Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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In Far Kashopore
KASHOPORE, the capital of Puljara, lies in the angle of a sluggish river. It is one of the chief cities in the North-West of India, and the caravan road that skirts the high walls of the town is always alive with life and movement.
A benign British Government may supply trains, but the native of India, true to his immemorial custom, prefers to travel by road, slowly, easily, with many halts and hindrances. All day long the red dust rises from the wide roadway, all day long the sun blazes through the iridescent haze; and from dawn until dusk, man, woman, child; horse, camel, sheep, and goat, trudge to and fro.
At the great gateway of the town an armed guard is posted. They are quartered in a red stone building inside the gate, and the sentinel on duty is dressed in khaki, with scarlet cuffs and collar. On the great turban is placed the mark of his Highness, the Rajah of Puljara, Mahommed Ali Kahn.
His Highness is an enlightened prince. He stands in favour with Britain, and his city is a model of cleanliness and prosperity. He cannot make his people clean—no power on earth could do that; but he has seen to it that the streets are cleared and that the lazy folk no longer deposit their garbage in that most convenient of places—the next-door neighbour's door!
The palace is a massive structure, standing isolate on the banks of the stream. A white wall divides it from the city, and along this wall are innumerable stalls, Uttered with commodities of all kinds. It is really the market-place of the town, and the voices of the hucksters and dealers arguing heatedly over the value of their wares, resound all day.
About two o'clock on a blazing afternoon, two men emerged from a house close to the palace, and, naming to the left, made their way leisurely along the line of booths, beside the palace wall. They were a badly-assorted couple. Dressed in white drill, and wearing wide pith helmets, their faces, tanned though they were by the sun, were unmistakably European.
A sherbet-seller, from Mirzapore, jerked his thumb at them as they passed.
"The hawk and the bull are out again!" he cried, in his high-pitched vernacular, a cackle of laughter greeting his remark. And, indeed, his simile was well chosen.
One of the men in white, was a huge, broad-shouldered fellow, whose every movement hinted at the giant strength of his limbs. His face beneath the pith helmet might have been carved out of solid granite, so hard and fierce were the jaw and lips. His eyes were set deep in his head, and looked out at the swarming life seething around him, with the grim contempt of a man accustomed to be obeyed.
The other was the exact opposite. Small-limbed, almost dwarfish, with a great head and narrow, sloping shoulders, he tripped along vainly trying to keep in stride with the long, swinging movements of his companion.
But if the thin body was that of a weakling, there was no suggestion of that infirmity in the face. It was like a hawk. Keen, remorseless, thin of lip, long of nose, with small, beady eyes that were ever turning to right and left, restless, never still. The pith helmet did not hide the high-domed forehead, and one could see that the cranium was quite bald, a fact which added to the vulture-like appearance of the thin, cruel face.
A strangely assorted couple, truly, and yet well-matched.
Count Ivor Carlac and Professor Kew!
What had brought them to India? There was no one there to ask that question. India is one of the safest hiding-places in the world, and the unscrupulous European flourishes there, like a bay-tree.
They seemed to be prosperous, too. A diamond flashed on one of Carlac's fingers, for the huge criminal had always a weakness for gems; their clothes were of the finest, and the shopkeepers in the town knew that they had money to spend. They were living with a carpet-merchant, and had engaged a suite of rooms and servants, paying in advance. They had been in Kashopore over a week now, and seemed to be just ordinary sightseers, interested in the wonderful old city, with its long history of siege and battle, rapine and loot.
At the great iron gate that stood in the palace wall, Carlac halted for a moment. Through the magnificent scroll-work of the gate he could see the interior of the outer courtyard, with its tall cypress-trees, and mosaic paths. A trooper of the rajah's bodyguard came clanking to the gateway, a long, curved blade swinging at his supple thigh.
As the man emerged through the gate, Count Carlac hailed him.
"His Excellency, Colonel Bryce," he said, nodding to the palace.
The upright trooper clicked his heels together, and gave a real military salute. He had served his time with the Bengal Lancers, and had not forgotten his English training.
"His Excellency has gone out, to Briuth, on the Cashmere Road, sahib," came the reply, in perfect English. "He does not return until dusk."
A gleam of satisfaction came into Carlac's eyes as he thanked the trooper, and the man passed on.
"You are satisfied now, Kew?"
The little, wizened professor nodded.
"I was never so impetuous as you, my dear Carlac," he returned, in his thin, sibilant tones. "You always take things for granted; I always make sure." The big man laughed.
"Quite right," he returned; "and perhaps it is that which makes us such a suitable couple to run in harness together. Anyhow I vote that we start for the Cashmere Road. We have plenty of time. I know that Bryce and his daughter will not be returning until dusk, but we might as well see that everything is ready for them."
His lips lifted in a hard smile, that found a reflection in his companion's face.
"It is the first step in a big move," said Kew, as he turned away. "We have tackled many things in our time, but this is biggest of them all."
"All the more reason why we should succeed." came the reply. "It is only your small criminal—the area thief and clothes-snatcher—that fills our prisons. The big men keep outside." A shadow crossed Kew's face.
"Not always, Carlac," he returned, with a quick shiver. "We have both known what it is to serve under the broad arrow." They were striding along through the narrow, thronged streets, and presently they reached a portion where a great, black building thrust its forbidding walls up over the barrier of the palace. Kew pointed to the structure.
"And heaven help the man who was put in there," he went on. "English prisons are bad enough, but that one—ugh!"
It was the prison in which the rajah's evildoers were confined. Count Carlac glanced at it, and shrugged his shoulders.
"There is no chance of us finding quarters there," he returned, little dreaming how the future was to make him remember this remark, and to prove its falsity.
It took them the best part of half an hour to elbow their way through the good-natured crowds and emerge through one of the east gateways, The gate opened out on to a broad road, which ran on through a double row of tall trees, past paddy-fields and dykes, rising always until, with one long great sweep, it vanished into the hills beyond, tilting and winding until it struck the cart-road down to the Juman, thence on to Sringar.
They continued along the road, and finally Carlac came to a halt, at the end of the trees.
"What did Chandra Lai say?" he asked, turning to his companion. "Something about the old temple and the rajah's shooting-box, wasn't it?"
"Yes. That was the safest place for us to wait. The attack will be made from a paddy-field close to the temple. We can hear Chandra's signal from the temple."
They had a three-mile walk in front of them, but this was a by-road, and the only living thing they met was a dusty fakir, shuffling along in his rags, with his begging-bowl hanging from his lean waist.
Carlac, inspired by some feeling that he could not quite define, dropped a few pice in the bowl, and the fakir muttered his thanks.
"A gift to fortune—eh?" Kew said, with his dry smile. "It isn't often that you give anything away."
"I want to pull this particular business off," said the bigger rogue. "Don't forget that there are ten lakhs of rupees at the end of it, if we play our parts well." The small eyes of Professor Kew glinted avariciously. "Yes. One hundred thousand pounds," he said slowly, "and in gold!" His thin hands clenched, and he laughed, a thin, cackling sound.
"No awkward notes to be traced from place to place, no bonds or jewels to sell. Just gold. Good, clean, yellow gold. That is the sniff, Carlac."
Dusk saw them moving along the edge of a high growth of canes, and Carlac caught sight of a dark, round dome, showing up the waving heads of the thick plantation. "The temple," he said.
Five minutes later they found themselves entering the dark interior of the ruined place of worship. It was just a little wayside shrine erected to some forgotten god, and as Kew went deeper into it, there came from its depths a sibilant hiss!
The master criminal drew back, smiling, into the shadows. Kew's nerves had always been like steel.
"All right, my friend," he murmured. "We won't disturb you or your brood. You keep inside, and we'll be content with the entrance."
One of the big blocks of masonry that formed the shrine had fallen, and Carlac and Kew seated themselves on the hewn stone. The hush of an Indian summer was brooding over the scene. Now and again there came to their ears the soft rustling of some fugitive breath of wind, running along the tops of the waving cane. Once a night-bird, at least a yard wide from tip to tip, came dipping towards the doorway, only to poise and flutter back as it caught sight of the two motionless men at the entrance.
A long call, such as the camel man voices to his team, sounded. Ivor Carlac leaped to his feet. "That's Chandra. They are coming!" Kew also arose.
"Plenty of time yet, my friend," he returned. "We have got to wait until the attack is made. Our noble rescuer part must be done well if we are to make the proper impression."
They plunged into the thick growth on the left, and found a path which led them through the field. There was a feint light from the stars, and Carlac, moving ahead, was able to pick his way.
At last they reached the dry ditch that divided the field from the road, and, dropping into this, Carlac began to follow its tortuous course.
A sweet English voice, lifted in terror, broke the silence.
The wizened professor, staggering along behind his giant companion, chuckled aloud.
"There it goes! All right, my dear Miss Bryce. Be scared to death if you like. All the better for us. We are coming!" A hundred yards was covered at a run, then Carlac leaped out into the road. Ahead of him he saw a mass of indistinct shapes gathering around a couple of plunging horses. "Halt! Halt, there!" he cried, in his deep, commanding voice.
Kew leaped to his side, and together the precious pair darted headlong into the welter of struggling figures. Carlac caught sight of a tall, thin man in khaki, struggling desperately with three white-robed forms.
Like a bull Carlac charged straight into the melee. His powerful hand gripped one of the attackers by the neck, and a jerk saw the native go sprawling on his face into the ditch.
Carlac's fist shot out, catching the second man on the jaw. With a howl of pain the man released his hold on Colonel Bryce, and went reeling back to measure his length on the dusty road. "Bravo! Well hit sir!" the colonel gasped, as he found himself free.
Kew had gone on towards the horses, where the flutter of a white dress told him who the other victim was. A brawny ruffian had wrapped his arms around Muriel Bryce's slender body, and had dragged her clean out of the saddle. Kew with a monkey-like quickness, darted round and leaped full on the fellow's back.
His thin hands, with their hard knuckles, dug into the neck, just where it joined the spine. It is an old trick of the ju-jitsu expert, and by it a man can be rendered senseless. Muriel's captor shrieked aloud at the numbing pressure, then his hold gave, and, with a swing of his body, he released himself from Kew. Kew plunged forward again, but the man, leaping aside, flung himself across the road and vanished, with a rustle, into the field.
It had all happened so swiftly that when Colonel Bryce looked round he found that the swarming band of rascals had vanished, leaving his daughter and the two figures in white drill on the road.
Kew had stepped forward and caught at the horses' bridles, soothing the frightened animals.
"By James, gentlemen, that was what I call a neat little rescue!"
The quiet, cultured voice of the British officer sounded, and Bryce crossed towards his daughter, who caught at him quickly.
"Oh, dad!" she cried, clinging to him for a moment.
All traces of excitement had died away from Bryce. He patted his daughter on the cheek, then turned and smiled through the dusk at the huge figure of Carlac.
"It's all over, my dear," he said, "thanks to the quick intervention of these gentlemen. But, by James, I must admit that the rascals fairly had us!"
Kew came forward leading the horses, and Bryce held out his hand.
"I am extremely obliged to you, sir," the courtly gentleman said. "I had been warned about this attack, but I paid no attention to it. As matters have turned out, the warning was more serious than I thought." Carlac smiled inwardly. It had been part of his plan to warn Bryce of the impending attack. "These hounds were evidently determined to have you, sir," Carlac said.
"Not much doubt about that," Colonel Bryce returned. "But the way you polished them off was a perfect eye-opener. You must be tremendously strong."
He looked admiringly at the great, massive frame of the master-criminal. Carlac had always been proud of his strength, which was far above the ordinary.
"I am glad that I was able to help you, sir," he returned. "And now, as it is all over, perhaps you had better mount. It is getting late."
Bryce started forward, and caught Carlac by the arm.
"My dear fellow, you don't think that I am going to let you go like this," he broke out. Again Carlac was playing a part. He wanted to make it appear as though reward was far from his thoughts. "But it is all over, sir," he said, "and you and your daughter have a long ride in front of you."
"I don't care twopence about that!" the colonel returned. "I insist on knowing your names. Hang it, man, even if you do not think much of what you have done, we have a different opinion! Eh, Muriel?" The slender girl nodded her shapely head.
"I was frightened to death," she admitted. "That brute dragged me clean out of the saddle."
A shudder ran through her frame at the memory of the tenacious arms and the hot breath of the ruffian so close to her face.
"I am glad that we arrived in time, Miss Bryce," Kew put in, in his suave tones. "It was your scream that we heard."
The girl turned round at the mention of her name.
"Then you know my father and I?"
It was a slip, but Kew covered it at once.
"We saw you ride out from the palace this afternoon," he explained. "We are living quite close to the palace, at the house of Saljar Ral, a carpet-importer.
"Ah, I've heard about you!" said Bryce. "You have been living in Kashopore for about a week, I believe? You are Count Kaldross and Doctor Kay?"
There were the names that Kew and his companion had chosen. They were near enough to the real ones to save their owners from making mistakes. "My name is Kay," the wizened man returned, bowing to Muriel.
"Well, look here, doctor!" the colonel went on. "I don't know how long you are going to be in Kashopore, but I insist on you both being my guests until you leave!"
"We are going to England on the twenty-third," said Carlac, with a swift glance through the dusk at his companion.
Colonel Bryce, little dreaming of the trick that was being played on him, rubbed his hands together.
"Nothing could be better," he returned; "for I, too, am going to England on that date! In fact, we're all going—Muriel as well. It is quite a big..." He stopped, as though he had been about to reveal more than he ought to. "Anyhow, I insist on you both coming to see me to-morrow morning!" the colonel went on. "I will leave orders at the main gate of the palace, and you will be brought at once to my quarters. You promise me that?"
He held out his hand to Carlac, and the count shook it.
"If you really insist, colonel," he returned. "But, at the same time, I think that you are making much of nothing. Anything that my friend and I did, we were only too glad to do. There is no need of going any further in the matter."
But before the colonel and his daughter cantered off, they had been assured that the two men would call on the following day, Kew stood in the centre of the roadway watching the horses until the darkness had swallowed them up. Then, turning his head, he glanced into the canes.
A rustle, and a stout, squat figure came waddling over the ditch.
"Is the sahib pleased with his servant?" the fat Bengali asked, with a grim chuckle.
"Yes; it was well done. Here!"
There was a chink of gold, and the stout palm closed tightly.
"And there's an extra rupee for the man I attacked," said Kew, in his thin tone. "Tell him to rub oil on his neck to-night, and by the morning the pain of it will have gone." Chandra laughed aloud.
"The sahib has fingers like steel," he said. "The man swears that he felt the life being drawn out from behind his ears, as one draws water from a bag." '"Twas only a Japanese wrestling trick," said Kew, "It was taught me by the emperor's own wrestler, in Tokyo." Chandra vanished into the dark field; then Kew joined Carlac. "Was Chandra satisfied?"
"Yes. I gave him twenty pounds. He and his gang never had so much money in their lives before. They moved along the road at a slow pace, Carlac's brow drawn, his lips set.
"The first move to get at his Highness's war-chest has panned out well enough," he began at last; "but we've a long way to go yet."
"We have prepared our ground," said Kew, "here in Kashopore, and in London, at Downe Square—everything possible has been arranged. It all depends on the rajah now. If he still sticks to his plan—still decides to hand over his war-chest to Colonel Bryce for safe transit from Puljara to London—then we have little to trouble over. The ten lakh of rupees are as good as ours."
"We've got to get Colonel Bryce to ask us to join his party when he starts," said Carlac.
"I'll bet you that he does that to-morrow! Why shouldn't he?" Kew smiled to himself in the dusk. "We've proved ourselves very useful, even as a bodyguard. No, you need have no fear on that point, Carlac. When his excellency Colonel Bryce, military adviser and British representative at the court of his Highness the Rajah of Puljara, leaves for England on a very important mission, he will have two additional members of his suite—you and I.'"
The lights of the city presently loomed in front of them, and they entered the gateway, a sentinel moving out to open the wide gates. For in Kashopore, in common with many other cities in India, the main gates of the city were still closed from sunset to sunrise.
Under ordinary circumstances Carlac and Kew might have been forced to spend the night in one of the dak-bungalows that are always to be found close to a big city for the use of belated travellers, but this time they were allowed in at once.
"His excellency the colonel-sahib's orders," was the reply which the tall sentinel gave when questioned by Kew.
The wizened man turned and grinned at his companion as they passed on into the narrow thoroughfare.
"There you are!" he said mockingly. "Already you have proofs that our worthy friend the colonel thinks a great deal of us. By to-morrow morning you may rest assured that we will belong to his personal suite."
Carlac smiled at the cold, mocking voice.
"I think you're right, Kew," he returned. "And, by Jove, we must take full advantage of it. We have a clear field, and if we fail it will be our own fault. Within a couple of months from now we ought to be sharing a hundred thousand pounds."
The magnificent gift which the Rajah of Puljara had promised to England, ten lakh of rupees, had caused no little stir when it was first announced. The rajah himself had arranged that he should hand over the treasure to His Majesty King George, and the Indian potentate was travelling to London to perform that ceremony. It was this news that had first stirred the cupidity of Kew and his companion.
They studied up every detail concerning the gift. They read every report, and discovered the following facts:
The money, in solid gold, was kept in an iron-bound chest in the palace at Kashopore.
The chest itself was a historical one, for it had been presented to his Highness by his people on ascending the throne. Kew, setting to work in his grim way, soon found a photograph of the chest in a local museum, together with an exact description of its measurements. The curator of the museum little dreamed to what use his information concerning the treasure-chest was going to be put. That same night Kew sent off a long letter to a certain address in London, where an antique dealer, a perfect master at the art of faking old furniture lived.
The two scoundrels also discovered that Colonel Bryce, the British representative at Puljara, was a prime favourite with the old rajah, and that the colonel had been commissioned to take charge of all the details concerning the great gift. He had to travel to England with the precious chest, and await the arrival of the rajah, who was due to follow by a later steamer that sailed a week after.
Here then was the best opportunity to steal the chest. A project that fascinated the master intellects of the two criminals. It wanted courage and daring and skill, attributes which both men had to a high degree.
It was Carlac who discovered that Colonel Bryce owned a house in London, in Downe Square. He got the address of the house, and, to add another link to their long chain, another letter was sent off, this time to a certain Flash Harry, one of Carlac's old gang.
The rest of the plot consisted in the two men worming their way into the confidence of the genial colonel, and this, thanks to a very old but useful trick, had now been accomplished.
"We have absolutely nothing to fear," said Kew that evening, as he and Carlac sat in the quietly-furnished room that they had rented in the carpet-dealers's house. "Chandra Lai would never betray us; he would be clapped in the rajah's jail as an accomplice as quick as possible. To-morrow, at the very urgent entreaties of our friend the colonel, we will take up quarters in the palace, and remain there until the party starts for England."
He rubbed his lean hand over his bald skull, grinning the while. Perched on the heap of high cushions, with his thin legs tucked under him and the light from the lamp shining full on his yellow face, he looked more of the bird of prey than ever.
"This is the sort of affair that I delight in," he said. "There are risks attached to it. You and I, Carlac, have to face the powers of two Governments, the British and the Puljara. There is not the slightest doubt but what the treasure will be guarded day and night. He, he! We have our work cut out for us!"
Carlac had flung his huge frame on a low divan and was pulling at a long pipe. He blew a fragrant cloud from his lips before making a reply.
"You seem pleased to find it difficult,"—he put in, at last. "And I suppose you're right. There is only one thing I hope, and that is that a certain man, whom we both know, is kept out of it." Across Kew's face the shadow of a scowl spread. He leaned forward.
"Why do you talk of that individual?" he asked hoarsely. "We have had quite enough of him in the past!"
"Oh, I don't know," Carlac returned, "the thought just came into my head!"
"Then banish it!" snapped his companion. "That man has been a thing of evil omen to me, and to you. Without his interference we would both have been rich men now. Able to move about the world and enjoy everything that came our way."
He started to his feet suddenly, and raised his clenched fists in the air. The lamp threw his grotesque shape on the dull wall behind him. He looked like some demon from an old-world picture, in his long, loose robes.
"I swear that if Sexton Blake crosses my path this time, I will not rest until one of us goes under," he muttered, his voice thin with suppressed feeling. "Too long he has been like a Nemesis in my path. There must be an end to one of us, and if he intervenes now, let him look out for himself!"
Then, just as suddenly as it had risen, his rage died away, and he was his old, cool, inscrutable self again, smiling out of his lashless eyes at Carlac.
"Sounded frightfully dramatic and all that, I suppose," Kew said; "but I mean it. And now, let's get ready for our visit to-morrow."
He seemed to be assured of his welcome at the palace, for he packed everything in readiness for the move.
And neither he nor Carlac were disappointed. Colonel Bryce met them on the marble steps that led into his private suite, and the colonel's handshake was of the warmest.
"I was afraid that you would not come," he admitted, leading the way down a tapestry-hung corridor and into a spacious, well-lighted room, where at a table a sturdy youngster, in neat-fitting khaki, was seated, hard at work on a heap of documents. "Vernon, here is Count Kaldross and Dr. Kay. They have turned up you see."
Lieutenant Vernon, attache to the colonel, drew his long legs beneath him, and arose to shake hands. He had a keen, bronzed, good-looking face, a typical young officer such as one meets anywhere in clubland.
"Pleased to meet you, gentlemen," he said, revealing a set of white, even teeth; "and I'm jolly glad you've turned up. Miss Bryce was doubtful about it, and it was quite on the cards that I should have to go and hunt for you, although I hadn't the remotest idea where the dickens I could find you."
Carlac was studying the bronzed face, and a slow smile crossed his heavy jowl. Vernon was a member of Colonel Bryce's suite, and was, therefore, a potential enemy.
"I don't think that we have much to fear from you," he decided. "A brainless cub. And all the better for that!"
It is not always advisable to judge a man by his first impressions. Lieutenant Vernon was young and rather dandy in the matter of dress; but he was not altogether without brains, as the future was to prove.
Nothing could exceed the warmth of the welcome that the two arch-scoundrels received. Muriel Bryce was particularly kind to them both, and Vernon, head over heels in love with the beautiful girl, was inclined to scowl a little when he found himself so very much in the background.
It was arranged that Kew and Carlac should take up their residence at the palace, and they did so. And it was also arranged by the colonel that they should travel to England together.
"My dear chap, it is my convenience that I am studying," the colonel admitted. "I might tell you that this journey of mine is going to be a most anxious one."
They were seated at the dinner-table, with cigars and liqueurs. Carlac had cunningly suggested that the presence of his companion and himself might embarrass the travellers.
"In what way, colonel?" Kew's voice was quite steady.
"Well, I'm taking with me a chest with a king's ransom in gold, inside it," the colonel returned. "And, 'pon my word, I don't like the job one little bit."
"Colonel Bryce is referring to the rajah's gift to our King," Vernon put in. "I suppose you've heard about that?"
His grey eyes were fixed on Carlac, but that individual was a master of the art of self-control.
"I'm afraid I haven't," he returned. "Kay and I have been in the hills—Tibet and Darjeeling—for the past two months. We were quite out of touch with civilisation."
The colonel arose to his feet.
"Well, if you care to come along with me, I'll show you the thing we've got to travel with. It might interest you." Muriel who was seated next to Vernon, noted a frown cross the handsome face, as the two strangers arose and followed their host.
"What are you frowning at?" the girl asked, with a quick, roguish laugh. Vernon turned to her.
"The colonel is much too trusting," he said. "Of course, I know that the treasure-chest is safe enough here in Kashopore. No man could get it outside the palace and live to tell the tale. But, later on, it might be different." Muriel laughed.
"Stuff and nonsense!" she said. "I think that you are in a very suspicious mood this evening, Mr. Vernon. You surely don't think that these two men are likely to steal the chest?" "Well, I—I—"
Muriel arose to her feet, her nose in the air.
"I'm surprised at you!" she went on. "After all, these gentlemen saved dad and I, and if that doesn't make them worth cultivating in your eyes, then you don't think very much of—of me!" She was about to hurry away, when Vernon, leaping forward, caught her by the arm.
"You know that I think all the world of you, Muriel," he said, in a deep, passionate voice. "Why do you tease me like this?" The girl looked up into his love-filled eyes, then her own melted. With a quick movement she leaned forward and gave him a butterfly-like kiss.
"I'm not teasing, dear," she said. "Only, I do think you are much too suspicious. I really think that it's this stupid war-chest. I shall be glad when it has been safely handed over to the rajah." Vernon released her, and stepped back a pace.
"Perhaps it is the beastly chest," he returned. "And you are certainly quite right. I, too, will be jolly pleased when it has gone. It's far too heavy a responsibility for my liking."
Colonel Bryce had lead the way down a narrow flight of stairs and into a small, vaulted room. He lighted a lamp, and held it aloft.
"There is the war-chest," he said.
It was a massive, solidly made receptacle. The carving was deep, and toned with age. Iron bands, riveted through the solid wood, gave it an appearance of strength.
Kew and Carlac stepped forward to examine the chest. Despite the fact that they had nerves like steel, neither could control the swift thrill that ran through their veins.
Here was the very treasure that they had set out to obtain, by foul means or by fair. Locked beneath that heavy lid were piles upon piles of golden coins. A king's ransom!
"You do not seem to take much trouble to guard it, colonel," Carlac said. "I did not notice any sentries."
Colonel Bryce laughed.
"No man in the world could shift that chest from here," he said. "Try and move it." Carlac caught at the stout handle, and put out all his vast strength. The chest did not budge an inch. "Gold is heavy, you see," their host went on. "It takes four men to shift it. Besides, there is not a soul in Puljara would dare even to lay his finger on that chest. It is the rajah's property, and sacred. It means death to anyone who touches it without his permission."
The two rogues followed him back into the dining-room. Kew was quiet and thoughtful, leaving the conversation to his companion.
For as they stood over the chest there had come to the wizened professor a foreboding that he could not define. The breath of some far-off danger, chilling his soul. "Death to anyone who touches it!"
That black prison that they had passed in the morning. Would it one day open its gates to swallow—
With an effort he drew his thoughts back, and into his beady eyes there came the old look of greed and avariciousness. These two passions that had turned him from a skilled, clever physician, one of the greatest surgeons that the world had ever known, into a hunted criminal, with every man's hand against him.
"I'll risk it," he thought, his vulture face hard and set. "It is a far cry from London to Kashopore, and the rajah cannot reach me in England."
Was he right or wrong?
Tinker and Muriel
"THAT'S the worst of a great, hulking dog like you, Pedro. You cannot be taken out in the daytime, like an ordinary-pup! You're too big and hefty, and people want to make a fuss of you."
Tinker, his hand tight on the strong leather leash that was attached to the collar of the great bloodhound, Pedro, voiced his grumble in what was rather a kindly tone.
As a matter of fact, the young detective was only too glad to snatch every opportunity he could get to take the big hound out for a stroll. Pedro, under ordinary circumstances, usually lived in the East End, for there was no convenience for him at Baker Street. But Tinker was constantly bringing the dog to the chambers, and there it remained until the old landlady fired up and insisted on it being taken back to its quarters.
"She hasn't grumbled yet, old man," the youngster went on; "but that's because you're getting jolly artful. Who taught you to stow yourself away below my bed every time the old dear comes upstairs—eh?"
He laughed as he spoke, and Pedro, turning his huge head, gave a wave of his tail that was as eloquent as speech.
They had turned westward, through the maze of streets that lie between Baker Street and Edgware Road. Crossing that busy thoroughfare, Tinker went on down a broad, quiet street, and presently turned into a small square. He was heading for Hyde Park, but was shaping a rather erratic course. He had nothing much to do, and London, in the half-gloom that the fear of Zeppelins had necessitated, had its fascination.
"Well, if that isn't most annoying!"
Tinker was almost within touching distance of the stooping figure before he realised that it really was a human being. The voice was a charming silvery one, and Tinker came to a halt. As he did so the girl looked up, and gave vent to a little gasp as she saw the slender youngster with the huge hound by his side.
"Goodness, how you frightened me!" she gasped, rising to her feet.
It was quite thirty yards to the nearest lamp post, but there was just sufficient light to allow Tinker to see that the face turned towards him was a charming one, and that the girl was in evening dress, without a hat. A soft cloak had slipped from one smooth, white shoulder, and she drew it into its place again, at the same time running a small hand through her hair.
"I'm very sorry, miss," Tinker began, raising his hat.
"Oh, that's quite all right!" came the laughing reply. "But—well, it was really that great dog with its big eyes that made me jump!"
"Have you—have you lost anything?"
"Yes; and I'll never be able to find it, either. It is a jewelled comb."
"Where did you lose it?"
The girl waved her hand vaguely.
"Somewhere about here," she returned. "I just came out for a breath of fresh air, and walked across to the gardens. I did not notice that I had dropped the comb until I came back here." She looked down at the pavement.
"It is one of a set, and very valuable. An Indian rajah made me a present of them on my last birthday. I believe they are worth about sixty pounds each!"
"Phew! You don't want to lose a thing worth that amount, miss!"
She seemed a sweet, friendly woman. She chatted away in a bright manner, and Tinker decided that she was worth helping. He knew that there would be very small chance of her getting her ornament back again if she waited until the morning. Your London milkman, dustman, and newspaper boy are as honest as the day, but there are others less honest who haunt the better-class thoroughfares in the small hours—vagrant prowlers, like the carrion dogs of the Oriental cities, seeking whatsoever chance may throw in their way, from gutter and drain.
"I suppose it isn't really worth while searching," she went on, with a little sorrowful shrug of her shoulders. "I'm sure that no human being could find my comb on a dark night like this."
Tinker smiled, and his hand slipped down the leash, loosening it.
"You're quite right, miss," he returned, "no human being could find your comb, but there's an old fellow here who has something better to guide him than eyes." The girl looked round as though expecting to see a third person. Tinker smothered a laugh. "I mean the dog, miss," he said, "he is a bloodhound, the wisest and best in the world." His companion turned towards him with a quick swing.
"That dear old doggie?" she said. "Do you really mean to say that he can find—"
"Give me one of your combs," said Tinker.
The girl handed him the jewelled ornament out of her hair without a moment's hesitation. It was a little proof of instinctive trust, which made Tinker all the more eager to help. "Here, Pedro!" he said. The hound snuffled at the comb. "Oh, poor thing! How can you expect him to find it?"
It was certainly a hard task. As a rule Pedro's work was the tracing of human beings. Tinker stepped back, watching the hound. It was a real test, and his pride in the wonderful sagacity of his beloved companion would not dare him to think of defeat.
"Seek, old man—seek!"
There came from the hound a half impatient snuffle. Pedro glanced first at Tinker, then at the intent, eager girl by his side. Then the big hound stepped out on the roadway, and his muzzle nosed at something on the ground.
With a quick laugh and a cry of delight, the girl darted towards the dog, stooped, and lifted the object.
"He—he thinks we were both such fools!" she cried, tucking one slender arm round Pedro's massive throat. "And so we were, you dear thing!"
"Did he find it?" Tinker asked.
The girl held up her hand; the comb was sending a red, dull glow from between her fingers.
"Of course he did! Don't you see what it was? These great big eyes of his had found it long ago, and he was just thinking to himself how foolish we both were."
She made a pretty picture, stooping there in the shadows, one arm round the hound's neck, her small mouth open, her white teeth gleaming.
"Good old Pedro!" said Tinker.
He was genuinely delighted with the hound, and as the girl arose, he reached out and replaced the leash.
"But you mustn't go like that!" his companion said. "I—I am really very much obliged, and—and—"
She was just about to offer some sort of reward, but the movement that Tinker made brought her to a halt. She flushed in the darkness, then, with a laugh, held out her hand.
"My name is Muriel Bryce," she said; "I live at number five. Won't you please give me your name? I should love to come and see this dear, clever dog some time."
Tinker hesitated for a moment, then gave his name and address.
"I'm afraid that you won't have much chance of seeing Pedro there, however," he added; "it is only now and again that we have him with us."
"Well, I'll risk it, and—and thank you so much again. Good-night!"
Muriel and Tinker shook hands; then, after a pat on the hound's head, the slender figure tripped off down the pavement and turned into the porch of a small house. She waved to Tinker as she vanished, and the lad raised his cap.
"No that is what I call a real English lady, Pedro," Tinker murmured, as he resumed his walk—"no side, no swank—just real good breeding!"
At the corner of the square he glanced up and read the name.
"Downe Square—never heard of it before."
He saw now that it was a very tiny oasis of a place, with not more than half-a-dozen houses on each side. Bayswater and Mayfair are dotted with just such similar havens of quiet.
Tinker went on down the street that led from the square, and presently there turned the corner a slow-moving taxi. The driver was keeping close to the kerb, and was looking up at the houses as he moved along.
Catching sight of Tinker and the dog, the driver slipped his clutch for a moment.
"Where's Downe Square, mister?" he asked.
Before Tinker could reply an extraordinary thing happened. The door furthest away from the pavement opened, and a figure in a dark cloak leaped out, swinging towards the driver.
"Keep your mouth shut, you fool!" a harsh voice rasped. "If you don't know the way, keep quiet!"
Tinker saw the cloaked figure lean forward and knock the driver's foot aside, so that the spinning clutch was re-engaged and the taxi shot forward.
"Here, what the blazes—"
There was a jar and a crash, and the driver took control of his vehicle again. The cab stopped and the driver, infuriated at this high-handed proceeding, leaped from his seat. "Yer might have bust the blinkin' keb up!" he bellowed. "Wot do yer mean by it, hey?"
Tinker and Pedro stood on the edge of the kerb to watch the scene. The driver, obviously enraged, danced up to his passenger, his fists clenched.
"Come on, yer monkey-faced skunk!" he bawled. "I'll giver yer, interferin' with my—"
He never completed his remark. As he rushed at the cloaked form an arm was extended, and Tinker heard a faint coughing sound. Chough!
There was no flash, no report, but the driver, as though struck by some deadly missile, threw up his hands and fell flat on his back in the middle of the road. The cloaked figure, wheeling round, without as much as another glance at the heap at his feet, sped off up the street and vanished.
It was only then that Tinker really moved in the matter. Pedro, for some unaccountable reason, had commence to strain and whimper at his leash.
"All right, old man," Tinker murmured. "I don't suppose that the driver's very much hurt. Probably a punch in the jaw, although neither you nor I saw the blow. He stepped out towards the man lying in the road.
"Come along, old chap!" said Tinker, stooping forward. "You can't be so badly hurt as—"
He touched the driver, and at the pressure of his fingers the shoulder moved round and the head fell back. Tinker peered for a moment into the upturned face, with its fixed, dull eyes and drawn back lips. A cry of utter amazement broke from the young assistant. "Good heavens, he is dead!"
There was no mistake about it. The unfortunate man had been terribly punished for his brief and natural anger. The discovery shocked Tinker, and for a moment he stood irresolute; then, realising that there was only one course to pursue, he drew a police-whistle from his pocket and sent a shrill summons through the deserted streets.
An answering call came, and two minutes later a stalwart constable came upon the scene. A half-a-dozen words from Tinker gave the man the bare details of the affair, and also the identity of the speaker. "I've seen you often, Mr. Tinker," the constable said; "and, anyhow, I recognise your dog."
He pointed to Pedro. The hound was still betraying a curious impatience, and his head was turned always in the direction of the square—the direction that the mysterious fare had taken.
"Not much good of you trying to follow him," Tinker said; "you haven't even got his scent."
Yet Pedro still strained and whimpered, and it was only when Tinker, at the suggestion of the constable, took the dead man's place at the wheel of the cab, that the hound gave up his importunities. The driver had been lifted into the vehicle, and, with the constable inside with his gruesome charge and Pedro on the step beside him, Tinker drove the taxi to St. Hugon's Hospital.
"I should say that he died of suffocation." The house-surgeon gave his verdict in the uncertain voice of a man in doubt. "Yet, on your story, it does not seem possible."
