the bank have been carefully gone through, and we find everything exactly as it should be!"
He drew an envelope from his pocket and handed it to Blake. The detective unfolded the note it contained. It was from a firm of auditors, and it stated that the work of checking the books of the bank had been completed, and everything was found correct.
"That must be very satisfactory to you, Sir Donald?" said Blake.
"It is, and yet it isn't," the baronet returned. "Mr. Phillips's daughter seemed to imagine that her father had been murdered, or got at in some way. She inclines to the belief that it was blackmail, and that it has something to do with Mr. Phillips's position at the bank!" He glanced across at Blake.
"I am anxious to preserve the dignity of my bank," Sir Donald put in, "and that is the reason that I don't wish the matter to go into the papers. In fact, that is why I have accepted Scotland Yard's hint and have come to you!" He placed one hand on the desk and looked into the detective's face.
"I have been authorised by my board of directors to expend a considerable sum of money in clearing up this affair," he went on; "so any expenses you incur will be readily met. The question is, will you accept the case?"
The baronet's story was not a very exciting one, and under ordinary circumstances Blake might have refused to have taken up the affair. But the fact of Scotland Yard having sent Sir Donald to him put a different complexion on the matter.
Blake was always ready to help the Yard men, and so he bowed to his client.
"I am quite ready to do what I can, Sir Donald." he said.
"Good! Then if you are disengaged I should like you to come to Grangepool with me this afternoon!" The chairman of the bank drew out a gold watch and glanced at it.
"There is a train which starts at four o'clock," he said. "I have to make one or two calls in the City, but I will meet you at the station if you are prepared to join me at that hour?" "Very well, I will be there," said Blake.
A few moments later Sir Donald left the consulting-room, and Blake went into his quiet dining-room, where Tinker was awaiting him. The youngster glanced up as his master entered. "I can see you have got something on, guv'nor," the lad said. "What was the old gent after?"
"That 'old gent' as you call him, is Sir Donald Bardale," said Blake, with a quaint smile. "He is a very important person in his own way. He's the chairman of the Grangepool & District Bank!" Tinker leaned forward in his chair, and his lips pursed into a whistle. "The Grangepool & District Bank!" the lad repeated. "By Jove, that's funny!"
"I can't quite see the humour in it," said Blake.
"Oh well, it is rather strange, guv'nor," Tinker went on. "As a matter of fact, the name has brought back an incident to me that I had almost forgotten about!"
"And what was the incident?"
"It happened while you were visiting Laidstone, guv'nor," Tinker explained. "I meant to tell you about it. As you know, however, you did not come straight back to Baker Street, but went down on to Portsmouth for a few days!" This was perfectly true, for Blake had only returned to his chambers on the previous day. "Well, what about the Grangepool Bank?" Blake asked.
Tinker told him all that had happened in Hyde Park, and the ensuing adventure. The detective was in a brown study by the time that Tinker came to the end of his report.
"I think it is very curious, guv'nor, don't you?" the lad said. "For, you see, this Hector MacLeod worked in the very bank that you mention!"
"It's more than curious, Tinker," said Blake; "It's a most singular coincidence. Sir Donald has come to me now and has asked me to try and trace James Phillips, the managing director of the bank!"
"Hasn't he turned up yet?"
"Apparently not!" Tinker leaned back in his chair.
"By Jove, guv'nor, it is a bit of coincidence," he repeated. "I haven't heard a word from MacLeod since he went back to Grangepool, and I think it is rather strange. But perhaps he has been too busy to write!" He looked at his master eagerly.
"I don't think you can leave me behind this time, guv'nor," Tinker said insinuatingly. "You see, I know quite a lot about the affair already!"
"All right, Tinker; that's quite true," he said. "And you can come along with me!" He gave the lad a warning nod.
"But I shouldn't say anything to Sir Donald about Hector MacLeod's story." added Blake. "That can keep!"
Over the meal Blake discussed the various points in the case. More particularly did the letter which James Phillips had received from Laidstone interest him. To Blake that letter was really the big clue, and was worth following up.
"I must find out who this Joseph Smith was," Blake said. "Fortunately, that won't be a difficult matter. I have only to drop a line to the governor of Laidstone!"
Tinker arose to his feet suddenly, and vanished into the study, to return a few moments later bearing a bulky volume. It was an atlas of the world—one of the latest of its type.
"I've never thought of looking it up before, guv'nor," said Tinker; "but I am going to see if there is such a place as Salcoth Island!"
The front part of the atlas was devoted to an index, and after a long search Tinker discovered the situation of the island.
"Why, it's right away up off the coast of Alaska," he said; "Miles and miles away from anywhere apparently!"
He had placed his pencil on the little dot that represented the island, and Blake studied that atlas for a moment.
"Salcoth Island must belong to Russia," he said presently. "It's in the sealing-ground."
Tinker looked at the atlas with his head one side.
"But what the dickens had a man from Salcoth Island to do with Mr. Phillips?" he asked. "That's a question we have got to decide later," Blake returned.
At half-past three they left Baker Street, reaching the station a few minutes before the train was due to leave. Sir Donald had engaged a first-class compartment. He eyed Tinker rather doubtfully until Blake introduced the youngster as his assistant.
The journey to Grangepool was a long one, and it was getting on to nine o'clock before the train finally ran into the station of the old town.
Sir Donald invited Blake and Tinker to be his guests at his house, but Blake refused.
"I don't think that would do, Sir Donald," he said. "My assistant and I will take rooms at the Station Hotel here. If we have to make inquiries we must do so cautiously, and we don't want anyone to know what we are up to!"
It was arranged then that Blake and Tinker would call at the bank on the following morning at ten o'clock, when Sir Donald and the board of directors would be ready to see them.
The baronet entered his limousine and was driven off, while Blake and the youngster sought rooms at the hotel. When they had washed and changed and had a light meal, Blake arose.
"It's fairly early yet," he said, glancing at his watch—"only a quarter to ten. I think that we might as well stroll up and see if we can have a word with Miss Phillips!"
Blake had received the bank manager's address from Sir Donald, and, after receiving instructions from a porter of the hotel, they boarded a tram and were carried up the High Street to the new town.
It was a few minutes after ten when Blake rang the bell of James Phillips's house. The maid-servant answered his summons, and he and Tinker were ushered into the quiet study.
The had only to wait a few moments, for suddenly the door was swung open, and Hector MacLeod pushed into the room and darted across to Tinker with extended hand.
"By Jove, old chap, I am pleased to see you," the youngster cried. "You must have thought it beastly of me not writing to you, but I have been worried to death!"
When his impulsive greeting was over Tinker introduced Hector to Blake. The youngster shook hands heartily with the great detective.
"I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Blake," he said. "It seems to me something like a miracle that you should have turned up here. You're just the very man that I would have most wished to see!"
"The guv'nor has been employed by Sir Donald Bardale to find Mr. Phillips," Tinker explained. "That's why we have come down here!"
"By Jove, is that so?"
A troubled expression crossed Hector MacLeod's face.
"So Sir Donald has gone to the police, has he?" he said, half to himself. "I thought he would!" He looked at Blake.
"But I must not keep you talking here," he said. "Ruth—I mean, Miss Phillips—has sent me for you. Come along!"
He crossed the hall and entered the quiet drawing-room. Ruth Phillips, a white-faced ghost of her usual happy self, arose to her feet and bowed as Hector introduced the visitors.
"I have heard about you, Mr. Tinker," said the girl, giving the lad a warm greeting. "You—you were very kind to Mr. MacLeod when he was in London!"
In a few brief words Tinker explained what had brought his master and himself to Grangepool, and Ruth seated herself while the others followed her example.
"I am going to meet Sir Donald and the board of directors in the morning," said Blake, "but I thought it might be worth while to come and see you first!"
It was a quick, grateful glance that the girl shot him.
"That was very kind of you, Mr. Blake," said Ruth, clasping her fingers nervously. "Hector told me that he had made a confidant of Mr. Tinker, and perhaps you will know just how we stand in the affair!"
"On the face of it, I should think that your father is the victim of blackmailers," said Blake. "Yes, that's it, I'm sure," Ruth put in. "But I had better tell you what has happened!"
She gave Blake a brief account of the letter that she had received, and of her visit to the squalid house in the little alley, then went on:
"I didn't sleep a wink all that night, Mr. Blake," the girl said. "You see, in the few moments that I had with dad he told me something about himself. He said that he had to leave the country at once; that a—a man he had known in the past was about to be released from prison and—and had threatened to ruin him!"
"Did he give you any idea of what he was going to do?"
The girl was silent for a moment.
"He—he said that his only hope of salvation lay in him getting to Salcoth Island first. He said he was leaving Grangepool that same night, and told me to—to wait here for him until he returned!"
"Then in all probability he had gone on his journey!" The girl raised her handkerchief to her lips and Hector MacLeod interrupted.
"Ruth has forgotten to mention to you. Mr. Blake, that a couple of men called here earlier on the same afternoon as she received the letter from her father. I was here when they called, and I did not like the look of them. They were just like two ex-convicts. The next morning, when I came round here to see Ruth, she asked me to accompany her to Ravell's Alley!"
"I—I felt that something terrible had happened," the girl broke in. "I simply had to go down there!"
"We got to Ravell's Alley about eleven o'clock," Hector went on. "We went to the house and found the door ajar. The back door was also open, and on the end wall, which is on the edge of the harbour, we—we found bloodstains!"
Ruth slipped her hand into her dress and drew out a handkerchief. It was smeared with blood. Lifting one corner of it, she indicated the initials—"J.P."
"This belongs to my—my father," the girl said; "and I am sure that it is his blood that has stained it," Blake examined the handkerchief a moment, then handed it back to the girl. "About these two men who called here to see Mr. Phillips," he began. "What were they like?"
"One-was a hideous creature," Ruth said, with a shiver. "I never saw such a face in my life before. It looked to me like the face of man dead to all human feelings!" She leaned back, closing here eyes.
"It was an old face," she went on, "but yet the eyes were as bright and as cunning as those of a fox. The nose was long and thin, and the ears were pressed back into the skull!" She leaped to her feet suddenly. "I can draw it!" she said, hurrying across to a little desk.
The girl picked up a sheet of paper and a pencil; then, in few quick lines, she drew a portrait, which she brought over to Blake.
"That is it," she said, "to the very life!"
Hector MacLeod leaned forward.
"By Jove, you're right, Ruth!" he said. "It's splendid!"
Blake's eyes were fixed on the sketch for a long moment; then, without a word, he handed it over to Tinker. "Have you ever seen anyone like that, old chap?" he asked. Tinker stared for a minute, then leapt to his feet. "Jiminy, guv'nor, it—it's Kew!"
"Kew—Kew!" Ruth repeated quickly. "Coming to think of it now, he gave his name as Dr. Kay!"
"Can you remember what the other man was like?" he asked.
The girl gave her description, which was correct enough, but the reader will remember that Kew had altered Carlac's face.
"A broad nose, heavy ears, narrow, arched eyebrows!" Neither Tinker nor his master could recognise that description.
"There's one curious point about it," said Hector; "they seemed to know me. Dr. Kay, as he called himself, spoke to me, mentioning the name of my father. I could not make head or tail of it then, and can't do so now, for my father has been dead for the best part of eighteen years!"
They chatted together for nearly an hour, and Blake said a few words of comfort to Ruth when they arose to leave.
"You will try to save my dad, won't you, Mr. Blake?" she said. "I mean if anything is—is proved against him, you will—will help him if you can?"
"I believe your father is the victim of a clever scoundrel," said the detective. "I must say that there are a great number of points in the case which baffle me for the moment, but the mere presence of one particular man in it proves to me that your father, dead or alive, has been victimised!"
He glanced down at her white face.
"You haven't told the bank about your last interview with your father, I suppose?"
The girl shook her head.
"No," she said, "I dared not do that!"
"Perhaps it's just as well," said the detective; "and you have really nothing to fear from the bank. From what I have heard from Sir Donald, everything there is in perfect order, and they have no sort of charge to bring against Mr. Phillips at all!" Ruth's hands clasped together quickly.
"Thank Heaven for that!" she broke out. "I—I was really half afraid that he me might have done something wrong!"
"No; I have been assured on that point," Blake returned, "so you need not be alarmed. If your father has vanished it is not because of any defalcations on his part!"
His quiet words and the assurance that he gave brought something like a ray of comfort into the heart of the girl. She went out to the front door with her guests, and when Blake and Tinker reached the gate and looked around they saw her slim figure silhouetted against the lighted hall.
Hector MacLeod had also taken his departure along with the others, and the youngster fell into pace by Blake's side.
"I shall be glad if I can help you in any way, Mr. Blake," he said. "Before we quarrelled, Mr. Phillips was very good to me, and I'd like to make some sort of return. Won't you give me the chance?"
"Yes; I think I can promise you that," said the detective; "in fact, I need someone who knows Grangepool fairly well!"
He arranged an appointment with MacLeod for the following morning. The lad had to be down at the railway-station hotel by eleven o'clock. This would give Blake and Tinker time to get their interview at the bank over.
When they were alone in the hotel together, Tinker turned to his master.
"I don't understand it, guv'nor," he said. "How on earth can Kew turn up here in Grangepool? I thought he was safe under lock and key at Laidstone Prison?" Blake went across to his gladstone, and, opening it, drew out a notebook, from which he extracted a buff-coloured envelope, "This came to me at Portsmouth," he said. "The governor of the prison sent it on to me. Read it!" Tinker glanced at the message. It was laconic enough in all conscience. "Your prophecy was correct. Carlac and Kew vanished!"
"By Jove, guv'nor!"
Blake's face was like a steel trap, and his blue eyes were set and stern.
"I warned the governor, and I said it was a mistake in the first place to allow Carlac to be in the same prison as Kew. They were two of the most dangerous criminals in the world!"
Mother Shipton's Boarders.
RAVELL'S ALLEY in the daytime was even more hovel-like than when the friendly shades of darkness covered its drab houses. One or two gangs of grubby-faced mites played in the gutters, and now and again a hawker would pull his barrow up the narrow space, shouting his wares.
Immediately opposite No. 23a was a shop. Outside the shop there hung various garments—thick, blue jerseys, rubber boots, sou'westers, and oilskins.
The shop had really once been a house, and the window had been widened to allow for the display of the miscellaneous collection of goods that the owner, a withered-looking old dame, had gathered together.
Mother Shipton, as the old creature was called, was well known to the sailors who came and went in that quarter. She had the reputation for driving a hard bargain, but there was also a streak of kindness in her complex character.
Many a time a destitute sailor had gone there, and the old woman had lent him a few shillings, sufficient to tide him over until he had got a ship.
The old dame was in the shop attending to a customer, when suddenly, a double knock sounded on the ceiling, and she looked up.
"If that's all yer want to-day, my lad," she said, "I'll 'ave ter be goin'!"
The man paid for his purchases, and Mother Shipton wrapped them up in a piece of dirty brown paper. Then, as soon as her customer had left the shop, the old dame hobbled along the side of the counter and vanished through a glass door, to climb a rickety flight of stairs on to the first landing.
She entered a room on the left, and stopped at the doorway. In a truckle bed a huge figure was lying, while beside it, on a chair, sat a stunted shrivelled man.
"What do yer want?" Mother Shipton asked.
"Only a little news," the man on the chair said. "Have you heard anything this morning?" Mother Shipton came across the room.
"There was a young sailor in a little while ago," she said, "an' he told me that he had got a berth on the Anastor, bound for San Francisco. I remembered what you had asked me, and I put a few questions to him. He says that she is lying in the south basin now, and is due to sail to-morrow morning!"
"The Anastor?" the figure on the chair repeated.
"Yes; that's the name!"
The woman glanced at the figure on the bed.
"But I don't think you'll be able to get your friend well enough to go," she said. "How is he this mornin'?" A dry smile crossed the hard mask of her lodger.
"Oh, I think he will be all right," came his reply "he seems much better this morning!"
"Well, I'll go an' make him a cup of beef-tea; that's the stuff for invalids!"
She nodded her head, and went off across the room, closing the door behind her. As soon as she had gone, Carlac arose to a sitting position and smiled. "We are very fortunate in finding this old fool," he said. "It was a stroke of luck for us!"
And, as a matter of fact, it certainly was extremely lucky for Carlac and Kew to have found a safe sanctuary in the secondhand clothes shop.
For they knew that a hue-and-cry had been raised, and their descriptions flashed around the whole of England. Every port and railway-station would be on the watch for them, and they had had to lie low.
They had spent three days as Mother Shipton's boarders, and in order to hoodwink the old creature Carlac had pretended to be ill, while Kew had sent the old dame out now and again with prescriptions which he had made up.
"You had better be careful," Kew said. "She might be back at any moment, and if she sees you sitting up she might suspect something!"
The kindly old dame returned a few minutes later bearing a bowl of steaming beef-tea, which Carlac received from her shrivelled hands with a grunt of thanks. "How do you feel this mornin', mister?" she asked.
"Better," said Carlac. "I think I shall be able to have a stroll out this evening!"
"We are going round to the Anastor," Kew explained, "and you had better let us have your bill. We've got a few shillings left; we'll see that you are paid all right!"
"Oh, you needn't worry about that," said the old dame. "You will be wantin' your kits, mebbe, and if you ain't got enough money—well, I'll trust yer till yer comes back again!"
She left the room once more, and Kew, rising to his feet, went across to the window. It gave him a view of Ravell's Alley with its dirty pavements and cobbled stones.
The clouds had cleared away now, and, above, the blue sky smiled down on Grangepool.
The lean figure of Kew remained for a long moment at the window, head forward, eyes fixed and gleaming. Carlac finished the beef-tea had swung his body out of the cot, revealing the fact that he was fully dressed.
Rising to his feet, Carlac began to pace up and down the room, now and again flinging a word to Kew, which was answered by a monosyllable. They were both of an impatient nature, and the forced inaction was beginning to tell on them.
"By hook or by crook we must get on board the Anastor!" Carlac said. "San Francisco is the very place we want to get at!"
"It will mean that we will have to go round the Horn!" Kew put in, "and that's a very long journey!"
"That won't matter'" Carlac growled. "Better a long journey and a safe one than a short journey and dangerous!" He had halted and glanced at Kew for a moment.
"Neither you nor I can risk landing at New York and going across by rail," he said. "I, for one, do not care to run up against the American police!"
He resumed his striding up and down; then, suddenly, a quick call from the window brought him to Kew's side. "Look! Look!" the professor whispered.
He had drawn away from the window, and extended a claw-like hand. Pacing down the opposite pavement were three figures, two of them youthful and slender, while the third was an athletic-looking man in a suit of blue, well-fitting serge. Carlac glanced for a moment at the third figure, then his teeth set, and he drew a deep breath between them. "Blake!"
Kew's hand went out and caught him by the arm in a quick, nervous clutch. "Keep back!" he said. "They must not see us!"
They drew away from the window, watching the figures. Blake and his companions came down and halted outside No. 23a. They saw one of the youngsters produce a key from his pocket and open the door. As he stepped aside allowing the others to enter, he turned his head slightly, and Kew recognised the face.
"That's young Hector MacLeod," he said. "Don't you remember? We saw him that afternoon when we called to see Phillips!"
"And I recognise the other," Carlac put it. "It's Tinker!"
Kew's face was drawn into a mask of thought. He watched the three figures vanish into the little house, then turned towards Carlac.
"I don't like this," he said. "What has brought Blake down here?"
"He is searching for Phillips," Carlac returned.
A sudden inspiration came to Kew, and, hurrying across the room, he opened the door and called. An answer came to him, and Mother Shipton shuffled up the stairs. Carlac had, at a warning look from Kew, slipped back into the bed and drawn the coverings over him.
Kew took the old dame by the arm and walked her across to the window, then pointed to the house opposite. "There's a detective just gone in there," Kew said, "and he is searching for—for my friend and I!"
"Bless my soul!" said Mother Shipton, "Then you be wrong 'uns—eh?"
"No, no; nothing of that kind!" said Kew. "We are two deeply-injured men. We are trying to get away from England to start on a new life. But the hounds of the law are hunting us down. We want another chance, just to make good, and we can't get it in this cursed country!"
Kew's quick intuition had told him that this attitude of his was the best to adopt. In Slumland the representatives of law and order are always looked at askance, and Mother Shipton was no exception to this rule. "They're after yer—eh?"
"Yes," said Kew; "and unless you save us we are lost!"
"What can I do?"
"Oh, perhaps you won't have to do anything," the ex-convict went on; "But I am afraid one of them may come across here and question you. If so, you must say you haven't seen anything of us—that you don't know us at all!" He caught at the old woman's hand.
"You wouldn't like to see two poor sailormen dragged away and thrown into prison, would you?" His appeal was framed exactly in the right words. Mother Shipton returned his pressure, and her wizened old face lighted up in a quick smile.
"Trust to me, boys," she said, nodding to Kew and then turning and nodding to the figure on the cot; "I'll see that they don't get yer! Drat all the 'tecs, say I! I suppose yer got into trouble with jumpin' a ship, or something?"
"That's it!" said Kew quickly. "We had a row with the skipper, and we both got away. They caught us though, and shoved us in prison!"
"It's a shame, that's wot it is!" Mother Shipton put in. "You leave it to me, though; I'll send this Mr. 'Tec right about if he does come anywhere near me!"
She squared her frail old shoulders, and, with another reassuring smile that revealed her teethless gums, the old dame went off down into the shop again. "You took a big risk then," Carlac said, when they were alone.
"I had to!" Kew returned; "but I think we are all right. We can trust to the old fool. She has a soft corner in her heart for sailors, and I think she will prove useful!"
His prophecy was to be amply fulfilled, for about half an hour later the little bell above the shop door tinkled, and Mother Shipton, entering the shop from the room, saw a man in blue serge, with an alter-eyed youngster by his side, standing at the counter.
"Good-morning, sir! Wot can I do for yer?" said the old dame, eyeing Blake steadily.
Tinker's quick eye noted that there was a certain antagonism about the attitude of the woman, and he smiled inwardly.
"I just want to make a few enquiries," said Blake. "Your shop is immediately opposite No. 23a, and I want to know if you have seen anything of a couple of men who were in there quite recently?"
"I ain't seen nobody in there," said Mother Shipton—"at least, not this last week or two. It used to be occupied by a family o' the name o' Hodson, but they went away, and it's been empty ever since!"
There was every possibility that James Phillips had kept his presence in the house a secret, as Blake did not doubt the old dame's report.
"I have reason to believe that there were a couple of men in the place a few nights ago," he said. "Perhaps if I were to describe them to you you might recognise them!"
He gave a brief description of the two men, and Mother Shipton's eye did not waver, although Blake had described one of her lodgers upstairs exactly.
"They must have been a queer couple, sir," she said; "but I ain't clapped eyes on 'em. There's all sorts pass up an' down Ravell's Alley, and if they have been here I ain't noticed them!"
In her way the old woman was loyal enough. She was not to know that her loyalty was utterly wasted, and that her words now were helping to shelter two unscrupulous rogues who were really entitled to no man's sympathy.
"Oh, well, that settles it!" said Blake. "I am very much obliged to you. Good-morning!"
Mother Shipton put her lean hands on the counter and watched Blake and his companion leave the shop. The wizened face lighted up into a smile, and she nodded her head.
"That's one against yer, yer dratted 'tec!" she said. "Huntin' honest men round an' frightenin' the life out of 'em! Yer didn't get nothin' out o' me!"
Yet although Blake had got little out of Mother Shipton, the house opposite had afforded him ample proofs that Carlac and Kew had been there.
When Hector MacLeod had stepped aside, allowing Blake and Tinker to enter the dingy house, the young bank clerk had followed the two inside and had spent an interesting half-hour watching the great detective at work. There was a certain systematic method about Blake's movements that fascinated the lad.
Blake had searched the lower rooms first, finding many tell-tale proofs that the house had been occupied—fragments of food, a litter of dirty crockery, tobacco ash, and one of two stumps of a good-class Egyptian cigarette. He had shown one of these stumps to MacLeod, and the lad had recognised it. "Yes," said Hector, "that's the brand that Mr. Phillips used to smoke!"
Under the table of the second room on the ground floor, lying close to the leg of the table, Blake had found a round piece of sealing-wax. Embedded in this wax was a piece of string, and a seal had been stamped into the wax. Again Hector MacLeod had been able to help the detective.
"That's the seal of the bank, Mr. Blake," he said. "The Grangepool and District is rather an old fashioned bank, and that piece of wax has come off a bag that must have contained over fifty sovereigns. We always used to seal the bags like that before putting them into the safe!"
"You are probably right," said Blake, "and this seal must have come off the bag that Miss Phillips brought to her father!" He was standing close to the table, when suddenly he knelt down, and drawing a magnifying-glass from his pocket, bent over the boards.
Hector came to the table and looked down. On the dirty boards was a faded imprint where a wet boot had rested for a moment. Blake measured the mark and then arose to his feet.
"It is too large and broad for Miss Phillips, and much too small for her father, I should think," he said. Hector examined the footmark on the floor.
"Yes, it is much too large for Ruth," he admitted, "and I know that her father's foot is no bigger than mine!" The footprint was quite clearly defined, and, although small had the broad heel-mark of a man's boot. "There has been another person in this room," said Blake, his eyes travelling round slowly. "But we will leave it now. I want to look upstairs!"
He went up the rickety stairs and turned first to the room that had been occupied by James Phillips, to discover that the door was locked.
"We found it like this when we came down," said Hector. "I came up and tried the door, while Ruth waited for me downstairs. It was only then that Ruth discovered the back door was open, so we both went out into the yard and found the wall where the bloodstains were!"
Blake stooped and peeped through the keyhole.
"The key is not in the inside," he said. "I think we shall have to break it open!"
He stepped back to the wall, raised his foot, and drove it hard against the door. There was a crash, and the door swung open. Hector's eyes widened, and he gave a quick glance at Tinker. "By Jove, he is thundering strong!" he whispered. Tinker smiled.
"That's quite easy when you know how to do it," he returned.
Blake had stepped into the room, and the open window attracted him at once. He went across to the window, and his voice called the two lad's to him.
On the dust of the window-sill were the clear imprints of fingers. Bending over, Blake looked down at the brickwork. Here and there were fresh scratches on the wall.
"If James Phillips was in this room," said Blake, "he must have been a prisoner, and he escaped by getting out of the window, Look, you can see the footprints on the side wall!"
The top of the wall was flat and grimy. Quite plainly they could see the feet marks.
"He had evidently taken off his boots," said Blake, "you can see the shape of the foot if you look closely!"
"But why should he do that, Mr. Blake?" Hector MacLeod said. "What made him risk breaking his neck in getting out of the house through the window?"
Blake turned towards the lad.
"He was a prisoner here," he said—"Or, at least, someone had locked him up in this room so that he should not escape!"
The detective withdrew his head and began to examine inside the room. It bore evidence that it had been made much use of. The bed was ruffled, and there were numerous cigarette ends on the floor and also in a tin that stood on the table close to the bedside. There was a handful of candle ends in the fireplace.
"He must have been hiding here all the time," said Hector. "What a rotten place for a man like him to live in!"
Tinker had been standing close to the bed, and he suddenly caught sight of a corner of a paper sticking out from beneath the pillow. He reached out a hand and drew the paper forward. Disclosing it to be a half-sheet of note-paper. Someone had been attempting to draw a map, and presently the lines became familiar to Tinker. It was the coast of Alaska, and a pencil mark had been made at a certain spot.
Tinker turned and held the paper across to his master.
"Look here, guv'nor," he said, "the man that was in this room has been hunting up Salcoth Island!" At the top of the map the longitude and latitude had been written, and below the map someone had scrawled a few lines in shorthand.
"I think I can read that," said Hector. "It is Mr. Phillips who wrote it, He had an abbreviated shorthand of his own."
"All right," said Blake; "transcribe it, please!"
Hector bent over the sheet for a moment, then wrote a few lines.
"That is roughly what it is," he said, holding out the sheet to Blake.
"Papers and deposit note in Eskimo hut, above south beach!"
Blake folded the paper and slipped it into his pocket. "I can't make head or tail of it," said Hector MacLeod.
"There is a great deal here that I can't make much out of at the moment," the detective returned; "but they will all have their uses, and sooner or later we will find the key to the puzzle!"
