Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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ONE of the beat stories from the powerful pen of Mr. T.C. Bridges is the new serial, "The Other Man's Crime," which is to begin next Friday in the "Queensland Times." Mr. Bridges is well-known as the author of such stories as "The Stolen Masterpiece," "The Gold Magnet," "The Price of Liberty," and others; but in "The Other Man's Crime" the author has excelled himself.
The principal characters in this powerful drama are Miles Hedley, part owner of a gold mine, who sacrifices his liberty to finance it; Maurice Tavener, his rich cousin, whose money buys off justice for a time, but not finally; Stella Drake, the beautiful daughter of Miles's partner, a girl of character and courage who rescues Miles from prison to fetter him as her lover; Jay Scorson, an intrepid young airman, who carries out a daring rescue; and Hester Redmire, daughter of Tavener's gamekeeper, whose jealousy discloses the truth.
Readers are promised a story full of absorbing interest.
"FIVE thousand pounds," repeated Maurice Tavener. A slow smile crossed his face as he glanced at his cousin who sat beside him in Maurice's magnificent two-seater Rolls, "Bit of an optimist, aren't you, Miles?"
"Why do you say that?" asked Miles Hedley.
"Because I think it," retorted Maurice. "And because it's quite plain that my opinion is shared by others. By your own account you've tried everywhere for the money without success."
"I've tried the firms to whom I had introductions," corrected Miles in his light tones.
"And none of them would shell out," said Maurice.
"That's true," Miles's voice was bitter. "They re all asleep, these London firms. They don't know a good thing when they see it. They'll kick themselves when someone else with a little more enterprise scoops a fortune." Maurice pursed his lips.
"What proof have you that there's a fortune is your mine, Miles?"
"I have the ore samples. I have Drake's sworn statement as to the vein and the formation. I can't see what more anyone wants."
Maurice turned the car off the main road to a steep-sided Devonshire lane. It was narrow and rough, so he slackened speed.
"My dear fellow," he said, in a slightly patronising tone, "London is full of men with ore samples and sworn statements by mining engineers, and to this case your report is nullified by the fact that Drake is joint owner with you to this new prospect."
"The report is signed by Juan Sanchez," interrupted Miles. "He's an expert."
"He may be in Bolivia, but his very name is enough to queer him in England. Frankly, I'm not a bit surprised at your failure to raise the money you want."
Miles's heart sank like lead. He had hoped to interest Maurice in this gold mine, which he and his partner, John Drake, had found in Bolivia. The ore was amazingly rich, but they two had no money to work the mine, to hire the necessary labour, or to buy machinery. He and Drake had scraped together their very last two hundred pounds to take Miles to England to raise capital, but a fortnight's hard work in London had gone for absolutely nothing. Maurice Tavener, his cousin, was a very rich man, and when he had asked him down to stay at Foxenholt for a week-end Miles had jumped at the chance. Now, however, his bright prospects were fading, for Maurice seemed as sceptical as the heads of those city firms whom Miles had already tried in vain to interest.
The car drew in through a drive gate, and Miles decided to wait for a better opportunity before putting his request to Maurice. Then, as the house came into sight, he cried out with delight.
"Like it?" asked Maurice gratified.
"It's perfect," vowed Miles, as he gazed at the long range of low buildings, all of reddish stone and roofed with beautifully weathered thatch, which stood on the hill-side, fronted by a gay garden, and backed by some really fine timber. "But fancy calling that a fishing lodge!" he jeered.
"That's all it is compared with Gaynes," said Maurice. "I only come here for the fishing. There's not a darned thing to do, except fish, and if the water isn't right that's a dull job."
"But you can have as many people to stay as you want."
Maurice pursed his lips. "My pals don't care about the country. I've only one man staying at present. Chap called Vedder. Rather a rum bird, but he's about the best poker player in England, and the luckiest," he added, with a grimace. "You'll meet him at dinner, and—" as he stopped the car—"remember this, Miles, he's got a rum temper, so don't irritate him."
"Don't worry," he said. "Trouble's the last thing I'm looking for."
Inside the house was as perfect as out. The front door led into a square hall roofed with wonderful old oak beams. Sporting trophies decorated the walls, and though it was late spring a fire of apple logs burned in an open hearth.
"Tea, cocktail, or whisky and soda?" questioned Maurice as he pointed to two low tables on one of which a silver tea equipage was laid out, while the other held a large assortment of decanters and glasses.
"Tea for me," said Miles.
"Then help yourself, old man," said Maurice as he picked up the whisky decanter and poured out a drink so stiff that Miles's eyes widened. It was years since Miles had last seen his cousin and he realised that these years had not improved him. Maurice was a tall, powerfully-built man, but, though not yet thirty, he was already running to fat. His face was a little puffy, his hands were too white, and though his manner was entirely genial, there was a smouldering something in his dark eyes, which told Miles that his temper, if roused might be extremely ugly. Too much money, too little to do. An old story, and Miles repressed a sigh as he thought how unevenly this world's gifts are divided.
"What's the matter, Miles?" chaffed Maurice. "You're looking as solemn as an owl. It's the tea, I expect. You want a man's drink."
"I'll have one—after dinner." replied Miles smiling. "But a cup of decent tea is a treat and these tea-cakes—I haven't tasted anything so good for years."
"What do you live on, out in Bolivia?" asked Maurice.
"Beef mainly, but its stringy stuff, and the bread is mostly maize. Still it's a fine country. You ought to come and see it, Maurice."
"Me! Good Lord, man. I'd die."
"You wouldn't. You'd get jolly fit climbing those mountains. And I could show you our mine."
"Still harping on your blessed mine," said Maurice "You'd much better chuck it and settle in England." He glanced at his cousin's lean, well-knit frame, and his brown face with steady eyes and strong jaw. "A chap like you could get a job easy enough."
"My job is in Bolivia," replied Miles quietly. "Even if it wasn't I couldn't let Drake down and—Stella."
"Who's Stella?" demanded Maurice. "Mrs. Drake?"
"Miss," corrected Miles. "His daughter." Maurice's eyebrows rose.
"A girl. I begin to see."
"There's nothing to see," said Miles. "Not the way you mean. Stella is like my sister, but she and her father are relying on me to raise the money for working the mine." He paused but Maurice did not speak. Still he seemed interested, and Miles made up his mind that the time was as good as any to make his request. "Maurice," he went on. "Its a good show. The vein is rich and we have proved it for the whole length of our claim. There is a fortune in it if we have the capital to work it. Do you feel inclined to advance the necessary five thousand?"
Maurice's face hardened at once. "What security have you to offer?" he asked.
"A mortgage on the whole property."
"And what is the claim worth as it stands? For how much could you sell it?"
"Sanchez offered us two thousand," Miles answered. "That was all he could raise. He freely admitted it was worth more. As I tell you, the ore is extraordinarily rich."
"So you want five thousand pounds on security for which the top price is two thousand. It's not good enough, Miles."
Miles refused to be discouraged.
"Won't you gamble, Maurice? We will give you a quarter share for five thousand pounds, and I am not exaggerating when I say that there is a million in it."
"You mean you think there is a million?" said Maurice curtly. "I know gold mines. I've been bitten before now. The vein which shows rich on the surface pinches out, or the shaft fills with water or you can't get labour. No, Miles, my expenses are very heavy, and I haven't five thousand pounds to chuck away. As I said before, it's not good enough."
Miles sat perfectly still. His one idea was not to show how heavy the blow was that Maurice had dealt him. It was only now that he realized how completely he had been banking on his cousin's assistance, and his refusal to help had knocked the last prop from under him. There was not another soul to whom he could turn for help, and the feeling of failure was bitter indeed. It was bad enough for himself, yet it was not of himself that he was thinking, but of sturdy old, hard-working John Drake, and of his daughter, Stella. As in a dream he heard Maurice speaking again.
"Sorry, Miles," he said, "but you see how it is. You'll have to chuck this wild-cat scheme, and get a job in England. Secretary or land agent. I'll see if any of my pals can help you."
"Thanks," said Miles quietly, "but I'm going back to Bolivia on Monday."
Before Maurice could reply the door banged open. "Your fishing is rotten, Maurice," said a harsh voice. "I've a damned good mind to pack and drive back to London to-night."
THE speaker was as tall as Miles himself, that is half an inch over six feet. He was sandy-haired, thin-lipped, with greenish eyes, and so sour a look that Miles took an instant dislike to him. He wore a rough tweed suit with brogues and waders, and had a creel on his back.
"Water like gin," he went on angrily. "You might as well try to catch trout in the road."
Knowing Maurice's temper, Miles fully expected him to flare up. Instead Maurice laughed.
"I didn't make this weather," he answered. "Have a drink, James, and you'll feel better. Oh, and let me introduce you to my cousin, Miles Hedley."
James Vedder gave Miles a curt nod, which was returned equally briefly. He poured himself out three fingers of Scotch, dashed it with soda and swallowed it. Miles got up.
"What time is dinner?" he asked.
"Eight," Maurice told him.
"And it's not five yet," said Miles. "If you can lend me a rod I'd like to see if I can still throw a fly."
"You're on," said Maurice, "Come into the gun room, and I'll find you all you want. You mustn't mind James," he added as they left the hall. "I told you he had a rum temper."
"He has," agreed Miles drily. Inside ten minutes, Miles, fitted up with rod, landing net, and waders, was walking down to the Strane, the pretty trout stream which ran at the bottom of the hill. As Vedder had said, the water was low and clear, but a little breeze was blowing up stream, and fish were rising in the flat pools. Miles had not cast a fly for years, but most of his boyhood had been spent in Devonshire, and casting is a trick you never lose any more than skating or swimming. After a very few minutes he found his old skill coming back and his fly falling lightly on the ripples. There was plenty of cover along the banks and taking every advantage of this Miles was soon fast in a brisk half-pounder, which he presently netted and transferred to his creel. In the next pool he got a second fish, and when it was time to hurry back to dress for dinner he had nine really nice trout in his creel. He was feeling happier, too, for there is nothing like fishing to take one's mind off one's troubles. After getting quickly into dinner jacket and white shirt he ran down to find Maurice admiring the trout which had been laid out on a dish on a table in the hall. Vedder came down a minute later, and Maurice turned to him with a laugh.
"What about these, James?" he asked. "Here's one man can catch fish if you can't."
Vedder looked at the fish and looked at Miles. "What did you get these with," he asked, "a worm?"
Miles was a man who usually had a good control of his temper, but the insult was so gross, so utterly uncalled for that he went hot all over.
"What a nasty mind you must have, Vedder," he said coldly.
An unpleasant glare showed in Vedder's greenish eyes.
"What exactly do you mean by that?" he demanded, and his voice was dangerous.
"What I said. It takes a nasty mind to think of such a thing."
Maurice stepped between, and only just in time.
"Shut up, James," he ordered harshly, "You dry up, too, Miles."
"I'm sorry, Maurice," said Miles, "but really, you know it was a bit thick."
"It was," allowed Maurice. "James owes you an apology." Vedder hesitated. He was still scowling.
"I'm sorry," he said at last, but with a very ill grace, and just then Jarman, the butler, came in to announce dinner.
The meal, like everything else Maurice's household, was perfect of its kind, yet, in spite of the good food and wine, it was not a success. James Vedder was still sulking, and Miles was wondering how Maurice could put up with such an ill-conditioned brute. Of the three Maurice was the only one who made any real effort to keep up a conversation, and he found it difficult. Miles was glad when the meal was over and they were able to go into the hall for coffee and cigars. The trout had been removed, but Vedder was still sulking and Miles grew sick of it at last and strolled out of the open front door to watch the glory of the afterglow. Presently Maurice followed out.
"Miles," he said, "you play cards, don't you?"
"Bridge and piquet," replied Miles. "Not much else."
"What about poker?"
"Oh, I've played poker, of course."
"Then will you make a game?" Miles laughed a little bitterly.
"My dear fellow, I have just enough money left to pay my fare back to La Paz." For the first time since they had met, Miles saw Maurice flush and look embarrassed.
"I—I didn't know it was as bad as that." He paused and seemed to be searching for words. At last he went on. "See here, Miles, I have my reasons for wanting to keep on the right side of Vedder, and he is keen on a game. If you'll chip in I'll take it as a favour, and if you'll allow me I'll be responsible for any losses you may incur." Miles's first impulse was to refuse, then he remembered that he was his cousin's guest, and he saw, too, that Maurice was very seriously in earnest. He shrugged.
"If you put it that way, Maurice," he said briefly. "My only stipulation is that you take my gains as well as my losses."
"It's awfully good of you," said Maurice gratefully, and pulled a bundle of notes from his pocket. "These ought to see you through. We're going to play in the smoking-room."
The smoking-room was small, but extremely comfortable, and a poker table was set out with cards and chips. A small fire burned in the hearth and shaded electrics lit the room. On a side table was a full array of decanters, siphons and glasses, cigars and cigarettes. Vedder was waiting when the other two came in, and Miles saw the gambler's fire burning in the man's green eyes. He wondered more than ever what hold this unpleasant person had over his cousin. Vedder shuffled the cards with practised fingers.
"What's the limit?" he asked.
"The usual, I suppose," Maurice answered. "Five pounds and five shillings to come in."
"Suits me," said Vedder briefly, but Miles felt uncomfortable. He had never sat in any game where the limit was more than five shillings; but since he had agreed to play, and since he had Maurice's money in his pocket, he felt he could make no objection. Each man started by the purchase of one hundred pounds worth of chips, and the game began. Poker is a simple game, with none of the demand on skill and memory of bridge. The main point is to gauge the style of your adversaries' play and bet your Cards accordingly. At first things went very quietly, and for half an hour the biggest hand held by anyone was three kings. Miles held that against two pairs, aces high, and took fifteen pounds off Vedder. By degrees things warmed up, but the luck remained with Miles, and the pile of chips in his trough steadily increased. Most of his winning was at Vedder's expense, and at the end of an hour Vedder had to buy a second hundred pounds worth of chips. Maurice neither lost, nor won. His cards were not too good, but he played them well. Then the luck shifted and Maurice began to hold the hands. Nothing he could do was wrong, and Miles, who had the true card sense, lay low, but Vedder tried to back the luck, with consequences disastrous to his pocket. Soon he had to shell out a third hundred, and the scowl on his unpleasant face grew permanent.
A jack pot was opened by Vedder, who drew two cards only. Miles had a pair of tens and drew a third. Maurice also drew three cards and the betting began with a five pound chip from Vedder. Miles raised him and Maurice raised again.
"Five better," said Vedder briefly, and Miles dropped out.
"Another five," said Maurice, and Vedder simply pushed up two more chips. To and fro went the betting in absolute silence until both troughs were empty, and the heap in the centre represented nearly two hundred pounds.
"I'll take another hundred pounds worth and bet you the lot," snapped Vedder.
"Suits me," said Maurice. "You want a show down?"
"Beat those if you can," he said, sneeringly, as he laid down four nines.
"I can just do that," replied Maurice, as he showed four knaves. Vedder sprang to his feet.
"You dirty swindler!" he shouted. "I discarded a knave." Maurice's florid face went oddly white as he, too, rose from his chair.
"You lie!" he answered curtly.
Vedder's arm shot out, but Maurice dodged the blow, and springing forward planted his fist on Vedder's jaw. The whole weight of his heavy body was behind the blow.
Vedder's hands flew up, he staggered back, and fell with a crash across the hearth rug.
"The dirty liar!" panted Maurice. "A sharper and blackmailer like him to accuse me of swindling! But this finishes it."
"It has finished it!" said Miles, who was leaning over the fallen man. "Vedder is dead, Maurice!"
MAURICE stood gazing at Miles. "Rot!" he said scornfully. "He's only stunned!"
"He is dead!" repeated Miles. "His head, struck the corner of the kerb and his neck is broken." His steady voice terrified Maurice, who stepped quickly across, dropped on his knees beside Vedder, then putting his right arm under his shoulders, lifted him. Vedder's head flopped horribly to one side, and Maurice dropped him with a gasp. His face, as he looked up at Miles, was a mask of terror.
"Good God!" he muttered. "What an awful thing!"
"It's bad," said Miles, soberly, "but, after all, it was an accident, and one he brought upon himself. I can testify to that, Maurice." Maurice shook his head hopelessly.
"They'll never believe that," he said hoarsely. "The whole business will come out."
"You mean there was something between you and him?" questioned Miles.
"Yes," Maurice's voice trembled with horror. "He—he knew something about me—something I did before I came into my money. He's been living on me ever since. It's bound to come out at inquest, and—and they'll never believe it was an accident." He was so terribly upset that Miles felt really sorry for him, but at the same time he realised that something must be done at once.
"Brace up!" he said kindly. "I'll do my best for you. Let me give you a drink." He poured out a stiff whisky and Maurice drank it mechanically, but it had no effect upon him whatever. Miles went on:—
"The police must be informed, Maurice. Shall I telephone for you?"
"No—no!" Maurice was frantic with terror. Miles tried to reason with him.
"See here, Maurice. The business has got to come out sooner or later, and the longer the delay the more fishy it will look. If we get a doctor as soon as possible and explain matters to him, then he will send for the police. Surely you need not be too alarmed. At the worst they can only call it manslaughter, and with my evidence it shouldn't be that. The jury will probably return it as an accident, and that will be the end of it." Maurice listened but he was not convinced.
"No!" he repeated desperately. "If you knew what I know you'd be as sure as I am that they'd hang me or at least give me a long sentence." He looked at the body and shivered. "Can't we hide that, and say he left in a huff?" Miles began to lose patience.
"Do you think I'd lend myself to such a crazy scheme? The chances are that someone in the house has heard the crash of his fall. In any case it would be bound to come out sooner or later, and then they'd have us both for murder. Do let me telephone at once." He started for the door but Maurice caught him by the arm. "Listen, Miles. You wanted me to lend you five thousand to-day." Miles stared. He began to think excitement had driven the other out of his mind.
"What has that to do with it?" he demanded. Maurice went on eagerly.
"I'll give you the money. I'll give you double that sum if—if you'll take the blame." Miles shook him off.
"You're crazy," he said scornfully. "Are you trying to bribe me to say I killed Vedder?"
"Yes," replied Maurice between clenched teeth. "That's exactly what I am trying to do. I'm offering you double the money you asked for if you will say that you knocked Vedder down—in fact, to take my place. It will be enough to start your mine, and, if you are right about the richness of the ore, to give you and your friends a fortune. What's more, I'll get you the best counsel that money can buy to defend you, and if there is any real trouble—I mean if you get a sentence—I'll give you two thousand pounds a year for as long as you are in prison." He stopped and stood looking at Miles with the sort of expression on his face that a man might wear while waiting to see if the judge before whom he stood would, or would not, don the black cap.
MILES stood silent, frowning heavily. His first impulse was to turn down Maurice's mad suggestion with the scorn it seemed to deserve, but as his cousin went on speaking he began to hesitate. Ten thousand pounds! The sum was double that which he had been trying so hard and so uselessly to raise. It would be sufficient not only to start the mine, but to keep John Drake and Stella in comfort until the production stage was reached. The homely, rugged face of John rose before him, then Stella's, with her wide, blue Devon eyes, and he realised how hard it would be to go back to them empty-handed, and tell them of his failure. And failure meant the end of all things, for there was no money to be had in Bolivia.
Ten thousand pounds! He could picture their joy when they received the cheque and the furious energy with which John would start developing the mine. The vein itself was all right. Miles was definitely certain that there was a fortune in it—several fortunes. At the very worst they could hardly give him more than twelve months' imprisonment. It seemed more probable that he would get off altogether. But even if he had to go to prison there was no great disgrace about such a sentence, and certainly in South America no one would think any the worse of him. Maurice, still watching him with the same intense eagerness, saw his hesitation, and spoke again.
"I will give the cheque now—this minute—if you agree, Miles." A surge of anger seized Miles.
"What good is a cheque that can be stopped by wire before it is paid?" he asked, with such sudden bitterness that Maurice recoiled and his cheeks went dull red.
"You—you couldn't think I'd do a thing like that, Miles."
"No, I don't suppose you would, but I'm not taking any chances. Remember you turned me down cold when I asked you for the loan of five thousand."
"I'll do anything you suggest—give you any written promise you please," said Maurice, with intense earnestness. Miles looked at him.
"I haven't consented yet," he reminded the other drily.
"But you will, Miles," Maurice begged. "You can't refuse. Think! For you it means nothing, or next to nothing—just a temporary inconvenience; but for me—well, I have told you that it might be a hanging matter." Miles frowned again.
"I think you are exaggerating. Yet perhaps you know best. If I can be sure of my ten thousand I feel inclined to earn it. But I'm not going to trust you simply because you are my cousin. Listen to me. You are going to write a confession which will be sent in a sealed envelope to my solicitor, with a letter from me that it is not to be returned to you until my trial is over." Maurice bit his lip.
"You're making it pretty hard," he said. "Suppose that confession gets into somebody else's hands?"
"How can it?" snapped Miles. "You can read my letter which goes with it." Maurice considered a moment.
"I agree," he said.
"All right. Then these are my other conditions. The cheque goes with the letter, and you give me another cheque for one thousand for my defence. You will also give me your word not to mention this compact of ours to a living soul—and most especially not to the Drakes."
"I'll do that," said Maurice firmly.
"Then the sooner you start the better," said Miles, "for the longer Vedder's body lies there the worse it's going to be for me."
"I'll get some paper and my cheque book," said Maurice, and went out quickly, whilst Miles stood looking down at Vedder's body sprawled limply on the hearth rug. Even in death the wretched man's face was as repulsive as ever, and Miles could feel no regret at his untimely end. He had not much time for thought, for Maurice came back quickly with writing materials and two fountain pens. Miles took his and a pad of paper without a word and sat down at once to write. Maurice did the same, and for some minutes there was no sound but the rapid scratching of pens on paper.
"Will that do?" said Maurice presently. He spoke in a low, unsteady voice, and Miles realized that the strain was telling on him. Miles read the letter and nodded.
"That's all right," he said briefly, "and here is mine, to Bartlett." Maurice agreed to this and wrote the two cheques. These and the two letters—Maurice's in a sealed envelope—were put together in one large envelope, and this Miles addressed to Bartlett.
"It must be posted at once," said Miles, "it won't do for it to be found on me. I believe they search a prisoner," he added with a ghost of a smile.
"There's a pillar-box at the drive gate," Maurice told him. "You'll like to put it in yourself."
"Yes, but I had better ring up the doctor and the police before I do so," said Miles. "I suppose it will be some little time before they can arrive?"
"Half an hour at least," Maurice answered. "The nearest police station is Taviton, nearly four miles away, and Helmore, the doctor, also lives in Taviton. The 'phone is in the next room."
Miles nodded and went to it. His hand was perfectly steady as he lifted the receiver and asked for the number Maurice gave him. Nearly two minutes elapsed before he got a reply.
"Yes, Sergeant Tooker speaking. Who is it?"
"Mr. Miles Hedley speaking from Foxenholt," replied Miles quietly. "I have to tell you that I have accidentally killed a fellow guest and ask you to come out here at once."
"Killed him!" Miles heard plainly the gasp of amazement which accompanied the words. Then the speaker seemed to realise that it was not part of his duty to give way to his feelings.
"Very good, sir," he said in a calmer voice. "I will come out at once."
Miles hung up. "I'll take the letters now," he said, "and you can call up Helmore." Maurice gazed at him with wonder in his eyes.
"By God, you take it quietly," he said.
Miles's lip curled slightly, but he made no reply. Going out through the hall, he took his hat from the rack, and, unlocking the front door, walked quickly down the drive. It was a heavenly night with a big moon only two or three days past the full, throwing the black shadows of the great beeches across the turf. Rabbits gambolled amid the shadows, and in the distance a brown owl hooted. But to Miles the whole landscape seemed somehow unreal. It resembled a set scene in a theatre. His mind was wrapped up in the tremendous decision he had just taken. He reached the box, slipped the letter into it and walked rapidly back. As he entered the house he heard the hum of a motor engine in the distance. A slight shiver ran through him.
"The die is cast," he said, half aloud, as he hung up his hat and dropped into a chair to await the officers of the law.
THERE was nothing very formidable about the two men who presently entered the house. Sergeant Tooker was big, well over six feet, and heavily built, a fine example, so Miles thought, of the country constable who, by long and steady work, has gained promotion. The other, whose name was French, was a rather beefy and stolid fellow, much younger than his chief. Since the servants had long ago gone to bed it was Maurice who opened the door, and it was to him that Tooker addressed himself.
"Is this a fact, sir—that there's been someone killed?"
"Unfortunately it is quite true, sergeant," replied Maurice gravely. "A terrible accident."
"And this is the gentleman who rang me up?" turning to Miles.
"I am Miles Hedley," replied Miles steadily. "And the fact is as I stated. Mr. Vedder and I had a quarrel over a game of cards. He accused me of cheating. I knocked him down. He fell against the raised fender, and broke his neck."
"He tried to strike you first, remember that, Miles," said Maurice quickly.
"I take it you were present, sir," said Tooker to Maurice.