Tinker and the constable, with an inspector who had come from the nearest police-station, were standing in the surgeon's room. The brief examination of the body had just concluded.
"It beats me!" the young detective returned. "As far as I could see, there wasn't a blow struck. The other man simply stretched out his hand and there was a soft sort of cough, and the driver went down like a nine-pin!"
There was nothing further for him to do at the hospital, and he and the inspector went out together. The officer was obviously ill at ease.
"A nice sort of case to have to tackle," he grumbled. "No blow struck, the surgeon not really sure how the poor beggar came by his end, and—and not so much as a clue to go on to find the man that did it."
"Except that he had asked the driver to take him to Downe Square," Tinker put in. The inspector shook his head.
"We're not even sure of that," he returned. "The driver asked you for Downe Square, but how are we to know that his fare was actually going there? It might have been one of the streets off it, or the driver might even have been looking for a short cut."
There was certainly a possibility that the inspector's gloomy diagnosis of the case was correct.
"And to-morrow the papers will be full of it. 'Another Crime of the Darkness. What are our police doing?' That's the sort of headline they'll put up, I'll bet!"
Despite the tragedy that he had witnessed, Tinker could not help smiling at the tone of voice.
"Anyhow, it is not your fault," he said, consolingly. "No man could have foreseen what happened."
Yet when he parted with the inspector Tinker felt that in someway or other he had been the indirect cause of the crime. He had no reason to apply to justify this assumption, yet deep in his heart the feeling arose and grew that it was the fact of the driver stopping to ask him the way that had resulted in his death.
Then a sudden thought flashed into his mind, and he came to a halt.
"By Jove! It is possible that the murderer recognised me?"
He remembered that he had been standing under a lamp-post when the taxi drew up. Anyone inside the vehicle could easily have seen his face.
Then Pedro's strange behaviour formed another link. Had the hound, with its deeper sagacity, recognised some old enemy?
Tinker looked down at the big hound with a half-rueful expression on his face.
"By jiminy, my son, I'm beginning to think that you and I play the wrong roles. It ought to be you that had charge of the leash, and I ought to be wearing that collar. You've proved to-night once that your eyes were keener than mine—and I shouldn't be surprised if you were right the second time."
It was too late to do anything now, however. The criminal, stranger or ancient enemy, had made good his escape. It would have been worse than useless to attempt to trace him, even with the aid of the hound. Pedro might have been able to follow the man had they started at once, but now it would be necessary to get some article of clothing belonging to the unknown—and that was an impossibility.
"No; you've got clear away, whoever you are," Tinker muttered. "And the only question that concerns me now is: why did you want to keep the address that you were going to away from me?"
He could find no answer to that problem then, and indeed, clever though the youngster was, he was not to be blamed for that.
Tinker could not know that it was the sight of his keen, well-remembered face, and more particularly the sinewy shape of the great bloodhound, that had aroused a sudden panic of fear in the heart of a rogue.
Professor Kew's iron nerve had deserted him for the moment—for it was he who was seated in the vehicle.
He had come back from a momentous visit. Earlier that afternoon he had gone to the address of the antique-dealer, and had been shown the result of his letter.
A great chest, the exact counterpart—carrying, iron bands, everything—of that which stood in the strong room in No. 5, Downe Square!
A taxicab, had been chartered, and Kew had seen the chest safely handed over to a lynx-eyed individual, who had been introduced to him by Carlac as "Flash" Harry.
It was the initial move of their great scheme in London, and the professor had been weighing over the various details on his return journey to Downe Square. Then, as though by sheer chance, he had caught sight of the lad and dog—the loyal servants of the only man in the world that Kew hated and feared.
And what followed had been the result of that panic. His death-tube that he always carried had not failed him, and he had escaped.
But he was in a welter of fear as he entered the quiet home of the man he intended to victimise, and he made for his bedroom at once, to pace up and down, hands behind back, his vulture head on his breast.
He had killed a man, but that thought did not trouble him. It was the appearance of Tinker so close to Downe Square that kept the brooding man, pacing up and down long into the night.
At the Antique Dealer's
"HE was such a hard-workin' chap, sir"—the tearful voice had a subdued pathos in it—"and he didn't have an enemy in the world. Heaven knows what me and the kiddies are going to do now."
Sexton Blake glanced compassionately at the drab figure seated on the edge of one of the comfortable chairs in his consulting-room. Tinker, always nervous in front of a grief-stricken woman, cast a quick, appealing look at his master.
When "Mrs. Todd" had been announced by the landlady, neither Blake nor his assistant had any idea who she was. But her opening remarks soon told Tinker that it was his adventure of the previous evening that had brought her here. She was the wife of the dead taxi-driver, and it appeared that the police-inspector had sent her on to Baker Street.
"Why was he killed?" the woman asked again, turning a tear-stained face to Blake. "He never 'armed anyone in his life. I know that my Joe was a bit hasty-tempered-like, but he never did no harm to anyone."
Sexton Blake was a busy man, and the case of the murdered taxi-driver was hardly one of the type that he cared to tackle. It was one of those street crimes that the police make their province, and under ordinary circumstances Blake would have taken no part in the investigations.
But the appeal of the poor and destitute class always made a big impression on the great detective's charity. And this forlorn creature, in her tears and misery, had found the best way of appealing to him for help.
Half an hour later, when he dismissed her, there was a shadow of hope in her faded eyes. Tinker saw his master slip something into the work-worn hand, and heard the woman's murmur of thanks. When Blake came back into the consulting-room, he eyed Tinker with the ghost of a smile on his finely-chiselled lips.
"So your little stroll last night had a sequel to it—eh?"
"I didn't want to trouble you, guv'nor," he explained. "I knew that you were busy enough as it was. Besides, there was really nothing to be done."
"That was quite right, old chap," said Blake; "but this poor woman puts a different complexion on the affair. By a foul deed she has been robbed of the bread-winner of her little home. That is a far greater tragedy in the lives of the poor than of the well-to-do. We must try and help her, Tinker."
He glanced at the notes he had taken. The woman lived in Whitechapel, and the cab was garaged close by. It was her husband's own private property, having been bought by instalments.
Blake had taken the number of the vehicle, and also the place that it usually stood when out for hire.
"It's not going to be an easy task," he said; "but there is just a remote chance of us tracing the taxi's movements yesterday, Anyhow, we will have a try."
It was a hard task.
They found out that Todd had not been seen on his usual stand on the previous day. Inquiries at the garage, however, gave Blake the information that Todd had been hired for a wedding, that had kept him busy for the whole of the afternoon. The wedding-party had gone to an hotel, and finally Todd and two other drivers had taken their guests to their respective homes.
"The job must have kept him on the go until about eight o'clock, sir," the garage-owner said; "then, I suppose he went on to try and pick up a casual or two. But, maybe, Steve Jones could help you to find out what happened afterwards. He was with Todd at the wedding-party."
Blake got the address of Steve, and finally ran his man to earth, in a little flat in a high tenement building. Steve had evidently not yet turned out for his usual day's work. He was a short, thick-set man, and seemed inclined to talk.
Blake's news concerning Todd's death seemed to shock his listener. After giving Jones a brief account of the tragedy, the detective began to question him.
"Yes, that's right," said Steve; "me and Todd was both at the wedding. And, by jiminy, I thought that they was never going to finish. It was arter six o'clock before they left the hotel—and some of 'em wasn't half lively, either."
"Where did you go?"
"Oh, Todd and me drove off together," the driver explained. "We got our money, and then, as we was both jolly hungry, we went down to the shelter in Shapper Street, and had a bite. While we was there a 'phone message came for a taxi, and I went off first. Todd thought there might be a chance of picking up something and he followed me."
"Did you see him again?"
Steve was silent for a moment.
"I couldn't swear to it, you see, mister," he said at last; "and, as this might mean a police court job, I likes to be sure." The great detective smiled at the man's caution.
"You are quite right," he said; "it is always best to be careful. Still you are not giving evidence on oath now, and if there is any little point that you think might help, let me have it."
"Well, sir, it's like this. I stopped at the address where the 'phone message came from, and picked up my fares. They were a long time about it, and they'd got some heavy luggage with them. But when I turned to leave, I did think that I saw Todd's cab. It was crawling down the pavement towards me, and I gave him a wave of the hand. But there was a gent, signalling at the same time, and, if it really were Todd, he didn't see me. You know, it's pretty dark in London at night-time.
"Where did you pick up your fares?"
"Anton's, 30a, Luer Road. It's an antique furniture shop."
Blake nodded his head. "I know Anton," he said.
"He's a queer chap, that," Jones put in; "but it weren't him that I took in my cab. They was customer's of his, I reckon. They'd bought an old box, or something, from him. Blimey! It was heavy! I'd to get down and give them a hand to fix it on the luggage-step."
Small, almost trivial, details, these. Yet Blake's vast brain treasured them all. It is only by a system of this kind that, bit by bit, scrap by scrap, the great mysteries of the world are solved. "And how far away was the cab which you thought might have been Todd's?"
"Just underneath the next lamp-post," said Jones. "Of course, mister, I ain't swearing that it was his—only at the back o' my mind I do think that it was."
"You would make a very good witness, Jones," Blake said quietly, "and one that could be relied upon." The taxi-driver stood up.
"I'd like to do something to 'elp, sir," he said. "Todd was one of the best, he was. It's a blinkin' shame that he should be murdered. He never did anyone any harm. Maybe a bit hot-tempered, but that's nothing."
Tinker had waited at the entrance to the building, and when Blake appeared, the young assistant glanced keenly at his master.
"Any luck, guv'nor."
"I shouldn't like to venture an opinion just yet, Tinker," Blake returned, "but we have a little line to work on now." This time it was to Anton's place that Blake journeyed, by taxi. As he entered the frowsy, dingy shop, the thin, lean-faced proprietor came forward. Anton recognised Blake at once, and held out his hand, the usual inscrutable smile on his lips. "And how is Mr. Blake?"
Blake returned the greeting, and looked around him. No one had ever been able to point an accusing finger at Lew Anton. His business was at least genuine. He was a maker of false antiques. His little workshop at the back of the premises had seen more spurious Chippendale and Jacobean furniture turned out to deceive even the connoisseur than any other maker in London.
"Nothing in the almost antique line for you this morning, I suppose?" Anton went on, rubbing his long, clever fingers together. They were stained and hacked by much handling of tools and polishes, for Anton did most of his better-class work himself.
"No, Anton, I'm not on the buy. I want a little information." The antique dealer pursed his lips.
"You know my unvarying rule, Mr. Blake. A customer's business with me is a sacred trust."
"That's all right, old chap!" laughed Blake, who understood the man perfectly. "I'm not going to find out whether somebody's cherished treasures are really genuine, or samples of your work." Anton looked relieved, and half apologised. "It wouldn't be fair to them, you know," he explained.
"What I want to find out is the movements of a certain taxi-driver," said Blake. "He was observed to pick up a fare close to your shop, and I was hoping that you might have noted it."
"That's a difficult question," the dealer murmured. "When is it supposed to have happened?"
"Last night. Just about the same time as a customer of yours 'phoned for a taxi to take away a box from here."
"Ah, yes! That was between eight and nine, I should think. I couldn't swear to the time, of course.""That would be about the time."
Blake briefly repeated the details what he had had from Jones. Anton listened quietly, then shook his head.
"I'd like to help you, but I'm afraid I cannot," he said at last, "for, as a matter of fact, I did not go out of my shop. The—the article that was being taken away was very weighty, and I had to send my assistant along with the customer to help carry it to the taxi."
"I suppose your customer could not help me?"
The antique-faker smiled—a wintry smile.
"Now, of course, you are stepping on forbidden ground," he put in. "I dare not give you my customer's address!" Blake was well aware of the old fellow's prejudices, and the detective had to confess that Anton's attitude was the correct one.
No individual cares to have it known that his cherished antiques are really only clever fakes, and the mere fact of Anton supplying one with articles was quite sufficient to label them as fake. "That makes it rather awkward, Anton," said Blake, "for I am very anxious to trace this taxi." The lean proprietor shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't think that my customer could help you, in any case," he went on. "If you inquire, you will find that the chest"—he mentioned the article almost before he was aware of what he said—"has been taken to Paddington Station—left-luggage office. I believe it is intended to travel to the East."
That information certainly settled matters so far as that particular channel of information was concerned. Blake, clever though he was, could hardly be expected to trace an unknown proprietor of a left-luggage article through London!
"That has settled it!" the detective agreed, revealing no trace of disappointment on his face. "And now, have you anything to show me? I have five or six minutes to spare."
Anton's intellectual face lighted up; then a quick shadow of disappointment crossed it.
Blake had often visited the little shop, and his keen knowledge of antiques had made Anton relish his opinion.
"If you had only come along here yesterday, Mr. Blake," he said, "I would have shown you something worth while?"
He drew himself up, all the pride of the artist shimmering in his faded eyes.
"A masterpiece!" he said. "It is the best thing I have ever done! I would have defied even the great Hindu artist himself, who designed the original, to have made a more perfect duplicate!"
"But if it's gone, what's the use of arousing my desire to see it?" Blake laughed.
And then the pride of the artist conquered for a brief moment the caution of the man of business.
"After all, I don't suppose that there can be much harm!" Anton muttered, half to himself. "The chest is going back to India—probably on its way there now!"
He had no reason to think otherwise. Professor Kew, who was just a mere customer so far as Anton was concerned, had been cunning enough to tell the dealer that his work was to be sent out to India for comparison with the original. Kew had taken this course in order to arouse the professional pride of his dupe. He had been successful, for Anton's work on the chest was a masterpiece of elaborate and careful copying; but by the false statement, Kew was to lay himself open to future discovery.
"Yes, I'll show you the photographs."
He slid behind the counter, and returned presently with a sheaf of faded photographs. They were of the chest, and gave views of each carved side and top. Dim though the were, Blake could pick out the exquisite carvings and tracery. "And you really made a copy of this?" The face of the dealer flushed with pride.
"I was at it, day and night, for the best part of three months," he said, "and I give you my professional word that in every detail—line for line, grain, and finish—my duplicate equals the original!"
"Then, by Jove, I should have liked to see it!" said Blake. "It looks like one of those old Indian chests that one rajah sent to another in the old fighting days either as a war indemnity or as a peace offering."
"I don't know its history," said Anton, truthfully enough. "I was only interersted in the work."
Blake and Tinker spent half-an-hour in the old fellow's shop, and Anton came to the door to see them off.
"It's been very interesting, guv'nor," Tinker said, in his dry way, "but we haven't got much forra'der!"
"That's true!" the great detective returned. "And yet, I don't know! I am inclined to trust to the word of Jones. He is a cautious sort, and is not likely to make a mistake."
He glanced at his assistant.
"Anton is as close as an oyster, but both you and I know that some of his customers are very queer fish. I am half-inclined to think that the unknown fare who was picked up by Todd in Luer Road was the same man that murdered him."
"But it was much later than that when I saw the taxi at Downe Square, guv'nor.
"Yes, that's so. But we won't theorise any longer. I'm going to make another effort, and if this is unsuccessful I will confess myself at fault." Tinker placed his hand over his waistcoat.
"I could make an effort on a decent steak, guv'nor!" he said, and his lugubrious tone told Blake that he meant it.
It was now well on in the afternoon, and they had breakfasted early.
They turned into a restaurant, and had a meal; then Blake chartered another taxi.
"Paddington!" he said to the driver.
Tinker's eyes brightened as he caught the word.
"You think that—"
"I'm not going to think anything!" came the quiet reply. "I'm just experimenting."
An hour later, however, Tinker had proofs that the unerring instinct of his master had not been at fault. They traced the chest, to find that it had been left in the luggage department only a very short time, the owner returning an hour or so later and removing it. The porter, who assisted in the task, gave Blake a description of the two individuals who had claimed the weighty object.
"One of them was a big, burly gent,—looked like a Colonial—and the other was a tall and rather flashily dressed." A very meagre description, and neither of them tallying with Tinker's brief memory of the under-sized man in the long cloak.
The chest had been placed into a hooded cart, and the porter had not noted any name on the vehicle. And that was all they could discover about the chest.
But outside the station Blake found an intelligent railway policeman, who filled in a great gap.
He had seen Todd and his taxi, and had observed the cloaked man alight. He noted this particularly, because the cloaked man had ordered the driver to wait for him. The stranger had gone into the station, and had remained there for about half an hour. He had reappeared at last in company with a burly man, who had evidently entered the station by the Underground. The two men waited until a hooded cart had entered the covered portion of the station; then the cloaked figure had gone back into his taxi alone.
From the policeman's description, there was no doubt but that the man who had spoken to the unknown murderer was the same as had gone off with the spurious chest.
"And that is as far as we can go just now, Tinker," Blake explained, as they left the station. "You see, one of my theories was correct. The man who waited at the lamp-post outside Anton's shop was interested in the removal of the chest. We have proved that conclusively."
"It's been a hot job, guv'nor," the lad said admiringly. "And it looks so blinkin' simple now it's been done!" Blake laughed.
"The whole art of following up clues depends on one's ability to eliminate the unnecessary, old chap," he explained. "I'm not going to theorise, and we must just accept what we have actually found. Todd, driving his cab, left Paddington at an hour that would just give him time to reach Downe Square about the moment that you were there. We have filled in all his day for him, and by doing so we have established one great fact—that is, that the man who engaged him in Luer Road was the actual murderer."
"That was the point, guv'nor," the quick-witted assistant agreed, "for, of course, Todd might have picked up half a dozen fares from the time Jones saw him last until I witnessed the crime."
They had both spent a thoroughly fatiguing day, and were glad to make their way back to Baker Street. A telephone message was waiting for Tinker, asking him to ring up the police-station. He did so, and heard the inspector's report.
"Nothing doing, guv'nor," the lad said, as he replaced the receiver. "They've been all round Downe Square and the neighbourhood, but no one seems to be able to help them. The inspector is inclined to think that it wasn't Downe Square that the taxi was making for, but some street beyond it. Perhaps he is right, you know, for the driver didn't ask for a number—only for the square itself?'
"That's a rock that we might very likely split on," said Blake. "However we'll see! The inspector is entitled to his own opinion, and certainly he ought to know the type of people who live in that neighbourhood."
A high tea was waiting for them, with fresh buttered toast and the scones that, on special occasions, the landlady condescended to bake for them. Tinker had a wolfish appetite, and made a great meal. Half-way through it, the door of the dining-room was pushed aside, and Pedro, yawing, came into the room, to lay his great head on Blake's knee and wave his strong tail.
"Hallo, you rascal!" Blake said, patting the sage head. "So you haven't been banished yet? Better lie low, then!" The entry of Pedro aroused an almost forgotten memory in Tinker's mind.
"I can find a good home for him, guv'nor," he announced with a grin, for he knew that Blake would not part with Pedro for all the gold in the world. "Indeed?"
"Yes, and, by jiminy, it's at Downe Square, too!" Blake looked up.
"It seems to me as though that square is bulking very large in your life, old chap."
"I'd forgotten all about Pedro," Tinker admitted. "The other affair wiped it clean away."
He gave his master an account of the little adventure in the gloomy square and the clever way in which Pedro had found the jewelled ornament.
"And the young lady said that she was coming round here to see old Pedro again!" Tinker grinned. "I'd like to see our old dame's face when she does come to the door and asks about 'that dratted dog'!"
"I'm afraid Miss Bryce will be doomed to disappointment unless she hurries up!" was Blake's remark. "And, by the way, her name sounds rather familiar. Do you know anything about her?"
"Not a word except that she's every inch a lady!" said Tinker gallantly. "And she wears wonderful combs—worth fifty pounds each, and were given to her as a birthday present from a rajah."
He heard his master give a quick breath, and looked. Blake's face had changed completely—the lines of deep thought about the eyes were plainly visible, the lips were set, and the whole countenance was set and grim.
"A birthday present from a rajah! And she lives in Downe Square!"
He rose abruptly from his chair and went out of the dining-room. Tinker heard the door of the study close, then quiet footfalls sounded. The lad reached out and patted Pedro.
"That's done it, old man," he said; "somehow or other the guv'nor's got his thinking cap on, and that means you and I will have to amuse ourselves for the rest of the evening." He knew that it was his remark that had roused some quick idea in the master brain of the man he admired. Tinker, shrewd and keen-witted, tried to discover what it was, but he failed.
"Can't be done," he muttered, pushing his chair back. "I am a jolly clever young man, but when the guv'nor get busy, you can push me back in among the 'also tried's,' Pedro. But I'll bet that whatever it is, there's nothing against the little lady you and I met last night. She was just a peach and a picture, and if I weren't a pal of yours, Pedro, I'd be jealous. For she certainly didn't put her arm round my neck, nor—nor kiss me under the ear!"
The Theft of the War Chest
In one of the rooms on the second floor of No. 4, Downe Square, there had gathered three men—Professor Kew, Count Ivor Carlac, and the third, an overdressed, sleek rascal, known to his associates as Flash Harry.
The house, situated next to No. 5, had long stood vacant, and the agents had only been too glad to let it on a short lease. Flash Harry, representing himself as the confidential secretary to a wealthy man who desired to keep his name out of the affair, had told the agents a very plausible story. He had made out that the house was to be used as a nursing home for wounded and convalescent colonials, hinting that his employer was a rich Canadian.
The first three months rent had been paid in advance, and a number of workmen had been engaged on the place. Carpenters and plasterers were constantly in and out of the house, lending colour to Flash Harry's story.
He himself furnished a couple of rooms and gave out that he would take up residence there as soon as the alterations were completed.
The local firm of builders who had undertaken the work of altering the house little dreamed that their legitimate business was serving to cover an elaborate fraud.
None of the neighbours thought that there was anything wrong when they heard the sound of hammer and chisel going long into the night. It was known that the work was being pushed forward at express speed so that the place might be ready for its future inmates as soon as possible.
Kew's active brain had organised the whole affair, and now he was there to make his final arrangements.
"I don't see what you've got to worry about, gents," Flash Harry commented: "everything has gone just like clockwork. I've had the grate and wall pierced, and there's a gap big enough for four men to walk through into the room next door. And the job has been done by my own pals—who daren't give me away."
He crossed to the black marble mantelpiece that looked solid enough, in all conscience, and tapped it.
"A fine piece of work," he grinned, "although I say it who shouldn't."
Carlac glanced across at him, then looked at Kew.
"I agree with you, Harry," the burly criminal returned; "you have done extraordinarily well. Our friend, however, seems to have developed nerves—and it's the first time I've ever known him to do the like."
Kew was seated on the edge of a chair, his shrivelled figure curled up in its usual bird-like pose. The hawk face lifted, and the beady eyes turned on Carlac.
"I have developed nerves—but that does not mean that I am afraid." he returned, in his clear thin tones. "It only means that we have to be little more cautious."
"But we've been cautious enough, haven't we?" Flash Harry commented. "Take that old chest, for instance; it came in here in full view of the workmen this morning—disguised as a sideboard. The trick of fitting false legs and a false back to it was a masterpiece, I reckon!"
He grinned towards the object he named. Already the legs and back had been moved from the great chest and a covering of tapestry had been flung across it as it stood in the corner of the room.
"I give you all that," the grim-visaged professor said. "It is not the chest nor the work that you have performed here that I am troubled over. It was the fact of meeting that young cub, Tinker."
He had made a confidant of Carlac in the matter, but the broad-shouldered criminal shook his head.
"I think that you were mistaken this time, Kew," he returned; "there is no conceivable reasons to connect Tinker's appearance with our presence here. It was just an unfortunate coincidence; and the only thing I find to regret in the business is what happened after you set eyes on him."
Kew's cruel lips lifted in a passionate smile.
"Meaning the death of the taxi man," he said. "Oh, I am not concerned about him! He was a blundering fool, and would have caused trouble. I had to get away at once and without being recognised. The man would have detained me—he had to be removed."
He dismissed the matter with a wave of his lean hand.
"But, still, I am prepared to give in to you in this case, Carlac," he said. "If you are of the opinion that Blake knows nothing about us, then let us carry the final move out."
Kew arose to his feet.
"Why not. It is just five o'clock. The faithful Abul will be squatting outside the door of the treasure-room, tulwar over his knees, his keen ears on the alert. We could not choose a better occasion."
Now that the cool voice proposed the actual deed, Flash Harry, a craven at heart, began to have qualms.
"Couldn't we wait for a bit," he muttered; "it's early yet. Perhaps later on there wouldn't be so much chance of us being heard. We—we might trip over something, then—"
"There are a hundred 'mights' that could happen," Kew's cutting voice returned; "what we have to do is to guard against all of them, and be very careful."
He turned his back on Harry, addressing Carlac.
"Now is the best time," he explained; "you and I are out of the house. We know that, this afternoon, Colonel Bryce and Lord Eagley, of the Foreign Office, both inspected the chest and its contents, assuring themselves that everything was correct. You hear the colonel say that that was going to be done. If the chest vanishes and the duplicate is put in its place now, who can blame us?"
The strong face of the tall criminal lighted up in a quick sarcastic smile.
"We don't want anyone to blame us," he returned grimly; "but, all the same, I think you're right. Now is the time."
He slipped out of his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, revealing the great bulging muscles of the forearm. Flash Harry eyed the powerful limb admiringly.
"I always said that the count ought to have been a wrestler," he said; "there's a muscle for you. Lord, he could tackle the pick of them, he could."
He had also removed his coat as he spoke, but Kew did not follow the example set by the other two. A sudden tense silence descended on the man. Carlac, with a quick, light tread, reached the chest and nodded to Flash Harry.
"We'll get it as near to the fireplace as we can," he whispered, in a low tone.
The chest had been weighted with heavy blocks of lead, and it was all that Flash Harry could do to carry his end across the room.
Kew had already removed the rugs and fire implements from the hearth. He looked up at Carlac, who nodded his head. "Right," the powerful man muttered.
Kew, stooping down, caught at the bars of the grate and pulled. Noiselessly the whole back portion of the fireplace swung upward and outward, leaving a gap four feet high and about four feet wide. Through the gap it was pitch dark, but the light from the room they were in shed a faint gleam into the interior beyond, revealing the edge of a carpet and an ornamental hearth.
"The glim—quick—out with it," Harry breathed. And Kew, leaping back to the gas-jet turned out the flame. Carlac lowered the corner of the chest, and stepping into the open gap, listened for a moment. There was no sound and at last he turned his head. "Pocket-torch!" he breathed. And a long slender tube was thrust into his hand.
A little bulb of light leaped from between his fingers and raced for a moment over the carpet, to settle at last on the square outlines of the rajah's war-chest. "Right, come on. Careful now!"
Anton's masterpiece was lifted, and with noiseless steps Carlac and Flash Harry entered the other room, dipping low to avoid the uplifted grate. They tip-toed across the chamber, and resting their own burden for a moment, tackled the heavy treasure-chest. It was almost more than they could manage; Carlac, strong as a bull, was capable of swinging his end, but Flash Harry, tug though he did until the sweat stood out in beads on his forehead, could not make it stir. Suddenly the man felt a breath at his side, and the voice of Kew sounded.
The great chest came up in answer to their combined efforts, and the slow painful journey towards the gap began. It was well for them that the chest had been deposited quite close to the grate of the room. They had only to carry it some ten or fifteen feet, and yet, by the time that it had been set down in the other room, Carlac was panting for breath. Flash harry collapsed over the top of the chest with a stifled groan.
"I—I'm—beat!" he muttered hoarsely.
There was a movement by his side. Kew darted to the table and opened a small case, returning a moment later with a small phial. "Drink that—quick!"
Flash Harry never knew what it was that trickled down his throat, stinging and potent. But it seemed to drive the fatigue from his limps like a charm. His swimming brain cleared and he straightened up. "Gee! That's better—what have we to do next?"
"Put the other chest into its proper place," Carlac whispered; "come along."
This time Kew took no part in the business beyond holding the torch so that his two confederates could put the false treasure-chest exactly over the place occupied by the real one. They had worked with feverish energy and the moments had seemed as long as hours, yet no more than ten minutes could have passed from the moment that Kew raised the grate until, after a careful inspection on his hands and knees by Carlac of the carpet in the other room, it was lowered into its place.
"We haven't left a mark behind us," he said, brushing the dust from his knees as he straightened up. "I think that that has been very neatly carried out."
Flash Harry was leaning against the wall wiping the sweat from his streaming face. Kew had lighted the gas again by now, and the trio of rogues eyed each other in silence.
"That must have weighed half a ton," Flash Harry breathed. "It's the heaviest thing I've ever tackled."
Kew bent over the wonderfully carved box. His beady eyes were flaming with the old avaricious glare.
"It was gold, my friend," his thin tones piped; "solid gold! If the burden had been twice as heavy we would have managed it."
The man leaning against the wall laughed.
"I didn't think you were so strong, professor," he admitted; "you certainly helped me. I couldn't have managed my end alone." Kew chuckled.
"That was not strength—simply will-power," he returned. "I willed that we should lift the chest. And we did." There was something uncanny about him, and Harry turned away with a half-shiver. He had always been afraid of Kew. Carlac was more of his type of leader. "Well, now we've got it, what's to happen?" He put that question in a bantering tone, and Carlac smiled.
"We have a safe place for it," he said; "but we cannot remove it just now. To-night we will call for it, and you must keep your eye on it until then. And don't forget about this," Kew went on, indicating the grate that he had now closed. "Your workmen will have to get busy at once, bricking in."
The chest was removed to the corner, and the piece of tapestry arranged over it once more so that it looked like a couch.
Not a word was said to Harry concerning his honesty, nor was it needed. For Flash Harry knew his men, and the world would not have been wide enough for him to find a hiding-place in, had he attempted to play the double game with them. He had been promised his reward—and it was a generous one. With that he had to be content.
Kew and Carlac left No. 4 by way of the narrow garden in rear of the house. It let them out into a narrow lane once used by tradespeople of a bygone generation, but now given over to a few stray cats.
It ended in a range of stables down one of the side streets that led into the square. The two rogues had tidied themselves before leaving No. 4, and there was no trace of the mighty effort he had made on Carlac's face as he rang the bell and entered the home of his genial host, Colonel Bryce.
The colonel himself was just descending the stairs as the two criminals entered. He came forward with outstretched hand, a picture of kindly welcome.
"I am hoping that your search for berths has been unsuccessful, Count Kaldross," he cried. Carlac shook his head.
"Then I'm afraid I must disappoint you, colonel," he returned. "Dr. Kay and I have fixed up to sail in a White Star from Liverpool to-morrow morning."
"But how unfortunate," Bryce went on. "I do wish that you could wait over the week-end. I believe his Highness will be in England by Tuesday at the very latest. I am sure that he would be glad to see you, for I have mentioned your valuable services to him."
"We did very little, colonel," said Kew, in his bland, smooth tones.
"Well, I don't know so much about that," the officer returned. "You took your turn at watching the chest on board ship, and would have done the same here if I would have allowed you. That's a jolly sight more than most people would care to do." Carlac bowed.
"It was a very small return for your many kindnesses, colonel," he replied. "And now I'm afraid that the doctor and I must get to work on our packing. We really ought to catch the midnight express for Liverpool to-night."
They went on up the stairs and along the corridor. Beneath a shaded electric-bulb was seated the great, turbanned figure of a trooper of the rajah's bodyguard. The man sat motionless, as though carved out of bronze, his curved sword across his massive knees, the keen blade shining beneath the reflected light from the bulb above him.
Kew gave Abul a word as he passed.
"It is all well with thy master's treasure, Abul?"
The white teeth of the Indian shone beneath the black beard. Abul nodded his head. "I am here to guard it, sahib," he said simply, "and all is well."
The face of the doctor twisted into a mocking grimace as he went down the passage and into his own room. He found one of the colonel's valets at work, laying out his evening dress.
"I'm packing up to-night, Carter," said Kew. "The count and I start for America in the morning. You might get my clothes together."
"Very good, sir," the servant returned.
To Kew there was a grim comedy about his presence in the house that evening. He had tricked his host and the grim-jawed sentinel so cleverly, that neither suspected him. He was going to eat Colonel Bryce's food, drink Colonel Bryce's wine, and at the end of it, he would leave Downe Square with Colonel Bryce's treasure-chest.
"A rogue can never be a gentleman," the grinning schemer decided, as he descended the stairs. "It is just Colonel Bryce's bad fortune that he should be in charge of something I covet. And what I covet I get."
Carlac was already in the drawing-room talking to Muriel Bryce. Over the girl's white shoulders the eyes of the criminals met and lingered for a moment.
Muriel turned to the professor and began to chat to him, echoing her father's regrets at the departure.
"We shall quite miss you," she said, in her bright, friendly tones. "After travelling so far together, it does seem a shame."
Later on Lieutenant Vernon and the colonel appeared, with a silver-haired aristocratic-looking man, whose name Kew did not catch. They all went into the dining-room, and Kew and his companion enjoyed what they knew was to be their last meal in the well-conducted house.
Colonel Bryce was in excellent spirits that evening, laughing and chatting with his guests in turn. Only seasoned rogues such as Kew and Carlac could have sat through that meal and enjoyed it as they did.
Just at the end of the meal the colonel raised his glass and nodded to the men he trusted so implicitly.
"Your health, count—and yours, doctor. My only regret is that you have to leave us."
Behind his hand Vernon sent a quick whisper across to Muriel.
"Thank goodness! It's about time the did go!"
He received a very indignant glance for his pains, but it did not seem to upset him very much. He leaned back in his chair, smiling to himself.
From the very first this young officer had had his doubts about the two adventurers who had come so unexpectedly into the little circle. He had watched them as a cat watches mice, yet—and he was honest enough to admit it—Vernon could not find a single suspicious incident to hinge his doubts upon.
In every way they had proved themselves genial companions—ready to share anything that might come along.
Still, despite all this, the doubt had never been killed, and now that they had announced their departure, the young officer was candid enough to admit his satisfaction.
"I can't help it, Muriel," he said later on in the drawing-room, when his charming young hostess took him to task over his whispered speech. "I suppose I am a suspicious fool; but it's all due to that confounded war-chest! Only let the rajah come and take the thing away and I'll be as different as possible. But while the colonel is responsible, I feel on guard, and I cannot trust anyone. Count or no count, friend or foe!"
It was a long speech for the usual monosyllabic Vernon to make, and the girl smiled up at him.
"We'll try and be nice to them for to-night. They leave at eleven."
And, true to their statement, Kew and Carlac did leave No. 5 at a few minutes before the hour named. Their baggage, a very light load—for they had given it out that most of their heavier traps were returning to America direct—was stacked up in the taxi that had been sent for, and the farewells took place in the lighted hall.
In the darkness of the cab Kew leaned back in his seat, and Carlac heard him chuckling softly.
"Of course we'll write to you when we get to America, my dear Miss Muriel," the thin voice muttered: "but we may never set foot there."
Carlac turned his head and looked out into the darkened streets.
"You needn't make fun of the girl," he said slowly. "After all, she was kindness itself to us; and I, for one, shall always remember her as a sweet, good-hearted child." Kew's chuckle lifted in a cackling laugh.
"So that's it, eh?" he sniggered. "We grow sentimental on the eve of departure. My dear Carlac, that is perhaps the runniest thing you have ever said. You rob a girl's father of his treasure, then wax sentimental over the girl."
"I am, perhaps, just a little human," the broad-shouldered criminal returned. "You, apparently, have no claim to that feeling."
"None whatever!" snapped Kew in his usual remorseless tones. "I was out for gold, and had no time for stupid sentiment. I have got what I sought, and am quite content."
They reached the station, and Kew called to a porter directing him to take the baggage to the night express. This was done so that the taxi-driver might be able to prove that his fares had really gone to the station and taken train there. But on the platform the two rogues claimed their luggage again and had it removed to the cloak-room, then left by another exit.