He left the room, and, crossing the landing, went into the other one. The first thing that caught his eye was a key on the window-sill.
"You might try this in the lock of the other room, Tinker," he said.
The young assistant slipped away to obey the order, and returned a few moments later.
"That's the correct key, guv'nor," he said, as he re-entered the room.
He found Blake bending over the fireplace, and presently the detective stood up and extended his hand. There was a small canvas bag in it.
"Is that one of the Grangepool Bank bags?" he said, turning to young MacLeod.
"Yes, sir. That's right!"
In one corner of the bag someone had written the figures "£60" in indelible pencil. "I think this is the same bag as Ruth brought to her father," said Hector.
Blake had now crossed the room, and was standing before the open window that looked out into the yard. Suddenly his eye was attracted to something on the faded paintwork. He reached out his finger and drew it across the surface. A little smudge of black appeared on his finger.
"Gunpowder!" he said. "There is no mistaking the smell of it!"
"And quite fresh too!" said Tinker.
The detective measured the distance where the gunpowder had appeared on the paint.
"It was a tall man who fired," he said. "The average man invariably levels his weapon before shooting. This man must have been close on six feet, for you will notice that the mark on the paint is five feet above the level of the floor!"
Carlac had steadied his arm against the side of the window when he had fired at the poised figure of Phillips. It was only a small slip, but it had not escaped the observation of the lynx-eyed detective.
"Then if he was a tall man, guv'nor, all I can say is he had jolly small feet!" Tinker put in.
Blake turned towards his young assistant and smiled.
"Can't you see it yet, Tinker?" he said. "Just think for a moment!"
The youngster's alert brain worked swiftly.
"By Jove, I see it!" he broke out suddenly. "Those two visitors—they—"
A cry of enlightenment came from MacLeod's lips.
"By Jove, sir, they fit in exactly!" he broke out. "I remember noticing the wizened man's feet; they were very small. And the other chap was well over six feet—a huge giant of a man!" He looked at Blake perplexedly.
"But how could they have found—they didn't know that Mr. Phillips was—"
"They might not have known," said Blake, "but it was not difficult for them to find out. They may even have waited, watching the house, and they would no doubt see Miss Ruth leave the house at night and follow her!"
"Then you think they have murdered Mr. Phillips?" Blake was silent for a moment.
"That was my first impression," he admitted, "but I am rather beginning to doubt it now!"
"But the blood-stains?" said Hector.
"The blood-marks prove very little," said Blake, "they are on the back wall, and it is a good thirty yards from the wall to the house. The man who fired at Mr. Phillips did so from this window and in the dark. It is more than probable that he wounded him, but that would be all!"
He looked at Hector with a quick smile.
"The very fact of Mr. Phillips using his handkerchief to temporarily stanch the wound," Blake went on, "proves that he was not mortally injured!"
"Of course! You're quite right, sir," Hector said, with a sigh of relief. "I never thought of that!"
Yet it was certainly a very simple explanation. A man mortally hit would hardly have found strength to staunch his wound with a handkerchief.
"I am inclined to believe that it was merely a scratch," said Blake, "and Mr. Phillips succeeded in getting away!" He nodded towards the wall.
"I think that at high tide the water is close up to that wall," he went on. "Oh, yes. In fact it would be quite easy to dive into it from there!"
"Then that is just what Mr. Phillips has done," said Blake. "But whether he came out alive or not is a question we have yet to decide!"
Tinker had been walking leisurely round the room, and suddenly he turned and called to his master.
"I think this might interest you, guv'nor," the sharp-eyed youngster said, pointing to the panel of the door.
Blake came across the room and looked at the mark indicated by Tinker. It was the imprint of a thumb, clearly and well defined.
"By Jove, that is a discovery!" said Blake. "The man who put his thumb on the door here must have rested his hand, quite unconsciously, against the patch of gunpowder smoke, with the result that he has left his mark just as clearly as though it had been taken by the police authorities!"
The paint on the door was old, and Blake drew out a sharp penknife. Hector MacLeod drew near to watch the detective at work. Very carefully and skilfully Blake cut away the portion of paint to which the thumb-print adhered. The paint came off in a huge flake, and the detective, folding the precious clue in a piece of cotton-wool, slipped it into his pocket-book.
He spent another ten minutes examining the room, but no further clues were found, and the trio went down into the narrow hall again.
It was when they emerged into the alley that Blake noted the ship-chandler's shop across the way, and while Hector remained behind to lock the door Tinker and Blake went into the shop together. When they emerged again, Hector was waiting for them, and they walked up the alley and turned into the main thoroughfare. "Queer sort of woman that, guv'nor!" Tinker said at last. Hector MacLeod looked up.
"Do you mean Mother Shipton?" the bank clerk said with a smile. "She is a well-known character in Grangepool. A great friend to stranded sailors, I understand!"
It was only a monosyllable from Blake, but it contained as world of meaning. Blake turned to Hector.
"I suppose you have a harbour-master here?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," the lad returned. "He has a little office at the south basin!"
"I think I'd like to have a word with him!"
The day was young, and presently they found themselves on a tram, which deposited them close to the south basin at last. Hector led the way through the sheds, and came to a halt at a little office.
"How do you do, Mr. Marshley?" the youngster said to a portly man in blue reefer with brass buttons who was smoking contentedly at the door of the hut.
It was the harbour-master, and Hector presently introduced Blake as a friend of his. Blake chatted with the man for a few minutes, then presently he put the question that had arisen in his mind.
"Any vessel sailed on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning?" the harbour-master repeated. "Yes, there was one. The Kittywake went out on the high tide. Must have been about two o'clock in the morning. We don't have so many sailings now as we used to!"
Blake looked out across the south basin. It certainly did present a rather deserted appearance, but he noted that there was a fair-sized steamer drawn up close to the quay, not far away from the little hut.
There was a feather of smoke rising from the vessel's funnel, and the Blue Peter moved at her peak.
"That ones clearing out shortly, I see!"
"Yes. That's the Anastor, bound for Frisco," said the harbour-master. "She clears the quay at twelve to-night, and I expect she will sail at dawn to-morrow!"
"Do you have pilots?"
"Oh, yes. We have two or three of the old hands. But the Anastor won't carry a pilot. Old Captain Turner knows the way out was well as any of us here!"
"Did the Kittywake have a pilot?"
"Yes, sir, she did!"
The harbour-master straightened up and, glancing along the quay, pointed towards a stout man who was seated on a bale of goods.
"Old Jack Timmins is the pilot who took the Kittywake out," he said.
At that moment the telephone bell rang, and the harbour-master, with nod to Blake, turned and entered his little room. The detective sauntered up the quay and spoke to the weather-beaten old fellow seated on the bale. By passing the old chap his tobacco-pouch, Blake brought a smile on the pilot's face.
"Yes, sir, I did take the Kittywake out. I don't suppose I'll have another job like it for three or four weeks. Things ain't what they used to be!"
"I am rather interested in the Kittywake," said Blake. "I wonder whether you could tell me if a passenger arrived there late at night?"
Old Timmins's eyes wavered for a moment, and Blake caught the doubtful expression that came on to the features. "I didn't see any passenger, sir," the pilot began hesitatingly.
"It's rather important," said Blake, "and, as a matter of fact, whatever you tell me will be in strict confidence!" The pilot lowered his voice.
"Well, sir, to tell you the truth, there was someone did come on board the Kittywake. It was just as I took the bridge. The vessel was due to sail when I saw one of the sailors rushing aft to the port companion-way. We heard him give a hail, and he went down the companion-way, and presently we saw him come up carrying a man over his shoulders. Half-dead the fellow were too, with a nasty bullet-wound in his arm!"
"You don't know who he was, I suppose?"
Timmins shook his head.
"No, sir," he returned; "I don't. But it seemed to me as though the skipper was expecting him, for the man was bundled below at once. When I was leaving the boat I asked after the man, and the skipper told me he was doing all right!"
"I'm glad to hear that," said Blake. "Is that all the information you have concerning him?"
Again Timmins scratched his stubble-chin.
"Well, sir, to tell you the truth it ain't," he said. "Of course a pilot has got to keep his own counsel in most things, and it had nothin' to do wi' me. But my mate, that put me aboard the Kittywake, said as how he came across another boat with a couple o' men in it. Just rowing about the harbour they was!"
"Indeed? What were they after?"
"They was also inquiring about a man," said Timmins, with a dry smile. "But they didn't get much change out of my mate. They said as how they were looking for a friend o' theirs who had fallen into the water. But my mate didn't believe that yarn. It was pitch-dark, and he couldn't see 'em very well; but he didn't like the sound of their voices!"
"Did he describe them to you!"
"Well, all he could see of 'em was that the fellow at the oars was a big, hefty-looking chap, while the other seemed a little feller-more like a monkey than a man!" Blake slipped his hand into his pocket, and drew out a sovereign, which he extended towards the old pilot. "Thanks very much!" he said.
"I hope I ain't gettin' no one into—into trouble, sir!" Timmins said.
"I can assure you on that point," Blake returned. "As a matter of fact, your information will only be used for the purpose of helping an innocent man!" The pilot drew a quick breath of relief.
"Then that's all right!" he said. "I've kept the story to myself, for I wasn't quite sure how things stood; but I'm glad I've been able to tell it to someone at last! It's been worrying me ever since!"
Tinker and Hector MacLeod found Blake strangely silent when they made their way back from the south basin to the hotel. Blake insisted on Hector remaining for lunch, and after the meal was over, the detective turned to his young assistant.
"I am going out this afternoon," he said. "No, you can't come with me. I have one or two little things to see to which must be done alone!"
"Where are you going, guv'nor?" Tinker asked.
Blake had a time-table in his hand, and was glancing through the columns.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "I'm going to Laidstone. I find I can get a train at a quarter-past one, and by changing at the junction, lean reach Laidstone at about four o'clock. There's another train starts back at five, and I ought to be here by nine at the outside!"
"Then you'll be away practically all day?"
"Yes," Blake returned. "But, in the meantime, I can make use of both of you!"
Hector leaned forward.
"Only too glad to help," he said eagerly.
Blake smiled at the lad.
"Oh, it's not a very big job," he said. "I simply want you to go to the south basin and keep an eye on the Anastor." He looked at the young bank clerk.
"You saw Dr. Kay, as he called himself, and his companion?"
"Well, I want you to watch for them!"
"Then you think they are still in Grangepool?" said Hector.
"I am almost certain of it!" Blake returned; "and I am half-inclined to believe that they will try to get away from Grangepool on board the Anastor!" He turned to his young assistant.
"Your job will be to hang round Ravell's Alley," he said, "and I would suggest that you disguise yourself. You know who to look out for, and you also know just how clever they are. You must take no risks!" He left the quiet dining-room and went to his bedroom, Tinker following. "Then you really think that is Kew and Carlac, guv'nor?"
"I haven't the slightest doubt about it," said Blake grimly, "and I am also sure that they are hiding somewhere in Grangepool. I know that the police have got the descriptions of them, and every port and railway station is being watched. They can only escape from England by some trick and sleepy old Grangepool is just the ideal place for their purpose!"
Tinker seated himself on the edge of the bed, watching his master while Blake prepared for his journey.
"I can't get to the bottom of it guv'nor," the young assistant said. "Why should Kew and Carlac come here and tackle this man Phillips? What can they know about him, anyhow? And what good will it do them?"
"I think I shall be able to answer those questions when I return from Laidstone," said Blake. "Anyhow, I am convinced beyond doubt that it is Kew and Carlac who are hiding in this town!"
"But the face of the big man, guv'nor, it isn't a bit like Carlac. Both you and I know him too well to be mistaken!"
"Yes; we could never be mistaken in Carlac's features," said Blake; "but I always reckoned that Kew was the greater criminal of those two—greater because of his surgical skill!" He stopped and looked at Tinker for a moment.
"You and I are both fairly good at disguising ourselves, old chap," he said; "but, if you remember, Kew was cleverer than either of us. A man of Kew's ability is quite capable of altering another person's face so that it would be completely changed. There are many little tricks of the trade that make a permanent alteration in a man's appearance!"
He slipped into his travelling cloak and picked up his hat.
"The whole point of the case lies in the fact that this man who is accompanying Kew is of the same build as Carlac, heavy and burly. We know Kew and Carlac escaped together from Laidstone prison, and I shall no doubt hear how they accomplished that to-day. But, to my mind, there can be little doubt but what they did so by a clever trick, and they had evidently a preconceived object in their minds, for they must have practically headed at once for Grangepool!"
"Yes, it looks like it, guv'nor!"
"And what their object was is the point that I want to get at now," said Sexton Blake, as he left the room.
Blake Visits Laidstone Gaol Again.
IT was exactly five minutes to four when Blake stepped out of the train at the quiet station of Laidstone, to find the governor's private motor-car awaiting him. Blake had telegraphed from Grangepool to Major Crofton, telling him of his intended visit, and the major was seated in the car, waiting for the detective.
Sexton Blake entered the vehicle, and the short journey across the moor road began. Major Crofton had lost some of his healthy colour, his eyes were weary-looking and depressed. He turned to the subject nearest to his heart at once.
"Not a sign of those rascals yet Blake," he said. "By Jove, I tell you I havent slept a wink this last week!"
He tugged at his tawny moustache, glancing moodily along the road. It was evident that the man was feeling his position keenly. The governor of a prison has a personal responsibility for all the men under his charge, and the escape of two notorious criminals such as Kew and Carlac, was calculated to do Major Crofton a certain amount of harm at the Home Office.
"How did they work it?" Blake asked.
The governor's face set tightly.
"It was one of the most cunning schemes that has ever been carried out," he said. "They knew well enough that it was impossible to break out of prison in the ordinary way. As a matter of fact, Blake, I am rather inclined to blame Dr. Manton!"
"Yes," the governor went on. "You see, it happened that he had been a student in the London Hospital where Kew was head, and he had always had a rather sneaking regard for the rascally professor. Of course, Kew was physically unfitted for the heavy work of the gang, and he certainly was useful as hospital attendant. But it was through him being in that position that the escape was effected!"
The governor gave a brief account of how the clever ruse had been carried out.
"It was an hour before we found out anything about them," Major Crofton said, "and then it was only through the van-man recovering consciousness and staggering out of the hospital. Kew had chosen the time very well, for it was just when the usual rounds were being made to see that all lights were out and the convicts asleep!"
He continued to give an account of the search that had taken place all over the moorland, and finally of the discovery of the wrecked Daimler in the river.
"At first I was half inclined to share the warder's belief that the two ruffians had met their doom," the governor said, "More especially as part of their clothing was found in the river. But afterwards, when I heard that my suit of clothes was missing and also a suit of the doctor's I realised that whole affair was only a trick!"
The major brought his fist down on the side of the car with a thud.
"The impertinence of the blackguards!" he roared. "Just fancy, Kew got my suit under the pretext of cleaning it. By Jove, Blake, if ever they come into my hands again, I'll see that I make them both smart for this!"
It was obvious that the major was highly indignant at the use that had been made of his clothing. He was still harping on the subject when the car swung through the prison gates, and came to a halt at his residence.
He and Blake entered the study, and presently the thumb-mark which the detective had carried with him was compared with the registers.
It was the exact copy of Carlac's left thumb print.
"That settles the only doubt that I had," said Blake. "I was assured in my own mind that it was Carlac who was accompanying Kew: but the description I had of him did not tally with my recollections of his face!"
"You mean that it was altered?"
"Quite!" said Blake. "I have had descriptions from two independent witnesses, and they both agree. Carlac, as we know him, had small ears, heavy, bushy eyebrows, and a thin nose. Now, it appears, that his ears are thick, and heavy, and his eyebrows are thin, arched ones, while his nose is broad and quite changed!"
"Melted wax would change his nose," said the major.
"Yes," he said; "and I have no doubt that Kew has been at work on the other features!"
"But what is the object of their going to Grangepool?" the governor asked. "It is not by any means the nearest port!"
They were alone in the study, and Blake drew out his note-book.
"I have one or two questions to ask you," he said, "which I think might have a bearing on the case!" He turned over the leaves for moment in silence.
"In the first place," he went on, "is there a convict here named Joseph Smith—a man who expected to be released shortly?" The governor looked at him.
"There was a convict here named Joseph Smith," he said. "By Jove, you ought to remember him, Blake! He was in the hospital when you visited it and recognised Kew!" Blake leaned back in his chair for a moment, then a bright, illuminating light flashed into his face. "I remember now," he said; "and I believe I have got it!" He looked at the governor.
"Don't you remember what the man was like?" said the detective. "I have a distinct recollection of the thin eyebrows, and he had a thick nose, and his ears were puffed and swollen. He was a big man, heavily built!"
"Great Scott, Blake! What are you driving at?"
"I mean that Kew has altered Carlac's features so that they would resemble this Joseph Smith!" The revelation came like a thunder-clap, and Blake and the governor stared at each other for a moment in silence. "I believe you are right," Major Crofton said at last. "Coming to think of it, Smith was almost of the same build as Car lac; of course, he was a much older man!" He leaned back in his chair.
"But Smith is dead," the governor went on. "He died shortly after you left. As a matter of fact, he died on the morning of the dame day as Kew and Carlac made their escape!" Blake's eyes were steely and hard.
"The puzzle begins to fit together," he said. "There can be little doubt but what Smith's death was the signal that Kew and Carlac were waiting for!"
"But why—why should that be so?" Blake glanced again at his note-book.
"Some five or six days before Smith died, he sent a letter from here. I don't know whether it passed through your hands or not?"
"I have no recollection of him sending a letter," said the governor, "and we always keep a record of these things!"
"Then in that case, Smith must have smuggled the letter out by a another channel," said Blake. "It would not be the first time that such a thing has happened!"
"But not in my prison," the major broke out angrily. Blake smiled.
"Well, I am afraid he did manage it!"
"Well, go on!"
"That letter was addressed to a Mr. James Phillips, of the Grangepool and District Bank, Grangepool," Blake continued, "and it had the effect of making this Mr. Phillips hide himself immediately on its receipt!"
He repeated to the governor the story that Ruth Phillips had told him, continuing his report stage by stage, until the whole of his discoveries, including the sailing of the Kittywake, were told.
"Then you think that this man Phillips has fled in order to escape from Kew and Carlac?"
"There is no doubt about that," said Blake. "You see, they called on him and must have followed the girl down to Ravell's Alley. They had some sinister object in view in doing so!" The governor tugged at his moustache.
"I am not going to doubt your theory, Blake," he said, "but I simply can't understand it. Smith, you know, was a 'lifer! he came to Laidstone prison nearly ten years ago and then he had done ten years elsewhere. That means that for going on twenty years almost he had not been outside prison walls. What possible connection could Kew and Carlac have with Smith?"
"None in the world," said Blake; "but you forget that Kew was attendant in the hospital where Smith lay dying. How are you to know but that Smith, realising he was so near to the end, made a confidante of Kew, telling him of some old crime in which perhaps Phillips of Grangepool was mixed up?"
"Well, I can easily get on to that," said the Governor. "I have still got Smith's record here. I'll look it up for you in a moment!"
He went across the study and opened the safe, taking out a huge portfolio. There was a sheaf of papers on the top.
"I haven't returned these yet," he said. "Smith, of course, is dead, and I meant to return the papers to the Home Office as soon as possible!"
He spread out the chests and read the contents. It was a summary of Smith's trial for manslaughter and gave the whole details.
"I see that it was on board one of the old sealers that the fight took place," said Blake.
"Yes; apparently the vessel was just returning from the Russian Islands of the coast of Alaska!"
"Then my theory is still sound," said the detective, "for in the letter that Joseph Smith sent to Phillips, he mentioned Salcoth Island. In fact, his letter ran as follows:
"The man from Salcoth Island will be calling on you by the end of the month. He hopes you will be ready for him!"
"But the case seemed clear enough," the Major put in. "What on earth could this man Phillips have to do with it? It was simply a fight on board ship and a murder by one of the crew!" Blake nodded.
"That's quite true," he returned, "but Hull is only some thirty or forty miles away from Grangepool, and in those days, I believe, most of the sealing vessels sailed from Grangepool!"
"Well, it's all a pretty tangle," said the governor, "and if you can see daylight through it, it's more than I can!"
He glanced across at Blake.
"But I shall be jolly grateful to you if you can lay these two scoundrels by the heels, Blake," he added. "I've had a stinging letter from the Home Office." He arose to his feet and began to pace up and down the study.
"I rather prided myself on the way in which I looked after those rascals," he went on, "but I have been beaten and that's the long and the short of it."
The interview had taken longer than Blake had anticipated, and it was five minutes to five before the motor car came up to the governor's house to carry him to the station. The chauffeur did his best, but something went wrong with the engine and a precious ten minutes was wasted, with the result that when they did arrive at the railway station it was to learn that the train had gone.
Inquiries revealed that the next train did not start till seven o'clock, and two hours delay made Blake chafe inwardly. He and the governor had a light meal at the little hotel close to the station, and at the appointed hour Blake boarded the train.
It proved to be a slow one, stopping at practically every station up the line, and it was a quarter to ten before they reached the junction of the main line of Grangepool.
Blake had to rush over the bridge and dart across the platform to leap into the main line train. A porter opened a door of a third-class compartment, and Blake managed to leap inside just as the train started.
He found himself in the atmosphere redolent of tobacco smoke, and a burly, grey-haired man reached out a hand and caught at Blake's sleeve.
"Steady on, mate'" came a deep, rumbling voice. "There's plenty of ways o' breaking your neck without doing it like that!"
The detective seated himself in the corner opposite his companion. He saw that he was a stumpy, tremendously stout man, grey-whiskered and clear-eyed, bearing on him the unmistakable stamp of the sea.
Above the man's head was a battered sea kit-bag and next to the bag was a cage, covered with a linen cloth. A tapping on the wires of the cage sounded, and the man, reaching up a long arm, brought the cage down to the seat by his side, lifting up the cloth and displaying a green parrot.
"What's the matter wi' you, Polly?" he asked; and the bird shrieked at him, raising its wings and displaying it's red tongue.
"Got him on the west coast, sir," said the sailorman. "My little nephew'll be pleased wi' him, I bet!"
"Are you going to Grangepool?" Blake asked.
"Yes, sir. Born an' bred at Grangepool, I was!"
The old sailor dived his hand into a capacious pocket and produced a piece of biscuit which he pushed through the cage. The bird grabbed at it quickly and, making itself comfortable on one corner of the perch, lapsed into silence. "Ever been on the west coast, sir?" the sailor asked. Blake nodded.
"Yes," he said; "Sierra Leone, Port Kalabar, the Cameroons." The sailor's eye widened.
"Bless me 'eart, I've been all along that part o' the coast, too," he said.
They chatted together for a few minutes and it was evident that Blake's knowledge of the "White Man's Grave" made a big impression on the old sailor.
"I can't say as I like that part o' the world at all," he said. "Give me the ice and a good old Greenland whale puffing in the distance!" He leaned back in his seat, swelling his broad chest.
"Them were the days, sir," he said. "My word, Grangepool was a prosperous town in them days. I've seen as many as twenty whalers and sealers set off the little harbour, sir. There was money to go in they days!"
"Yes; we have lost that part of the trade, havent we," said Blake.
"Oh, yes; still there's a few go out from Dundee even now, sir," the old sailor went on, "but there ain't any money in it. The Yankees have collared it all. From Vancouver and 'Frisco out to the islands!" Here was a man who evidently might be useful to Blake. "Did you ever hear of a place called Salcoth Island?" asked the detective. The broad visage in front of him smiled.
"Rather," the old tar said. "Why, its one of the best sealing spots in the world!" He leaned forward and wagged a fat forefinger.
"You mayn't believe me, sir," he said, "but I tell you we've run a boat ashore on the south beach of Salcoth Island and there's been as many as ten thousand seals there. Lor'! what a chorus they did make, with their roaring and champing!" His eyes smiled at the remembered vision.
"We used to club 'em, sir—the bachelors, you know. It was a dirty job and a man had to get hardened to it before he could do the work. Just swing the club over the head and down they went. But there was money in it, heaps o' money—and allus a chance o' havin' a fight with the Russians, too. Them were the days!"
"And you used to sail from Grangepool, did you?"
"Yes, sir. I was second mate o' the Sea Foam."
The name conveyed nothing to Blake, yet it had been a wonderful turn of chance that had brought this weather-beaten old sailor across the detective's path. "She was one o' the best, sir," the old chap went on, "and she come to her end in a dirty way. I never forgave the man for it!" To the old sailor it was simply a piece of ancient history and a story that he must have recounted a hundred times. "She belonged to Mr. Malcolm MacLeod," he went on. Blake interrupted.
"MacLeod! I know someone in Grangepool of the name of MacLeod. Hector MacLeod his name is!"
"Hector! That's my old master's son," the sailor broke out. "My name is Ben Wade, sir, and if you know Mr. Hector he'll tell you that story is true!" He lighted a pipe and drew a couple of puffs at it.
"It's a long time ago," he went on, "the best part of twenty years. Mr. MacLeod had not been doing very well, and the Sea Foam was all that he had left. It was a good boat, worth a power o' money, and if it hadn't been for the treachery of the skipper, Nat Marle, Mr. MacLeod would ha' been all right!"
"What happened?" Blake asked.
"I wasn't on board at the time, or it never would have happened," Ben went on. "I got a bad touch o' rheumatics and they put me ashore at 'Frisco, They thought I was a going to die, but I was a bit too tough for that. The Sea Foam went on to the island, and from all accounts she made a bumper catch, the biggest haul of seals that was ever known. They tell me that the holds were filled up with 'em, and that means that there must have been the best part of twenty or thirty thousand pounds worth!"
"Well, what happened?"
The old fellow brought down his first with a crash.
"Marle was a dog and a traitor, sir," he said. "I heard the whole story later in 'Frisco. One day I went down to the docks and, band behold, what should I see comin' sailin' into the harbour but the old Sea Foam. I would have knowed her a mile off, although she was flying the American colours and was under another name. I tried to get onboard, but they wouldn't let me, but after a bit I tumbled across one o' the crew. Ravin' drunk he was, in Chinatown, slobbering and throwing his sovereigns about as though they was dirt!"
The old fellow's face was aglow now and he breathed heavily.
"I got the truth out o' the skunk," he said. "Marle had turned traitor and had sold the Sea Foam and the whole catch to a rascally American skipper. Every man of the crew got a share of the swag and the drunken beast that told me about it, got the best part o' three hundred pounds!"
"What a scoundrelly thing to do," Blake put in.
"It wur worse than that, sir," said Ben. "No honest sailorman would ever have done it!"
"What happened to Marle?"
"Dunno," said the old man. "He never showed his face again in Grangepool as I heard on, so I expect he is all right. He must have collared the bigger pan o' the swag and no doubt he's a rich man now, livin' in every comfort. But it killed MacLeod, sir, an it made a beggar o' his son!"
The old sailor's face was stern and his fist clenched again.
"I've often hoped to come across Marle," he said. "The world ain't a very big place, an' mebbe I'll do so some day!"
He little dreamed that never in this life would he meet the traitor Marle. An unmarked grave within prison walls held all the mortal remains of his one-time skipper.
The little bit of ancient history had served to while away the journey very pleasantly, and at a quarter to eleven when the train came to a halt at Grangepool Station, Blake was quite loath to leave his talkative companion.
"I should like to see you again," he said. "I'm staying at the Railway Hotel, and if you care to drop in, say, some time to-morrow morning, you would meet your old master's son!"
"Young Mr. Hector, sir?" said Ben. "I'd like to see him again, I ain't been back to Grangepool for many years. He was only a nipper when I left!"
Blake saw the old fellow comfortably installed in a cab with his kit-bag and parrot, and when they shook hands Ben promised to turn up on the following morning.
Blake made his way to the hotel, and as soon as he entered the hall a slim girlish figure arose and came towards him. It was Ruth Phillips, and there was an anxious expression on her face.
"I have been waiting for hours," she said. "I wondered what had become of you all!"
"Hasn't Tinker or Hector turned up yet?" Blake asked.
"No," the girl said with a shake of her head. "I have asked the manager and he says they haven't been in since this afternoon!" She caught at Blake's arm impulsively.