"Yes, we three were playing together when the quarrel occurred."
"And this other gentleman—you are sure he is dead?"
"Quite certain," said Miles. "I have seen too many dead men to have any doubt on that score."
"Is the doctor here?" questioned Tooker.
"Not yet. We have telephoned for Dr. Helmore, but he has not arrived."
"He's coming now, sir," said French, speaking for the first time. Tooker listened a moment.
"That's right," he agreed, and in a moment they all heard the car coming up the drive. Dr. Helmore was a complete contrast to the two big policemen, a short, wiry Celt, with black hair beginning to grizzle, and grey-green eyes.
"Good evening, Tavener," he said briskly. "What's the matter. Some one hurt?"
"Dead," said Maurice heavily. "It's Vedder."
"Bad—bad," said the doctor, in his quick, clipped voice. "Tell me."
Miles did the telling. His story was the same he had already told to Tooker. Helmore nodded.
"We'd better be sure," he said, and made straight for the card room. It was plain he knew his way about the house. He bent over Vedder, put an arm round him and with unexpected strength raised him. The man's head lolled back in the same dreadfully unnatural way as when Miles had lifted him, and Helmore laid the body back.
"Quite right, Tavener. Your diagnosis is correct. Cervical vertebrae dislocated, and death must have been instantaneous." He turned to Miles: "It was you who hit him?"
"Yes," agreed Miles quietly.
"But it was self-defence. Vedder hit him first," said Maurice sharply. He turned to Tooker. "What happens now? What do you do?"
"I must take Mr. Hedley into custody, sir," Tooker answered quietly.
"What—take him to prison! Surely he can remain here. I can offer bail to any amount."
"We should have to go before a Justice in the matter of bail," explained Tooker. "And in a case like this he would not grant it. But don't worry yourself, Mr. Tavener. We shall make Mr. Hedley quite comfortable, and the inquest will be to-morrow; then if, as seems likely, the jury return 'justifiable homicide,' he will be released at once." Maurice looked anxiously at Miles, but Miles showed no sign of emotion.
"You know best, Sergeant," he said. "I will pack a bag and come with you at once."
"Very good," said Tooker, "but I must ask you to let Constable French accompany you while you pack." Miles's lips tightened. He was beginning to realise the seriousness of the plight in which he found himself. But he made no objection and French went with him upstairs. A few minutes later he was in the car with Tooker and French, driving to Taviton, and the rest of the night he spent in a small, bare, but very clean cell at the police station.
Next morning his breakfast was brought in from outside and at eleven he was driven back to Foxenholt for the inquest. Mr. Shenstone, the Coroner, was already at the house and a jury had been collected. Shenstone was a little, stiff, elderly man, the jury were farmers and tradesmen about half and half, a rather stolid looking lot. Since there was no hotel or public house anywhere near Foxenholt, the inquest was held in a billiards room. There was an arrangement by which the big billiards table could be lowered into a hollow beneath the flooring and its place was taken by a smaller table at the head of which the coroner sat. A couple of reporters were the only strangers present.
Maurice was the first to give evidence. He looked as if he had not slept, and was nervous and shaky, yet he gave his evidence pretty clearly. He described exactly what had happened with, of course, the exception that he put Miles in his own place. He emphasised the fact that Vedder had not only accused Miles of cheating, but had been the first to attack. Mr. Shenstone listened keenly.
"Was there any justification for Mr. Vedder's accusation?" he asked.
"None whatever," replied Maurice. "Mr. Hedley won the hand with four knaves, and Vedder's declaration that he had discarded a knave was nonsense. I can only imagine that he discarded a king and thought it was a knave."
"That is possible, of course," agreed the coroner. "You examined the pack?"
"The pack is before you, sir," said Maurice.
Shenstone ran through it. "There are certainly only four knaves," he agreed with a dry smile. "Yet from your account Mr. Vedder seems to have made the accusation in good faith."
Maurice shrugged. "He was a quick-tempered—I may say a bad tempered man."
"How long had you known him, Mr. Tavener?" Maurice coloured slightly.
"Four—nearly five years. We met first in London and he has stayed with me several times."
"But he and Mr. Hedley had not met before?"
"No. My cousin, Mr. Hedley, arrived here only yesterday afternoon, and has been in England no more than a fortnight."
"At what hour did they first meet?"
"At tea, about half-past four, when Mr. Vedder came in from fishing."
"Was there any disagreement between them at that time?"
"None. I simply introduced them. Miles—that is Mr. Hedley, had tea, and Mr. Vedder had a whisky and soda. They hardly spoke."
"What happened between tea and dinner?"
"Mr. Hedley went fishing. He returned just in time to dress for dinner."
"You all three met at dinner?"
"We met in the hall before dinner was announced."
"Was there any discussion then between Mr. Hedley and Mr. Vedder?"
Maurice looked suddenly uncomfortable. "There was," he answered. "Mr. Hedley had caught some trout, and Mr. Vedder suggested that he had taken them with a worm. Mr. Hedley was annoyed, but—" he paused—"after all, that was nothing."
THE Coroner's sharp little eyes were fixed on Maurice. "Oh, so there was some disagreement between the two, previous to the game of cards."
"It was a mere nothing," said Maurice doggedly.
"Thank you," said Mr. Shenstone. "That will do, Mr. Tavener. I will now call your butler, Mr. Jarman."
Jarman was one of those thick-set, rather pompous men, an excellent butler, but with a great love of the sound of his own voice. He gave formal evidence of Miles's arrival, then the Coroner began asking questions. "Mr. Jarman, where were you just before dinner was announced?"
"In the dining room, sir, putting the last touches to the table."
"Was the door open or closed?"
"Then you were able to hear what was going on in the hall?"
"I could not help hearing it, sir."
"Can you repeat the conversation?"
Miles saw Maurice try to catch his butler's eye, but Jarman's were fixed on the Coroner's face. "I remember the gist of it, sir. Mr. Tavener was chaffing Mr. Vedder about his ill-success at fishing. 'Here's one man who can catch fish if you can't?' he said. Mr. Vedder then asked Mr. Hedley what he had caught the trout with—whether it was a worm, and Mr. Hedley was annoyed, and said something about Mr. Vedder having a nasty mind. Mr. Vedder asked what he meant by that, and Mr. Hedley answered 'Just what I said. It take's a nasty mind to think of such a thing.' I don't know just what happened then, but I heard Mr. Tavener say sharply: 'Shut up James, and you dry up, too, Miles.'"
By this time all the jurymen were craning forward listening with an eagerness which none of them shown hitherto. The reporters were scribbling rapidly. As for Shenstone, his face had gone hard and sharp.
"So Mr. Tavener had to interfere between them?" he asked.
"It seemed so, sir," agreed Jarman, "but, of course, I couldn't see what happened."
"So there was a quarrel before dinner," said Shenstone slowly. "A pretty violent quarrel, too. It would seem that Mr. Hedley and the deceased man nearly came to blows."
"But what was it all about, sir?" questioned one of the jurymen in a puzzled tone. "Why shouldn't Mr. Hedley catch fish with a worm?"
A dry smile crossed the Coroner's face. "It is not supposed to be sportsmanlike to catch trout with a worm, Mr. Tuck," he explained. "Now I will take the doctor's evidence," he continued, "and after that the jury will retire and consider their verdict."
Maurice's face was like thunder and Miles could fancy what he would say to Jarman when he next had chance, but the damage was done, and it was too late for repentance. He was right about the damage, for the jury, after a brief consultation, gave their verdict that the deceased had met his death at the hands of Miles Hedley, but without malice aforethought.
"Which," said the Coroner, in his dry way, "is equivalent to a verdict of manslaughter."
Miles's heart dropped a beat. What would happen now? He had not long to wait for here was Tooker's hand on his shoulder.
"Are you arresting me?" asked Miles in a low voice.
"I have to, Mr. Hedley."
"Can't I have bail?"
"Not in a case like this. But luckily the Assizes come on within a fortnight, and"—with a smile—"we shall try to make you comfortable."
That night Miles slept in Exeter gaol. He was treated as a first-class prisoner, allowed to wear his own clothes, to receive visitors, and to write letters. His first letter was to Bartlett, his solicitor, asking him to secure the best counsel available; his first visitor was Maurice. Maurice was looking anything but fit. His cheeks were blotchy, his eyes bloodshot. Miles saw at once that he had been drinking a great deal more than was good for him.
"That fool, Jarman!" he burst out. "Who'd have dreamed that he'd been listening?"
"We ought to have thought of it," replied Miles calmly.
"Even if he had, he ought to have known better than to talk. He'll think twice before he does anything of the kind again," Maurice went on viciously. "The very first thing I did after the house was cleared was to sack him without a character." Miles gave a sharp exclamation.
"Good God, Maurice, you weren't such a fool as that!"
"What do you mean?" demanded Maurice, in a startled tone.
"Mean? Do you forget that he is the principal witness for the prosecution? Now you can take your oath he will make the case as black as ever he can against me."
The change in Maurice's expression would have been laughable if Miles had felt in the least like laughing.
"I—I never thought of that," he gasped. "I—I'll try to put it right."
"Don't try to bribe him," warned Miles firmly. "That would put the lid on it."
Maurice went away very subdued, but once more the damage was beyond repair. Jarman had got his back up thoroughly. In a very starchy letter he refused to come back to Foxenholt or to have anything further to do with Maurice. Maurice sent the man's letter to Miles, who smiled wryly when he had read it. "Seems to me I'm in the soup," he said to himself with a smile. Yet neither he nor Maurice had the least idea of the tangled nature of the coil in which they had wrapped themselves.
MAURICE took the stopper out of the whiskey decanter and started to pour out another drink, then checked himself abruptly.
"No," he said angrily. "I've had enough. After all there's nothing to worry about, now that Vedder's out of the way. And I can't help what happens to Miles. I've paid all he asked, and it's up to him to stand the racket."
He put the stopper back in the decanter, and picked up a newspaper. But he could not read and presently dropped it and sat, staring out of the open window. It was a heavenly summer night, and the warm air was rich with the scent of stocks blooming in the border below. From the valley beneath the garden came the pleasant murmur of the little river splashing among its boulders. A brown owl hooted in the distance.
Maurice lay back in his chair. "I wish this infernal trial was over. When it is I'll go abroad. I'm fed up with England. As for this place, I'll sell it. I can't live here after what's happened." He thought of Vedder again, and shivered, then grew angry again. "He got what was coming to him," he said aloud. "I'm well out of it."
"I should say you are." The voice startled Maurice so badly, that for the moment he could hardly breathe. He sat rigid with eyes fixed on the man who had suddenly appeared outside the window. The sill was low, and the light of the electric lamp on the table behind Maurice showed the visitor plainly. Not a burglar nor a tramp, but a man well dressed in excellently cut brown tweeds and wearing a brown felt hat. His shirt and soft collar were blue, his tie was a foulard that matched the suit, a dark silk handkerchief showed in his breast pocket, and a handsome signet ring was on the little finger of the strong brown hand which rested on the sill. He wore an eye-glass in his right eye.
All these details impressed themselves on Maurice's subconscious self, but more than anything else the man's face. Good looking in a hard style, with dark skin, dark, cynical eyes and well shaped features, but what struck Maurice more than anything else was the man's entirely self-contained and self-sufficient manner.
"I must apologise," said the newcomer. "I didn't mean to startle you. I came to call but it took longer to walk from the station than I had expected, and when I rang I got no reply. So, seeing your light, I walked round to the window, and was just in time to hear the remark which I answered." The length of this speech gave Maurice time to pull himself together, but he was still frightened and therefore angry.
"Who are you?" he demanded harshly.
"My name is Cullen—Clement Cullen. You must have heard of me from our mutual friend, Vedder." Mention of Vedder gave Maurice a fresh scare.
"No," he said, "Vedder never mentioned you."
"Careless of him," said Cullen cooly. "And now, unfortunately, he is no longer here to introduce me. May I come in?" Maurice hesitated, but Cullen took silence for consent, and, swinging one leg over the sill, stepped lightly into the room. Now that he was in the full light Maurice saw that he was rather a small man, yet amazingly compact and well built, and in every way intensely sure of himself. He dropped into a chair opposite Maurice, crossed one leg over the other, showing neat brown shoes and silk socks, then took out a thin gold cigarette case, selected a cigarette and lit it. He did everything with the same leisurely air of being very much at his ease.
Maurice roused to his duties as host. "Have a drink?" he suggested, pushing the decanter across. Cullen helped himself, filling up with soda and lifted his glass.
"Here's to our better acquaintance," he said, and drank. Maurice who was racking his brain to imagine what his midnight visitor was after, waited for Cullen to speak, but the man sat silent, smoking and watching Maurice with a cynical twinkle in his dark, deep-set eyes until Maurice was driven to speak.
"So you are a friend of poor Vedder?" he asked at last.
"Next to you, probably his best friend," Cullen answered, and Maurice felt even more uncomfortable than before.
"Curious, he never spoke of you," he retorted.
"Jim was never one to waste words," replied Cullen calmly. "Money was the only thing he wasted." He paused. "I don't wonder you think you are well out of it, Mr. Tavener." Maurice's heart gave a thump that made him feel as though he were choking, but he made a great effort to pull himself together.
"He certainly won a lot of money from me at one time and another," he said, with a poor attempt at a smile.
"So you are not wasting many regrets on his untimely end?" suggested Cullen softly. "In fact, as you said, you are well out of it." Maurice started up.
"I'll thank you not to twist my remarks in that fashion. I was not referring to Vedder." A mocking smile crossed Cullen's thin lips.
"My mistake. Then I presume it was your cousin of whom you were speaking." If Cullen's object had been to make Maurice lose his temper he was perfectly successful, for Maurice went right up in the air.
"You can keep your presumptions to yourself, you infernal eavesdropper," he snarled. "And the sooner you get out of this the better." Cullen smiled again.
"Come now," he said, in the sort of tone you might use to a fractious child. "There's no need to get cross because I try to pull your leg. Light up and let's get down to business." Maurice glared at him.
"I have no business to talk with you."
"You have. Indeed you have. You see I happen to be Vedder's executor." There was something so significant in the man's words and manner that Maurice felt a cold chill run down his spine. But he tried to keep a hold on himself.
"Then let's hear what you've got to say," he growled. "But if you are executor why weren't you at the inquest?" Cullen showed no resentment at Maurice's rudeness.
"I was waiting to see which way the cat jumped," he remarked softly.
"What the deuce are you talking about?"
"Which way the verdict went," explained Cullen patiently.
"Which way could it go, except the way it did?" demanded Maurice.
"The truth might have come out," suggested Cullen gently.
MAURICE stiffened. "The truth." he repeated. "Speak plainly, curse you, and don't go beating about the bush. What are you trying to say?"
"Merely that your story was a bit thin," Cullen answered. "And that I would like to hear the truth of the business." Maurice felt the blood leave his face, but he struggled desperately to keep calm.
"You're crazy," he retorted with a sneer. "You read the evidence at the inquest." Cullen shook his head slowly.
"You're not going to tell me that Hedley did the killing, Tavener, for if you do I shall tell you straight I don't believe you."
Now that the words were out Maurice had the feeling that all the time he had expected this, yet that did not make the hearing any easier. The truth came upon him with a rush. This man knew his secret—that ugly secret on which Vedder had traded for so long—and meant to blackmail him just as Vedder had done. As this conviction forced itself upon him a fury of rage possessed him. In a flash he was on his feet and his big hands shot out, grasping at Cullen's throat.
Quick as he was, Cullen was quicker. With one motion he was out of his chair and behind it and Maurice gasped as he found himself looking straight into the wicked muzzle of an automatic pistol.
"You think you might as well hang for two sheep as one lamb, eh, Tavener?" remarked Cullen. His voice was as level as ever and his eyeglass remained firmly fixed in his right eye. He showed absolutely no sign of excitement. He smiled again, and how Maurice hated that thin-lipped smile! There was a hint of contempt in it which maddened him.
"Well," went on Cullen with a slight drawl. "You've told me all I wanted to know. I never believed for a minute that Hedley killed Jim, but I wanted to be sure." He paused, but his pistol did not waver the smallest fraction of an inch. "Now that I am sure, and now that you know you can't kill me, too, suppose you sit down again." Maurice sat down. He was breathing hard and his face was the colour of lead. Cullen moved his own chair so that it was opposite Maurice's and seated himself comfortably, but he still held the pistol on his lap.
"Better take a drink," he suggested. "You look as if you needed it." Maurice's hands shook so that he spilled the whisky, but he drank greedily and his face became a more normal colour. Cullen watched him with interest.
"How did you do it?" he asked. "I wouldn't have placed you as a killer."
"It was an accident," said Maurice hoarsely. "We quarrelled over cards. He accused me of cheating. I hit him, and he fell against the fender and broke his neck." Cullen nodded.
"And then you bribed Hedley to take the blame. What did you give him?"
"Ten thousand," snarled Maurice. Cullen's eyebrows lifted slightly.
"He socked you good and proper," he remarked. "Wanted it for the Bolivia business, I suppose?" Maurice started.
"What do you know about the Bolivia business?" he demanded. Cullen smiled.
"If you'd known as much as I know, Tavener, you wouldn't have turned down Hedley's offer."
"You mean it's as good as he says?"
"Better," was the curt reply. For some moments the silence was broken only by the ticking of the clock and the sound of the river floating up from the valley. Maurice was trying to collect his scattered thoughts, but was so upset that he found it difficult to think at all clearly. The only thing that was clear was that Cullen was completely master of the situation. Though he had not said it in so many words, Maurice did not doubt that the man shared Vedder's knowledge of his secret—a very nasty secret—and that he meant to make every use of it. It seemed that he would be a worse taskmaster than Vedder himself. Maurice racked his brain for any way out, but could see none.
Cullen pinched out his cigarette and flung the stub out of the window, then turned his eyes upon Maurice. There was a mocking light in them.
"Wishing, that you could get rid of me, eh, Tavener?" he remarked, reading Maurice's thoughts so accurately that Maurice could not repress a start. Cullen smiled again, but the smile was only on his lips.
"Don't look so worried. I'm going to put you in the way of doing it." He paused and Maurice stared at him. He could not imagine what was coming.
"I want that mine," said Cullen slowly.
"Want the mine," repeated Maurice. "You're crazy. Hedley has already sent the money to his partner, and Drake—"
"I'm not worrying about Drake," cut in Cullen. "So long as Hedley is out of the way I can handle Drake. And once Sanchez and I have got the show into our own hands we shan't need to bother you any more." He paused again and fixed his eyes on Maurice. "But I have to be sure that Hedley won't come butting in."
"You can't be sure," Maurice told him. "I've told you already the whole thing was an accident. His lawyer says it's all odds he'll get off."
"He mustn't get off. I want to see him sent up for two years at least. If he gets a two years' sentence it means they'll keep him inside for 18 months. That's the shortest time Sanchez and I need to get hold of the mine at Pasarpa."
"I can't help you," retorted Maurice. "I'm not the judge."
"No," said the other slowly. "You're not the judge, but you're a witness. Now listen to one and I'll tell you how the case can be swung against Hedley." Leaning forward a little but still dangling the pistol in his strong hands, he began to talk. He spoke in a perfectly level voice without showing the slightest sign of emotion, and Maurice listened. Maurice was not particularly scrupulous, yet Cullen's plan was so cold-blooded, so utterly callous that every decent instinct left in his listener rose and protested.
"It's simple as pie." Cullen ended. "No risk to anyone, yet it damns Hedley's case all ends up." Maurice stiffened.
"Simple, you say, simply damnable. You can count me out of any such plan, Cullen. Cullen shrugged slightly. Nothing in his looks showed that Maurice's decision mattered to him one way or the other.
"Just as you like," he said. "If you prefer to pay that's your look out. Only I shall want more than Vedder, and there's Gomez, too. He'll need his bit." Maurice's big fists tightened. He longed to hurl himself this mocking brute, but that ominous pistol checked him. "I'll take a thousand on account," Cullen went on.
"You'll take yourself off this minute." roared Maurice in a fury, but Cullen merely looked at him with a sort of pitying contempt.
"Blow off steam all you like," he said, "but for your own sake you'd better not make too much row about it, or you'll rouse your servants." He took another cigarette from his case, tapped it on his finger nail, and lit it. It may have been that he was playing to the gallery, but Maurice did not think so. He felt that he was up against a man cruel and remorseless as Fate, and as was only natural the stronger won. Quite suddenly Maurice collapsed. "I'll do it," he said with a groan. "It's—it's rotten, but I can't help myself."
MILES had a queer feeling of unreality as he stood in the dock in the gloomy court at Exeter Castle. It was a dull day, and the only spot of colour in the whole crowded place was the crimson robe of Mr. Justice Colyton. A rather grim-looking old gentleman, Miles thought, and then his glance strayed to the face of his counsel. Bartlett had briefed Stark, one of the best of criminal counsel, but only two days earlier Stark had gone down with flu and Miles was not greatly impressed with the look of his junior, Alan Beddoes.
Yet Miles was not particularly anxious, for Bartlett had assured him that the verdict could not possibly go against him. Indeed, the solicitor had held out hope that the Grand Jury would throw out the case. A Grand Jury, he had explained, generally throw out one case simply in order to justify their existence, and Miles seemed the most likely on the list. But on this particular occasion the Grand Jury had chosen another case to throw out, and had returned a true bill in that of the Crown against Hedley.
The witnesses were, of course, the same as at the inquest, and the first to be called was Dr. Helmore, who gave formal evidence as to the cause of Vedder s death, and stated that the breaking of his neck had undoubtedly been caused by the fall, not the blow. He admitted, however, that the blow must have been a very heavy one. Then Maurice was called, and came forward. He looked terribly shaky when he got up into the box, and he answered the first question in so low a voice that the judge ordered him, rather sharply, to speak up. Walmsley, counsel for the prosecution, examined him pretty sharply, and made a point of the fact that Vedder had been acting in good faith, when he had made his accusation of cheating. He also questioned Maurice closely as to the details of the struggle. Maurice got so hot and confused that Miles began to wonder, rather grimly, if he was going to break down completely, and own up to the truth. But somehow he survived the ordeal and got safely out of the box. Miles put his agitation down to the fact that he knew he was lying, and thought no more of it. The one thing that puzzled him was the way in which Maurice avoided looking in his—Miles's direction. Time and again Miles tried to catch his eye, but in vain, and when his evidence was finished Miles was surprised to see his cousin leave the Court.
The next, indeed, the only other witness, was Jarman. Jarman was most correctly garbed in dark blue serge with a stiff white collar, and carried a pair of yellow gloves. He looked stouter and more pompous than ever. He was clearly conscious of the fact that he had the centre of the stage, and inclined to make the most of it. Miles watched him intently, for he realised that on his evidence, much more than Maurice's, the verdict would depend. Walmsley made him repeat his account of the quarrel he had overheard between Miles and Vedder over the matter of the trout.
"The quarrel, as far as you could hear, was a sharp one?" said Walmsley.
"Quite sharp, sir. Mr. Tavener had to interfere between them."
"When the three gentlemen came in to dinner, were they on good terms again?"
"Far from it," replied Jarman. "Mr. Vedder was scowling, Mr. Hedley was silent, and Mr. Tavener was uneasy."
"And after dinner what happened?"
"Mr. Hedley went out on the verandah. He and Mr. Vedder had not said a word to one another all dinner time."
"Then it seemed to you that there was still bad blood between them?"
"That was my impression, sir."
Miles's counsel opened his mouth as if to protest, but seemed to think better of it. Miles, himself, glanced at the jury and saw that they were listening eagerly. He felt that matters were not going any too well, but he was by no means prepared for what was to follow.
"I understand, Mr. Jarman," said Walmsley, "that you are no longer in the service of Mr. Tavener?"
"That is correct, sir." Jarman's heavy voice was suddenly bitter. "I was discharged."
"Did Mr. Tavener give any reason for discharging you?"
"Yes, sir. He was angry with me for mentioning at the inquest the quarrel about which I have just told you." The judge leaned forward and a rustle from the jury box was evidence of the interest of its occupants.
"But this is intimidation!" said Walmsley, in his deep-throated voice.
"There's more than that," said Jarman harshly, and putting his hand into the inner pocket of his coat, drew out an envelope.
"This reached me this morning. I'd like you to read what it says, sir." A police officer passed the envelope to Walmsley who took out the contents and exhibited first a bundle of Treasury notes, then a sheet of plain paper on which were some lines of typewritten matter. Walmsley counted the notes.
"Twenty-five pounds," he said. "Is that correct, Mr. Jarman?"
"That's it, sir, and now please read what's written."
The court had suddenly become amazingly still. Everyone was on the tiptoe of excitement as Walmsley addressed the judge.
"Shall I read this, my lord, or will you prefer to do so?"
"Read it, please, Mr. Walmsley," said the judge, and Walmsley bowed and obeyed.
"Enclosed are 25 pounds. If you have the good sense to keep your mouth shut about you know what, another 25 will reach you from the same source after the acquittal of Mr. Miles Hedley. From one who wishes well to both you and Mr. Hedley." Walmsley paused and looked at the judge.