"It would have been better for us to travel to Liverpool," Carlac mentioned: "but we cannot risk that. Flash Harry is straight enough, but the responsibility is too great for him, We can't expect him to guard that chest himself."
"We don't want him to," the wizened man by his side returned grimly. "We have to get that chest away from Downe Square to-night."
He was pacing along the dark pavement, his head bent forward, his hands clasped behind his back. Carlac could almost feel the vast contentment that was radiating from his evil companion.
"This is our last big effort, Carlac," Kew said. "Gold is untraceable, and we can retire to any part of the world we like, and be always sure of a welcome."
"Always excepting India," Carlac put in, in a half-thoughtful tone. "What do you mean?" The tall criminal shrugged his shoulders.
"I was thinking of the Rajah of Puljara," he said. "You remember what was said about the chest. It was sacred, and anyone touching it with sacrilegious hands—"
"Nonsense! An old woman's tale that!" snapped the little figure by his side. "I have no room for superstitions." He threw back his great head and laughed.
"The Rajah of Puljara may be all-important in his native state, but he has little authority in London. We are safe enough from him, my friend."
Yet Carlac's words had left their impression on the quick intellect of the professor, and before his eyes there came a sombre vision. The outlines of the gloomy prison at the Palace of Kashopore. Almost unconsciously Kew shivered.
"Why on earth did you mention that fool's story," he snapped. "It would have been better had we forgotten its existence."
It was the dim forebodings of what fate held in store for them that had stirred his evil heart. For Puljara was to see them again, and the prison in the bustling town was to open its gloomy doors to them, as the beginning of an existence that was worse than death.
But all this was veiled in the mists of the future, and for the moment, the success that they had achieved blinded them to everything else. They were on the threshold of a new and splendid life, with a treasure awaiting their disposal. The height of their dreams had been attained. "Good-morning, Abul!"
Lieutenant Vernon came to a halt in the corridor and nodded to the great shrewd Indian trooper. Bright-eyed and sleepless, Abul, faithful servant of his master, the Rajah of Puljara, acknowledged the greeting with the stately dignity of his race.
The young British officer glanced admiringly at the big, bearded figure. Abul's ceaseless guard of the room in which the great treasure-chest stood, had become a thing of wonder and astonishment to the inmates of No. 5. The staff of English servants that ran the household were all openly afraid of this bronze god with his naked sword. Abul had arranged a bed at the door of the room, and there, when fatigue overcame him, he was supposed to sleep. But no one in the house could ever swear that they had seen him at rest, and his endurance was the subject of much chatter below stairs.
"You have not tired of your watch yet?"
The young officer smiled.
"Well, you won't have long to wait now. His Highness is due in London on Tuesday."
"That is good news, sahib."
The trooper had risen to his feet, and he stretched his superb limbs, resting the point of his sword on the ground.
"I, Abul, will be glad." he admitted, "This London is no place for a man used to the hills. Ah! but the nights are long and dismal. I would rather spend a month on the hills with the stars as companions, than a day here in this gloomy city."
"You're quite right there, Abul," Vernon returned. "London is pretty rotten just now—worse than it usually is."
It was about nine o'clock in the morning, but most of the household were up and about. Colonel Bryce, an early riser himself, saw to it that the others followed his example. The breakfast gong began to rumble, and Vernon, with a nod to the trooper, hurried along the corridor and descended the stairs.
"Good morning, Lieutenant Vernon," said a demure voice, and Muriel, looking as pretty as a picture, stepped out of the morning-room, a laughing greeting on her lips and in her eyes.
Vernon cast a quick glance to right and left. There was no one about. With a deft movement he slipped his arm around the slender waist and kissed the fresh young lips. "Oh!"
"I couldn't help it, darling," the ardent young officer whispered, "you looked so perfectly sweet and charming."
"But if dad—"
"I wouldn't care," came the reply. "I mean to tell him at the very first opportunity. I am to get my captaincy next week—and after all, the colonel married your mother when he was only a subaltern, with very little prospects." He looked down at her, the love shining in his eyes.
"I'm no end of a patient lover," he announced, "but I really must have a kiss now and again."
Muriel smiled and gave his arm a little affectionate pressure. She knew that this clean-living lad was hers, heart and soul. And she returned his love with interest. But, girl-like, she revelled in the power she had over him, keeping him at her beck and call from daylight to dusk.
They entered the breakfast-room together, and a moment later Bryce joined them. He was dressed in riding-clothes, for he made it a custom to have an hour's canter in the park after breakfast.
"Thank goodness we'll soon have the great load taken off our minds," he said. "I've had a cable from his Highness. He arrives in London at ten o'clock on Tuesday morning."
"Have you engaged his suite of rooms, sir?"
"I'm going to see about them to-day," said Bryce: "As a matter of fact, there were hopes that he might have found suitable quarters at York House, but they cannot be spared. However, the Ritz has promised to keep their best apartments for him, and I think they will suit."
He cast a half-laughing glance at the fresh young faces in front of him.
"A rajah isn't an easy person to handle, Vernon," Bryce said slily. "In fact, he's almost as bad as a—a wife!" He saw the red tide in the charming countenance of his daughter. The colonel bent his head and laughed quietly over his plate.
He was not so blind as he pretended to be, and the little love-match between his secretary and his daughter had his entire approval.
As soon as the breakfast was over the colonel arose to his feet.
"Come along, Vernon," he said. "We've got to make the usual visiting rounds."
Every morning and evening the senior officer and his subordinate had made it their duty to enter the room in which the chest was stored and see that everything was correct. Very often Muriel accompanied them, and she, too, arose.
"I always feel as though I ought to be carrying a rifle at the slope," she whispered to Vernon as he stood aside to allow her to pass out into the hall.
The colonel led the way upstairs, Muriel and Vernon behind him. As the grizzled head of the veteran appeared above stairs, Abul, the sleepless, leaped to his feet and stood to attention. The morning ceremony was gone through. "Halt! Who goes there?"
"Advance, Visiting Rounds! All's well!"
The colonel stepped forward, and Abul, taking a key from his belt, held it out. The lock on the door clicked, and Abul, pushing the door aside, entered.
The room was a small, square one. It was empty, save for a strip of wonderful carpet in the centre of the floor, and the big iron-bound chest. There was a curtain at the window, and Vernon, stepping up to it, drew it aside so that the faint light might fall full on the chest.
"All is well, Abul," said the colonel, nodding towards the heavy box, "and soon I will be able to meet thy royal master and tell him how well thou hast kept thy bond." Abul's eyes glinted.
"I am my master's slave," he said, with a proud humility that sat well on his powerful face. "I have but done my duty."
Muriel had crossed the room and was now close to the window where she stood talking to Vernon in a low tone. Her eyes were wandering aimlessly, and presently they concentrated on something that seemed to be jutting out from beneath the great war-chest.
"What is that?" she asked in a low tone, extending a dainty finger. Vernon stared for a moment, then, crossing to the chest, he stooped. "By Jove!"
The colonel and the dusky trooper wheeled round. "What is it, Vernon?" the colonel's voice rang out sharply.
The young officer was looking at something in his hand, and there was a puzzled frown on his face. At the colonel's question he straightened up, then came forward, his hand outstretched. "Did you—did you move the chest yesterday, sir?"
"Move it! Certainly not! How could I?"
"I—I thought that you might have done, for—for I have just found this sticking to one corner." It was a fragment of tapestry of a cheap quality, and small though the scrap was, there was sufficient of it to show that it was new and unsoiled.
For a moment the colonel looked at the innocent scrap of material, then his eye travelled to the chest and riveted itself there.
Lew Anton had done his work remarkably well. Grain and texture, outline and measurement had been exact and minutely accurate. Ninety-nine men out of a hundred would have been taken in, but Colonel Bryce happened to be the hundredth person.
He had been haunted by that treasure chest and what it contained. He had dreamed of it at night, and had worried over it by day. Every detail of its carved panels were known to him, he could have closed his eyes and described every single line of it.
And now he was looking at the stout iron handle. Anton had done his best even in that detail, but the skilled faker knew that there was his only weakness. Newly-wrought iron can never be made to resemble old. The Hindu who had fashioned the original had done so using only hammer and chisel, fashioning it laboriously, slowly.
"By heavens! That is not the rajah's chest!"
Colonel Bryce almost screamed the words as he darted forward and dropped on his knees in front of the faked receptacle. His hands were clutching at the iron handle, and, as his fingers passed over it, doubt became certainty. The handle was smooth to the touch of the fingers, whereas the old handle had been pitted by the taps of the maker's hammer.
"Oh, Colonel! You—you must be mistaken!"
Vernon's face was bloodless as he darted to his chiefs side.
"No, no—I'm right! This handle—I can tell by the very touch of it! And look at the very panels—they are fakes—fakes, I tell you!"
With an effort the grizzled-haired man arose to his feet. His face was grey as it turned first to Vernon then to his daughter. "Get me my keys, Muriel, please," Colonel Bryce said in a voice that was strained and hoarse. "Quick, dear, you know where I keep them!"
Muriel fairly flew along the corridor and into her father's bedroom. There was a secret drawer in the little bureau which only her father and Muriel knew. The bunch of keys was found, and the pale-faced girl hurried back to the room. When she entered, Abul had just been trying to lift the chest, and had succeeded. Horror was visible on the face of the two Englishmen as they looked at the huge trooper.
Abul had never been able to move the treasure-chest singlehanded before. There again was proof that something was wrong.
Muriel never forgot that moment of breathless doubt that followed. Her father's hand trembled slightly as he found the heavy gold key that fitted the lock of the treasure-chest. Slowly the various locks were tried, and the key did not fit. Anton had only been able to produce the outer appearance of the locks. He had nothing to guide him so far as the hidden mechanism was concerned.
"It will not open!"
"Oh, dad! Try again! Perhaps—"
"Your sword, Abul!"
The trooper held out the great carved blade and, stepping back, the colonel swung the tempered steel aloft. Crash!
A fury seemed to descend on Colonel Bryce as he smote at the faked masterpiece. Great swathes of wood flew out at each powerful stroke, and at last, the lid was cut away from its fastening and slipped down on to the carpet.
"We have been betrayed," the colonel said in a thin voice. "Look! The rajah's treasure has vanished."
The dull bars of lead on the heap of rags at the bottom of the chest could not be mistaken. Vernon reeled against the wall of the room, sick and dazed.
"Gone! Gone!" he muttered, scarcely able to realise the truth.
It was Abul's voice that sounded at last. The trooper reached out a powerful hand and placed it on the colonel's sleeve. "We have been tricked by cunning thieves, sahib," he said. "But the fault is not thine. It is I, Abul, who must bear the burden of shame."
His bearded face twitched, and into the eyes there came a look of deadly menace.
"I have been false to the trust that my master placed upon me," the man went on, in deep, vibrating tones. "I am in the dust. Allah help me!"
He made a sudden move forward, and his hand caught at the sword in Colonel Bryce's grasp. Instantly Muriel realised what was going to happen, and with a stifled scream she leaped forward, gripping at Abul's arm. "No, don't do that, Abul," she breathed. "It is not your fault. No one could have been more faithful than you." She drew him away, and looked into the bronzed face.
"I will tell his Highness," she vowed. "He will not blame you, and your life is too precious to be taken as you mean to do."
She had averted a tragedy. Abul lifted her small hand and placed it against his forehead.
"My life is in the mem-sahib's hands," he said slowly.
It was Muriel who brought the tension of the situation to an easier pitch.
"After all, none of us are to blame," she went on. "We have done everything in our power. You, dad, and you also, Mr. Vernon, have never neglected anything possible. If some evil wretch has stolen the treasure, how can we be blamed?"
She had the woman's instinct to bring solace to her troubled menfolk, and she succeeded. Colonel Bryce passed his hand across his forehead and sighed.
"What is to be done?" he asked wearily. "The treasure has vanished—spirited away! What can we do?"
Muriel turned to him with a quick shake of her head.
"We have to try and keep it out of the papers; if we can," she said, in her wise way. "Don't let us give up hope so soon. There may just be a remote chance of getting the chest back before the rajah returns."
Her brave words had a very slender foundation, yet they brought a certain amount of comfort with them. Bryce went up to his daughter and placed his hand on her shoulder.
"You are the pluckiest of us all, Muriel," he said. "I must admit that this discovery has absolutely shocked me out of all power of thought. What can we do?"
His haggard face and tired voice fairly wrung Muriel's heart. Her lips quivered for a moment, and then suddenly there came into her mind a great inspiration. Vernon had crossed to the chest, and was leaning over it. Muriel cried out to him.
"Come away, Mr. Vernon! Please don't touch it. I—I have thought of someone who—who might be able to help."
She drew her father towards the door, and beckoned to Vernon to follow. Abul, his head hanging, his sword, which the colonel had now handed him, swinging aimlessly in his strong hand.
"Close the door and lock it," Muriel said, in a low voice. "Let Abul mount guard again, just as though nothing had happened. We must keep it away from the servants as long as we can."
Abul was listening to her eagerly, and he took up his post again beside the door, while the colonel turned the key.
"You are in charge, dear." the old officer said, with a faint smile. "But I confess that I do not see what good it will do."
"You must have patience," his plucky daughter returned. "I am going out, and—I thought that Mr. Vernon might come with me, I am going to bring someone here who is just the cleverest thing in the world."
Her intense eagerness carried everything in front of it. She hurried into her own room and slipped into a cloak and hat. In five minutes she was ready, and had joined Vernon in the hall. Outside the door a taxi was waiting, and also the groom in charge of the colonel's hack.
"I couldn't ride to-day, dear," Bryce said. "Send the man away. And don't be long; I cannot wait."
The charger was sent back to the stables; then Muriel and Vernon entered the taxi.
"Baker Street!" Vernon repeated. "And who lives there, Muriel? It isn't a visiting neighbourhood."
"And this isn't a visiting expedition," said Muriel, a grave light in her eyes. "Oh, I hope and pray that this move may result in something!"
She turned towards her companion, her eyes shining.
"I am putting all my faith in the sagacity of a dog," she announced.
Vernon leaned back and stared incredulously.
"A dog? But, I say, Muriel—"
"Yes, just a dog. But one of the most wonderful creatures in the world. Listen!"
She gave him a brief account of the little incident in which Pedro had played such a quaint part. Then went on: "The boy who was with him—Tinker was his name—said that Pedro was more used to tracing men. It must have been human beings who removed the real treasure-chest, and if that wonderful dog can only find out how they did it, we may be able to trace them."
Her intent manner gradually inspired Vernon. By the time they reached Baker Street, the young officer was almost as eager as his companion. But when the landlady opened the door they had their first disappointment.
"He ain't in, miss," the old dame said. "Gone out, as usual. There ain't no trusting to that Tinker, I can tell you. Of course, you 'ad an appointment with him and he's gone and forgotten—"
Muriel checked the ready flow.
"No, I didn't have any appointment," she returned; "but it is most important that I should see him."
"Mr. Blake's at home, miss. Maybe he'll see you."
Muriel slipped a card into the old dame's hand. When the found themselves alone in the waiting-room, Vernon turned to Muriel.
"What name was it that the old lady mentioned?" he asked. "Blake," said Muriel.
Into the young officer's face a light leaped, and he smiled.
"By Jove, Muriel, I believe that you have done the best thing, after all!" he said. "I don't know Tinker or Pedro, but I have heard of the name of Blake. He is one of the greatest private detectives in the world! I've never met him, but he has a great reputation in India."
The return of the landlady saw them ushered upstairs and into the consulting-room, where, a few moments later, Sexton Blake entered.
The keen, clean-cut face, the deep-set, steel-blue eyes, and the general air of alert, steadfast confidence, impressed Muriel at once. She arose with a half-blush, and held out her hand. "I'm afraid that we are disturbing you, Mr. Blake," the beautiful girl began.
"That's quite all right, Miss Bryce," Blake returned. "I know that it must be something important that brought you from Downe Square so early."
"Then you—you know me?" Blake smiled.
"Tinker told me of a little adventure he had," he explained. The girl nodded her shapely head.
"Yes, yes. And it is really through that adventure that I am here now. I want Pedro. Is he here?" By way of reply Blake stepped to the door and gave a low whistle. Pedro came slipping round the edge of the door, to be pounced upon by Muriel at once. "You dear!" she said, wrapping her arm round the massive neck.
"Pedro is not very popular with our landlady," Blake explained, turning to Vernon, "and so we have to keep him in the background when he is here." Muriel arose to her feet.
"I want him to come with me this morning," she said. "There—there is a big task in front of him, but I think he can manage it. Will you lend him to me?"
"Or, better still, perhaps Mr. Blake would come with Pedro," Vernon put in. "Perhaps it is asking rather a lot from you, Mr. Blake, but I can assure you that the matter is a most important one, and would probably interest you."
He glanced at Muriel, who gave an encouraging nod. Both of them felt that they could not trust their secret into better hands than those of this quiet-voiced, clever man.
"A thief, or thieves, I should say, for it is the work of more than one person, have removed a certain valuable article from number five, and it is absolutely vital that it should be traced at once."
"What is it that has been stolen?" asked Blake.
Vernon lowered his voice.
"I take it that you will treat what I say as strictly confidential," he went on; "for, as a matter of fact, there are very grave issues hanging on it."
"You have my promise," said Blake.
"Good! Then you must know that it is a treasure-chest, with over ten lakhs of rupees in gold, that has been stolen. It is the property of the Rajah of Puljara, and was in the keeping of my chief, Colonel Bryce."
It seemed to Vernon as though Blake was paying very little attention to his statement. The detective was leaning back in his chair, and there was a curious light, half-smiling, half-thoughtful, in the steel-blue eyes.
"The matter is most urgent, Mr. Blake," Vernon said, a trifle annoyed.
Blake hurriedly arose.
"Quite so, and I will come with you now."
Pedro's leash was produced and adjusted on the wide collar, then a start was made for Downe Square. It seemed to Muriel that Blake hesitated for a moment as he passed the house on the left of No. 5. "It is the next house, Mr. Blake," she said; and the detective turned his head and smiled. "Yes, I know. That is number four."
Colonel Bryce eyed the strange man and the bloodhound rather dubiously when the entered his study, where he had been pacing to and from. But as soon as Muriel introduced Blake, the colonel's manner altered.
"Delighted to meet you, Blake!" the old Indian veteran said, giving the detective a warm grip. "Your reputation has reached all India, and you are something of a tradition there."
"We are in luck, sir," Vernon put in, "for Mr. Blake has promised to help us in this terrible affair."
They climbed the stairs, and Abul arose at their coming. Blake's eyes rested for a moment on the bronzed face of the trooper; then a kindly light came into the steel-blue eyes. He saw that the man was suffering agonies of mental torment, and, in his kindly way, Blake had to speak a few words of comfort.
"Have no fear," he murmured, using the clipped speech of the hillmen; "thou art not yet disgraced. Thy treasure is safe."
Into Abul's dark eyes came a flame. Who was this man who spoke to him, not in the usual Hindustani of the British, but in the exact vernacular of his own people?
"Thou sayest, O Protector?"
"I bid thee have courage. Thy hour of dismay has passed." The door of the room was opened now, and Blake entered.
He gave one glance at the damaged chest, then, to the astonishment of the little group behind him, Blake flung back his head and laughed. "So much for Anton's masterpiece!" he said aloud. Bryce looked indignant.
"I hardly see anything to laugh at here, sir!" the distracted old fellow began. Blake turned quickly, a quick apology on his lips.
"I'm sorry, colonel! It was rather thoughtless of me. I forgot that you do not know as much as I do concerning this chest and its owners."
"Do you mean to say that you know—"
A faint sound came to their ears, and brought the colonel's protest to a halt.
Blake flung a quick glance around him; then, crossing the room, picked up a fragment of the broken chest and struck the wall—three quick taps.
To the utter amazement of Bryce and his companions, there came an answer to the signal. Two taps, and after a pause a third:
Using the piece of wood deftly, Blake began to tap out a message. Vernon a skilled signaller, clutched at Muriel's arm. "It's Morse," the young officer whispered breathlessly. "By Jove, this is a thriller, if you like."
"O.K. This is Blake here," the officer read, following each long and short pause between the beats. Again a silence, then a rumbling sound, as though someone had loosened a handful of bricks in the chimney. Then at last the whole grate itself began to move, and a cry broke from Muriel's lips. "Look—look!" she gasped.
Back swung the massive grate, revealing the adjacent room, and a slender figure standing in the gap, supporting the hinged portion. "All right, guv'nor," came the voice of Tinker.
Blake turned to his watchers.
"I think we might as well go through, colonel," he said, in a laconic tone. Like a man in a dream, Bryce moved forward, stooping to avoid the edge of the gap. As he passed out of sight, Muriel heard him give vent to a great cry. Darting after him, the girl saw her father kneeling in front of a square, black object in the corner. The colonel's arms were stretched over the top of the chest, and he was drawing great sobbing breaths of joy.
"The rajah's chest! It is here—here! Thank Heaven!" his thin, trembling voice cried.
Muriel was by his side in a moment, and her hand slipped around his shoulders, holding him tight.
"Oh, dad—dad!" the girl breathed, tears of relief streaming down her cheeks. "It—it is a miracle—a miracle!"
Yet there was little of the miraculous in what happened. Fortune, the fickle jade, had simply swung its wheel in the usual elusive way, and a great opportunity had been taken advantage of But that incident demands another chapter.
In Which a Small Mystery Is Given Quite a Simple Solution
TINKER had been quite right in his remark concerning Blake. The chance word that the young assistant had dropped awoke a quick memory in the brain of his master. On leaving Tinker, Blake had gone into his study and turned up the files of his newspapers.
It was a long search, but at last he discovered what he sought. It was full descriptive article, dealing with the splendid present that his Highness the Rajah of Puljara was about to make to his Emperor, King George of Great Britain.
Ten lakh of rupees, in gold, to be handed over by the rajah in person. The reporter who wrote up the story had made as much of it as possible, and Blake read the account from beginning to end. A paragraph near to the finish caught his eye.
"His Highness's military adviser, and trusted friend, Colonel Bryce, the British representative at Kashopore, has been commissioned to bring the treasure to England."
Blake replaced the file of newspapers in their accustomed place on his shelves, and began to pace up and down his room.
"There is not the slightest doubt but what Tinker's acquaintance of last night is Colonel Bryce's daughter. The jewelled comb from the rajah settles that identity."
The active brain worked at the various threads, selecting the useful from the superfluous.
"Circumstances sometimes combine to bring about strong coincidences," Blake muttered; "but I'm inclined to think that there is very little coincidence about this affair. The man who murdered the taxi-driver was going to Downe Square. He was interested in the fate of the faked Indian chest, and what I have to do now is to try and connect the one with the other. That ought to be easy."
He stepped to the telephone, and gave a number. It was the editorial offices of one of the great newspapers, and a few moments later Blake recognised the voice that sounded over the wire. "This is Sexton Blake, Mr. Walterley."
"Oh, all right! What do you want, old chap? Anything exciting?"
"Oh, no! I only want a little information."
"When does his Highness the Rajah of Puljara arrive in England?"
"Next Tuesday, I believe."
"Do you know if this treasure of his is already in London?"
"Yes; Colonel Bryce is in charge of it. He lives in Downe Square."
Blake mentally thanked the powers of the fourth estate then; there was little happening in London that these keen news-gatherers did not know.
"One more question. How does he propose to hand over the money? Ten lakh of rupees is rather bulky, isn't it?"
"Oh, there's going to be quite a ceremony at Buckingham Palace! There will be all sorts of big bugs there, and his Highness is to be presented to his Majesty. The treasure is in an old Hindu chest, a unique specimen of ancient workmanship, I believe."
The editor caught the faint breath of satisfaction. "What about it, Blake?"
"Oh, there's no news for you!"
"But look here, you artful beggar, don't forget the 'Independent' if there is any story attached. Fair exchange, you know."
"Right you are! If there is anything to be made out of it you'll have the first scoop."
Blake replaced the receiver, and turned away, well content. In his mind now there was no doubt left; the chest which Anton had laboured on, the original photographs of which Blake had inspected, was a duplicate of the rajah's treasure-chest.
That meant that there was some great crime hinging. A startling robbery had either been perpetrated, or was within an ace of it.
Blake slipped into his bedroom, and made a hurried change of attire. It was in the rough garb of a working-man that he finally slipped out of the house in Baker Street. A glance at his watch told him that it was close on ten o'clock. Downe Square was not very far away, and presently Blake found himself turning into the quiet oasis. He crossed to the garden side of the square and moved along. In his hand was a small wicker-basket, such as the average artisan invariably carries. In appearance and manner he looked the typical British workman, making his way home from some belated job.
Opposite No. 5 he came to a halt for a moment, pretending to light his pipe. He saw that the windows of the colonel's home were all lighted, with heavy curtain drawn over them, in accordance with the new lighting regulations. Once a figure paused in front of the window on the left of the porch, a thin man, with stooping shoulders. Blake little dreamed that it was the shadow of his ancient enemy, Kew; but he was to make that discovery later. As the reader is already aware, this was the night that Kew and Carlac were to make their pretended departure; and already the real treasure-chest, with its store of hoarded gold, had been removed from the house.
Blake examined the house quietly. He saw that it stood at the end of the square, and there was only a blank wall on the right, beside which the pavement of the side street ran. The most daring thief in the world would not venture to carry off such heavy booty as the treasure-chest in that direction.
Moving along the gardens, Blake halted in front of No. 4. He saw now that the front of the house was partly concealed by a structure of poles and platforms—the usual builders' scaffolding. The lower part of the house was in darkness, but, as he watched, Blake saw the glimmer of a light appear for a moment in one of the windows of the first floor. It was only a passing glint, such as might come from a lamp being carried past an open doorway, but it was quite sufficient for the quick eyes of the great detective.
"I must have a closer inspection," he muttered, glancing to his right and left. There was not a soul moving, and the hooded lamps scarcely did more than intensify the darkness. Blake walked boldly across the street, reached the scaffolding, and finding a convenient ladder, climbed to the first platform, which ran along below the window-sills of the rooms on the first floor.
He chose the window through which the glint of light had appeared. It was closed and fastened down, but it was a feeble barrier against Blake. From the little basket he withdrew a long, slender screwdriver. It was inserted between the two halves of the window—a faint scrape followed, and the catch slid back.
A moment later the intrepid man had opened the lower half and had slid into the room. He closed the window behind him and stood still for a moment, listening.
Faint and far off there came to his ears a sharp tapping sound. For a moment Blake was puzzled, then he located it. It was the sound that a mason's trowel makes on brick!
"Humph! Perhaps I've had all this trouble for nothing!" he muttered. "It sounds as though the workmen were still busy here."
He realised that if he were caught there might be some awkward questions to answer. But Blake knew that his identity would be quite sufficient to satisfy any doubts.
"I'll risk it." he decided. "If they are genuine workmen, I can easily make up some yarn about looking for a job."
He had grown accustomed to the darkness now, and was able to pick out the dim outlines of an opened doorway. He crossed towards it, and found himself in a wide corridor, that seemed to run back the whole length of the house. The corridor was pitch dark, but, near the far end, a pencil of light revealed the presence of a closed door. The door was on his right as he faced it—on the same side as No. 5.
He moved along the corridor with noiseless feet. Close to where the pencil of light was shining, Blake almost fell over a board lying in the centre of the passage. He stooped and felt it, and his fingers came in contact with a cold, wet heap in the centre of the board. The unmistakable tang of wet cement!
"Mortar!" the detective muttered, coming to a halt. "By Jove, I believe that I have made a—"
He had moved on a pace or two, and was opposite the door. He heard the lock click, and with a quick bound was past the doorway, and had flattened himself out against the wall behind.
The door opened towards him, and through the gap Blake saw the dark outlines of a man's figure.
The head moved to and fro, then it was turned towards the interior of the room.
"Must 'ave been a rat, or summat," a hoarse voice muttered. "Anyhow, there ain't anythin' here, Harry."
"All right, Joe! Maybe it was my imagination. But I'm all a bundle of nerves to-night." That voice—where had he heard it before? There was something familiar in the tones?
The door was closed, and a few moments later the dull tap, tap commenced anew. Blake, dropping on one knee, slid along to the keyhole and peered through. There was a light standing on a small table immediately facing him, and behind it he saw two shadowy figures at work. They were kneeling in front of the grate, and beside the one on the right stood a small heap of bricks—bricks of the clear, glazed type that are usually used for a certain kind of ornamental grate.
There was still no indication that the presence of these men had any sinister meaning. Then suddenly the taller figure turned to reach for something on the table. He was in shirt-sleeves, with his white cuffs rolled back. Blake caught sight of the sleek face, with its trim black moustache and small, criminal eyes, and the man's identity leaped out of the great storehouse of his brain.
Immediately the whole aspect of the case was changed. The man was a known, habitual criminal—one of the type that are bound to go crooked. It was for no good purpose that he was there hard at work in that room.
The cool detective, kneeling in the darkness, realised now that all his calculations were working out remarkably well.
"A room in No. 5 is immediately behind that grate and wall," the detective muttered. "There is no doubt that. And you are bricking in the fireplace, or, at least, have started to do so. That means that your other job is done!"
There was every indication of an elaborate, far-sighted plan, and Blake was well aware that it was not the brain of Flash Harry that had worked it out. The criminal was never of the leading type. There was some other brain behind it all.
"Yes, you've done what you had to do, and the question is—what has become of the swag?"
The fact of there being a duplicate chest was sufficient to give Blake a reliable guide. The rascals had removed the chest and its treasure intact, replacing it with the faked one. What had they done with the real, the valuable chest?
He tried to get a wider range of vision, but the narrowness of his spyhole prevented him from doing so. He saw, however, that the room had a deep bay on the left, with a window that evidently opened out on the back of the premises.
As he knelt there, turning over these questions, a new sound came to his ears—the sharp hoot of a taxi. The men in the room also heard it, and Flash Harry moved out of Blake's vision, heading for the concealed window. The flame of the lamp on the table flickered suddenly—a mute proof that the man had flung open the window.
A soft laugh came to Blake's ears.
"That's them!" he heard the voice of Flash Harry drawl. "They're just leaving next door, Lor,' they're cool 'uns, they are! Carlac is bad enough, but that monkey-faced Kew—"
The listener behind the door drew one deep breath. Kew and Carlac.
Instantly the puzzle fitted itself. There was no doubting now who the murderer was! Mentally Blake blamed himself for not realising the truth before. There was only one man in the world who could deal out death suddenly, noiselessly, as had happened to the driver.
"We'll have to get on with it!" The voice from the room sounded again. "It's got to be finished, and we've got to clear out before they come back!"
Carlac and Kew were to return! That could only have one explanation—the treasure-chest must be there in that very room!
A bold man is always open to take risks, but Blake was clever enough to realise that against four desperadoes he had little chance. Whatever he was going to do would have to be done quickly.
And, first of all, the treasure-chest had to be saved. Under no circumstances should he risk its removal from that house! He made up his mind at once and arose to his feet.
His fingers sought for and found the knob of the door. He tried, and found that it turned at his pressure. With a quick push, Sexton Blake thrust the door aside and stepped into the room.
A shout of dismay came from the window, and Flash Harry's long body leaped across the intervening space towards the detective.
"Here! Who the blazes—"
There was no time for ceremony. As Flash Harry closed with Blake, the detective swung his bunched fist up in a fierce hook, which landed plump on its mark. It caught the rushing man full on the point of the jaw, and sent his head back with a jerk that threatened to crack the neck. Flash Harry spun round, smote the air wildly with the hands for a second, then went down, on his back, on the floor.
Before Blake could turn round, the other rogue was on him. The steel trowel in the man's hand flashed in the light of the lamp, and Blake had to duck swiftly to avoid the murderous cut. His fingers closed on the sinewy wrist, and, with his other arm wrapped around his antagonist Blake, swayed across the room. He tripped over a piece of loose tapestry, and the length of material came away.
Blake had a brief vision of the black panels and iron bands of the treasure-chest; then a violent plunge from his antagonist saw them roll over on the floor, half-enveloped in the smothering folds of the tapestry.
The detective's antagonist was a burly rogue, and was putting up a grim struggle, knowing that prison awaited him.
A groan sounded from the huddled heap beside the table, and Flash Harry arose dizzily to his feet. Blake was now on top of his man, and the trowel fell with a clatter on to the floor. The detective's cap had dropped off in the struggle, and Harry, tottering forward, glared down at the clean-cut face. Blake looked up for a moment, and their eyes met; then the criminal, with a hoarse shout of fear, leaped back.
"Blake!" he gasped. "That's done it! We're nabbed!"
The very name of the detective seemed to take all the courage out of the cowardly man's heart.
His confederate, putting up a grim struggle with Blake, turned a red, streaming face toward the man beside the lamp.
"Quick—curse you! Out him! The lamp!"
The shout seemed to rouse Flash Harry from his stupor of fear. His hand, trembling violently, caught at the lamp, and he raised it. But in doing so it tilted over to the left, and, with a last flicker, the light went out.
There was a crash, and the lamp was splintered on the wall only a few inches above Blake's head. Then Flash Harry, rushing across the room, leaped out of the doorway, and Blake heard his feet echoing along the dark corridor.
"You cur! You cur!" the man on the floor snarled, writhing desperately to escape from the iron hold of his captive.
There was a last furious struggle, then something cold settled over his wrists, and there was a metallic click.
"You did your best, my friend," Blake's level tones murmured, "but I was one too many for you."
A savage snarl came from his feet.
"If that skunk hadn't bolted, you wouldn't be able to crow!" came the grim reply.
Blake was on his feet now, and presently he found the gas-jet and lighted it. The man who had been working at the bricks had raised himself to a sitting position, and was glaring with sullen fury at the detective.
Blake looked at the fellow closely. He was distinctly of the lower order of criminal—low forehead, scowling brows, and drooping chin.
"How much of this job were you responsible for?" he asked. The man jerked his head at the fireplace.
"I'd to brick that up," he said. "That's all I knows about it—and that the truth, guv'nor!"
He watched the detective cross the room, and bend over the great chest. Blake tried to lift the massive box, but it resisted his most powerful effort. It had evidently not even been tampered with.
"I'm inclined to believe you," he went on, turning towards his prisoner, "otherwise you must have been a fool to work away there when over a hundred thousand pounds in gold was close to your elbow!"
The brute face of his captive was tilted up.
"You—you're kiddin', mister!"
Blake smiled grimly.
"I'm not," he said, pacing his hand on the chest. "In this box is enough gold to make you or anyone else a rich man."
"And I never knew anything about it!" the pinioned man muttered. "Flash Harry told me that the swag had gone! Blow me, if I'd ha' known—"
His covetous eyes glared at the chest, and Blake smiled grimly; then, at a signal from him, the fellow arose to his feet. Blake made up his mind on a certain move. "Hold out your hands!"
The thick wrists were extended, and Blake unlocked the handcuffs. "Clear out!"
The man leaned forward, with bewilderment writ large on his face.
"You can go!" said Blake. "Don't think it worth while to charge you! I am after bigger game than you. But I shouldn't trust Flash Harry in future, if you take my advice!"
The man whipped round, and fairly bolted for the door. Blake followed him along the corridor, down the wide staircase, and saw his thick figure slip out into the dark square.
"It was the best thing I could do," Blake muttered to himself. "You were hardly worth keeping, and there is just a chance that you might want revenge on Flash Harry. In that event, you may prove yourself useful."
He stood for a long moment in the dark doorway, musing to himself.
He knew that, so far as the treasure-chest was concerned, it was safe now. There could be little doubt but what Flash Harry would seek out Kew and Carlac, and warn them of what had happened. It was useless for Blake to wait there any longer.
A slow footfall came to his ears, and presently the bulky figure of a constable loomed into view. Blake stepped out of the doorway of No. 4 and approached the man in blue.
It was the same constable as had come in reply to Tinker's call, and when Blake gave his name the constable was all attention.