"I hope that—that nothing has happened to Hector," she said. "I've had a foreboding all this afternoon and evening that he was in—in danger of some sort!" Blake looked at the anxious face, then took the slim hand in his own.
"I don't think you need have any fears, Miss Phillips," he said. "If you will just wait a few moments I'll change, and then we'll go and look for them!"
The hour was very late, and it was almost midnight before the two left the hotel. Blake hesitated for a moment before turning to his companion.
"Don't you think it would be better for you to go home?" he said. "I'm quite sure that Hector MacLeod and Tinker are all right, and it is rather late!" The little, firm chin tightened, and the girl shook her head.
"I will not go home, Mr. Blake," she said. "I must find out what has happened to Hector!" She slipped her hand under Blake's arm.
"Besides," she went on, "I know that I shall be quite safe with you!"
There was a certain appeal in her voice that Blake could not withstand, so they made their way through the old town together, catching a belated tram that landed them close to Ravell's Alley. "Tinker should be somewhere about here," said Blake. "I told him to stay on guard!" The girl shivered, and drew a little closer to her companion.
"This dreadful place again!" she said. "I hate it! It brings back memories to me—memories of my dear dad!"
The alley was in pitch darkness save here and there in the upper windows of some of the wretched houses, where a feeble light glimmered.
Blake and his companion went down until they came opposite 23A. It was in darkness, but in the ship chandler's establishment a light was burning from one of the first floor windows.
The detective gave a low whistle, and waited. It was a signal that was often used by himself and Tinker. There was no reply, but suddenly the girl's hand tightened on his arm.
"There is someone watching us up there!" she said. "I saw the blind move just a little!"
Blake stepped up to the door of 23A and knocked on it sharply, then turned his head quickly towards the opposite house. He saw the curtain of the first floor window move, and just for a moment a face appeared in the gap. It was that of Mother Shipton, and she was peering out into the dark alley.
A moment later the curtain dropped, and the light in the room vanished. Blake tried the door of 23A, and found it was locked, just as Hector MacLeod had left it.
"They are not here!" Ruth said, pressing Blake's arm. "Oh, do come away; the place frightens me!"
"I'm afraid we must wait a moment or two longer!" said the detective grimly, "and you will have to be a brave girl!"
He was watching the other house intently, and presently he saw the flash of light in the ground floor window. It was only a momentary flash, evidently coming from the inner room.
"Mother Shipton seems to be rather alarmed," the detective muttered. "I must find out why!"
He took Ruth by the arm, and, crossing the road, rapped loudly on the door of the shop. There was no response to his first summons, and he rapped again, louder and more persistently this time. They heard an inner door rattle, then footfalls came to them, and presently the clang of a bolt as it was drawn.
The door of the shop opened, and Mother Shipton's wizened figure appeared in the gap. She was holding a candle above her head, and she blinked her eyes as she stared at Blake and his companion.
"Wot's the matter with you?" she asked. "Wot do yer want comin' 'ere disturbin' folks at this hour o' night?"
Blake saw at once that the old dame had recognised him, and he stepped into the doorway, followed by Ruth. Mother Shipton fell back a pace.
"Wot do yer want—wot do yer want?" the old dame croaked.
Blake closed the door behind him, and put his back against it.
"I want a word with you," he said, in a stern tone. "I don't know what your motives are, but it appears to me that you are not going straight!"
He slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out an object which he held forward. It was a badge.
"I am a detective!" he said.
The old woman nodded her head.
"Yes, I know that—I know that," she said. "You're a 'tec, you are. I knows all about yer!" Quick as a flash Blake pounced on this admission. "Indeed! Who told you that?"
For a moment the eyes of the old dame wavered, then she drew her withered body up.
"I ain't goin' to tell yer, mister," she said. "I'm an honest woman, I am, and I ain't going to..."
At that moment Ruth Phillips moved forward so that the light from the candle fell on her face. Mother Shipton's eyes turned towards the girl, then the hard, frightened look vanished from her face. "Why, bless my soul, it's—it's Miss Phillips! 'Ow do ye do, my dear?"
The change in the tone was so marked that Blake stepped back, and a fleeting smile crossed his lips. The old dame had gone up to Ruth, and was holding her hand in a close grip. "How are you, mother," Ruth said. "I haven't seen you for quite a long time!"
"Oh, I'm all right, my dear!" the old dame returned. "I don't forget my kind friends. How's your father?"
It was obvious from the question that Mother Shipton had very little interest in the more important game that Blake was following. The detective, however, saw in her question a sudden chance of winning the old woman over.
"It is on Mr. Phillips's behalf that we have come here," he said, quietly. "His life has been in danger, and Miss Phillips has asked me to help her!"
Mother Shipton turned towards Blake.
"Mr Phillips in danger!" she repeated. "Why, he be a kind, good man, he be. Who would think o' hurtin' the likes of him?"
"There are two men in Grangepool who are his enemies," said Blake. "One of them is a tall big man, while the other is a thin, clean-shaven, short individual, with a face like a hawk!" He saw the old dame's lips drop, and a frightened look come into her eyes. She moved nearer.
"You have seen these two men, Mother Shipton," Blake said. "Come, admit it. I have no doubt but what they tricked you. The smaller man has a very plausible tongue, and I may as well tell you now they are escaped convicts."
"Convicts! Bless my soul!" The old dame staggered back against a heap of miscellaneous clothing. "Comin' to think of it, their hair was mighty short!"
"Then they have been here?" Blake put in. "They were here when I came in this morning?"
Mother Shipton's defiance had vanished now. Her companions saw her lips twitch, and Ruth suddenly slipped up the old woman's side and put her arm around the thin shoulders.
"It's all right, mother," she said. "Mr. Blake is a friend of mine, and he will be a friend of yours, also!"
"I—I didn't know, sir—I didn't know," the kindly hearted woman began. "They told me that they was two pore sailormen who had deserted their ships, and were afraid o' being locked up by the perlice. I allus had a soft corner in my heart for sailors, and that's why I told yer a lie. I wouldn't have let 'em go if I'd knowed."
"Then they have gone?"
The old dame cleared a space for herself on an upturned case, and sat down.
"I'll tell yer alt about it!" she said. "About half an hour ago they called me upstairs, and said that they was being watched. They pointed out o' the window, and showed me someone standing by the house opposite!"
"What was he like?"
"A young sailor he looked like, sir," said mother Shipton. "I'd seen him walking up and down the lane during the evening. They told me he was a 'tec, and they would have to get away. They asked me to watch until the sailor had gone up the street, then give them a call. I did so. As soon as his back was turned I called to them, and they both went out o' the shop and into the house across the way!"
"How did they get in?"
"They 'ad a key, sir!" And any doubts that Blake might have had as to the identity of Mother Shipton's guests vanished.
"What happened then?"
The old dame began to tremble.
"I don't quite know, sir," she said. "I left the door and went upstairs to tidy up a bit. I glanced out o' the window, and I—I think I saw the young sailor go into the house!"
"Yes; go on!"
"I cleaned up the room, and came down to the shop again, and I heard the door opposite bang, and my two lodgers went off up the alley!"
With a quick movement, Ruth turned to Blake.
"Come, we must go into the house," she said. "Who was it? Was it Hector who was watching?"
Blake shook his head.
"No," he returned; "it was Tinker!"
They rushed out of the shop across to 23A. There was no time to be wasted, and Blake, bunching his shoulders, went at the door like a bull. It gave way at the impact, and he leapt into the dingy hall.
An electric torch was drawn from his pocket, and he searched the lower rooms, but found them empty. Then, darting upstairs, he leapt into the room on the right.
A huddled figure on the bed caught his eye, and, with a rush, Blake was across the room.
Tinker, bound hand feet, and gagged, lay quite unconscious on the dirty mattress. Lifting the lad in his arms, the detective carried his burden across the floor and down the stairs out of 23A, crossing the road to the ship chandler's shop.
A knife quickly severed the bonds, and the gag was removed, then Mother Shipton and Rut h began to attend to the youngster, and, at last, Tinker opened his eyes and sat up.
He looked very sick and dazed, and for a few moments seemed lost to his surroundings, then, suddenly, his eyes cleared, and he nodded up to Blake.
"I thought I was done for that time, guv'nor," the lad said, in a weak voice. "The beggars tricked me!" Mother Shipton had brought a little pannikin of rum and water, and she made Tinker sip the fluid. "I was at the head of the alley," said Tinker, "and saw them come out of the shop. I recognised them at once. They went into 23A, and I followed them. They must have done it to trap me, for as soon as I stepped inside the door, I received this!" He raised his hand to his head, and disclosed a huge wound. But his smile was as bright as ever as he turned his eyes towards Ruth. "I don't remember much what happened after that," the lad said, with a dry smile. "It was really a score to them!" Blake had already made up his mind what he was going to do, and he turned to Mother Shipton. "You must try to get a cab for us," he said. "Tinker will have to go back to the hotel, and Miss Phillips will go and look after him?"
"But what are you going to do, guv'nor?" said the youngster.
"I must get down to the south basin," Blake returned. "I feel sure that these two rascals are going to try and get on board the Anastor; and, besides, I want to find MacLeod!"
"But mayn't I come as well, Mr. Blake?" Ruth began.
"No," Blake said, pointing to Tinker. "You will have to go back to the hotel and look after Tinker!"
"But I—I am quite all right, guv'nor," the lad said. But even as he spoke the words, he swayed and had to clutch at the counter to support himself.
"You are anything but all right, old chap," the detective said; "and, in any case, you can't come with me just now. Get back to the hotel and wait for me there!"
He nodded to them both, and in another moment had vanished. Tinker leaning against the counter, turned a sorrowful face towards Ruth.
"That's done it," the lad said disgustedly. "There's going to be no end of a dust-up at the south basin, and I shall jolly well be out of it all. It's just my luck!"
On Board the Anastor.
HECTOR MACLEOD had taken up his task of watching the Anastor, with a keen zest. The young bank clerk felt that it was no small honor for him to be favored by the great Sexton Blake, and apart from that, there was also the fact that he was helping to clear up the tragedy that hung over Ruth Phillips's life.
As he made his way down to the quay, a slight drizzling rain began to fall, and Hector, diving into one of the numerous little shops in that region, emerged presently wearing a second-hand oilskin coat and a blue peaked cap.
He left his bowler hat and light coat behind him in the shop, little dreaming that many months would pass before he would return there to claim his garments.
He went down to the south basin, and presently found himself on the quay to which the Anastor was moored. It was evident that the lading of the vessel had been completed, for the hatches were down and the tarpaulins tight over them.
One or two of the crew were hanging about on the deck, and, after watching a few moments, Hector saw a thick-set man emerge from one of the companions and come to the end of the gangway. The man was in his shirt-sleeves, but the feet that he was wearing a collar and tie hinted that he had some sort of rank on board.
As a matter of fact, he was chief engineer of the Anastor. The man looked right and left, then apparently came down the gangway and stepped on to the quay, close to where Hector MacLeod was lounging against the capstan.
"What are ye hangin' aboot here for?"
The voice was distinctly Scotch, and Hector straightened up sharply, making as though to move away. The chief engineer thrust out a broad fist and closed his fingers on the lad's oilskin sleeve. "A'reet, ma son, dinna get scared. What I want to know is, do ye want a job?"
"Do you mean on board?" Hector asked.
The chief engineer nodded.
"I've been waiting all day for a young scamp to turn up," he said, "but he hasn't come yet. He's my cabin-boy. If ye want a job ye can hae his!"
It's not by any means unusual for one or two of a crew to fail to put in an appearance prior to a vessel's departure, and there are always one or two men hanging round the quays in the hope of getting what is called a "jump" job. The chief engineer had evidently mistaken Hector for one of this type, and instantly, the lad saw his opportunity. "When do you sail, sir?" he asked.
"Midnight," came the reply. "I'll tell ye what I'll do. Come on board now an' set my cabins to rights, and if that young scoundrel doesn't turn up before the ship sails, ye can take his place. If he does turn up, why, I'll pay ye well for what you do!"
This exactly suited Hector's role, and, a few moments later, he was striding up the gangway behind old Thomson. He was led along a narrow galleyway and shown into a small cabin on the right.
"There ye are," said the chief engineer, "jest put this place to rights. I haven't time to bother aboot my kit now. I must look after the engines!"
He stopped for a moment to point out the various articles to Hector, then with a nod to the lad, the chief engineer turned and stalked away, his iron-shod shoes clanging on the steel steps of the alleyway.
Hector crossed the cabin and looked out of the porthole. He saw that it was just level with the quay and close to the gangway that ran up at a sharp angle. If anyone came or went by way of the gangway, Hector was bound to see them. He slipped off his oilskin coat, removed his jacket and waistcoat, then, rolling up his shirt-sleeves, set to work.
His task was quite an easy one. He made the bed in the little bunk, opened a couple of old portmanteaux that belonged to the chief engineer, and set to work to arrange the various garments in a couple of lockers.
It was quite dusk now, and one of the sailors came round lighting the lamps. A lamp was also hung above the gangway, its yellow gleams shimmering on the wet boards.
At the end of an hour Hector was summoned by a man in greasy dungarees to "come and have a bite o' food!" He followed his guide along the deck and into the fo'castle, where he found a gang of men seated in the sniffy quarters. A pannikin of tea was issued to him with a generous chunk of bread and jam, and Hector set to work.
There was very little conversation, the men were tired and were content to munch away in silence. They were practically new hands, and not made each other's acquaintance yet.
The young bank clerk hurried through his meal slipped back to the cabin where he could keep his watch.
Somewhere about ten o'clock he saw two or three men come on board, and one of them, a sturdy individual, was wearing the regulation captain's cap. Hector had seen Captain Turner before, and he recognised the old skipper.
The other men were civilians, evidently clerks from the shipping office, for they chatted for a moment with Turner, then, shaking hands with him, went off down the gangway and disappeared.
The coming of the skipper seemed to be a signal for fresh bustle on board the Anastor. Hector heard one or two sharp commands ring out, followed by the clatter of feet on the deck above. A whimsical expression crossed the lad's face and he drew back from the porthole.
"By Jove, it looks to me as if I shall be carried off in this old tramp unless I am careful," he mused.
He dressed himself again, slipping into his oilskin, and stepped out of the cabin, hurrying along the galleyway and gaining the upper deck. He had no desire to find himself a member of the crew and he made up his mind to slip ashore at the first convenient moment.
Just as he reached the upper deck one of the seamen sounded the bell six times. It was eleven o'clock.
The echoes of the bell had hardly died away when Hector, standing close to the rails, heard hurrying feet sound on the quay. He turned and peered into the darkness. A little undersized figure was just looming up the gangway, and behind him came a huge, broad-shouldered man.
As the two came higher the lamp swinging above the gangway shone on their faces. Hector drew back and turned the collar of his oilskin coat over his ears.
He had recognised them at once. They were the man he knew as Doctor Kay and his huge companion.
As soon as Kew reached the deck he halted for a moment. The captain's cabin lay aft, and there was little light in the doorway.
The young clerk waited until he saw the door of the cabin open and the two figures pass inside, then, with a quick rush, he was across the deck, and, passing round to the back of the cabin, he raised his head and gazed through the porthole.
Kew and Carlac were standing in front of a table at which Captain Turner was seated.
"The matter can be settled here and now." Kew's voice was saying. "There's a hundred pounds for you for a passage for myself and friend to San Francisco."
"This is not a passenger vessel!" Turner's voice replied.
"No, I quite understand that. We are ready to rough it!"
Hector had a good view of Kew's hawk-like face, and he saw in it a strained anxiety. "Come," he went on, "a hundred pounds is a lot of money. I have it here and ready:"
He thrust his hand into his inner pocket and drew out a bulky package. Hector saw the captain lean forward, and into the man's eyes there came a look of greed.
The skipper of a tramp steamer such as the Anastor is only very poorly paid by the owners, and a hundred pounds means a small fortune to the struggling man.
Turner realised, of course, that there was something shady in these two characters in front of him. But then, within the hour, the Anastor would have sailed and Turner knew that once he was clear of England he would be safe.
"I can only give you a small cabin!" the captain said, "there will just be room for the two of you, but there won't be any space left for your kits."
Kew's lips parted in a quiet smile.
"We haven't any kit!" he said in his harsh voice. "We are travelling as we are!"
He had unfolded the package and drew out a heap of gold with several crinkling banknotes. He counted out the notes, then the gold, placing the sovereigns in heaps of ten on top of the notes, which he pushed forward. "There you are!" he said, "one hundred pounds. That settles it!"
The captains's fingers closed over the little piles of gold and notes, and Kew knew that he had succeeded in gaining his point. He removed his heavy coat, revealing the fact that he was dressed in a suit of good blue serge with clean collar and shirt, and new tie. It was evident that both he and Carlac had made a swift change in their wardrobe. There was nothing of the down-at-heel sailor about them now.
Kew drew out a gold watch and glanced at it. The obvious value of the article seemed to impress Captain Turner. "You sail at twelve I believe?" said Kew.
"About that time!" Turner went on. "And now, if you wait a moment, I'll send for the steward!"
Hector slipped away from the porthole, and from a safe hiding-place behind one of the boats, he watched until the steward had entered the cabin and emerged again, followed by Carlac and Kew.
The trio went along the deck towards the stem, and Hector, moving noiselessly, saw them vanish at last into a little cabin, from which, a few moments later the steward returned alone.
Hector ventured up to the cabin and cast one glance inside. Carlac had flung himself onto one of the bunks and was puffing contentedly at a cigarette, while Kew, perched like a bird on the opposite bunk, was speaking in low tones to his companion.
Hector drew back, a grim expression on his young face.
"You've managed to do the trick after all," he thought. "By Jove, what am I going to do now?"
It was rather a difficult position for the youngster to find himself in. Sexton Blake had asked him to keep a look out for these two men, and here they were on board! But the minutes were swiftly winging past and Hector knew that within the next hour or so, the Anastor would be on its way out of the harbour on the first stage of its long journey.
"What the dickens am I to do?" the young clerk repeated, cudgelling his brains.
It was impossible for him to find a messenger to go up to the hotel and tell Blake of what had happened, and he felt that if he himself undertook that task there was every possibility of the Anastor sailing before he could return.
Deep down in his heart Hector MacLeod felt that it was absolutely imperative for him to keep in close touch with these two ruffians. He would have found it hard to explain why this opinion dominated everything else, but it was so, and, at last, he shaped his course on it.
"I'll wait here!" he decided. "It's the only thing I can do. These fellows are on board and I can watch them while they are here. When they go on shore, wherever it may be, I can follow. It won't do to lose touch with them!"
It was certainly the best thing he could have done, under the circumstances, and he slipped off along the main deck and went down into the galleyway in which the chief engineer's cabin was situated.
He entered the cabin to find old Thomson seated at the little table with a big tumbler of whisky-and-soda in front of him.
"Hallo, you young scamp! Where've you been?" the chief engineer broke out.
Hector came to a halt in the doorway.
"I did everything, sir," he said, "and I wasn't quite sure whether you wanted me to stay on or not!" Thomson cast an approving glance round the cabin.
"Yes, you're quite right," he said, somewhat mollified. "Ye've put everything in ship-shape order. But what do ye mean by me not wanting ye?"
"Well, sir, I thought the other lad might have turned up!"
"He did, dang him, but I sent him aboot his business!" the chief engineer barked out. "Ye'll do for me all right, and as soon as I've finished this tumbler I'll take ye along and sign ye on!" He pointed to the oilskin coat.
"But ye can't knock about the ship in togs like those," he went on. "I'll show ye where my boy used to sleep. It's not very decent quarters, but he liked it all right!"
The old chap finished his drink, then led Hector along the galley and opened a door. It was really a store-room, filled with kegs and bales of waste. In one corner a hammock had been slung, and there was small locker close to it.
"There ye are!" said Thomson; "ye can either sleep here or for'ard with the crew, jest as ye like!"
"I'd rather sleep here, thanks!" said Hector.
"Right; you'll find some blue togs in the corner there. Jest git into them, and come down to the engine-room when ye're ready. Mebbe I'll find ye a job down there!"
Hector would rather have remained on deck, but he realised that it would be foolish of him to go against his newmaster's orders.
Thomson swung along the galley, and Hector made a swift change of garments. The lad grinned to himself as he slipped into the blue dungarees.
"I wonder what Ruth would say if she saw me now!" he thought, glancing down at the oil-stained, ragged suit.
He managed to make his way down the steel ladder into the bowels of the vessel, and Thomson beckoned to him. The engineer was standing on a little iron bridge that spanned the engines. Despite the fact that he was chief engineer, Thomson had a piece of oil waste in his hand and also a huge oil-can. He had evidently been giving the last finishing touches to his beloved machinery.
"Everything's tight and trim, lad," the old Scotsman said to Hector. "In as few more minutes ye'll hear the bell clang, and these long pistons will begin to rise an' fall and they won't stop again, mind ye, until we are the other side o' the world. Here, take hold o' this!"
He pushed the oil-can into Hector's hand, and indicated a small steel-runged ladder. "Jest ye shin up there and fill up that tap," he said, indicating the oil-gauge.
Hector was nimble, and he quickly climbed the little ladder and reached out, tilting the oil-can until the cup above the gauge was filled. When he came back to the bridge Thomson gave him an approving nod. "That's good!" he said. "I see ye've got a steady hand. Boy, we'll mak' an engineer o' ye yet!"
All this time Hector was on tenterhooks, for his mind was constantly returning to the deck above. He was, however, forced to remain beside his master, and presently the sharp clang of a bell sounded. Thomson's voice roared out an order, there was a rush of steam, a sharp throb, and the huge piston-rods began to rise and fall. The Anastor was under way.
Another clang, and then for the space of half an hour or so a series of orders rang out, and then gradually the ship got clear of the quay and moving like a grey wraith down through the silent harbour out to sea.
The first long swell of the ocean lifted the tramp, and Hector caught at the rail of the little bridge to steady himself.
"Ye'd better get up on deck now," Thomson said, with a nod to him. "The smell o' the oil might upset ye for a bit, but ye'll soon find ye're sea legs. Go on, up ye get!"
He gave the lad a slight push, and Hector was only too glad to escape from the oil-laden atmosphere, climbing the steel ladders and emerging on to the deck.
The rain had passed away, and there was a starlit sky above. The fresh sea wind was whistling through the riggings of the tramp, and the Anastor was thrashing her way out into the grey Atlantic.
To port and starboard there were still tiny lights, revealing the nearness of the coast. Hector turned and glanced back to where a little cluster of lights glittered in the darkness behind. He knew that was Grangepool, and just for a moment a feeling of depression swept over the lad.
"Perhaps I have been a confounded idiot," he told himself. "I've gone off on a wild goose chase, without a soul knowing about me!"
The feeling only lasted a moment, however, and he remembered again the presence of the two evil men on board the tramp steamer. He decided to have another look at them, and he made his way towards the stern, slipping past the captain's cabin and going down the deck until he reached the little cabin at the end.
There was no light showing, and he stepped up to the porthole and listened for a moment. But there was no sign of any occupants inside.
Again a doubt arose in the lad's mind.
Was it possible that these two after all, had changed their plans and had not sailed?
He moved away from the cabin and halted for a moment beside one of the lifeboats, leaning against its side. Five or six minutes passed, then presently Hector saw the two figures emerge from the lighted companion-way that led to the salon.
With a quick movement Hector drew himself up into the lifeboat. He found that the canvas which usually covers these boats had not been placed in position, and he knelt down in the centre, his fingers coming in contact with a lifebuoy. He had recognised the two figures at once, and he waited. He heard their footfalls sound, and to his nostrils there came the scent of cigar smoke.
Raising himself cautiously, Hector peered over the side of the boat. Kew and Carlac were just turning the corner to enter their cabin. He heard the metallic click of the door as it was opened; then suddenly Kew's harsh voice sounded: "Quick! Get him!"
There was a scuffle and a rush, and three figures came swaying out from the cabin doorway to reel across the deck locked in a fierce embrace.
Hector leaned forward to watch the struggle. He saw that Carlac had wound his arms round the shoulders of the centre man, while Kew was struggling furiously to release his arms from the grip of the stranger.
They thudded against the lifeboat, making it sway to and fro, then went down on the deck in a sprawling heap.
There was no sound, only the heavy, gasping breathing of the men as they fought. It seemed to Hector as though the unknown man was putting up a wonderful battle. Twice Carlac's bulky figure had almost pinned the man to the deck, and yet with a superhuman effort the terrible grip of the ex-convict had been broken, and the bold-hearted stranger escaped.
Once Kew, with an agility that astounded Hector, leapt across the deck and swung a thin arm round his antagonist's throat. At the same time wedging his knee into the unknown man's back.
They went down on the deck together, and Carlac, gasping for breath, flung himself headlong, trying to take advantage of his nefarious comrade's attack.
But the man they fought with seemed to have the strength often. Kew's arms were plucked away, and a fierce thrust saw the monkey-like professor flung aside, to roll over spluttering and snarling like a wild beast.
For ten long minutes the silent contest went on, and at last the end came. The unknown man had staggered to his feet and had evaded one wild rush from Car lac, but in doing so he had flung himself against the heavy iron stauncheon that supported the lifeboat.
Hector heard the impact of the head against the iron, and it fairly sickened him. "Now, Carlac—quick! We've got him!"
With a snarling cry of triumph Kew leapt forward, with Carlac by his side. Hector, shifting his position to the other side of the lifeboat, peered over.
He was just in the nick of time, He saw the body of the unknown man being pressed slowly over the rails. Carlac, his long arms clutching at the man's throat, was pushing out and out, and finally Kew, raising his clenched fist, struck at the face of the man in front of him.
It was a fiendish blow, and it brought about the collapse of the gallant fighter. Hector heard a muffled groan, then the tense body tilted forward and went headlong into the sea.
Quick as a flash Kew and Carlac turned and darted back to their cabin. Hector, aghast with horror, stumbled across the boat; his foot came in contact with the lifebuoy, and a moment later the lad had lifted it and, swinging it clear above his head, tossed it out into the waters.
As he did so his feet slipped, and, unable to check himself, he went sprawling over the side of the boat to fall with a thud on the hard deck. His head came in contact with an iron bolt, and for a few moments he was knocked senseless.
How long he lay like that he was never able to say, but he recovered consciousness to find himself still alone on the dark deck, with the lifeboat above him.
He sat up, pressing his hands to his forehead. There was a huge lump above his left temple, and for a moment the lad sat, still waiting for his reeling brain to clear.
Then with a half-groan, he drew himself to his feet. The memory of the tragedy that he had witnessed came back to him, and with a sickening sensation, Hector MacLeod glanced at the cabin at the end of the deck.
There was a light there now, and the young bank clerk stole forward, raising himself until he reached the porthole, and peered inside for a moment.
Carlac was lying on his bunk, while Kew, bending over the huge fellow, was bandaging his left wrist. The big ex-convict groaned once during the ordeal, and Kew cast a quick glance around him.
"A twisted wrist is nothing, my friend!" the harsh voice said; "if you had broken your neck it would have been worth while. This is the best night's work we have ever done, for it has freed us of the man we had most to fear!"
A cackling laugh sounded in the cabin—a laugh so cold and callous that it sent a shiver through the listener's body.
"You and I have been in at the death, Carlac," said Kew. "Sexton Blake will trouble us no more!"
Hector MacLeod staggered back from the porthole, his hands pressed against his temples.
So it was the great detective that had struggled with these two vile ruffians; it was Sexton Blake who had been cast over the rails into the seething sea!
For a moment Hector felt inclined to blame himself for the part he had played. He had remained silent in the lifeboat, watching that struggle, without lifting a hand to help. "If I'd only known—if I'd only known!"
He was still weak from the effects of the heavy fall, and at last he turned and reeled off down the deck, his heart as heavy as lead within him.
Sexton Blake was dead! The grey seas had closed over him and it seemed to Hector as though all his efforts had been wasted. Just for a moment a fleeting hope entered his heart.
Not more than a second could have elapsed from the time that the detective had been flung into the sea to the period when Hector had flung the lifebuoy out.
Yet the hope was such a flimsy one that the lad had to dismiss it at last.
"No; it's not much good relying on that," he muttered. "I've got to see this thing through myself. Those two brutes have won out so far, but I'll hang on to them to the bitter end!"