"There's no address, my lord, no date, no signature." Mr. Justice Colyton's face, stern at any time, took on an expression that made it look as if cast in steel.
"I have never heard a more scandalous attempt to pervert the course of justice," he declared in a voice that matched his expression. "Every effort must be made to arrest and punish the person who has attempted to bribe this witness. And I will add here and now that Mr. Jarman has taken a very proper course in handing the letter to the court." Jarman beamed. You could almost imagine he was purring. But Miles, glancing at the dismayed face of Beddoes, felt his heart sink like lead. He realised instantly the effect these disclosures must have upon the jury, and how hopelessly they would prejudice the case against him.
BEDDOES'S speech for the defence was not his brightest effort. He was young and nervous. Jarman's evidence had upset him, and he did not speak like a counsel convinced of his client's innocence. Miles could see that the jury were not impressed, and the look on Bartlett's face did not improve his spirits, for the solicitor was clearly unhappy.
Beddoes talked, of course, of the provocation his client had received at the hands of Vedder, but he talked all round his point instead of going straight to it. His speech was much too long, and before it was finished the jury were clearly getting impatient. As for Mr. Justice Colyton, he sat with lips tightly compressed and an expression on his face which could only be described as grim. The one person in the court who looked thoroughly pleased was Jarman, and Miles could gladly have punched the complacent smile off his smug face, if that had been in any way possible.
Miles was thankful when Beddoes at last sat down. It was then Walmsley's turn to have the last word, but it was pretty good proof of his opinion of things that he contented himself with a few sarcastic sentences and was not on his feet for more than five minutes. It was not, however, until Colyton began to sum up that Miles realised how thoroughly Jarman had upset his apple cart. The judge seemed to be under the impression that Miles was responsible for the attempt to corrupt the court and treated him accordingly.
"Here," he said, "is a man who though English by birth, has lived for years in a country where law and order as we know it, hardly exist, and where human life is held with deplorable cheapness. The evidence goes to show that a serious quarrel took place between the prisoner and the deceased over a comparatively trivial matter, and that this happened some hours before the final tragedy. Maurice Tavener is the prisoner's cousin and may therefore be considered to have some bias in his favour, yet his evidence proves that the deceased was clearly under the impression that there was something wrong about the particular hand of cards over which the final quarrel took place. Nor does he deny that the accused struck Vedder with considerable violence." He paused a moment, sipped his glass of water, then fixed his eyes on Miles and went on again.
"The bare-faced attempt to corrupt the only witness for the prosecution, the butler, Jarman, seems to prove that friends of the accused greatly feared evidence. As I have already said, this abominable, but fortunately unsuccessful attempt, to interfere with the course of justice will be strictly inquired into and the offender, whoever he is, will be severely punished." He paused and his stern glance crossed to the jury box.
"Gentlemen of the jury, it is not possible to say that there was any premeditation in this killing, and it is your duty to remember that, according to the evidence of Maurice Tavener. Vedder struck the first blow. Yet a life has been sacrificed—and it may seem to you—wantonly sacrificed. You will now retire and consider your verdict." As the jury trooped out Miles looked again at Bartlett and saw a look of absolute consternation on his face.
"That's put the hat on it," he said to himself. "I'm going to earn Maurice's ten thousand." Then the warders took him below.
He had not long to wait, for in less than a quarter of an hour, he was summoned back to the dock, to listen to the verdict.
The foreman of the jury, a long, thin man with a skinny neck and a ready-made black tie, cleared his throat and announced that the jury were unanimous in finding Miles Hedley guilty of manslaughter.
Miles saw the judge nod. "A very correct verdict," he said in his cold, clear voice. "And under the circumstances I consider that the cause of justice will be served by a sentence which will make the prisoner realise that here in England he cannot act as in the wilds of South America. Miles Hedley, you will serve seven years' penal servitude."
Miles felt himself go rigid, his hands tightened on the rail of the dock. He wanted to speak—to protest against the injustice of such a savage sentence, but there was no time. Before he could find his voice the hand of his warder fell upon his arm and he found himself once more descending the stairs leading down to the cells below. A moment later the heavy door closed and he was left to himself.
He sat quite still, in a curiously dazed state. Seven years' penal servitude, and at the very worst he had not believed it possible that he would get more than twelve months' imprisonment. Seven years—no, not that much, for by perfect conduct he might win a remission of one-third of his sentence, yet even so, more than five years of his life were to be blotted out. He would spend them in a convict prison, mixing with the very dregs of humanity, a cypher, ordered here and there by his keepers. As the full realisation of his terrible plight forced itself upon him his head dropped forward and he buried his face in his hands.
BOLIVIA is a country of violent contrasts, for while part of it lies at such a height that its climate is absolutely arctic, its lower portions are purely tropical. In Pedral, the home town of Señor Juan Sanchez, which lies on the Eastern slopes of the Andes, at a height of about four thousand feet, the afternoon was decidedly warm and Sanchez himself, who had recently finished a large meal of stewed goat flesh, Lima beans and frijoles, was seated in a cane chair with his stout legs propped on an up-ended packing-case, smoking an evil-looking black cigar.
His plump hands were folded across his comfortable stomach, and the lids were beginning to close over his round black eyes when steps on the verandah outside aroused him. Not the shuffling steps of his fat wife, but quick, firm steps, which made him sit up sharply. A rap on the door, then without waiting for an answer, the newcomer was inside the large untidy room.
"You, Señor Cullen!" exclaimed Sanchez, scrambling to his feet in such a hurry that the packing-case fell over with a crash. "Bios, how you startled me! I believed you to be seven thousand miles away, in England."
"So I was less than a month ago," replied Cullen coolly. In spite of the heat and the long journey, Cullen was smart as usual. He wore a suit of pale grey flannels with tan shoes and a white felt hat, and his face and hair looked as if he had just left the barber's shop. His gold-rimmed eyeglass dangled at the end of a wide black riband.
"A month," repeated Sanchez, pushing a chair forward. "Caramba, but you must have travelled quickly."
"I did," drawled Cullen, as he seated himself, and lighted a cigarette. "Mail boat to Buenos Ayres, then train across to Africa and so over the mountains to Potosi. I rather think I have beaten the record. I hope I have at any rate."
"But what was the reason of such haste, Señor?"
"I was trying to beat the post," was the reply. "Tell me, has the European mail been delivered here during the past 48 hours?"
"No, Señor, but it is expected soon."
"I don't care how soon it's expected so long as it is not here yet," said Cullen, as he got up. "Have you two good mules, Sanchez?"
"I can procure them speedily," was the reply.
"Then do it. I'll explain as we ride."
Sanchez stumped out, shouting as he went, to Dolores, his fat wife, to bring a cool drink for the English señor, and ten minutes later returned with the mules. Cullen swung easily to the saddle. Sanchez scrambled panting to the back of his mule, and they started up a rough, narrow road which led into the mountains above the town.
"Pasarpa—that's where we are going," Cullen told Sanchez, and briefly explained the situation. "Hedley's safe in quod—prison," he said.
"Hedley in prison!" cried Sanchez in great excitement. "But what fortune!"
"No fortune about it," retorted the other. "I put him there. And don't interrupt until I have finished. The trouble is that Hedley got money for the mine before he was jugged, and sent the draft straight out to Drake. Once Drake gets the cash there is, of course, no chance of his selling, but it struck me that, if I could get here before Hedley's letter reached him, tell him that Hedley had failed, and make him a fair offer, he'd probably part."
"But, of course, you are right." Sanchez fairly gabbled in his eagerness. "If you have the money he will sell of a surety."
"I've got the money, all right," said Cullen drily. "I'm prepared to offer five thousand pounds, English."
"It is a great sum," said Sanchez with a sort of awe.
"A flea-bite compared with what we shall get out of the mine, once it's in our hands. Push on that beast of yours. I don't want to run any risks."
Sanchez stuck in his long-rowelled spurs and the mules broke into a canter. As they rounded the next corner Cullen's beast, which was leading, suddenly stopped and stood trembling.
"What the devil—?" began Cullen, then as a deep, droning sound came echoing down the mountain side he looked quickly upwards. "An aeroplane!" he exclaimed. "And the first I ever saw in this country? Whose is it, Sanchez?"
"An American," said Sanchez sullenly. "Captain Scorson he is called." Cullen glanced shrewdly at his stout companion.
"You don't seem to like the gentleman, Sanchez."
Sanchez spat. "He is no gentleman," he retorted. "He is an American pig."
"What's he been doing to you?" questioned Cullen. "He have insulted me in my own office," shrilled Sanchez. His English, usually quite good, suffered when he grew excited. A ghost of a smile crossed Cullen's thin lips.
"But what's he doing with that 'plane?" he inquired.
"He say he use it for the prospecting," was the answer, "but I think he is a spy."
Cullen said no more but watched the machine till it vanished, like a silver bird, over the mountain top. Then he spurred his mule forward. They crossed the ridge and came down into a small valley. On the slope opposite was the dark opening of a tunnel and below it a mass of rubble. On a ledge to the left stood a neat, little house built of wood. Roses bloomed on the posts of the verandah, and there were beds of stocks and other English flowers growing in front. Seen against the barren hill front, the colour and brightness of the little place was almost startling.
The two rode on rapidly, and as they pulled up at the gate of the bungalow a man came out of the front door. John Drake was of middle age and middle height. He was of a type they call stuggy down in Devonshire, and the muscles of his bare arms were gnarled and powerful. His eyes which showed startlingly blue in a face darkened by years of tropical sun and storm, widened a little at sight of his visitors, but there was no sign of pleasure on his face as he came slowly forward to meet them.
Sanchez introduced Cullen, and Drake asked them in and offered drinks.
"Wonderful what you've done here, Mr. Drake," said Cullen. "It might be a bit of Devonshire."
"You know Devonshire?" asked Drake.
"I left it barely a month ago," smiled Cullen. An eager look crossed John Drake's face. Like all Devonshire men, he loved his country, but all he said was: "You've travelled quickly, Mr. Cullen."
"Yes, I was in a hurry," Cullen agreed. "I'm going to be quite frank, Mr. Drake. While I was in Devonshire I met your partner, Mr. Hedley. He was staying with his cousin, Maurice Tavener, who is a friend of mine. In course of conversation he mentioned that he had been trying to raise money to develop your mine, but had failed to do so. He said that there was nothing left but to sell the property. Details he gave made me believe the mine would be worth floating as a company, and since that is my business, I came straight out with the idea of looking it over and, if it is as good as he says, making you an offer." John Drake's lips tightened.
"Then Tavener has turned him down?"
Cullen nodded. "Maurice has got so much money already, I suppose he does not care to make any more," he said. "Here is a note he wrote me telling me that he did not intend to invest."
Drake read it and handed it back. "Then there is nothing for it but to sell," he said heavily. "But let me tell you, Mr. Cullen, that I do not mean to let it go for a song. Señor Sanchez has offered two thousand pounds, but such a price is absurd. There is a fortune here in this valley for anyone with capital."
"May I see the mine?" asked Cullen, and Drake nodded and led the way. The mouth of the adit was only a few hundred yards from the house. Arrived there, Drake lighted a lantern and led the way into the tunnel, and the others followed. No work was going on, for Drake's money was exhausted and he could not pay for labour. Cullen's examination was brief and business-like, and when it was finished the three returned to the house.
"There is certainly gold there," said Cullen, "but the rock is difficult and a considerable capital will be necessary to develop the mine. However, I am willing to take the risk, and I offer you four thousand pounds, Mr. Drake, for all your rights."
Drake shook his head. "Not enough," he said curtly. Cullen looked at him.
"Five then," he said quietly, "and that is my limit."
Drake hesitated. He realised that Cullen meant what he said and five thousand was enough to give him and Stella and Miles a fresh start. But there was Miles himself to be considered.
"You must wait until the mail arrives from England, Mr. Cullen," he said. "I must know definitely from Hedley to sell." Cullen shook his head.
"I can't wait Mr. Drake. I have another proposition to see at Cochabamba and shall leave here to-night. I must have your decision at once."
A worried look crossed Drake's face. No one knew better than he the difficulty of selling a gold mine in so remote a place as this, and if he refused Cullen's offer he might never get another so good. His lips opened, he was on the point of accepting when the door was flung open and a girl stepped lightly in. She was glowing with excitement. "Daddy, it's come!" she cried as she waved a letter. Then she saw Cullen and stopped abruptly.
"A LETTER from Miles!" exclaimed her father, then he remembered his manners.
"My daughter, Mr. Cullen." Cullen bowed, so did Sanchez, only more deeply, and Stella nodded. Her eyes were as blue as her father's and in some miraculous way she had kept her complexion of roses and cream. Only a freckle or two showed the effect of the southern sun. Her hair was brown with a touch of gold and with her straight nose, firm chin, and level, almost boyish, gaze, she made a most attractive picture.
"What does Miles say?" asked her father eagerly.
"He's got the money." Stella told him. "We're all right, Daddy. No need to worry any more." Drake turned to Cullen.
"You said he had failed."
"So he had up to the time I met him." Whatever Cullen felt of anger or disappointment, not a muscle of his face betrayed it. He smiled and went on. "Of course, I am disappointed, but not too much so, for I dare say the Cochabamba prospect may prove equally suitable for my purpose. Anyhow, I congratulate you on Mr. Hedley's success." He turned to Stella. "I take it, then, that the English mail is in?"
"It has not reached Pedral yet," Stella answered. "I rode down to the railhead at San Juan yesterday. It came in this morning and Captain Scorson brought me back in his 'plane."
Cullen still smiled. "Then I will leave you to your letter," he said politely. "Come, Sanchez." Drake went out with them and saw them off, and they rode in silence until a bend of the trail hid the bungalow, then Cullen spoke.
"Missed it by a minute," he remarked drily. "Another sixty seconds and I'd have had Drake's signature to the bill of sale." Sanchez's fat face was a picture of misery.
"It is terrible," he moaned. Cullen's lip curled.
"No need to make such a song about it. It's only a matter of time. I'll have that mine yet, and"—he grinned evilly—"that blue-eyed chit as well." Sanchez refused to be comforted.
"How can you have the mine now that Drake has the money, for now he will not sell at any price." Cullen grinned again.
"There are more ways of killing a cat than choking it. Land titles are none too sound in this country, and the Alcade at San Juan is my very good friend. A couple of thousand dollars in the right hands, and—" he chuckled again. Then he pulled up his mule, "There's the 'plane," he said, pointing to an open space at the bottom of the valley, where the machine lay. "And Scorson with it. Come on down. Sanchez. I want to have a look at this Yankee friend of yours."
"He is no friend of mine," protested Sanchez. "I do not wish to see him." But Cullen was already riding down the slope and the fat man had to follow.
Jay Scorson, busy cleaning his sparking plugs, looked up as the pair approached. He was tall, lean, sandy-haired, and entirely competent. There was a look of amused contempt in his keen grey eyes as they rested on Sanchez.
"Good morning, sir," said Cullen. "You'll forgive my curiosity, but this is the first 'plane I've seen in these parts." Scorson turned a slow glance on Cullen.
"That so?" he asked quietly. For once Cullen felt an odd and unusual touch of discomfort, but he was accustomed to bluffing it out.
"My name is Cullen," he said. "I am a mining engineer and I have been talking to Mr. Drake, with the idea of purchasing an interest in his prospect here. He won't sell, so I wish to get back to railhead as soon as possible. I was wondering if you were going that way."
Scorson paused before replying, and Cullen wondered irritably what the airman had in his mind. At last Scorson spoke. "I shall be pleased to give you a lift, I am going right back as soon as I can put in these plugs." Cullen thanked him, then turned to Sanchez. "You take back the mules, Sanchez, and I'll let you know about the Cochabamba prospect as soon as I've seen it. Adios."
Sanchez mumbled something and went. It was plain he was only too glad to get away. Scorson replaced his last plug then took a packet from the 'plane. "Guess you'd better wear a 'chute," he said. "Know how to work it?"
"I've worn one before," Cullen told him as he strapped the parachute on to his back. Scorson climbed into the cockpit and adjusted his earphones, then started the engine. Next moment the sturdy little biplane was off the ground, and climbing towards the saw-toothed ranges lying to the south. Fifteen minutes later Cullen spoke.
"This ain't the way to San Juan," he said sharply.
"We ain't going to San Juan—at least you ain't," was the staggering reply. Cullen's hand flew to his pocket, but at the same instant Scorson put the stick forward and the 'plane nosed down. The mountains far below seemed to leap up for a moment and the trees to fall tipsily off the earth The machine stood on its tail, then went over in a complete loop. When it came right side up Scorson glanced over the side. Far below a white mushroom was swaying downwards towards a desolate valley. A slow smile parted the pilot's lips, "That'll learn him," he said softly.
CULLEN, decanted into space out of the looping 'plane, was at first too scared to think of anything but his own safety. He plucked at the release cord, and next moment there came a jerk which made him feel loose at the knees, but the frightful speed of his fall was instantly checked, and he found himself swaying slightly under the broad, silken expanse of his parachute, and dropping at a comparatively slow pace towards the valley beneath. He distinctly heard the roar of the 'plane as it shot away, but did not look up for all his thoughts were concentrated on reaching the ground in safety.
An experienced "jumper" can to some extent, control the direction of a parachute in the air, but this was Cullen's first descent, and he had to take his chance. Nor was Dame Fortune kind for he landed, not on the ground, but in the spreading summit of a low, close-branched tree. It was a bullock-horn acacia, whose every twig was armed with ugly, hooked thorns which tore his skin as well as his clothes. Somehow he shook himself free of his harness and climbed slowly and painfully to the ground, but when he reached it his best friend—if he had ever owned one—would never have recognised him as Dandy Cullen, for his silver-grey flannels were in rags and blood flowed freely from ugly punctures in his hands, arms and face.
He looked up again but the sky was empty. For once this self-contained swindler lost his temper, he shook his clenched fist at the unseeing sky and a string of lurid oaths poured from his lips. This did not last long for Clem Cullen was too wise to waste time in futile blasphemy. A stream ran through the bottom of the valley and, reaching it, he bathed his wounds, drank, then seated himself on a rock to take stock of the situation.
The valley into which he had dropped was a mere pocket in the hills and was quite uninhabited. Cullen reckoned that he was anywhere between 20 and 30 miles from Pedral and realised that a range of hills from two to three thousand feet high lay between him and the village. A stiff task to get there afoot before sundown, yet one that had to be faced, unless he wished to spend a night without food or shelter, so, after getting his bearing as well as he could, he took a second drink and started.
There was no path and the lower slopes of the hill were covered with thick trees. The heat was intense and the travelling about as bad as could be, but Cullen kept on steadily, consoling himself for his suffering by thoughts of what he would do to Scorson when they next met. By the time he reached the top of the mountain this amusement had paled; indeed Cullen had begun to wonder whether he would ever meet the pilot again—or anyone else—for now he realised that there was a second range of hills between him and Pedral, and that it was flatly out of the question to cross this before nightfall.
A tinge of fear began to creep into his mind. Expert as he was in the underworld of man, he knew little of the jungle which surrounded him, but was aware that unpleasant beasts of prey, such as panthers abounded in it, also that to sleep in the woods without the protection of a mosquito curtain meant the certainty of a bad dose of fever.
His keen eyes, roving across the vast stretches of forest and mountain which surrounded him, fell upon a small open space far below. It looked like a clearing, and, since a clearing seemed to indicate the presence of man, he started down in that direction. Dusk was falling when at last he reached it, to find that it was indeed a clearing made by man. In the centre of which stood a good-sized hut, a native hut built of canes interlaced and covered with a bee-hived roof of thatch. A poor place, but at any rate it offered shelter which was all the more welcome because the sky was darkening and thunder beginning to rumble over the heights.
Cullen approached the hut cautiously. It seemed deserted, but when he reached it he was surprised to find that, though it was empty, someone had been there lately. A small cast-iron stove had fresh embers in it, and in a meat safe made of an old packing-case fronted with wire gauze was some cooked meat and a quantity of tortillas, or maize cakes. An earthenware jar half full of fresh water hung from the roof.
"Luck, at last," said Cullen briefly as he opened the safe and examined its contents. They were quite fresh, and since meat keeps but a few hours in this hot climate it was plain that it had been cooked no longer ago than the previous night. With the caution native to him, Cullen went out and looked round in every direction, but since there was no sign of life he returned and got out the food. He was as hungry as he had ever been in his life, and the plain fare tasted delicious.
While he ate he wondered what best to do. The stove argued that this hut was inhabited, not by Indians, but by white men, yet this was an odd place for white men. While he considered, the darkness deepened, then suddenly came a blaze of lightning, a rending crash of thunder, and in an instant down fell the rain with a roar like that of a cataract. He went to the door and looked out.
"No travelling in that," he remarked with a shrug, "and so long as it lasts I'm safe enough here." There was a bed of dried grass in the corner, covered with a rough horse blanket. He stretched himself on it and lit one of his few remaining cigarettes. The rain fell with a steady thunder of sound, and he could hear a stream below rising with growling flood. He was very tired and every muscle ached. He took off his shoes and bathed his sore and swollen feet. Then he lay down again and began to think. To-morrow he would easily reach Pedral. He would take up his quarters with Sanchez and begin his campaign against the Drakes. He had his money safe about him, and it would be merely a matter of time to distribute part of it in the right direction. Then the title to Drake's property would be condemned, and he would be able to buy up the mine at the State sale. "And as for that Yank, I'll find means of settling with him," he said softly to himself. "I'll lay he won't be doing much flying this day six months—not unless he grows wings," he added, with a cruel sneer. He had not meant to sleep, but his will power was drugged with fatigue, and all in a moment his eyes closed, and his dreams of revenge faded.
How long he slept he had not the faintest idea. What roused him was a sound of footsteps stumbling into the hut. Then a hoarse voice growled something in Spanish, and before Cullen could even sit up an electric torch flashed in his face.
Cullen sprang up and his hand flashed to the hip pocket in which he kept his automatic. Before he could draw it some object struck him in the face, knocking him flat and half stunning him. Then a heavy body fell on top of him, he was rolled ever and someone, who was evidently an expert at the job, tied his wrists behind his back, and then his ankles.
WHEN he came to himself, the hut was lighted by a paraffin lamp and a fire cracked in the stove. Three men sat round the stove. One was making coffee in an iron pot, the other two were eating greedily. Accustomed as he was to the queer characters of the underworld, Cullen realised that he had never seen three harder looking faces. He judged these men to be half-castes, partly Spanish, partly Indian, and their looks made him fairly shiver. One who seemed to be the leader was a giant who would have been handsome only that one eye had gone, leaving a ghastly blank. They talked together in low voices paying no particular attention to their prisoner.
Cullen tried to move but found it impossible. He lay quiet and waited. His pistol had gone and he was more afraid than he had ever been in his life. When the men had finished their food the leader turned and looked at Cullen.
"Who are you?" he asked, but Cullen, though he knew Spanish, pretended not to understand. The big man rose, picked up Cullen as easily as if he had been a child and began to go through his pockets. Almost the first thing that he found was his pocket book. Only a smart part of Cullen's money was in notes, but the sight of these made the giant's one eye beam. The rest was in a letter of credit on a bank at San Juan.
This paper the man unfolded and studied it carefully, and Cullen prayed he might not understand what it was. Apparently he was doubtful, for he handed it to one of his companions.
"Here, Pedro," he said. "What is this?"
Cullen watching breathlessly saw Pedro's face light up.
"It is a letter of credit, a sort of cheque," he explained to the others. "It is to be turned into money at the bank at San Juan."
"But how much is it for, blockhead?" demanded the leader.
"For five thousand pounds English," announced the other. "Twenty-five thousand pesos."
"Madre de Bios!" exclaimed the giant. "I did not know there was so much money in the world. We are made for life."
"But it is of no use unless it is signed," explained Pedro. "The Gringo must sign it before it can be turned into money."
"The Gringo will sign it," said the leader, turning his one eye upon Cullen, and the glare in it made Cullen shiver. "The Gringo will sign it, and at once." He plucked Cullen's fountain pen from his pocket, and proceeded to cut the lashings from his wrists. Cullen's thin lips tightened. "I'll see you damned first!" he answered in English. The big man turned to Pedro.
"Put the iron in the fire," he ordered briefly, and Pedro obeyed. In spite of the sultry air Cullen shivered. There was silence while the iron heated, then it was brought out red and glowing. Cullen was tied again and held by the other two. The iron grasped in the big man's hand approached the soles of his bare feet. It was enough.
"Curse you!" he snarled in Spanish. "I'll sign—but only," he added, "if you give me your word to let me go." The big man smiled.
"Your life is nothing to us," he said with a sneer. "You will stay here until we get the money. Afterwards you can go when and where you like."
For three unpleasant days Cullen remained prisoner in the hut before Pedro, who had been sent to San Juan, returned with a huge bundle of notes. The money was shared among the gang, then Cullen was conducted to the top of the further hill and turned loose.