"Give your inspector my compliments, and ask him to put a man on special watch here to-night," said Blake. "I will send round my assistant in the morning to explain matters. If anyone does attempt to enter the house, they have to be arrested at once."
It was obvious from the policeman's face that he would have given up his pension to have questioned Blake, but his discipline held him in check, and he saluted.
"All right, Mr. Blake!" he returned. "I'll wait here myself until the inspector comes round. I'll see that everything is all right."
Blake went off, a quiet smile on his lips.
"I'm very much afraid that you will find it an easy job." was his inward comment.
And he was quite right, for, when Tinker went round to No. 4 early in the morning, it was to find that no one had been near the house. The youngster had received instructions from Blake to clear away the half-completed brickwork. It was Blake's intention to make a report of the case to Scotland Yard, and allow them to deal with the matter, but the visit from Muriel had altered all that, and so it came about that Blake played the quiet drama in the previous chapter.
The Arrival of the Rajah
"IT seems incredible!" Colonel Bryce said, a pained look on his fine face. "These men were my guests, and I was under a debt of gratitude to them."
They had removed the war-chest into the colonel's house, and Sexton Blake had told them of the manner of men they had entertained. Lieutenant Vernon had not been able to conceal his satisfaction at finding that his suspicions were justified, but the young officer kept silent, for he noted how badly his senior took the news.
"They are absolutely unprincipled scoundrels," said Blake slowly. "There is no deed too vile, no artifice too low for them to use, provided that they can attain their object."
He glanced at the colonel quietly.
"Apart from this robbery, the man that you knew as Doctor Kay committed a murder only two days ago."
He gave an account of the incident of the taxi-driver.
Muriel shuddered and drew closer to her father.
"Oh dad, how terrible!" the girl murmured in a shocked tone.
The evidence that Blake placed in front of them was much too strong to be refuted in any way, and so the ugly truth was forced on Colonel Bryce. He had been duped and deceived.
"I suppose you blame me, Mr. Blake," the clean-minded old officer said with a swift glance at the detective; "and, on the face of it, it certainly looks as though I were not the proper person to be in charge of a great treasure."
Blake shook his head.
"I cannot see that any blame can be attached to you, sir," he returned. "These men wormed their way into your confidence, and from what I know of them they would act in such a manner as to remove any possible shadow of doubt being attached to them."
"That is quite true, Mr. Blake," Vernon chimed in; "for I must confess that I had my suspicions that all was not fair and above board with them, but, although I watched them at every possible opportunity, I never once caught them napping. They must be men of iron nerve."
"They are," said Blake, "and it is only by the merest of chances that I succeeded in thwarting them. Had I been an hour or two later the chest would have disappeared and I doubt very much if it could have been traced."
The colonel made a quick gesture with his hand.
"Don't speak of it," he said, "it is too terrible. What could I have said to his Highness? He has trusted me and I had failed. The rajah is a very just and upright man, but he never forgives a mistake."
"He need never know," said Blake. "There is no reason why he should."
"But that will mean that these blackguards will get off scot-free," Muriel put in indignantly. Woman-like, she had changed her opinions immediately and thoroughly, and was now the bitter enemy of Carlac and Kew.
"That cannot be helped, Muriel," her father put in slowly. "If Mr. Blake was to make a case of it, the whole affair would have to come out. Apart from my own part in the matter, I don't suppose the Foreign Office would allow Blake to proceed."
"I am sure they would not," said Blake. "These sort of cases are better kept in the background. We do not want the world to know that we have men in England so vile as to rob a generous ally."
"How I wish I could meet them just once," the high-spirited girl breathed, her eyes flashing.
"You may yet have that opportunity, Miss Bryce," Blake assured her, little dreaming of how true his words were.
They left the treasure-chamber at last, and Blake noted that Abul had taken post inside the room this time. A sudden misgiving ran through the detective's mind.
"By Jove, I'd forgotten that Abul understands English," he muttered to himself. "He has heard the whole story. That might prove deucedly awkward."
He kept his misgivings to himself, however, and, after arranging a few minor details with the colonel and the inspector of police, Blake left No. 5.
In order to keep the real crime a secret, Blake had told the inspector that a gang of thieves had tried to break into the colonel's house by way of No. 4 but that he, Blake, had got wind of the affair and had spoiled the game before the ruffians could accomplish their object. The half-bricked grate lent colour to this story, and as the colonel backed him up, the detective felt that there would be no further inquiries made concerning the affair.
Nor was he mistaken in that.
The Tuesday afternoon papers recorded the arrival of his highness the Rajah of Puljara and suite at the Ritz. A paragraph followed dealing with the presentation at Buckingham Palace, and on the Thursday Blake and Tinker received two cards, which, signed by the King's chamberlain, was sufficient to allow them to enter the courtyard of the palace.
It was a gorgeous spectacle. The Rajah, in his glittering robes, appeared from a royal carriage, followed by two of his sons, slim, dusky-faced princes, aglow with jewels. From another carriage there poured out half a dozen attendants among whom, towering head and shoulders above the others, Blake picked out the giant figure of Abul. The huge chest was drawn forth, and the six men, moving together in a steady rhythm, carried it into the palace.
Colonel Bryce, Vernon, and Muriel were also visible, and the girl, catching sight of the quietly-dressed detective, flashed him a quick smile and bow as she went past.
Of the ceremony inside the palace, the newspapers made a great story. The rajah had been received by the King, and, after receiving the chest and the rajah's oath of fealty, King George bestowed a glittering order on the rich princeling. The whole affair created no small stir, coming as it did in the middle of the grim and world-racking struggle, for it proved to Britain's enemies that Britain's rule in India was a wise and kindly one, ensuring loyalty and devotion from that swarming country.
"If Kew and Carlac had succeeded in their job, it might have meant a split between the rajah and the Government," said Blake to Tinker later on, in his study. "For that reason alone I am glad that we are able to get the better of the heartless ruffians."
"And they're getting away with it, guv'nor," the lad muttered gloomily. "It does seem a blinking shame. They deserve to be punished."
"I'm afraid that our hands are tied, Tinker," his master responded. "I had a word with the Foreign Office about it, and they are absolutely against making any sort of fresh move in the matter. Their chief anxiety is to keep the affair away from the rajah, and so long as they do that they are quite content."
Yet, despite all the precautions taken, the Rajah of Puljara heard the news.
On the evening after his splendid reception, the great man was alone in the magnificent chamber of his suite in the hotel when one of his personal attendants entered. "Abul, of the guard, desires a word with thee, Protector of the Faith."
The long-limbered trooper swung into the room, halting on the threshold with a low salaam. "Well, Abul, what is it?" The rajah spoke in quiet English, with scarcely an accent. It was the tongue he favoured when addressing his soldiers, most of whom had served their time with the British Indian troops. "Thy servant's heart is heavy," said the trooper, advancing across the chamber. "A secret weighs upon it."
"Let me hear it, Abul."
And so, in the quiet tones of his trooper, the rajah heard the truth, How near his treasure had been to being stolen, of the miraculous way that the great English detective had intervened, almost at the eleventh hour.
Yet as he listened, it was not the fact of his gold being removed that seemed to rouse the great man's ire.
"They laid hands on the sacred chest," he muttered through his crisp black beard. "By Allah, but that demands a punishment."
"They took the chest away, Commander of the Faithful," Abul went on, "under the guise of friendship they played their thief's tricks."
"Who were the dogs?"
Briefly and concisely Abul told all he knew concerning Carlac and Kew.
"They came to Kashopore, did they?" his Highness repeated. "We will inquire into that. Whoever befriended them there was no friend of ours."
He leaned back in the armchair, resting his bearded chin in one strong palm. Abul, standing stiffly to attention, waited for his master to speak.
"They have set their evil hands on a sacred thing, and have soiled it with their touch," said the rajah slowly. "Had I known I would not have offered it, soiled as it was, to the great King. They have made me a mock and a jest, and I dare not tell the Emperor of this meanness that has befallen me."
His lips lifted suddenly, transforming the whole face. There was something tigerish and remorseless in the slow, cold smile.
"But all that they have done they shall pay for," said the Rajah of Puljara quietly, "and I take the oath now. Allah, aiding me, these miscreants shall taste my vengeance, I swear it." He raised his bejewelled hand aloft and Abul made a quick salaam. He knew that his master never took an oath idly. "Anything that thy servant can do will be done," the trooper said.
"Thou wilt play thy part, Abul, but for the moment I will have to trust to one, cleverer than art thou." He arose to his feet and crossed to a small bureau from which he drew a small plain-bound note-book. Turning over the leaves for a moment, his Highness found what he sought—an address. "Nazra Ali Ben Dhur, Cheapside, Oriental agent," he read aloud.
Abul's eyes quickened. He had heard that name before. It was well known in Kashopore. Ben Dhur was his Highness's secret agent in London, as well as the trade representative for Puljara.
"Thou wilt wait until I call thee, Abul," said his master. "I have a letter that thou hast to deliver for me."
The trooper's eyes were flames of keen contentment as he bowed himself out of the chamber. He knew that his master was planning revenge—a revenge such as only the Oriental mind can plan.
Ten minutes later an envelope was handed to him, addressed to Ben Dhur. Late thought it was, Abul started off on his errand at once. It was 8 o'clock before the trooper reached Cheapside, and he had some difficulty in finding the number. It was up a dim courtyard, and Ben Dhur's offices were on the second floor. A charwoman, cleaning the stairs gave vent to a half-shriek of alarm as the huge turbanned figure came striding up the stairs.
"Mr. Dhur! Oh, yes, he's in the office all right. But you oughtn't to go about like that, mister. You'd frighten a woman to death with that great sword of yours. Ain't decent, that's what I calls it."
Abul grinned as he went on up the stairs, and presently he found himself in a room filled with the odours of the East. Sweet smelling spices, dried fruits and spices. The trooper's nostrils dilated as he breathed the familiar air.
"I might be back in the bazaars of Kashopore," the home-hungry man said, as a figure in European clothes came shuffling out of a small inner office. "Thou art Ben Dhur?"
"That is my name."
Abul thrust out the note.
"A message from his Highness, the rajah," he explained.
Ben Dhur adjusted a pair of spectacles on his hooked nose and peered at the envelope with his small, weak eyes. "Come into my room," he said. "It will be safer there."
Abul followed him and stood like a statue, while Nazra broke the seal of the envelope.
The letter seemed to cause him a great deal of dismay. He read it twice, then his thin fingers went up and caressed his beardless chin. "Hast thou any knowledge of this?" he asked.
"All I know is that my master is in haste," came the non-commital reply. The bent figure shrugged its shoulders.
"Aye, that may be," he replied; "but this is no easy task that has been set me. Were we in Kashopore it might be otherwise, but here in England the authorities do not care for such matters." The trooper grinned.
"I may tell thee that the authorities will trouble themselves but little over this matter," he said, and Nazra chuckled. "Ah, I have caught thee, close of mouth. Thou dost know all about it, then. Then who are these two men?"
"Dogs!" returned Abul. "They tried to steal the rajah's treasure. They have to be punished." He came a pace nearer. In his eyes a grim light was shining.
"I will help thee to the end of my strength, Ben Dhur," he said; "for these men played a double part with me and his Excellency, Colonel Bryce. Under the guise of friendship they stole into his house and cloaked their designs with soft words. Revenge awaits me if I can but get them into the hands of my master."
"And where art thou to be found should I require thee in haste, oh revengeful one?" the wizened dealer asked, a smile on his twisted lips.
"No. 5, Downe Square; the home of Colonel Bryce," came the reply. "Good, friend! Await a message from me there."
Abul left the dingy office with a feeling that the weird proprietor would not fail. There had been something in Ben Dhur's quiet manner that had made a big impression on Abul.
"He was known to be as sly as a fox at Kashopore," the big trooper muttered to himself, "and I see that repute did not lie in his case."
Nor was he mistaken, although just how Ben Dhur came to get on to the tracks of Carlac and Kew is a mystery that remains unsolved.
There is a quiet courtyard, not very far from Finsbury Square, which the average Londoner has no knowledge of Tucked away as it is behind tall buildings, offices chiefly. Mardal Court consists of a dozen houses, most of them dilapidated, shabby places, where a curious type of tenant lives. No doubt there are one or two respectable families in the court, but they, in common with the others keep themselves very much to themselves.
Flash Harry, when in funds, lived at No. 6. It was generally understood that the hard-faced woman who tenanted the house was an aunt of his. Anyhow, he seemed to be the only human being who received any sort of favours from her. As she paid her rent regularly and did not break the law openly, she was allowed to remain, although the police were well aware of the type of character who formed the lodge element of her establishment.
It was into this quiet house that Carlac and Kew vanished on the night of their great failure. As Sexton Blake had anticipated, Flash Harry, fleeing from capture, was just sufficiently brave to go and seek out Kew and the master-criminal and tell him what had happened. He found them at the stables where the van in which the treasure-chest had to be removed was waiting, the horse ready between the shafts. They had only just arrived from the station, and as Flash Harry's breathless report fell on their ears, a cold fury descended on Kew.
He turned to his broad-shouldered companion, his eyes glinting like coals of fire.
"Well, my friend what have you to say to it now?" he rapped out. "After all my suspicions were not so far from the truth. That sleuth-hound, Sexton Blake, has turned up, just as I dreaded he would!"
Carlac was silent. He was leaning against the side of the stables, his great arms folded over his chest, a look of sullen rage in his eyes.
"He has beaten us," the thin voice of the professor went on bitterly; "we have been tricked out of our plan just as though we were a couple of foolish schoolboys. By Jove, how he must enjoy this triumph of his."
It seemed as though Kew was much more upset over the fact that Blake had beaten him, than the actual loss of a vast fortune.
"What could have put him on to the affair?" Carlac asked at last. "There was no possible chance of his knowing the exact moment when we shifted the chest. We had not made any definite plans. How did he know that we had completed our job at No.5."
The reader is aware that all these question had a very simple answer. It had been sheer luck, coupled with a gift of close deduction that had made Blake's coup so wonderfully successful. But this was, of course, unknown to the two criminals. "Someone gave us away," croaked Kew; "that is very certain."
His hawk eye had lingered on Flash Harry for a moment, and that worthy rogue had stormed out a violent protest.
Their game was up, and it was obvious to them both that they would have to get into secret quarters for a while. Flash Harry's suggestion that they would find safe lodgings with his aunt was accepted, and Kew and his confederate took rooms there.
They had ventured out only once during the days that had followed, and that was on the afternoon that the rajah visited the palace. Kew's face was a study as he saw the carriage with the precious chest swing past, and he went back to Finsbury in a gloomy silence that Carlac made no attempt to break.
"There is not sufficient room in this world for Blake and I," was his only remark. "One of us will have to give way."
At about ten o'clock on the evening of Abul's visit to Ben Dhur, the last-named gentleman turned into Mardal Court, followed by another dusk-skinned man who seemed very loathe to do more than enter the quiet back street.
"The house is No. 6, Ben Dhur, and it will not be good for me to be seen with thee."
Ben Dhur's hook nose twitched, and he glanced at his companion.
"Meaning thou art afraid, Gilga Lai?"
The slim man bowed. Your oriental never denies a really obvious truth.
"It is the little man that I fear," he observed; "he is cunning, and is a wizard. He kills a man with a breath—I have seen and I know, Ben Dhur."
"Very well, I will go on alone. But listen."
He whispered for a few moments in the other man's ears, who received his instructions with a nod.
"And if you fail, Ben Dhur, what shall I—"
"Away with thee, lackbrain! I will not fail!" came the quiet reply.
It was the hard-faced aunt of Flash Harry who answered Ben Dhur's soft knock on the door. She glanced doubtfully at the stooping figure of her visitor. "Who told you that a gentleman named Kew lived here?" she asked. Ben Dhur spread his hands.
"A friend," he returned; "a friend who has his interests at heart. Tell him that I only desire a few moment's speech—and I am quite alone."
She closed the door in his face, leaving him to cool his heels on the step while she went up the stairs with the message. Kew and Carlac were together in the sitting-room, and Kew's hairless brows drew together in a quick frown as the woman made her report.
"A Hindu, you say?" the professor muttered. "What can he want with me? How does he know I am here?" An evil life makes its own burden. Kew hesitated for a long moment before finally making up his mind. "All right, send him up."
As soon as the woman had vanished he turned to Carlac, and thrusting his hand into his breast pocket he drew out the deadly nickel-plated tube of death.
"Turn the light out in your bedroom and stand just inside the door," said Kew. "At the first suspicious sign, level that tube and touch the button. Be careful of your aim, for it is instant death."
Carlac took the terrible weapon with the air of a man accepting a snake.
"I'd rather trust to a revolver—" he began.
"And waken the whole neighbourhood," came the grim retort. "If this man is a spy, we've got to silence him and get away from here at once. He must not have the opportunity of giving the alarm, nor must anyone hear the slightest sound."
There was the sound of a footfall on the stairs, and Carlac, with noiseless strides crossed the sitting-room and vanished into the room on the left. The light in the bedroom vanished, and Carlac, turning round, took up position in the half-opened door, standing well back in the shadows, the tube positioned between his powerful fingers.
Kew's thin voice sounded in reply to the knock and Ben Dhur entered. He stopped for a moment, his rheumy eyes blinking in the bright glare. Kew had taken up a position that made it possible for him to watch his man closely. "What do you want with me?" Ben Dhur cringed.
"Do I address the great sahib-doctor, Kew?" he asked.
His voice was the true whine of the servile native, his whole attitude that of a vast abasement.
"That is my name," said Kew.
Ben Dhur came further into the room.
"If I give the doctor-sahib some good news, will he pay for it?"
Instinct had made Ben Dhur strike the right note. Kew knew his East like an open book, and was aware of the fact that every native of India has his price. "It depends on the news—and the price," came the non-committal reply.
"My news is worth fifty English sovereigns—and not a penny less. It concerns someone whom the doctor-sahib has cause to hate beyond all other men?"
Kew leaned forward, staring into the grey-bearded face. "How do you know that I hate this man?" he rasped. Ben Dhur cringed a little lower.
"We have ways of finding out things, sahib. You know that even here, in this cold country, news travels among we wanderers." It was quite true, and Kew knew it. "What is your news?"
"His Highness, the Rajah of Puljara—may Allah protect him—has heard that a gang of thieves came near to stealing his treasure."
A half-smothered sound came from Kew's lips, to be checked almost as soon as it came. "Go on," he muttered.
"His Highness the Rajah does not know how near he came to losing it, but he has heard that this Sexton Blake played a big part in the thwarting of the thieves and so he has decided to honour him. To-night, when his Highness returns from the theatre, he desires that Blake and his companion, the youth named Tinker, should have audience with him. And he is presenting this man Blake with a diamond necklace worth a mint of money, ten thousand pounds has it been valued at!"
Kew gave vent to an oath. He had no reason to doubt this man's story. He knew that the ruler of Puljara was vastly rich and given to mad, generous impulses. If it was true that Blake's deed was known, there was every possibility that the rajah, out of sheer gratitude, might lavish some valuable gift on the fortunate man.
Blake had saved the rajah from a great loss of prestige. Had he arrived in London to find his treasure-chest stolen it would have been a disgrace that history would have made notorious.
"Worth ten thousand pounds," Kew muttered aloud, twitching at his thin lips. "By Jove, what a reward?"
Ben Dhur came a little nearer.
"Does the doctor-sahib relish the thought of his enemy receiving this vast present?"
"I'd rather see him dead at my feet," the arch-scoundrel broke out in sudden passion. "He gains that very reward through—" He stopped in the nick of time, and the hard look came into his eyes again.
"But why should this story interest me?" he went on.
"Because in it there is a chance of the sahib finding sweet vengeance," Ben Dhur muttered, in a low tone. "I can help the sahib to trick this detective out of his jewels."
Ben Dhur had never glanced at the dark doorway on his left, but now he jerked a thumb towards it.
"Thy friend, who standeth in the shadows there, will have to play a part," he began.
There was a creak, and Carlac strode out of the doorway, eyeing the stooping figure of the visitor from beneath ruffled brows. Ben Dhur gave him a low, cringing salute.
"Thou hast heard all, so I need not repeat my story, sahib," he went on imperturbably, although there was a glint in his eyes that revealed how he had enjoyed the quick surprise he had sprang upon the two nonplussed criminals.
"If you have a plan, out with it," Carlac snapped, throwing himself into a chair.
"My brother is the messenger that his Highness has chosen to go and bring the detective Blake and his assistant, the youth, Tinker, to his suite of rooms," Ben Dhur went on; "and my brother likes not his task, for the jewels are of value, and there will be no reward for him out of the giving of them."
He nodded towards Carlac.
"His Highness the rajah starts for Puljara early to-morrow morning, and there is no chance of his knowing that a deceit has been practised upon this man Blake, nor the youth, and—"
The alert brain of Kew read the riddle that lay behind the guarded words. He leaned forward, tense and eager. "You want my friend and I to impersonate Blake and his companion?" he said. Ben Dhur's smile was a treat to behold. It spread all over his wrinkled face.
"The doctor-sahib is right," he said; "but, and he does this, my brother and I will want our due rewards. Fifty English sovereigns for me, and hundred for my brother."
"By Jove, and you'll have them!" Carlac roared, leaping to his feet, carried away by the sheer recklessness of the enterprise.
And, as a matter of fact, it was certainly a risky undertaking. To accept the jewels from the hand of the man they had already tried to rob, was adventure enough, but when it was coupled with the knowledge that they were impersonating the two beings in the world that had foiled them, the whole became doubly enticing.
Kew indicated a chair.
"Sit there," he said to Ben Dhur. "My friend and I will have to consider this thing."
He stepped into the bedroom, followed by Carlac. Kew lighted the gas, then turned round.
"Well, what do you think of it?" he asked slowly.
"There's enough risk in it to frighten anyone," he admitted; "and yet, after all, we have a fighting chance of carrying it off."
He laughed aloud.
"His Highness never met us while we were at Kashopore, and he has never met Blake or Tinker. You are a master of disguise, Kew, and I don't think that this is beyond you. Blake is about my height, and you are slim enough to make a good Tinker. If we could pull it off, we'd have turned the tables on that sleuth-hound to some purpose."
It was really that part of the scheme that appealed to them both. The thought of impersonating Blake, of receiving the reward that he was entitled to, was tempting beyond words.
But in his cautious way, Kew put in a word.
"It might be a plant."
"In what way?"
The question baffled the wizened professor. It is was one of Blake's schemes, why should he go to all this trouble? He knew where they were—the fact of the Hindu visiting them would prove that, if he were in Blake's pay. Why not arrest them at once?
"If Blake or the police were behind this, we'd have been under lock and key by now," Carlac went on; "and Blake is the only one who knows our connection with the affair—if he does really know that?"
It was the old question rising again. For while Kew was convinced in his own mind that Blake had knowledge of their complicity in the affair from the very outset, and he based this belief on the purely chance meeting with Tinker, Carlac, who was really nearer the truth, did not agree with him.
Another question came into Kew's mind, and he slipped into the sitting-room for a moment. Ben Dhur was seated exactly as he had left him, on the extreme edge of the chair.
"Will Colonel Bryce be accompanying his Highness?"
Beneath his heavy brows the eyes of Ben Dhur blazed for a moment. From that question he drew a favourable response to his schemes.
"No. His Excellency the colonel is no longer in favour in the sight of his Highness the rajah." It was a cunning response, for it was just what would have happened under ordinary circumstances, when the rajah heard of the incident of the treasure-chest. Kew withdrew his vulture-shaped head.
"We'll risk it," he said to Carlac. "If that man is a liar, then he's the greatest in the world."
The Rajah's Ruse
"GOING out again, Abul? I'm afraid that his Highness runs you almost off your feet."
Pretty Muriel Bryce cast a glance of sympathy at the tall figure of the trooper. Abul, wrapped in his long cloak, was just crossing the hall of No. 5, Downe Square, when Muriel, coming out of the drawing-room caught sight of him. The brawny trooper turned, with a low salaam. Muriel was a great favourite with all the servants in the house, and in Abul she had a most devoted worshipper.
"I am always ready to answer my master's call," the trooper returned.
There was a light shining in his eyes, and he seemed to be labouring under an unusual excitement. The clock in the hall chimed the hour of eleven.
"I expect you won't be back until after midnight," said Muriel. "But I will tell one of the servants to leave some supper for you." Abul smiled.
"The mem-sahib is always kind and thoughtful," he returned; "but she troubles too much over her slave. I may not be able to come back to-night. If his Highness needs me, I will stay by his side."
He salaamed again, and Muriel went back into the drawing-room, a little puckered line of thought on her smooth brows.
Lieutenant Vernon was seated close to the piano, and he looked up as the girl entered.
"Hallo, darling, you've got you thinking-cap on? What's troubling you now?"
He caught at her hand as she passed and drew her on to the arm of the chair. Muriel laughed.
"There is not anything really to worry about," she admitted at last, "and yet, I'm just a trifle worried. Why should Abul have to go to the rajah so late as this?"
"Dunno," Vernon returned; "and I'm not sure that I care very much. What has Abul's movements to do with us, anyhow?"
"Nothing, I suppose; and yet it seems strange that the rajah should send for him, without telling dad. After all, Abul is dad's servant."
Vernon was well aware of the strict etiquette of the rajah's court, and now that Muriel drew his attention to the apparent slight on Colonel Bryce, the young subaltern looked grave. "By love, I never looked at it in that light, Muriel; but you are quite right!"
"There is something wrong," said Muriel. "His Highness kept dad waiting for a long time to-night, and then sent word that he didn't want to see him." She looked at Vernon.
"Do you think it is possible that he has found out something about the treasure-chest?"
"Great Scott, no—at least, I hope not! Whatever put that idea into your dear little head?"
"I couldn't say, but I feel somehow that there is a cloud over dad—and I'd give anything to find out the truth. You know what sort of man his Highness is. He would never really forgive dad if he found out about the affair."
"Of course he wouldn't; but he isn't going to find out. We are all as mute as oysters where that is concerned." The lovely girl nodded her head towards the hall. "Oh, I know that we wouldn't give it away; but what about Abul?"
"Nonsense, Muriel! Abul is as faithful as the day."
Yet even as he voiced his protest, Vernon felt that this clever girl was not very far out.
"Abul is faithful; and he is in the service of the rajah," Muriel pointed out. "Perhaps his loyalty made it impossible for him to keep silent."
Vernon tugged at the little moustache on his lip. There was a rueful expression in his eyes.
"By Jove, Muriel, you are making me think!" he said at last. "You are quite right about the rajah's changed attitude towards the colonel. I was at the hotel this evening, and there was hardly a soul would speak to me. And, as a rule, the attendants are only too glad to have a jaw."
His sweet-face companion heaved a sigh.
"It's an awful nuisance," said Muriel, "for it will make it so awkward for us all when we go back to Kashopore. Dad has to go there as British representative, even although the rajah might not like to have him. I do wish that we could do something, dear."
Vernon shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't see what we can do," he admitted candidly. "We daren't ask the rajah if he has discovered anything, for that would put the fat in the fire at once."
It was certainly an awkward situation if Muriel's surmises were correct; but it was one that could not very well be altered.
"We'll just have to wait and see," her lover said at last. "His Highness will probably be going back to Puljara some day this week, and we will be following him. If he still gives us the cold shoulder at Kashopore, we will know then that your idea is right. After all, if we hang on long enough, the affair will blow over. His Highness thinks no end of your dad, and he will gradually forget."
Muriel made a slight movement.
"And meanwhile, we've got to go about like naughty children, who have been found out!" she cried indignantly. "Well I, for one, won't do that!"
She looked so deliciously tempting with her air of indignation, that Vernon drew her to him and kissed her soft, red lips.
"I'll bet his Highness does not hold out very long against you, you beautiful dear," he murmured. "Besides, we may be worrying ourselves without cause."
But had he been able to follow Abul that night, Vernon would have had ample proof given him that the rajah was not only aware of what had happened, but had already taken steps to assure revenge—and a revenge of his own particular type.
Abul, swinging through the dark streets at a swift pace, found himself close to the big hotel at last. He turned down the quiet side-street from Piccadilly, reached the corner, and halted. A shadow detached itself from the dark doorway of a house opposite, and came forward.
"Thou an Abul?"
"That is my name."
"Here is a message for thy master, his Highness the rajah," said Gilga Lai.
"From Ben Dhur?"
Abul took the message and looked at the brown face in front of him. "Why did not Ben Dhur deliver this himself?" White teeth glimmered in the dusk.
"Because it was arranged that I should do so. I waited for a sign, and when it came I followed out the orders I had received. I telephoned—"
"So it was you who spoke to me on the telephone?" said Abul. "I thought that it was not the voice of Ben Dhur."
"Ben Dhur is busy, and cannot leave the side of the men he has found," came the reply. "My orders were to tell you to come here and take this note. I was also warned to make haste, for there is little time to lose. My advice to thee, O Abul, is to go to they master with this letter. Delay kills the best of plans."
He slid away into the darkness, and Abul made his way back into the hotel, seeking out the suite of rooms in which the rajah lived. There were signs that a move was about to be made. The attendants were busy packing great cases and boxes. Abul, with the privilege of a trusted retainer, went at once into the small room that the rajah reserved for his study. He found the ruler of Puljara seated at a desk, smoking.
As soon as Abul entered, the rajah turned and held out his hand.
"The message from Ben Dhur?"
Abul's eyes widened.
"Your Highness knows then?"
The ruler of Puljara chuckled.
"That old fox Ben Dhur spoke to me this afternoon, about an hour after he had seen you," came the quiet response. "He has done as I expected, and has arranged a trick, the guile of which will surely ensure its success." He had opened the letter as he spoke, and he read its contents.
"Well done, Ben Dhur!" said the rajah, leaning back in his chair with a smile of deadly meaning on his heavy lips. "The delivery of this letter means that he has succeeded in his design. And now we have to prepare for his coming—you and I, Abul."
"I am at my prince's commands," said Abul. The rajah rose to his feet.
"Listen, and I will give thee an account of Ben Dhur's plan."
He stepped across to the door and saw that it was shut. Then in a low tone he gave Abul a brief account of the wily way in which Ben Dhur was to place Kew and Carlac into his hands.
"Avarice brings them here," the rajah ended, in a dry tone, "and avarice will hold them. Thou wilt play the part of Ben Dhur's brother, the man who for one hundred English sovereigns would betray his ruler."
"Not all the gold in the world would make me do that, protector!" said Abul.
The rajah clapped him on the shoulder.
"But this is only a game, Abul, and I can trust thee to play it. These rogues would recognise thee, for they must have met thee often enough in the house of Colonel Bryce, whom I have not yet forgiven for his silence on this matter." Abul ventured a word for his chief.
"It was only the desire to keep trouble from thee that made the colonel-sahib hold his peace," the staunch trooper put in. The rajah shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, that may be, but I will consider it later. If I am successful to-night, I may find it in my heart to forgive."
And inwardly Abul vowed that the scheme would succeed, as much for the sake of Colonel Bryce as for his own personal desire for revenge on the two wily rogues who had played such a despicable part.
"Thou wilt disguise thyself in the robes of one of my attendants," said the rajah. "Ben Dhur has promised to bring his men here to the hotel. Thou wilt go and wait for them, demanding their names and bringing them into my presence."
"And after, your Highness?"
Over the heavy features of the ruler there stole a grim smile.
"After, two men will leave the hotel in thy company. They will be dressed as the two visitors, and thou wilt see them safely away. See to it that their departure is observed." He rubbed his hands together.
"And to-morrow morning we travel by motor-car to Southampton, where a special suite of cabins have been taken for us on a liner that starts at noon. I have already told the Foreign Office that my visit comes to an end now; urgent State matters makes it necessary that I should return to Puljara at once."
Abul's eyes were glinting as he listened, and he knew what lay behind his master's words.
"Go now and prepare thyself," the rajah ended; "and remember much depends on thee."
Ten minutes later a gorgeously-robed figure appeared in the wide foyer of the hotel and seated itself in one of the deep chairs. The staff of the Ritz is well accustomed to the gorgeous apparel of Eastern grandees, and no one paid any particular attention to the seated man.
About midnight a taxi drew up at the door of the hotel, and the porter saw a couple of men alight. One a huge, broad-shouldered individual, the other a slim, youthful figure, muffled in a heavy overcoat.'
A third individual, leaning back in the dark interior of the taxi, bent forward for a moment and whispered into the ear of the shorter individual.
"My brother is waiting—I see him yonder in the hall, doctor-sahib. All is well."
Kew had often given proofs that he was a master of the an of disguises, but his skill surely reached its greatest height that evening.
It had been a fairly easy matter to disguise Carlac, and the big criminal was a striking double of Sexton Blake. But it was on his own individuality that Kew had made the greatest transformation. Wig and grease paint, false eyebrows and paraffin wax, used with the deft touch of a master, had worked a miracle on the wizened face. The glow of youth was on it now. It had been filled out, made young, and his step was as light as that of a lad's as he followed the taller rascal across the pavement into the lounge.
Abul, his beard dyed grey, blue-tinted spectacles over his eyes, had to stare for a long moment before he realised that the men crossing the hall were indeed the two rascals he had lived with so long.
It was a case of diamond cut diamond, but neither Carlac nor Kew did more than cast a perfunctory glance at the gorgeous-robed figure who arose and came towards them.
"Thou an Mr. Blake and his assistant, Mr. Tinker?"
Abul put the high pitch of age into his voice. He spoke loud enough for the porter to hear him.
"Yes, that is correct," Carlac returned.
"His Highness the Rajah of Puljara is awaiting thy coming."
Abul wheeled with another low bow, and the two men followed him in silence.
The last lingering suspicion that Kew had died then. They were in one of the finest hotels in the world. They were met as honoured guests.
"A steady nerve now, old chap, and we've won," he whispered in a low aside to Carlac, an unusual cheeriness in his thin voice.
They found themselves in narrow corridor at last, and presently their guide halted and knocked on a door. A strong voice sounded, and the door was opened by the robed guide, who stood aside to allow them to enter, following them through the doorway.
Standing beside his desk was the regal figure of the rajah. He was dressed in a plain frock-coat of European cut, and his breast was a blaze of Orders. He looked every inch a prince. "The English detectives, your Highness," announced Abul. The rajah waited for the two men to approach, then he bowed.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Blake," he said, in perfect English. "I have heard of you, even in far India, but have never had the pleasure of meeting you before." Carlac could play the game of bluff as well as most men, and he slipped into the part he was playing easily enough. "I trust that your Highness has enjoyed your visit to our country," he said.
Across the heavy lips of the rajah a fleeting smile passed. These men were certainly cool blackguards, and the rajah always appreciated courage, even in the evil. "My visit would not have been so pleasant were it not for you, although others tried to keep that story away from me."
"It was very little I did," the mock-detective went on—"hardly worth mentioning, in fact."
Kew was quite content to allow Carlac to do all the necessary speaking. The professor had disguised himself wonderfully, but he doubted his ability to change his voice to the quick, youthful speech of the irrepressible Tinker.
The rajah turned, and lifted a wide morocco-covered case. Opening it, he allowed the case to tilt forward. The rays of light from the shaded electric-bulb behind him sent a dazzling light over the shimmering gems. They seemed to sparkle, to take fire, and against the velvet lining of the case their radiance found a perfect setting.
An expert in gems Count Carlac had no need to be told that the necklace was worth every penny of the price that the mysterious stranger had mentioned. Diamonds have their market value the world over.
The rajah lifted the necklace from the case and turned round.
"I desire to reward you," his strong voice continued; "your deed must not go unrecognised."
There was a double meaning in his words, although both Kew and Carlac failed to see it at the moment.
"Would you accept these jewels from me as a fair return for what you and your companion did?"
Again there was a mocking note in the voice. The stern-jowled man was deliberately playing with words, and was enjoying the grim comedy to its utmost.