It was a plucky decision to come to, for Hector MacLeod was well aware of the type of men he was up against. It spoke volumes for his splendid courage that he did not falter.
Wherever they went he would follow, and when it came to the final test he would be there to try his youthful strength against their combined villainy.
He found his way to the little store-room, and, wearied out, flung himself into the hammock, and, in a few minutes, was fast asleep, while the Anastor went on its way breasting the grey waters of the great Atlantic, heading for the west.
A Fight for Life.
HECTOR MACLEOD had not been mistaken. It really was Sexton Blake who had made such a dramatic appearance on board the Anastor. And, yet the mystery of his being there had a very simple solution.
The reader will remember that Blake had left Tinker and Ruth Phillips, telling them that he was going to the south basin to find Hector MacLeod.
It was about a quarter to twelve when Blake had found himself at the quayside, and a search revealed to him the fact that the young bank clerk had vanished. He was at a loss to account for the disappearance of the lad, but before he had time to study it out very clearly, a man came down the gangway from the Anastor and crossed the quay towards the sheds. Blake, who had been in the shadows of the sheds, took a pace forward, and the man, turning his head, went up to him. "Want to earn a shilling, mate?" he said.
"Don't mind if I do." Blake returned.
The detective was wearing a long overcoat and cap. It was the steward of the Anastor who had accosted him, and the fellow jerked his thumb towards the sheds.
"All right, come on," he said. "We ain't got much time to waste. I've got to get another couple o' cases o' whisky for the old man!"
Blake fell into step by the steward's side, and presently they cleared the sheds and turned towards a line of houses that stood just outside the south basin dock.
"Can't make out why the skipper didn't get his store o' whisky at the proper time," the steward grumbled. "I tell yer, it ain't no cop being steward on board the Anastor. Ye're just like a bally messenger boy, running here an' there, an' attending to anyone an' everyone that likes to shout to yer!"
He was evidently in a bad humour over something, and Blake smiled to himself.
"Still, you'd be worse off if you were on board a passenger boat," he said.
The steward snorted.
"Oh, I dunno!" he returned, "a steward on board a passenger ship gets a lot o' tips. Besides, our skipper's gone an' turned the Anastor into a bloomin' passenger vessel—goodness knows why!"
"Carrying passengers are you?"
"Yus; two came on board about half an hour ago, and between you an' me, mate, I don't like the looks of 'em!" Blake was on the alert at once. "Two passengers, eh!"
"Yus; sneaked on board they did. But I guess they've squared the skipper all right, so it ain't got nothin' to do wi' me!"
"What are they like?"
"Why ye never saw such a funny lookin' couple in yer life," said the steward. "One of 'em is a great hulking feller, looks as strong as a bull, while the other is a little monkey of a man!"
Crude though the descriptions were, they fitted the personalities of Carlac and Kew exactly, and Blake felt a quick thrill of contentment run through him.
His reasoning had not been at fault. There was no doubt but what Kew and Carlac were escaping from Grangepool by making use of the Anastor.
"I expect the whisky is really for them," the steward went on, as he came to a halt outside one of the dark houses in the row. "Jest wait for me here, mate, I won't be a minute!"
He knocked on the door and was admitted, to emerge a few moments later carrying two cases, one of which he indicated to Blake, then the return journey began.
Blake put a few questions to the man, and soon discovered where Carlac and Kew had taken up their quarters.
They reached the Anastor and mounted the gangway, the steward leading the way across the deck and down the companion-way to the saloon.
"Jest put it down here, mate," he said, as they entered the saloon, "I'll look after it now!"
Blake swung the case from his shoulder, and the steward slipping his hand into his pocket, produced a shilling which he put into Blake's hand.
The detective took the tip with a word of thanks, then, turning, went up the stairs and on to the deck again. But, instead of crossing to the gang-way, Blake moved along the deck past the skipper's quarters, and finally found himself close to the end-cabin in which Kew and Carlac had taken up their abode.
Blake looked around him and saw the lifeboat, the very same one in which Hector had later on found shelter. A swift leap saw the detective over the boat's side, and he made himself comfortable between the wide thwarts.
Presently he heard a commanding voice ring out, and one or two sailors appeared. There also emerged on to the quay a little knot of officials, and the gangway was moved from the Anastor, while the cables that had bound it to the quay were drawn in.
As the clang of the engine bell sounded, Blake heard a click! and a moment later, two figures emerged from the aft cabin. As they passed into the shaft of light, Blake cast a quick glance at them, and all doubts that might have been in his mind vanished.
For the first figure was that of Kew, and behind him came the massive-shouldered Carlac. They stepped across the deck, passing quite close to the boat in which Blake had hidden himself. They reached the rails and stood there watching, while the bows of the Anastor sagged out from the quay.
The beat of the propeller sounded, and the vessel began to move away into the darkness.
For the best part of half an hour Blake crouched in his hiding-place, then someone came along the deck, and, after glancing in the end cabin, came up to where Kew and Carlac were standing.
"Supper's ready, gentlemen," said the steward's voice, "the skipper would like you to join him!"
Carlac grunted in acknowledgment, and the two went off along the deck. The steward moved towards the cabin and vanished inside.
As soon as the deck was cleared. Blake slipped out of the boat and stepped across towards the end cabin. He saw the steward at work arranging the bunks. The man had brought a bundle of blankets with him, and he was making everything ship-shape for the night.
Blake watched the man for ten minutes. The steward was evidently in no hurry, for he went about his work in a leisurely way that made Blake fume inwardly. "Why the dickens don't you finish and clear out?" the detective thought to himself.
A moment or so later, however, his impatience was rewarded. The steward extinguished the lamp in the cabin, stepped out of the door and closed it behind him. Blake darted back into the darkness behind the boat, then waited till the steward had vanished. Then, after a momentary hesitation, the detective went back to the door and opened it, stepping inside.
Producing his pocket-torch Blake touched the switch, and a little white bulb of light flashed out. There was a heap of clothes on one of the lockers, and Blake, going to up to it, began to examine the pile.
They were two suits, one of them evidently belonging to Kew, while the other was Carlac's property. Presently, the long frock coat that Kew had worn came between Blake's fingers, and in the deep breast-pocket Blake's hand came in contact with a bulky notebook.
Dropping the garment on to the floor, Blake seated himself on the side of one of the bunks, and, fixing the electric torch so that its light fell on the book, he began to turn the pages.
Suddenly his eyes gleamed, and his head fell forward. It was an address that had caught his eye: Mr. James Phillips, the Grangepool and District Bank, Grangepool. Beneath it were a number of other entries, and Blake read them swiftly.
"Joseph Smith, alias Nat Marle, one time captain of the Sea Foam!"
A quick, indrawn breath sounded in the cabin.
Kew, always a methodical man, had taken care to note down all necessary particulars concerning the strange story that the dying convict had revealed to him.
"Deposit of twenty thousand pounds made in Marle's name at Grangepool and District Bank. James Phillips signed receipt for money. Ship's papers and deposit-note hidden in Eskimo hut, Salcoth Island!"
Then underneath this note there came what was obviously a fresher entry.
"Phillips got away but no matter. He was convinced that Carlac was Marle!"
The entries were all contained in two leaves of the book, and Blake, withdrawing a sharp penknife from his pocket, carefully cut the leaves out, then taking his own notebook from his pocket, folded the precious slips and placed them inside.
The search had taken him longer the he had thought. He stooped to pickup the frock-coat and replace the book, when suddenly there came a metallic click! and the door of the cabin opened.
Swift as a flash, the detective had extinguished the torch, but the keen eyes of the man in the doorway had caught sight of the strong, clean-shaven face in the glow of the little bulb.
A muttered word sounded, then Carlac, with a spring, had reached his man, and one mighty tug saw the detective drawn out through the door of the cabin, to stagger across the deck, with Carlac and Kew clinging to him.
There is no need to repeat the scene of the deadly struggle. Blake put up a splendid fight, but the odds were against him, and, at last, the end came. Kew's vicious blows brought Blake's tough resistance to a close, and the detective went down into the deep sea.
The cold waters closing over his head roused Blake, and madly, furiously, he began to swim down, deeper and deeper into the sea. He knew that the suction of the water would drag him towards the keen blades of the propeller, and it was to battle against this tremendous force that he fought.
He went down and down, striking out madly, powerfully, until at last there came to his ears the churning beat of the propeller as it passed over his head.
In the welter of water that followed the wake, Blake came struggling to the surface gasping for breath. He was tossed hither and thither for a moment, like a cork, then to his ears there came a faint splash.
He began to tread water, and peered through the darkness. He saw the broad hull of the Anastor vanishing into the distance. The lights from the tramp were sending little shafts of yellow gold over the troubled surface.
From the portholes in the stern came a great beam of light which flashed over the foam-flecked wake. Blake fancied he caught sight of a white gleam in the beams of light, and he struck out towards it.
Twenty strokes saw his fingers come in contact with the wet, round edge of the lifebuoy, and, with a gasp of relief, the detective dived to come up in the wide circle of the life-saving buoy.
By this time the Anastor had vanished into the darkness, and Blake was alone in the grey sea. He had made himself comfortable in the buoyant circle, his hands outstretched on either side of him.
The lifebuoy was a big one, capable of keeping a couple of men afloat, and Blake rode high in the water. A feeling of thankfulness came down on him; and he drew a deep breath.
"I wonder what the solution of this problem?" he thought. "It was neither Kew nor Carlac who threw this lifebuoy overboard, and yet, it almost seemed to follow me into the sea!"
A swift intuition came to him.
"By Jove! is it possible it could have been young MacLeod?" he went on, his quick wit leaping to the truth at once. "That must be it. No doubt the lad is on board, and in all probability he witnessed our struggle!"
If his conclusions were correct, Blake knew that it meant that Carlac and Kew were not yet safe. Hector MacLeod was on board the Anastor with them, and the incident of the lifebuoy told Blake that the lad was quite able to use his wits in moments of stress.
"Good luck to him, anyhow," said Blake. "He certainly did his best for me!"
He began to tread water to keep the blood circulating through his body. The sea was bitterly cold, and although it was smooth enough, there was chill wind blowing.
The struggle which he had gone through had weakened the detective somewhat, and had it not been for the buoyant circle around him there is little doubt but what Blake would have paid the penalty of his temerity with his life.
Through the long hours of darkness he floated, sometimes resting in the buoy, at others swimming inside it. Fatigue began to claim him, and he felt the deadly coming of sleep.
Blake knew that were he to sleep it would be the end of everything; his unconscious body would slip through the circle and he would drown.
Yet the powerful influence of sleep began to grow on him, and he had to fight furiously against its numbing, insinuating touch. From the east the grey dawn came slowly, revealing a barren sea. The sun came up at last, and the tired, plucky man turned his face towards it.
An hour passed, then another, and Blake began to weaken visibly. Once he almost slipped from the circle of the buoy, and the effort he had to make to reach it again warned him that his strength was fast leaving him.
Another such slip as that and there was every probability of him not being able to regain his balance.
He began to tread water again, languidly, slowly. He felt that he was in a current of some sort, for the buoy was floating at a steady rate.
Suddenly, ahead of him, Blake saw a thin, white flicker of foam appear for a moment on the surface, then vanish. He watched it wearily. It appeared again, vanished, appeared and vanished; then a moment later the meaning of it dawned on him. He was close to a sunken reef, and the foam he saw was the waves breaking over the half-submerged rock.
He began to swim towards it, putting out all his strength. Nearer and nearer he drew, until at last a scurrying wave carried him forward a couple of yards, and his trailing feet came in contact with the jagged rocks over which the sea was breaking.
He saw now that there was another rock some twenty yards ahead. It was higher out of the water, and, although the waves broke over it, Blake saw that the surface appeared always above the sea.
"I suppose I must try," the wearied man told himself. "Twenty yards isn't much, but it seems a long way just now!"
He set his teeth hard, and drew a deep breath. He knew that the lifebuoy, although it served to support him, was a drag on his arms as he swam. He came to a quick decision, and, raising his hands above his head, dropped through the circle, allowing the buoy to float away from him.
Then, taking his chance, Blake struck off from the submerged reef, heading for the more solid rock in front.
The memory of that swim was never to leave him. Twice he went under the surface, and only his indomitable courage, his immense determination, brought him above the sea again. He was at the end of his strength when his fingers clawed feebly at the wet rock, and he had to cling there for long moment before he found sufficient strength to drag himself up slowly, laboriously, to the weed-covered ledge.
He had to lie flat on his face in the weeds for a while until his strength returned, then he sat up and looked around him. The ledge he was on was only some thirty or forty yards square—a desolate perch in the midst of a lonely sea.
He was wet and hungry and tired, and it seemed to him as though his struggle had been a useless one. He arose slowly to his feet and stumbled forward through the slimy seaweed. Now and again a wave, higher than the others, would shake up through the weed and fall for a moment on the ledge.
In stormy weather there could be little doubt but what this perch would be absolutely covered with sea and foam, and it was only the fact that it was a calm sea that made it secure.
Right through the long hours of the day Blake remained on the little platform of rocks; then at last, in the waning light, came rescue.
The brown sails of a fishing-boat appeared westward. Blake caught sight of it silhouetted against the setting sun, and rising, to his feet, the plucky man drew off his coat and began to wave in languidly round his head.
At first he was afraid that his signal had not been observed, for the fishing-smack kept on its way as though it would pass him. Then, just as he was beginning to despair, he saw the brown sails swing round, waver for a moment in the breeze, then the broad bow of the smack was pointed towards him, and, with a double spume of foam rising from its sides, the boat came nearer to the reef.
A small skiff was put out, and a man jumped into it, thrusting an oar into the stern and sculling with vigorous strokes.
Blake waited until the bow touched the weed-covered reef; then, with a staggering rush, he flung himself into the little craft.
He was saved!
At seven o'clock that evening Ruth Phillips, a prey to a thousand fears and doubts, heard a knock sound on the door of the little sitting-room of the Railways Hotel, and she leapt to her feet. The door was opened, and a burly man in blue clothes came into the room holding another man by the arm. A shriek of joy broke from Ruth's lips, and she rushed forward. "Mr. Blake—Mr. Blake!" she cried.
"All right, missy," a deep voice said. "Jest give him a chance!"
Blake was weak and tired, and his burly companion helped him across the room and made him sit down on a chair. Ruth saw then that the detective was dressed in ragged blue trousers, and a thick blue jersey which was redolent of the unmistakable odour offish.
His face was white, but the eyes were as clear and courageous as ever. "How is—is Tinker?" Blake asked.
Ruth dropped on her knee by his side with a little smothered sob.
"He is quite all right, Mr. Blake," she returned; "but we have been—been so anxious. What has happened? You look so—so ill!" The deep-chested man who had accompanied Blake turned to the girl and laughed.
"He's all right, miss," said Ben Wade, in his booming voice. "The sea don't make no difference to a man like rum. Jest you run along and get something hot—beef-tea, if you like, or a tot o' rum with sugar an' hot water. That's the stuff for a man that's been fighting with Davy Jones!"
Ben Wade had been lounging on the quayside when the fishing-smack had arrived, and the old fellow had recognised Blake at once as he was being helped ashore. The kindly fishermen had done their best for the detective, taking off his sodden garments and dressing him in some of their own kit.
Exhausted though he had been, Blake had remembered about the notebook, and he had insisted on the sodden case being handed over to him.
When Ruth slipped away, at Ben's suggestion, Blake drew the notebook from his pocket and examined it carefully. Thanks to the fact of it being waterproof leather, the contents were practically uninjured, and Blake, opening the case, found the two slips that had come so near to costing him his life.
"I am glad it was you who met me, Ben," Blake said at last, "for I have got something here that ought to interest you!"
"There ain't going to be anything interest me until you've had something hot to drink an' a bit o' food," said Ben. Nor would he listen to a word until Ruth had returned with a steaming bowl of beef-tea.
Blake had almost finished the strengthening food when Tinker burst into the room. The lad had been out all day searching for his beloved master, and the way in which the young detective ran across the floor and caught at Blake's hand made Ruth's red lips quiver with sympathy.
"Oh, guv'nor—guv'nor!" Tinker broke out. "You gave me the scare of my life this time?"
Blake's wonderful vitality was already revealing itself. The colour was returning to his face, and his laugh was a quiet, reassuring one as he patted the youngster on the shoulder. "That's all right, old chap," he said. "I have had a close shave; but—well, it isn't the first time!" He introduced Ben to Tinker, then motioned him to be seated.
"I might as well tell you what has happened," he began. And they listened, spellbound, to his stirring narrative. Dismissing Ruth on a small errand, Blake nodded to Wade.
"I didn't want Miss Phillips to hear the rest of the story," he went on; "but it concerns you, Ben!"
"What's it got to do wi' me?" the old sailor asked.
"It is news of your old skipper—Nat Marle," said the detective quietly. "You told me once that you would like to meet him again. I'm afraid you will never have that opportunity. Nat Marle has paid the penalty that all criminals do, sooner or later. He died recently, at Laidstone Prison, under the name of Joseph Smith."
The slips of paper were produced, and Blake read them aloud. Ben Wade's brows wrinkled in perplexity as he shook his head.
"Can't make head or tail of it, mister," the old salt said; "but then I never wur a good hand at that sort o' job!"
"Oh, I see it all right," Tinker broke out—"everything fits in. Kew was looking after Marle in the hospital at Laidstone, and Marle must have told him his life story!"
Blake pointed to the last entry on the slips of paper.
"It's a diabolical scheme," he said. "Kew has altered Carlac's face so that he resembles the dead man, and it is evident that Phillips has been deceived by it. The bank manager believes that Marle reappeared, from the very grave almost, to claim the return of his money. I can understand now why Phillips has gone away!"
"Why?" Tinker asked.
Blake leaned forward.
"He has gone to Salcoth Island," he said. "There is no doubt about that. The papers of the Sea Foam and the deposit note are bidden in a hut on the south beach!"
"Yes, yes; I know it. I know the very hut," Ben Wade broke out.
"Phillips has had a good start," Blake went on, "but Kew and Carlac are on his track now. If Phillips succeeds in getting to Salcoth Island first, and gaining possession of the deposit note and papers, those two rascals will be beaten; but, knowing them as I do, I am afraid that Phillips will not be successful!"
He dropped back in his chair, and turned his eyes towards Ben Wade.
"That means that there is a job for all of us," said Blake, "and you will have to help, Ben!"
"I'm ready to do anything," said the old tar. "What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to come with us to Salcoth Island," the detective returned, "for that is the next scene of this drama. Will you come?" The old salt leapt to his feet and squared his shoulders.
"Will I come?" he repeated. "Rather! Why, love yer, mister, don't you know that 'once a sealer, always a sealer'? I'd give anything to be back on board one o' the old boats again, and Salcoth Island is the very place I'd like to sail to!"
"It'll be 'Frisco first," said Blake. "We ought to reach there before the Anastor. We will travel by one of the swift liners to New York, then across America by rail. By the time the Anastor reaches the Golden Horn we ought to be there waiting for it!"
"By jiminy, that's the ticket, guv'nor," Tinker cried.
There was a footfall at the door, and Ruth appeared.
"What is the ticket?" she asked.
Blake and Tinker exchanged glances.
"Come along, you must tell me," the girl cried. "I know you have been planning something. What is it?"
Ben Wade stretched out a thick hand and picked up the two slips of paper, folding them in his palm. It was only a small action, but it proved that the old fellow's heart was in the right place. The old salt did not want the daughter of James Phillips to know of her father's crime. Ruth came towards the trio, a little flush on her beautiful face.
"It's not fair," she broke out. "You are hiding something from me, and I think you are very unkind!"
"Oh, we are not really hiding anything from you, Miss Ruth," Tinker put in, "only we have just decided to go on a journey!"
"To San Francisco, missy," said Ben Wade. "You—you are going to find my father?"
"Yes; we hope so!"
"Then I'll come too!" Ruth Phillips cried.
She saw the look of blank amazement cross the features of her companions, and she laughed aloud.
"Oh, I know—I know," she said. "You think that a woman is no good, that I shall get in the way. But you are wrong. I am strong and healthy. Beside, I have as much rights to as—as any of you!"
She looked at Blake.
"What about Hector?" he went on. "You say that you think he is on board the Anastor, and it is bound for San Francisco?"
"Yes I do believe he is on board," said Blake.
"Then if you don't let me go with you to 'Frisco, I shall go by myself!"
She ran forward and perched herself on the arm of Blake's chair, putting her warm young hand over the detective's shoulder.
"Come, Mr. Blake," she said in a little wheedling voice, "you wouldn't be so unkind as to leave me behind when everybody else, my father and Hector, have deserted me?"
Tinker, watching his master, turned his head away suddenly, and grinned to himself. Ruth's beautiful head was close to Blake's shoulder now, and she pressed her cheek against that of the detective.
"You wouldn't be unkind, Mr. Blake?" she cooed.
"I am afraid you are a little witch, Miss Ruth," he said; "but, well—perhaps you are right!"
"Then you will really take me with you?" the girl broke out.
"We are going on a long and very hazardous journey," Blake said. "It would be far better for you to stay here. But if you really insist on it, I won't refuse!"
"I do insist," Ruth cried. "I should die if you were to leave me behind. I should do nothing else but think, think, think all day. It would drive me mad!" Ben Wade brought his fist down on the table with a crash.
"She's quite right, Mr. Blake," the old tar said. "Let her come. Bless her heart, she'll cheer us up!" And thus it was arranged that these people who had been thrown into each other's society in such a curious way, should travel together.
On the following day Blake had cast aside all traces of his grim experience. He visited Sir Donald and had a short interview with the baronet, then sat down and wrote a long report to Major Crofton at Laidstone Prison.
"I am following your men," the letter ran. "It is going to take me to the other side of the world, but I am on their track, and I think you will have news of them before very long!"
Blake had left the securing of the berths to Tinker, and the youngster managed to fix up everything by Friday. And so, on the Saturday morning when the Mauritania sailed from Liverpool, Ruth Phillips, Sexton Blake, Tinker, and Ben Wade were among her many passengers.
The fast Atlantic liner made the trip in its usual smooth manner, and the long journey across the American continent was also safely accomplished.
It was Ben Wade who took charge of the party at 'Frisco, for the old fellow knew the city from end to end. He took them to a quiet hotel on the heights, from where they had a fine view of the bay and the vast shipping, and there they settled down to wait for the arrival of the Anastor.
A Surprise Meeting.
ALL great cities of the world have their evil places, and San Francisco is no exception to the rule. Although the great earthquake and fire had done much to clear the city of the "Golden Horn" of its slumlands, there are still portions of it where honest citizens do not care to enter.
Chinatown, in particular, is the haunt of the unsavoury criminal class.
Yet, outwardly, the streets seem to be respectable enough. They are fairly wide and well-kept, and the little restaurants, shops, and laundries that one pass do not seem to differ in any great detail from others of their type.
But the police, and more particularly the sailors who come and go, know well the manner of life that is hidden behind the apparently innocent walls.
It was getting dusk on the Saturday evening when two men turned out of one of the wider thoroughfares and made their way along the narrow street. They were Kew and Carlac, and the contrast between the two men was more marked than ever.
It was Carlac who was leading the way, and it seemed as though the master criminal knew the place well enough, for presently he stopped outside a restaurant, above the door of which hung a sign in Chinese.
"This is the place," he said; "come along!"
They passed through the doorway to find themselves in a long room arranged in a number of alcoves, each with a table and a couple of chairs.
A few moments after they had entered the restaurant, the door opened again and another figure appeared, a young sailor in blue serge and dirty greasy dungarees. He walked into the room, passing down the line alcoves, finally entering hone next to that in which Kew and Carlac had seated themselves.
It was Hector MacLeod, tanned and weather-beaten from the long sea voyage that he had undertaken.
The Anastor had had a rough passage, and had only reached port on the previous evening. Hector MacLeod had not neglected his task of watching the two men, and about midnight, when the Anastor had been moored to the quay, he had noticed Kew and Carlac enter the captain's cabin, and a few moments later, the skipper had appeared and ordered a boat to be lowered.
Hector had swiftly divined what was going to happen, and he joined the sailors who were at work lowering the boat. When it was swung clear from the side he was the first to enter it, taking his place at the oar.
Kew and Carlac had appeared, and a few moments later the boat, under that charge of the third mate, set off shorewards. When they touched at the quay it was Hector who was first ashore, and when Kew and Carlac went off together, the lad, watching his opportunity, slipped away from the quay and followed them.
They had gone to a hotel quite close to the docks and had spent the night and the greater part of the following day there, then at dusk they had set off for Chinatown, and Hector, still sticking to his task, had dogged their steps.
He was rather at a loss as to what to do, but he knew that it was absolutely essential for him to watch these two men as long as possible. He was alone and friendless in a strange land, and he realised the magnitude of his task.
The young bank clerk had very little money in his possession, certainly not enough to pay for a cable to England. He had not been able to make a confidant of anyone on board the An as tor, and he was well aware of the feet that his position was anything but a secure one.
It spoke volumes for the lad's pluck that he still stuck to his guns, hanging on to the two criminals with a bull-dog tenacity.
He took his seat in the alcove, and a moment or so later a Chinaman in short robe and wide trousers came in for his order. The bill of fare was printed in English as well as Chinese, and Hector ordered a cup of coffee and roll and butter.
There were only a few diners in the restaurant, most of them of the sailor type, with here and there a Chinaman.
From the next alcove there came a murmur of voices, but although Hector strained his ears to listen, he was unable to catch any of the conversation.
He was seated close to the opening of the alcove, and presently he saw the Chinese waiter emerge from the one that Kew and Carlac had entered, with an envelope in his hand. The waiter went up to the counter on the left, exchanged a word with the seated figure there, evidently the proprietor, then a moment later he went out through the door into the street.
A half hour passed before the door opened again, and when it did so the waiter appeared, accompanied by another individual. Hector caught a glimpse of the waiter's companion as he came down the room. He was a lean, tough-looking fellow with a strong, cruel jaw.
The man was dressed in the exaggerated style of the American, and sported a quantity of jewellery. Hector drew back as the man came nearer, and he heard him enter the adjoining alcove. "Gee! count, this is a surprise!"
A deep voice said something in warning, and the raucous Yankee drawl died into a whisper.
But the American crook could not quite control his voice, and now and again Hector could pick up a word or two. It was evident from the trend of his talk that Carlac was asking the Yankee to do something for him, and the crook was doing his best to oblige one whom he termed a "pal."
Presently the conversation came to an end, and Hector heard the scraping of feet. He also arose, and, picking up the bill that the waiter had handed to him, went up to the counter and paid, passing out of the restaurant into the street.
A moment or two later Carlac and Kew and the flashily-dressed Yankee emerged. Hector was on the opposite side of the street, looking into a shop window. There was a mirror in the shop front, so that he could watch the movements of the men opposite.
He saw them turn and go on down the street, and the lad followed. It was dark now, and the street was rather badly lighted, but the young bank clerk's eyes were keen, and he was able to follow the trio. They plunged into a labyrinth of narrow lanes and alleys, the houses became more and more squalid, until at last Hector found himself down a narrow street in which a solitary lamp stood.
He watched the three men ahead and saw them come to a halt at a gloomy-looking house. Hector drew back into the shadows and pressed himself flat against the wall.
It was the crook who rapped on the door, one long and two short taps. There was a long pause, then a heavy bolt was moved, and the door opened cautiously. The faint light from the street lamp rested for a moment on an evil Mongolian countenance that came round the edge of the door.
"Alright, Tao. We have come to have a smoke!"
The door was opened a trifle, and the crook with his two companions vanished. "An opium-den," Hector thought.
The young clerk remained for a moment in the darkness, his brain studying out the problem in front of him. Plucky though he was, Hector MacLeod realised that there was a great danger ahead of him if he dared to venture into that vile-looking place. But, at last, his grim courage overcame his misgivings.
"I don't care," the lad told himself, slipping down and touching a bulky object in his pocket. "I am armed, and if it comes to a fight, well, by jingo! it'll be a good 'un." He walked across the dirty street, and, after drawing one deep breath, he raised his knuckles and knocked on the door.
It was an exact repetition of the signal that the Yankee crook had given. To Hector's ears there came the sound of the heavy bolt being drawn, and again the door creaked, and the ugly face came round the corner of it. "What you wantee?" a sleek voice asked. Hector came a pace nearer.