Late that afternoon he arrived footsore and hungry at Sanchez's house in Pedral, and told the fat man the story of his adventures The horror and dismay on Sanchez's face would have made Cullen laugh if he had had a laugh left in him.
"All the money gone?" gasped Sanchez. "But we are ruined!"
"Don't be a fool!" returned Cullen rudely. "I'm never ruined so long as Maurice Tavener is alive. Give me pen and paper."
ALONG the side of a huge slope of hill a score of men worked with picks and shovels. They were roughly clad in boots and breeches and cotton shirts and were digging a broad, deep ditch around the lower part of the great hill. It was a "leat" meant to bring water into Princetown from the source of a small stream.
At first sight there was little to suggest that these were anything but ordinary workmen, only two blue-clad warders were in charge of the party. It was not until you looked up the hill and down, and saw half-a-dozen civil guards mounted on sturdy ponies and armed with carbines, posted in a wide circle, that you realised the fact that the workers were prisoners.
The prison itself was out of sight, hidden by an intervening tor, and the great stretch of moorland, purple with heather, lay bathed in the golden sunshine of a perfect summer afternoon.
Bees hummed through the warm air, tit-larks fluttered among the gorse, overhead a flight of plover showed black and white alternately as they wheeled.
Miles Hedley ceased digging a moment and looked up at the birds. The man next to him, a shrivelled little fellow with face brown as a berry and small bright eyes saw the look of longing on his face.
"Wishing you was up along with them there peewits," he remarked. Though his voice came clearly to Miles's ears, his lips did not move. Bill Sweet, known to his mates as "Sweet William." was an old lag who had long ago become expert in the strange silent language of the prison.
"I'd trade places with a bee, let alone a bird," replied Miles bitterly, as he stuck his spade again into the peaty soil. "Sometimes I feel as if I'd give the rest of my life for one day's freedom."
"Come now, matey, it ain't that bad," said the little man kindly. "Prison's a deal better'n it used to be. If you'd been in here 30 years ago, you'd have had something to grouse about. In them days you was always hungry, the screws was brutes, and you was worked nigh to death. They treats you a sight better these days."
Miles's lips tightened. "It isn't the treatment. It's the loss of liberty. You're not a man, just a number. And the monotony. Day after day, each just like the last, and all the days stretching away before one, hundreds and hundreds of them."
Sweet William nodded understandingly. "I know. I used to feel like that myself. Once I went batty and tried to beat up a screw and got bashed. But I got over it, and so will you."
"I shall go mad first," said Miles in a low, fierce voice, "or run."
"Don't you do it." In his way Bill liked this young toff who worked alongside him and was always nice-spoken and ready to give him a hand in shifting a big stone. "Don't you do it," he repeated urgently. "No one ever did a bunk from the Moor yet and got away with it. And any bloke as tries it never gets another chance. They keeps him inside the wall for the rest of his stretch and puts leg irons on him for six month. You'd lose your remission as well."
"Less talking there." Warder Conley had come up without their noticing, and his stern order cut short the conversation. For a while the two dug in silence, then Conley's voice was heard again, ordering two men to go up the hill and shift a big stone which was wanted to work into the lower bank of the leat. Miles paid no particular attention for he and Sweet were busy tying to lever out a large chunk of granite which they had encountered sunk in the peaty soil. All of a sudden there was a loud shout of warning.
"Look out! Clear out, you men!" and glancing up Miles saw that the big rock, which weighed at least a couple of tons, had broken loose from the control of the men moving it and was coming straight down upon the spot where he and Sweet were working.
"Quick, Bill," he cried as he sprang out of the trench. In his hurry Bill slipped and catching his shin against the stone which he and Miles had been moving, sprawled face foremost in the muddy bottom of the cut.
Miles never stopped to think. With one jump he was back and had grabbed Bill. There was no time to get out of the leat again. With a violent effort he raised the little man in both arms and flung him to one side like a sack of coal. Like a flash he turned to follow but was just too late. The great rock crashed upon him and he disappeared beneath it.
When Miles came to his senses he was lying in a comfortable bed in a lofty place which he vaguely recognized as the prison hospital, known to lags as "The Farm." He tried to move but the effort brought a groan of pain. His whole back was one vast ache, and his left leg was equally painful.
"He's come to, sir," he heard an orderly whisper, and next moment saw the ruddy face of Dr. Callum bending over him.
"How do ye feel, Hedley?"
"A bit sore, sir," replied Miles trying to smile.
"That's no' wonderful. Not after lying under two tons of granite rock. Man, but they had a job to dig ye oot."
"So I was under it," said Miles slowly "I don t quite see how I got out alive."
"It was the depth of the leat and the size of the rock saved ye. There was just space for ye to lie beneath it."
"How much am I damaged?" Miles asked.
"One rib broke and your left ankle sprained. Barring bruises, I can find nothing else the matter with ye, and ye will be as good as new in less than a month. And now I'll give ye something to make ye sleep." He poured a draught cut.
"Is Sweet all right, sir," Miles asked, as he swallowed it.
"Aye, thanks to you. It was a smart bit of work, Hedley, and I'll see ye don't lose by it."
Miles slept and woke still stiff, but in less pain. Within a couple of days he was much better, but they kept him in bed for a fortnight and in hospital for a month. That month was heaven to Miles, not so much on account of the pleasant surroundings and good food but because for once he was away from his usual associates and had the company of educated men. The Governor and the Chaplain both came to see him every day, and Callum would often spend a whole half-hour chatting with him, and he and the rough Scotch doctor became excellent friends. The old fellow was very kind to Miles.
"I'll get ye a job in the book-shop, if ye want it, Hedley," he told him one day. "It's a long sight easier than working out on the Bogs."
"I couldn't stand indoor work, sir," he said. "I should go all to pieces."
"Maybe you're right," was the answer. "Ye've a fine body, Hedley, and it's sound again as I can make it. Ye will have to go out next Monday."
That was Friday. On Saturday morning a letter came for Miles. During his first six months in prison a convict is allowed only two letters. This was the second that Miles had received. It had been opened, of course. All letters in and out of a prison are censored by the Governor or his Deputy. That was one of the things that galled Miles most bitterly. But the sight of Stella's writing on the envelope made him forget his annoyance, and he unfolded it eagerly.
Stella began by giving him all the news of Pasarpa. She told him that the mine had been opened up and that the vein was even richer than they had supposed.
"We are getting out more than two hundred pounds worth of ore a week, and half that is clear profit, Dad says."
Then she went on with the story of Clement Cullen and how Jay Scorson had tipped him out into the wilderness, and how he had been robbed. "Cullen is a friend of that unpleasant person, Sanchez," she wrote, "and Dad says he is a crook, and we both wish he would leave Bolivia. He says he is a friend of your cousin, Maurice Tavener, but I do not believe it for a moment."
"Cullen—I wonder who he is," said Miles to himself, then went on with the letter. It was the last sheet that arrested his attention.
"Why don't you write?" Stella questioned, "We have only had one letter from you in six months. And what is this mysterious work which you have taken up in England? Dad and I are wondering what you want with a job over there when there is so much to do here? We want you, Miles—we went you badly, and if you don't come soon I shall think of packing up and starting in search of you." Miles dropped the letter.
"Good God!" he muttered in dismay, "I never thought of that."
MAURICE sat in the smoking-room of his London flat, frowning over his pass book which he received from the manager of his bank with a polite note to the effect that his account was heavily overdrawn. Even so rich a man as Maurice Tavener cannot pay away such a sum as sixteen thousand pounds without feeling the pinch. Eleven thousand had gone to Miles and five to Cullen, and these amounts added to a large cheque which he had been forced to give to Vedder a few weeks before his death, had made away with the greater part of a year's income.
With a muttered oath Maurice took off the receiver of the telephone which stood beside him on his big, flat-topped writing table and called up his broker. A long delay in getting him did not improve his temper and it was in a way very irritable tone that Maurice inquired what stocks would be best to sell to raise a sum of ten thousand pounds.
"You couldn't choose a worst time to sell," was the discouraging reply. "Everything is down in the depths. Can't you leave it for a few weeks? It would pay you better to raise a loan than to let stocks go for almost two-thirds of their value."
"Can you raise the loan for me?"
"Your broker will do it," was the reply.
Maurice swore again as he hung up. His head ached, he was not feeling well this morning. The last thing he wanted to do was to go down to the bank. The door opened quietly, and Macey, the man who had succeeded Jarman as Maurice's personal servant, came in.
"Letters, sir," he said in his quiet, well-trained voice, and laid them beside Maurice on the table. Maurice scowled as he looked through them. Bills, advertisements, a statement from his bookmaker, there were only two that looked as if they mattered. One proved to be an invitation, the other had a foreign stamp, and the address was in a handwriting strange to Maurice. He ripped it open and unfolded a sheet of thin paper of very poor quality. The address gave Maurice a shock. "c/o Señor Sanchez, Pedral, Del Norte, Bolivia, South America."
"Why it's that swine Cullen," he explained. "What the devil does he want?"
It did not take long to find out. Briefly but clearly Cullen intimated that he had fallen among thieves and had been robbed of the whole of his five thousand and requested that his kind friend would send him a draft for a similar sum by return post.
The burst of furious blasphemy that issued from Maurice's lips would have been listened to with awe and envy by a bargee. It was at least five minute before he calmed down, then he lay back in his chair with his face still purple and his eyes bloodshot with sheer fury.
"Five thousand! Does he think I'm made of money? I'll be damned If he shall have another job," he said savagely, and seizing a sheet or paper and a pen he began to put his decision into the shape of a letter. Before he had finished doubts assailed him. He got up and walked about the room, frowning and muttering to himself. Then he picked up Cullen's letter and read it a second time.
"He's six thousand miles away, and seemingly stony," he said half aloud. "And he'll wait for at least a month for my reply before he does anything. Well, let him wait. Let the swine stew." Having come to this decision he tore his own letter to Cullen into small pieces and threw the pieces into the waste-paper basket, then he locked Cullen's latter away and rang. When Macey came he ordered the car and drove down to the bank.
Afterwards he went to his club where he had a number of cocktails and made a poor attempt at lunching. Then he played bridge—played very badly and lost heavily. His partner got sick of it, the game broke up and Maurice went into the smoking-room, flung himself in a long chair and picked up an evening paper. But he did not read, for all the time he was thinking of Cullen and more particularly of the hold that Vedder's successor had over him. If that story ever came out—. He shivered as he thought of the consequences. It would be ruin—social if not financial. He would have to change his name, and bury himself somewhere in Australia or South Africa. Unconsciously he groaned, and suddenly he heard a voice.
"Hulloa, T-Tavener, g-got a pain?" It was little Dicky Linthorpe, as kindly and decent a chap as ever lived. Even the selfish Maurice could not help liking him.
"Just bored," he said hastily.
"Y-You look it," agreed Linthorpe. "T-Tell you what, Tavener. Th-there's a F-flagon Club show on to-night, L-like to come?"
The Flagon club had only twenty members and numbered some of the brightest spirits in London. Imitations were hard to come by, and Maurice accepted with something like gratitude. For a few hours he would be able to forget his troubles. He went home, had a bath, and changed, and sharp at seven-thirty joined Linthorpe at the Soho restaurant where the dinner was to be held.
Including guests, there were about thirty men present, and Maurice recognised several well-known actors, three novelists, a famous conjurer, a tall, stooping man, who was one of the best living 'cellists, and a famous war corespondent, who was just back from Manchuria. Maurice sat next to Dicky, who pointed out the celebrities, and Maurice found himself talking to the war corespondent, who sat on his other side. For the moment he had almost forgotten Cullen.
Suddenly the word "Bolivia" made him start. A man sitting exactly opposite, a long, lean fellow with sandy hair and keen grey eyes, was speaking across to Dicky.
"GOOD country, you bet," he said with a smile. "Bolivia ain't what you might call ideal for flying, and I reckon I'm about the first chap who ever used a 'plane there. But I had a real good time. There's a lot of English folk there, mining and farming. I stayed with a Devonshire man named Drake and his daughter, and they were mighty good to me."
Dicky, always a whale for information, asked all sorts of questions, and Maurice listened eagerly to Scorson's replies. Presently he nudged Dicky.
"Who's your Bolivian friend?" he whispered.
"Jay Scorson," replied Dicky, in an equally low voice. "The American airman. The first to fly over the Andes from Chile into Bolivia. I'll introduce you if you like." He did so, but it was not until dinner was over that Maurice managed to get Scorson to himself.
"I come from Devonshire myself," he explained, "and I know the Drakes. How are they doing?"
"Fine," Scorson told him. "They've got a real Bonanza. They'll be millionaires in a few years, and I'm right glad of it, for Drake's a good fellow, and his daughter, Stella, as sweet a girl as you'd meet."
Maurice hesitated, but decided to risk it.
"Did you ever hear anything of a man named Cullen in those parts, Captain Scorson?"
"Cullen," repeated Scorson, giving Maurice a keen look. "Not a friend of yours, is he?"
"Far from it," said Maurice. "He is a man whom I dislike extremely and whom I strongly suspect of being a crook. But I have had some business dealings with him." Scorson's lip curled.
"He a crook all right. He tried to run a bluff on me, but I saw him and raised him."
"Tell me," said Maurice, trying hard to conceal his excitement.
"He wanted to cadge a lift in my ship from Pasarpa to San Juan. He'd never seen me, but I spotted him the minute I set eyes on him for the fellow who did down poor Lee Fuller—" He broke off short as Maurice made a queer, gasping sound.
"What's the matter, Tavener?"
"N-nothing," replied Maurice hoarsely. "At least it's only a twinge of pain in my side." Scorson got up hastily and poured some brandy from a decanter.
"Drink this," he said. "You look real bad." Maurice drank and thanked him.
"I'm all right now. Go on, please. I'm awfully interested. Scorson looked doubtful.
"Hadn't you better go home?"
"There's nothing the matter," Maurice assured him. "It's only a stitch. Tell me about Cullen."
"There ain't a lot to tell. I reckoned to give him a lesson, so I took him up, and when I got a good way out I just dumped him." Maurice stared.
Scorson laughed. "No, fixed a 'chute on him, and he got down all right. At least he didn't, for he stuck in a thorn bush and I guess he cussed some before he crawled out."
"And what happened to him?" Maurice's eagerness puzzled Scorson.
"He got back to Pedral about a week later. He'd been through the mill all right for Bolardo's gang had skinned him."
"That's what I said. They'd left him his clothes and nothing else."
"And what is he doing now?"
"When I left he was living with a dago named Sanchez and waiting for funds from home." Maurice laughed, but it was a queer, forced laugh.
"Topping!" he said. "I wish I'd been there to see."
"You don't seem to like him?" said Scorson drily.
"I don't. He swindled me just as he did your friend—what did you say his name was?"
"Lee Fuller. Lee was one of the best, but a fool about money. Trouble was he came into a million when he was nothing but a kid, and every wolf on two legs preyed on him." There was a slight pause, then Maurice spoke again. "I hope he has learned better by this time."
"Probably he has," said Scorson quietly. "He was drowned six weeks ago—yachting on Lake Michigan."
This time there was no doubt about Maurice's collapse. He dropped back in his chair with his eyes shut and his face the colour of lead, and Scorson jumped up in a hurry. A doctor was sent for, and when Maurice came round he found himself on a couch in an ante-room with Dicky and the doctor standing by.
"What happened?" he asked vaguely.
"You fainted," explained the doctor. "Your heart's not as good as it might be, and you'd better stay in bed for a couple of days. After that if you'll take my advice you will get out of London."
"Right you are!" promised Maurice. "And I'm awfully sorry I was such a fool, Dicky. Get a taxi, will you, and I'll go straight home." Dicky went with him and handed him over to Macey, who put him to bed.
Macey was puzzled. For days past his master's temper had been simply fiendish, yet now all of a sudden he was quite pleasant.
"Must think he's going to die," said the valet to his wife, when he joined her later. But Maurice himself had no thought of dying; on the contrary he meant to live much more happily than in the past for the news which Scorson had given him was the best that had come his way for many a long day. Not the news about Cullen, though that was good, so far as it went. It was the death of Lee Fuller which made all the difference, and removed the haunting fear which for years had poisoned his whole life.
Fuller was the man whose name Maurice had forged to a cheque, in the days before his own money came to him. Vedder had discovered the crime, and the threat he had held over Maurice's head was that of informing Fuller of the forgery, Now that Fuller was dead the danger was over, and Cullen helpless. Maurice, lying comfortably between the linen sheets, chuckled as he thought it all over.
"I'm free at last," he said to himself, "and Cullen can burn in Hades far all I care. What did the doctor say—go out of London. All right—I'll go down to Foxenholt ask a party for the shooting. And—and I'll chuck the drink," with which good resolution he closed his eyes, and slept more peaceably than for many a night past.
GUN on shoulder, Maurice tramped up the steep side of Ghost Tor. At this height the autumn wind blew cold, but Maurice did not seem to feel it. He was brown and fit, a very different-looking man from the whisky-sodden wreak of a couple of months earlier. Health after all is more a matter of mind than body, and the lifting of the nightmare of Cullen's blackmail had done more for Maurice than any doctor could have done.
All these weeks he had been at Foxenholt. He had had some men down for the partridge shooting, which had been very good. They had just left, and he himself was meaning to leave in a few days and go to Paris. Meantime he was amusing himself with some rough shooting, and on this particular afternoon was in search of a big flight of golden plover which Asa Redmire, his keeper, had told him were on the high moor.
Golden plover are shy birds, but they are delicious eating, and Maurice was very keen on getting a shot at them. Usually he took the keeper with him, but to-day Redmire was laid up with a damaged foot so Maurice was alone. He had not even a dog with him. In any case a dog is useless in the matter of finding plover which go in great flights and haunt the highest, loneliest parts of the Moor.
Maurice came out on the bleak summit of the Tor, but there was no sign of the birds. It was plain that they must have cleaned off. He hesitated, for his mind was divided between a desire to go further in search of the plover and the thought of a good fire, tea and buttered toast. In the end he compromised and decided to go down the far side of the Tor and try to pick up a couple of snipe along the bog which lay in the fold of the hills.
It was a wild piece of country, and, as he came down towards the mire, the low rays of the setting sun shone on a vast expanse of black, peaty mud, mingled with pools of dark water. Tall reeds and long, dry grass rustled in the chill wind, the whole place had an utterly desolate appearance. But to Maurice it was all so familiar that the gloomy view had no effect upon him, and he strode on down the slope amid tufts of heather and lichen-clad boulders of granite until he reached the upper edge of the curious ravine known to the Moor men as The Devil's Dish-pan.
This was a deep cut in the hillside with steep sides of soft, black, greasy peat. The Moor men said that it was where some of the ancient folk had opened a mine, but the real cause had more likely been a cloudburst, which had broken against the great hill and washed out the soft soil. Its upper end was sheer, the lower opened on the quaking bog.
As he neared the edge a snipe got up and went away with its twisting flight, like a dead leaf fluttering in the wind. Maurice missed with his first barrel, but brought the bird down with the left. It fell close to the edge of the ravine and Maurice was in the act of picking it up when he became aware that he was not alone in this wilderness, for a man was coming down the slope after him. Bird in hand, Maurice gazed at the stranger. This was no Moor man, yet there was something familiar about the rather small yet strongly built and well-set-up figure, which came towards him. Then in a flash he recognised him as Clement Cullen.
Maurice's first feeling was the old chill of dread, but this passed almost at once, and was followed by one of triumph.
"The swine!" he said beneath his breath. "He's not heard about Lee, but by Gad he's going to." He stood waiting quietly for Cullen to come up. Cullen's face was quite expressionless as he approached, but Maurice saw the hard glint in the man's eyes and knew just what he was thinking.
Cullen came to a stop and looked Maurice up and down. "I suppose you thought you were safe," he said abruptly. "You believed I was stranded in South America, without means of getting home."
"I did not trouble to think one way or the other," was Maurice's cool reply. "It was a matter of complete indifference to me what you did." The flicker of surprise which showed in Cullen's eyes was only momentary, yet enough to tell Maurice that he was right and that Cullen was not aware of Lee Fuller's death.
"Changed your tune, haven't you?" said Cullen, with a faint sneer.
"Merely learned a little sense," was Maurice's reply. Cullen smiled that tight-lipped smile which Maurice remembered so well, and disliked so greatly.
"Lost what little you ever had, more likely," Cullen sneered. Then without beating about the bush, he said abruptly: "I've come for that five thousand, only now that you've given me so much trouble it's going to be ten."
"Not even tenpence," replied Maurice. "And you'd best clear out, Cullen, before I put the police on you for attempted blackmail." If Cullen was staggered, and there was no doubt he was, he did not show it.
"So you've made up your mind to turn hermit, eh?"
"Not at all. I have had a pleasant party here, and next week I am going to London and then to Paris."
"And how long do you think these diversions will last, once I open my mouth?"
"Try it and see," replied Maurice calmly. Cullen's eyes narrowed. He began to realise that there was something behind all this, for he had already gauged Maurice's weak, pleasure-loving character accurately, and felt certain that he was unable to put up a bluff. It was plain that Maurice knew something of which he himself was ignorant. Much might have happened during all these months that he had been away out of reach of newspapers. Like a flash the truth cane to him.
Something had happened to Lee Fuller. He was sure of it, for nothing else could have stiffened his victim in such a fashion.
"Oh!" he drawled. "So you're counting on Fuller's death to make you safe." Maurice's start told him that be had hit the bull's eye, and he went on. "You're a bigger fool than I thought if you believe that makes any odds. Even if that cheque can't count against you any longer you'd better remember that Miles Hedley is in Dartmoor for a job you did, yourself." Maurice stiffened.
"You must be crazy. So long as Hedley holds his mouth, what can you do about it?"
"I can tell the Drakes the truth of the matter," Cullen answered. Maurice sneered openly.
"Tell them, and be damned. They can't do anything more about it than you can." An ugly gleam showed in Cullen's eyes. He had been running a bluff, and his bluff had been called. He knew, even better than Maurice himself, that he had lost his hold, but he was too seasoned a fighter to acknowledge defeat.
"With their money they could make a lot of trouble for you, Tavener. If I tell them all I know they would have evidence for a new trial."
"But they'd subpoena you as witness," said Maurice triumphantly. "And you know precious well you dare not go into the box." It was true. With his record Cullen could never appear as witness. Once more Maurice had found the joint in Cullen's armour, and Cullen was savagely aware of it. Yet his resolve to get the money he needed out of Maurice never faltered, and his quick brain caught a last chance. Maurice was standing with his back to the bank of the ravine and within a yard of it, and Cullen was facing him.
Quick as light Cullen sprang forward, placed both hands on Maurice's chest and gave him a violent push. Caught unawares, Maurice staggered backwards and went over into the pit. He fell with a heavy thud into the muddy bottom of the cleft, and lay half stunned.
Cullen stood watching, and after a few moments saw Maurice recover and clamber slowly and dazedly to his feet.
"Nothing broken, I hope," said Cullen politely. Maurice glared up at him.
"You fool!" he said fiercely. "What do you think you'll gain by that?"
"Five thousand pounds," replied Cullen. "That's what you'll pay me before you get out."
"I'll see you damned first."
"I'd rather be damned than frozen," returned Cullen. "The nights are getting cold." He retired to a sheltered corner among some rocks, and, lighting a cigarette, made himself as comfortable as circumstances allowed.
FOR some moments after his fall into the pit, Maurice was too dazed to think clearly. As his senses came back a gust of rage seized him, and he swore long and savagely. He had fallen on his back into soft mud, and was not really hurt, but he was covered with black mire which had soaked through his breeches, so that the cold wind begun to chill him.
By degrees he pulled himself together, and his rage changed to fear. Cullen was right. He could never stick out a night in this cold. The sky was clear, and it would probably freeze before morning. Wet as he was he would be chilled to death before day came. For a moment his fury against Cullen bubbled up again and nearly choked him, but with a great effort he thrust it down and tried to think clearly. One thing he swore to himself—he would not pay. Cullen should never have another penny.
Suddenly he realised that he still had his gun. It had fallen with him and was uninjured, and there were cartridges in his pocket. At any rate, he could have his revenge and when Cullen came back and looked over the edge he could blow his head off. It was lucky for Cullen that he did not come back just then, for if he had, Maurice would most certainly have killed him.
But a few moments' thought convinced Maurice that killing Cullen would not help him, and bitterly as he hated the man, the thought of having a second death on his conscience made him shudder. Not that Maurice had much left in the way of conscience; it was rather the fear of the consequences that held his hand. In Vedder's case they had been so unpleasant that he was not going to take any further risks. His thoughts circled back to his own predicament. Could he pretend to assent to Cullen's threats and then refuse to give the cheque? He decided that this was out of the question, for by this time he thoroughly understood Cullen's strong, ruthless nature. Then another thing occurred to him. Even if he did consent, Cullen would not get him out without a rope. The side's of the Pan were too high. And where was he to get a rope?—for there was none nearer than Foxenholt, a good four miles away.