"If you consider what we did as worthy of a reward, your Highness, of course, we will accept anything you might choose to bestow upon us."
"Anything, Mr. Blake?"
The rajah stepped aside a little, and made an almost imperceptible gesture. Carlac bowed.
"We will accept anything at your hands."
"Good! By Allah, you have sealed your own doom out of your own mouths."
As the words left the rajah's lips, Carlac heard a footfall behind him. Before he could move there descended over his head a thick muffling cloth. At the same moment, Kew, standing a little to the left, was served in the same way. Instantly the catlike cunning of the professor asserted itself. Instead of trying to struggle with his assailant he dropped straight down on to the floor. The result was that Abul, who had cast the cloth over the professor's head, stumbled forward, tripping over the wizened form and dragging the cloth way with him.
Knowing what lay before him, Kew, in sheer desperation, raised his voice in a shrill appeal; but, before the second cry was completed, Abul had recovered himself, and his brown hands closed the folds of the cloth, pressing against Kew's lean throat.
A heavy thud beside him told the professor that Carlac had been thrown on to the thick carpet of the room. "Strangle that old hound!"
It was the rajah's voice, commanding, arrogant, and it came to Kew through the thick folds of the heavy cloth. The powerful fingers of Abul were tightening their grip, and, with one mighty effort, Kew twisted himself round so that he was able to thrust his hand into his breast-pocket. An icy-cold shiver ran through him as he realised that he was unarmed. The death-tube had been left behind in the house at Finsbury!
A quick spasm of rage made the vulture-man snarl in the muffling folds. What a fool he had been! He had given the tube to Carlac, and had forgotten to get it back again! For the first time for many a day he was without that potent weapon which made him stronger than any other man. Little dreaming of the escape he had had, Abul clung to the writhing, quivering form. He was seated straddle-legged across Kew's hunched-up body, and the look in the eyes of the trooper was that of man enjoying a long-delayed triumph.
His remorseless fingers closed tighter and tighter; he could feel the convulsive movements of the wiry rogue beneath him. And then, at last, there came the last violent effort, and Professor Kew gave up the fight. His clawing hands fell back on the carpet, and his twitching limbs were still.
Abul drew the cloak aside, revealing the ugly face, with its smeared make-up. Quickly a gag was placed between the swollen lips, and Kew's hands were tied tightly behind his back. Then, and not until then, did Abul glance around him.
Close to the desk was a heap of struggling forms. The rajah had drawn aside, and was watching the fight with glittering eyes. There were two of his finest troopers pitted again Carlac, and, although the huge criminal had been taken by surprise, he was giving the sinewy men all they could do to hold him. His head, muffled in a baglike cloth, swayed to and fro, and his powerful arms had gripped at the bodies of his two assailants. The man who had first cast the muffling bag had drawn the cords tight, and it was just as well for them that he had done so, for Carlac, unable to see, could only rely on the grip of his powerful fingers.
As Abul glanced across towards the struggling heap, he saw the huge criminal make a mighty effort that carried him almost on to his feet. The rajah's troopers, tough though they were, were dragged up at the same time, each drawn forward by one of Carlac's great arms.
Into the centre of the chamber the master criminal staggered blindly, his assailants with him. One of the troopers gave vent to a groan of agony, and the cracking of a bone sounded. A muffled roar came from the hooded giant, and, with a mighty swing of his arm, Count Carlac flung the injured trooper aside. The Hindu, his hand pressed against his ribs, fell heavily on his face, and through his clenched teeth another half-strangled groan came. It was only sheer courage that prevented the plucky man from crying aloud in his pain.
The other trooper was now tackling Carlac single-handed, and they fell into a wrestler's grip, swaying across the room, twisting and feeling for a master-hold.
The rajah turned towards Abul, and made a movement with his hand.
"That dog is too strong, and the noise may be heard outside. End it, Abul!"
As he spoke, he indicated a heavy steel weight that stood on the desk. Abul obediently picked up the weight, and darted towards the two men, locked in the fierce grip. He was only just in the nick of time, for, as he drew near, Carlac twisted sharply, and in another moment the Hindu trooper was lifted clean into the air in a Cumberland fall. He circled right over Carlac's muffled head, and came down on the carpet with a thud that fairly shook the room. Abul, swinging the weight aloft, closed with the panting giant.
The weighty weapon came down on Carlac's hard head with terrible force. The huge criminal tottered, clutched at the air, then, like a pole-axed ox, he dropped first on his knees, then swayed slowly forward until he was lying face-downwards at the feet of the rajah.
Tough though the fight had been, it had only lasted for a few moments. The rajah, stepping quickly to the door of his room, opened it, and looked up and down the narrow corridor. There was no one to be seen, and he turned towards Abul again.
"Go to the top of the corridor and wait there," he said. "In a few moments, Mr. Blake and his companion will leave here. See to it that they are safely escorted out of the hotel."
Abul salaamed and went out into the corridor, walking up to the head of it and waiting patiently. Ten minutes later the door of the rajah's study opened, and two figures appeared. The taller one was carrying a morocco-covered case, and in the dim light of the corridor Abul saw that the face was that of a white man.
In silence he led the two through the hotel and out into the darkened street. A taxi that was waiting close to the portico crawled up, and someone thrust his head out of the window.
"Come along, Mr. Blake!" a sleek voice said.
The porter of the hotel opened the door, and the two men in European clothes entered. Abul, stepping back, allowed a swift smile to cross his lips, for the voice that sounded from the depths of the taxi had been the voice of a certain cunning man known as Ben Dhur!
"A fox indeed!" muttered the trooper, as he turned away. "And his Highness was not mistaken when he trusted this matter into his hands."
The porter watched the taxi vanish into the dimly lighted thoroughfare, and resumed his position at the door. It was just one of the ordinary incidents of his employment. There was nothing mysterious in it, and yet he had been a witness of the final act of a crime that is now very seldom heard of in England. The kidnapping of two men had been safely accomplished, without the slightest sign of the crime leaking out.
Early on the following morning there was a rare bustle in the little side-street beside the hotel. A fleet of motor-cars and a huge motor-lorry was waiting his Highness the rajah and his retinue. Into the lorry was stored the heavier luggage, amongst it being two huge, bulky wicker baskets. The rajah's servants, personally loaded the lorry, and travelled with it down to Southampton, also carrying the luggage on board. Much of the baggage was stored in the hold, but the wicker baskets seemed to be particularly valuable, for they were placed in a large, empty cabin that his Highness had specially reserved for his valuables.
The liner sailed at noon, and the long voyage began. The rajah seemed to be in a very gracious humour, for he laughed and chatted with his men, one of whom seemed an invalid, for he had been helped on board.
None of the ordinary stewards were allowed to go near the deck cabins set apart for the rajah. As is with Indian princes, the rajah had his own cook and his own special food, and an armed sentry stood day and night on the cabin occupied by his master.
There were very few other passengers on board, and not the slightest suspicion of what was really happening ever appeared.
Bound hand and foot and gagged, lying in the half-light of the store cabin, Carlac and Kew were being carried away to a captivity worse than death itself. Twice a day they were fed by an armed man, who watched them, dagger in hand, in turn as they ate.
They knew that the first sound from them the dagger would strike—once, and once only!
In their crime-stained lives, these two hawks on society had often found themselves in grim corners, but both of them knew that this was in a niche by itself. Once, the guard who brought their food chanced to be Abul, and Kew, cunning always, ventured to speak to his guard. "It is forbidden that I should speak to thee, thief and dog!" muttered Abul. "But this I will tell thee!" He leaned forward.
"You laid evil hands on the sacred chest," he said, "and for that, death is the punishment. But the manner of thy death lies in the hands of my master, the rajah."
The under-current of cruelty that is always to be found in the Indian nature, no matter how educated he may be, asserted itself for a moment.
"But it will be a death worthy of thee," the trooper went on—"a death that will come slowly, and with many halts, but it will come!"
He lapsed into silence again, and Kew did not dare question him further.
It was not possible for a man like Kew to repent; he was too deeply stained in villainy for that. But he found a grim and rather curious consolation in the fact that Carlac was to share in any horrors that might follow.
Kew had always been the doubtful one of the two. He had hesitated to trust the oily-tongued Ben Dhur. Kew's eyes grew red with rage as he thought of that cunning rogue, who had proved cleverer than he. But Carlac had appeared to accept the story so readily, that Kew's more cautious nature had been lulled into a false security.
And now they were going to pay for that folly.
He knew that there would be no hope of mercy from the rajah. The man's face was sufficient indication of the pitiless nature that lay behind it!
No; they had made a mistake, and they would have to pay! All the grim stories that the natives of Kashopore had to tell about the dark prison returned to Kew, and he remembered his own and Carlac's forebodings concerning the place. The long days passed, and as the voyage drew to its close Kew began to count the hours. He saw his fate looming in front of him, misty, yet always threatening.
Then once a strange, almost grotesque idea came into the wizened criminal's head, an idea so curious that he laughed—a smothered sound behind his gag. Carlac glanced across the narrow cabin, and saw Kew's vulture face looming in the dim light. It was distorted in a grin, and the huge criminal wondered what manner of thought could have brought that expression there.
For into Kew's mind had flashed the question: "Could Sexton Blake save us?"
Small wonder that the professor found humour in the idea. Sexton Blake was their sworn enemy, had thwarted them time and again in their evil plans against the world. Surely he would be the last man in the world to stretch out a saving hand!
Yet the future was to prove that that thought was based on solid foundations. Kew was clever, but he had never been able to fathom the true greatness of the man who was his chief opponent. Blake was against all crime! He stood for law and order, the right of civilisation against desperadoes and rogues.
Kew dismissed the thought as being a mad, hopeless one. But he was wrong there, for events were to turn into the very course he derided.
And how that came about will now be explained.
Flash Harry's Plea
"THANK goodness you've arrived at last, Mr. Blake. The chief has been 'phoning all over the place for you." Lord Witherley, assistant secretary to Sir Milder Dane, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, tucked one arm under Blake's, and led him along a carpeted corridor. "I'm very sorry," said Blake, "but I only received the message ten minutes ago. I was out of town yesterday."
"Lucky dog," sighed his lordship, who contrived to do as little work as any healthy young civil servant, but thought he had the world's cares on his youthful shoulders! "Fancy getting a holiday at this time." He stopped at a well-polished mahogany door, and knocked twice. "Come in," came a clear, penetrating voice. Lord Witherley drew back with a swift wink to Blake.
"Not likely," he muttered, below his breath. "That's the lion's den this morning, and I'm no Daniel."
Sir Milder certainly looked a trifle annoyed, very different to his usual urbane self. He and Blake were old acquaintances, and Blake was rather surprised at the cold formal bow that the Foreign Minister gave him.
"Morning, Blake. I'm glad you've turned up at last. I've been waiting in for you all morning."
There was a movement close to one of the big windows, and a tall figure came forward towards the desk. Blake recognised the aristocratic features of Colonel Bryce, and gave him a bow.
The colonel's nod was frigid in its severity. A slight shade passed across Blake's face. One of the most even-tempered men in the world, he was yet quite independent and not used to greetings of this type.
"I only arrived at my chambers to-day," he said; "I did not leave any address, so my assistant could not forward your message."
"You were not in Paris by any chance?" Sir Milder asked. Blake looked into the keen face.
"Why did you ask that question, Sir Milder," he queried. Sir Milder toyed with his pen for a moment.
"I know that you have some diamonds to dispose of and I thought that Paris would be the readier market at this time of the year."
Blake's clear eyes widened, and his lips lifted in a smile. "Diamonds to dispose of," he repeated; "is this a joke on your part." The Foreign Minister shook his head.
"I never joke during office hours," he said; "and I am quite serious on this matter, Mr. Blake." There was a cold note in his voice that made Blake stare.
"I see that there is some sort of story attached to your question. Perhaps you will be good enough to explain," he said.
"Need I tell you? I am simply hinting at the fact that his Highness the Rajah of Puljara made you a present of a very handsome diamond necklace previous to his somewhat sudden departure for Kashopore, last Tuesday."
The explanation was so astounding that Blake threw back his head and laughed. But a moment later he checked himself, as he noted the grave looks of the other men.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Milder," the detective said hurriedly; "but, really, your story is so absolutely amazing that I had to laugh."
Sir Milder's eyes widened.
"You—you deny it then?"
"It seems hardly worth denying," Blake returned easily; "I have never met the Rajah of Puljara in my life, and I certainly see no reason why he should give me a necklace—or anything else for that matter of it." Colonel Bryce who had been a silent listener until that moment, suddenly chimed in.
"But we have proofs that you called on his Highness on the night before his departure and that you were with him for some time, and when you and your assistant—"
"What? Tinker in this as well?"
"Our witnesses state that he accompanied you," came the curt retort; and when you left the hotel you were carrying a morocco-covered case, the description of which I recognised at once. It was ordered by me at his Highness's request, two years ago, and contained a diamond necklace that his Highness deeply prized.
Blake was looking just a trifle bewildered now, and sir Milder, leaning back in his chair, studied the keen, clever face intently.
"All this sounds to me like the veriest rubbish, Colonel Bryce," the detective said; "I can assure you that I was never near the hotel, nor was my assistant. I did not know that his Highness had gone until I read it in the afternoon papers on the following day."
"Can you let me have proofs of this?"
Blake's face changed, and he arose to his feet.
"I am not in the habit of giving proofs to any statements I might make." he said stiffly; "and I do not think that you have any right to demand them." He looked steadily into the eyes of Colonel Bryce.
"You seemed glad enough to accept my statements on another affair that happened not so very long ago," Blake went on; "I would not remind you of it, but it seems to me that your attitude has changed a great deal since then." A flush crossed Bryce's face, and he made an impulsive move forward.
"I—I hate to—to put these things to you, Blake, and that's the honest truth," the harassed old soldier broke out; "but things have happened that have upset me and everybody else here." The Foreign Minister leaned forward.
"Perhaps I might explain," he said; "his Highness the Rajah of Puljara, is a prince with whom the British Government desire to keep in friendly terms. We had arranged a programme of entertainments for him, and suddenly, without a word of warning, he announces his intention of going home. His message was not received until the morning, and when I sent up to the Ritz it was to discover that he had already started for Southampton.
"What made him go away so swiftly?" Blake asked.
The colonel was about to speak, but Sir Milder silenced him with a gesture.
"I'm coming to that presently," he explained. "Of course, there was a big to-do here, and I had to try and find out what had happened."
He reached out and drew a small sheaf of folded blue papers towards him.
"Here are the various reports from the men I sent off." he went on. "In the first place, it was discovered that his Highness only booked his berths late on the same evening, somewhere between eight and ten o'clock. It was done by 'phone to the steamship offices at Southampton."
He withdrew another slip.
"I sent a man to the hotel, and his inquiries proved that orders to pack were not given to the rajah's suite until quite late on the same night. Indeed, there was some difficulty in chartering the requisite number of motor-cars."
"He went to Southampton by road. Why?" Blake was leaning back in his chair, now listening intently. "We do not know. But he certainly did travel by car, and so did all his suite."
"Finally, this report was handed to me," the Foreign Minister added; "and I must say that when I read it first it seemed scarcely credible. It stated that you and your assistant, Tinker, were received by his Highness somewhere about midnight; that the story which the hotel servants heard from the rajah's staff, was to the effect that you had rendered him a great and valuable service, in return for which he had made you a handsome present. You were seen to both enter and leave the hotel, on the latter occasion carrying the case that Colonel Bryce identifies by its description."
"Then all I can say is that the man who gave you that report was either mad or very much deceived," the detective returned, in a grave tone.
He turned towards Colonel Bryce.
"I am beginning to read a little of this riddle," Blake went on; "I take it that you heard this report, and promptly came to the conclusion that I had told the rajah about the treasure-chest." His voice was rather cold, and Bryce moved uncomfortably.
"If I have been mistaken I can only apologise," the polished old gentleman said quietly; "but I think that you will admit it has been a most trying time for me."
"Colonel Bryce is, perhaps, the worst off of us all," Sir Milder explained; "he waited on the rajah that evening, and was refused admittance. That in itself was a severe blow to anyone like the colonel here, who had been on such friendly terms with his Highness. Then again, the fact of the rajah leaving England without even telling Colonel Bryce that he was doing so, hints pretty clearly that the old feeling of friendship between them has vanished."
He dropped his official manner for a moment, and looked at Blake.
"It is beastly serious, Blake," he said, "we cannot afford to quarrel with the rajah, and Bryce was the only man we could really trust at Kashopore. You can understand how awkward it will be now. We do not know whether it is advisable to send Bryce out again to Puljara."
The colonel drew a deep breath.
"But I mean to go," he said. "If the Government does not send me as their representative; then, by Jove, I'll go as a mere ordinary visitor. I'm going to get at the bottom of this matter if it takes me the rest of my life."
Blake looked at the old fellow with a sudden pang of sympathy. He could appreciate the feelings of the colonel now. For years Bryce had been in a high position, the favourite of a ruling prince, and the trusted agent of his Government. It was only human that he should feel his position keenly now, and resent it to the uttermost.
"I quite understand," said Blake. "But I can assure you of my innocence in this matter. I have never met his Highness, and if he has heard about the treasure-chest, it is certainly not from my lips."
He spoke the words slowly, with a ring of sincerity in his tones that could not be mistaken. Sir Milder gave vent to what was little else than a grunt of relief.
"Thank Heaven for that, Blake," he broke out; "I was really dreading to hear you say something else. For, you see, any ordinary man might have been quite justified in telling the rajah, and claiming a fair reward. We know that it was only your skill that prevented that daring robbery from being successful."
He looked at Bryce, and his whole aspect had changed.
"Blake's explanation only makes the mystery more profound," he went on "but I do not mind that. As he is implicated in it—well, he will jolly well have to take the matter up and find out the truth." He spun round on Blake, smiling slightly.
"They state here that you saw the rajah, and that you walked off with a pocketful of diamonds, Blake," the Foreign Minister ended. "Well, now what I want from you is another report—and the true one, this time."
"And you shall have it, Sir Milder," the detective returned in a grim tone.
It was seldom that Blake allowed his feelings to interfere with his usual routine, but he certainly felt that in this matter he had been served rather badly. The mysterious report concerning his supposititious visit to the rajah must have had some sort of foundation. There was no reason why the foreign secret agent should have pitched specially upon him. Obviously some cunning brain had been at work to foist this foolish charge on to his shoulders.
"I hope you have forgiven me, Blake," said Colonel Bryce later, when he and Blake found themselves in the street together. "Sir Milder told me about the report yesterday, and I even went to the trouble to call at the hotel myself. It is certainly the fact that the general impression there is that you did call and did receive a present from the rajah."
He looked half-apologetically into the steely eyes by his side.
"But I think I ought to tell you that there was one member of my household who ridiculed the idea from the very first," the old officer went on; "my daughter and I had quite a storm over it. She refused to listen that both you and Tinker were incapable of doing such a thing—and, at the bottom of my heart, I agreed with her."
Blake's keen face softened. It was just what a girl like Muriel Bryce would do. No matter what official reports were there as proof, she trusted more to the dictates of her own honest heart.
"I am very grateful to Miss Bryce," said Blake, "and I do not blame you. After these reports I could blame no one for assuming that they were true."
They were heading towards Piccadilly, and Bryce turned to Blake.
"Why not go to the hotel now?" he suggested; "that is where the trouble really exists."
"That is just where I am going," said Blake.
He soon had cause to forgive any doubts that might have arisen in the mind of the colonel. For the big porter on duty at the door came to a halt as Blake and the colonel approached. He was the same man as had been on duty when Carlac and Kew entered the hotel. Proof of the wonderful skill that the professor had displayed in his disguising of his ally were speedily evidenced.
The porter touched his cap, saluting.
"So you've met Mr. Blake, colonel?"
Sorely troubled though he was, Colonel Bryce could not repress a smile. "You recognise this gentleman then, porter?" The porter grinned.
"Ra-ther," he said, "and I only wish I was in his shoes. It ain't everybody as can walk out with a pocketful of jooels!"
It was not worth while for Blake to attempt to put the man right, but he realised now that a subtle and deep trick had been played on the hotel and its staff.
They found the manager in his office, and Blake introduced himself, then gave the manager the true side of the story.
"Of course, it has nothing to do with us, Mr. Blake," the manager went on, "but it seems as though his Highness has been tricked by someone."
That was a side of the case that had not appealed to Bryce or Sir Milder. But the colonel saw its point at once. "You are quite right there," the old officer put in, "for if some masquerading rascal impersonated Blake, his Highness was certainly defrauded." Blake was silent for a moment.
"Is the suite that the rajah occupied still vacant?" he asked. "Yes. Would you like to see it?"
Blake nodded, and he and Bryce went along the splendid corridor. Bryce indicated a side corridor at the end. "His Highness's private study was down there," he said; "I know that, for he kept me waiting for two hours and then sent word into the corridor that he did not want to see me." The manager unlocked the door of the small room and Blake entered it.
"I'm sorry to say that it hasn't been tidied up yet," he explained. "We are working the hotel with a very small staff just now and the most I could do was to have the floors swept."
Blake crossed to the desk and halting there glanced around him. That curious sense that could not be named and yet asserted itself so often, that feeling that some people called psychic and others auto-suggestion, came to him as he stood there.
Something had happened in that room that had a big bearing on the curious mystery he had been called upon to unravel. Bryce and the manager, standing in the doorway, saw the face of the detective change slowly. The eyes, always unfathomable, became luminous, and the clean-cut features drew together in a strained intent expression.
Blake's eyes travelled to the floor, along the walls, and suddenly he stepped forward and tilted a chair back. There was a fragment of something attached to the leg of the chair—attached so firmly that Blake had to take out his knife and scrape it off.
Bryce saw him peer at the little object in his hand, then a quiet laugh sounded.
"Would you mind looking at this, colonel," said Blake, "it might amuse you."
Bryce came forward and glanced down at Blake's palm. It seemed to the colonel as though it was a scrap of hair that lay in the hollowed hand. "What is it?"
"A false eyebrow," came the reply; "just gold-beater's skin and cleverly placed hair. A little spirit gum is still attached to it—and I had to removed it forcibly from the chair." He glanced across at the manager.
"The leg of a chair isn't the usual place for an eyebrow, is it?" said Blake, and his companion smiled. "But how on earth did it get there?
"If you look closely at it you will note that there is a little human skin attached to one portion, colonel," the detective went on, indicating a smaller white patch against the transparent gold-beater's skin background; "and that can only mean it was violently wrenched from the person who was wearing it at the time!"
He folded the scrap and placed it in his pocket-book.
"And there is one other point about it, that I don't suppose you could have noticed," he added; "that eyebrow is exactly the same shade and shape of my assistant's, Tinker."
"Then it means that the manager is right, and someone else did impersonate you here? By Heavens, the rajah ought to be warned!"
It was proof of the old officer's loyalty that he should still think of his old chief—even although that chief had left him without a word of farewell.
"I should not be in a hurry to do that, colonel," Blake put in quietly; "for the rajah might not be pleased to learn that he had been tricked. Our first duty is to trace the tricksters and try to recover the jewels. Then, perhaps, it might be worth your while to travel to Kashopore and hand them back to his Highness." The colonel struck his hands together.
"If that were only possible," he broke out, "it would put everything right."
But that was an event that had never to happen, as Blake was soon to realise. He went carefully through the remainder of the suite of rooms but found no other traces of the mysterious visitors. A tradesman's account, lying on a littered table caught Bryce's eye, and he picked it up and glanced at it. "I see that his Highness has gone off and forgotten to pay this bill," he said; "I'll settle it for him." Blake glanced idly at the bill. It was from a local stores.
"Two 7 ft. by 4 ft. wicker baskets, lined and padded, with double hasps and extra locks, to be delivered immediately." The date on the bill proved that the baskets had been delivered on the last day of the rajah's visit to England. "I think I remember about them," the manager said, after a short pause; "they were brought very late. In fact it was rather a special favour on the pan of the stores as they were closed when the rajah gave the order."
"About what time was the order given, do you know?"
"I'm not sure, but I could easily find out. I'll 'phone through now."
The manager was not quite sure what association could exist between the two big wicker baskets and the case that Blake was dealing with, but he was anxious to be of help. He came back to the rooms after a few minutes' interval. "The order was given about nine o'clock," he announced. Blake turned to the colonel.
"It seems as though his Highness only made up his mind to leave England somewhere between eight o'clock and midnight," he observed.
"It certainly appears so," the officer agreed, "and it's very curious, for his Highness is not the sort of man to change his plans quickly. The average eastern prince likes to move entirely by a set programme."
"But perhaps something very important happened," said Blake, in his quiet voice; "something so important and interesting to his Highness that all other ideas gave way before it."
The colonel looked at him, earnestly. He saw that Blake was hinting at some definite point, but he could not follow the suggestion.
There was nothing further to be gained by staying at the hotel, and at Bryce's invitation, Blake and he went on to 5, Downe Square, together. Muriel came out of the drawing-room as soon as she heard her father's step. The girl's eyes brightened with delight when they rested on Sexton Blake, and she hurried forward with outstretched hand, a warm greeting on her lips.
"I'm so glad to see you, dear Mr. Blake," Muriel cried. "I've had to listen to such a lot of nonsense about you that I have been quite worried to death." Her father smiled.
"All right, Muriel, I take back everything I said," he put in; "but Mr. Blake himself will assure you that even he is puzzled over the whole sorry business."
They went into the drawing-room for a moment, and Muriel fired off a torrent of quick inquiries, to which Blake gave accurate replies. He saw that Muriel was just as swift-witted as a girl of her education and class could be, and the complications of the case made it useful for him to have as many opinions as possible. Whether he acted on these views or not was quite a different matter.
"I knew that you had never been anywhere near the rajah," Muriel affirmed stoutly; "and for my pan, I'm glad that he has been swindled."
"Hush, Muriel—" her father began.
The girl gave a little petulant stamp of her tiny foot.
"Yes, I am glad," she repeated, "and I don't care who hears me say so. He's an ungrateful creature, and there is only one person worse than him—and that's Abul!"
Blake looked at her. "What has the faithful Abul done?"
"Faithful, indeed!" Muriel cried. "We were all mistaken in him, Mr. Blake. He cleared out on the night before his Highness vanished, and we never saw him again! Isn't that true, dad?" Bryce nodded.
"Abul has gone," he said, "but I don't blame him exactly. I suppose he heard that his Highness was going, or his Highness may even have ordered him to accompany him. After all, Abul was only my orderly, and was really the servant of the rajah."
"I don't care, he ought to have told us," said the girl; "and it's very suspicious. I do believe now, that, if his Highness did know about the attempted robbery, it was Abul who told him!" Across the slender shoulders of the girl the eyes of the men met. Blake nodded his head.
"That is the first surmise that strikes me as being near to the truth that I have heard concerning this matter, Miss Bryce," he agreed quietly. "I have always had a lingering doubt in my mind concerning Abul. He was loyalty itself, but he was the rajah's man."
He turned to the colonel.
"You know the East as well as I do, colonel," the detective went on, "and don't you think it more than likely that Abul would not be able to keep his secret from his master. You know what son of fellows the native troopers are. They regard their rulers as small deities, and to keep a secret from his prince must have been a terrible burden to Abul."
Colonel Bryce drew a deep breath.
"I have been trying to convince myself that Abul had nothing to with it, Blake," he said, at last; "but I'm really afraid that it is as you and Muriel suspect. The poor fellow simply could not keep his peace, I suppose. That would explain his Highness's anger with me, and I do admit that it was perhaps justified. But you have yet to fit in the other pan of the story—the visit of the two individuals who passed themselves off as you and Tinker."
Blake shrugged his shoulders.
"I am less concerned about that now than I was," he admitted. "After all, I can prove that neither Tinker nor I was near the Ritz that evening, and it occurs to me that it is hardly worthwhile pursuing the investigation further. The only one who has lost anything by it is his Highness the rajah. He is the poorer for a diamond necklace, but as he does not complain, why should we?"
"Bravo, Mr. Blake!" Muriel cried, clapping her hands, "that is just exactly my feelings in the case. The rajah has treated dad most shamefully, and if he has been cheated out of his beastly old diamonds—well, it only serves him right!"
But her impetuous speech brought no answering smile on the face of her parent. There was a certain quiet dignity in the old colonel's manner as he looked at his daughter.
"That's not my opinion, Muriel," he said. "After all, I am still his Highness's military adviser and English attache. I am also still the British representative in Puljara. If his Highness has been defrauded, it is my duty to see that matters are put right."
Muriel stepped back and made a little pout with her lips, at the same time casting a rather loving glance at the old gentleman.
"So Mr. Blake, for my sake, if not for own, I hope you will continue your investigations."
It was then that Blake asked a question over which Muriel puzzled her head for the rest of the evening.
"I will do so on one condition."
"As many as you choose."
"One will do. And it is this: If I start on the case you will not attempt to withdraw from it at any future time. I mean that whatever developments take place, I may rely on your aid, no matter who may be implicated." Colonel Bryce was silent for a moment; then held out his hand.
"I do not follow your meaning, sir," he said, "but there is my hand and my promise. No matter who may be drawn into this matter, you will have my active aid and support."
They exchanged grips; then a few moments later Blake left the quiet house, refusing the colonel's invitation to stay to dinner. Half-way down the square the detective heard the quick tap, tap! of small feet and the swish of a silken skirt. Muriel Bryce, her lips parted, her cheeks red with the run, caught his arm.
"You do walk so quickly," she panted. "I had ever such a run!"
"I did not know that you were following me," was his obvious response.
"I simply had to," the girl went on. "What ever do you mean by what you said to my dad? Who do you suspect?" Her large lustrous eyes were fixed on Blake's face with an anxious light in them. Quick as a flash Blake divined the fear in her heart. He pressed her hand gently. "I do not suspect Lieutenant Vernon—nor yourself." Muriel blushed and laughed; but there was obvious relief in her eyes.
"Of course, it was absurd," she admitted. "But you were so strange over the matter that just for a moment—"
She came to a halt, and laughed again.
"And you won't tell anyone that I came after you to—to inquire?" Blake raised his hat.
"Not for the world!" he assured her; and she turned away, to hurry back through the dusk to her own home. Blake went on, a grim smile on his lips.
"Certainly not Vernon nor you, Miss Bryce," he repeated. "But to me it seems as though someone is going to be drawn into the web whom the colonel will be rather anxious to shield rather than expose."
He had made one or two simple deductions, and his own observations had filled in the blanks.
The fact that he had found the false eyebrow wedged on the bottom of the chair-leg was proof enough to him that the story of the bogus detectives' visit to the rajah was right enough, and they had actually been in the same room as his Highness.
But how came it that one of the false brows, with a piece of the wearer's skin attached to it, was found in the room? It meant that the disguise had been torn off during the visit!
No other explanation was possible. By design or accident, the individual disguised as Tinker had lost part of his disguise, and lost it in what had obviously been a painful way, for it had been torn from its place.
Yet the hotel staff testified that the two detectives had walked out of the hotel apparently unharmed, bearing their treasure with them.
This was a pretty problem to solve, and Blake strolled along turning it over and over in his mind.
The rajah must have seen these two men, otherwise they could not have gone off with the jewels. He must have handed the case to them, and yet must have known that he was being tricked!
That was not possible. The false eyebrow, with its mute testimony of violent removal, debarred that theory. The man who had impersonated Tinker had been unmasked in the very presence of the man he had tried to deceive. It was unbelievable that after such an occurrence that the rajah should hand over the princely reward.
Then his mind turned to another channel. How did the rajah come to associate his name and that of Tinker's with the stolen treasure-chest? Here a simple reply was forthcoming. Abul had told his Highness.
Abul had told his Highness everything, for Abul knew the whole story from start to finish; knew the cunning parts that Kew and Carlac—that Kew and Carlac—
As the names came into his head, Blake came to a pause, and quick thrill ran through him.
Kew and Carlac—Tinker and Blake!
"By Jove! Can it be possible?"
As a man moving through a fog, Blake began to see a light dimly in front of him. He remembered how Abul vowed vengeance on the two rogues. The chest was a sacred thing in the eyes of the rajah himself. Was it possible that all that masquerade that had taken place was nothing more or less than a drama of revenge?
It was seldom that Sexton Blake ventured into the doubtful paths of theory. As a rule he preferred to follow the evidence, but it was beginning to dawn on him now that ordinary methods would not avail him.
He was up against one of these intricate, subtle schemes so dear to the Oriental mind. There was something of the Arabian Nights in this vague drama.
Had Abul tricked Kew and Carlac into delivering themselves into the very arms of the man they had tried to rob?
For over two hours Blake trudged along street after street in a brown study, his clear mind tussling with the intricate puzzle.
And gradually, by eliminating all other possible solutions, building the whole fabric up on the slender evidence of the false eyebrow and its strip of human skin, Blake came as near to the true solution of the matter as it was possible for mortal to do.
"The rajah knew these men were trying to swindle him for the second time. Abul, no doubt, was at the bottom of it. Kew is a master of the art of disguise, and under his hands Carlac could easily pass himself off to a stranger as me," thus his thoughts decided. "They went into the Ritz, but they never left it. These baskets," his retentive memory picked up that point suddenly and clearly—"these baskets, ordered at such a late hour, were intended for human freightage. That was why they were padded. Yes, I am willing to stake all I possess on it. Carlac and Kew are in the hands of their enemy, the Rajah of Puljara."
He came to a halt and looked about him, to discover that his wandering footsteps had taken him into Regent's Park. He turned, and headed back for Baker Street.
"I will make sure first," thought Blake. "Kew and Carlac were always difficult rogues to trace, but Flash Harry is a different proposition. I will have a word with him, and see if he knows where they are. If they are still in England, then all my fine theories are dreams. If not, then I will be satisfied that there is something in the deductions method after all."
Three days later a certain over-dressed man, mingling in the crowd outside a music-hall, felt someone touch him on the arm. He turned with that quick animal-like movement of head which betrays the criminal type.
"All right, my friend," Sexton Blake said, in his quiet voice, "don't get alarmed. I'm not out after you to-night, only I want a few words with you."
Flash Harry recovered his nerve quickly enough, and he grinned.
"That's good, Mr. Blake!" he said. "I ain't the sort to bear malice, although you did give me a thick ear the last time we met."
He led the way through the throng, Blake close to his side. They reached a quieter thoroughfare at last, and Flash Harry shortened his pace.
"Now then, what's the trouble? Mind you, if it's any pal of mine you're after, I'm mum!"
"I'm after no one," said Blake gravely; "and when I do go after anyone, I never accept help from your kind—a fact that you know well enough."
"I give in there," said the known crook. "You don't usually need a lot of help—worse luck for them as you're after."
"Have you seen anything of Kew and Carlac lately?"
"Are you sure?"
"Ain't seen 'em for years and years." Blake looked into the shifty eyes.
"That's a lie," he returned slowly. "I know that they were working with you on the treasure-chest affair. But that's all over and done with. What I want to know is if you've seen them since last Monday night?" Flash Harry drew a quick breath, and Blake saw that his shot had told.
"Look here, Mr. Blake," the crook began, "if you're kidding me, say so! What has happened to 'em? Have you landed them both?"
"Then you have not seen them since that day?" Flash Harry was silent for a moment.
"Give me your word that you ain't trying to down them for something, and I'll tell you the whole truth!"
"I give you my word that neither Kew or Carlac will come to any harm out of what you tell me," said Blake, finding it easy enough to make that promise—which, even although made to one devoid of all traces of honesty, the detective meant to keep.
"Right! Well, it's like this. I knew where they were staying—I stay there myself now and again. Last Monday I had a talk with Carlac, and left the house about eight o'clock. I didn't get back until after theatre-time, maybe about half-past eleven, and my—and the landlady who keeps the house, told me that Kew and the chief had gone out."
To Flash Harry, Count Carlac was always the chief.