"You don't remember me, then, Tao?" he said, assuming a half drawl.
The Mongolian's eyes narrowed as they peered at the young figure. Hector's sailor garb and tanned face seemed to reassure the Chinaman. "Me forget!" Hector laughed.
"It's a long, long time since I was here," he said, "and I have been looking for the place all the evening!"
"You wantee smoke, eh?"
The door was opened a little further, and Hector entered. He heard Tao's shuffling footfalls as the man reached forward, pushing the door to, and bolting it. Then a lean, claw-like hand fell over the lad's wrist, sending a quick shudder of disgust through his veins. "Come this way!"
The attendant drew him forward down a dark, evil-smelling passage, down a flight of steps. Tao brushed aside a heavy curtain, and Hector came to a halt in the doorway of what was obviously an underground chamber.
The place was thick with smoke. It was lighted by three or four oil lamps. Along the walls were ranged bunks, each with a discreet curtain over it. In the bunk nearest to him the curtain was pulled back slightly, and Hector saw the half-clothed figure of a man lying prone on the cushions inside.
The man's head was back, and one arm was lying listlessly over the edge of the bunk, the fingers crooked.
On the other side of the chamber, near to where one of the lamps was hanging, a group of squatting men were gathered round a bowl. Hector watched for a moment, and saw one of the men lift the bowl and begin to fill it with various coloured beans.
It was fan-tan that they were playing, but the youngster had never seen it before. Presently a touch on the arm made him look round. Tao was at his elbow once more.
"You likee somet'ing to drink first?"
The atmosphere of the place almost stifled the youngster.
"Yes," he said.
"What you likee—whisky?"
"All right; come along!"
Tao led the way down the half-lighted saloon, and Hector, remembering who he was in search of, kept a sharp look-out. Presently Tao turned to the left and drew aside a curtain, revealing an empty bunk. It was close to the end of the saloon, and Hector seated himself on the edge of the bunk, while the sleek Mongolian vanished once again.
There had been no sign of Kew or Carlac, but Hector noted that there was another curtain over what was obviously a doorway on the left. It was through this doorway that Tao had just disappeared.
"They have probably gone in there," the young bank clerk thought. "I might as well have a look!"
He arose to his feet, and went to the other curtain, drawing it aside. There was narrow passage, and beyond it a glimmer of light. Hector went down the passage, and came to a halt in the darkness.
He found himself looking into a smaller chamber in which there were only a couple of bunks. In the bunk on the left he saw a broad-shouldered, black-bearded man lying. Carlac was leaning over the bunk, while the Yankee crook was standing by the man's head, shaking the shoulders and trying to rouse him. Kew stood apart, his arms folded, a grim look on his vulture face.
"It ain't any good," said the crook. "You'll have to give him time. He'll waken up presently!"
"We have no time to waste," Kew's voice broke out.
Carlac turned towards him.
"You must have patience," he said.
"Oh, I guess it won't take long," came the drawling voice of the Yankee. "Old Captain Baydoe here is jest the man for you. I have been up to the island with him before to-day, and I tell you that the Paul S. Modie is the very ship you are lookin' for!"
"But this man won't be fit to sail by to-morrow," Kew said. The Yankee grinned.
"You don't know old Sam," he said. "He's jest the toughest thing in the world. He told me he was going to sail to-morrow, and he will be there to time. Perhaps a bit shaky an' mebbe feelin' liverish, but that will work off!" He looked down at the black-bearded man with a smile on his ugly countenance.
"It's the 'smoke that's done it," he went on. "He'd have made his fortune years ago, honest, too, if it hadn't been for the dope. But you say you want to get to Salcoth Island, and this is the man to take you there!"
The youngster hiding in the dark passage drank in the scene. He memorised every word that was said. He saw now why it was that Carlac had sought out this unsavoury quarter. They were trying to arrange to be taken to Salcoth Island.
A sudden click from behind made him whip round. A concealed door in the passage opened, and in a flood of subdued light he saw the figure of the Mongolian.
Tao was bearing a black bottle and a tumbler with him, but as soon as he caught sight of the young sailor in the passage down went the bottle and glass, and the man leapt forward.
"What do you want here?" he cried.
Hector made a quick effort to evade the clutching fingers, but they closed round his throat, and, with a fierce lunge, Tao forced Hector down the passage and into the inner chamber.
The lad heard Car lac's quick shout of alarm, then, with a fierce effort, he succeeded in releasing himself from the Chinaman's grip. He swung round on his heel and made a dash for the door, but the curtain tripped him up, and he went sprawling on his face.
He heard a scuffle and a rush, and someone flung himself headlong on him. Hector thrust his hand into his pocket, and his fingers closed round the butt of the revolver. But even as he withdrew it a powerful grip closed round his wrist and tightened until the bones cracked with the strain.
Carlac, with one twist of his hand, drew the lad's arm up into a lock and, winding his other arm round Hector's body, the master criminal lifted him to his feet and jerked him into the middle of the room.
"Who's this?" the American cried, as he leapt to Carlac's side. "Is he a 'tec?"
Kew's slender body came to a halt in front of Hector. The vulture face was thrust forward, and the professor peered for a long moment into the tanned countenance of the young clerk. Then, wit h a chuckle of satisfaction, Kew turned to his companions.
"What did I tell you, Carlac?" he said. "I never forget a face. This is the youngster who was on board the Anastor!" Carlac slipped his hand down, and drew the revolver away from Hector's fingers; then, releasing the lad, he stepped back. "What are you doing here?" he asked. For a moment Hector tried to bluff it out.
"Much right to be here as you have," he said. "Just going to have a smoke when that confounded Chinaman barged at me."
"One minute!" Kew's face was thin and cutting. Again he peered into the young, tanned face.
"Ah!" The thin lips were rubbed together, and a cruel smile lifted the bloodless lips. "I think we have met before," the professor went on. "Come, my young friend, your memory is not so short as all that, I'm sure. We had the pleasure of making your acquaintance in the house of our dear friend Mr. Phillips, of Grangepool!"
"What! By heavens, is that true?"
Carlac stared as the defiant young face, then gave vent to a great oath. "You are right, Kew," he broke out. "I remember the face now."
Kew's baleful eyes had never moved themselves from those of the plucky youngster in front of him. "You are Hector MacLeod, aren't you?"
Hector saw that it was useless to go on with his attempt to bluff. He drew himself up to his full height, and squared his shoulders. "Yes," he said, "I am Hector MacLeod!"
The evil eyes of Kew narrowed into little pin points of light, and over the pallid face there came a terrible look. "From Grangepool! This is very interesting. You were on board the Anastor and have come here!" He stepped forward and bent his head until it was within an inch of Hector's face. "What's you game?" he hissed. "You have been following us. Why?"
"That's my business," the plucky youngster returned, "and if you want to find out you will have to do so by yourselves!" It was three to one, and he knew that he was absolutely helpless in his enemies hands. But his eyes did not lose their fine courage, and he faced the rage of Kew's countenance smilingly. "I know a great deal about you," the lad went on, "and I know that the police are after you both!"
"Gee! You're a plucked 'un!" the Yankee crook broke out; "but I guess you've signed your death warrant this time!" He looked at Carlac, and the latter nodded. It was a signal that settled Hector MacLeod's fate.
In an instant the three men had flung themselves on the lad. Hector half-expected that rush, and as the Yankee reached out for him the young bank clerk ducked swiftly. In another moment his young arms had wrapped themselves round the Yankee's thigh, and with a quick Rugger heave, Hector has tossed the lean body clean over his head.
There was a howl of pain followed by a thud as the crook's head drove against the wall. Then the next instant the man had collapsed in groaning heap in the corner of the room.
"Quick! Collar the cub!" Kew snarled, making a vicious swing at Hector.
Carlac flung himself at the lad, and his immense weight sent the youngster off his feet. They crashed to the floor together, the big criminal on top. Kew glanced around the room, and caught sight of a pewter candlestick standing on a table close to the bunk. He ran across to it and picked it up, then darted to where Carlac and Hector were locked in each other's arms.
Unequal though the struggle was, Hector was putting up a great fight. He had always been a fairly good athlete, and the long sea voyage had served to toughen his muscles. Carlac, powerful though he was, found it impossible to pin the lad down.
Again and again Hector wriggled out of the strangling embrace, and they rolled over and over together on the dirty floor of the room. Kew, leaping here and there for all the world like a grotesque bird, was snarling out commands to his big confederate.
The vulture face was set, and the small eyes were gleaming with deadly hatred, while the lean fist, clutched around the candlestick, was waiting for an opportunity to strike.
It came at last from the result of another fierce effort on Hector's part, which saw Carlac rolled over on to his back. Hector flung himself on to the broad chest of his antagonist, and drove his fist hard into the heavy face.
But in doing so he had to raise himself slightly, and this was Kew's opportunity. A couple of quick paces saw the shrivelled figure close to Hector's side, then the heavy weapon was raised and brought down with all the power of the lean arm.
It landed full on Hector's head, and, without a groan, the lad collapsed, falling in a loose heap over the gasping body of his opponent.
"Quick! Come along; bind him up!"
Kew leapt towards the bunk, and dragging the thin coverlet from the recumbent figure of Captain Baydoe, he tore it into strips, then he and Carlac pinioned Hector's arms and legs, finally stuffing a corner of the material between the lips of the lad.
By this time the Yankee crook was seated up against the wall, holding his reeling head. Tao, the Mongolian, had a glass of whisky in his hand, and the crook, reaching out for it, allowed the fiery stuff to run down his throat.
"Gee! That was some fight!" the lean man said, drawing himself to his feet with a grunt. "That cub made a mighty big effort for it!"
"Oh, we've settled him," said Kew. "The point is now, how are we to get rid of him?" They exchanged glances, then the Yankee turned and nodded to the Chinaman. "We can leave that to Tao here," he said. "Take him away!" He nodded to the man.
"Don't forget he hasn't got to see the light of day again! You savvy?"
The Mongolian's face was expressionless as he stepped forward and lifted Hector, slinging him over his shoulder like a sack of coals.
"I savvy," he said, as he shuffled across the room and out into the narrow passage.
The clang of a door followed, and few moments later everything was quiet again. "Is he quite safe?" said Kew. "If I thought there was any risk I'd make it doubly sure:"
"Oh, you ain't got anything to fear," the Yankee returned. "By to-morrow night the harbour police will have found your young friend, and no one on earth will be able to recognise him!" He nodded across to Carlac.
"We have a lot of dogfish in the harbour," he said, "and—"
He did not complete the sentence, but the expression on his face was sufficient. There was a moment's silence, then another idea came into the Yankee's mind.
"There's only one thing you have got to be skeered about," he said. "Does anyone know that he came here? That's the point. You see this den is pretty well known, and if anyone found out that he had been here there might be a raid!"
"I don't think there is any fear of that," said Kew. "He was on board the Anastor, and he must have followed us when we came ashore yesterday!"
He looked across at Carlac.
"I told you that I thought I recognised him last night at the hotel," the wizened professor put in, "but you would not believe me at the time!" Carlac nodded.
"That's true; I admit my mistake now!" Kew drew him aside.
"He must have been working with Blake," he said. "There can be no doubt that!"
"It doesn't matter much who he was working with," Carlac returned. "I think we can trust to Tao!" They went across to the bunk, and this time Kew took charge of the operations of restoring the opium-sodden man to life. At the end of half an hour the black-bearded figure did recover sufficiently to rise to its feet. The eyes were still half-hazed and heavy with the tope, and the breath was coming and going in fluttering gasps. "Do you know where his vessel is?" Kew asked, turning to the American crook. "Oh, yes!" the man returned.
"Then we will get him down there. Once he gets into the clearer atmosphere he will come round quicker!"
They found Captain Baydoe's clothes lying in an orderly heap at the foot of the bunk, and they dressed the man. Tao came shuffling back into the room, and led by him, the party made their way along the narrow passage, through the big saloon and up the stairs, finally reaching the street.
Kew dropped behind to slip a gold coin into the Chinaman's hand.
"You know what that is for?" he said; and Tao's face lighted up with an avaricious smile as the lean fingers closed round the coin. "I know," he said.
Then the heavy door was closed, and Kew hurried off after his companions.
Carlac and the Yankee crook, with the tottering figure of Captain Baydoe between them, went on through the labyrinth of dirty alleys until at last they came across a crawling cab, into which the drugged skipper was lifted.
It was the Yankee who took charge of the party then, and an hour later Kew and Carlac found themselves seated in a stuffy cabin on board the Paul S. Modie.
The drive had revived the skipper to a certain extent, and he was able to listen to the plan. The Yankee crook had taken his departure now, and it was Kew who made his terms with the sealer.
"Want to get to Salcoth Island, do yer?" said the captain, in a slow, drawling voice. "Yes, I know it well, but it's gettin' durned risky round there now! There's allus a few Russian gunboats knockin' about, and we've been warned off the place!"
"I'd make it worth your while," said Kew.
"What's your figure?"
Kew and Carlac exchanged a whisper together, then the former turned towards the master of the Paul S. Modie.
"I'll give you five hundred pounds to land myself and friend at the south beach, Salcoth Island. You need not come ashore with us, but you will remain until we return. You can take us back to Vancouver if you like, and as soon as we arrive there you will receive your money!"
"Two thousand five hundred dollars!"
Captain Baydoe's drug-laden eyes raised themselves and stared at Kew.
"That's a lot o' money for a pleasure trip. Wot's in the wind?"
"That's our business," said the professor curtly. "The question is—will you do it?"
"If I am going to Salcoth Island, I ain't comin' back empty-handed!" said the skipper. "It'll just be about the right time for the seals. I'll carry you there all right, but you will have to give me a day among 'em. If that suits you, then I'm game!"
Kew and Carlac argued with the skipper, but the old fellow stuck to his guns. Salcoth Island was a risk in any case, and the old sealer was not going there without taking his toll of the seals.
"You give me a day there," the obstinate skipper went on. "Whatever business you have got to do must take you about that time, and I ain't goin' to waste the opportunity!"
"All right. We agree to that," Kew said at last; and so the bargain was made.
When they had shaken hands on the compact, Kew arose to his feet.
"But you will have to sail at once," he added. "San Francisco is dangerous, so far as we are concerned!"
"I can sail as quick as you like," came the reply. "I've got everything ready, and I meant to go to-morrow, anyhow. We will be off as soon as it gets daybreak."
He was as good as his word, for as the grey dawn broke over the vast harbour the Paul S. Modie put out to sea, bearing with it the two master-criminals.
Kew and Carlac were seated in the bow of the taut little vessel watching the panorama of 'Frisco as it faded away behind them. "I think we have got through the worst part of it now," Carlac said presently. "First Blake and then that young cub have gone under. I don't think that there is anyone else to fear!" Kew's face was expressionless.
"There's one man ahead," he said—"James Phillips. He's bound to turn up sooner or later, and I think we shall find him at the island!" Carlac laughed.
"We can handle him all right," he returned. "There is only one man I ever did fear, and that was Sexton Blake. But he's gone, and, by Heavens, Kew, you and I will set a new pace in this humdrum world when we get back to civilisation again!" There was a long silence, the monkey figure of Kew did not move; but at last his head was turned towards his companion. "You think Blake has gone, then?"
"Why not?" Carlac broke out. "What could have saved him?" Kew stretched out his lean arm.
"Fate," he returned. "It appears to me that you have never calculated with that indefinite article. I tell you, Carlac, neither you nor I can ever get the better of Blake!"
"But he's drowned—drowned!"
"I doubt it. There is a quaint Providence that looks after a man of his type. He is on the right side of the law, and we are on the wrong. Somehow or other the right side has always Providence with it!" He laughed sharply.
"I know that we are going to win in this case," he continued, "because we have a weak man in the person of James Phillips to deal with now. There is nothing to prevent us from getting hold of the deposit note, and with that we can force Phillips to pay up. But the future is not so easy, for sooner or later you and I will fall foul of Sexton Blake, and—"
He snapped his fingers.
"I can see Major Crofton's welcome waiting for us at Laidstone Prison," he ended. Carlac leapt to his feet with an oath.
"Confound you for a croaker!" he broke out. "What's the matter with you? There's going to be no more prison for me, I've had enough of it. If Blake and I get to face again, I tell you one of us will go under for good!" His massive features twisted, and his powerful fists clenched. "If I go into prison again," said Count Ivor Carlac, "it will be feet first!"
"That's very likely," returned Professor Kew.
In 'Frisco Slums.
"I AM yours to command, Mr. Blake," said Lieutenant MacCradel. "I have heard a lot about you, and I am very pleased indeed to make your acquaintance!"
Blake was seated in the austerely-furnished room of the lieutenant of police. The San Franciscan police is perhaps one of the best organised bodies in the world and MacCradel was head of the detective force.
He was a square-shouldered, massive-looking individual, with a strong, clean-shaven chin and grey eyes. He had been smoking a cigar when Sexton Blake entered, and his smoke was still smouldering in the ash-tray.
MacCradel slipped his hand into his pocket and produced a well-filled cigar-case.
"Have a smoke?" he said, holding the case out to Blake.
Sexton Blake selected a weed and lighted it; then MacCradel dropped back in his chair and turned to his visitor. "I guess it's business that has brought you to see me," he said; "you are not the sort of man to come across to 'Frisco for mere pleasure!"
"It is business," Blake returned. "I have had a long hunt, but just for the moment I'm at a loss!"
"What's the trouble?" MacCradel asked.
"I'm afraid I am partly to blame myself," Blake resumed. "I and my party came to 'Frisco four or five days ago. We were waiting for the arrival of a steamer the Anastor—"
"The Anastor came in yesterday," said MacCradel.
"That's quite correct," he returned. "But we were not here at the time. As a matter of fact," the London detective went on, "there is a young lady with our party, and several days ago we heard that the Anastor had had to put into port to do some engine repairs. We were informed by the shipping company that there would be very little chance of her turning up for another week, and as the young lady who is accompanying us had never been in America before, we thought it a good opportunity of seeing the Yosemite Valley!"
"I don't blame you," said MacCradel. "It's one of the show places in the world!"
"Oh, yes, we thoroughly enjoyed it!" Blake returned; "but on coming back to 'Frisco last night I discovered that the Anastor had beaten us by twenty-four hours!" Blake leaned back in his chair.
"There were two men on board the Anastor," he went on, "that I particularly wanted to keep in touch with. There was also a youngster on the vessel who was working for me!"
"What's happened to him?"
"I went down to the Anastor last night and I tackled the skipper," said Blake, a quiet smile crossing his lips at the memory that came to him. "At first he was inclined to be rather aggressive, but he listened to reason afterwards!" MacCradel, looking at the steel-blue eyes in front of him, nodded his head.
"Yes, I guess you're right, Mr. Blake," he said. "I don't think there are many men who could stand out against those eyes of yours for long!"
"Oh, Captain Turner did all he could for me afterwards!" Blake admitted. "He owned up to the fact that he had taken two individuals as passengers, and he told me that a member of his crew was missing—the engineer's cabin-boy. From the description that he gave me of the boy I am convinced that it is the youngster who is missing from my group. His name is Hector MacLeod!"
"What have you done since?" asked MacCradel.
"Oh, I have not been idle," said Blake, drawing out a notebook from his pocket. "I succeeded in finding the hotel in which my two men spent the night. They left there yesterday afternoon, and the boots at the hotel, who was rather an intelligent chap, remembered that a young sailor who had also put up at the hotel followed them out!"
"Any idea where they went?"
"No. But after a long search I did discover something concerning them!" Blake glanced at his book again.
"There was a sealing vessel called the Paul S. Modie that was due to sail to-day," he went on; "but I find it sailed last night!"
"The skipper—Captain Baydoe—was brought down to the quay by a couple of men who answer identically with the descriptions of the men I am after. They all went on board together, and, shortly after, the Paul S. Modie sailed!"
A genuine look of admiration came into MacCradel's eyes, and he leaned forward. "Say, have you found all that out single-handed, and in a strange city?"
"It's very little," he said, "but it satisfied me on one point. I know where the men are bound. What I want to discover now is the whereabouts of the young sailor!" MacCradel thrust the black cheroot into his mouth and rolled it between his lips.
"You've done a heap, Mr. Blake," he said. "Believe me, 'Frisco is just about the worst place in the world to trace men who don't want to be traced. Still, I think I can help you now, and I can only do so because I happen to know something about that Captain Baydoe!"
"Yes; he's a dope fiend!"
"In what way?"
"Mind you, Captain Baydoe ain't a bad sort at all, but he's absolutely under the influence of opium. He's gone through one or two fortunes in his time, and he spends every cent of his money in Chinatown!"
"The man who saw the skipper go on board told me that he was pretty tottery," said Blake; "but I took it to mean that he was drunk!"
"Oh no, Skipper Baydoe doesn't drink. He must have been under the influence of the drug."
MacCradel leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. He was silent for a moment. Blake saw that the keen brain was studying out the various points of the case.
"The Paul S. Modie was not due to sail until noon to-day," said MacCradel at last, "and knowing Captain Baydoe as I do, I can't understand how they managed to get him on board by twelve o'clock last night. It would be his last opportunity of drugging himself with that rotten stuff, and you can bet your boots that he would go in for an extra dose and wait in the opium den until the very last minute!"
"I see your point," said Blake. "You mean that those two men went to find him and roused him out of his sleep?"
"An opium smoker wants some rousing," MacCradel returned. Blake nodded his head.
"One of the men is the cleverest chemist in the world," Blake said. "If anyone could rouse Captain Baydoe, that man was the person!"
"Well, I'll grant you that point," said MacCradel. "And now we are getting nearer to the root of the affair. Just wait a minute!" He touched a bell, and presently a clerk entered.
"I want to see Detective O'Donnel," said the lieutenant of police. Two or three minutes later a heavily-built man strode into the office. He looked as though he were a sailor, with his rough, hairy hands and little black moustache. "O'Donnel, this is Mr. Sexton Blake," said MacCradel, introducing the detective. "You've heard of him, I should think?" O'Donnel and Blake shook hands.
"Yes, we have all heard of Mr. Blake," he returned. "Proud to meet you, sir!" MacCradel leaned forward.
"We want to find out where Captain Baydoe had his usual dose of dope last night, O'Donnel," he went on. "Can you help us?"
"Sure! I saw him about five o'clock. He turned down into the Yokomar Street, and that, of course, meant Tao's—"
"Tan still in the business?"
"Yes. We have never troubled to run him yet, but we know his game all right!" MacCradel turned to Blake.
"If the men you are after followed Captain Baydoe they must have gone to Tao's den, and if your assistant was on their track there is no doubt but what he went after them there. It strikes me that it would pay you to go along with O'Donnel and have a look round, Mr. Blake!"
"I think it would," said the London detective, rising to his feet. "And I'm very much obliged to you!"
He shook hands with MacCradel, promising to lookup the lieutenant later on; then he and O'Donnel left the offices to find themselves in one of the main streets of the beautiful city.
It was ten o'clock in the morning, and O'Donnel, chartering a taxi, beckoned to his companion to enter, and the two men were driven through 'Frisco into the grimy, over-populated quarter known as Chinatown.
O'Donnel dismissed the taxi and they continued the journey on foot. Blake noted that every now and again a Chinaman shuffling past would turn as pair of almond eyes towards the black-bearded man and give a furtive salute.
O'Donnel, however never acknowledged any of these greetings; but at last he turned to Blake with a grin.
"They know me, these yellow devils," he said. "There's not a man among 'em who wouldn't like to drive a knife into me if he dared."
He turned into an alley, then, halfway down it, swung sharply to his left and darted into a laundry, followed by Blake. The latter had noted that the street was deserted at the moment, and O'Donnel, without pausing to say a word to the man standing at the counter, pressed on right through the laundry and into a chamber behind.
There were four or five Chinamen hard at work, starching and ironing. At O'Donnel's entry a wizened figure arose and came a shuffling forward.
"Please to see you, Mister O'Donnel," a cackling voice said. "You wantee go downstairs?"
The old Chinaman—he must have been eighty if he was a day—tottered ahead, opening a door, and passed down a dingy flight of stairs.
Blake found himself in a little lighted chamber, and he noted that O'Donnel had already removed his coat and waistcoat.
"We've got to dress up for this, Mr. Blake," said the 'Frisco detective. "We are going into rather rummy quarters, and a dark robe and a pigtail may help us through!"
It was evident that O'Donnel had used this place before. The old Chinaman fished out a couple of dark robes and wide, native trousers which the two men donned.
With a round black skull-cap drawn over his head, and a black pigtail attached beneath it, O'Donnel wrapped a shawl round his head, so that his bearded chin was completely hidden.
Blake was supplied with a wig and pigtail, and O'Donnel grinned at his companion when the transformation was complete.
"I guess you'll do," he said. "You've been at this game before!"
He turned to the old Chinaman.
"We may not be back for a little while," he said. "You had better wait here until we return!"
He went off across the room, and Blake saw him fumble with a projecting piece of stone; then suddenly the whole slab slid aside, revealing a dark passage beyond.
O'Donnel drew aside, allowing Blake to step through the gap, then followed him, and the heavy slab dropped into its place again. There was a click, and a shaft of light shot out from a powerful electric-lamp that O'Donnel was carrying.
"We have got about a hundred yards to go," he said. "Tao's den is at the end of the street. But we could never have got into it if we had kept above the ground. You had better be careful; you'll find it rather tricky going!"
He led the way out through a bricked archway, and Blake saw now that he was in one of the main sewers that ran below the vast city. There was a ledge running along the side of the sewer, just wide enough for a man to move along.
O'Donnel, with his lamp shining on the moist sides of the huge iron sewer, moved on, and Blake kept close to his heels. Once the 'Frisco detective came to a halt and pointed upwards.
"Manhole," he said. And Blake, looking up through the arched brickway, saw, far above him, the iron grating that covered the manhole in the street.
O'Donnel seemed to know his way about, for the sewer twisted and curved, breaking off at every nine or ten yards to various cross sections.
For over twenty minutes Blake followed his guide, and at last, O'Donnel came to a halt.
"This is about the place," he said; "but there is something happened here that I don't quite understand."
He was standing at a branch of the sewer and was peering down a narrow track.
"Don't understand it," said O'Donnel. "This sewer is a flush one, and ought to be pretty well filled up!"
He turned into the dark gap, and Blake found now that he had to move more cautiously. The sewer, a bricked one, was about two feet wide, and there was a narrow ledge only some five or six inches broad on either side.
O'Donnel, straddling the gap, moved on ahead, and Blake had to follow by the same awkward method. They went up the ever-narrowing channel for about ten yards, the Blake heard O'Donnel give vent to a low murmur of surprise.
Sexton Blake moved on until he was standing close behind the detective. O'Donnel's way up the sewer was barred by what appeared to be a solid steel plate. It fitted into a double groove in the masonry, and ran right down from top to bottom of the channel.
"This is new," he said, eyeing the thing closely. "I haven't been along here for a year or so, but I guess it wasn't like this when I came down before!"
"What do you make of it?"
"Can't say. But I know that we ought to be immediately below Tao's place. I guess that this steel plate is blocking up a mighty lot o' water!"
He turned to Blake and handed him the electric-torch.
"Just hold on to this for a moment," he said. "I'm just going to see if this can be moved!"
Blake caught the torch, and O'Donnel dropped into the dry channel of the sewer, bending down and examining the plate. There was a projecting flange on it some four or five inches from the bottom, and around this O'Donnel curled his powerful fingers.
Blake saw the stout shoulders of the 'Frisco 'tec twitch and heave, the muscles on his neck swelled and throbbed; then at last the steel plate lifted slightly and there came gushing out from beneath a great spout of water.
It came up with such terrific force that it almost swept O'Donnel off his feet. The man lost his balance, and Blake, with a quick snatch, caught at the detective's coat.
It was touch and go with O'Donnel, but Blake's powerful grip never released its hold, and at last, while the water roared and foamed down the narrow sewer, Blake drew his man up into safety.
O'Donnel leaned against the wall gasping for breath, then, with a quick movement, he thrust out his hand.
"That's one to you, Mr. Blake," he said. "Gee! I never thought that the water was as strong as that. If you hadn't caught me I'd have been carried away and they would have probably found me in the bay later on!"
They glanced at the rushing, swirling flood beneath them. A terrible death for any man to die, indeed!