Maurice began to walk up and down on the narrow strip of firm ground between the bank and the muddy centre of the great ditch. He walked to keep warm, and while he did so his eyes were busy exploring the sides in the hope of finding some spot where they could be scaled. It was a very vain hope, for he knew the character of this peaty soil, which is so soft that, though footholds are easily kicked out, they break under a man's weight. The only possible spot where the bank might be climbed was at its upper end, where the rift was very narrow. Here the soil seemed firmer, and it looked as if steps might be cut. But it would be a long job, even if it were possible. It could never be done in an hour, and Maurice saw that he would have to wait until Cullen was gone.
The question in Maurice's mind was whether Cullen would go or whether he would remain on watch all night. Cullen was wearing an overcoat, he was dry, and he could get shelter among the big boulders. Was there any way of dodging him?
Suddenly Maurice made a discovery. At the bottom of the bank was a hollow. It was only about two feet high and a yard or so in depth, but was quite large enough for a hiding place. What was more, it was completely hidden by a thick growth of rushes. It came to Maurice that if he crept into this Cullen would not have the faintest idea where he was and would probably be driven in the belief that his victim had tried to get away across the mire and been swallowed up. Glancing up, to make sure he was not observed, Maurice slipped into the cleft. It was damp, chilly, and cramped, but he was too set on foiling Cullen to mind these discomforts, and making himself as comfortable as he could, he lay very still. The time seemed endless before at last he heard Cullen's voice from above.
"What about it, Tavener?—made up your mind yet?" There was a pause, Maurice could feel the vibration of Cullen's feet as he walked along the rim of the pit.
"Where the devil has he got to?" he heard his enemy mutter, and in spite of his discomfort, he almost chuckled.
"Tavener!" Cullen's voice was sharp. "It's no use your playing the fool. You won't get anything by hiding. I'll have that cash out of you, if it takes me a week." Maurice lay still as a hare in her forme, and listened to Cullen walking towards the top of the Pan. He guessed he was going round the head, and he was right, for presently he heard him just opposite.
"Clever, aren't you?" came Cullen's sneering voice. "Digging yourself in like that. Come out, for if you don't I'll try what a bullet will do to bring you." A thrill of terror shot through Maurice, for it seemed that Cullen must have penetrated his hiding place. But second thoughts assured him that this was impossible, for he was completely hidden. Cullen must be bluffing.
Cullen was bluffing, for Maurice heard him moving on down the bank. Presently Maurice dared to move a little, and peer through the peep-hole in the reeds. He saw Cullen standing a good way off, on the edge of the mire, and staring into it. The last rays of the setting sun struck his face, and its expression of baffled fury made Maurice shiver again. But, in spite of his fear he was triumphant, for he knew now that his ruse had worked, and that Cullen was becoming convinced that he had perished in the mire.
A long time passed before Cullen came back up the bank. The sun had dropped below the high tors to the West, and the light had failed so that Maurice could no longer see his persecutor's face. He himself was getting terribly cramped and cold, but luckily for him weeks of shooting had put him back into fairly hard condition, and he was able to stick it. The last ray of daylight had faded from the sky before he dared to crawl cautiously out, and then he was so stiff he could hardly stand.
For a long time he stood quite still, listening intently. The night was clear, and very calm. The stars twinkled frostily overhead; the silence was so absolute that it was almost painful. Not a bird or beast moved, and there was not even the sound of running water to break it. Convinced at last that Cullen had given it up and gone away, Maurice made his way cautiously up to the head of the rift, and taking out his clasp knife began to cut footholds in the soft soil of the bank.
It was a slow job. He got up about six feet, when the whole bank gave way, and down he came again with a thump that shook him badly. He cursed savagely, and started again. He saw that his mistake had been in trying to go straight up, and this time began to work at an angle up the bank, so that one cut was not immediately above that below.
This worked better, but naturally took a great deal longer. It was no use trying to hurry for each hole had to be a couple of feet deep, otherwise it broke away. Even so on three separate occasions he fell, and slid the whole way to the bottom. His wristwatch was luminous, and he was able to tell the time. By ten o'clock he was only half-way up, and was growing savagely hungry, for he had not eaten since lunch time. He was tired, too, and it was only the knowledge that if he did not help himself there was no one else to help him, which kept him at it.
At last perseverance had its reward, and just before midnight he scrambled safely over the top of the bank and dropped flat on the dew-wet grass. For the moment he was too breathless and exhausted to move. Very soon the chill of the night began to bite into his sweat-soaked body. He rose, picked up his gun, which he had carried up on his back, and started homewards. The shortest way lay across the ridge of Ghost Tor—the safest, too, because of the bogs in the valley. But as he climbed the stars began to dim and he found himself plunging into thick grey mist.
FOR a moment Maurice hesitated. He knew the moor well enough to be aware of the danger of fog. Even the most experienced moorman prefers to stick to a path when the clouds settle on the High Moor. On the other hand, turning back meant an extra distance to cover of at least two miles, and a nasty track twisting in and out among dangerous morasses. Then, too, he knew every foot of ground between this and Foxenholt, and felt sure he could find his way. He paused for a few seconds only, then pushed on.
The mist grew thicker, and when he gained the flat top of Ghost Tor he could hardly see his hand before his face. Everything was smothered in the thick, clammy folds of slowly drifting vapour. The cold was bitter, and he shivered as he groped his way slowly across the height of land. There should, he knew, be a sheep path on the farther slope, but it took a deal of finding; at last he struck it and was able to quicken his pace. But after ten minutes' walking he stopped again. The path was fading out among a number of great boulders which he did not recognise. Swearing softly, for he was getting very tired, he turned back and tried to find where he had gone wrong.
The mist seemed to get thicker as he groped through it, and the sheep path to dwindle away. He was reduced to crawling on hands and knees and striking matches, yet even so could not discover just where he had got off the track. Presently he had to realise that he had lost all sense of direction, and that the only thing left to guide him was the slope of the hill, so he started off afresh down the steepest of it. But he was now off any kind of path and found himself stumbling among deep heather and barking his shins against great stones. His only hope was that as he gained lower ground he might get out of the mess, but this hope was not realised, and after going down a long way he found that he was going up again.
By this time he had not the faintest idea where he was, he was deadly tired and ravenously hungry. Suddenly he found the ground giving way beneath his feet, and he leaped back in terror just in time to escape plunging into a black morass. This scared him so badly that he went back up the hill for some distance. Then again the ground gave beneath, and he found himself sliding down a steep scree of loose stones which gathered in a small avalanche. He tried his best to stop himself, but it was useless, and suddenly he was falling. The distance was not great, but as he crashed to the bottom an agonising pain shot through his left ankle, and he fainted.
When he came to the fog was thick as ever. He was chilled to the marrow and his left leg was numb. No wonder, for a great stone lay right across his foot. He sat up stiffly, shifted the stone, and tried to move, but the effort brought a groan of pain, and he realised the ankle was either sprained or very badly bruised.
"That's put the lid on it," he said to himself. "I'm done for now. Curse that swine, Cullen." He lay shivering, his teeth chattering.
"I'll never last till morning," he muttered. "What the deuce shall I do?" Then quite suddenly he remembered his gun, to which he had clung through all his wanderings, and a gleam of hope came back to him. He found he had ten cartridges left. There was just a chance that someone might hear signal shots. With stiff fingers he loaded and fired three times with an interval at about a quarter of a minute between each shot. He waited for five minutes and then fired three more. Another five minutes and he fired the third time.
Nothing happened except that the cold seemed to increase and now he had only one cartridge left. He rolled sideways and began to pull up bracken and heap it over himself. It might help to keep the warmth of life in him.
A long time passed, his very brain seemed to be growing as numb as his body, then all of a sudden it seemed to him that he saw a distant light through the gloom. He tried to shout, but his voice was no more than a harsh croak. Fumbling with his last cartridge he thrust it into his gun and fired it. As the dull crash of the report echoed dully through the fog a voice called; a deep-pitched, musical voice.
"A woman," said Maurice in wonder, and shouted back. Hoarse as his voice was, it was heard.
"All right. I'm coming," was the reply, and next moment the woman was beside him. She was tall and wore a man's overcoat which came down almost to her slim ankles, while on her head was a man's cap. She carried a stable lantern, and, as its light fell on Maurice she exclaimed with surprise.
"Why, it's Mr. Tavener!"
Maurice looked up.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Hester," she answered. "You remember me, Mr. Maurice?"
"Hester Redmire?" exclaimed Maurice.
"Yes, of course. I'm just home from school. But how do you come like this?"
"Out shooting, and I fell into the Dish-pan," Maurice answered. He was careful to say nothing about Cullen. "Took me hours to get out, then I got lost in the fog, and had this fall. Where am I?"
"Just under Pixie Wood, and not half a mile from father's house. But you're hurt You can't walk."
"I can walk if you can help me," Maurice told her. "If you leave me here I shall freeze."
"I'll help you." She stooped and took his hand. "Why, you're like ice," she said. Her voice was rich and soft and, even in his half-numbed state, Maurice saw that her face had a dark, gipsy-like beauty. She got one arm around him.
"You can't lift me," he protested.
"Can't I?" Her laugh was as deep and musical as her voice. "I'm not one of your shrinking violets," she added, and proved her words. Maurice was amazed at the steely strength of her, as he found himself lifted upright.
"Don't be afraid of putting your weight on me," she added. "I'm like father—wiry." Clinging to her, Maurice found that he could hobble, and he and she went slowly back towards the cottage. In spite of his pain, Maurice almost enjoyed the walk, but he found it difficult to realise that this tall, splendid-looking woman was the skinny, bare-legged girl whom he remembered four years earlier, playing about her father's cottage.
"Dad sent me to school in Plymouth," she explained. "Wanted to make a lady of me. Not their fault they couldn't," she added with a laugh.
Maurice had never met anyone like her before, and she fascinated him. At last they reached the house, and she put him on a couch in the sitting-room, and herself insisted on taking off his soaked boots and stockings. She covered him with rugs then lit an oil stove and quickly heated some soup. Maurice vowed he had never tasted anything more delicious.
"I haven't forgotten how to cook," she told him. "Now you'd better go to sleep." She leaned over him, tucking the rugs round him, stooping so that her dark hair touched his face.
"Don't do that," he said, and she laughed her rich, soft laugh.
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because I can't stand it," said Maurice thickly. She did not move, and all of a sudden Maurice's arms were round her and drew her down. Her full lips met his in a long kiss.
MILES spent hours in writing his answer to Stella's letter. He rubbed out half a dozen rough copies made on his slate before he was anything like satisfied with the result. "And now its nothing but a pack of lies," he said ruefully to himself, "Still I think it will stop her coming over. The knowledge that the letter would have to pass under the eyes of the Governor did not make him feel happier, but he fancied that even stiff old Colonel Peyton would understand and sympathise. Miles knew that he himself was not the only prisoner in Dartmoor anxious to conceal his whereabouts from his friends. He gave the letter to the hospital orderly but that same evening a warder brought it back again.
"You'd ought to know better, Hedley," he said severely. "You've sent one letter this week. This can't go for three months yet." Miles felt himself grow white. The man was right.
"I'd forgotten," he said hoarsely, "But this is very important."
"Can't help that," replied the orderly with decision. "Rules is rules, and this will have to wait." When Dr. Callum came in later he saw at once that something was wrong, and it did not take much questioning on his part to find out what it was. He grunted in his dry Scottish fashion.
"I can't post your letter for you, Hedley, but I tell you what I can do, or rather what you can do. You've had no visitor yet. Why don't you ask your solicitor to come and see you and get him to write to Miss Drake?"
"But I can't write to him," said Miles.
"Yes, you can. A prisoner can always summon his solicitor, if he has reason to ask him." Miles thanked him gratefully and wrote a brief note to Franklin Bartlett. He got a reply from Bartlett's clerk saying that his chief was abroad in Germany, but would come down to Dartmoor as soon as he returned, which, would he in about a week. Miles chafed at the delay, and the week seemed a year long. When at last Bartlett came Miles explained the situation, and asked Bartlett to cable, saying that he, Miles was out of England and asking Stella not to come until he wrote. Four days later Miles got a reply to say that she had already started.
By this time Miles was back at work on the leat. The work had got a little further, but otherwise all was the same. Not quite the same either, for Bill Sweet was now Mile's devoted servant. He was intensely grateful to Miles for having saved his life. His gratitude astonished Miles, who could not understand that life could have much value to a man who was nearly sixty and serving a twenty years' sentence.
Bill saw at once that Miles was worried and he was full of sympathy. Miles had not had much sympathy from anyone for a long time, and presently found himself confiding in the queer little Cockney.
"I can't have her find me here," he said fiercely. Mill looked sharply at him.
"Ain't thinking of doing a bunk, are ye?" he questioned in his queer, lipless speech. Miles's eyes glittered.
"It's the only thing to do," he whispered back. "Help me, Bill." Bill shook his head.
"I ain't going to help ye in a job like that. I thinks too much of ye."
"But there's nothing else for it," Miles urged. "I—I'd sooner be dead than let her see me like this." He looked down with disgust at his coarse prison clothes.
"Less talking there," Miles had spoken louder than he knew and brought down a rebuke from the warder, and for the rest of the morning there was no more opportunity to talk. At twelve they were marched back to the prison for dinner, at two they were brought out again. The morning had been brilliant but now the weather had turned dull. Miles, deep in bitter thought, looked up presently to see the top of Devil's Tor shrouded in cloud. Fog was coming—coming fast, and it was not long before the warders saw it, too. A whistle shrilled, and the party began to gather for the long tramp back.
But the men were scattered. Before they could be gathered the mist was upon them. A grey bank swept up silently and enveloped them in its ghostly folds. Miles thrilled. Here was his chance. He knew the moor like a book, and once clear felt sure he could defy pursuit. He glanced round to make sure the warders were not looking, and as he did so an arm was slipped through his.
"Don't do it!" came Bill's voice in his ear.
"Let me go," hissed Miles, struggling; but the little man clung to him with unexpected strength. Before Miles could free himself the man next him, big Scar Billings, made a leap and dashed silently away into the smother.
"Let me go!" said Miles again fiercely, but with a sudden effort Bill managed to trip him so that he sprawled on his face in the wet heather. Rage boiled in his veins as he struggled to his feet. He was ready to kill Bill for his interference.
And than crack! crack! Two shots rang out and were followed by a wild scream of pain.
"What did I tell you?" said Bill grimly. "Scar's got his—what you'd have got if you'd hev tried it."
"A LADY asking to see you, sir." Mark Swayne, Mr. Franklin Bartlett's middle-aged clerk, gave the message at the same time laying a card on his employer's desk. As Bartlett picked up the card and read the name upon it, his look of dismay startled Swayne.
"She looks all right, sir," the clerk assured him. "John says she's very pretty, and very nicely dressed."
"I can't see her. I won't see her," said the lawyer in a panic. "She—she's the daughter of Mr. John Drake, Swayne, and she'll want to know the whereabouts of Mr. Hedley." A look of understanding crossed Swayne's face.
"I remember, sir. She mustn't know that Mr. Hedley's in prison, but can't you tell her he's abroad?"
"I can't, Swayne. If it was a man I shouldn't mind, but a girl and—and a girl like that, I shall give myself away for a certainty." He paused. "You must see her, Swayne. Tell her I'm away, and shan't be back for at least a week. Swayne looked rather staggered.
"But what am I to say about Mr. Hedley, sir?"
"Simply say that he's out of England and that letters are not being forwarded."
"You think she won't suspect, sir?"
"Why should she? You can see her in here. I'll slip back into the strong room. And—and be nice to her, Swayne. I'm fearfully sorry for her, but—but I'm more sorry still for Miles Hedley."
He slipped away, and Swayne went back into the outer office and told John, the boy, to bring up Miss Drake.
Swayne did not find it at all difficult to be nice to Stella. Few men did, for Stella Drake had not only beauty, but charm. Also she was extremely well dressed. She had stopped for a few days at Buenos Ayres on her way home, and there are shops in Buenos Ayres equal to anything in Paris. Since money was no longer any object Stella had done herself well. She was wearing a long coat of a peculiar smoky blue trimmed with squirrel, which contrasted perfectly with her fair hair and clear complexion. She seemed to positively shine in the dull, oak-panelled room which Bartlett used as his office.
Swayne followed out his directions as best he might, but it troubled him to see the dismay in Stella's face when he professed ignorance of Miles's whereabouts.
"Can't you tell me even what country he is in?" she asked.
"I can't, Miss Drake. I—I know nothing of his movements."
"But he must have left an address for letters to be forwarded," urged Stella.
"He didn't even do that," Swayne answered. Stella fixed her eyes on the clerk.
"But this is extraordinary. It is not like Mr. Hedley." A sudden, look of anxiety crossed her face. "He is not ill or hurt, Mr. Swayne?"
"No—oh no," said Swayne hastily. "At least I—that is, Mr. Bartlett has not heard anything like that." Stella was not satisfied.
"It seems to me that there is some mystery behind all this," she said frowning. "When will Mr. Bartlett return?"
"I can't say exactly," was Swayne's answer. "But not for a week at least."
"Then you can tell him that I shall remain in England until he is back. I do not mean to return home until I have got into touch with Mr. Hedley."
"Mr. Bartlett will do all he can for you, Miss Drake," was all the badgered Swayne could find to say, then Stella left in a taxi which she had kept waiting for her at the door. She was staying at Anson's, an old-fashioned hotel in Half Moon-street, which had been recommended to her by acquaintances on the boat. It was quiet, dignified and comfortable, yet Stella felt terribly lonely there. She was bitterly disappointed, too, at her failure to find Bartlett, and she had an odd, uneasy feeling that something was wrong. As she came in the girl in the office said:
"A letter for you, Miss Drake." Stella's face lit up. Perhaps Miles had written at last. It did not occur to her that he could not possibly know her address. She tore open the envelope. Inside was a single sheet on which were a few type-written lines.
"You are looking for Miles Hedley. Maurice Tavener knows where he is. Tavener is at Foxenholt which you can reach by car from Exeter or Newton Abbott. Don't let him know you are coming."
That was all. There was no address, no signature.
"Nothing wrong, I hope Miss Drake?" asked the clerk rather anxiously. Stella pulled herself together.
"No. Thank you very much, Miss Mason. Only I shall have to go to Devonshire to-morrow. Will you please find me a good train to Exeter?"
"The Cornishman," replied Miss Mason promptly. "Ten-thirty from Paddington. Only three hours to Exeter."
"That will do excellently," said Stella, and went up to her room. There she sat, examining the letter, but she got nothing further out of it, and could not form a guess as to who had sent it. It could not be Bartlett, yet apart from Bartlett she did not know a soul in London. The more she thought it over the more uneasy she grew, the more convinced in her mind that there was some mystery behind all this. All along she had meant to interview Maurice if Bartlett failed her, but what was the reason of this definite instruction to go and see him? Why had the sender added that warning, "Don't let him know you are coming?" It sounded as if Maurice would not want to see her—as if she must catch him unawares. All that evening and all next morning, as the Cornishman thundered south across the chalk downs of Wiltshire and the green flats of Somerset, the puzzle was with her.
Since the Cornishman does not stop at Newton she got out at Exeter and went to the Clarence, where she left her suitcase and engaged a room. Then she hired a car and drove straight out to Foxenholt. It was a bright, cool day, and the autumn tints were glorious as she drove up and down the steep hills of the Moreton road. Stella had been a mere child when she had left Devonshire, but the beauty of her native county charmed her, and her eyes rested often on the mysterious heights of Dartmoor lying all along the southern horizon. The car turned into a drive gate and, before she knew it she was at the door of Foxenholt. Macey himself answered the bell, but if he was surprised at the youth and beauty of this unexpected visitor there was no sign on his impassive face.
"Mr. Tavener is out, madam," he said. "He is shooting, and I do not know when we may expect him. Is there any message I can give him?"
"Don't let him know when you are coming." Stella remembered the warning in the unsigned letter. If Maurice Tavener wished to avoid her this gave him his chance, and for the moment she was at a loss. But she was a young woman with plenty of resource.
"I have another call to make," she said quietly "I will come back about six."
"Very good, madam," said the impassive Macey, and opened the door of her car for her. As soon as the car was round the curve of the drive and out of sight of the house Stella stopped it. "Go on slowly towards Moreton for half an hour," she directed her driver, "then come back." This would bring her back to Foxenholt a little before five, and she calculated on catching Maurice as he came in to tea. Instead of starting the driver spoke:
"There's a gentleman coming up the drive, miss. I think it's Mr. Tavener." Stella looked. A big man in brown tweeds with a gun over his shoulder was coming towards her. Tavener without a doubt.
"I will get out and meet him," she said, quickly.
"MR. TAVENER?" asked Stella. Maurice's eyes widened at the sight of Stella. He had just left Hester, and the contrast between her and this girl, so pretty, so perfectly dressed, and so very much a gentlewoman, startled him. He could not imagine who she was. He raised his cap.
"That's my name," he said, with a smile, and Maurice could smile very charmingly when he chose.
"I am Stella Drake," said Stella quietly, and noticed the slight start which Maurice could not quite control. She went straight to the point.
"I have come to ask you If you can tell me where to find your cousin, Miles Hedley, who is my father's partner." For a moment Maurice was completely gravelled, but he quickly recovered himself.
"It is rather a long story," he said gravely. "If you will give me the pleasure of having tea with me I will tell you what I can. Mine is a bachelor establishment, but my housekeeper, Mrs. Macey, is an efficient chaperone." Stella laughed.
"I thought chaperones were out of fashion," she said. "I shall be very glad of a cup of tea."
Tea was served in the hall, and a very good tea, too. Stella poured out, and, for the moment, they talked about indifferent subjects. Maurice could not take his eyes off Stella. From what Miles had said, he knew that she had spent most of her life in the wilds of South America, and he did not know what surprised him most, her looks, her perfect taste in dress, or her talk. She attracted him enormously, and he laid himself out to be his best.
"So you came to England alone?" he said presently. "That was very plucky of you."
"The mine keeps my father too busy for him to leave, so I had to find out what has become of Miles."
Maurice was silent.
"You know?" she said quickly.
"I know, but I'd much rather not tell you." Stella paled a little.
"He is in trouble. I felt it."
"That is true," was all Maurice said. Stella went on quickly.
"I must know."
"Even if he would rather you didn't."
"Yes." Her voice was firm. "Tell me, please." Maurice looked at her.
"He is in prison," he answered. Stella fell back in her chair as if she had been struck a blow. For a moment Maurice thought she was going to faint, but Stella Drake was of stronger stuff than that.
"In prison," she repeated. "In an English prison?"
"Yes. The case was in the papers. Did you not see it?" she shook her head.
"We rarely see English papers. We get our news from Lima. You must tell me. What—what did he do?"
"Nothing disgraceful," Maurice said. She raised her head.
"There is no need to tell me that," she said so quickly that Maurice felt a queer pang of envy. It seemed to him for an instant that it was almost worth while to be in prison to have this lovely girl as champion.
"He quarrelled with a man and struck him," Maurice continued.
"And—?" questioned Stella.
"And killed him. The man fell against a fender and broke his neck."
"Tell me," said Stella quietly, and Maurice told her the whole story, of course putting Miles in his own place. He told it well, too, a great deal better than he had done at the trial. Stella listened in silence until he had finished, then spoke quickly.
"But it was pure accident, Miles did not mean to kill the man."
"Of course he did not. It was, as you say, an accident."
"Then why did they send him to prison?" Stella's clear voice rang with indignation. "I call it a scandalous sentence."
"It was a wickedly severe sentence," Maurice agreed. "None of us ever dreamed that Miles would get more than 12 months' imprisonment. The reason why Colyton was so severe was on account of the quarrel between Miles and Vedder before dinner. He seemed to think it proved bad blood between them."
"To me it seems that the whole trial was very badly managed," Stella said in a downright tone.
"We did our best," protested Maurice. "I put up a thousand for Miles's defence. It was not my fault or Bartlett's that Stark fell ill and left Miles's defence to a junior like Beddoes."
"That is true," said Stella, "and"—she looked at Maurice—"it was very generous of you to put up all that money on Miles's account."
"He is my cousin," said Maurice, quietly. "Of course, I did what I could." Stella sat quiet for some moments, and Maurice watched her. By the slight frown on her forehead he knew she was thinking deeply. Suddenly she looked up. "Where is he—Miles I mean?"
"In Dartmoor." Horror showed on Stella's face.
"That dreadful place! Up on the top of the moor, where it is always rain or fog."
"It's a nasty-looking place, I'll admit," said Maurice, "but the actual conditions are not bad. The food is good, and it is very healthy." Stella raised her eyes to his.
"How would you like to be there yourself?" she asked, and Maurice shivered. He knew how very narrow his escape had been of going there.
"I should hate it," he admitted.
"And Miles—fancy, how he must hate it—a man who his lived out of doors all his life. Oh, I can't bear to think of it!" Again Maurice felt that twinge of envy. He wondered if this lovely girl was engaged to Miles. Miles had said nothing of it; in fact, he had spoken rather as if Stella were his sister than as if he had been in love with her. But she was speaking again.