"I waited up for them until past two, but they didn't turn up; and they ain't showed their faces there since."
"And you have no idea what has happened to them?" Again the rogue hesitated. All I knows is, that the landlady of the house told me, that shortly after I left someone came along to see Kew. He was in the house for the best part of three hours, and they left together."
"Who was the visitor?"
"Dunno. Only my—the landlady said he was a little, dried-up monkey of a man—not English. The sort of men what come round to sell you carpets and bits of tinselled shawls."
"A Hindu, perhaps?"
Flash Harry saw Blake's eyes light up suddenly.
"What is it, Mr. Blake? I don't worry much about Kew—he can look after himself. But the chief—oh, he was something of a man, he was!"
And so did criminal honour criminal. Blake's smile was grim as he looked into the pleading face. "If what I think is true, neither you nor anyone else will ever set eyes on Kew or Carlac again," he said. "They are both in the hands of an enemy who is just as cunning and ruthless as they are." He was about to turn away, when Flash Harry caught his sleeve.
"Look here, Mr. Blake, I'll tell you summat else," he said, in a hoarse voice. "I had a look in their bedrooms afterwards, and found a lot of grease-paint and spirit gum on the dressing-tables. And they had togged themselves up in different clothes, 'cos the landlady saw them both as they went out. She hardly recognised the professor. She—she swore he was just like a young lad."
"Then that settles it," came the deep-voiced reply; "and only a miracle can save the man you are fool enough to admire and call chief. He is in the hands of someone who is a law unto himself, far away from England—someone who has every cause to seek vengeance."
Flash Harry was by no means a fool. He read the daily papers diligently, and now, at Blake's words, he was able to make a shrewd guess at the truth.
"I've got it—I've got it!" he cried. "The Rajah of Puljara has gone back to India, and he's taken the chief and Kew with him. That's it—that's it! He is out for revenge over that treasure-chest affair." Again his fingers caught at Blake's sleeve.
"Don't let him torture them, guv'nor," the man whined, "that's what his game will be. It's bad enough to swing, or to serve a long stretch in quod, but torture—ough!" He covered his face with his hands for a moment, then looked up again.
"You could save 'em, Mr. Blake, if you tried," he went on. "There ain't a crook in the world as would hide long from you. You've beat the best of us always in the long run. But you've always been fair. You've stood up before to-day and stopped a mob from lynching someone as richly deserved it. Don't let this human tiger torture two white men, even although they are just like me, bad 'uns and crooks."
He gave a gulping sob, and turned to hurry down the street. Blake stood motionless on the pavement, a prey to many curious emotions. There had been something of the grotesque in the scene; the thought that Flash Harry should plead to him, Sexton Blake, to save these two human birds of prey from their fate, had been humorous enough—and yet there was a touch of pathos in it, that made its presence felt.
The man had pleaded for his chief, the only being in the world that he admired, in his warped, criminal way. He had even wept as he pleaded.
A sentence came into Blake's mind.
"Torture two white men!" Flash Harry had said. That was true. There was no doubt but what the rajah's revenge would turn to some terrible torment.
Then his duty, strange though it appeared, came into the detective's mind. He was always on the side of justice. The Rajah of Puljara had broken the old ancient laws of Britain, that law of habeas corpus, which had formed the basis of Magna Charta, the beginning of Britain's freedom.
This Indian prince had broken the law, and white men, even although they were criminals, had a right to the protection of their race, in a case like this.
A quizzical smile broke over Blake's lips as he walked along the pavement.
"This is distinctly a new role for me to play," he thought. "In the past I have always been against Kew and Carlac, now it would seem that force of circumstances—and the rough, but very eloquent, pleading of another blackguard, only a shade less evil than themselves—makes it necessary for me to be on their side. I wonder if it will be as thankless a job as it seems."
Only the future could answer that; but Blake had made up his mind, and having done so, nothing could change it.
The Learned Fakir of Kashopore
KASHOPORE, the changeless, was simmering beneath the heat of an ardent sun. In bazaar and narrow streets the natives lolled in the shade, or walked along close to the low-roofed houses. Now and again a pack of scavenger dogs would raise a din of snarls and yelps, as someone of their group settled a quarrel; but they were the only creatures that seemed to-have any sort of energy. It was noon, when the sun was at its fiercest, and most of the wealthier natives were safely sheltered in their homes, in rooms shaded with long, heavy sun- blinds.
In a white-painted house, which, by its cleanliness and general air of care, stood out in marked contrast to those around it, under a striped awning on the roof, a girl in a cool, white summer dress was seated in a comfortable chair, swinging a fan to and fro.
By her side stood a little table, with a syphon and a glass, and stretched out on a strip of carpet at her feet was a lithe young officer, in white drill.
"What's interesting you, Muriel?" asked Vernon, looking up lazily. He saw that the girl's eyes were fixed on some distant object. Muriel came back to earth with a little start.
"Interesting me?" she cried. "Oh, the usual place. His Highness's palace—that we are no longer allowed to enter."
From the roof of the white-painted house, Muriel could see the towers and minarets of the great palace, a quarter of a mile away. In the blazing sun they stood out clear, alabaster-like against the cloudless sky.
"Oh, hang the palace!" Vernon returned. "Between ourselves, Muriel, I would much rather be here. There was a bit too much of the ceremony business when we lived in the palace."
The British residency was certainly a comfortable place, occupying a little niche of rising ground close to the river. A garden of about a couple of acres kept it slightly aloof from the neighbouring houses, and, as Vernon said, the life there was much more simple.
Muriel shrugged her shoulders.
"That's because you are so lazy," she cried. "You hated having to dress up in your official uniform, and attend the court. But, for my part, I must say I regret the quarters we used to occupy. For instance, we had more servants than we knew what to do with—and didn't have to pay them, either. It is very different now. I've got to manage on dad's official pay, and it's not quite so easy as it sounds."
The young lieutenant smiled. The only son of a wealthy manufacturer, Vernon did not trouble himself where money was concerned.
"I've already suggested how that can be altered, Miss Obstinate," he murmured. Muriel tossed her head.
"As if dad would hear of you standing your share of the expenses! It is too absurd!"
"As a mere aide-de-camp, it might sound rather absurd," the youngster went on; "but as a son-in-law—well why not?" Their love-affair had progressed slowly. The colonel had been told of Vernon's affection, and had made no very great objection. He pointed out, however, that his daughter was very young—just turned eighteen—and at least two years ought to pass before the wedding took place. "By that time we shall see if you are both of the same mind," the old officer explained. "I don't believe in marrying in haste."
Vernon fumed a little, but he was forced to submit. But he never lost an opportunity of pointing out how much better it would be if the embargo were removed, and he could marry the girl he loved at once. Muriel laughed.
"I don't suppose dad would hear of it, even under those circumstances," she returned, "and, anyhow, we have two whole years to wait."
She rested her firm, white chin in her cupped hand, and stared again at the palace.
"I can't make it out," she cried. "The rajah seems friendly enough. Yet we have been here for over a fortnight now, and he has only sent for dad once."
"But we've had heaps of game, and other very useful presents from him," Vernon remarked; "that shows he isn't quite antagonistic."
"But there is something missing," said Muriel, "I'm sure of that. If there weren't, we would have been back in our old quarters."
Colonel Bryce and his small staff had not been long in following the rajah back to India. The Foreign Office had decided that it was best that Bryce should return at once, and the old soldier, well-accustomed to constant moves and changes, had started off on the long journey, ten days after the rajah had sailed. The rejoicings over the return of their ruler had only just terminated in Kashopore, when the Bryces arrived to take up their quarters at the residency. The rajah had promptly sent a welcoming message, and daily there arrived from the palace many little luxuries for the colonel's table. But Muriel was quite right in her statement that the rajah had only granted one audience to the British representative, and then it had been a very short one, for his Highness had been dressed ready for a boar-hunting expedition.
Secretly Colonel Bryce felt his new position keenly, but he allowed no indication of his feelings to reveal itself in public. He knew that the inhabitants of the town were watching every move, and that the enemies to British rule, who are to be found everywhere in India, were rejoicing in the fall of this favourite of their ruler's.
"I don't understand it," said Muriel. "The rajah seems friendly, and yet he won't have us near him. Why should that be?"
"Give it up," said Vernon lazily. "I never was very good at conundrums, and, besides, it's too beastly hot to think."
Muriel's eyes flashed.
"You are too lazy for words," she said; "I don't think you care a bit really."
Vernon raised himself on his arm for a moment, and looked at the slender, graceful figure of the girl he loved. "You are quite right there, Muriel," he said. "I don't care very much what happens so long as I can spend most of my day with you. Palace or residency—or mud hut for that matter—would be quite good enough with you to share it."
His quiet speech brought a flush into the girl's cheeks. She leaned forward and put her hand on his head. "It is a very sweet speech, sir," she said, "and I forgive you."
She leaned back in her chair again and looked across the shimmering roofs of the city spread out like an intricately-patterned carpet. The residency stood high, and the whole of the city could be viewed from the wall of the roof. Across the gap stood the rambling structure of the palace. Suddenly a bright flash from one of the high towers caught the girl's eye. She shaded her eyes, staring at the tower, and once again the flash came.
The sun was striking on some bright object and its rays were being reflected across the city.
"Have you got your binoculars, dear?"
Vernon stretched out a lazy hand and picked up the little leather case from beneath the low wall. "Here you are!"
Muriel took the glasses out and adjusted them, there was a long silence, then the girl drew a quick breath.
"It is his Highness," she said. "He seems to be very interested in something that is going on in the palace. He is watching from the tower and is using a pair of glasses. I caught the flash from one of the lenses a few moments ago. Do look, Vernon, there's a dear."
With a sigh of protest, Vernon drew himself up from his comfortable position and took the glasses that were held toward him. He leaned on the low wall and levelled the binoculars.
The powerful glasses picked up the top of the tower. The tall figure of a man in dark, close-fitting robe was leaning over the edge of the tower, glasses raised to his eyes, watching something that was happening below.
There was no mistaking the burly figure.
"Yes, it is the rajah right enough," said Vernon, "but what the dickens does he find to amuse himself up there?" He was still watching the figure. It seemed to be keenly interested, for it did not move a muscle, nor did the head and arm supporting the glasses shift. "What is he looking at?"
"Vernon changed his glasses round, trying to pick up the other man's view. The high wall of the palace made an unbroken line, and the object that held the rajah's attention, whatever it was, was hidden behind the guarding walls.
"The prison lies in the direction that he is staring at," the young officer commented at last, "but I'm hanged if I can see anything."
He returned the glasses to Muriel, who levelled them again at the tower. She watched for a minute or two, then suddenly the attitude of the man on the tower changed. He lowered his glasses from his eyes and straightened up. Quite clearly Muriel Bryce saw the rajah fling back his head in an unmistakable laugh. He beat his hands together as a man might do who had seen some act worthy of applause.
"This is really too much," the girl cried. "I shall simply die of curiosity in a minute. What is it that's going on in the palace?"
Two minutes later the rajah had vanished from the tower, and although Muriel waited, hoping that he would reappear, he did not do so.
But on the following day at exactly the same hour and in exactly the same place the rajah appeared again. His actions were almost similar to the previous day. First the long watch, then the applause, and retirement.
This time Muriel was the sole witness, for the colonel and Vernon had gone off early in the morning together, and were not expected back until sunset.
"If I could only get a word with Abul," the girl thought, "I might be able to get something out of him. I'll really have to find out what it is that interests his Highness so much, and always at the same hour of the day. It's a mystery, and I hate mysteries, they fag the brain so."
But Abul, the huge trooper, had been careful to keep within the confines of the palace ever since the colonel and his staff had arrived at Kashopore. This in itself was quite sufficient to satisfy Muriel that her surmise concerning Abul had been correct.
"He's afraid to face us," she decided, "and yet, I don't think I would have said much to him. He couldn't keep that secret away from his prince."
She arose from her chair and leaned over the low wall for a moment, glancing down into the little courtyard beneath. Beyond the courtyard stood a beautifully wrought-iron gate which opened into the roadway. Whizz!
Muriel caught sight of a dirty, ragged figure beyond the gate. The man raised his arm and suddenly jerked it forward. Something shot past Muriel's head and fell on the carpet beneath the chair. "Oh! You—you brute!" the girl cried, dropping back from the wall, her cheeks white.
The fellow had deliberately aimed at her, or at least had seemed to do so. The brief vision she had had of the man told her he was of the wandering fakir type, a pest that neither time nor change of customs seems to be able to remove.
"If I were a man I'd—I'd run down and give you a good hiding, you wicked wretch," the girl thought, her breath coming and going in little indignant gulps. "I'm sure that I never done anything to harm you or anyone else."
She glanced round and her eye caught a white object lying beneath the chair.
It was a sheet of common notepaper, tied around a small stick! The missile that had whizzed past her head. "Why, what on earth—"
Muriel dropped on her knees and fished out the stick from below the chair. The note was tied to it with a piece of soft rag. With eager fingers the girl untied the knot and opened the note.
"If Miss Bryce would like to meet her old friends, Sexton Blake, Tinker, and also Pedro, she can do so by coming to the East Gate at sunset this evening."
Muriel had to read the note twice before the meaning of it dawned on her. Then with a quick run she was leaning over the wall again.
"Fakir! Holy One!" she called, her eyes fixed on the gateway.
There was no reply, but later on, glancing to the left at a spot where she could command a view of the roadway running between the houses, Muriel saw the figure of the fakir pass, and after him, at the respectful distance that disciples must move, strode another slender form, at whose heels there plodded a great sturdy hound. Muriel almost cried aloud with vexation.
"Oh, why didn't he stop," she cried. "Why are people so annoying just now?" Sexton Blake in India?
It seemed incredible; and yet Muriel remembered that they had lost touch with the detective in a most abrupt manner. From the afternoon that he had called and she had run after him to ask him a certain question, Sexton Blake seemed to have vanished into thin air. Even the Foreign Office, where Colonel Bryce made inquiries, did not seem to be able to give any news; and although Muriel did manage to call once at Baker Street previous to her departure to the East, it was only to learn that Blake and his assistant had gone off somewhere for what was evidently a long visit, as they had taken a lot of clothes with them.
And now, in Kashopore, of all places, they had turned up, detective, and assistant, and bloodhound.
"I feel as though I was moving in a sort of dream," Muriel finally admitted. "There is no mistaking Pedro, even if the others were only disguised. I must go to the East Gate."
It was not such a risky proceeding as it might have been. Muriel Bryce was known to everyone in Kashopore, and they also knew that she stood high in the favour of their ruler. Apart from that there was always the shadow of the British power over her. It would be a brave man who would venture to attack the girl in that city, a brave and a mad one, for his act would bring a summary punishment on all Kashopore.
But it is doubtful whether any thought of danger ever entered the eager girl's head. She dressed herself in her riding-habit and ordered the syce to bring round the polo pony that her father had given her. Sunset found her riding through the narrow streets, and every now and again one of the crowd would send a salaam to her, which Muriel always returned with a sweet smile and bow.
The English rose had plenty of admirers in teeming Kashopore, and she was safer in the crowded streets than anywhere else.
Half an hour saw her reach the East Gate, and she cantered beneath the wide arch, taking the red roadway on the left. The lighted guard-room, occupied by the gate sentinels, made a yellow background against which her slender figure stood out clearly. Something came snuffling out from the dusk, making the pony shy. "Steady, Ron, you silly old thing; it's Pedro, the darling."
Muriel rode astride, and in a moment she had swung herself out of the saddle and was kneeling in the red dust, patting the flanks of the great hound who gasped and panted his delight at this meeting. "Good evening, Miss Bryce," a quiet voice said.
Muriel looked up at the ragged figure in front of her. The begging bowl, attached by a cord to the sunburnt throat, the long staff, and naked, dust-covered feet, were all in keeping with the dusky face and straggling beard. But the voice and accents were those of an Englishman, and one that she recognised at once.
"Mr. Blake," she said, rising to her feet and holding out her hand.
Blake extended the bowl as though it was a present that the girl offered him.
"I am the Wandering One for the time being, Miss Bryce," he said, "and I am always to be found outside the little Temple of the Vines." Muriel drew a swift breath.
"But how extraordinary," she exclaimed eagerly. "I heard the servants talking about a very wise beggar-priest, who had taken up his quarters at that very temple." Blake bowed, and the shadow of a smile crossed his bearded lips for a moment.
"It is wonderful how a good knowledge of the native tongue and a certain amount of commonsense helps a man to build up a reputation," he returned. "But I'm glad to hear that my advice has been found to have the real stuff in it."
The slender girl in her neat riding-habit was walking along the roadway, Blake by her side, while the slender figure whom Muriel recognised as Tinker, and Pedro, followed them at the respectful distance that a disciple should keep from his master.
"But you are perfectly splendid," Muriel went on, glancing with critical admiration at Blake. "I never saw anything like it. You would deceive the eyes of the sharpest native."
"It is more than likely that I will have to do that sooner or later." said Blake in a dry tone. "Always assuming that the one you refer to is the head of his people."
"You mean the rajah?"
She halted and looked at her companion.
"Is it because of something that the rajah has done that you are out here in this disguise?" Blake bowed.
"Because of something which I think the rajah has done would be perhaps the better way of putting it, Miss Bryce," he corrected.
"But this is really interesting," the vivacious girl went on. "You know, I suppose, that dad and all of us are in disgrace. That is to say, his Highness refuses to give us our old quarters in the palace, and has never invited us to see him yet?"
"But his Highness sends you very many presents for your table," said the disguised detective. "For instance, there was a fine buck brought over yesterday."
"Goodness! You know as much about our business as we do," Muriel went on. "I hope that we are not added to the suspicious list!" Blake laughed.
"I wouldn't have sent that message to you, if you were," he pointed out.
"Well, that's consoling, anyhow, And now, tell me, how long have you been in Kashopore?"
"Tinker and I arrived just exactly three days behind his Highness."
"You must have travelled very fast."
The keen jaw of the detective twitched for a moment.
"I meant to get here before him, if I could, but I was held up in America. I went round the other way, you see, Miss Bryce. One travels faster on land than by sea."
"But what was all the hurry about?"
The man by her side came to a halt. The roadway was in darkness now, and there was no sign of other pedestrians. "I cannot take you into my confidence yet, Miss Bryce," Blake said, in a quiet tone; "but I promise I will do so as soon as I clear up one or two points. Meanwhile, I want you to help me."
"I'm sure I'll do anything I can."
"I want you to find out what his Highness did with a very splendid specimen of a Bengal tiger which arrived in Kashopore on the same day as I did. As a matter of fact, it travelled by the same train, and had a much better compartment than Tinker and I. It was taken to the palace in a gorgeous gold car; and I hear that the rajah is highly delighted with his purchase."
"I never heard anything about that," said Muriel; "but I shouldn't be surprised if he did buy a tiger. He has quite a small zoo, in the palace."
"This particular tiger had quite a history," said Blake, "during the journey I had a word or two with the man in charge of it. It is a man-eater, and has never been in captivity. It was caught in a pit, and was kept there for over a week, as it was much too strong to be handled by the villagers. They were very pleased when his Highness sent down for it. He paid quite a big sum of money for his latest pet."
"Well, it is all news to me, Mr. Blake," said Muriel, "but I'll try my best to find out. Unfortunately, our changed conditions make it rather harder than it might have been."
Blake was silent for a moment.
"Don't you think that his Highness might desire to keep you away from the palace, for reasons apart from the ones you think?"
He put the question in a quiet tone, as one might do who was mentally puzzling out the reply himself. "Oh, I'm sure it is all through that unfortunate robbery!" Muriel cried.
"Yes, Miss Bryce, I agree that the robbery is at the bottom of it; but the point I want to decide is, if the rajah is still nursing a grievance against Colonel Bryce. In this case, I don't think that he would trouble to send so many presents. I should imagine that the rajah is the sort of man who makes an enemy and allows him to remain one."
"I see your point, Mr. Blake," said Muriel thoughtfully. "And it certainly does seem rather strange. If the rajah feels friendly enough to send us gifts, he ought to feel friendly enough to give us back our old quarters."
"Where were your quarters?"
"Right in the centre of the inner courtyard," said Muriel, with a half-regretful sigh. "They were lovely! Just a little tower quite by itself. It was reached by a passage from the main buildings, of course, but we could close an iron door in the passage, and were completely shut off from the others."
"Perhaps you would describe the tower to me?"
"It was eight-sided, and three stories high. The ground floor was divided into two rooms, one we used as the dining-room, and the other the kitchen. Upstairs were the study and one bedroom, and there were two other bedrooms on the next floor. Above that was a flat roof, and in the centre of the roof was a building, that we used as a store. In summer time I've often slept up on top of the little store. It was a delightful place. It had a wall about four feet high all round it, and it was fairly well sheltered by the other towers of the palace."
Then Blake asked a question which made Muriel draw back a pace.
"It would be possible for anyone in one of the higher towers to see the whole of the roof and the little store, of the quarters you once occupied."
"Why, of course! Good gracious, how foolish of me! I have only just thought of something most extraordinary..."
Before she could go on, Blake had taken the very words she was about to utter, from her lips.
"You mean that you have found out where the rajah keeps such a steady watch on, during the two hot hours of the afternoon?"
"You have seen him, then?"
"No. But you forget that I am a very wise fakir, Miss Bryce. And even the palace servants come to have a word with the wise."
His quiet laugh brought an answering smile on the girl's lips.
"I have been puzzling my brains all day," Muriel admitted. "I saw the rajah and his glasses. What is it that keeps him so very intent?" Blake shook his head.
"That is more than I can find out," he said, and his low voice now had taken a sterner note; "but I mean to do so. You, perhaps, might aid me?"
Blake leaned forward.
"When his Highness sends another gift, try and have a word with his messenger," he said, "and say to the messenger that you think it a shame that the rajah should have turned a man-eating tiger out into your old quarters, to roam about the rooms just as it pleases?"
"But—but has he really done that?"
"The messenger's manner will soon prove whether he has or not," the detective returned grimly; "and that is the other item of information that I want you to gather for me." He drew back from her, with a low salaam.
"I am always to be found at the temple of the Vine," he went on, and now his voice had changed into the sing-song whine of the mendicant priest; "the mem-sahib can always see me there."
A shadow had loomed up out of the dusk. It was a tall native, white-robed, and turbaned, striding out through the dust. Muriel, with a final nod to Blake, climbed into her saddle and turned Ron's head homeward.
Her brain was a whirl of thought and doubts. Blake had not asked her to keep his presence in Kashopore a secret, but instinct told the girl to do so, until he gave her permission to speak.
What was his object?
The question arose in her mind, and she puzzled over it, while Ron cantered on through the east gateway and turned into the narrow, winding streets of the old city.
One thing was sure, he was there to watch the rajah, and by doing so he was taking his life in his hands. Only a man with vast courage would dare to stay in Puljara, with such a mission to perform. It was like going into the lion's den, for the rajah's word was law in his own little kingdom.
Muriel almost shivered as she thought of the long odds that Blake would have to face.
"It would be an act of madness on the part of any other person," she murmured. "Two men and a dog against his Highness and all his bodyguard and people. It is enough to make one laugh, if it didn't make one feel more inclined to cry!"
And she did shed just one tear, then her little head went back, and she straightened her supple form.
"But I will help him!" she vowed. "I know that there is nothing mean or underhand in his task. Whatever he has to do is bound to be on the side of justice and truth. I'll help him to the bitter end."
A splendid resolution, and one that Muriel Bryce was to carry out. And yet, had she known the whole truth, she might have hesitated to give that promise. For the mission that Sexton Blake had taken up was the rescuing of two rascals who, to many people, had richly deserved their fate. Somewhere in that vast palace Count Carlac and Professor Kew were held in bondage. That fact Blake had now proved beyond the shadow of doubt. A word picked up here and there, a half-frightened confidence made darkly, all went to prove that two white men had travelled with his Highness as captives, that they had been seen to enter the palace and from that moment no sign or word had been heard of them.
Blake had made his way to the little temple in the midst of the paddy-field when he left Muriel, and on reaching the shelter, Tinker and Pedro came up to their master.
"I suppose you heard most of the chat, Tinker?" Blake asked.
The youngster—Tinker—might have been one of the thousands of slim native boys who are to be found swarming in the East. A ragged robe, half opened at the breast, revealed the clear amber skin, which could stand the light of the sun and the test of water successfully, the white teeth and black, sleek hair were typical of the race. His feet, naked in the dust, had the real hard sole now of one who goes barefooted in all seasons.
"Yes, guv'nor; and I was sorry that I couldn't have a word with Miss Muriel. She's a real trump, right through."
"She will help me, Tinker," the detective went on; "and she has a keen brain, while her nerves are of the best. Yes, I think that she will be of great use to us."
Tinker had entered the temple and had lighted a small native lamp, the smoky flames dispelled a little of the darkness, and Tinker began to prepare the supper. A simple meal, but quite sufficient to the seasoned campaigners. Rice and dates, with a cup of coffee, and a plentiful supply of small, appetising rice-cakes.
Tinker had adjusted a scrap of ragged cloth over the narrow door of the temple, so that they might be concealed from any chance wayfarer. Not that there was a big likelihood of anyone coming that way. The temple was rather remote, and the path to it through the paddy-fields was a haunt for snakes, and, by the word of the natives, ghosts. Blake had filled his briar, and, leaning back against the wall of the temple, he was puffing away contentedly. Tinker had flung himself upon a heap of rugs, with Pedro's head on his knees.
Pedro seldom growled. The nearest thing he could do was a sort of subterranean bark which came apparently from some deep recess in the thick throat. A moment later Blake heard the crackling of reeds, and, with a quick movement, arose to his feet. His pipe was thrust into a safe crevice in the wall, and he stepped up to the doorway.
The quick panting of a man was heard, and a hand reached out and tugged the flimsy cloth aside. Blake saw a white-robed figure standing in the dusk, then the new-comer leaped forward through the doorway and closed the cloth over it again.
Blake watched the sweat-covered face, and noted the quick, laboured breathing. The stranger was covered from head to foot with dust, and there were thorn scratches on his face and hands. "Thou an pursued, perhaps?" Blake asked, in the vernacular. The man turned towards him, and shook his head.
"I do not know. I heard no sound. But they saw me as I climbed the gate, and fired. Look!" He held out his left hand. Blood was caked on the wrist.
"Only a scratch, but my heart was within an inch from where the bullet struck," the fugitive continued, "yet I have beaten the dogs!" His face, seamed and lined with care, turned to Blake.
"They were watching for me night and day," he went on; "I have had to hide like a rat. But I beat them in the end. His Highness will not have the joy of watching Chandra Lai in terror."
"He who breaks the law must pay." said Blake in the whine of the class he was representing. The fugitive threw back his head.
"Well spoken and well played!" he cried. "I was warned that thy disguise was beyond praise, and by Allah, they were right."
Tinker had started to his feet at a bound, and the dust-covered man backed away against a wall, stretching his hand, palm forward, out towards them. "I am a friend," he whispered; "it is true that I know you are white men—but that makes it better for me." Blake had not moved, but his eyes were as hard as granite as he watched the face of the intruder. "Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Chandra Lai, but that will convey nothing to thee. But when I tell you that I was a friend of two men, Carlac and Kew, here in Kashopore, and that I know of your mission here—"
Blake made a signal to Tinker, who stepped back to the heap of rugs. The detective nodded to Chandra Lai.
"You either know too much or too little, my friend," said Blake, in a grim voice and speaking in English. "Sit down, and if you are a friend, prove it."
Chandra Lai's eyes brightened, and he drew a breath of relief.
"I was not sure, even when I spoke," he muttered, sending a quick glance at Blake; "verily, you are the image of all fakirs. I had heard of your powers, Mr. Blake—"
"What, even the name?"
Despite his self-possession, Blake could not avoid the slight sigh of surprise. Chandra Lai smiled. "There is but little mystery in it, sahib," he went on. "I have a brother in London, Gilga Lai, who writes to me. He sometimes does services for a certain Ben Dhur—whom may Allah destroy, for a cunning fox!"
"I do not know either of these two men," said Blake.
"That is so, and yet you know of them," said Chandra Lai quickly. "Ben Dhur is the man who tricked Carlac and Kew into going to his Highness. My brother helped him in the task—but my brother did not know that I had once served Carlac and Kew."
Little by little the story came out. Chandra Lai's brother, little dreaming that Chandra was in any way implicated in the matter, had written a long account of the trick. And he had added the information that, by some means or other, known only to himself, Ben Dhur had picked up, that Sexton Blake, Tinker, and Pedro had left for Kashopore, in a mad attempt to save the guilty men.
This last item of information must have leaked out through Flash Harry. Ben Dhur had, no doubt, set someone to talk to the fellow, and Flash Harry was a known talker "And when did you receive this letter?"
"Only yesterday, protector," said Chandra Lai; "but some of the information was but stale news to me. I knew that the sahibs, Carlac and Kew, were prisoners at the palace, before it came. By Allah, I had plenty of proof of that."
He explained what had happened to Blake. Two days after his Highness's arrival, one of the ruffians who had been hired by Chandra Lai to carry out the mock attack on Colonel Bryce, had been brought before the rajah charged with another offence. In order to try and save his own skin the man had told the story of the trick that Kew and Carlac had played upon the British representative.
"I was warned just in the nick of time," said Chandra Lai; "a friend in the palace sent word to me that an order for my arrest had been made out. I hid from them until yesterday, when that letter was carried to me by one I could trust." He looked at Blake.
"Twice I have caught sight of you and your companion, sahib," said Chandra Lai, "and when my brother mentioned that there was also a dog with thee, and that thy powers of disguise were so world-famous, I guessed that the ragged fakir was no other than the great English detective. To-night, hearing that you lived at the Temple of the Vine—My friend passed thee on the roadway but two short hours ago. Thou wert talking to the daughter of the colonel-sahib."
Tinker emitted a grunt from his corner. Not even on the broad high road were they safe from listening ears.
"And so I determined to seek thee out," Chandra Lai ended; "for as thou art here as an enemy of the rajah's, it might be that thou wouldst help me to get away from his accursed State."
"And is that so difficult?"
"They say no man can get away from Puljara, if its ruler desires otherwise," he said. "I know that many have tried, but I have yet to hear of a success. So long as you remain here, all is well, but it is when the frontiers have to be passed that you find how strong is the arm of the prince."
"Which certainly sounds dashed cheerful so far as you and I are concerned, Pedro, old chap," Tinker whispered into the dog's ear. "It looks as though we're going to do this beggar-boy act for the rest of our natural lives."
But he smiled as he spoke, and his eyes travelled across to the strong, bearded face of the man whom he loved to look up to as master as well as friend.
"But if his Highness can hold the guv'nor—then he's a greater man than I think he is," the lad added, "and, meanwhile, no matter what this wily man says, my money's going on Baker Street every time."
A Terrible Vengeance
THE grey fingers of the dawn came out from the east, touching with delicate grace the dark shadowy towers of the palace. As the light increased a man lying on a heap of unsavoury rugs below the four foot wall of the round-shaped building on the roof of the tower that had once been occupied by Colonel Bryce, stirred uneasily, then sat up, casting the rugs to one side. The morning light was striking full on his face—and it revealed with pitiless accuracy the lines around the eyes, the sunken cheeks, the straggling, unkempt beard.
Slowly the huge man arose to his feet, stretching his arms as one who was still weary. In the centre of the narrow circle was an iron trapdoor, and beside it stood an earthenware jug and a platter filled with a heap of rice.
"Our usual supply," said Count Carlac aloud, as he stepped towards the jar.
He was hardly recognisable. His clothes hung about him in a limp manner, hinting of a gaunt frame beneath. His beard covered the broad, powerful jaw from ear to ear, and his eyes, hollow globes of light, were fixed, and had that rigid stare that comes to one who has spent long hours beneath a burning sun.
He lifted the jar to his lips and took a careful drink. He knew that it had to last all day. Then, holding the jar in one hand, he turned and crossed the narrow roof, to stoop over another bundle of rugs.
"Might as well waken up," said Carlac, "it is the only hours of the day, that are worth while."
The bundle of rugs moved, and out of their folds came the hawk-face of Kew. The change in him was not so apparent as on his heavier companion. The sallow cheeks were, perhaps, a trifle hollower, the eyes burned more brightly, but the hairless face and the hawk nose, the thin cruel lips and the lashless eyes, had not changed in their expression.
"I am not sure that I wanted you to waken me up," the thin, birdlike voice said; "I was dreaming—pleasant dreams."
Carlac held out the jar.
"Dreams are not much use to us," he said, in his harsh voice; "we have to prepare for—for our day's task. And remember that that jar has to last us until to-morrow. They dare not supply us with more, even if they desired to do so."
Kew sipped at the fluid, then placed the jar carefully into a niche in the wall by his side, then, with a smothered groan he arose stiffly to his feet. Stepping to the low wall he peered down on to the roof of the tower. From the top of the wall to the flat tiles of the roof, was a drop of about eighteen feet. The wall of the roof of the tower was about five feet high, just high enough to prevent anyone in the courtyard below seeing what was going on on the other roof. Kew looked down into the moat-like gap that ran round their prison, and, keeping close to the wall, walked round the little circle of the roof.
"No, it is not there yet," he said.
"Of course not," Carlac returned; "it only appears when his Highness is there to watch the fun!"
He spoke words in a hard tone, but there was a touch of fear in his voice. He had seated himself on the iron trapdoor and was eating the rice from the platter, scooping it up with his fingers for want of a better utensil.
Kew dropped into a squatting position by his side and began to eat. A silence fell on the two men, and the sun, rising in its golden splendour, found them just finishing their meal. The fragments that remained were placed in the niche with the jar of precious water, then Carlac, drawing his rugs into the only part of the wall that afforded a slight shade, stretched himself out on them, his head resting on his arms.
Kew, restless spirit ever, began to walk up and down the stone flags, halting every now and then to cast a glance on to the other roof. Carlac watched him for a long while, then his impatience found vent to speech.
"You are only tiring yourself out, quite needlessly," he muttered. "If you will be advised by me you will save all your strength—you will need it soon enough."
Kew halted and shot a glance at his companion from beneath his hairless eyelids.
"I cannot sit down," he snapped; "leave me to do as I please. You will find me ready enough when the hour comes." He drew a quick breath.
"How are we going to get out of this?" he went on, his eyes glinting. "There must be some way of doing so. There never was a prison yet that could not be made to open." Carlac nodded towards the trapdoor.
"There is the only means of escape," he pointed out, "if it is not closed. A child can raise it—but neither you nor I dare to do so."
The hawk nose of Kew twitched as he looked at the trapdoor. He knew that it was unfastened—and knew that it had been left in that condition deliberately. Through it they could drop into the stores, and the doors were open that led from the stores on to the roof On the roof of the tower was another black gap which hid the staircase that led down into the interior. Yes, it seemed easy enough for them to make a descent from their uncomfortable eerie.
But it was the guardian of the tower, the custodian lurking in one of the hidden rooms, that held them in a bondage light but remorseless.
Noon came and went. The sun grew hotter and hotter, Kew, wearied at last of his ceaseless pacing to and fro, had dropped into a sitting position, leaning against the wall. Suddenly a word from Carlac roused him. The huge criminal had risen to his feet.
"Get ready, Kew," Carlac's deep voice said; "his Highness has just taken his seat for the show. Look, there he is!"
To the right there arose a tall tower. The tallest in the palace. A man's figure in dark robes came forward and leaned over the wall. The sun caught and reflected its light on a pair of glasses that the newcomer held in one jewelled hand.
A feeling of reckless—bravado came to Carlac, and hollowing his hand around his lips, he sent a loud hail across the stirless space.
"Salaam, you brown devil! We are still here, and ready!"
Kew, watching the figure of the rajah, saw the heavy lips go back in a swift smile, and the rajah made an answering gesture, a mocking return to the defiant salute.