They stood in silence for a long moment, watching the water tear out through the narrow gap. There seemed to be a tremendous force behind it, and Blake watched it, fascinated.
"It'll be all right presently," said O'Donnel; "the water has been heaped up somewhere, but it'll soon quieten down to the proper level, then we'll be able to move that plate and see more!"
But they had to wait for the best part of half an hour before the force of the flood died away to a steadier flow. Then Blake and his companion dropped into the knee-deep water, and, gripping at the bottom of the steel plate, they tugged together.
The plate shot upwards, noiselessly, testifying to the fact that the grooves were well made. Soon the plate was breast high and another heave saw it up to their shoulders.
"That'll do," said O'Donnel, "we can see what's ahead now!"
He had placed the torch on the little ledge of the sewer, and now, reaching out for it, he drew the light forward and ducked beneath the steel plate.
Blake followed and come to a halt with a word of amazement. They were in a square, bricked space, and in the centre of the space, sitting on a chair, its hands and feet tied tightly with lengths of cord, was a wet, collapsed figure. "Gee! What does this mean?"
O'Donnel darted forward through the foot of water that was still left, and reached the chair. The head of the figure was resting on its breast, and the detective, raising his chin, allowed the light of the electric torch to fall on the white, tense face. "By Jove! It—it's Hector MacLeod!" Blake broke out.
O'Donnel slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out a small flask containing brandy. Unscrewing the cork he forced the lips of the youngster apart and allowed a few drops of the strong fluid to run into the mouth.
Blake had already severed the bonds that tied the lad to the heavy chair, and presently, with a low moan, Hector MacLeod came back to life.
He stared about him for a moment, then his eyes fixed themselves on the two figures in front of him and his lips moved. "All right, Hector," said Blake, putting his hand on the lad's shoulder, "you are quite safe now!" A look of terror leapt into MacLeod's face and he swayed away. "You—you!" the lad broke out.
Just for a moment the young bank clerk thought that his wits were playing a trick with him, for the voice was the voice of Sexton Blake, and the face looking down into his own was that of the detective.
Yet Hector MacLeod knew that Blake had been cast headlong into the sea off the coast of England!
"Don't get skeered, youngster," O'Donnel's voice went on, "you are all right now, though I dare say gone through a durned rough time of it!"
The water had now fallen to its ordinary trickle, and Blake saw that it was issuing from a sewer pipe which was embedded in the wall of the opposite side of the chamber.
"Gee! This is some death trap!" said O'Donnel, with a grim frown. "That sewer pipe should have come straight through into the open drain there. It's a fresh-water sewer that they use for flushing out the big pipes into the main drain!"
He looked around the walls, and his lips tightened.
"I guess Tao has got to answer for this," he said. "Running an opium den is bad enough, but I didn't know he added a death trap to his other devices!" He looked across at Blake.
"We'll get your friend out of this first," he said, "then Lieutenant MacCradel and I can settle what's to be done!" With the assistance of O'Donnel, Blake was able to get Hector Macleod below the steel plate and out into the side channel. As soon as they had cleared the plate, O'Donnel turned and forced it down into its position again. "I reckon you don't need me to tell you why I've done that," he said, turning to Blake with a smile. The detective nodded.
"No, I quite understand," he said. "You want to make the scoundrel who fixed this up believe that his victim is drowned?"
"That's so," said the man. "There must be some mechanism on the other floor that works this steel plate, and I guess Tao will come back sooner or later to raise it again!"
The journey back was an uneventful one, and they soon found themselves in the underground room of the little laundry. Blake changed into his ordinary clothes, and the Chinaman was able to produce a suit of dry things that fitted Hector fairly well.
O'Donnel accompanied them to the shop above, then came to a halt.
"I don't think you'll need me any more," he said; "besides I am not going to leave here. I'm going to get on the 'phone to MacCradel in a few minutes. This Tao business has got to be put a stop to, and I want to get on to it at once. Old Lo Chang here will send for a taxi for you, and you'll be safe enough!"
Blake held out his hand.
"I'm very much obliged to you, old chap," he said. "You've been of great assistance to me!"
The rugged hand of O'Donnel closed round Blake's strong palm.
"It's been a pleasure to me to do anything for you, Mr. Blake," the 'Frisco 'tec returned; "your reputation stands good for you in any part of the world!"
Lo Chang sent one of his young laundry-hands in search of a taxi, and presently a vehicle drove up to the door, into which Blake and Hector stepped. The lad looked at the detective again.
"I can hardly believe my eyes, sir," he said. "I was a witness to your struggle on the board the Anastor. I had hidden myself in the lifeboat!"
"Then it was you?" said Blake. "I thought there must have been some friendly hand behind it!" He stretched out his arm and laid it round Hector's shoulder.
"You saved my life, Hector," he went on. "That lifebuoy that you threw overboard was found by me, and it kept me afloat!"
"Well, it's tit for tat, sir!" Hector returned; "for, by Jove, you saved my life just now, and from a far worse fate than yours!"
He shivered at the thought of it, then little by little Blake heard Hector's story. The lad told of all that had happened to him, right up to when he had been knocked senseless and gagged and bound.
"I don't know what happened to me afterwards," he went on, "but when I awoke I found myself in that awful place with the horrible face of Tao watching me. The brute never moved or spoke, but I knew what he was up to. I saw him open the grating above the drainpipe, then he drew himself up through the trap-door and closed the door after him. Even then I didn't know what was going to happen until I heard the first swish of water and felt it lapping my feet!"
He leaned back in the vehicle and shivered.
"I shall never forget it," Hector MacLeod resumed; "to feel it creeping up, inch by inch, sitting there, not even able to shout!" The young bank clerk was obviously unstrung and unnerved, and Sexton Blake set his teeth as he thought of the terrible ordeal through which this youngster had gone. "Never mind, old man," the detective said grimly, "the people who were responsible for your position will have to pay!"
"Have you found them?" Hector asked.
"No; unfortunately they stole a march on me," said Blake, "but I know where they are going and I know the vessel they are on, and with a little bit of luck we may arrive at the place they are bound for before they do!" He looked at Hector MacLeod for a moment.
"We have found out several things concerning this affair," he went on, "and you, now, have a larger interest in it!"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that the man Carlac has made himself out to be a certain Nat Marle..." Blake began.
The lad looked up quickly.
"Marle, sir, but that's the name of the man who swindled my father!"
"The man Marle is dead," Sexton Blake said, "but Carlac is masquerading as him!"
He leaned forward and laid a hand on Hector's shoulder.
"I am afraid you are going to make a very painful discovery," he went on, "and that is that James Phillips, the man we are going to try and find now, was in a measure responsible for your father's failure!"
He gave Hector a brief account of the discovery that he had made on board the Anastor. The young bank clerk leaned back in the taxi and was silent.
"And what are you going to do now, sir?" he said, after a long pause.
"My duty is to guard James Phillips against these blackmailers," Blake said, "but what happens to Phillips afterwards depends on you. If the story is true, and Phillips knew who Marle was, then he has been guilty of a crime. It was his duty to notify the police that he had recognised Marle, and the money that Marle deposited at the Grangepool and District Bank should have been claimed by your father!"
"And as my father is dead that money is mine?"
The lad smiled.
"Then I shall never claim it, sir," he said. "In many ways Mr. Phillips was good to me, and, besides, I—I love Ruth. He turned to Blake.
"If you can save Ruth's father from these brutes, sir, that's all I want. The rest we can settle between ourselves!" Blake gripped the lad by the hand.
"Well said," the detective broke out; "that's what I wanted to hear from you. Whatever crime James Phillips has committed he has paid for it over and over again, both in conscience and in his present terrible position!"
"But where is he, sir? Have you any idea!"
"I think we will find him," said Blake. "We are gradually narrowing down the circle now, and Salcoth Island will prove the final phase. To my mind there is no doubt whatever but what Phillips set off to try to get to Salcoth Island and possess himself of the incriminating papers before those two scoundrels could do so!"
"It's a curious position!" he went on, with one of his grave smiles; "we are all in the same race, we have all started at different time and all with the same common goal—a little hut on the south beach of an island that is a mere pin-point on the map of the world!"
At Salcoth Island.
ON a great lichen-covered rock a man was seated, his elbows resting on his knees, his chin on his hands. On his left there ran a long line of beach on which a grey sea was breaking monotonously, the voice of the surf rising and falling to the lift of the tide.
It was a grey desolate spot, and a thin sea mist moving in great swathes, circled now and again around the lonely figure.
From afar came a curious medley of sound, now and again a sharp clear bark, then a rumbling noise, following by a chorused called. Once, as the figure sat there, there came sliding up out of the mist, a wet glistening object. It moved cumbrously, heavily, and the man's dreamy eyes lighted on it.
It was a great seal, wet from the sea. It raised itself on its awkward flappers and stood for a moment, its whiskered snout tilted upwards. The man could see the lift and fall of the grey whiskers as the beast watched him.
He made a motion with his hand, and the huge, ungainly animal, turning round with a swing, went flopping back along the beach to plunge into the surf.
James Phillips, for it was he, watched the trail of the seal until it had vanished, then once again his brooding fit descended in him. His long voyage to Salcoth Island had been performed without mishap. He had touched at Vancouver and had succeeded in persuading one of the sealing vessels to land him on the island.
It was really too early in the season for Salcoth, and the sealer had gone on, leaving James Phillips on the beach with his kit around him.
He had felt very desolate and alone as he stood there, but presently, arousing himself, he had lifted his kit and had struggled up the rocky beach on to the higher land beyond.
He had found a hut out of which a trail of smoke was rising, and presently he had introduced himself to a squat fur-clad figure, whose snub nose and pock-marked face was unmistakable.
The Eskimo had a smattering of English, and in the phlegmatic manner of his type had displayed no surprise at seeing this solitary Englishman on the island.
James Phillips had made arrangements with the man to live in the hut, and a space had been provided in one corner for him to sleep.
But it soon revealed itself to Phillips that his search was not going to be easy. This hut was on the east beach, and, presently, the owner of the hut explained the reason of that.
It appeared that eight or nine years before, the seals had, for some unknown reason, completely deserted the south beach and had made new breeding quarters on the east side of the island.
This is by no means a strange happening, for these wonderful animals of the sea have little laws and rennets of their own, and their life study is a fascinating one.
James Phillips plied the Eskimo with questions, but the man was just as dense as possible. The Grangepool banker had discovered that there had been another hut on the south beach, but it had been demolished years before.
The owner of the hut held up nine fingers to give Phillips an idea of the length of time. It was a heart-breaking discovery to make, and Phillips began to search.
The south beach was a great stretch of boulder-clad ground behind two spurs of land. It was the best part of two miles from point to point, and day after day Phillips searched up and down the long beach, trying to discover the site of the old hut.
But as day followed day, despair gradually began to eat into the man's soul. The place was a wilderness of rocks and boulders, and it seemed to him as though he would never find what he was in search of.
Yet he continued his task with the dull determination of despair. As soon as the grey dawn broke he would rouse himself from his uncomfortable bed, snatch a hasty meal of such food as the Eskimo's slender store could afford him, then with a piece of dried meat and a handful of hard biscuits, together with a bottle full of water, the weary man would step out of the hut into the mists of the island towards the south beach.
All day long he would keep up his search, halting only for a few moments to make a midday meal. The coming of night would find him spent and exhausted, trudging back over the trackless island to the hut.
It was only after a week of this aimless prowling that he began to continue the search with something like a system. He marked off on the rocks the various portions of his search so that he could start again on the following morning, and thus, square by square, cover the entire stretch of beach.
He realised now that his search might take him months, for there was very little chance of any indication of the site remaining after the long lapse of time.
Even if part of the building had been left there was little doubt but what the swift growing moss, that covered the rocks on the island, would have effectively concealed it.
Phillips's only hope lay in his being able to discover what had once been the fireplace, for ashes and burnt wood are the only things that resist the steady march of lichen.
As he sat on the boulder, chin in hand, the man's ceaseless brain went back over the long years of the past. He straightened up and stretched his arms above him.
"By Heavens, I have paid," he murmured in a hoarse voice. "From the very first moments that I used Marle's ill-gotten gains, my peace deserted me!"
He drew a deep breath.
"Twenty years!" he went on. "Twenty years of utter agony. Oh, Heavens! I wonder if it is worth while?" He stood up and looked about him. Below, on the edge of the beach, the surf was foaming. Phillips, with the weary movement! of a man dog-tired, began to pace towards the edge of the beach, slipping from rock to rock.
He gained a great ledge of black rock at last, around which the sea was foaming. It was an ugly sea, snarling and hungry. The man folded his arms and looked down into the swirling waters. "Just a plunge," he said, "a moment's agony, and then—peace!"
He was weary and hungry, and his long fruitless search had gradually sapped him of his courage. His body swayed forward, then, suddenly a new thought came to him and he drew back. "No," he said, "not yet. For my little girl's sake I—I must struggle!"
The mists cleared slightly and gave him a view of the sea. From the shore, as far as the eye could reach, lay the grey waters, and Phillips could see little black dots moving along the surface.
He had a few words with the Eskimo on the previous night, and the man had told him that the seals were coming, coming in their thousands now, to the east beach.
Phillips watched the little wet heads as they moved on through the water, now vanishing with a momentary flick of their flat tails, then emerging again, always moving on and on round the headland towards the east beach.
And the chorus from beyond the range of boulders was rising higher and higher, and, at last, urged by a curiosity that he could not resist, the gaunt man made his way along the shore and round a bend where he could see the east beach.
It was alive with black ungainly forms. They were roaring and champing, and now and again there would come up to his ears the battle-cry of two great seals as, their long white teeth gleaming, they would charge at each other in a fierce fight that would decide which was to rule.
Around the two fighters there would gather eight or nine female seals watching the battle quietly. There was something very human about it all; and, fascinated, Phillips forgot, for a moment, his troubles.
So absorbed was he in watching the stirring scene that he did not notice a cloud of mist gathering. It came eastwards, and, presently, he found himself enveloped in its folds. It was a real sea fog, heavy damp, and it wiped out his entire vista.
He roused himself to his position then, and as he did so, darkness came on.
"I'll have to get back," he said as he turned.
A faint misgiving stirred him as he realised that it was next to impossible for him to find his way, and it was only then that it dawned on him that this particular portion of the beach was utterly strange to him, he had not been there before.
Salcoth Island was not a very big place, only some four miles broad by five miles wide, but James Phillips realised that it was quite big enough for him to lose himself.
He knew that the nights were bitterly cold and he was rather thinly clad.
"I'll have to get back to the hut at once," he thought, leaping down from the boulder.
He stumbled forward for a hundred yards or so, and it was only when he went sprawling across the wet body of a seal that he realised he was going in the wrong direction, heading for the beach.
As a matter of fact, he was now in the midst of the seals, and a second or so later he realised his danger; for, as he took another pace forward, there came a snuffling grunt, followed by the swift champ of teeth, and a huge shape flashed out from the midst and two white tusks snapped as they passed him.
Now the fangs of a full-grown male seal can give a nasty wound, and although Phillips, with a quick movement evaded the swift rush, the fang cut a strip clean out of his sleeve.
The great brute sprawled on; and Phillips leapt over its thick body. He had a stout stick in his hand, and, as the seal wheeled round again, Phillips poised himself and swung the stick above his head.
He knew that his antagonist was only fighting for its home. Phillips had unconsciously stumbled right into the little circle that the male seal is lord and master of, and the animal was quite entitled to resent the intrusion.
The seal came on again, and the bank manager brought the stick down with a whack, landing full on the animal's skull. The stick broke, but the blow was effective for the seal dropped and Phillips, whipping round, went off at a rush, stumbled over another smaller seal, then finally gained the higher ground above.
He came to a halt, gasping for breath, unnerved slightly at the nearness of his escape.
"By Jove, I must be careful," he thought, "if I got in amongst them they would tear me to pieces!"
He knew enough about the animals to appreciate that this was the only time when there was any real danger. It was the breeding season and both male and female seal were ready to fight for their young.
He began to move forward cautiously now and found himself stumbling through the boulders. The cries of the seals behind him gave him an index to their whereabouts, and he kept on and on until, at last, the cries died away into an occasional reverberation of sound.
"What the dickens am I to do?" the man thought, coming to a halt. "I'll never find the hut in this mist."
He realised then his folly, for he had omitted to put a compass in his pocket, but he had been so accustomed to making his way back in the daylight that he had not troubled to take any notice as to the exact position of the little shelter.
From the south beach it had always been plainly visible, for it had been built on a higher point above the east side. Now, however, the mist and the gathering dusk, concealed its position.
Gradually the mist grew colder and colder, and presently Phillips found it necessary to swing his arm across his chest to keep himself warm.
The Alaska nights are chill; and out there the cold is as keen as a knife. He had long ago eaten the humble ration of dried meat and biscuit, and he began to feel the pangs of hunger keenly.
He stumbled on for the best part of two hours and, at last, sheer exhaustion brought him to a halt. It was pitch dark now and the mist was still hanging over the island, so that he could not even see a solitary star.
"It's no good," he told himself. "I'll have to find some place to sleep to-night!"
He moved on for a little while longer, then presently tripped over a boulder and clutched at it to save himself. The boulder was a big one and, struggling to the other side of it, Phillips discovered a little hollow, covered with moss, below. He felt around it and decided that the place would serve as a slight shelter.
"Never again!" he told himself as he dropped wearily into the hollow. "In future I must get back to the hut before the dusk comes on!"
He made himself as comfortable as possible and tried to sleep, but it was a fitful slumber at the best. The cold was so acute that he found himself waking up time after time, his teeth chattering; and his limbs aquiver.
He had to rise up and stamp to and fro now and again, beating on his chest to restore the circulation. It was just after one of these painful experiences that a new sound came to him.
From out of the fog there came a low hoot, the note of a steamer's siren. It sounded for all the world like a bull-calf bellowing in the dusk.
He listened. The sound was repeated again and again, but the whirling mist made it impossible for him to locate the quarter from whence it came.
The siren was sounded three or four times, then there was silence, and although he strained his ears, Phillips could not hear any further sound.
The morning came wet and chill, with the fog still brooding over the island. Stiff and sore the bank manager arose to his feet and, ravenous now, began to move onward again.
The fog baffled him, and he had another encounter with the seals on the east beach before he realised that it would be better for him to keep along the shore, as a guide.
The result was that, after three hours steady search, he saw the black hulk of a hut looming up in front of him. A gasp of relief broke from the man's lips, and he staggered forward, turning round the corner of the little shelter and pushing the door aside, tottering into the interior.
It was empty, and Phillips, crossing to the range of shelves beside the fireplace, drew down a tin of biscuits, and, grabbing a handful, began to eat hungrily, voraciously.
There was a fire burning in the open space, and beside it stood a smoke-blackened tin, containing about half a pint of coffee He poured the liquid out into a shallow pannikin and sipped at it, crouching over the fire to warm himself.
When he had taken the edge off his appetite, and had dried his clothes slightly, Phillips began to wonder what had happened to the owner of the hut.
As a rule the squad fellow hardly ever left the place except for a few moments at a time.
Suddenly, Phillips glanced at the corner in which his bed was placed, then he rose to his feet with a muttered exclamation. For, beside the cot was lying a pair of small leather shoes. The manager of the Grangepool bank crossed to the rude cot, and picked up the shoes.
They were obviously of European manufacture, and so small that Phillips's hand could easily span their length. "What does this mean?" the man thought.
He had never seen the shoes there before, and he knew that the Eskimo did not possess such things. The discovery of the shoes made him glance around the hut, and presently he found something else of interest.
It was an oilskin coat, and, on one of the wooden pegs behind the door, he saw a sou'wester hat hanging. Then, most curious of all, close to the fire were one or two ends of cigarettes.
They were the oval Egyptian type, gold tipped.
"There must have been visitors here," Phillips murmured, "no doubt they have gone out with the Eskimo. By Jove, that explains the siren last night!"
He went out of the hut, and stood for a moment gazing moodily at the thick bank of fog. He knew that the hut was only about one hundred yards from the beach, and beyond it lay the bay in which, no doubt, the mysterious ship was at anchor.
But the fog effectively hid it from view, and, at last, James Phillips began to move down towards the shore, a strange misgiving at his heart.
He reached the surf at last, and turning to his left, moved along it. He had covered about a hundred yards when presently he caught sight of a boat rising and falling on the water. There was a figure in the bow, and Phillips peered at it, then gave a low shout. The man in the boat stirred, looked round, then leapt into the surf and waded ashore.
"That you, Skipper?"
It was a Yankee drawl, and as Phillips drew nearer, the man stopped and peered at him. "Hallo, who on earth are you?" the sailor asked. "I've just come from the hut," said Phillips.
He glanced at the boat, and noted that the space where the name of a vessel is usually marked, had been newly painted over. "Came from the hut, did you?"
There was suspicion in the man's face, and he drew back, eyeing Phillips closely. "Well, what do you want?"
"Oh, nothing," the Grangepool bank manager returned, "only I was lost on the island last night and I couldn't get back to the hut. I heard the siren going and that guided me here!"
"What are you doin' on Salcoth Island anyhow?" the sailor went on, "it ain't exactly what you'd call a holiday resort!"
"Oh, I'm here just for a—a purpose of my own," Phillips returned. "Does anybody else know you're here?"
"I don't think so," said the banker slowly.
He saw that the man was obviously ill at ease, and presently he slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out a little wad of American notes. The sailor's eyes glinted as Phillips undid the rubber band. The Grangepool banker counted out five ten-dollar bills, and folded them together.
"I want some information!" he said. "I'm not going to do any harm but I'd like to know what has happened. Why you have come here, and who you are waiting for now!"
"Hand 'em over," said the sailor, extending a brown paw. Phillips shook his head.
"Not until you've given me the information," he said.
The lean jowl of the American widened into a grin.
"Right," he returned, "that's fair. Now, fire away, what do you want?"
"Who are you waiting for?"
"For my skipper, Captain Baydoe, and two friends of his," said the sailor.
"Do you know the names of his friends?"
"What are they like?"
"One of them is a huge feller, big as a house, an ugly customer I should guess, while his pal is a little wizened monkey, with a face that'd frighten a nipper into a nightmare!"
Phillips drew back, his face bloodless. He had never forgotten the appearance of the man he had thought was Marle, and the wizened, shrivelled figure that had accompanied him.
"They—they are here!" Phillips broke out, half to himself, "here, on this island!"
He took a pace towards the sailor, and thrust the folded notes into the man's hands.
"Where did you come from?" he asked, "and what is the name of your vessel!"
"Her name is the Paul S. Modie," the sailor returned, "we're from 'Frisco!"
"What are you here for?"
"Well, we thought we were after seals, but the old man is a bit previous. It'll be another week or two before we can get in among 'em!"
"Then why did you come ashore?"
"Oh, that's our passengers' business," the sailor returned. "They have gone to the south beach for some reason or other. There ain't no seals there now, but that's where they were bound!" Phillips reeled backwards, and the sailor, with a quick leap, caught him by the arm. "'Ere, steady on, mate," he said, "what's happened to you?"
With an effort the hounded man regained control of himself. He passed a hand across his forehead, and found that it was wet and clammy to the touch. "Nothing—nothing," he said. James Phillips looked at the sailor.
"I won't question you any further," he went on, "but if you feel under any obligation to me, keep quiet on what has transpired between us!" The sailor spat on the beach.
"You bet your life on that," he said. "I ain't ever goin' to say that I've seen you. Captain Baydoe is a rough horse when he's roused. I'll be as dumb as an oyster, an' I hope you'll be the same!"
He touched his cap to Phillips, and the bank manager turned and staggered back up the beach again. He realised now what bad happened. Marle and his vulture-faced companion had followed him to Salcoth Island, and were even now, at that very moment, searching south beach for the old hut.
He, Phillips, had so far failed to find the hut, but Marle was bound to know where it had stood. The man would be able to go to the spot at once, and the Sea Foam's papers and deposit-note would be in his possession.
A groan broke from Phillips's lips, and he wrung his hands together.
"It's just my fate," he said, "all my efforts have been in vain. That brute will gain possession of the papers, and I shall be a ruined man. He will be able to go back to Grangepool and produce the deposit-note, and the bank will pay him the money. They will discover then what I did, and my daughter will find herself the child of a—thief!"
All his pent-up agony flooded him, and his tall, thin figure seemed to shrivel. He groaned aloud.
"Marle here—here!" he muttered.
The scrape of a foot on the boulders ahead roused him. He glanced forward, and there came through the folds of mist a little squat figure, which he recognised at once as being the owner of the hut. Phillips rushed towards the man and caught him by the arm.
"Hallo, you!" the Eskimo said, "you no get back. Dashed cold last night!"
"I was lost," Phillips said, "but, tell me, what about the men who came to your hut. Where are they? What are they doing?" The Eskimo jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"They over there," he said. "I got fed up. They look for something, same as you!"
"At south beach do you mean?"
Another question came to Phillips's lips. "Did you tell them that I—I was here?"
The man's broad face turned towards him. "No," he returned, "they no ask me!"
Here again was an example of the phlegmatic nature of this curious race. Captain Baydoe and his two companions had not asked the man if there was anyone else on the island, and the Eskimo had not troubled to enlighten them. Phillips drew a breath of relief.
"Good," he said, "if they don't know I am here, there is still a chance for me!"
He turned to the little man with whom he had lived for so long. "Why did you come back?" he asked.
"I hungry," said the man, a state, by the way, in which he always seemed to be. "They no want me, and I no want them. I come back for food!"
"Well, look here," said Phillips, "I am going on to the south beach. But if they come back to the hut, don't you mention that I am here. You understand. Not a word about me!"
"I no mention you to anyone," said the Eskimo, making a promise which, although Phillips was little aware of it, was to have a curious result.
The banker released his hold on the man's arm, and swung off into the grey mists, while the Eskimo, without even turning his head, trudged on to the hut.
James Phillips was assured of his way now, for, by keeping a sharp watch on the boulders as he passed, he could recognise the marks he had made. At the end of an hour's steady trudging, he found himself within earshot of the surf breaking on the south beach.
His pace broke to a slow walk, then he began to pick his way carefully over the moss-covered ground, stopping every now and again to listen. His cautious advance was continued for some time, then suddenly he came to a halt, every nerve on the alert.
A voice had come to him through the fog, a deep, penetrating voice. He was not able to make out what it said, but it guided him, and, dropping on his hands and knees, Phillips crept forward from boulder to boulder until, at last, he was close to where the murmuring voices arose.
He found himself behind a huge rock, and worming his way up this, he raised his head over the top.
Instantly, the shape of the ground in front of the boulder told him that here was the site of the old hut that he had been in search for so long. It was flat and smooth, covered with a soft green carpet of moss.
The fog was not so dense now, and he could see the place quite clearly. About ten yards away, seated on a low boulder, was the figure of a man in oilskins. He was puffing contentedly at a briar pipe, and the scent of the tobacco came to Phillips's nostrils.
About five yards away were two figures. The taller of the two had a short-handled tool in his hand, with which he was scraping the moss from the ground. The other figure, a wizened creature, was leaning over the cleared space, examining it intently.
Phillips saw now that already a great portion of the space had been removed, and the surface was broken.
"I guess you've gone far enough that way, come a little more to ye're right!"
The man seated on the rock had moved the pipe from his lips, and his drawling voice sounded.
Carlac straightened his broad shoulders and dashed the sweat from his face. It was tough work removing the year's growth from the ground, and the giant criminal was bathed in sweat.
They turned, obedient to Baydoe's suggestion, and started work again, Carlac scraping the moss aside while Kew hovered over the cleared space with a sharp implement in his hand which he drove into the surface, loosening it.
Motionless James Phillips knelt, watching; then at last there came a quick cry from Kew's lips.
Carlac dropped the tool and bent forward. Kew was digging feverishly at a certain spot in the cleared ground. Gradually the hard surface was removed, and Carlac, pushing Kew aside, caught at the embedded object and tugged.
The box came up out of its twenty-year-old hiding-place, and a moment later the rusted hinges had been broken off and Kew's lean hand closed round the papers.
He stood up and glanced at them, Carlac's head thrust over his shoulder.
The log-book, one or two certificates, and an envelope bearing the crest of the Grangepool bank.