"Have you been to see him, Mr. Tavener?"
"N-no," Maurice hesitated slightly. "They—they don't allow visitors for the first six mouths."
"Or letters either?" asked Stella quickly.
"One letter in three months, I believe," said Maurice. She nodded.
"Ah, I understand now. That is why he did not write. Well, I must find out how soon I can see him." Maurice sat up straight.
"You are not thinking of visiting him, Miss Drake?" Her eyes widened.
"But of course I am. Do you think I have come all this way for nothing."
"Don't do it!" Maurice spoke very earnestly. "Miles's one idea all through has been to keep the knowledge of this business from you and your father."
"But we know now," said Stella quietly. "So that argument goes for nothing."
"But he does not know that you know," urged Maurice. "And it will make him miserable to realise that you do know. I assure you that I know what I'm talking about. He swore me to secrecy."
"And yet you have told me." Maurice's cheeks reddened. He felt that he had blundered.
"I—I couldn't help it," he stammered. Stella's eyes rested on him, and he had a sort of feeling that she was sizing him up. Suddenly he felt an intense desire to stand well in her eyes.
"Can I do anything to help you?" he begged. "I am very fond of Miles, and now, that he is unable to be of use to you I want you to make use of me in his stead. After all, I am his cousin. Please do! I shall take it as a favour if you will.
"You are very kind, Mr. Tavener. Then what advise would you give me?"
"I should go straight home to Bolivia and carry on. Write to Miles, but don't give any hint that you know what has happened to him. His sentence is seven years, but with his remission he will be free in a little more than five, and then be able to return to you. That is my advise, Miss Drake." Stella rose.
"Thank you, Mr. Tavener. I will think over what you have said. And now I must be getting back."
"Are you returning to London to-night?"
"No. I am staying in Exeter."
"Then let me drive you back." Stella shook her head.
"I have hired a car, thank you."
"May I call on you in London? I am going up very shortly."
"I shall be glad to see you," said Stella. "I am at Anson's Hotel." She gave him her hand, and since he could think of no excuse for keeping her longer, he had to let her go.
MILES in prison! Miles in Dartmoor of all dreadful prisons! All the way back to Exeter Stella could think of nothing else. Miles had been her hero ever since she could remember, her big brother. Always he had been good to her. She remembered how often he had carried in heavy pails of water, how he had got up early and lit the fire for her, how one year he had gone off and worked hard for a week, breaking horses for a rancher in the valley, so as to make money to buy her a Christmas present. And now when sentenced to spend the best years of his life to penal servitude his one thought had been to save her from grieving over it.
A little sob escaped her, but she stiffened and resolutely refused to give way to tears. Miles had always helped her, now she must help him. The question was how to do it. Maurice had advised her to pretend ignorance and go home again, but the very idea of doing such a thing was repulsive to Stella. No, indeed. She must see him, cheer him up, tell him that she believed in him. The question was how to see him. Full of such thoughts, she found herself back at the Clarence. Without even waiting to take her hat off she went to the telephone and rang up the prison.
The voice that answered was gruff but not unkind. It was that of the warder at the gate, and from him she heard that she must apply to the Governor for a permission and that she would then be told when and how she could see the prisoner whom she wished to visit. At once she wrote her letter to the Governor, asking that a reply might be sent to her at Exeter. The next day dragged terribly. She did some shopping and wrote a long letter to her father, telling him everything.
It was on Tuesday that she had written. Promptly on Thursday morning came a formal reply to her letter, with a permission to visit the prisoner, Miles Hedley, on the following day at three in the afternoon. How Stella got through the next 24 hours she hardly knew, but Friday found her driving to Princetown.
The weather had changed. Storms of sleet lashed the high moor and Stella's heart sank as her car carried her up the last steep hill to Princetown. The Black brook roared in yellow flood, hardly a soul moved in the long, wet street of ugly houses which make up the dreary village. The car pulled up opposite the grim granite arch which is the entrance to the prison, and Stella, brave outwardly but shivering inwardly, presented her passport to blue-clad warder and was ushered through the inner gate into the immense yard in which the bleak-looking "halls" tower like factories, their thick granite walls pierced with scores of narrow cell windows. A heavy door was unlocked, and she went up bare stone steps into a small room furnished very simply with a plain deal table and two chairs.
In old days a double grating ran all across this room and the prisoner and his visitor had to stand on opposite sides of it, but now that horror has been done away with.
"Sit down, miss," said the warder. "The prisoner will be brought in presently. You must understand that I have to remain in the room during your interview, but"—he smiled in kindly fashion—"I shan't need listen too closely."
Stella give him a look of gratitude.
"You are very kind," she told him, then a door opposite opened.
"Miles?" cried Stella, springing to her feet and giving Miles both hands.
"My dear," was all he said, and for some moments the two stood silent gazing at one another.
"You're not surprised, Miles," said Stella presently. "You expected me."
"I got your letter. I knew you were coming. I cabled to stop you, but it was too late."
"You didn't want me to come?"
"Of course not." Miles's voice was bitter. "To see me like this! But how did you find me? Bartlett didn't tell you."
"No, he was away."
"That's what his clerk told me. So then I went to see your cousin Maurice."
"Did he tell you?"' asked Miles sharply.
Miles's face darkened. "The swine!" he exclaimed, and the ill-repressed fury in his voice absolutely terrified Stella. She drew back a little.
"What is it, Miles? What do you mean? What is there between you and Maurice Tavener?"
FOR the moment Miles boiled with such anger that he was on the very edge of blurting out the whole truth and telling Stella exactly what part Maurice had had in bringing him to his present state. Then with an effort he pulled himself up. He had taken Maurice's money to keep his mouth shut, and, if Maurice had not the decency to keep his word, that was no reason why he, Miles should also perjure himself. Stella, watching anxiously, saw how his face worked, but put it down to his indignation at Maurice's perfidy.
"I had to know sooner or later," she urged. "If Maurice had not told me, I should have got it out of Mr. Bartlett."
Miles forced a smile.
"I was silly to get so cross," he said, "and especially when we have so much to talk about and so little time. Never mind about me. Tell me about yourself."
"What can I tell you?" asked Stella.
"Well, I can tell you something," replied Miles, "which is that you've grown up all of a sudden and turned into a woman—a very pretty woman, too, Stella. But I don't suppose I'm the first to tell you that," he added with a smile.
"You are." Stella flushed, but it was with eagerness rather than surprise. "The very first. And—and, Miles, I'm glad, because there's no one I'd sooner hear it from than you." Miles drew his breath quickly. All in a moment it was borne in upon him how much Stella meant to him. He knew now that all this brother and sister business was at an end, and that he loved her as a man loves a woman—as he only loves one woman. He felt an almost irresistible temptation to take her in his arms and tell her so. The temptation was all the stronger because he felt in every fibre of him that her thoughts were the same as his.
Then he remembered that for five nearly six years he was doomed to live within these grim walls. Was he to ask her to waste the best years of her life waiting for him? He hit his lips and forced back the impulse. He could not be so selfish as that. Again he forced a smile.
"It's nice of you to say that, Stella," he answered lightly. "And how well you dress. But you always had good taste."
"I learnt it from you, Miles," said Stella.
"Nonsense! It's in you; it's part of you. Tell me what your plans are now that the mine is such a success?"
"Plans!" Stella's soft voice had almost a bitter ring. "How can we make plans while you are here? We can only carry on and wait until you are free." Miles raised a hand in protest.
"No, Stella, you must not let me spoil your life. You must see the world. Travel, enjoy yourself. You can afford a chaperone."
Stella's eyes flashed. She was angry.
"How can you talk such nonsense, Miles? How can I enjoy myself while you are—in this place?" She looked around with a sort of horror at the grim walls which were visible through the narrow windows. Miles stood silent. He was again struggling with himself, for every minute he spent with Stella was teaching him more plainly how deeply he loved her, and modest as he was, that she returned his love. Yet, again, he took a firm hold of himself, and when he spoke his voice was steady enough.
"I'm here for another five years, and there's no getting out of it. It helps me tremendously to feel that I have friends like you and your father, but it won't help me to know that my plight is making you both unhappy. See here—" She cut him short.
"Miles, you may argue from now till next week, but it's no use. I know you're here and I know that you are being punished savagely for what, after all, was nothing but an accident, and might have happened to anybody. What I am going to do is to see if we can't get a new trial." Miles shook his head.
"That's no use, my dear. I asked Bartlett and he assured me it was no good." The warder spoke suddenly.
"I'm sorry, but time is up, and the lady must go."
"Oh Miles!" Stella's voice was a wail. "How long will it be before I can see you again?" Miles tried to comfort her.
"Not so very long. I can have visitors more often when I gain stage, as they call it. And—and don't grieve. Remember I'm not badly treated. I get plenty to eat, and I'm not over-worked, and the doctor and chaplain are really kind." He put out his hands to her, but she did not heed them; instead she flung out arms around his neck and her soft lips were pressed against his. For a moment they clung to one another like two children while the kindly old warder discreetly turned his back. Then Miles himself led her to the door, and presently Stella found herself in the car again, driving down Princetown's long, dreary street. Sleet beat against the windows, the wind howled over the bleak hilltop, but Stella did not see or hear. Miles's tortured face was all she could see or think of. And so, all alone, she drove back through the stormy afternoon to Exeter. The night mail took her back to London.
WORN out by grief rather than fatigue Stella slept late next morning, and did not come down till nearly lunch-time. While dressing she had made up her mind to visit Mr. Bartlett's office again, and consult his clerk on the possibility of getting a fresh trial. She was hardly down before a page boy found her.
"A gentleman to see you, miss," he said, and handed her a card on which was printed the name, "Mr. John A. Mason."
"Mason," she read. "I don't know anyone of that name. Who is he, Jack?"
"I don't know, miss. I never saw him before, but he is a smart-looking gentleman. And he's written something on the back of the card." Stella turned it over. "Business connected with Mr. Hedley," she said, and her eyes brightened.
"I will see him at once, Jack," she told the boy. "Is there anyone in the writing-room?"
"No, miss. You'll be quiet enough there," the boy assured her. Stella had been generous to him, and was already a favourite with all the staff. So Stella went into the writing-room and a moment later Jack brought in the visitor. Stella's eyes widened as they rested on the hard face and smartly dressed figure of Mr. Clement Cullen. "You!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Your name is not Mason."
"That is true, Miss Drake," Cullen answered quietly. "But I knew that if I sent my own card in you would not see me."
"You are right there," Stella answered. "You are the last person I wish to see, and I shall be glad if you will go at once." Her voice was like ice, yet Cullen did not move.
"If you don't go I will," said Stella, starting for the door.
"So Miles Hedley means nothing to you." In spite of herself Cullen's words brought her up short.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"You saw what I wrote on the back of that card. I meant it. I can tell you more about the reason for Hedley being in prison than any other man, except himself and Maurice Tavener, And"—he paused and looked at her—"they won't tell."
Stella stood quite still, gazing at him. He went on:
"You're trying to think that I'm putting up a bluff, but you know better. I'm not particular in what I say. A man like me can't be, but this time I'm telling you the truth, and you know it." Somehow Stella did knew it, but then a thought came to her.
"Why," she asked, "should you bring your information to me?" Cullen nodded as it he appreciated her question.
"I'll tell you. I have two reasons. One is that I'm stony broke and need money; the other and bigger one is that I want to get square with Maurice Tavener."
A shiver ran through Stella. Though Cullen had not raised his voice, had, in fact, spoken in quite a low tone, there was a deadly malignity in his words, and she sensed that his hatred for Maurice was a terrible thing. But Maurice—Maurice could look after himself. This man had something to tell her about Miles and she believed it was worth hearing.
"I am not particularly concerned with Mr. Tavener," she said, "but If you can tell me anything worth while about Mr. Hedley—anything, I mean, that may he helpful to him—I am prepared to pay you." Again Cullen nodded.
"Suppose," he said, "I could tell you that Mr. Hedley never did what he's accused of—never killed anyone—what's that worth to you? Stella started, she gazed at Cullen as if trying to read his very soul.
"Do you mean that?" she asked.
"I mean it," he answered, "I want a hundred down, and if you think it's worth it, you pay me another four hundred pounds when you've heard what I've got to say."
"That sounds fair," said Stella. "I agree."
"All right," said Cullen. "But it's rather a long story. You might as well sit down." Stella sat, and Cullen took a chair opposite. The big room was very quiet, except for the distant roar of London's traffic. Then Cullen began to speak. He was quite frank on every point, except that he did not mention the particular hold which Vedder first, and he afterwards, had on Maurice, and Stella listened with breathless interest. Once or twice she shivered slightly. When he had finished she sat silent for some moments. At last she spoke.
"Then Maurice Tavener killed Vedder and paid Mr. Hedley to take the blame.
"That's about the size of it," Cullen answered. "Tavener knew just how badly Hedley needed the money for your mine, and took advantage of it."
Stella's lips tightened. "And Miles never told me," she half-whispered.
"He wouldn't, Miss Drake. That was his contract with Tavener—to keep his mouth shut." Stella considered a little.
"But where do you come into this?" she asked suddenly. "How do you know the truth? You were not there at the time of the quarrel, and Vedder was killed on the spot, so he could not have told you." Cullen shrugged.
"Tavener told me, himself," he answered briefly.
"Mr. Tavener told you! Why?"
"Because he had to," said Cullen, and curtly as he spoke Stella understood.
"You mean you had some hold over him?"
"And you planned with him to buy our mine? Stella accused him.
"I make money any way I can," replied Cullen, "but that's beside the point. Is what I've told you worth what I've asked?"
"I have promised you one hundred pounds, and that you shall have," said Stella with decision. "The rest will depend on your evidence in the new trial for which I shall apply." Cullen smiled mirthlessly.
"Nothing doing there, Miss Drake, You see for yourself I can't go into the box. And even if I did what would be the good? My evidence is only hearsay. What you have to do is to get Tavener to talk." Stella rose.
"If you will wait here I will get you your money," She said. "I shall have to send a messenger to the bank."
"Very good," said Cullen calmly. As Stella left the room he chuckled softly.
"I don't know what she'll do, but she'll do something," he said under his breath. "Anyway I wouldn't be in Maurice Tavener's shoes."
"IS Mr. Bartlett in?" Then before his clerk could answer, Stella went on. "Don't perjure yourself any more, Mr. Swayne. Tell him from me that I have seen Mr. Hedley, and that I am coming over at once to talk about him."
Bartlett, seated at his desk, got up as Stella came in. There was a rueful look on his plump, clean-shaven face, which made Stella smile. "Don't look like a school-boy caught stealing apples, Mr. Bartlett," she said. "I quite understand and—sympathize." For a moment the lawyer looked a little surprised at this unconventional greeting, then he laughed.
"You're too smart for us, Miss Drake And so you have found where poor Hedley is."
"I have not only found him, but seen him," said Stella, as she took the chair which Bartlett pushed forward to her. "Now the thing is to get him out as soon as possible." Bartlett gazed at his pretty visitor, then he shook his head.
"I only wish we could, Miss Drake but it's impossible. Though the sentence was undoubtedly too severe, there is not a chance of a fresh trial."
"Not even if he never did it, Mr Bartlett?" Bartlett's eyes widened. There was no doubt about his surprise.
"I don't know what you mean, Miss Drake. As our American friends say you've got me guessing."
"No need for that Mr Bartlett. Miles never killed that man, Vedder. He never touched him. Maurice Tavener is the guilty person." This time Bartlett was so startled that it was some moments before he could find words.
"But—but—" he got out at last, "Hedley confessed that he had done it."
"Maurice Tavener paid him to take the blame. He gave him ten thousand pounds to do so."
"The money he sent out to your father?"
"Exactly. The money dad has used to develop the mine, the money on which we are now living in luxury while Miles lies in that horrible prison." In spite of all her strong self-control Stella's voice rose a little and Bartlett understood the strain under which she was labouring.
"Tell me," he said. "How did you learn this? Was it from Hedley?"
"No. Miles is staunch. He never said a word. It was part of his bargain with Maurice that he should not speak and even to me he gave no hint of the truth." Bartlett nodded.
"That is like him. A straight man if ever I met one. But who did tell you? It couldn't have been Tavener."
"It was Clement Cullen."
"I never heard of him," said Bartlett. "Who is he?"
Stella told of Cullen's arrival in Bolivia, his attempt to buy the mine, and how it had been foiled by the timely arrival of herself with Miles's cheque.
She went on to speak of the way to which Scorson had trapped the fellow and dumped him in the wilds out of his aeroplane. Then she told how Cullen had come to her in London and what he had told her. Bartlett sat with his finger tips pressed together, listening with keen interest.
"Now what do you make of it?" she ended. "Surely we have grounds for a new trial."
"I make two things to begin with, first that Cullen is a very dangerous crook, and secondly that, for some reason best known to himself, he loathes Tavener and is trying to get square with him. But, unless we can get Cullen to tell his story in the witness box, I can't see where we are any better off. Hedley, you see, won't move in the matter, for he considers it a matter of honour to keep silence." Stella's face fell.
"Cullen won't go into the box," she said with a sigh. "He told me so."
"I don't blame him," said the lawyer drily. "If I'm not badly mistaken he's been blackmailing Tavener, and that's a crime the law looks on with very little favour."
"Can't we pay him to give his evidence?"
"I don't think any money would tempt him, for it would be only a step from the witness-box into the dock, and he would probably get a ten-year sentence."
"Then what are we to do?" asked Stella in despair.
"Frankly I can see nothing that we can do in the matter, unless we could get Tavener to talk, and that is not likely."
"Then Miles has to stay for all those years to that horrible place! Oh, Mr Bartlett. It is such a dreadful prison. To me it seemed to reek of crime and horror. I don't see how any decent man could live there a week without going mad." Her face and voice alike were so piteous that Bartlett was much moved.
"My dear," he said, "I'd do anything I could to help you, but what can I do? If Hedley would help himself it would be a different matter."
"Can't you think of any way to get Miles out?" He shook his head.
"It's no use my saying I can when I know I can't. We should be merely raising false hopes. The only advice I can give you is to go home to your father and wait."
"For five years!" cried Stella.
"I know it sounds like for ever to you, but five years pass quickly. And you'll still be little more than a girl when he gets out."
"I shall never be a girl again," said Stella sadly, as she took her leave.
As her taxi passed westwards up Oxford-street she sat back thinking—thinking and paying no attention to her surroundings, But the more she thought the more hopeless the situation seemed. Whichever way she turned she was up against a blank wall. It was equally hopeless to appeal to Cullen, Maurice, or Miles himself.
She felt desperately lonely, for Bartlett was literally the only soul she knew in London. So her surprise may be imagined when, on arriving at her hotel, the page informed her that a gentleman was waiting to see her.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"Mr. Tavener," was the reply.
Stella's first indignant impulse was a send a curt message to the effect that she was not at home, and go straight to her room; but, for a mere girl, Stella was very cool-headed. It occurred to her that, if she saw Maurice and could force herself to be civil to him, she might gain useful information. She could play the hypocrite if necessary for Miles's sake.
"Where is he? she asked.
"In the writing-room, miss," Jack told her, and then Stella went. Maurice very smart in a perfectly-cut suit of dark blue serge, came forward eagerly.
"What luck to find you, Miss Drake. I came up this morning and called on the off chance of seeing you. When did you return?"
"Yesterday," said Stella. "I came straight from Princetown." If Maurice flinched at all it was not enough to notice.
"So you went to see poor Miles, after all?" he asked gravely.
"I told you I should," she answered.
"How did you find him?"
"As well as anyone could be in that ghastly place."
"Did you," Maurice hesitated slightly, "did he speak of me?"
"Yes. He was not pleased with you for telling me where he was."
"But you had to find out sooner or later. Bartlett would have told you if I hadn't."
"He might," agreed Stella, and her answer seemed to afford Maurice relief.
"Are you doing anything this evening?" he asked. "Because if you are not engaged I was wondering if you would dine with me." It was Stella's turn to hesitate. She disliked Maurice intensely, and her woman's instinct warned her against him, yet for Miles's sake—.
"Thank you," she said quietly, "that is very kind of you."
"Then I will call for you at half-past seven," said Maurice.
Stella, of course, knew nothing of London. If she had, she might—indeed most certainly would—have objected to dining at the Garland where Maurice took her. The dinner was excellent, the service perfect, the diners were well-dressed and smart; on the surface all seemed quite as it should be, and Stella was quite unaware that it was not the place for a young girl to dine alone with a man.
To do Maurice justice, he did not think of that either. He was already desperately in love with Stella, and he wanted to impress her with the fact that he was a member of this exclusive club, and to exhibit her before his smart acquaintances. The table he had engaged was beautifully decorated with flowers, the champagne was the best that money could buy, but all this slipped off Stella like water from a duck's back. She ate little and drank less, and tried to keep the conversation on Miles. For a time Maurice humoured her, but he grew impatient.
"I'm terribly sorry for Miles," he said, "and I'd do anything I could to help him, but there's nothing to be done so far as I can see."
"There is," Stella said with decision, "Much might be done if we could get a new trial."
"Counsel's opinion was that a new trial would not be granted."
"But if we got fresh evidence?" said Stella.
"That's out of the question," said Maurice with decision. His cock-sure tone annoyed Stella.
"I do not agree with you If we could get Clement Cullen into the box—" The change in Maurice's face was so alarming that she stopped short.
"What do you mean?" he cried so loudly that diners at neighbouring tables turned and stared. Stella realised that she said more than she had meant to say, yet now the murder was out she could not go back.
"I mean that his evidence might put a very different complexion on the whole case." Maurice's face was livid.
"What do you know of Cullen? What lies has he been telling you?" Stella was terrified at the storm she had raised. She got up.
"I think I will go home," she said with dignity. Maurice caught her by the wrist.
"Not until you have explained," he said fiercely.
STELLA sat down again. The mad glare in Maurice's eyes terrified her. She wanted to avoid a scene, yet was at her wits end how to do so. Maurice, she saw was almost out of his mind, whether with anger, fright, or perhaps both mixed.
And then deliverance came in a most unexpected manner. A cool, dry voice spoke from behind.
"How do you do, Miss Drake? Who'd ever have thought of seeing you in London?"
Maurice's hand fell away from her wrist and Stella, half turning, looked up into the weather-beaten face and keen grey eyes of the American airman, Jay Scorson. Whatever Scorson had seen of what had happened between Maurice and Stella nothing of it showed in his face or voice.
"Well, you sure are a sight for sore eyes," he went on. "But why ever didn't you tell me you were coming to London?" Stella had had time to recover herself.
"You can't talk, Captain Scorson," she answered, with a smile. "You never said a word about coming to England when we last met."
"I didn't know a thing about it until I got back to New York. Then my firm sent me right over." He paused. "Its real nice to see you."
"That's a compliment I can return." Stella was quite herself again. "Let me introduce you to Mr. Maurice Tavener. He is Miles's cousin." Scorson nodded.
"Met before, I reckon, Mr. Tavener," he said coolly. "Flagon club, wasn't it? That night you were so sick."
"Yes," Maurice's voice was thick. Scorson went on easily.
"You don't look real well yet." Maurice Jumped at the excuse.
"My heart still gives me a little trouble at times." Scorson sat down.
"I'm all alone. If I'm not butting in I'll take coffee with you folk."
"Do," begged Stella. "And afterwards you can take me home. Mr. Tavener has another engagement." She looked Maurice full in the face, and he dared not remonstrate. So it came about that a little later Stella found herself sitting beside Scorson in his big Bentley. Instead of driving her straight back he turned north.
"It's a right nice night," he said. "Like a little rain?"
"I'd love it," said Stella, breathing deeply at the fresh, cool air of the autumn night.
Scorson did not speak again until they gained the Finchley road, at this hour almost empty of traffic, then he glanced round at her.
"And now maybe you'd like to tell me what you were doing in that joint, and with that big dud."
"Why do you call it a joint?" Stella answered. "And if it was a joint how came you to be there?" Scorson grinned.
"A man like me goes to a lot of places where a girl can't. But Tavener hadn't any right to take you there. You say he's Miles's cousin. He don't look like he was any kin to him—or act like it," he added grimly.
"You are right there, Jay," Stella agreed "And now I'll tell you the whole story. Only you'd better drive slowly for it's rather startling, and I don't want to end up in a lamp-post."
"I'll attend to that," said Scorson. "Get on with it Stella." So Stella got on with it. She told him the whole business, and it was not until she mentioned Cullen that he interrupted.
"Gosh!" he exclaimed. "I'd been wondering all this time what there was between him and Tavener, became it was when I spoke of Cullen to Tavener at the Flagon dinner that he threw a fit. Go on, Stella. I'm all ears."
Stella finished her story right up to the minute before Scorson himself had appeared at the Garland.
"So you can just imagine," she ended, "how glad I was to see you."
"You poor kid!" he said. "I guess you were. Gosh!—if it had been anywhere else I'd have taken that big boob by the neck and twisted his head off!" Stella's laugh rang out.
"I'm glad you didn't, Jay, for we need Master Maurice for Miles's new trial." A serious look came upon Scorson's face.