Then from below the tower there came a chorus of noises, the shouting of men, and the beating of drums—a perfect demon's tattoo.
"Look out for it!" Carlac whispered, "they are driving it up from below."
He crossed the low parapet, and watched the black gap in the roof below. A long minute passed, then to the ears of the two men there came a low, savage snarl, which, starting on a deep note, rose to a grating, angry cry; up through the black gap there came the sleek, evil head of a huge tiger!
"Here it is!"
With an effortless bound the tiger came out of the gap, to turn and send a full-throated snarl back into the cool chamber below. A spear, with a bright steel point, flashed out at it, and its curved paw struck twice at the weapon, then, driven back, it sank snarling on to its haunches, and the iron trapdoor arose, blocking the gap. The tiger was a prisoner on the lower roof.
Carlac had drawn back, and he looked at Kew. The wizened professor had torn a strip of material from the rug, and was binding it round his thin fist.
"To-day it will be hungrier than it was yesterday," the professor's thin voice sounded; "and it will try all the harder. Better get ready."
Carlac had slipped out of his coat, and had rolled up his sleeves. Swiftly he bound up his right fist, from knuckles to elbow, using an old wrapping that he found beneath his own pile of rugs. Sc-cr-cr!
The stroke of steel-like claws against the side of the circular store sent a swift thrill through the listeners.
"Already?" Carlac breathed, trying to force a smile. But his lips were bloodless, and the eyes had narrowed into mere pinpoints. Instinctively they both moved towards the wall, and peered over—into the very jaws of the brute below. The man-eating tiger had stretched itself full length up the wall, its jaws gaping, its snake-shaped head back. For a long moment Kew stared down into the cold, unwavering eyes beneath. Animal hate glared up into the human hate, then the sinewy beast dropped lightly on the hot roof, and began to pad slowly round and round. And now began that terrible sentry-go, which the solitary witness on the high tower opposite had watched so intently for days.
Round and round went the sleek, striped shape, and round and round above it moved the two ragged, weary men. Not for one instant dared they withdraw their eyes from the brute. They knew what was going to happen, and as they crept round they had to be ever on the alert.
There was something terrible in the silence, broken only by the soft, shuffling sound of the two pairs of feet, as they moved round and round on the sun-scorched flags, and the softer pad, pad, of the great paws below.
It was a half-strangled cry, almost of relief, that broke from Carlac's parched lips. For the tiger, maddened by the steady watch above, had crouched suddenly, and made his spring. Eighteen feet is a tremendous height even for such an agile brute as a tiger. The paws, with the great talons, curved against the top of the wall for a moment, slipping, clutching, seeking a hold. Carlac, leaping forward looked down into the great yellow jaws, then, with a courage that might have made him a worthy man had it not been for the criminal streak in him, the giant criminal sent his fist crashing between the brute's eyes.
The tiger seemed to know what was going to happen. There came up a thin, angry snarl, and one great paw flashed at the arm that had dealt it such a blow.
It was well for Carlac that his bandages were thick and tight. For as the tiger fell backwards on to the floor beneath, a great shred of cloth fluttered down with it, and Carlac staggered back against Kew, white to the lips.
"It—it nearly had me that time," the big man breathed. "It's as cunning as possible. It has rumbled to our game, and waits for the blow. Sooner or later it will get its hold, and you or I will follow it head first."
"That has yet to happen, my friend," Kew breathed. "And, meanwhile, the rajah seems to have enjoyed it."
He pointed towards the tower opposite. The rajah had dropped his glasses, and was clapping his hands together. The cold brutality of the action seemed to madden Carlac, for he shook his fists in the air, and raved out a torrent of words.
Kew caught his arm.
"Save your breath, Carlac," the professor said, in his grim way, "and save your strength for the other tiger, who, at the moment, is much the more dangerous of the two."
He had been watching from the wall all the time, and Carlac came to him, peering over. The great brute, snarling softly to itself, was running its red tongue, catlike, over its sleek skin. It had evidently been bruised a little by its backward fall. It halted in its operations, as Carlac's shadow fell across it. Carlac looked down into the small eyes, and noted the hate that blazed into them.
"There will be very little quarter for us when you do win," the huge criminal muttered to himself.
They watched the brute in silence. The tiger arose at last, and stretched itself, then started to cross the roof, heading for the higher wall. Instantly both men started into life.
Kew, snatching up a handful of rubble, cast it at the sleek back, while Carlac, leaning down as far as he dared, sent a mocking shout at the animal.
A wild snarl broke from the great cat's lips, and, wheeling round, it charged at the wall.
Its leap was a badly-judged effort, and it landed two feet below Carlac, who had swiftly drawn himself up again. The hot, fetid breath from the open jaws fanned his white cheek, and then, spitting and clawing desperately, the striped brute went down on the lower roof again.
Kew leaned against the wall, and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He was plainly suffering from a sudden rush of fear.
"We must keep it away from that other wall," he broke out. "And, by Jove, that was a near shave!"
It was the other wall that they feared. For if once the tiger climbed on to its broad top, there would only be a narrow gap between it and the roof of the shed. Both Carlac and Kew realised that from the other wall it would be an easy matter for the powerful brute to launch itself clear across the gap, and up over their low wall, on to the circular roof. And when it did that, their fight came to an end. Unarmed, cut off from retreat, what chance would they have?
It was far better for them to goad the tiger into his furious attempts to leap from the roof below, than to let him find out the weak spot in their defence.
Slowly the sun moved on over the brazen sky. The sweat was pouring from Carlac's lean cheeks, and the long ordeal was beginning to tell on him. Three times within the same number of minutes did the tiger attempt to reach his goal, and once; for a terrible moment, his head was level with the wall, while one vicious paw struck out to right and left, with that swift, deft aim that marks the attack of all animals of the cat tribe.
It was Kew who saved them then. Carlac had been sent reeling by one of the vicious swings, and in another moment the tiger would have scrambled on to the wall, when Kew, stooping suddenly, picked up the platter containing the remains of the rice heap, and with a shrill scream cast the plate into the brute's eyes.
The rice had been highly spiced and peppered—in itself a cunning attempt at torture, for the seasoning engendered a terrible thirst. But now it served another purpose, for the pepper stung the brute's eyes, and, half-blinded, it reeled from its hold. Kew, rushing in then, sent it down once more by a blow from his wrapped-up fist.
A tornado of cries and snarls followed, and the tiger, rolling over and over on the roof, clawed and scraped at itself in a wild fury.
It was only then that the rajah, bending forward slightly, gave any signs of anger. His hand was raised, and his voice sounded. A moment later and the hard grate of a bolt being removed came to the ears of the panting, exhausted men on the sun-baked roof. Carlac, tottering to the wall, glanced downward. The iron trap-door shot out of sight, revealing the black gap.
The tiger seemed to hear the sound almost as soon as his still triumphant foe, for he arose, and with a couple of bounds had reached the trap-door. His sinewy limbs folded beneath him, and a moment later he had vanished into his lair. "All—all over for this afternoon:" Carlac croaked, through parched lips.
His face was drawn and bloodless, and has he leaned against the wall, Kew realised that there was yet another danger to be met. Sooner or later this eternal fight against such terrible odds would have its effect on the brain of the giant criminal Carlac's strength of arm made him the chief guard of the little tower, and the greater pan of the struggle was carried out by him. But Kew knew now that the ordeal was sapping away more than the mere strength of his companion. Carlac's eyes were fixed and staring, and his lips were moving, although no sound came from them.
"Show's over—show's over," he said, finding his voice again. "The next performance will take place at the same time tomorrow."
He reeled forward, and with a quick bound Kew was at his side. The professor's hand was stained with blood, when he looked at it. Carlac managed to reach his heap of rugs, then collapsed, and Kew, after a hasty examination, saw that there was a great wound running down the whole length of the big forearm. The tiger's claws had left its mark.
The wizened criminal went to work to bind and clean the wound. Perhaps it was as much self-preservation as anything else that made Kew put out all his skill in the little act. He arranged a rug over one pan of the wall, so that Carlac might have some shade, sprinkling water on the rug, to make it cooler beneath.
If Carlac became feverish all was lost. Kew knew that he himself, alone and unaided, could not hope to beat back the incessant attacks of the fury-filled, hungry animal. That afternoon the attacks had followed each other in quick succession, proving that the animal was getting mad with hunger. Soon it would reach the ravenous stage, and not even the opening of the trap would make it vanish into the cooler rooms beneath. Unless he had Carlac to help him then, the game was up.
Right through the rest of the long, hot hours, Kew sat beside the little shelter, tending the man who lay breathing heavily beneath it. Now and again the wizened professor would raise the edge of the rug and glance at the flushed face, with its black, tangled beard. Occasionally he would reach for the jar of water, and, moistening a rag, would place it over Carlac's broad forehead.
It was a fight with everything against Kew, and yet, when the day came to a close, his touch on Carlac's wrist found it cool and the pulse normal. Carlac came back from his heavy sleep to see the soft stars shining above, and the birdlike figure of Kew silhouetted against the sky, like some fantastical picture.
The voice was hard enough, and Carlac sat up.
"Yes, I'm all right." He stretched out his hand, and Kew held the jar forward. Carlac emptied it with one long pull.
"It strikes me that I was pretty near to collapse," the tall criminal went on. "The pace was a little too hot for me, I suppose."
He arose to his feet, and went across to the wall. All around him arose the high buildings of the palace, shutting out all hope of a glimpse at the outer world. The faint lights from the city shone into the sky, and Carlac stretched his arms out in a gesture of impotent rage.
"It hardly seems worth while," he said, turning to Kew. "Why not put an end to it."
He pointed into the darkness below. They could easily find a way out of their torture, if they chose.
Kew's cackling laughter jarred on the still summer air.
"Not while I retain my senses!" he put in. "While there is life there is always hope! The tiger can be faced. But your way is a poor one, and gives us no earthly chance."
He came to Carlac's side, and rested his chin on his cupped hands, his elbows on the low parapet. Far away in the distance arose the low hills, over which the high-road ran. Along the shadow of the hills there came gliding into view a little snake of light, winding to and fro, and presently they heard, far off, the shrill, clear whistle of a train.
"That is our road to freedom," said Kew. "If we could only reach the railway—"
The snake of light crawled on and vanished. Carlac, who had been watching it closely, suddenly reached out his hand and caught Kew in a fierce grip. "Look!" he said. "Over there—just beneath the hills! I thought I saw a light! Yes, there it is again!" In the blue dusk a light appeared, vanished—appeared, vanished. Long flashes and short flashes. "It has nothing to do with us," said Kew.
But Carlac was able to read Morse Signalling, and he began to count the flashes. "Long, short, long, short—C. Short long—A. Short, long, short—" A deep breath came from him.
"Keep quiet!" he whispered, in a hoarse voice. "They are spelling out my name!"
Kew stiffened into attention at once, and watched the light as it flashed and faded, now with a long interval of light, then with a short of one. "Remember the words!" whispered Carlac. "I will spell them out: 'Carlac. Chandra Lai sends greetings. Have courage. Send reply if possible.'"
Kew darted across to his heap of rugs, and returned with a little metal box. It was one of those petrol self-lighting patents, and had escaped the careful search of his custodians owing to the fact that it had slipped into the torn lining of his coat.
One of the rugs, almost tinder-alike, thanks to the heat of the sun, was torn into strips, and Kew released the spring of the box. A little flame leaped out, and was held to the strip. Leaping on the parapet, Kew waved the flaming rag round and round above his head until it had burned itself out.
There was a long moment of waiting; then, away in the distance, came an answering flash, proving that the flaming signal had been seen.
Kew dropped on to the circular floor of his prison, and peered up into the face of his companion. "Well, what about the easy way out now?" he asked, in his quiet, sardonic tones. Carlac folded his hands and laughed silently.
"That is all over and done with," he returned. "But I am puzzled! Chandra Lai may have dictated that message, but I'll swear he never sent it!"
"He knows nothing of telegraphy," said Carlac. "I know him well enough! The hand that signalled that message was an expert's."
"But what does it matter?" the professor put in drily. "We have received the message, and that is quite enough for me!'
"They must have been nine or ten miles away," Carlac went on, "the country round Kashopore is as flat as a billiard-table, and they would have to travel to the foothills before they could reach a place where their light could be seen and read."
"They have taken a risk," the professor returned, "for if we could read it, so could others!"
"Unless they knew the exact position of this tower, and trained the light on it," Carlac went on. "In that case, only the people in the palace and around its immediate vicinity could have seen the light." He wheeled on his companion.
"And by Jove, they have chosen the very best hour to escape detection!" he went on. "They change the guard just now, and the night watch relieves the day one. His Highness and his staff are at their evening meal. Yes, it is the very best moment they could have chosen!"
There was another long silence; then Kew shrugged his shoulders.
"It is all very well," he said slowly; "but, even now, I fail to see how Chandra Lai can help us. He was clever enough in organising a mock attack, but I don't think him quite capable of tackling the rajah and his bodyguard!" Carlac's bearded face was wearing a grim, intent expression. "There is someone else behind Chandra Lai!" he said. "I'll swear to that!"
"But who can it be? Not a soul in the world knows what has happened to us! At least, I mean, not a soul from our part of the world. Chandra Lai may have found out about us, but England is the only place we could expect real help from, and I doubt very much if they would even trouble to come to our rescue if they knew our plight. You forget that we are what is termed law-breakers—beyond hope of redemption. If we die to please the whim of a rajah, no one will trouble themselves very much."
His hard, cynical tones grated on Carlac. The latter pointed out to where the point of light had shone like a star of hope in the darkness.
"Someone out there has other views concerning us, Kew." the huge criminal returned, "and there are white men who would not hear of others being tortured in this diabolical way, even although they were as we are, outside the pale of the law."
Kew turned away on his heel, with a shrug of his shoulders.
"Have it your way!" he snapped. "But, candidly, I do not build up hope on Chandra Lai's signals. We are only sure of one thing, and that is that to-morrow will bring his Highness and the tiger, each of them as hungry for blood as they possibly can be. That is what we have to face, and the rest is in the regions of wild dreams and fancies."
He walked across to his heap of rugs, and stretched out on them. Carlac remained standing beside the wall, his eyes turning now and again towards the darker mass in the distance which marked the bulk of the hills. But there was no further signalling, although he waited for over an hour, and at last he was forced to turn away and seek his pile of rugs.
In its way, the torture which the rajah was inflicting on these men, was a masterpiece. The anticipation, the certain knowledge that as each afternoon came so would the gaunt, hungry brute appear, to prowl round and round the little store, seeking for a chance to leap, the long-drawn agony of the spell of waiting, was as cruel as was the actual fight that took place. 'And day by day the tiger would grow fiercer and fiercer, as its hunger increased, while day by day the two wretched men on the roof above would grow weaker and weaker, until the end came when, too powerless to check the climbing brute, they fell victims to his powerful paws.
That was the culminating feast that his Highness the Rajah of Puljara, stripped now of the veneer of civilisation that cloaked him when abroad, looked forward to.
We cannot judge him, for the East has laws of its own. Kew and his confederate had broken what was almost a Divine law so far as the rajah was concerned. They had set thieving and sacrilegious hands upon a treasured relic. Their deaths would have to be examples to others, grim warnings of what might happen to rogues who plotted against the might of their prince.
But this time his Highness was to be baulked of his anticipated revenge. Kew and Carlac, after all, had been punished enough in the dread days that they had already spent. The crowning horror was fated not to happen.
And the being who was to bring that miracle about was a ragged fakir who at that moment was striding along a narrow cart-track that ran from the railway station beside the foothills down to the plains around Kashopore. Beside him stepped a lighter figure, and in the grasses in front there appeared now and again the sinewy shadow of a great hound.
It was Sexton Blake and Tinker returning to the Temple of the Vine, and any doubt that Blake might have had concerning the fate of the two men had vanished now, for it was he who had sent the signal, naming Carlac, and had received the waved reply. Chandra Lai had picked out the exact spot from whence the light would be seen on the little tower, but the Hindu had not stayed behind to mark the result of the signals.
Capture meant death so far as Chandra Lai was concerned, and he was taking no chances.
"The English sahibs are always brave," was his explanation; "but a coward lives the longer, and life is sweet."
How Blake Entered the Palace
"YOU seem jolly pleased to get rid of us, Muriel!" Lieutenant Vernon said, with a light laugh. "I feel the green-eyed monster, Jealousy, rising in me!" He looked down at the lovely face of his sweetheart, and Muriel returned his smile.
"Now, that's just like a man!" she said quickly. "You come to me and say that dad and you decided to have a day's sport with some friend, and that you may not return to-night. Although I ought to feel hurt and pained at your neglect, I hide all that, and even help you get ready, and because I do that, you promptly accuse me of some dark motive!"
Her lover put his arm round her.
"But there is something, Muriel!" he urged. "I can see it in your eyes! They are shining like stars with something that looks to me like suppressed excitement. And why do you spend most of your time on the roof, watching the palace?"
A tell-tale colour arose to Muriel's cheeks for a moment, but she laughed the shrewd question aside. Vernon was right, however, and Muriel was really glad when, an hour later, the tall, erect figure of her father, mounted on a fine white Arab, cantered through the gateway of the quiet Residency, followed by Vernon. The young officer turned in his saddle, and waved his hand to Muriel, who was watching their departure from the roof. The girl fluttered her handkerchief in reply; then the two riders vanished, and Muriel dropped back into the soft cushions in the deep easy-chair.
"Thank goodness they have gone!" she decided. "That sounds frightfully wicked and all that, but I don't mean any harm. Only I must have the place to myself if I am to help Mr. Blake!"
A message had come across to the British representative that the rajah was about to send over a basket of fruit. Muriel received that message, and, knowing that Colonel Bryce was going to start at once on his hunting expedition, the girl kept the message to herself. Her father, punctilious always in matters of these kinds, might have postponed his departure in order to receive the rajah's gift in person, and this was just exactly what Muriel desired to avoid.
It was about noon when the messenger from the palace arrived. Muriel saw the tall, uniformed figure, with two black servants following behind, bearing the great basket, come through the doorway. She leaned forward, stared for a moment, then arose to her feet with a quick gesture of satisfaction. Her eyes were bright, and there was a mischievous smile on her lovely lips.
For it was the stalwart trooper that the rajah had chosen as messenger this time.
Muriel crossed the room, and went down into the cool reception-chamber, seating herself in the big chair usually occupied by her father. "When the king is away, the king's daughter takes his place, I suppose," the girl thought. There was always a certain ceremony attached to the giving and receiving of the gifts.
A knock sounded on the door, and the fat major-domo of the house entered, his chubby face full of a tremendous dignity. As head-servant to the British representative, he was no small personage in his own estimation.
"A messenger from his Highness, the maharajah, desires speech with her excellency, the mem-sahib," he droned, in a nasal tone.
Muriel always preserved a very straight countenance during these little ceremonial affairs.
"Tell the messenger of his Highness to enter."
Round spun the fat butler, to draw aside the heavy folds of the curtain. "Enter, O messenger from his Highness, et cetera, et cetera."
The stalwart figure of Abul, looking every inch a soldier in the neat uniform of blue and gold, strode over the threshold. Already the rajah's servant had heard the clear voice of Muriel, and the tan on his cheek was slightly pale as he bowed low before her.
"Greetings and salutations, your excellency!" said Abul, in a voice that had an undercurrent of apology in it. "The Prince of Puljara desires thee to accept this unworthy gift from his hands."
The two black slaves had placed the basket on the floor. Muriel, rising to her feet, went up to the basket. Exquisite grapes, melons and exotic fruits came out of the basket, each in a beautiful dish of silver filigree-work.
Murmuring her thanks, Muriel accepted the gift in the name of her father, and the two black slaves followed the butler out of the reception-room. Abul was about to do the dame when Muriel, with a quick movement, touched him on the arm.
"There is no hurry for a moment, Abul," she said, a smile on her lips. "I want to have a word with you."
She went back to the big chair and seated herself in a graceful, easy pose. One slender arm was resting on the high arm of the carved chair, and her chin was on her rosy palm. Against the carved black wood of the chair she made a wonderfully beautiful picture of gracious, womanly beauty.
Abul, standing ill at ease in the centre of the room, had only ventured to give one glance in her direction; then his eyes were fixed on the carpet, and remained so.
"Why have you deserted us, Abul?"
The sweet voice had just a little thread of regret in it, and there was something plaintive in the question. Abul stirred uneasily.
"I have been busy, mem-sahib," he began. "I—I—"
"When I was a small child you used to say that you were my slave and bondsman, Abul," Muriel went on; "you used to swear that there was no service in the world that you would not do for me. Have you changed since then?"
The big trooper drew a deep breath.
"I have not changed," he returned; "but I—"
"You have changed, Abul," the girl went on relentlessly. "You have played the part of a false friend. Oh, Abul, I never thought that you would be capable of such a thing!"
The brown fists of the trooper were clenched, and his face was twitching with emotion. Abul had realised that this interview had to happen sooner or later. The man had realised that this interview had to happen sooner or later. The man had a great, fervent admiration for this sweet, kindly English girl, and had dreaded the moment when he would have to stand in front of her clear eyes. He had tried his best to get out of the duty which had been imposed upon him, but the head of the household had insisted on his taking the duty, and as the rajah himself was not to be seen that morning, Abul could do nothing else but obey.
"The mem-sahib uses harsh words to her servant," the tall trooper said.
"Yet are they not justified, Abul?"
The turbanned head was nodded.
"Yes, they are justified," he returned, disdaining to shield himself behind a lie. "Yet the mem-sahib must know that Abul also had to be loyal to his prince." Muriel smiled.
"Yes, I know, Abul, and for that reason I have forgiven you. You told the rajah of what had befallen the treasure-chest; but I forgive you."
The trooper leaped forward and dropped on one knee, raising the girl's hand to his lips.
"The mem-sahib understands," he said, in thick tones. "Abul would die for her, but he could not face his master with a secret in his heart and a lie on his lips."
"True, Abul," said Muriel, who secretly sympathised now with the man, "and you are forgiven."
He arose to his feet, his brown, handsome face alight, as though a great weight had been lifted from his sterling, honest soul.
"Thy slave had been troubled sore over this matter," he admitted, "and thy forgiveness has healed him." Muriel leaned forward.
"But I have not yet forgiven his Highness," she said, with girlish candour. "Why does he keep us away from the palace? I think it is mean of him!" She spoke in English now, and Abul smiled.
"Thy old quarters have been changed," he explained; "all the furnishing and fittings have been removed. His Highness found it so on his return, and has made another use of the tower."
"Yes, and I know the use he has made of it," the girl went on. "He has turned a great, savage tiger out into our rooms. Oh, I do think that that is very unkind of him!"
She had been watching Abul's face, and she saw the quick, startled look that flashed for a moment in the man's eyes.
"A tiger, mem-sahib?"
"Yes, Abul—a tiger!"
A little line of annoyance appeared between her smooth brows.
"Are you going to deny that?" she went on. "Are you still ready to speak to with a tongue that lies?" It was almost pitiful to watch the expression on the trooper's strong face. Loyalty to his ruler tugged him one way, while the old affection that he had in his heart for this winsome young girl tugged in the opposite direction.
"Mem-sahib," he broke out, "I—I would not lie to thee."
"Then there is a tiger in our old quarters?" The trooper nodded his head.
"Some other person has told thee, so that cannot be laid at my door," he returned, half to himself.
Until that moment Muriel had not been sure that Blake's extraordinary story was correct. But Abul, by his admission, had proved it, and the look of wonder that came into the girl's eyes made him lower his own.
"But—but it is so strange," Muriel went on. "Why should his Highness allow a great hungry beast to roam at will through those lovely rooms? Surely there was room enough for it in his tiger-house?"
Abul shrugged his shoulders.
"I am not in the confidence of my prince," he said; a blank look coming over his face. "The mem-sahib must ask his Highness for the reason of all this."
"I will when I get a chance," the high-spirited girl returned. "But his Highness is just the same as you are, Abul—he will not see me."
Abul's eyes smiled.
"The prince perhaps fears that he may say too much—even as I fear," was his reply. Muriel leaned forward.
"I know that there is something being hid away from me and from my father, the colonel," she said, in a quiet, low tone. "And it must be something evil, or there would be no reason to hide it from our knowledge. If you should see your master, Abul, you can tell him that I wonder at the change that has come to him. I always looked on him as a prince whose every action was worthy—who would not stoop to lie and deceive. He has dropped from that high position in my mind, and I feel that it is better that we should live outside the palace while this black mood is upon him."
"I—I will try to deliver thy message."
The girl bowed.
"And were it not for the fact that Kashopore would wonder at it, I would send back to him all his gifts," she went on, her fine eyes kindling. "If we are not to be admitted to his friendship, we do not want the gifts from his table. We are not beggars at his gateway!"
Abul Bushed beneath the scorn in her tongue.
"It is not in that light that his Highness send the gifts," he broke out. "I know that he still regrets the change that has taken place, and looks forward to the hour when the colonel-sahib can return again to the palace."
"The colonel-sahib could return to-day," Muriel put in quickly. "It is his Highness who makes the delays."
And then Abul was tempted to say more than he ought to have done.
"Let the mem-sahib have just a little more patience," he urged. "I know that within the next day or so all will be put right, By to-morrow, his Highness expects—"
He came to a halt swiftly, and his face Hushed. Muriel caught at the meaning of his words, but cleverly enough, did not continue to question him on that line.
"And when shall I see thee again, ungrateful?" she asked, her mood changing swiftly into a kindly, bantering one.
"As soon as I can get away from my duties," Abul returned eagerly. "I have heard that the ruins of an old city have been found in the hills, full of wonders from the past. Perhaps in the near future the mem-sahib would like her slave to show her these ruins?"
These two had been on many similar expeditions together, for Colonel Bryce knew that in Abul, Muriel had a guardian who would gladly give his life in her defence. "That will be splendid!" the girl cried, clasping her hands together. "I will let you know when I can go." Abul drew up and salaamed again.
"I must return to the palace now, mem-sahib," he said, "and I have been told to state that his Highness will send a further gift of some silken stuffs that have been brought to him from Kashmir to the mem-sahib herself this evening. The messenger will arrive an hour after sunset."
He went out through the doorway, and Muriel sat for along time flunking deeply. When she did move at last it was to go across to the little bureau in the corner where she wrote a long note. A silver-toned bell brought the stout major-domo into the room.
"I want thee to do me a service," said the girl. "I want to consult a fakir, a most wise man, who lives in the Temple of the Vine. Take this letter to him, and hear his reply. I want him to come hither this afternoon, if he is at leisure."
"It will be as the mem-sahib commands," the head servant returned; "and I will deliver the message with my own hands."
The old fellow was as good as his word, and late in the afternoon the ragged figure of the fakir came through the gateway of the Residency, to be led across the courtyard by one of the servants and up to the roof, where Muriel awaited his coming.
Blake murmured a greeting, and dropped into the easy squatting position which the native of India always uses.
"What did the white girl want with him?" he asked, so that the servant who was retiring might hear.
"I have heard your wisdom and piety," Muriel returned, "and would hear some advice to profit me."
The servant had vanished by now, and her mood changed. She leaned forward, her lips apart, excitement shining in her eyes.
"Oh, I do wish that you had come a little sooner," she breathed, "the rajah has been on his tower again, and I know that something has happened. He seemed more excited to-day, and he was clapping his hands together as though the spectacle pleased him. What it is, Mr. Blake?"
Blake's eyes glinted through the heavy brows.
"I think I can enlighten you on that point, Miss Bryce," he said. "But, first of all, have you found out what I asked?"
"Oh, about the tiger. Yes, you were quite right. Abul came to-day, and I made him practically admit it."
"Abul—eh?" said Blake with a smile. "I don't suppose that he enjoyed the interview exactly."
Muriel Bryce answered his smile with a quick, mischievous pout.
"I gave him a good talking to, if that's what you mean," she returned; "but I didn't really get a lot of information out of him. He did say, though, that by to-morrow there would be some sort of change. I couldn't quite fathom what he meant—"
"By to-morrow," the disguised detective repeated. "That is worth knowing. It means that whatever has to be done must be done at once." He looked at Muriel Bryce for a moment, then he leaned forward.
"I said I would take you into my confidence as soon as I found it possible, Miss Bryce," said Blake; "well I am now going to keep that promise. I came here to Kashopore because I was practically assured in my own mind that his Highness had carried out a most daring abduction. When he left England so hurriedly, it was to prevent any inquiries being made concerning his movements. At this present moment there are two white men prisoners in his hands, and they are being tortured."
"Oh, Mr. Blake!"
"They are men who deserved punishment of some sort, but not of the kind that his Highness is inflicting on them," the stern voice went on. "They are criminals, and you have had experience of them both." Muriel's eyes lighted up suddenly.
"You—you don't mean those two scoundrels who tried to steal the rajah's treasure-chest?"
"Carlac and Kew are at present prisoners in the palace, and their quarters are in the tower that you used to occupy." For a moment Muriel sat back, breathless with bewilderment; then a sudden thought came to her making her start with horror.
"But you said the—the tiger was there?"
"So it is, Miss Bryce," the calm reply came. "Abul himself could not deny that."
"I don't understand," Muriel went on. "If Carlac and Kew are prisoners, and the tiger is there with them, how can they live?"
"That is the only point that I have not yet cleared up," said Blake; "but I have proof that the two criminals are held prisoners in the tower, for I signalled to them and received a reply. To me it seems as though the rajah has evolved some terrible form of torture, and—"
"Oh, of course, I think I see now," the girl broke out. "He watches something that takes place every afternoon. To-day I saw him, and he seemed more excited than usual. He clapped his hands as though applauding some act or other—and it was in the direction of the smaller tower that he was looking."
Blake nodded his head.
"I have no doubt but what you are correct, Miss Bryce," the detective returned. "Carlac and Kew are giving his Highness some form of savage entertainment, and the scene of that entertainment is the top of the tower. But what it is is more than I can say."
"But how terrible!" Muriel said, with a shudder. "Don't you see that the man-eater must be playing some part in it? That is why Abul was so afraid when he saw that I knew." She arose to her feet, and caught Blake's ragged robe.
"You must do something, Mr. Blake," the tender-hearted girl went on. "I know that these two men deserve punishment, but not of the type that the rajah would give them. Even death is better than long-drawn torture. Oh, you must try and save them."
"That is what I am here to do," came the quiet response, "and to-night, by some means or other, I must get into the palace. I have found a native who is friendly, and he will help me—although I cannot rely on him, for at heart he is an arrant coward."
Muriel was silent for a moment, then she clapped her hands together.
"Oh, I think it could be managed," she broke out; "and you would not need to rely on anyone." She went up to Blake and lowered her voice.
"The rajah is sending another gift this evening," she explained. "Abul told me to expect it to arrive about an hour after sunset. The messenger will go back to the palace as soon as he has delivered his gift." She halted and looked at Blake.
"The sentinel on the palace gate will be expecting the messenger to return," she went on; "and if someone—someone bold enough, and clever enough, could make a prisoner of that messenger, there is no reason why he should not take his place."
Blake looked up, a glint in his eyes.
"Excellent, Miss Muriel," he said. "That is a scheme worth studying. Will this messenger be accompanied by anyone?"
"I shouldn't think so," Muriel returned. "You see, we have had the ceremonial visit this morning. The rajah takes good care to send his messenger through the main streets, so that the people may see how friendly he is with the British representative. But this other gift is more of a personal one to myself, and I should think that the one who brings it will come alone."
They plunged into an eager discussion, and at last reached a definite plan. Muriel was to receive the gift from the messenger, and was to detain him for a few moments. When he made his departure, she was to hurry to the roof at once, and show a light for a second or so. "But you will be careful, Mr. Blake," Muriel urged; "you must take no risks."
"I will take no risks that I can avoid," said Blake, as he arose to his feet, "and now, I have one more request to make. I want a large piece of raw meat, the bigger the better. You can make it appear as a sort of gift to me."
Muriel had not the faintest idea why the detective should make such an extraordinary request, but she did not stop to ask idle questions. One of her servants were summoned, and returned presently with a great chunk of deer-flesh, wrapped in a sheet, which he handed to the disguised detective, Blake, with another low salaam and murmur of thanks, left Muriel, and followed the servant across the roof. The girl watched until the ragged figure crossed the courtyard beneath, finally vanishing through the big gateway.
"I hope he will succeed," she murmured to herself; "but, oh, I am afraid. The odds against him are so many."
She spent the rest of the afternoon a prey to a hundred fears, and, when the messenger from the rajah was announced, Muriel was almost inclined to prevent the man from leaving, so that Blake might not be able to put his scheme into action.
She kept the messenger, a keen-eyed household servant of the palace, talking as long as she dared, but finally she had to let him go. As soon as the man left the chamber, Muriel darted up to the roof, an oil lamp in her hand. She held it aloft and swung it slowly once, twice, over her head.
A long-drawn cry came to her ears—the cry that a Moslem priest gives from the minaret—but Muriel knew that it was no priestly voice that sounded.
Her signal had been seen and answered. The girl dropping on to her knees beside the deep chair, found a little prayer coming from her heart. "May he prove successful," was the burden of her pleading.
The messenger, swinging along beside a high wall, had little fear of anything happening to him. He wore the blue livery of the rajah, and that was sufficient to protect him from any of the rogues and robbers who infested the lower quarters of the city.
He reached an angle of the wall and turned to his left. As he did so, there arose, almost at his feet, the shadowy figure of a ragged beggar. A bowl was thrust out at him, and the whining voice intoned: "Alms, for the love of Allah, alms!"
"Out of my way, carrion," the rajah's servant cried. "I am in haste."
He stepped forward and knocked the begging bowl out of the man's hand. Instantly the crouching figure stooped lower, and a pair of wiry arms were suddenly wrapped around the servant's thighs. With one swing the man was lifted clean off his feet, and was sent backwards on to the hard roadway, the thud with which he struck the ground, knocking the senses out of him.
"Quick, sahib," a low voice whispered, and a door creaked in the wall. The beggar caught at the senseless servant, and with a powerful pull dragged him through the dark doorway, while the door clanged behind him. A moment later there was a spluttering of a match and a lamp was lighted. Blake, for it was the detective who had carried out the neat trick, promptly stooped and adjusted a bandage around the palace servant's eyes.
A gag followed, and then the man was hurriedly stripped of his blue robes and badge. Chandra Lai wrapped the ragged robe which Blake had discarded, around the gagged man; then a straw rope was produced, and the servant's hands and feet were tied tightly, and he was lifted on to a pile of carpets that stood in one corner of the chamber.
"He will be safe until morning," Chandra La! whispered. "And by that time thou wilt have succeeded—or failed."
Blake had studied the features of the servant, and he drew forward a little leather bag. First, the straggling beard of the fakir was removed, then Blake adjusted over his upper lip a strip of black, soft hair, following this, by removing the heavy shaggy brows, and white unkempt wig. A close fitting wig of sleek hair was selected from the assortment that the leather bag contained. Chandra Lai, leaning back with the lamp between his hands, watched the swift transformation take place. At the end of it he drew a deep breath.
"Allah himself would not know thee," Chandra Lai breathed. "Thou art the twin-brother of the man we have just taken."
And, indeed, in the blue livery, and his face altered with the inimitable skill that he possessed, Blake had cast off all traces of his fakir disguise. He was the palace servant, sleek, well-fed, arrogant.
He stepped towards the door and opened it.
"You know what to do, Chandra Lai," he said quietly. "Go to the Temple of the Vine, and wait there for my assistant. When he comes, you will do as he demands." Chandra Lai salaamed.
"I am the protector's slave," he said, "and may Allah aid the protector on this great task before him."
As Blake passed through the doorway he stooped and picked up a bulky package, which he slipped beneath the blue robe. In the street he took to the centre of it, and walked on boldly until he reached the high wall of the palace. Just before he came to the gates, a figure moved in the darkness beside the wall.