"Yes, they are all here—ship's papers and the deposit note!"
What happened then Phillips was never able to explain. It seemed to him as though a sudden mad impulse drove all caution from him.
Kew and Carlac, intent on their discovery, did not hear the quick scrape on the boulder. Captain Baydoe looked up and saw the long, gaunt figure poise itself. He whipped the pipe from his lips and opened them to shout. But before he could make a sound the figure had launched itself straight out from the rock in one mighty leap, hands thrust forward, fingers open.
It was a mad effort, and came near to success. Phillips' lean body landed straight between the two men, and Kew, taking the full force of the impact, was sent rolling over and over on the lichen-covered ground.
A snarling yell broke from Phillips' lips and his hands closed over the precious papers, snatching them out of Carlac's grip. The giant criminal, taken aback, was sent staggering a pace or two.
The shrill shriek broke from Phillips's lips, and he whipped round, pressing the papers to his breast. In another moment he would have escaped, and neither Carlac nor Kew could have stopped him.
But as he leapt away the Yankee skipper thrust a hand into his pocket. When it appeared again the arm was extended, and a whiplike crack sounded.
There was a scream and, half-way in his leap for safety, Phillips reeled and collapsed, the papers escaping from his clutch and scattering on the damp moss around. There was a rush, and Carlac was on top of the bank manager. Phillips, with a groan, made an effort to rise. "I only winged him," came the calm voice of Baydoe.
The bullet had torn a path through Phillips' thigh, and although he was half fainting with pain, the man put up a grim fight. But Carlac was too much for him, and at last the gigantic criminal, seizing Phillips by the beard, dashed his head down on a projecting rock.
The lean bank manager went limp his hands falling by his side. For a moment Carlac bent forward, peering into the face of the man beneath him, then an oath broke from his lips and he leapt to his feet. "It's Phillips!" he said, turning to Kew.
The professor had paid no attention to this struggle; he had been busily engaged in collecting the scattered papers. This task was completed now, however, and he, too, came forward to peer into the upturned countenance lying on the wet moss.
"So it is," Kew returned. "But how did he get there? If he—"
Suddenly from the mists there came a long, warning note from a siren. Captain Baydoe, who had been engaged in taking the discharged cartridge from his revolver, gave vent to a quick cry of alarm. He darted across to where Car lac and Kew were bending over Phillips' body.
"You heard that?" he said. "That's the signal! Quick! We've got to get out o' here sharp!"
"What do you mean?"
"I told my mate to sound as soon as there was any sign of the Russian patrol-boat anywhere about," said Baydoe, "and that's the signal. If you fellers want to get out o' here safe, you'd better scoot at once! Come on, there's no time to waste!" It was obvious that Captain Baydoe was alarmed, and he was not the type of man to be in that state without good cause. Car lac looked at his rascally confederate. "What about this man?" he asked.
Baydoe dropped to his knee and put his hand on Phillips' heart; then they saw him start, and lean forward close to the bearded Ice.
"You needn't trouble him gentlemen," he said; "he—he's gone!"
The skipper of the Paul S. Modie was moving now, and he beckoned to Kew and Carlac. "If you are coming with me you must come now," he said.
And with a last glance at the prone figure of Phillips, the two master-criminals slid away into the fog at the heels of the captain, while on the wet moss the long figure of James Phillips lay stretched, mute and still, his fingers clutching at the soft growth.
"DO you see yon bank o' fog?"
Captain MacPhail of the Mary Barton, Vancouver, stretched his finger out, and Blake, standing beside him on the little bridge, nodded his bead.
"Weel," said the Scotch skipper, "that's hangin' over Salcoth Island!" He cocked his eye at Blake.
"I'll gang in if ye like," he went on, "for I could find ma way blindfolded in there, but it's a bit risky!"
The Mary Barton was a snug tittle steamer, used principally for coasting purposes along the bleak Alaska coast. Blake and his party had chartered it mainly because the skipper, Andy MacPhail, knew the island.
As a matter of fact, old Ben Wade had found in Andy an ancient acquaintance, and so the bargain was made and the little Mary Barton chartered.
She proved herself to be absolutely seaworthy, and the voyage to the bleak island had been covered without mishap of any kind. "Time is rather precious, you see," said Blake, "and I think, if you don't mind, you had better try to get ashore."
"Ye want to see the seals, I suppose?"
"Yes, that's it!"
Whatever Andy MacPhail might have thought about the little party he had never put any questions. He was quite content to accept his money and leave the voyage entirely in the hands of his passengers.
The Mary Barton gave a preliminary hoot, then, its engines turning at a slow rate, began to nose its way into the fog.
Blake left the bridge and went into the bow where Tinker, MacLeod, and Ruth were seated. The slender figure of the girl was wrapped in a comfortable oilskin-coat, and her face, peering out from beneath a sou'wester, was aglow with happiness and health.
"Salcoth Island is just ahead," said the detective, coming forward.
"Yes, Ben has told us already," said Ruth, getting up and leaning over the bow. "But I do wish this fog would clear away!"
"So does our skipper," said Blake, with a smile. "Anyway, he's going to risk it and get us in!"
There was a few moment's silence, while the broad bow of the Mary Barton moved forward, then suddenly there came a cry of delight from the girl. "Oh, look—look!" she cried.
Tinker and Hector leapt to her side and followed her pointing finger. On the crest of a wave there appeared the sleek head of a seal. The creature swam for a moment, then dived, revealing a circle of black sleek body. Another and another followed, and soon the Mary Barton was moving in a swirl of seals that dived and swam and played a hundred tricks around her slow-moving bow.
Ruth and her companions watched with fascinated interest, and presently Tinker felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned 10 see the healthy, ruddy countenance of old Ben by his side. The old chap's eyes were gleaming, and he was peering into the water.
"There they are, the beauties!" he said. "It's years and years since I saw 'em last, but I can feel the touch o' their sleek bodies even now."
"There are so many of them," said Ruth. "Where are they going?"
"They're all heading for the beach, miss," said Ben. "If ye wait aminute you'll hear the calls of the others. They are all making their little homes there, and it'll be a great to do, I promise you!"
The Mary Barton came nearer and nearer to the shore, and at last the ceaseless cries and calls of the inhabitants of the beach came to their ears.
Suddenly Ben straightened up, peered ahead for a moment, then wheeled on Blake.
"We're goin' wrong," he said. "This isn't south beach!"
He pointed to a huge headland that was standing out from the island, towards which the Mary Barton was being steered. "Are you quite sure?" Blake asked. The old tar laughed.
"Am I sure, sir?" he returned. "I know every foot of Salcoth Island. We are heading away from the south beach now!"
He and the detective went across the deck, and Ben climbed the little bridge to the skipper's side. As soon as the old tar mentioned the coast, the skipper nodded.
"Yes, you're richt," he said, "it's the east beach I'm headin' for. Ye told me ye wanted to see the seals!"
"Ah yes, that's my mistake!" said Blake. "I understood that it was the south beach that the seals were on!"
"Naw, naw, ye're wrang there!" said old MacPhail. "They changed their quarters ten years ago. It's the east beach they are on noo."
"Oh, well, that's after my time!" said Ben. "I know the seals have little ways all o' their own. Last time I was here they were on the south beach!" The skipper's hand dropped on the signal bell; then he turned to Blake. "I'm at your service, sir," he said. "Is it the south beach ye want?"
Another clang sounded, and now the Mary Barton took a long sweep seaward, finally heading towards the shore again. But now it moved away from the cries and calls, and presently they died down into the distance.
It was only a bit of sheer bad luck that had brought about that manoeuvre, but it was fraught with great results. For as the Mary Barton moved onward, from the fog there came a long hoot of a siren.
"Hallo, there's someone else up at the east beach!" said MacPhail. "That's rather strange, for it's too early for the seals yet."
They listened, but the sound was not repeated, and the Mary Barton continued her way round the dangerous coast of the little island.
Yet that hoot was the same signal as had drawn Captain Baydoe and the two nefarious scoundrels away from the south beach. Carlac and Kew, stumbling along behind the American skipper, finally reached the east side, to find that the boat had already been launched and the sailor was waiting for them to clamber into it.
The quickly pulled themselves on board the boat, then the sailor, pushing off, took to his oars and rowed swiftly out towards the Paul S. Modie.
Captain Baydoe was the first to climb on board, and as soon as he did so he was met by the mate. "What's the matter?" the skipper asked. The mate pointed towards the huge headland.
"I just caught sight of another vessel coming in here," he explained. "It turned tail just before it reached the headland and vanished again; but you told me to let you know as soon as any other vessel did appear, so I sounded the signal!"
"Couldn't you make out what it was?"
"No, the fog was too bad. But I know it was under steam!" Captain Baydoe drew back and turned to Carlac and Kew.
"Might be all right," he said; "but it might not. It ain't worth while taking any chances though. You see, we are not allowed here. It's Russian property!"
"What do you advise?" Kew asked.
"Well, if you gentlemen have done what you wanted to do, I say sheer off as soon as we can!"
There was no reason why the two should wait any longer, and they agreed with the skipper's suggestion. Baydoe was obviously anxious to get away from the prohibited bay, and, in quick time, the Paul S. Modie was turned seaward and moved out from the little beach.
"You see, just around that headland is the east beach," said the captain. "And that's where the seals are gathering now. No doubt, if that was a Russian cruiser, it was first of all making for east beach to see if any of our crew were there. As soon as they find out there's no one there, they'll come round here and have a look at us. It strikes me we are just in the nick of time!"
In that opinion, of course, Captain Baydoe was mistaken, but he was not to know that. Anyhow, his abrupt departure saved his two rascally passengers.
It was three hours later before the Mary Barton came to anchor at south beach, an done of its squat boats went flashing down into the water.
Ben—and one of the sailors tumbled in and held it steady while Ruth, Tinker, and Hector MacLeod went down the ladder into the boat. Sexton Blake was the last to leave, and MacPhail thrust his bearded face over the side just before the boat pushed off.
"I'd ha' come wi' ye," he said; "but ye are all right with old Ben there. He knows his way aboot here as well as I do!"
The little boat was rowed off into the fog, and presently it ran ashore, the mist had begun to move uneasily now, and Ben, raising his head, sniffed.
"It's all right," he said, "there's a wind coming up now, and the fog'll be gone in a little while!"
He and his companions trudged ashore, leaving the sailor behind to guard the boat. Ben was striding ahead with Blake by his side, and the old salt was silent for a long moment.
"I've seen this beach alive with 'em," he said at last. "It's very strange how they should leave it all now. It don't seem right somehow!"
The fog was rapidly moving, and presently they were able to see the boulder-strewn beach with the black, rugged ground beyond.
"I don't see any sign of the hut," said Blake.
Ben came to a halt on a flat-topped boulder and looked around.
"No, it's gone as well. But it's all right, sir; I know just exactly where it used to stand!"
The old sailor stood for a moment studying the ground, then his memory guided him aright, and he turned on his heel and began to move off over the rocky ground.
The old fellow seemed to be wonderfully agile, for, despite his years, he soon put a gap of twenty or thirty yards between him and the rest of the party. Hector and Tinker had dropped behind to help Ruth over the rough places.
"By jiminy, that old fellow can shin it all right," said Hector, panting and struggling up the rocky slopes.
Ben had now reached the top of the beach, and had turned to his left, making his way between the boulders.
"I—I am very sorry," said Ruth, glancing at Tinker. "I know you could get on better without me!"
Her slender Ankles and thin shoes were hardly suitable for the hard ground they had to cover. Tinker smiled down as he held her arm.
"That's all right, Miss Phillips," he said. "We will get there soon enough!"
They went on for the best part of a quarter of an hour; then suddenly they saw Blake hurrying back towards them. Tinker gave one look at the stern countenance of his master, then came to a halt. "What is it guv'nor?" he asked.
"Oh, it's—it's all right," Blake returned, with a swift glance at Ruth. "Only I don't think you need come any further. Ben has—has found the place where the hut was, and I am afraid that we—we are too late!"
Ruth had been studying Blake's face, and suddenly her quick intuition brought dread into her heart. She came forward, catching the detective by the arm.
"You are hiding something from me, Mr. Blake," she said. "Quick! Let me know. What is it!"
There was a gentle expression in Blake's eyes, and he looked down at her.
"Well, Miss Phillips, I am afraid that we have—have found you—"
"You mean you have found my father!"
With a quick cry the girl broke away from Blake, and, hardly stopping to see where she placed her feet, she darted off over the rough ground. "Is that right, sir!" Hector asked. Blake nodded.
"Yes," he said. "Ben discovered him lying close to the site!"
"Is he—is he dead?"
"I'm afraid so!"
Blake had not paused to examined the body, his first kindly thought being to save the girl from this unneeded agony. Ben was still kneeling over the figure when there was a rush of feet, and, with a groan, Ruth dropped on her knees beside the ragged, bearded man.
"Dad—dad!" she wailed.
She leaned forward, raising the head and straining it to her breast. As she did so, Ben, who had drawn aside slightly, saw the fingers twitch. With a shout, the old fellow leapt to his feet. "By Heavens, he is still alive! Mr. Blake—Tinker! Quick!"
The came up with a run, scrambling over the rough ground. Ruth, with her father's head still clasped to her breast, glanced up at them.
"I saw his fingers move!" said Ben. "He's not dead; I'm sure of it!"
The detective went up to Ruth and drew her aside; then a brief examination told him that Ben's words were true. The fife had not quite left James Phillips's body.
There was a great bruise at the back of the head, and the bullet had made an ugly wound in the thigh. But the man still breathed.
Instantly Ben whipped off his heavy coat, and Tinker did the same: then the garments were knotted together, and the unconscious body of Mr Phillips was placed on them. Tinker and Hector acted as stretcher-bearers, and they carried their burden back along the beach followed by Ruth.
Blake had stepped aside, and was examining the moss-covered space. He saw the place where the moss had been scraped from the earth that had once been the foundations of the hut, and the black gap out of which the box had been drawn. Then, under the boulder, he discovered the iron box with the lid forced open.
"There's been a bit of a fight here, sir!" said Ben.
"Yes," the detective returned, "and it only occurred recently, within the last two or three hours I should think. You can see the earth is quite freshly dug, and from the condition of the man's wound I shouldn't think it could have happened more than an hour or two ago!"
Ben looked round him.
"Can't think what men want to fight for in a rotten place like this," he murmured.
Blake turned to his companion with a smile on his face.
"Look at this," he said.
The detective held the box in his hand.
"This is the cause of the fight," he went on. "We have come across half the world for the same cause; only, unfortunately, we have arrived just a little too late!"
"But if it only happened two or three hours ago they may not have gone yet," said Ben. "There ought to be a chance of collarin' the rogues!"
A swift memory returned to Blake, and he looked at the tanned face by his side.
"You remember that siren we heard," he began.
"I'm afraid that meant the signal for departure for these brutes," Blake went on. "In all probability they caught sight of our boat, and I'm afraid they have given us the slip!"
He and Ben turned and followed the melancholy group ahead. James Phillips was lifted into the boat and rowed back to the Mary Barton. As soon as the injured man was made comfortable below Blake sought out the skipper.
"You need not waste any more time on this side," he said. "You can take us round now to where the seals are. I suppose there's a hut or something there?"
"Oh, yes," said Captain MacPhail, "the Russians leave someone to look after the seals. They're mostly Eskimo!"
The Mary Barton was under way again, and this time MacPhail cracked on all speed, with the result that within two hours he had made anchor in the little bay opposite the Eskimo's hut.
Blake and Ben went up to the hut and had a word with the Eskimo, the detective's quick eye caught sight of the small shoes which, in his haste, Kew had not been able to recover.
The Eskimo, in his broken English, gave an account of what had happened, so far as he knew, and Blake was able to reconstruct the grim scene that had taken place on the south beach.
"They've got the best of us, Tinker, and that's the long and short of it!" Blake said afterward, when he and his young assistant were alone in the cabin together. "But there's one point in our favour now. It is evident that they believe that James Phillips is dead, and although they have the Sea Foam's papers and the deposit note they may find it difficult to turn that deposit note into money!"
"And what are we going to do now, guv'nor?" Tinker asked.
Blake smiled. One item of news that the Eskimo had given the detective was worth much to him. He had told Blake the name of the vessel on which Kew and Carlac had arrived, and also its port. The native of the island had recognised Captain Baydoe again, for it was not the first time that the Yankee skipper and his little vessel had visited the island.
The Eskimo's statement, coupled with what Blake had already discovered in 'Frisco, assured him on one point.
Captain Baydoe had left 'Frisco on one of his usual sealing expeditions, and it was not likely that he would leave these seas until he had accomplished his mission.
This meant that Kew and Carlac might be kept practically prisoners on board the Paul S. Modie until the sealing operations were completed.
"They might be kept on board for a month or more," said Blake. "Anyhow, they are sure to be delayed some time. Of course, should they sight any vessel making for port they will no doubt get on board; but we have got to take that risk!" He glanced at Tinker quietly.
"We are going to head straight for England," he said, "and there's just a possibility of us getting there ahead of these two scoundrels. If we do—well, we can prepare a very grim reception for them!"
But Sexton Blake was not aware of the curious game of hide-and-seek that was being played around the island. Captain Baydoe, of the Paul S. Modie, had no intention of deserting the sealing-ground. It had only been the fact that the mate had imagined the Mary Barton to be a Russian cruiser that had caused the Yankee skipper to leave the east beach.
He had borne away northward, describing a wide sweep, and dusk had found the Paul S. Modie heading for the east beach of Salcoth Island again.
"I'm going to take the risk," the skipper said. "It would be better if I waited a week or two; there would be more seals then. But it doesn't matter. There must be quite a heap of bachelors on the beach, as it is, and, as you gentlemen seem in a durned hurry to get back again, I'm going to take the risk now. I ain't goin' back empty-handed."
Kew and Carlac had pleaded in vain with the skipper. But on his own boat Baydoe was absolute monarch, and they had to fall in with his wishes.
And so, in the darkness, every boat of the Paul S. Modie was launched, and the crew tumbled into them, ready for their attack on the creatures on the east beach.
It was a highly unlawful proceeding, for not only was it Russian territory, but it was also too early in the season. That attack on the beach would probably mean the desertion of it by the seals, and would practically ruin the island.
But none of these thoughts troubled Baydoe, and as the skipper took his place in the last boat, he glanced up at Kew and Carlac.
"We shall be busy all night," he said, "an' if you like you can come ashore with us!"
"We might as well take the opportunity," Kew said; and the two men dropped down the swaying ladder into the boat.
By the time they reached the beach the crew were already at work. The two criminals could hear the slaughter, the thud of heavy clubs, and the whimpering moans of the dying animals. The crew of the Paul S. Modie seemed to have gone mad, and the east beach fairly ran with blood.
Kew and Carlac took no part in the one-sided battle, they drew away at last, and Kew scrambled up the beach, heading for the little hut.
A faint light was streaming through a crack in the wall, and the wizened man pushed open the door and entered, followed by Carlac. The Eskimo sat up and stared at the intruders. "Hallo—you back again!"
The man grinned.
"Plenty visitors to-day," he said.
"What do you mean?" Kew broke out, striding forward.
The Eskimo held up two stumpy fingers.
"Two men come here," he said; "one man took your shoes!"
His small eyes twinkled.
"They found other man on south beach. You no finish him!"
The phlegmatic way in which the Eskimo referred to the crime made Carlac scowl. He strode up to the squat figure and stood over the cot. "What are you driving at?" he said.
The native of the island seemed quite unconcerned, and gave a brief report of Blake's visit and what had transpired. When Kew heard that Phillips had been taken on board the Mary Barton and was still alive, his vulture face hardened. He questioned the Eskimo closely, and at last the great truth dawned on him.
"There can be no mistake about it," the wizened criminal said, wheeling on his confederate—"it is Blake—Blake turned up again!"
Carlac glanced at his companion. "What's to be done?" he muttered.
"Baydoe must take us back to the coast at once," Kew snapped. "He can land us anywhere he likes, but we must getaway. It's only a blind piece of luck that has brought us back here to find out what we have done, and we must make the best use of it!"
He turned and hurried out of the hut, with Carlac at his heels. When they had gone the Eskimo arose from his cot and closed the door behind his unwelcome visitors.
Kew and Carlac regained the beach, and the wizened professor went in search of Baydoe, while Carlac waited by the boats. Just what argument Kew used to persuade the obstinate Yankee, Carlac was not able to discover, but half an hour later a shrill whistle sounded, and in a few moments Baydoe and Kew appeared on the beach.
Again the whistle sounded, and from every quarter of the beach men came hurrying, bearing with them their dripping burdens.
Baydoe had chosen his men skilfully, and the boats were filled to the gunwales with the reeking cargo.
It took the best part of an hour to get the boats alongside the Paul S. Modie and swing them aloft, but the task was accomplished at last, and an hour before dawn the 'Frisco sealer was steaming out of the bay once more, heading coastwards.
"We've a tough job ahead," said Kew, "but we have one pull over Blake. That is, he doesn't know that we know he has been on the island and that he has taken off James Phillips alive. We must use that against him!"
In An Old Disguise.
"OH, look at that poor old man, daddy! Let me give him a penny!"
A little dot of a child, trotting along by her father's side, came to a halt and pointed a chubby finger.
Seated on the edge of the kerb, on a low camp-stool, was a grotesque figure. It was that of a bent, silver-haired man. A tattered hat was drawn over the brow, and over one eye was a black patch. On the pavement stood one of those dingy organs, and the beggar was turning a handle slowly to the accompaniment of a torrent of wheezy notes that had no sort of melody in them.
Opposite where he sat was the entrance to Grangepool Station. It was a bright day, and there were a good number of people about the streets.
The little girl took the copper from their father's hand and, running across the pavement, dropped it into the tin pannikin.
"Thank 'ee kindly, missy!" said a hoarse voice, and the child, running back to her father's side, went into the station.
At the entrance a couple of porters were standing chatting to a policeman. One of the indicated the man.
"He doesn't do so badly, that old fellow," one said. "That's the sixth copper I've seen him get within the last half-hour!"
"And he ain't been here so long, either," the other porter put in.
"No, that's true," said the policeman; "only a couple o' weeks at the most!"
One of the porters grinned.
"He's a queer-looking chap," he said; "but, by jiminy, I think his missus is funnier than him! Have you ever seen her?"
"No, can't say I have!"
"Oh, she comes along about six o'clock and keeps him company. They're about the rummiest pair I've ever seen!"
All through the long day the ragged, grotesque figure sat with his organ. At about two o'clock he drew out a red handkerchief from beneath the stool, and, opening it, produced a chunk of bread and cheese, which he munched at contentedly.
He seemed a pathetic, lonely figure, and the little tin pannikin attached to the crazy organ was a mute appeal that few passers-by could resist.
At five o'clock the London express steamed into the platform, and its passengers emerged from the wide entrance to the station. The beggar-man at the corner of the pavement began to turn his organ anew, the sibilant feeble notes rising above the clatter and noise.
There was a big number travelling by the evening train, and the bearded face of the mendicant was lifted, watching the stream as they came out.
Presently there emerged from the entrance a couple of youthful figures—a tanned, good-looking lad, and by his side a sweet-faced girl, whose cheeks had also been tanned by sun and wind. They came to the edge of the kerb and halted, while a porter signalled for a cab. The vehicle drew up a few inches away from the man with the organ. The young man passenger helped the girl into the cab, then turned to the driver. Just for an instant the music of the organ ceased. "Fourteen Fairview Avenue, New Town."
The wheezy notes of the organ started anew, and the cab rattled off, while the porter, pocketing the tip, returned to the station. Ten minutes later, when the man emerged and looked down the pavement again, he noted that the organ-grinder had vanished.
"Gone—eh?" he muttered. "Ain't goin' to wait for his missus to-night. Must have had an extra good day to-day!"
Meanwhile, the organ-grinder, with his flimsy organ suspended over his back and carrying the folded camp-stool under one arm, was hobbling along through the main streets of the busy town.
It seemed to be as much as he could do to move; his legs were bent under him, and he hobbled painfully, slowly, along the edge of the kerb.
He turned at last into a quieter street, made his way along it, then found himself at last in a lane which led into a long range of allotment gardens. At the far end of the gardens a feather of smoke was rising into the air, and towards this spot the organ-grinder headed.
He turned by a clump of trees and went towards a shabby-looking caravan. From the little tin smokestack of the caravan the smoke was rising lazily, and as the mendicant reached the short flight of steps that led to the door of the vehicle, it opened, and a figure appeared in the narrow doorway.
It seemed a very fair match for the grotesque figure on the steps. It was a wizened woman, dressed in drab garments that hung loosely round her shrivelled frame. Over the head was drawn a shawl, beneath which a fringe of grey appeared. The eyes were covered with a pair of smoked glasses, and her lean, gaunt face was almost concealed beneath the folds of the shawl.
The shuffling figure at the front of the steps swung the small organ from its shoulder and slipped it under the caravan, then climbed the steps, while the woman at the head held the door open with a wrinkled, claw-like hand.
The door closed behind the tottering figure, and as soon as it had done so a great change came over the bent form. The legs seemed to straighten, the whole figure grew tense, and the crouching body stood up until its bulk almost filled the caravan.
"They have arrived!"
It was the deep voice of Count Ivor Carlac that sounded, and the wizened figure at the door whipped round towards him. "You are sure?"
The hoarse voice came from between the thin lips, and with a quick movement Kew drew the smoked glasses from his eyes. Carlac strode across the caravan and dropped on to one of the bunks.
"Hector MacLeod and Miss Phillips are here. They came by the five o'clock train, and have gone up to the house in Fairview Avenue!"
"Then that means that the girl has come to prepare for her father's return," said Kew, an evil smile crossing his vulture face. "I knew that sooner or later the man would return again. All his interests lie here, and we had only to wait!" Carlac leaned back in the bunk.
"It's been a cursed long wait!" he put in. "It's been all very well for you, you could get a rest here, but I had to squat on the pavement there, day after day, until I felt as though I'd never be able to straighten my body again!" Kew's cackling laugh came across the caravan.
"You played the part to perfection, Carlac," he said. "No one would have suspected that you were anything but what you appeared to be!"
Carlac shot a glance at the grotesque, wizened figure on the chair.
"You also looked the part," he returned grimly. "I have seen just such villainous old hags as you look in caravans before!" He arose to his feet and crossed to a locker, opening the door and taking out a black bottle. He measured out a generous portion of the contents and drank it.
"That's better!" he said, tossing the dregs on to the floor. "And thank heavens there is no more of that organ business! I got sick of the sound of it!"
"And so did everybody else, I should think!" Kew put in. "But you are quite right, that side of our task is completed!"
The scoundrels were biding their time. They had not ventured to make any appearance at the bank to claim the money in the name of the dead man. Kew was too clever to risk that.
But his discovery on Salcoth Island, the proof that James Phillips was still alive had given him all the information he required. He had built on the fact that sooner or later James Phillips would return to his native town, and it was then that the scheme of blackmail would be renewed.
And now, after many days of waiting, the appearance of Ruth Phillips at the station was the signal for a new move.
At half-past six that evening the workers in the allotment gardens heard the creaking of rusty wheels and the caravan that had stood for the past two or three weeks in the vacant ground beyond, came rumbling down the lane.
The huddled figure of Carlac was seated in the shafts holding the rope reins, and a word or two of chaff were passed up to him as he drove on.
The caravan turned and continued its way up the rising ground that led to New Town. It was a heavy pull for the animal between the shafts, and the best part of an hour elapsed before the caravan reached Fairview Avenue.
It went along the road, then turned to the left where a space of green turf, beside a high wall, gave it room to turn. The van was backed on to the turf and the horse loosened from the shafts, while Kew, still in his disguise, emerged from the vehicle and began to build a fire, erecting a tripod over it. In a few moments the fire was burning and a kettle full of water was hung on the tripod above the flames.
Presently a policeman came along, and after a doubtful glance at the fire, came towards it. Kew's replies to the man, delivered in the cackling voice, seemed to satisfy him, for, after a nod of his head, the representative of the law went down the road again. As soon as the policeman had vanished, Carlac appeared from the caravan. He had changed his disguise now, having removed the grey beard, and being dressed in the blue sailor suit in which he had first appeared in front of James Phillips.