"I don't reckon you'll get that very easy, Stella," he said.
"Don't croak, Jay. You're as bad as the fat little lawyer man. I've got to get Miles out of that dreadful prison."
Scorson nodded. "I'm with you all the way there, but I don't see any chance of a new trial. It ain't like the States, Stella. There, with the evidence you've got, the State Attorney could start the wheels moving; but here it's all red tape and sealing wax. Once a thing's done, it's finished. Why, shucks! even if we could prove that Miles had never laid a finger on this Vedder person, we couldn't get his sentence reversed."
"What are you talking about, Jay?" asked Stella in horror. "Do you mean they wouldn't let him out?"
"Oh, they'd let him out right enough, but first he'd have to have a pardon signed by the King. What do you say to that?"
"That I don't care how he gets out so long as he gets free," said Stella stoutly.
Scorson sat silent for nearly a mile. When he spoke again it was in a different tone,
"Say, Stella, have you and Miles fixed it up? Stella flushed, but she did not pretend to misunderstand.
"We're very fond of one another, Jay; but of course, Miles wouldn't say anything so long as he was—where he is."
"I get you, Stella. No Miles ain't that sort. Well I guess we got to get him loose some way or other."
"We can if we can make Cullen speak." Scorson shook his head.
"You'll never do that, kid. If I'm not plumb off the rails, Cullen's been putting the black on Tavener, and no money we can pay him is going to make him risk the sort of sentence he'd get for that."
"Then why did he come and tell me about Morris?"
"To get square with the gent. That's the way I look at it."
"But he must know that we can't get hold of Maurice unless we have his—Cullen's—evidence."
"I guess he knows that, but another thing he knows is that it won't do Maurice any good if it gets out about his letting his cousin serve a sentence for him."
"You may be right," said Stella, with a sigh, "but what I want is not revenge on Maurice. It's to get Miles out of prison."
"Same here," agreed Scorson. "Miles is a long sight too good a sort to waste five years of his young life in the stone jug. So, as I said before, it's up to us to get him out." Stella looked at him with a puzzled expression on her pretty face.
"You're talking all round in a circle, Jay. First, you say we can't get a new trial, then that we must get him out. But you know very well we can't get him out unless we find prove he is innocent."
"Are you right sure of that?" asked Scorson.
Stella looked utterly puzzled and a dry smile flitted across the tall airman's face.
"Seems to me I've heard tell of fellows getting out of the pen without worrying the judges." Light flashed across Stella's mind.
"You—you mean—they've escaped?" she gasped.
"Done a bunk is what you Britishers call it," grinned Scorson.
TO Stella the idea was so startling that it was some moments before she could collect her thoughts.
"Do you mean it, Jay?" she said at last, looking at her companion very earnestly.
"You bet I mean it," said Scorson emphatically.
"B-but it's impossible. I've read that no one ever got away from Dartmoor."
"Yes they've escaped plenty times."
"Y-yes," agreed Stella. "I have heard of prisoners running away in a fog. One tried it only the other day, but he was shot before he'd gone far."
"I saw that in the paper, but I reckon he had bad luck. There's lots have got clear, and been out for a week or more."
"But they were all caught in the long run."
"What do you expect? The poor devils hadn't any food or clothes or money. Most of 'em were driven to give themselves up simply because they were so darned hungry they couldn't stick it out any longer."
"You mean—" began Stella but he cut her short.
"I mean that, if a chap had someone waiting for him with a fast car he'd be away before they began to look for him. You see they take all the working parties back to the prison before they start the warders out searching." Stella was listening eagerly.
"But they might shoot him before he got away at all," she objected.
"I wouldn't worry too much about that, Stella. Miles is a right good runner, and those old carbines only shoot buck shot. They're not a mite of good at any range over fifty yards."
"You know a great deal about it," said Stella wonderingly. "Have you been reading it up?"
"Sure thing. Ever since I knew Miles was in the jug."
"Then you knew about that before I did?"
"I saw it in the New York 'Times.' But I got over here too late to be of any use to him." He turned the car as he spoke. "I reckon it's time to get back," he said.
Stella did not answer, and he saw that she was deep in thought At last she spoke.
"Could you get me a car, Jay—the right sort of car, I mean?"
"Ain't this one good enough?" asked Scorson.
"But I can't take your car."
"What's the matter with me taking it?"
"Its nothing to do with you, Jay."
"Stella," he said reproachfully. "You ain't going back on your old pal? You surely don't want to hog all the fun for yourself?"
"It's not fun, Jay. It's deadly earnest. And-and—"
"And we re running plumb up against the law. That's what you were going to say."
"It was. So you see it's my business, and no one else's."
"You're all wrong, Stella." For once Scorson spoke without any of his usual banter. "It's the business of all Miles's friends, and, if you think you're going to play a lone hand, I'll say right now that you won't do it."
"But, Jay, supposing you were caught, they might put you in prison."
"Then you and I would be company for one another," he smiled, but a moment later he turned serious again. "Don't worry about getting caught. We're going to plan this job out properly—make a regular campaign of it. Before you're six months older I'm going to be the best man at your wedding—and here we are," he added, as he drew up at the door of Stella's hotel.
"You'll come in, Jay," she begged. "We've a heap more to talk about."
"Not now, my dear. It's mighty late and time for all good little girls to be in bed. You sleep on it, and we'll have another yarn to-morrow."
"Will you lunch with me, Jay?" asked Stella. "You could come here. It's very quiet, and we could go on with our planning."
"I'll lunch with you if you'll dine with me," bargained Jay. So it was arranged, and Jay said good-night and drove off. Stella went straight to her room. The fresh air had made her sleepy, and, in spite of her excitement, she soon went off. But soon she began to dream, and these dreams were terrible. She saw again the great gaunt buildings of the prison rising on the bare hill side, and Miles seemed to be stretching out his hands to her from a cell window. Then a mist hid everything and in it men were running madly, hunted by mounted guards. And she herself was running and hunting for Miles. Then came a sudden rattle of shots, and she woke shaking all over to hear her maid knocking at the door with her morning tea.
All that morning, which was very wet, she could settle to nothing, and was most graceful when one o'clock brought Jay. The two lunched together in the dining-room, but, of course, did not speak of their plans. Afterwards Stella led the way to the writing-room, but, to her great annoyance, found it in possession of two elderly tabbies.
"We must go to the lounge," she told Jay. "There's a quiet corner where we can talk."
"I'd say take the car and go for a drive," said Jay, "only the weather's so rotten."
"We shall be all right in the lounge," Stella assured him, and, sure enough the few people there were gathered round the fire, all except one grey-haired man who sat near the window reading the "Times." A waiter had just brought him coffee, and asked if he wanted anything else.
"Eh, what did you say?" asked the old chap, cupping his hand behind his ear.
"It's all right, Jay," said Stella. "He's deaf." And they sat themselves down at the back of the room and began to talk in low voices.
"The job will be to put Miles wise to what we're doing," said Jay, "but I guess I can work it. Your task will be to take a house in some quiet spot, not too far from the prison." Stella's eyes widened.
"What on earth for?"
"To take Miles there when we get him out. We can't rush him out of the country, for every ship will be watched. We've got to disguise him, so his own mother wouldn't know him, before we start to get him away. We must alter the colour of his skin and hair, and make him a different man altogether."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Stella in some dismay.
"We don't want to forget anything," said Jay gravely. "We've only one chance, and if we mess it up we won't get another. Once a prisoner has tried to escape they never let him outside the walls again till the day of his release." Stella looked very grave. She was only now beginning to realise the immense difficulty of their task. Jay went on.
"The house ought to be somewhere on the edge of the Moor, and you'll have to take it in another name—not your own. Pitch the agent a yarn about the doctor ordering you quiet."
"I can do that all right," said Stella.
"Then you'd best get to it right away. Go down to Exeter tomorrow and sniff around. Meantime I'll try and fix some way of getting a letter to Miles. There's always a certain amount of trafficking in a big prison."
"Bringing in tobacco and other forbidden luxuries by warders to prisoners who can afford to pay."
"But even if you can manage that, how is Miles to know when to run?" Stella asked.
"The first chance he gets. We've simply got to hang round and wait for a fog."
"But if they see the same car there every day won't they get suspicious?"
"I can fix that. I can get a permit to shoot. I know one of the big bogs to the Duchy."
"You think of everything, Jay," said Stella admiringly. "I could never have done anything without you. But the risk! Jay, you have no business to be taking such chances."
"Risk," Scorson laughed. "If you only knew how I'm enjoying it. Life's not worth living if you don't take a few chances. Besides, it makes me feel I'm doing something worth while, better than messing round, and just making money."
They sat and talked for nearly an hour, then Jay had to go. He promised to call for Stella at half-past seven. He had hardly left before Jack turned up with a large bunch at magnificent roses and a note for Stella. Both were from Maurice. The mote was full of apologies and excuses for his behaviour the previous evening and a request that he might to allowed to call and make his apologies in person.
Stella tore the note up and taking the roses into the office, asked Miss Mason to send them to the nearest hospital.
NEXT afternoon Stella was again at the Clarence. She spent the afternoon visiting various house agents and heard of two or three places which, it seemed, might suit her purpose. She came in for tea, and afterwards sat down in the drawing-room to write to Scorson.
The tourist season being over, the hotel was rather empty, and Stella locked round in some surprise as a visitor came into the quiet room. To her amazement, it was Cullen, very smart as usual and with a confident expression in his hard eyes which did not please Stella at all. He came straight towards her and bowed.
"Did you find what you were looking for, Miss Drake?" he asked. A pang of real alarm shot through Stella, but she did not show it outwardly, and her voice was clear and cold as she replied: "May I ask what you are talking about, Mr. Cullen?" Cullen smiled and Stella liked that smile less even than his words. Then he sat down, pulling up his well-creased trousers at the knees.
"Come now, Miss Drake. That's not worthy of you," he said. "You know well enough that I know exactly why you have come down here, and what you have been doing this afternoon." Stella was more frightened than ever. She could not imagine how it was possible that this blackmailing scoundrel had discovered her secret. Cullen seemed to read her thoughts.
"If you will talk over private matters in a public room you can't blame others for listening," he said, with his odious smile.
"But you—you were not there," said Stella sharply.
"Oh, I was there all right, only it's likely you didn't recognise me. In my business we have to know a good deal about disguise. But don't be afraid. I'm no fonder of the prison authorities than the next man, and I'm here to help you." Stella knew it all now. That deaf old man who had sat near them in the lounge at Anson's. Oh, how foolish she had been. But the damage was done and the only question was whether there was any way out of it. She looked at Cullen.
"How can you help me?" she asked.
"I can get word to Mr. Hedley that you are going to get him out. I can get as many letters as you want sent in to him. And that's a job you can't do, or Captain Scorson either."
"And what do you expect in return?" questioned Stella, and for her life she could not keep a touch of sarcasm out of her voice. But Cullen did not seem to notice it.
"Of course, you've got to pay," he said. "I'm not taking the risk for nothing. But I won't be unreasonable. I shall only ask five hundred and expenses."
"I have no such sum in England," said Stella.
"There is no hurry." Cullen assured her. "A business like this takes some time, and you can pay me any time you like." Stella looked at him.
"I take it that the payment includes your silence, Mr. Cullen?" she said significantly. Cullen's tight-lipped smile showed for a moment.
"Naturally. Silence in this matter is as essential to me as to you—and to Captain Scorson."
"That is true," agreed Stella. "Then perhaps you will give me an address where I can find you." Cullen look a card from his pocket and gave it to her.
"That address will always find me," he told her. "Then I may take it, the matter is settled."
"You may," said Stella, and picking up his hat and gloves Cullen bowed himself out.
When the door had closed behind him Stella sat back in her chair. If she had been a man she would probably have rung for a whisky and soda. As it was, she remained quite quiet, feeling curiously and unpleasantly limp. This was a disaster she had never contemplated, and she was at her wits' ends what to do. She detested Cullen, and knew him to be utterly unscrupulous. The question she was trying to solve in her mind was whether he would carry out his undertaking and earn his money, or whether he was playing a double game. That he hated Maurice she knew, and that he was ready to do anything to damage him, but releasing Miles from prison would not do Maurice any particular harm. As the shock passed, and her brain cleared, one thing became plain—that she must see Jay Scorson as soon as possible and consult him as to what was best to be done. Her first idea was to go straight back to London, but suddenly she remembered the telephone, and that Jay would probably be in his rooms at this hour, dressing for dinner. She got up at once and put a call through to London.
Jay was in his rooms, and within ten minutes she was talking to him and telling him what had happened.
"Cullen on to it," he said and Stella could tell by his tone how disturbed he was. "That's bad Stella. But what's done can't be helped, and its not a mite of use worrying. Maybe we can make good use of him after all, for a crook like that will know every crook warder in the prison service. Have you found a house yet?
"I'm going to see two to-morrow. The most likely one is near Okehampton."
"Then see here. You take a peep at it to-morrow, and come on to the Swan Hotel at Okehampton. I'll meet you there between five and six. What name have you given to the agent?"
"That sounds good to me. And I'll be John Burnett. Take mighty good care Cullen ain't trailing you. I don't reckon he'll try to, but we don't want him to know anything more than he knows already."
"I'll be careful. And thank you no much, Jay. I shall look forward to seeing you to-morrow. Good-night."
Stella slept better than she could have expected after the shock she had had and next day was at the Okehampton Hotel at the agreed hour.
A man came out to meet her, but she had to look at him twice before she recognised him as Scorson for he was wearing a badly cut suit of brownish tweeds with boots and gaiters and looked more like a Devonshire farmer than a smart ex-officer of the American Air Force. But the twinkle in his grey eyes reassured Stella, and they went into tea together. There was not a soul in the place and barring the maid who waited on them they had the room to themselves.
"No sign of Cullen?" was Jay's first question.
"None. And I've found the right house, Jay. It's called Snaily house. It's about three hundred years old and it lies two miles off the road at the end of a cart track. It's simply ideal for what we want."
"What's the ground like about it? Is there a good-sized flat field anywhere near?" Stella's eyes widened.
"No. It's on the hill side, and there's only a paddock of four or five acres. But what do you mean, Jay?"
"I've changed my plans. I'm not going to use a car at all. This is going to be a new plan, Stella. I'm taking Miles out by aeroplane."
JAY SCORSON'S announcement left Stella breathless. Before she could speak he was talking again.
"We don't let Cullen know, We let him think we are using a car, and that we must wait for a fog."
Stella broke in. "But how can Miles get away if there's no fog? It's impossible."
Jay grinned like a schoolboy.
"We'll have a fog all right, Stella. Don't worry about that. What price a smoke bomb?"
"A smoke bomb!" repeated Stella. "The things they used in the war?"
"Yes, only a mighty sight better. Now listen to me. I've got it all planned out." With head close to hers, he explained in a very low voice his whole plan of campaign.
"What do you think of that, Stella?" he asked when he had finished, and his grey eyes were twinkling with excitement and triumph.
"It—it's wonderful. Yes. It ought to work. The only crab, so far as I can see, is the question of Cullen. I don't think that man likes you, Jay." Jay chuckled.
"Likes me! He likes me about as much as a rat likes a terrier. He ain't going to forget the day I dumped him out of the 'plane. That cost him the scare of his life, and all the money he had, and I shouldn't wonder if it was quite a lot. You can bet your last dollar he means to get that back out of me." Stella looked scared.
"Then—then will he inform against us?"
"Double-cross us, you mean. Yes, he'll try to. But I reckon his dodge is to wait until Miles is out, and then threaten to give us away unless we fork out something really big."
"I don't see how we're going to stop him," said Stella unhappily. "He's bound to find out what your plans are. You see, it is he who is sending the letter into the prison." Jay was quite cheerful.
"I guess we can fix that all right. In the first place the letter will be pretty carefully sealed, and in the second—just to make it a bit safer—it's going to be written in Latin." Stella could not help laughing.
"I only hope Miles will be able to read it," she said.
"Miles will read it all right. His dad meant him to be a parson so he went through the classical side at Clifton."
"And you're going to write it?" asked Stella, with a twinkle in her eyes.
"I'm going to write it," said Jay firmly. "Don't worry. It may be a bit on the dog-Latin side, but he'll understand it." He paused and lit a cigarette. "And now what about your Snaily House. A real fine name, I will say."
"But it's no good without a landing field," said Stella.
"I ain't so sure about that. It just came to me that maybe there's a better plan than landing the ship close to the house. I'm reckoning the best dodge would be to 'chute Miles down." For a moment Stella looked horrified, then she understood.
"You mean drop him by parachute?"
"Sure, Miles has plenty of nerve and if the place is as lonely as you say it ain't likely anyone will spot him. Then I'll take the 'plane right on back to London and put 'em properly off the scent."
"Isn't it risky, coming down by parachute?" asked Stella anxiously.
"Nothing to worry about. All you've got to do is to pull the string. The 'chute does the rest. Why even Cullen got down safe though he did land in a thorn bush." Jay was so gay and cheerful that Stella's fears left her.
"Hadn't we better go and see Snaily House?" he asked. Jay got up.
"I guess we can just do it before dark," he said, as he opened the door for her.
The dusk of a fine autumn evening was beginning to close down as the car bumped over the rough track up to Snaily House. Stella, of course, thought of the house and nothing else, but Jay would not even go in.
"I want to see the country first. Come on up the hill." A tor rose steeply behind the house and the two walked briskly to the top.
"Steepy Tor, it's called," Stella told him, as they reached the pile of weathered granite which crowned it.
"A right good name," agreed Scorson, and clambering the rocks took his stand on the very summit and gazed keenly around. Though the sun was down, the sky was clear, and there was plenty of light to see the wide view stretched beneath them. Okehampton was out of sight in its hollow, and to the south the great moor rolled bare and desolate. Far away on the extreme southern heights a square tower stabbed the sky. Princetown church, but the prison itself was not visible. To the east a fair number of farms and cottages were in sight.
"Looks pretty good to me," admitted Scorson, "but, say, Stella, what's that big place with the lights just beginning to show, away there to the north-east?" Stella looked.
"Do you know, I believe it's Foxenholt," she said at last. Scorson whistled softly.
"I shouldn't wonder if you were right." Then he laughed. "But ain't there some old saying about 'the nearer the church, the further from the parson.' That ain't right, but it's near enough. You don't reckon Tavener knows of this place?"
"I cant say, Jay, but I shouldn't think it's likely. We'll ask Mrs. Marble."
"The caretaker at Snaily House. She's elderly and rather deaf. She reminds me a good deal of a tortoise."
With her small head and curious filmy eyes, Mrs. Marble did indeed look something like a tortoise, and on the whole Jay approved of her. He then went over the house. The walls were of granite three feet thick, and the roof covered with moss-grown slabs. The windows were small, there was no bathroom, and arrangements for lighting and heating were primitive.
"If you're satisfied, Stella," said Scorson, "I ain't offering any objections. You better take it by the month if you can fix that up with the agents, but I don't reckon you'll need it that long."
"You mean you're going to—to get to work at once."
"Right away," said Jay cheerfully. "Give me Cullen's address, and Miles shall have that letter before he's a week older."
MILES had finished his day's work on the leat and was seated on the hard, wooden stool in his cell, reading by the light of the gas jet which was fixed in the wall close by the door of his cell. Presently he heard a rattle in the corridor outside, doors began to open and shut, and he knew that supper was coming.
The worst of prison life is its hideous monotony. Even the arrival of a meal is a welcome break, and Miles got up and turned down the flap shelf which did duty as his table. Another minute and he heard the key grate in the lock, a warder opened the door and a convict orderly came in with his tray. On it was a fair-sized loaf of good, though rather stale bread, a pat of margarine, two ounces of yellow cheese, and a pint mug of strong tea with milk and sugar in it. The orderly who was, of course, well known to Miles, was a tall pale-faced, shifty-eyed fellow named Perrin. As he slid the tray down he fixed his eyes on Miles and winked significantly. Then, as if by accident, one hand touched the loaf. He did not say a word, and was gone as quickly and quietly as he had come, yet Miles was left with his heart beating violently, for the few months he had spent in prison had taught him many things of which he had never dreamed before.
Eager as he was, Miles was careful not to move until the door was closed and locked again, and even then he did not hurry, but pulling up his stool sat down quietly and propped his book in front of him. It was not until the sound of feet passing away down the bare stone stairs told him all was clear that he took up his tin knife and began very carefully to dissect the loaf. In the very middle of it he found a tiny metal cylinder hardly larger than a match, which he slipped out and hid inside his cake of soap. Then, though still trembling with eagerness, he set to work and finished his food.
It was not until the tray had been removed and the Hall had settled down for the quiet hour before lights were put out that he dared to open the cylinder, take out the tiny slip of paper which was inside, and read it. Over and over again he read it until he knew every word by heart. Then he deliberately chewed and swallowed the fragment and hid the cylinder itself in the hem of his coat, so that next day he could drop and get rid of it.
There was little sleep for Miles that night. For hours he lay awake listening to the wind moaning in the ventilators and the occasional groans or shrieks of his neighbours. Now and then he heard a pussy-footed warder pass down the passage, and once his "Judas" was softly opened, and he knew that he was being spied upon from outside. Next day at work Miles flattered himself that he showed no sign of his inward excitement, and he was half angry when he realized that Bill Sweet was watching him.
"What's the matter, Bill?" he asked in an irritable whisper, as the two between them were lifting a stone out of the trench.
"You knows better than me," answered the little man quietly. "But I can see as you've had news o' some sort."
"Do you mean I'm showing it?"
"The screws wouldn't spot it. I does, because I likes you, Hedley." Miles was touched, and, knowing how staunch the little man was, decided to tell him something.
"I've had news—good news. Don't be surprised at anything that may happen." Bill glanced up at the sky. It was blue, and a brisk wind blowing.
"Won't nothing happen to-day," he said, "but if the fog does drop, and you get help coming you kin depend on me."
"I know I can," Miles answered gratefully. Bill looked round to make sure no wander was within hearing.
"You watch out for that there Gribble," he said warningly. "He's dangerous, he is. Twice as quick with his gun as any of the rest of 'em."
"I'll be careful," Miles promised. Like Bill, he knew nothing would happen that day, but at the same time he did not undeceive the little man about the fog, or tell him in what way he expected his deliverance to come.
A week dragged by. Miles was beginning to suffer from the suspense. The weather was bad, and during the whole seven days outside work was only possible on two. Then the skies cleared, and Miles's party was marched out into a sunshine which was almost as warm as summer.
"This is the day," was the thought that kept humming through Miles's head, but he forced it down and worked with a steadiness which actually brought him a word of praise from the principal warder. The morning passed, and they tramped back to dinner. Miles kept watching the sky through the cell window. It was clouding up. He felt in his bones that storm was brewing and that they would not be taken out again. Yet at two, when they were paraded in the prison yard, the day was still fine and calm, though the sun no longer shone. Never in all his life had Miles exerted such desperate self-control, as during the next two hours. He forced himself to keep his head down, and he dug until Bill was driven to remonstrate.
"You ain't thinking there's any money coming to you, be you?" he remarked sarcastically.
"Sorry, Bill," he said. "Just trying to work off steam."
"I'm doing the steaming, a-trying to keep up with you," replied Bill drily, and then suddenly he cocked his ears.
"What's up?" asked Miles
"It's either a motor-bike or a 'plane, and since we're too far off of the road to hear a bike, it must be a 'plane."
"A 'plane," repeated Miles, and looked up, but could see nothing. And yet, the deep, vibrating hum grew louder.
"It's a 'plane all right," said Bill. "But what any feller's a-doing, flying up over this moor, fair beats me."
Miles's heart was thumping, but he kept quiet. The other men had heard it and were looking up.
"I sees 'er," said one big, grey-headed lag out loud. "Just a-coming through the clouds." They were all watching now, for a plane is very seldom seen over the moor. Even the warders had their eyes directed skywards. A good-sized biplane showed a little to the north, just below the veil of grey cloud which hung about two thousand feet up. She was flying in a southerly direction.
"Bound for Newquay, I reckon," said Bill. Miles himself dared to look up. He was fairly quivering with excitement.
All of a sudden the sound of the engine ceased.
"E's a-coming down," said the big lag.
"E's falling!" screamed another. "Gawd A'mighty!—'e's going to crash!"
MILES held his breath, for the 'plane was in a nose-dive, spinning like a leaf. It was plunging earthwards at frightful speed. The men stood watching it with staring, fascinated eyes and Miles, though the only one of them all who knew what the 'plane was, or who was the pilot, was every bit as horrified as the rest, for never in his life had he seen an aeroplane fall, apparently out of control.
Down, down it came, until it was hardly more than a couple of hundred feet from the earth. Then, as it came right side up for an instant in its fall, the wings set at the right angle caught the air again, and the 'plane slid ahead in a long swoop and landed with a bump but still safely on the one bit of level ground anywhere in the neighbourhood. Miles was out of the ditch, so was everyone else, and Miles knew, from his instructions, that what he ought to do was to run hard for the plane. But no one else was running, they all stood like dummies, and he knew only too well just what would happen if he was the one to start the running.