"Out of my way, dog?" said Blake, waving the figure aside. But a cunning eye might have noted that his hand, as it made the gesture, threw something into the lap of the huddled figure. Tinker clutched at the little bag that gave forth a musical tinkle, and the lad's eyes followed the upright one of his master as it turned through the gateway, there was a long pause, and Tinker rising to his feet shuffled past the gates, glancing inside as he did so. The door of the great guardroom was ajar, and the tall figure of a trooper was outlined in the flood of light. Tinker saw the blue robe just vanishing into the shadow, and a breath of relief came from the lad's lips.
"He's got through the guard—and that's a good omen," he muttered. "Now it's time for me to make a move."
He turned into the main street of the city, and presently found himself in a dark, musty smelling courtyard. There was a fire burning in the centre, and around it were gathered a number of squatting forms, while behind them Tinker could see a row of horses standing against a wall. "I am in search of Selim, the horse-dealer," Tinker said as he reached the fire. A tall figure arose from the circle. "Thou has brought the rest of the money?" Tinker swung the little bag forward. "It is here," he said.
Selim moved away from the fire, picking up a brand as he went. Reaching the wall the horse-dealer stopped for a moment while he counted the coins. Apparently the amount was correct, for he slipped them back into the bag and pocketed it. "They are ready for thee," he said. "Five of my best horses, saddled and fed."
He began to move the steeds tethered to the wall, and presently he had rounded up five of them. Each saddled and bridled native fashion. Tinker swung into the saddle of the mount nearest to him, and Selim gave him the gathered bridles of the others.
"Salaam," the horse-dealer cried.
And Tinker replied:
"Salaam to thee."
He rode off through the dusk out of the yard and on towards the East Gate. The clatter of the horse's hoofs echoed and re-echoed, and long before he reached the gate, the guard had turned out to stop him.
"No mounted man can leave Kashopore without the permission of his Highness the rajah," the turbanned subahdar said. "Surely thou knowest that."
Tinker slipped from the saddle. He had been warned about this and had his plans ready.
"Where can I leave the horses until the morning?"
"Take them back to where they came from," was the reply.
"I bought them from a travelling horse-dealer," said Tinker, "and he has gone towards Delhi, so I cannot do as thou would'st have me."
Now as the reader may remember, there was accommodation for belated travellers who wish to come into Kashopore, but, naturally enough, the rajah had not thought of making similar arrangements for anyone wishing to go out. The subahdar, a rather dull-witted man, scratched his bearded chin thoughtfully.
"I will tie them to the wall here and await the morning," said Tinker cheerfully; "or perhaps there is room for them in the guard-room."
A growl went up at this.
"Our guard-room is no stable, impudent," the leader of the guard returned. "Then what am I to do?"
Someone behind the leader ventured a suggestion. The night was rather chill and they were wasting time out there.
"Why not let him stable his horses outside in the dak-bungalow and let him remain within the city until morning," the trooper suggested. "After all, he will not venture to try any trickery upon us if his horses are taken from him."
And this was the plan finally agreed upon. The horses were walked through the gate and stabled in the empty shed behind the dak-bungalow that stood about fifty yards away from the gates.
"Come back in the morning at sunrise," said the subahdar. "Thy horses will be safe enough."
Tinker backed away.
"I call thy men to witness that thou art responsible if anything happens to my steeds," he returned as he wheeled and vanished into the darkness again.
The subahdar little dreamed that his action had been exactly anticipated by the brain of the keen man who had arranged the scheme. The horses were safely out of the city, and so, one strict law of the rajah's had already been broken. The means of escape were there and waiting, and now all that was left to do was to find the way.
In this case the more difficult task of the two.
THE palace of the rajah was something of a rabbit-warren, so many and devious were its passages and courts. Blake might easily have wasted the best part of the night in wandering about the place, but he had not neglected that detail. Chandra Lai had supplied him with close directions and he had also drawn a rough sketch, giving the position of the tower which Blake had to find.
Once inside the big palace the detective found it easy enough to avoid detection. He crossed one spacious court with a fountain in the centre, passed through an archway, and came into the wider inner court. There were subdued lights shining from some building on the left, and Blake, keeping below the balcony, drew near to a lighted doorway. Presently a servant came hurrying past him, bearing a silver salver on which a quantity of fruit was placed. Blake watched the man vanish into a door, and the fact that other servants laden with various dishes came and went through the door told Blake that it was the banqueting hall, and that his Highness was enjoying one of those interminable meals that the Eastern potentate think so necessary to his high dignity.
Blake went on and made a quiet examination of the various sides of the square. He found the place he was in search of at last—a strip of ornamental garden leading to a lily pond. At the end of the lily pond was little ornamental bridge of marble, which spanned a sluice-gate. A narrow channel of water ran beyond the bridge under a dark archway on which a tower had been built. According to Chandra Lai's instructions, this channel led out to the river, and was the only possible means of escape from the palace. Chandra Lai, however, had never been in the position to judge whether the possibility existed.
"I suppose he is right," Blake muttered, glancing down into the dark channel, "but it does not seem a very promising way."
He turned and glanced back into the centre of the courtyard, where the square bulk of the tower arose. The tower in which Carlac and Kew were held prisoners.
It was about fifty yards away, not a very long sprint for anyone to tackle. If he could get the men out they could make at once for the ornamental bridge and hide beneath it, then, each in their turn, could tackle the sluice-gate, climbing it and dropping into the deep channel beyond. Blake knew that Carlac was a powerful swimmer, and Kew—well, there was very little that that wrinkled man could not do when put to the test.
Blake made his way back to the strip of garden and, finding a seat, flung himself down to rest. He knew that he would have to wait until the inmates of the palace were at rest before making his attempt. An hour passed, and then the patient man heard the watch being changed, the clatter of swords and spurs echoed through the vaulted passages of the old palace, and finally came silence. Blake stepped out of his shelter and saw now that the lights had vanished from the building on the right. He crossed the courtyard and reached the gallery through which the passage from the tower to the main building ran. A carved marble pillar gave him an easy foothold, and with noiseless ease, he drew himself up on to the roof of the gallery. Keeping on the outer ledge, Blake crept forward until he was close to the tower. A narrow window was just above his head, a window which evidently served to light the rooms on the first floor.
Blake raised himself cautiously and leaned in through the open gap—for the windows in India are innocent of such modern adornments as glass.
There came to his nostrils the hot unmistakable twang of cat—that fetid scent which hangs about the great lion house in our Zoo. No one can mistake it—rank, evil stench as it is. Blake's nerves were like set steel, yet he found himself withdrawing his head hurriedly with a quick catch of breath. The tiger was in that very room.
Blake turned and cast another swift glance around him. The palace seemed as silent as the grave itself. "I have no time to waste," he thought. "If the brute is there I must tackle it."
From beneath his robes he drew the bulky package and unfolded the wrappings, the great chunk of raw deer flesh slipped into his hands. "Here you are, my friend," the detective muttered. "A tit-bit for supper."
He reached out and placed the chunk of meat on the ledge. As he did so a great paw shot out suddenly from the darkness and the piece of raw meat vanished.
"By Jove, the brute must have been waiting just inside the window." came the startled thought. "That was as near an escape as I want."
The whole thing happened so swiftly that just for a moment Blake leaned against the wall of the tower, his heart drumming against his ribs. The stealthy beast inside had actually scented his presence at once. It had waited in the darkness; a grim, intent evil thing.
"Thank goodness it was the meat and not my arm that touched the ledge first," the plucky man muttered to himself, he drew nearer to the window and listened. Presently he heard coming from within the low gurgling purr of the brute at feed. Once he heard the crisp sound of the jaws as they met through some bone. He could almost picture the sleek brute squatting in the darkness, tearing at the flesh.
"I give you five minutes," Blake said grimly, "and you will never eat another meal again."
He waited in silence, listening intently. The moments seemed to drag past, then suddenly there came the first sound from the brute. A heavy thud, followed by the awful sound of claws striking wildly into the woodwork of the floor. The sharp crackling of splinters as they were torn up by the great claws, and, at last, thick throaty breathing.
Presently Blake heard another thud, and through the gap of the narrow window the lean head and shoulders of the tiger appeared. Dark though it was, Blake could see the foam-flecked jowl and the glaring evil eyes. And the great cat saw the lithe figure pressed flat against the wall of the tower, and, in one last desperate fury, it tried to reach him. The moments that followed were ones that Blake never forgot. He could not retire, for the brute strained half-way through the window. All he could do was to lean as far out over the gallery as he dared, pressing himself against the rounded wall of the tower at the same time.
And the claws struck again and again on the wall so close to him that the granite splinters sprayed on his tense cheek.
It seemed as though the cunning brute knew that here was the one who had tricked it at last, and all its dying energy was put into its furious effort to reach the strained figure. Just once would these claws have to fix into the arm, then Blake would be drawn into the merciless grip, and the foam-stained teeth would extract a grim vengeance.
But it was not to be. In the middle of a last furious struggle the great cat came to a halt, clawed high above its head for a moment, then came the death-rattle in the savage throat, the tiger sank down over the ledge, its fore paws, powerless now, hanging limply against the wall, the evil head between them.
Another moment passed before Blake ventured to move, and he did so warily, keeping his eye on the shadowy heap in the window. But the tiger gave no sign, and at last Blake stretched out his hand and touched it, The fur was still warm, but there was no sign of life in the sinewy body.
Blake ran his hand along the brute's flanks.
"I thought as much," he muttered, "you have been kept without food for days. Well, it was your life or mine, and I took the chance."
He pulled himself up into the gap and, stepping on to the motionless body of the great cat, lowered himself into the room.
A pocket torch came beneath his fingers, and he pressed the spring. As the round white light struck through the darkness another thought suddenly came to him. "What if there was another tiger?"
There was just a possibility that the rajah might have turned out more than one of the grim beasts in the tower. Blake stood rigid and on the alert as he swing the light round. He saw now that the room was closed, the door in front of him being locked.
On the left, however, there was a narrow flight of steps leading up into another chamber. Blake stepped on boldly to the foot of the stairs, and climbed it. He was now on the second floor, and above him was the roof. The flight of steps caught his eye, but he noted that here the trapdoor was closed. The bolts were thrust into their sockets, but Blake drew them out, and the trap swung downward, revealing a glimpse of the starry sky above. A moment later Blake stepped out on to the broad roof of the tower, and looked at the little, round store. Over one ledge of the low wall a fragment of dark material was hanging, and as Blake crept up to the tower and listened, he heard heavy, laboured breathing—the breathing of an exhausted man plunged in deep sleep.
Out from the dusk came that whisper, and the ears of the sleeper heard. Carlac sat up, his nerves leaping. "Carlac! Are you there?"
Again the voice! No dream this. With a struggled cry the big man drew himself to his feet, and peered over the wall—the wall over which he had so often looked in agony. He saw the figure standing below, and thought for a moment that it was a figment of his imagination.
"Who are you? Speak!"
And in quiet English came the reply:
"I am a friend, and I've come to get you out of this. Is Kew there?"
Carlac heard a soft tread by his side, and the hawk features of Kew slid past his shoulder to peer down. "Come along; you have no time to waste!"
"But the tiger?"
"Is dead. I have poisoned it. Quick! Come down!"
The steady confident tones told the two wretches that the hour of their deliverance had indeed come. A sudden panic seized them both for the moment, steely-nerved rogues though they were.
"Don't leave me—don't leave me, Carlac!" Kew whispered, clutching at the broad arm of his companion. "I cannot move as quickly as you!"
They threw themselves down the open trapdoor and out through the door of the store on to the roof Carlac peered hard into the brown, moustached face of the man who waited them, but the disguise was too clever, and his skill failed him.
"Come, you must follow me," said Blake, speaking in a low, distinct voice. "I need not tell you to be careful. The tiger is dead, but there are other sentinels just as quick-eared as he was."
He led the way down the narrow stairs, Kew and Carlac following obediently at his heels. When the reached the chamber on the first floor, the light from the electric torch revealed the great body of the dead animal wedged in the window. Kew drew back with a gasp of fear.
"You—you said that it—it was dead!" he breathed.
Blake stepped up to the window, and, raising the striped tail, gave it a tug, then cast it aside.
"Does that satisfy you?" he asked slowly. There was no mockery in his voice. He realised that these men must have gone through some deadly torment that had sapped their courage, for Blake had also given Carlac and Kew full credit for nerves of steel.
He climbed through the window, and Carlac followed, helping Kew over the dead brute. Down the marble pillar they slid, reaching the courtyard. For a moment they waited in the shadows, then Blake gave his quick instructions. Carlac was the first to dart across the court, and as he had vanished beneath the bridge, Blake gave the word to Kew to follow. The professor started off but as he did so, there came a creak of a bolt, and a door in the building opposite opened, and there emerged a robed figure bearing a lantern and carrying with him a stone jar and a plate.
Kew caught the sight of the man, and in an instant knew what it meant. This was the rajah's servant who brought them their food nightly, passing up through the rooms on the other side of the tower to gain the roof.
Instantly his nerve, which had deserted him, returned to Kew then. With a lightning-like élan he was across the court, and as the man with the lantern turned to close the door behind him, Kew leaped, like a giant monkey, right on the broad, stooping back.
His fingers tightened around the throat, choking back the cry of alarm. So sure and deadly had been his aim that the swift pressure was sufficient. His thumbs were pressing on a certain spot in the man's neck, and beneath them his enemy went down in a heap on the tessellated floor of the porch. The lantern dropped to the ground, and Kew, bending forward turned out the light.
The whole incident happened in less time than it takes to tell, and as soon as his man was down, the professor arose and sped off across the court, to vanish below the bridge. A moment later and Blake was beside the two panting men.
His quick whispered commands were obeyed. Carlac and Kew scrambled over the sluice gate and vanished into the dark channel, and Blake followed.
A dozen strokes saw the detective beneath the black arch, and the strong current dragged him on and on for a long minute, then suddenly he saw the stars above his head again, in front of him loomed the stone steps of a ghat. He struck out for it, and as he drew near he saw the huge figure of Count Carlac scramble up out of the river, then turn to help the stunted figure of his companion.
Blake reached the steps and climbed them. Carlac and Kew were waiting for him as he reached the top. "Follow me," said Blake; and, little dreaming whom it was that they obeyed, the two master criminals fell into step behind the lithe, active figure of the detective, and went on into the dark city, vanishing like wraiths into the shadows.
The Last Trick
WHEN the subahdar in charge of the East Gate guard had turned Tinker back into the city, after taking the youngster's horses away from him, and putting them into the empty shed in the dak-bungalow outside the gates, he thought that he had done a very clever thing, and had solved a very difficult problem.
In its way his idea was not a bad one, for it meant that Tinker would have to turn up again in the morning if he wanted his horses, and he would have to come to the East Gate to do that. If by any chance there was something wrong the guard would have been warned by that time. For in Kashopore the order was that no gates had to be opened in the morning until the sunrise gun sounded from the palace. When the rajah or his staff had any reason to prevent one from escaping, they put an effective check on this by simply omitting to fire the gun. In that case the guard stood to arms, and not a soul was allowed to enter or leave until word came direct from the palace.
So the subahdar was, perhaps, justified in his contentment with his plan. But he had reckoned without his Tinker.
The youngster himself could not get away from the city. But there was a companion of his who made short work of walls.
Tinker headed for a closed stall in one of the markets, and, stooping in the darkness, he lifted a loose flap. A wet muzzle was pressed against his hand, and Pedro came gliding out from beneath his hiding-place.
"Poor old man!" Blake's assistant murmured, patting the sagacious head. "You've had a pretty rotten time of it, stowed away there all these hours. But it's all right, and now you've got to make yourself useful."
He drew a book from his pocket, scrawled a note—he had practised the art of writing in the dark—and this is a much harder task that the average man would imagine, and the short note was soon finished. Tinker fastened the note to Pedro's broad collar, then, with the dog at his heels, the slim youngster plunged into a labyrinth of side streets that presently came to an end, as did all other streets in the city, at the interminable wall. It was fifteen feet high, but at this particular spot someone had erected a sloping-roofed shed which rose to a height of about eight feet.
Tinker leaned down and put his arm round Pedro's neck.
"You've got to go home, old man, to the temple. Chandra Lai will be waiting there, and you must see that he finds this note. Do you understand?"
And, indeed, it seemed as though the dog did understand. Its heavy tail beat to and fro, and the moist tongue gave Tinker's fingers an affectionate lick. Tinker pointed to the shed.
"That's the way, Pedro," he whispered. "Go on! Just let me see if old age has stiffened you. Up, sonny!"
The bloodhound started forward, gathered its limbs beneath it, and with a splendid bound had reached the top of the crazy shed. The roof creaked to the dog's weight, but Pedro wasted no time. Another mighty effort saw it on the top of the four-feet wide parapet, and it vanished from Tinker's sight. The lad heard the scrambling of its feet as it went down head first for the great leap, that carried it on to the roadway, eighteen feet below.
A sharp voice rang out, and Tinker dodged back into the shadows. He knew that sentries were constantly moving to and fro along the wide parapet. There came to his ears the quick patter of feet, and presently the tall figure of a trooper was silhouetted against the dusky sky above him. The man was bending forward, peering into the roadway.
Tinker laughed softly to himself as he noted that the man's short carbine was poised and ready for use.
"Too late, old man!" the lad murmured. "If you can get a shot at Pedro now, you're a wonder!"
He crouched down, watching the sentry, until the man, realising the hopelessness of his task, turned away and resumed his steady patrol.
After all, it was only a dog, the sentry decided; no doubt one of the rapacious scavengers that haunted the streets of the old city. He would have liked to sent a bullet into its lean carcase; but it did not matter very much. How could the coming or going of a dog make any difference to the plans of his prince?
But had the sentry followed the lithe, black shape of the hound, he might have had cause to alter his decision. Pedro headed straight for the little Temple of the Vine, making his way through the narrow track of the paddy-field with an unerring accuracy that landed him in quick time at his destination.
Pedro pushed aside the heavy rug that hung across the doorway of the temple and slid inside. Chandra Lai was sleeping, stretched out on a pile of rugs. The lamp was burning dimly by his side, and he was snoring gently.
Pedro went across to the sleeper and pressed his cold muzzle against Chandra Lai's cheek. The native came back to earth with a shout of fear. His alarm died down, however, when he recognised the great-thewed hound.
"Allah, but thou did'st frighten me!" the native muttered, sitting up and looking about him. "Where art thou, Tinker?"
Chandra Lai had leaped to the conclusion that the youngster was with the dog. But there was no response to his question, and presently Pedro thrust his head on to Chandra Lai's chest again. It was a significant hint, as much as to say, "Use your eyes, you fool!"
The piece of white paper sticking below the collar caught the man's attention, and he drew out the note. One of Chandra Lai's many accomplishments was the reading of the English language, a fact that Tinker was aware of.
"There are five horses in the stall behind the dak-bungalow at the East Gate. Go and steal them, and take them back to the Temple of the Vine, Then wait there until we all arrive."
The laconic message brought a quick smile to Chandra Lai's lips as he arose to his feet.
"There is no waste of words here," he muttered. "'Five horses—steal them.' Well, obedience is one of the virtues." He yawned and stretched himself; then, picking up a robe, he wrapped it round his shoulders, and stepped out of the temple.
Pedro calmly settled himself in the warm place that Chandra Lai had lately occupied on the heap of rugs. The native grinned at the action.
"So thou art not inclined to follow me!" he said. "Well, I do not blame thee for that, wisest of dogs. The temple is the warmer place."
Chandra Lai knew his way about that district blindfolded, and he made for the East Gate by a short route through the fields, which brought him out exactly opposite the shed behind the belated travellers' bungalow.
The silent-footed man stepped into the shed and found the horses, counting them swiftly by moving along the wall to which they were tethered.
"Five is correct," said Chandra Lai, "and if that means one for each of us, then there are two others to join."
He loosened the ropes, and led the horses out through the wide gap that served as a doorway. The animals were evidently well trained, for they followed him quietly enough.
Chandra Lai plunged at once into the reeds, leading the horses behind him, The faint, rustling sound that he made was not more than what a fugitive wind might have caused, and the sentry on the gateway did not even hear it.
The long hours passed, and midnight came. Then the subahdar of the guard, half asleep on his hard bed, heard the noise of angry voices, accompanied by the deeper-toned ones of the sentry.
With a muttered word, the tall subahdar swung himself round and arose to his feet, his spurs clanking on the stone floor.
The East Gate was beginning to prove itself a nuisance.
"What ails thee now?" the subahdar grumbled, as he stepped out of the guardroom.
He found that the sentry was standing in a group. There were four figures around him, and the foremost one was that of the youngster who owned the horses. "There is trouble over the horses!" the sentry explained.
Tinker turned towards him, and rattled off a sentence in quick, voluble Hindustani.
"Thou canst prove that I am no liar!" he cried, mimicking perfectly the piping tone of the type he represented. "My master here swears that I have lost or sold the horses that he gave into my charge."
"I know that thou art a thief, and the son of a thief!" a deeper voice put in. "If my horses are not stolen, then where are they?"
The subahdar swung forward and looked at the speaker. He was dressed in a well-fining robe, and the turban on his head was a silken one, finely embroidered. The face was brown, and a dark beard covered the lower part of it. Judging from his clothes, the man seemed a fairly well-to-do merchant—one of the type that made periodical visits to Kashopore, doing much business there.
Now, it was well known in Kashopore that his Highness the rajah, although in secret he might despise these men, knew that they meant added wealth and prosperity to his little State, and he therefore encouraged them to visit the town. The subahdar decided that this person was one that it was best to try to please, if possible.
He could not see much of his companions. They were standing in the shadow, swathed in dark robes. One of them was a giant of a man, while the other seemed a little, stunted creature.
"Thy syce speaks truth," said the subahdar. "Thy horses are safe enough! But it is the order of his Highness that no one may pass through these gates between sunset and sunrise. That ordinance thou must have knowledge of."
"This is my first visit to Kashopore," said Blake, for it was the detective who was playing the principal part in this last trick, "and thy orders are of the old kind. Kashopore must be asleep if it exists under such commands! In Delhi or the other great cities such an ordinance would bring scorn on its makers!"
The subahdar listened respectfully. Here was a man who had travelled far, who had visited all the great cities of the East. A personage of some importance, no doubt, and one of the very kind that his Highness wished to encourage.
"We find the order an irksome one," the leader of the guard admitted, "and many of us would be glad to have it otherwise. But we are but servants and must obey the law."
"True! But if my horses are safe, where are they?"
"In the stall behind the dak-bungalow."
Blake pretended to be surprised.
"But it means that they have passed through the gates!" he went on. "How could that happen?" The subahdar flushed slightly, and rumbled with the hilt of his sword.
"It was the fault of thy syce!" he explained, "He had no place to stable the beasts, and I thought that they would be safer in the stall than were they to wander loose through the city."
"But surely that was against the law!" Blake persisted.
"Thy horse could not go without the rider," the rajah's soldier returned, "and I took care that he should remain here." It was a lame explanation, and the subahdar knew it.
"Well, I like this not, subahdar!" said Blake. "My horses are valuable, and I will have them brought back into the city! We will find some shelter for them until sunrise, which is not far distant now."
There was no getting out of that request, and at last the subahdar, armed with a lantern, opened the gates for the second time that night, and passed through with Blake at his heels. One by one the others followed, and the sentry, after a doubtful glance at them, let them go, contenting himself with a shrug of his shoulders as Tinker passed.
"It is no affair of mine!" he muttered. "The subahdar is in command."
Tinker felt his heart beginning to thump as he approached the bungalow.
"If that brown skunk hasn't come and pinched those horses, we're absolutely in the cart!" he thought.
It was the last link in the intricate chain that Blake had fashioned so carefully, and if it failed them all was lost!
The subahdar, striding ahead, reached the shed and held up his lantern.
"Let thine own eyes convince thee!" he said. "Thy horses are here, and safe until morning, when thous canst come and claim Allah, they have gone!"
The empty stall seemed to mock him. There was not so much as a shoe to be found!
"Now, by Allah, this is what I expected!" Blake broke out, pretending to leap into a fury. "I have been tricked—robbed! I feared as much!" He turned to the subahdar with well-assumed rage.
"Thou art in this plot, with my thieving servant!" he went on. "But I will have the rajah's justice upon thee!" The subahdar was pale to the lips now.
"I swear that I know nothing of this!" he stammered. "With my own hands I fastened up thy steeds—"
"Then where are they? Answer me that!"
Blake made a swift dart, and caught Tinker by the shoulder, shaking him violently.
"Thief and ingrate! Thou hast played this trick upon me—thou and this cunning soldier! Speak! I want the truth! Tomorrow I seek the rajah, and place the whole history of this case before him!"
Something like a groan broke from the subadhar. He knew what to expect if he was brought in front of his merciless prince. Even if he could prove that he had not stolen the horses, he would yet be found guilty of breaking the orders of the guard by allowing the horses to go through.
"The subahdar is speaking the truth," Tinker broke out, in a snivelling whine. "Perhaps we can find the horses! They may only have strayed a little way."
It was only a straw, but the subahdar clutched at it.
"Yes, yes; that may be so!" he said eagerly. "Let us search!"
He led the way out of the stall, and held up his lantern. Where the low ditch of the paddy-field began was a great gap in the reeds, and on the soft mud were marks of hoofs. "See! They are quite fresh!" the eager soldier continued. "We may find them—"
He came to a halt. His duty was to remain at the gate! For a moment he hesitated, then thrust the lantern into Blake's hand.
"Go and search for these accursed animals of thine!" he cried. "And if thou dost find them, in Allah's name mount and get on thy way! I have had enough of thee and thy servant this night!" It was victory, most subtly gained; but Blake played the game to the end.
"And if I find them not, I will return!" he grumbled, as he took the lantern so eagerly extended towards him. "They are of value, and I am not going to lose their worth."
He moved off towards the reeds, and his companions spread out in a line, as though they meant to beat through the paddy-field in search of the missing animals. The subahdar waited until they had vanished into the field; then, with a grunt of relief, he turned and strode back to the gate, closing it tightly, and locking it.
"If these dogs return, do not admit them!" he growled. "And what is more, thou wilt swear that thou has never clapped eyes on them before! No one has passed through these gates—neither man nor beast! If they have their story to tell, so, too, must we have one prepared. It is only their word against ours, and, after all, we are the servants of the rajah. He will believe us."
The sentry chuckled in his beard. "I will remember," he said.
But he was not to be troubled by the return of the men. Neither on that night, nor any other. And the miracle had happened, for Sexton Blake and his companions had been able to get out of the guarded city of Kashopore between sunset and sunrise, and, thanks to their ruse, no one would ever know how it was accomplished, for the subahdar, valuing his skin, was bound to keep silent.
The result was that on the following day, when the dead body of the tiger was discovered and the flight of the prisoners traced, the rajah and his servants were deceived. A messenger went hot-foot round the gates, to receive assurances from each one that no living thing had entered or left.
That meant that the two fugitives were still in the city, the rajah decided, and a house-to-house search was made.
Late in the afternoon, the fat butler at the Residency came hurrying into the study where Colonel Bryce and Vernon were at work.
"Your—your excellency will protect his servant?" Bryce looked up. "What is it?"
"Men from the palace have entered the house, and are searching in our quarters!" the butler went on. "They are armed, and one of his Highness's staff is with them!" Vernon leaped to his feet, his eyes kindling with anger.
"I say, sir, that's a bit too thick!" he broke out. "The Residency is British territory, and these beggars have no right to be here without your permission!"
Bryce's jaw was like steel, and there was a dangerous flash in his usually kindly eye. He stalked out of the room, followed by his aide-de-camp, the stout butler shuffling behind. In the courtyard, Bryce came on three or four men in the rajah's uniform, gathered round a well, down which one of their number was peering. Behind them stood a turbanned figure, whom Bryce recognised as being one of the captains of the palace guard.
"What is the meaning of this?" the old officer snapped out. "By whose orders do you come into my home?"
"It is his Highness's orders," came the brief reply. "Two prisoners have escaped from the palace and we are searching for them."
"Then order your men out of here at once or I will have them driven out," came the fierce return. "His Highness may search here when he cares to let me know, but not until then."
There was that in the old officer's eye which made the searchers stop at once, and led by their captain they beat a swift retreat, followed by the grins of the Residency servants.
Colonel Bryce turned to Vernon.
"I will go across and see his Highness this evening," he went on quietly. "If prisoners have escaped, of course we will give every facility for a search to be made. But it must be carried out in a regular manner."
At eight o'clock that evening, the rajah, a sulky figure, was seated in his private room when Bryce's name was announced. For a moment the rajah hesitated, then nodded to his servant, and the tall, soldierly figure appeared, clicking his heels together and making a swift salute.
The rajah looked at Bryce from beneath ruffled brows.
"Then it seems that you are no longer my friend," he said in his excellent English. "To-day you insulted me through my servants."
"Your servants insulted me," said Bryce quietly, "and I simply pointed out to them how to carry out their duty." He came nearer to the prince.
"If your Highness still desires to make a search in my home, it is open to you," the colonel went on; "but something has happened since your search-party called that makes me doubt whether it is worth your Highness's while continuing this search."
"What do you mean?"
Bryce slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out an envelope.
"This was handed to the British agent at Valghat, which, as your Highness knows is just beyond the border of Puljara. It was forwarded to me at once and reached Kashopore half an hour ago. Your Highness may care to read it."
The rajah took the opened letter, glanced at it for a moment, then his eyes hardened, and he read the long letter through from beginning to end. Bryce, watching the dark face, smiled inwardly at the varying emotions that appeared upon it.
For the letter was from Sexton Blake and was a brief report of what had happened. Blake had been careful not to give away the secret of his escape through the East Gate, nor did he mention the part that Muriel had played, but otherwise, the letter was a bare recital of the hard facts, that made a story worth reading.
"He entered my palace alone and unaided." It was the rajah's voice, and he was obviously talking to himself. "Through my guards and sentries—killed that fierce brute, and helped these wretches to escape! By Allah, but this is a man after my own heart."
Bryce leaned forward.
"No other man in the world would have dared so much," he put in; "I hardly believed the letter when I read it. I did not know that Blake was in India even—but someone in my household did know that."
It was a quick guess at the truth, and the honest old soldier nodded his head. "Yes, Muriel told me this evening that she had met him, disguised as a fakir." A look of enlightenment leaped into the rajah's eyes.
"Not the holy man who had taken up his abode at the Temple of the Vine?"
"Then by Allah I have been tricked with the others!" the ruler cried. "For I sent him food and offerings—and he is an Englishman!"
It seemed as though the sheer audacity of Blake's deed had dispelled all anger in the ruler's heart. But presently his brow clouded and he turned again to Bryce.
"Yet I doubt if these dogs that he saved were worthy of the sacrifice," he put in. "It is true that I broke your English law in taking them from their own country—but they are criminals and can never be ought else. Perhaps this man Blake may find out in the future that it would have been better for his peace and the peace of his country had he left them in my hands."
Bryce shook his head.
"I do not think so," he returned. "We British do not see with your eyes. To us torture of any living thing is hateful and impossible. Our vilest criminals may meet a swift doom, but it is our way to make it as merciful as possible. Blake remembered that I had promised him to do any service he wished, and the delivery of that letter into your hands was the result of that compact. I might not have brought it here had he not asked me to do so. But now you know the truth, and all that remains is to know what your Highness intends to do."
It was a question that much hung upon. Bryce, a diplomatist to the finger tips, knew that it was his duty to keep on friendly terms with this prince. Blake's letter had caused him a great deal of misgivings, and only his promise given to the detective made him take it to the rajah.
There was a silence, then as though he was casting something away from his shoulders, the ruler of Puljara arose.
"What I intend to do?" he repeated. "Why, cast it out of my mind, old friend. After all, the days those wretches spent on they tower is punishment enough. They will long remember the vengeance that followed their evil designs."
He crossed to Bryce and slipped his arm beneath the colonel's.
"And I will give orders to have thy quarters made ready for thee," he said. "From top to bottom will be changed, and all traces of what has happened, there will vanish." His brown eyes smiled, and there was the old friendly glint in them.
"And if thy beautiful daughter should ask what has been amiss with me during these days, tell her that I was smitten by a fever—fever that comes from old, wild blood. But I have reached sanity again, and will be glad to welcome her and her fiancee. Perhaps it might happen that we could have a wedding at the palace. It would be a ceremony of great worth, and would put an end to the shadow that has existed so long between us."
He came to a halt and held out his hand suddenly, English fashion.
"We are friends again?"
Bryce caught the smooth brown hand.
"We are friends," he said.
And there, so far as the reader is concerned, the case of the rajah's treasure-chest came to an end. But it had an aftermath that deserves a place.
On the express that thundered its long way from Puljara through the open plains down to the coast, late at night, the guard, chancing to lean out of his carriage thought he saw two figures fall from one of the first-class compartments. The hour was late, and there was no moon, and as the guard's compartment flashed past the spot its occupant could see no sign of the accident.
For a moment he hesitated. In official India there is a lot of enquiry which takes place when such an important thing as the mail train is brought to an unnecessary halt. Apart from that, this particular express happened to be an hour late, and at the portion of its journey, with a long flat plain in front of it, the engine-driver was trying to make up the lost time.
"I must have been dreaming," the half-caste guard decided; "and if I wasn't—well, I need not say that it happened before my eyes."
He was glad that he had decided thus, for when the train pulled up in the early morning and he walked along the line of carriages, there was no comment made by any of the occupants, yet each carriage had its human freightage.
From one of the carriages in the centre of the train a prosperous-looking merchant, followed by a slim youngster, emerged and crossed to the buffet.
Hot coffee tastes extraordinarily well at five in the morning, even although it be half sand.
Tinker sipped at his steaming cup then glanced at his master.
"You're not going to make any fuss, guv'nor?"
"No," Blake returned, "it would be of no use if I did. They chose their time very cleverly—and they may be anything from fifty to a hundred miles away by now."
He smoothed out a crumpled sheet of paper—the paper that he had found beneath his sleeping pillow when he awoke that morning to find that whereas four men had gone to sleep in the compartment on the previous night, there were only two left.
The message was characteristic, and was in Kew's small professional hand:
"We are taking French leave, having trespassed on your hospitality long enough. I have also ventured to borrow the two hundred-rupee notes that you had in your kit. The rajah forgot to supply us with any ready cash when we left the palace.
"And now a word on what has happened. We are not ungrateful, and yet, as you stand for just exactly the opposite to us, there cannot be any friendly feelings between us. But I have taken back a vow I had made—I meant to kill you after our failure with the treasure-chest.
"You know that I possess means of inflicting death that is certain and deadly. Perhaps you will believe that I could have found an opportunity of carrying out my vow.
"However, I take it back and we start once again, so far as I am concerned, with clean sheets. You, of course, will not see it in that light—in your eyes I am still a convict at large, and to be arrested at sight, if possible. But that is a risk I have run for years now, and it only adds a spice to life.
"We know that had we remained with you, your duty would have made you hand us over to the British police. We did not want to end our adventure in that very prosaic manner, so we take French leave.
"And the future to me will find us enemies as of old. Your skill against ours—and may the better man win.
"Adieu, or rather au revoir, for we are bound to meet again."
And beneath this extraordinary human document were scrawled the signatures of the two master criminals: "Kew."
"Count Ivor Carlac."
"Perhaps it was the best way after all," Blake mused, "but it leaves their many crimes still unpunished. And until they do pay the penalty—we are, as Kew says—enemies." Tinker smiled.
"And yet you saved them at the risk of your own life, guv'nor," he muttered. "That's the sort of thing that people wouldn't believe if you told them."
"I only thought of them as white men, men of my own race," said Blake quietly; "and the white man must always be upheld if the white man has to remain as rulers of the world."
A speech that went far to explain all that had happened.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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