"I am going to have a look at No. 14," he said. "There is another train from London arriving about nine and our man may have come by that!"
"I think you are only wasting time," he said, "but still you can have a look if you like. In my opinion our man will not arrive at Grangepool Station at all!" He pointed down the wide road.
"This is the main road from London," he went on, "and I think it will be along there that he will come!"
"Perhaps you are right," said Carlac, "but there is no harm in my seeing!"
He slid off into the darkness, and, finding the lane that ran along the back of the houses on Fairview Avenue, the huge criminal followed it until he came to the wall of No. 14.
It was about nine feet high, but it proved a very slight obstacle to Carlac. He leapt up and caught at the parapet, and with an effortless pull of his arms he was across the top of the wall, and the next moment had dropped into the garden at the other side.
There was a fight burning in one of the lower rooms, and the yellow gleams struck a shaft of light along the path. Carlac, guided by the beam, made his way along the path and finally reached the window. He saw that it was the kitchen, and presently a figure moving from an inner doorway revealed itself to be that of Ruth Phillips.
The girl had slipped into a blue overall, and she was carrying a small tray containing tea-things.
She seemed smiling and content, and as she moved across the kitchen, Carlac's eyes rested on the tray for a moment. Then a glint came into the eyes, for he noted that there were three cups and saucers on the tray.
Drawing back from the window, Carlac moved to the angle of the house and reached the broad balcony that ran around the front pan. He climbed on to the balcony, slipping over the rails, and, keeping close to the wall, found himself at last beside a window, the blind of which had been drawn.
He noted, however, that the lower part of the window was slightly open, and, dropping on one knee, reached forward, catching it the bottom of the blind, and lifting it.
It was the interior of the study that he was peering into, and, seated on a chair, with his back to the window, was the sturdy figure of Hector MacLeod. Ruth, standing beside the small table, was just in the act of depositing the tray on it.
There was a little spirit kettle with the blue flame burning briskly, and the girl's eyes were alight with excitement.
A murmur of voices came to Carlac's ears, but he could not catch the drift of the conversation. Now and again Ruth would glance impatiently at a little watch on her wrist, and every moment saw her turn her head towards the door.
For the better part of twenty minutes Carlac knelt there, watching the scene, then suddenly, there came to his ears the hum of a motor. It was coming down Fairview Avenue from the direction of the high road, and as he stood there, Carlac saw the white lights from the head lamps glimmer. The lights described an arc, then he saw them glaring on the white gate, sending a crisscross pattern on the drive.
A figure in chauffeur's uniform came out into the glare, then the gate was opened, and a moment later the car, which proved to be a big touring one, came up the drive, it's rubber wheels grating on the gravel path.
Carlac leapt to his feet, for he realised that as soon as the white lights shone on the balcony, his presence there would be revealed. He had only just time to slip into a dark corner of the balcony, then the car emerged from a bend in the avenue and came to a halt outside the front door.
The door was opened and a little shaft of light issued. The slender figure of Ruth Phillips appeared, poised for a moment, then, with a quick cry, the girl ran down the steps and flung herself into the arms of a man in a heavy travelling cloak who had just alighted from the car.
Father and daughter exchanged a fond embrace, then, holding on to her father's hand, Ruth led him up the wide steps. Carlac leaned forward, trying to catch what it was that the excited girl said, but the whirring of the motor drowned her words, and he heard the front door close.
Then the car, after turning and backing in the narrow drive, went back towards the gate again.
With a stealthy rush Carlac was across the balcony and had taken up his position at the open window again. He was just in time to see the tall figure remove the heavy cloak.
It was James Phillips right enough, and the gaunt, hollow cheeks were mute testimony of the fight the man had had to make for his life.
Ruth assisted her father into the chair, and Hector MacLeod poured out a cup of tea. The man seemed to have little life in him. He accepted the ministrations in a dull fashion and mumbled his thanks.
Presently Hector Macleod seemed to ask a question to which Phillips replied, for a moment later the youngster, with Ruth by his side, hurried from the room. Carlac heard them go to the front door and was just in time to throw himself face downwards on the balcony when Ruth and Hector appeared on the steps.
They ran down together into the drive, and Carlac listened to the patter of their feet until they died away.
It seemed to the master criminal as though this was the exact moment he had been waiting for. Raising himself, Carlac strode across the balcony, reaching the door. It had not been closed, and a push was enough to send it back on its hinges.
Carlac stepped into the wide hall, closing the door behind him. He made no sound as he crossed the hall and opened the door of the study. He stepped into the room, his eyes seeking the figure in the arm-chair.
James Phillips had drawn the chair up towards the fire, and the cup of tea, untasted, stood on the little table by his side. The bank manager's face was thrust forward and the eyes were fixed and staring.
Carlac crossed the room slowly and was close to the table before Phillips sensed his presence.
"That you, Hector?"
The question was spoken without the man raising his head. The deep, curt laugh that Carlac gave made Phillips swing round.
There was a cry and a swift leap. The little table and the cup of tea were dashed to the floor, and, white and tense, James Phillips faced the huge figure in blue. "No, it's not Hector, James Phillips," said Carlac; "it's someone more important!"
Carlac's broad criminal face was set and grim. He strode up to the nerveless man, fixing him with his eyes. Beneath that fierce gaze Phillips was like wax.
"I have waited a long time for this, James Phillips," Carlac went on. "I knew that sooner or later you would come back to Grangepool, and now I want a settlement!" Phillips was staring at the face, the broad nose and iron-grey hair. "You—you want a settlement!"
"Yes," said Carlac. "I hold the deposit note that you gave twenty years ago in ret urn for twenty thousand pounds. That money you misappropriated; you must now deliver it up!" His eyes were as cold as steel.
"Before I leave this room you must give me satisfaction. You have had the money and you will have to refund it!"
"I—I can't refund it. I do not possess anything like that sum!"
"Then what you do possess I shall have," the relentless scoundrel went on. "Every penny you have belongs to me. I am going to give you a chance, Phillips. You will either refund the last farthing or the story of your crime will be published abroad!"
There was a wailing cry from the thin figure of James Phillips, and the man dropped on his knees in front of Carlac, gripping at the master criminal's broad palm.
"No, no; don't do that, for Heaven's sake don't do that," the bank manager broke out. "I have only just recovered from a—a terrible illness. It was you and your friend who brought me near to death's door. I am weak and—and incapable of doing anything just now. Give me a chance, man; give me a chance!"
"What money have you in your possession?"
Still in his kneeling position, Phillips fumbled with his coat and presently drew out a bulky pocket-book. "There's six hundred," he said. "It is all I have with me. It's yours—take it—take it!"
He pressed the book into Carlac's hand. The criminal's fingers closed over it, but his laugh was short and curt. "Six hundred is nothing," he said; "you are worth more than that!"
"But I have no more in my possession at this moment, I—I swear it. Give me time—let me find out just how I do stand, and I promise you that to the best of my ability I will—will repay you!"
There was no mistaking the dread and terror that hung on the man's life. Carlac felt that James Phillips was going to be an easy victim.
"Listen to me," he said; "I will give you twenty-four hours. By this time to-morrow night, eight o'clock, you must meet me at the corner of this avenue and you will have in your possession at least ten thousand pounds in gold and notes. Understand—ten thousand pounds. That is only half of what you owe me. Get up!"
He caught at the thin shoulders and drew the man to his feet. James Phillips tottered a pace and dropped into the chair.
"I will—will do my best," he said, "only you must—must promise that you will not reveal my secret?"
"That all depends on yourself," the master criminal replied. "Remember you have twenty-four hours!"
As the words left Carlac's lips he heard a thud on the outer door, followed by the sound of a key in the lock. With a swift rush the criminal was across the room and had lifted the lower half of the window. He swung the blind aside and slipped his great bulk through the gap, then, turning round, he fixed his eagle eye on James Phillips's face.
"Until to-morrow night," he said.
Then, dropping the blind, he vanished, just as Ruth and Hector MacLeod darted into the room, to find Phillips lying stretched in the chair with bloodless lips and eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling.
"Dad—dad! What has happened? Oh, in heaven's name speak!" Ruth flung herself on her knees beside her father, clutching at his cold hands.
James Phillips turned his head towards the girl, his lips moving, but no words coming from them. It seemed as though the ordeal he had gone through had bereft him of speech, and, at last, assisted by Hector, Ruth half led, half carried her father up the stairs and into his bed-room.
Hector MacLeod assisted the nerveless man to undress, and it was not until he was safely in bed that Hector left the room.
He found Ruth dry-eyed and tearless, waiting in the hall. The girl was white to the Up.
"What can have happened?" she asked, turning towards Hector.
"I don't know," the youngster returned, "he seemed quite all right when we left him."
The girl caught his arm.
"Oh, I am so afraid," she broke out. "I was so happy before he came, I thought that everything would be just all right now. But he seems worse than ever!" Hector MacLeod was silent. Indeed, he could find no words to use to help the girl in her fears. A sudden wish leapt into his heart. "If only Mr. Blake was here," he said. "I cannot understand why he went off as he did!"
The little party had arrived together at Liverpool, and Ruth and Hector had been taken with James Phillips to one of the private nursing homes there. When they returned to the hotel, at which Blake and Tinker and Ben had put up, it was to discover that the trio had gone.
There was only a short note from Blake addressed to Hector, stating that he had arranged to look after James Phillips until he was well, then he was to arrange to get him back to Grangepool.
These orders, although Hector did not quite understand them, were carried out to the letter. He and Ruth had waited in Liverpool until the time came when Phillips was able to travel.
In his note, Blake had suggested the best way to get the bank manager back to his home, and Hector had carried this out. He and Ruth had travelled with Phillips to the nearest junction, then, after chartering a car to take the bank manager the last portion of his journey, Ruth and Hector had gone on by train.
They had arrived in Grangepool as already explained, and had hurried at once to the house to prepare for the coming of the broken man.
"If only Mr. Blake would turn up," Ruth sighed. "I cannot understand why he deserted us. It seems so—so strange of him."
"He must have had some reason," said Hector, "Mr. Blake is not the sort of man to desert anyone. Sooner or later he will turn up, and we shall find it will all be right."
But, even as he spoke the words, Hector MacLeod felt a dull misgiving, and it was with a heavy heart that he left the house in Fairview Avenue that night, and made his way down to the station hotel.
"I don't like it?" the youngster thought, "it was all right while Blake was with us, but the job is too big for me, and I wish to goodness he would turn up again!"
His wish was to be fulfilled sooner than he expected.
"I AIN'T goin' to argue with you. You agreed to put in a month's work for me, and you've only put in a fortnight. If you don't stick to it, I don't pay yer!"
Mr. Tobb, greengrocer, stuck his fat legs apart, and, placing his hands on his hips, scowled at the two figures opposite him. He was standing in the little shanty that looked out over the allotment gardens, and it was evident that he was in a roaring temper.
The figures in front of him were dressed in shabby clothes, and were as unkempt and untidy a couple as one could meet in a day's march.
The younger of the two had been carrying a hoe over his shoulder, and this he had now deposited at the worthy greengrocer's feet.
"Ye understand," Mr. Tobb went on, "no work, no pay!"
"Well, we ain't goin'to work no longer for you, and that's flat," said the older of the two, "an' if you don't pay up we'll summons you, you see if we don't!"
"Summons away," Tobb bawled out, "an' don't you give me any of yer sauce either. Clear out o' my garden, quick!" There were other workers dotted her and there on the allotments, and the greengrocer's irascible voice carried to various quarters.
The two unkempt figures wheeled round, and stalked away down the narrow path between the rows.
"Lazy tramps that ye are, serves me right for givin' ye work," the exasperated greengrocer bawled behind them. "It's a good riddance to bad rubbish, that's what I says!"
The two figures slouched along, shoulders up, hands thrust in the pockets of their trousers. As they passed through the allotments, they had to undergo a running fire of chaff. Now and again, the slimmer figure would turn and throw back an apt reply, but at last the ordeal was over, and they found themselves in the little lane.
As a rule they turned to the left, heading for the old town, but this evening it was to the right that they moved, trudging on along the lane until they had left the gardens behind, and were passing through the quiet streets.
"I am afraid we have left it a bit late, guv'nor!"
"No, it's quite all right, Tinker. I have a shrewd idea where these two rascals are hiding!"
It was Sexton Blake's voice that issued from the ragged figure of the allotment worker. The disguise was perfect. A five or six day's old beard on the chin; the greasy cap, and the unkempt hair was typical of the vagrant. From the dilapidated boots to the dirty red handkerchief, Sexton Blake looked the part.
It was almost dusk before they had left the allotment gardens, and Blake and his companion wended their way through the streets, heading for New Town. Presently they emerged on the broad high road, that ran out of Grangepool, and a messenger boy wheeling past on a bicycle was hailed and stopped.
"Caravan? Yes, there's one just up the road a bit," the boy said, "it's next to Mr. Porter's field."
The youngster went on his way again, and the two vagrants continued their trudging along the grass border of the road. They climbed the slope, and presently caught sight of the battered van standing in the little stretch of grass. Blake came to a halt, and dropped on to the greensward, while Tinker followed his example. "I'm pretty sure that's the van, guv'nor," he said.
"Yes, that's it, right enough, Tinker," Blake returned, "we have been watching it too long to be mistaken!"
Little had Kew and Carlac dreamed that as they passed to and fro each day to the caravan, that in the allotment gardens a couple of pairs of eyes had watched their going.
Clever though the criminals were, they had not realised that their every move was being observed, and although they had slipped away in the night times, the following day had found Blake on their track.
"Where a bouts are they now, guv'nor?" Tinker asked as, leaning back on his shoulders, he nibbled at a blade of grass.
The darkness had increased, and there was only a few stars gleaming in the sky. Ahead of them they could sec the caravan, and, by its side, a dull glow revealed the presence of a small fire.
Blake was watching the glow, and suddenly he saw it leap into flame, as a thin figure stood over it, feeding it with a few scraps of brushwood. "They are quite close to Fairview Avenue," said Blake; "the top of the avenue is only a few yards down the road. I have no doubt but what Hector and Ruth and Mr. Phillips have arrived home by now. In fact, I expect Carlac saw Hector and Ruth come by train yesterday. That would be the signal for their departure from the allotment." "I wish we had followed them last night, guv'nor?" Tinker said.
"Perhaps it's just as well that we didn't," Blake returned, "for they are still here, and it is evident that they haven't been very successful!"
He was silent for a moment, then he turned to his young assistant.
"We will have to divide forces now, my son," said Blake, "I think the best thing you can do is to go down to Fairview Avenue, and find out what is going on there. Be careful how you go, and don't let anyone see you. When you have found out how things are, you can come back and wait for me here!"
"And what are you going to do, guv'nor?"
Blake nodded towards the caravan.
"I am going to tackle Kew," he said, and his voice was stern and severe.
Tinker rising to his feet, slipped across the road and vanished into the dusk. Blake waited four or five minutes before he, also, arose. He kept well in the shadows of the high wall as he approached the caravan, until, at last, he found himself within twenty yards of it.
Close to where he was the horse was browsing. Blake could hear the crisp crunch of the animal's teeth as it cropped at the short grass.
Flat on his face, the detective began to move through the grass until, at last, he was under the side of the caravan, close to the steps. About five yards away from him there was the fire, and, seated on an upturned box, was the grotesque figure in female clothing.
Once the figure turned its head, and Blake saw the hawk-like features of Kew standing out against the faint glow from the fire.
The wizened man seemed impatient. He moved restlessly in his seat, sometimes rising, and listening, then resuming his box again, with a low-voiced murmur of impatience.
Somewhere in the distance a clock chimed the hour of nine, and Kew rising again, thrust the box aside with a sweep of his foot, and began to pace up and down in front of the fire.
Ten minutes passed, then a sudden thought seemed to strike the criminal. He came to a halt in the middle of his pacing, wheeled towards the van, and, striding forward, climbed the short flight of steps.
Blake heard the boards creaking beneath his weight, as the criminal crossed the vehicle, then, later the sound of a key being turned in a lock came to Blake's ears.
Noiselessly, the detective wriggled out from his cramped hiding place, and, kneeling beside the flight of steps, raised himself until, at last, he was level with the glass-panelled door.
The door was slightly ajar, and through the gap Blake saw the shapeless figure of Kew. The criminal was kneeling in the centre of the van, and in front of him lay the reed organ. Even as Blake watched he saw the top part of the organ wrenched upwards, and Kew, thrusting his claw-like hand into the interior, began to draw out paper after paper.
An expression of grim satisfaction crossed Blake's face. For he realised what these papers were: They were the contents of the box that Kew and Carlac had found on the lonely site on Salcoth Island.
It was just those very papers that had made Blake adopt such a strange way of finishing his case. He knew that while Kew and Carlac were in possession of them, James Phillips would always be under fear of blackmail.
Blake's first duty was to get possession of the papers, and here was his opportunity.
The thought that has sent Kew hurrying into the caravan had been a quick suspicion of his companion. Carlac had told Kew of the interview he had had with James Phillips, and of the appointment that had been made for that night.
It had been fixed for eight o'clock, and when nine had struck, Kew, his impatience gradually rising, had suddenly suspected that Carlac might have played him false.
If the big criminal had possessed himself the papers, and had sold them to James Phillips, it was more than likely that he would play a double game.
But now, as the long fingers of the professor turned the various papers over, he realised that his suspicion was unfounded.
"No," he said aloud, "they were all right, and while they are in my hands I am safe enough!"
He arose to his feet, folding the papers into a bundle, which he thrust into the loose, shapeless garment he wore.
He then replaced the top of the organ, and crossing to the locker, thrust the instrument back into its hiding place, closing the lid.
As he did so he heard a board creak. There was a mirror above the locker, and Kew threw his head up and glanced into it. Just for a moment he had a fleeting vision of a grim, rugged-face staring at him.
Quick as a flash Kew leapt aside, thrusting his hand below the pillow of his bunk. But even as he withdrew his hand, an iron grip fell on his wrist, and, flinging himself round, Kew struck at the unknown intruder.
His hand now free from beneath the pillow, and in it was a long, gleaming tube. Blake had pinned Kew's wrist against the side of the bunk, but the talon fingers were still gripping at the tube, and twice Kew tried to level it.
But Blake, putting up all his strength, succeeded in keeping the hand rigid.
It was fierce battle, all the more deadly because it was carried on almost in silence. Kew had dropped his shawl, and the false grey wig had fallen away from the head, revealing a hairless cranium.
In the loose folds of his robe the man looked more like a vulture than ever, and his eyes, glaring and white, peered from the red-rimmed lids like those of the bird of prey.
Slowly and remorselessly Blake tightened his grip until the bones of the wrist creaked to his pressure. He had flung his other arm under Kew's shoulder, and the side of his hand was pressing against the lean throat.
The men hardly moved their positions as the deadly pressure continued. Kew battling for his life, tugged and writhed and swayed. There was a wondrous strength in the lean, wizened shape, and it was all Blake could do to hold the hand down.
Suddenly, Kew made another desperate effort, and, just for a moment his hand moved from the hard side of the bunk. The tube dropped, but even as its hollow end swept towards Blake, the detective drove his arm forward and up.
Kew's knuckles rapped against the side of the bunk, there was an oath and a scream, then the tube fell, and a faint click sounded. There was muffled report, such as an air rifle gives. Something flashed out of the tube and burst against the wall above Kew's head. A greenish smoke hung for a moment over the two men, enlarging rapidly, descended on them both.
Blake felt a burning sensation in his eyes and nostrils, and, quick as a flash, he dropped to the floor, dragging Kew with him. He knew that it was a poison gas that the skilled criminal had tried to use on him, and there was only one way to escape from it.
With Kew's lean body clasped in one arm, Blake wormed his way to the door. One swing of his disengaged hand saw the door open, the Blake and Kew went sprawling down the steps, rolling over on to the green grass.
Blake had never released his hold on his enemy, and, when they fell together, the detective, with a quick swing, was uppermost. Kew's body was rigid, and his arms hanging motionless by the side. The vulture head was back, the eyes closed.
Blake, peering at the face, drew back with a quick breath, for he saw that there was a faint greenish hue on Kew's lips.
It was evident that the poison had reached Kew first, and its deadly effect was apparent.
Raising himself to his knees, Blake felt in the folds of the garment, and presently his fingers touched the little packet of papers. He drew them out and slipped them into his pocket.
He stooped again and glanced at the figure at his feet. There was no sign of motion, for it seemed to Blake as though the gas had done its work swiftly and well.
As he bent over the figure, there came to his ears a crash, followed by a shot. Blake straightened up, and, leaping over Kew's prostrate body, darted into the road. There was another flash and a report, and he saw the blue flame flick out in the darkness.
Dropping into a run, Blake sprinted along the road, and found himself beside the lane that ran down at the back of the houses in Fairview Avenue. It was from that quarter that the sounds had come, and he made off up the lane as hard as he could pelt.
The darkness deceived him, and, as he darted on, someone came tumbling over the top of a wall right on his shoulders. Blake, taken by surprise, was carried off his balance, and, a moment later, a pair of powerful arms were around him, and he was pinned to the ground.
The detective made a quick effort which saw him release one of his arms, then he swung round with his opponent, reeling up against the wall on the right.
Blake drew back his fist, and was about to dash it into the face of the man he was struggling with, when the unknown raised his voice.
"Quick, Tinker—quick! The beggar's getting away!" Blake fist dropped, and he peered into the face. "Why, it's MacLeod, isn't it?"
There was a gasp, and the arms around his body were released. Blake moved aside, and Hector scrambled to his feet. Another rush and a scramble sounded, and Tinker came shinning over the wall.
"It's Marle," Hector broke out. "He—he got away into the lane. I followed him, and he fired at me twice!"
Instantly Blake realised his mistake. There were a number of dark doorways set in the wall higher up, and he had not paused to examine them.
He whipped round, and, followed by Tinker and MacLeod, went sprinting off up the lane. They emerged on to the high road, and, turning to the left, headed at once for the caravan. Blake was ten yards ahead of his companions, and, as he reached the fire, Tinker heard his master give vent to a word of dismay.
He had left Kew prone and helpless beside the little heap of cinders, but there was no trace of the ungainly figure now.
"They have got away, I'm afraid," said Blake, "come on, Tinker, we must search."
Tinker gripped at his master's sleeve, and held up his hand. The trio strained their ears, and there came back to them, faintly, the rapid beating of horse's feet!
"It's the van horse," said Blake, leaping towards the vehicle.
His surmise was correct, for the animal, that had been browsing peacefully on the sward behind the caravan, was gone, and, although they listened again, the hoof-falls were not repeated. "It—it was all my fault, guv'nor," Tinker broke out. "I ought to have known that the beggar would make a dash for it!" Hector turned to Blake's assistant.
"It was as much mine as yours, Tinker," he said. "I ought to have kept a better watch!"
"What happened?" Blake asked.
They had turned now, and were retracing their steps towards Fairview Avenue. Tinker's report was a very brief one. He had made his way to the house, and, gaining admission by the back wall, had stumbled across Hector in the kitchen. Hector had told Tinker that James Phillips had insisted on going out an hour before, and had not yet returned.
Ruth was beside herself with fear, and Hector had been trying to prevent the girl from going out in search of her father. Tinker and Hector had made a hurried plan, and, while Hector waited in the house, Tinker had gone off in search of Phillips.
He found the wretched bank manager locked in a fierce struggled with the burly figure which Tinker had recognised at once as being that of Carlac.
James Phillips, rather than allow himself to be blackmailed, had made a desperate attempt to kill Carlac, and it was only the master criminal's swiftness that had saved his life.
Tinker had only been in the nick of time, for Phillips was pinned to the fence of his own garden, with Carlac at his throat.
The young detective had not stopped to consider his actions, but had leapt at the ruffian. Carlac had struck out at Tinker, sending the lad reeling; then, the huge criminal had darted through the white gate, while tinker, gathering himself together, had made after him.
Carlac had flashed across the garden and down beside the house with the young detective at his heels. The youngster had called out to Hector, and the plucky bank clerk had leapt out of the kitchen just as the huge criminal came down the path.
It was well for Carlac that he had been in that garden before and knew his way, for the two youngsters were close on his heels by the time he had gained the barrier.
He had leapt on to a wooden barrier, which had given way, and that was the crash that Blake had heard. Then, from the top of the wail, Carlac had fired a shot which had grazed Hector's temple.
The criminal had dropped into the lane, and Hector, drawing himself up on the wall, had run along the parapet like a cat, following the man below.
Near the head of the lane, Carlac had fired again, and this time the bullet had caused Hector to lose his balance as he ducked, sending him toppling into the garden below.
The youngster had clambered on to the wall again, and seeing a dark figure beneath, had flung himself bodily on to it, with the result that the reader already knows.
"It's rotten luck!" MacLeod broke out. "I don't know what we shall do. It seems to me as though Mr. Phillips is going to be hounded by these men for the rest of his life!"
They turned into Fairview Avenue now, and were approaching No. 14. Blake caught sight of a lean figure resting against the gatepost, and darted forward. He was only just in the nick of time, for Phillips had already raised his hands to his temple, and the dull muzzle of a revolver gleamed between his fingers.
A quick snatch saw the weapon dragged from his grasp, and James Phillips turned a white face round towards the trio.
"That's a cowardly way, Mr. Phillips," Blake said; "only a coward would think of doing that!"
A low cry broke from the bank manager's lip's, and he reeled against the gatepost.
"Let me die—let me die!" he said. "It's no good! Those brutes will hound me all my life, and the crime of years ago can only be wiped out by my death!"
"You are wrong there," said Blake. "Those men will hound you no more. Come, and I will explain!"
He took the man's arm, and they walked up the broad drive together. Two minutes later a silent party was gathered in the study, James Phillips in the deep armchair, while Blake stood at the table, with the little pile of papers in front of him.
"Here are the records of the Sea Foam's last voyage to Salcoth Island, and also the deposit note which Marle received from you. Nat Marle died in Laidstone Prison quite recently, and his testimony can never be given against you!"
It was the first time that James Phillips had heard the truth, and he listened to Blake's words with breathless interest.
"Marle dead—Marle dead!" the man repeated over and over again.
"Yes," said Blake. "So far as Marle is concerned he can never claim his ill-gotten gains!"
Then, with a quick pace forward, Blake stepped up to James Phillips and put the papers into the trembling hands.
"But you will remember, Mr. Phillips, that that twenty thousand pounds did not belong to Marle. He had swindled his employer, Malcolm MacLeod, and the rightful owner stands—there!"
He pointed towards the bronzed youngster. Phillips raised his sunken eyes and looked at the lad.
"Yes, yes; I know that," the bank manager said brokenly. "But you will admit that I—I did my best for you, boy. It was only when that first letter came from the prison and I knew that the past was rising up against me, that I—I got rid of you. Can you forgive me for that, Hector?"
MacLeod felt a small hand steal into his, and he closed his own round it.
"There is nothing to forgive, sir," he said, "and if you feel you are under any debt to me—well, I know an easy way of repaying it!"
"You mean that? Can I repay it in any way?" Phillips said quickly. Hector stepped aside, and drew Ruth forward.
"Give me your daughter, sir. I have loved her for years, and she is more to me than anymore in the world!" James Phillips arose to his feet, and, coming forward, placed the Sea Foam's papers and deposit note in Hector's hand. "They belong to you," he said; "but if you are in earnest about what you said just now, I am only too ready to agree!" There was a little fire burning in the grate. Hector, releasing his hold of Ruth for a moment, stepped forward, and, with a quick swing of his hand, tossed the precious deposit note and ship's papers into the heart of the flame. A cry came from Phillips's lips, and he held out his hands. Ruth caught at one, while Hector gripped the other. "Father!" they cried in unity.
For a moment they stood together in a warm embrace, then Hector lifted his head and looked round him, while a cry broke from his lips.
"They—they have gone! Why, hang it, they've gone!" Blake and Tinker had indeed disappeared.
It was some five or six days later before Hector received any communication from the great man that had helped him so much, and then the message was laconic enough:
"Kew and Carlac still at large, and while they are Tinker and I will be busy. You, however, need have no further fear, and we both wish you the best of happiness and luck, and all good wishes to your charming bride!"
But how Blake and Tinker finally ran Professor Kew and Count Carlac to earth, is another story.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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