For what seemed an hour, but was really only a few seconds, he stood absolutely still, waiting in horrible suspense. Was it all a failure? Had Jay Scorson done all this planning for nothing? It was little Bill Sweet who broke the silence.
"She's afire!" he gasped.
"And the chap 'urt!" added the burly lag in a tone of horror. Sure enough, a curl of smoke was rising from the body of the 'plane, and the pilot was lolling back with his eyes closed and face white as chalk.
It was enough. With one accord the whole crowd—prisoners, warders, and all, made a combined rush for the 'plane. Miles, as Jay had said, was good on his feet, and short as the distance was, led by several yards in the race for the 'plane. As he reached it, the chalk-faced pilot suddenly moved. One arm rose, and something dropped over the side of the 'plane, and fell with a little thud on the grass. In an instant—quick almost as thunder follows lightning—a huge mass of black smoke belched upwards, hiding 'plane and everything in its greasy folds.
Miles knew what to expect, and without the slightest hesitation, flung himself headlong over the edge of the cockpit and tumbled to behind the pilot. He had hardly reached the bottom before the pilot was pressing the self-starter. The engine burst instantly into thundering life, and the 'plane dashed forward. One—one alone of the warders realised what was happening. It was Gribble who yelled:—
"Look out! It's a plant! and flung his carbine to his shoulder. As he pulled the trigger someone knocked against him and upset his aim, so that the charge of buckshot wasted itself in the sky. He turned like a fury to meet the apologetic gaze of Bill Sweet.
"I'm that sorry, sir!" said the little man earnestly. "I didn't see where I was going, and I bumped right into you." A flood of fury bubbled to Gribble's lips, but he checked it. He knew that it was no accident, but there was no proof of it.
"You shall sweat for that, Sweet!" he said fiercely, then put his whistle to his lips to call back the rest of his flock. One was gone, and it was up to him to see that he did not lose my more. As the cloud of smoke drifted away with the light breeze, Gribble watched the plane rising high into the sky, and saw that it turned due north.
"I wonder if that's a plant, too," he said bitterly, and called to Bloor, his subordinate. "Go to the nearest telephone box," he said, "and tell the prison what's happened. Sharp, now."
THE speed with which Jay Scorson pulled the machine off the ground seemed to Miles like a miracle. By the time he had scrambled up and got into the seat the 'plane was five hundred feet up. He looked ever the edge of the cockpit, and saw the working party dwarfed to the size of beetles, staring helplessly up. Only the mounted guards were moving. One was galloping hard towards the prison.
Jay paid no attention to Miles for the moment, for he was forcing the 'plane steeply up towards the clouds. It was only a matter of moments before they drove into the clammy grey mist and lost sight of the earth. Still Jay kept on climbing, and all of a sudden the clouds shredded away behind them, and they flashed into glorious sunshine. Jay leveled out the machine and turning signed to Miles to put on the flying cap with its earphones. Having done so, Miles found that he and Jay could talk in ordinary voices.
"There's a suit of mechanic's overalls behind you, Miles," said Jay. "Put 'em on quick," Miles obeyed.
"Now the 'chute—that square handle," continued Jay. He explained how to strap it on.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Fine," vowed Miles. "It was pretty bad, waiting but now—"
"Now do you feel up to doing a jump?"
"What do you mean?" asked Miles sharply, and Scorson explained.
"It takes a bit of nerve, Miles," he said quietly, "but I guess you've got it all right." Miles felt cold chills coursing down his spine, and did not answer at once. Jay seemed to realise exactly what he was feeling.
"All you have to do is to jump clear, Miles, and pull the string in front. The 'chute does the rest. If you don't feel you can do it why I'll go down, but the ground ain't any too good near Snaily House, and a 'plane coming down is sure to be seen, whereas a chap dropping in a 'chute may never be noticed." Miles stiffened.
"I'll do it, Jay," he said quickly. "I suppose it's only natural that I funk it a bit, but after what you've done for me I'd be an ungrateful dog not to obey orders."
"There ain't no orders about it, old son," said Jay quietly, "Stella and I are just trying to do what's best for you. She's waiting for you at this place, Snaily House, on the north side of the moor. We picked it on purpose because the prison people will never dream that we're keeping you within twenty miles of the prison. We're reckoning that they will take it we've gone straight across the Channel."
"Jolly smart of you," said Miles. "I think you and Stella have managed wonderfully. The only crab that I can see is that someone will surely spot me coming down in a parachute. It's still broad-daylight."
"It won't be when I drop you," replied Jay. "I've plenty of petrol and I'm going to cruise above the clouds until sunset. Then I'll cut off, drop to about two thousand, and let you go. After that I'm taking the plane back to my own garage, north of London."
"But won't they have spotted the 'plane?" suggested Miles. Jay chuckled.
"That's arranged for. All her markings were changed before I started, and they'll be changed back by to-morrow morning."
"You've thought of everything," declared Miles.
"I've tried to, anyway," Jay answered. "But it was Stella thought of those chicken sandwiches you'll find behind. And there's a small bottle of bubbly beside 'em. A little Dutch courage won't come amiss before you do your dive.
"Chicken sandwiches," repeated Miles. "Oh, my hat!" He found the parcel, opened it, and passed it across to Jay before helping himself. Time passed rapidly while they ate and talked, and Miles was surprised when Jay said:—
"Sun's down, and we're almost over Snaily House. Finish the drink, Miles, and get ready. I'm going to dive now. When I stop the engine, jump. Count three, then pull the string. Remember to keep your knees well bent when you reach the ground." Once more Miles felt those unpleasant chills crawling down his spine, but he braced himself for the ordeal. The 'plane was diving. It dropped through the cloud, and beneath lay rolling moor. Far below and a little to the left he saw a grey old house surrounded by trees. Jay pointed to it, then suddenly cut out the engine.
For a moment the wide-winged machine seemed balanced in mid-air. Miles stepped to the edge of the cockpit, waved his hand, then leaped.
Jay, still gliding forward saw him drop like a stone for about five hundred feet, then the 'chute billowed out, and with a sigh of relief Jay switched on and pushed up again into the clouds. Just before he reached them he looked down again. There was light enough for him to see a man standing on the summit at a high ridge a mile or so north of Snaily House. He frowned.
"Now, who the deuce is that?" he muttered unhappily.
MILES'S escape happened too late in the day for the evening papers to record it, but the morning ones had all the details and most of them splashed it. The "Daily Beacon" gave it a double-column heading which ran as follows:—
DARING ESCAPE PROM DARTMOOR.
MYSTERY 'PLANE DESCENDS FROM
SKY AND CARRIES OFF CONVICT.
This was the first thing which met Maurice Tavener's eyes as he opened his paper, and very nearly gave him heart failure. His face was leaden and his hands shook as he read the account. When he had finished the paper dropped on his knees and he sat quite still, staring straight in front of him, but without seeing anything at all.
"Great ghost," he muttered hoarsely. "What a mess!" Then, after a pause—"Stella, of course. But who helped her?" How the devil did she manage it? The fragrant steam of coffee rose unheeded from the silver pot, while the kidneys and bacon on the hot plate in front of him received equally little notice. Maurice was too occupied in considering how Miles's escape would affect him to think of his breakfast.
"After all, it won't hurt me," he said, half aloud. "Miles won't talk and the only other person who knows anything is Cullen, and he doesn't count. I'm safe enough." Then his thoughts turned to Stella and he bit his lip. "She's gone with him or after him. That's a sure thing. Curse the fellow." He got up and walked up and down the big dining-room. He was back at Foxenholt where he had come from London in order to be near Stella. He knew she had gone back to Devonshire, though in what part of the country she was he had no idea, but he meant to find out. For he was madly, desperately in love with Stella Drake, and the rebuffs he had received at her hands had only made him the more crazy for her.
Up and down the room he went, up and down like a caged tiger. The thought of Stella being with Miles made him frantic with jealousy. All sorts of crazy ideas shot through his mind. He would follow them; yet, what was the good of that, when he had not a notion where they had gone. The paper said that the aeroplane had headed eastwards, presumably for the Continent. By this time they might be in Italy, Spain, Germany—almost anywhere. It was madness to dream of following them. His next idea was to employ detectives to do so, but then he remembered that, of course, the police of half Europe would already he notified and that they were a great deal more likely to arrest the fugitive than anyone whom he could hire.
At last he came to the table and poured himself out a cup of half-cold coffee. He was in the act of drinking it when a slight tapping on the window nearest his chair attracted his attention, and glancing up, there was Hester Redmire outside. Fresh rage boiled up within Maurice as he sprang up quickly and opened the window.
"What the devil are you doing here, Hester?" he demanded furiously. "Haven't I warned you not to come near the house in the day-time?" Two red patches showed on Hester's cheeks, and her fine eyes flashed. For a moment it looked as if she would retort in kind, but she retrained herself.
"I had to come," she said suddenly. "There's something you ought to know. But perhaps you'd rather not hear it?" she added, with a touch of sarcasm.
Maurice's manner changed.
"Yes—yes, of course I want to hear it. Go round to the smoking room. I'll meet you there." She slipped away around the angle of the house and Maurice met her at the French window of the smoking room, which he opened for her.
"I didn't mean to be rough, Hester," he said, in a sort of apology, "But I'm worried."
"About the escape, you mean?"
"Yes, but what do you know about it?"
"It's in the papers, isn't it? Everyone in the place knows by now. We don't all wait till ten o'clock for breakfast." Maurice took no notice of the sneer.
"What is it? Is it something about the escape?" he asked sharply.
"It may be. I don't know for certain but it looks like it." She paused.
"Go on," he urged. "Be quick. Don't keep me in suspense." Hester refused to be hurried.
"You know Nix, our Jack Russell terrier," she said. "He went off hunting yesterday afternoon, and dad was afraid he'd be lost and went after him. Just before dark dad was on top of Gar Tor when he heard a 'plane very high up. He saw it come down out of the clouds and then the engine was shut off and it glided down. It was still a long way up when a man jumped and came down by parachute. Then the engine began to work again and the plane went up out of sight." Maurice was listening with eyes wide and parted lips.
"Where did the man come down?" he demanded.
"Somewhere near Steepy Tor," Hester answered.
"Good God, it was Miles for a certainty. Is there a house anywhere near?"
"There's a place called Snaily House, dad says. A funny, old-fashioned house with trees all round it."
"That's where they are. It's just the place Stella—that is—" But Hester had caught the name.
"Stella. You mean that Drake girl who came to tea with you. So you call her Stella." Her face flamed, her eyes flashed, and Maurice, who had already had experience of her mad jealousy, bit his lips as he realised his blunder.
"Don't be a fool, Hester," he said roughly. "She's engaged to Miles Hedley, and if I can't call my cousin's fiance by her name it's a pity."
"That wasn't the reason," retorted Hester. "You can't fool me. Do you think I don't know why you came back here from London? It wasn't to see me, I'll swear. You'd been after her in London and then you followed her down here. But I won't stand it. You've promised to marry me and you're not going to get out of it." With her slender tallness, brilliant colour, and great dark eyes, Hester looked splendid, but to Maurice she was simply a vulgar virago. He had tired of her long ago, and his impulse was to take her by the shoulders and put her out of the room. But he dared not do it, for he knew the scene that would follow. Hester's temper was volcanic, and he felt that he must soothe her.
"You're talking nonsense, Hester," he said, in a milder tone. "I'm not thinking of Miss Drake but of Miles. I want to help him." Hester's lip curled.
"A lot you want to help him. You want him out of your way."
"What are you talking about?" cried Maurice. "You're crazy."
"You want him out of your way," repeated Hester, "so you can get the girl. You know you do." Maurice was almost at his wits' ends. He stood with his fists clenched so hard that the nails dug into the palms of his hands. A muscle in his upper lip twitched dangerously. What would have happened is difficult to say, but just then steps were heard in the passage outside.
"It's Macey," whispered Maurice. "Clear out." Hester hesitated, but only for a moment, then she slipped out of the French window and disappeared among the bushes just as Macey knocked at the door.
"Sergeant Tooker wishes to speak to you, sir," he said in his impassive voice.
MAURICE paled slightly. He was terrified of any contact with the police, but a moment's thought told him he had nothing to fear.
"Show him in," he said. Tooker's big face bore a solemn expression as he entered the room.
"Good morning, sir," he said, and Maurice nodded and waited. "You've heard the news, I suppose, Mr. Tavener?" Tooker went on.
"About my cousin's escape. Yes, of course. It's in the paper. Have you caught him?"
"No sir," replied Tooker bluntly. "I came to ask you if you knew anything about it."
"I know just as much as I have read in the newspaper, and that was the first I had heard of it," said Maurice curtly.
"Would you have any objection to my searching the house, sir?"
"Not the slightest. Go ahead. I'll come with you if you like."
"Thank you, sir," replied the sergeant. "I'll take it kindly if you'll come with me."
Tooker's search was thorough, but of course, he found nothing.
"Are you satisfied now?" asked Maurice, as they returned to the study.
"The paper says that the aeroplane went towards France. What made you come here?"
"The prisoner is your cousin," replied Tooker, with a faint smile. "And you came back to Devonshire unexpectedly."
Maurice managed to laugh.
"But surely that's the last place I should have come to if I had really been planning to get my cousin out of gaol."
"That as may be," said Tooker stolidly. "Well, I'll wish you good day, sir, and push on." Maurice watched the sergeant down the drive, then went back, got cap and stick and slipped out the back way. His one idea was to avoid Hester, and by dodging through the plantations he did so, and presently found himself alone on the open moor.
His thoughts were in a whirl as he headed towards Snaily House. His chief emotion was of rage with Miles for escaping. Though he had no proof that Miles and Stella were engaged he was perfectly certain that they were in love with one another, and a furious jealousy burned in his veins. Of course, Stella had worked the escape, and that was further proof, if proof were needed, of her interest in Miles. And now she and Miles were together in this old house, the thought drove Maurice nearly mad, and his hand clenched on his stick till the knuckles whitened. He quickened his pace, and within an hour had reached Gar Tor. He climbed part way up it in order to get the lie of the land, and presently caught sight of a grove of beech trees about a mile away, with old grey chimneys showing above them.
"That's it," he said aloud. "That's the house. Now, I've got them." He turned, and hurried down, but after reaching the level slackened his pace. In spite of his rage he had a little common-sense left, enough to realise that is was no good trying to rush things. Even if this was the house where Miles was hidden, it was not to be supposed that Miles himself, or even Stella, would open the door. And the servant or whoever had been engaged for the purpose would certainly deny any knowledge of Miles or Stella. In that case all he could do would be to go to the police, which was, of course, the last thing he wanted to do, for if he gave Miles up to justice that would definitely finish him with Stella.
No, it was clear that he must go slowly, and with this in his mind he made his way into the thickest of the beech trees and crept along amongst them until he found a spot from him which he could watch the house without himself being seen. It was a cold, dull day, and a raw wind chilled him to the bone as he stood and waited.
An hour passed and nothing happened. If it had not been for smoke curling from the chimney he would have thought the house to be empty. Maurice was growing horribly cold and fiercely impatient when at last the back door opened, and an elderly woman came out, with a basket on her arm. It was Mrs. Marble on her way down to the village to do some shopping. Maurice hurried back through the trees, and making a wide circle followed her to the village. In order not to excite her suspicions, he managed to meet her as she came out of the post office, and politely inquired the way to Snaily House? She looked at him with her queer, filmy eyes.
"That's where I be housekeeper," she told him. "Marble my name be. I be going back along there now. Who was you wanting?"
"I heard that my cousin, Miss Drake, had taken the house, ventured Maurice.
"There bain't no one like that there, sir. Miss Bessemer be the lady as has rented it."
"Oh, she's a friend of Miss Drake. I'll go and see her. Will you show me the way?"
"Aye, I'll show 'ee the way. You can walk along with me if you bain't too proud like."
"I shall he delighted," said Maurice, and as they started he began at once to ask questions. Mrs. Marble answered readily.
"Miss Bessemer, she be delicate like. Poor thing. She were very bad ten year ago and bain't never got well again." Maurice was rather staggered.
"And her friend, Mr. Bartlett, has he been to see her?" he asked.
"There bain't no one been to see her. Keeps very much to herself, she do." Maurice fished a pound note out of his pocket and handled it suggestively.
"Come now, Mrs Marble, I know that either he or that flying gentleman has been here lately. Can't you tell me?" Mrs. Marble looked at the note. It changed hands and she put it careful in her bag.
"She did say as her brother might be coming down for the week-end," she remarked.
"Her brother!" muttered Maurice. It never occurred to him for a moment that this simple-looking old peasant woman was pulling his leg. Mrs. Marble was perfectly ready to take his money, but the idea of betraying her employer never entered her honest old head. She had already made up her mind to warn Stella of Maurice's curiosity and to tell her not to show herself to the visitor.
But here, as luck would have it, her calculations went wrong for, when they reached the gate, there was Stella herself in the garden, cutting some autumn berries for the table.
MAURICE sprang forward. "Stella—Miss Drake, so it is you!" Stella turned and her look of dismay told Maurice all he wanted to know. Though it passed like a flash he felt definitely certain that he was right. Stella's heart was beating painfully as Maurice came towards her, but she met him quite calmly.
"I had no idea you were in Devonshire, Mr. Tavener. And how did you know that I had taken this house?"
"Not from your housekeeper anyhow," replied Maurice, and for the life of him he could not keep a ring of sarcasm out of his voice. "She told me that the lessee was a Miss Bessemer. But, no doubt you had good reason for taking this place under an assumed name."
How Maurice knew, Stella could not imagine, but it was quite evident that he did know her reason for coming to Snaily House. She was almost at her wits' ends what to do, yet there was no sign of her despair on her face or in her voice as she answered.
"You are very polite, Mr. Tavener. There is no law, so far as I know, against taking a home in any name one prefers to use."
"There may be no law against it," said Maurice, "but I don't quite fancy you would like the police to learn that you were living here under another name."
"Oh, you are referring to Miles's escape." The very extremity of the danger did more than anything else to keep Stella cool. "Then perhaps it is just as well that I have used my mother's name instead of my own, for now I shan't he bothered by reporters and interviewers."
"Then, you knew he was going to escape," insisted Maurice.
"I'm not giving anything away, Mr. Tavener," said Stella with a faint smile. Maurice felt the remains of his sorely tried temper oozing away, yet he knew it would be fatal to give way to rage, so with an effort he pulled himself up.
"Suppose we go into the house and talk things over quietly," he said. Stella hesitated. "Do believe me that I'm here as a friend," continued Maurice. "After all, I am Miles's cousin.
"Come in," said Stella quietly and led the way into the little, old-fashioned sitting-room, which was bright with flowers and some of her own pretty possessions.
"Now," she said, "perhaps you will tell me how you found out I was here."
"It was simple enough," Maurice told her. "One of my people saw the aeroplane and Miles dropping from it. So as this house was the only one near the spot, what was more natural than that I should come here?"
"But what had you to do with it? It would have been much wiser and kinder if you had kept away."
"Keep away—when you were here! Don't you know that I have been mad to see you again ever since that night in London?" Stella saw the flame in his eyes, but though she shivered inwardly, she faced him calmly.
"After that evening I should have thought you would have kept away from me," she said.
"Why? Why?" cried Maurice. "You know very well I did not mean to be rude, and if that fellow, Scorson, had not turned up I could have explained. As it was, I came to apologise next day and you wouldn't see me, I suppose," he added savagely, "someone has been telling you lies about me."
"Nothing of the sort, Mr. Tavener," Stella answered with dignity. "In any case there was no need for me to listen to stories about you. You yourself were the offender. First you took me to the Garland, then you made a scene. Do you wonder I don't want to have anything more to do with you?"
"I don't see why I shouldn't take you to the Garland," replied Maurice quickly. "And as for making a scene, it was simply because I thought that creature, Cullen, had been telling lies about me to you. Don't you understand that I think more of your good opinion than anything else in the world."
He was so fiercely earnest that for a moment. Stella felt sorry for him. Hers was a very gentle nature, in spite of all her firmness.
"It's very nice of you to say that," she told him, "but if it's true show it by going away now, and forgetting that you have seen me at all. That will be the kindest thing you can possibly do."
"But I can't do it." Maurice's face had gone suddenly white. "That's just what I can't do." He stretched out his hands. "Stella, haven't you seen that I love you? I'm crazy for you. No, don't interrupt."—as her lips opened to speak.—"Marry me, and I'll take you away from all this trouble, and give you the best time any girl ever had. I mean it. I swear it."
Stella drew a deep breath. Of course she knew—had known for some time past that Maurice was in love with her, but she had done her best to show him that she did not care for him, and she was very angry with him for forcing his proposal on her at such a time as this. Yet she knew, too, that she must not make an enemy of him, and she hardly knew what to do or say.
Maurice saw her hesitation, and fancied she was yielding.
"I'll do anything for you," he vowed. "I'll see Miles safe out of the country. I'll put up any money your father and he want for the mine. I'm a very rich mm, Stella, and you shall have any settlements you like to name." Maurice could not have blundered worse. His talk of money sickened Stella.
"I don't care how rich you are," she said sharply. "A girl doesn't marry for money, but because she loves a man. And I don't love you."
"You would if you gave yourself a chance. I love you so much you couldn't help it. Oh, Stella." Suddenly he flung his arms round her and tried to draw her to him, and that was a worse blunder than the first. Stella tore herself away. She had gone whiter than he and her eyes were very bright.
"Can't you take no for an answer?" she cried, "You are only proving that my first idea of you was right and that you are nothing but a cad."
"A cad!" Quite suddenly Maurice turned vicious. He was intensely conceited, and Stella's words had stung him to the very soul. "So that's what you think of me. All right, my lady, that finishes it. Now you've got to marry me."
"You're mad," said Stella scornfully.
"Am I? I'll prove I'm sane. Miles is in this house. If you don't give me your word you'll marry me I shall go straight to the police and tell them where to find him."
NOW that the murder was out, Stella realised that she had been expecting it all the time, yet that did not make the crisis any easier to face. Anger almost choked her. The idea that any man could be such a brute as Maurice was showing himself was almost beyond belief, and her first impulse was to tell him so in the very plainest words. But one glance at the man's face was enough to make her change her mind. A vain man whose vanity has been badly hurt is never a pretty sight, but in Maurice's case there was more than this, for his eyes held a fierce, gloating look, and his whole face was animal-like in its ugly longing.
Stella saw that, if she told him what was in her mind, he would go straight off and carry out his threat. And there was no one to stop him from doing so, for Jay Scorson had not yet arrived, and, except for old Mrs. Marble, she and Miles were alone in the house. She forced herself to speak.
"You can't mean that," she cried.
"But I do mean it," replied Maurice fiercely. "I've got my chance, and I'm not fool enough to lose it. If you won't promise to marry me I'll go straight off to the nearest telephone and call up the police." Stella locked at him in a wonder of disgust.
"You tell me you would marry a woman who loathes you?" she said slowly.
"You'd soon get over that," he assured her and she saw that he actually believed it.
"You must be mad," she said in a kind of despair.
"I'm mad for you," Maurice stated. "I love you. How many more times am I to tell you that."
"You may say it a thousand times but I'd never believe it. If you love a person you want to help, not hurt her."
"I don't want to hurt you. I want to marry you."
"What, when I love someone else," returned Stella. The moment she had spoken she knew she had blundered for Maurice took a step forward and his face was convulsed with jealous fury.
"Miles, you mean? Curse the fellow! He shall never have you." Stella backed away. She was so terrified that she was on the point of screaming. But this she dared not do for it would bring Miles up from the cellar where he was hidden. Maurice was speaking again.
"I don't want to be rough, Stella. I don't want to frighten you, but I've made up my mind, if you don't want Miles to go back to Dartmoor you'd better give me your promise.
"I might give it and refuse to keep it," said Stella with spirit. Maurice laughed, and it was not a pleasant sound.
"I'm not afraid of that, you're not the sort of girl to break your word. But anyhow, I'm going to be on the safe side. I shall get a special license and we'll be married before Miles leaves this place. Stella gave a sigh that was almost a groan. The one thing that remained clear in her tormented mind was that Miles must not go back to prison and that no sacrifice on her part was too great to save him from that fate. Maurice saw she was yielding.
"I knew you'd come round," he said triumphantly. "I'll soon make you forget Miles. I'll give you the best time a girl ever had. Give me one kiss, then I'll go." The mere thought of his lips on hers filled Stella with sick horror.
"No," she cried, "No!" and backed away until the wall stopped her. Any man with a shred of decency in his make-up would have been content with what he had won, but where women were concerned Maurice was not normal.
"Don't be silly," he said, and came forward with arms outstretched. Stella covered her face with her hands. She was as near fainting as she had ever been in her life.
"You brute!" The deep voice rang through the room, filled with such scorn and contempt that Maurice stopped short and Stella dropped her hands in amazement. Heater Redmire, her face pale with anger, and her great dark eyes lit with such a blaze that they actually seemed to glow, stood just inside the room. She closed the door behind her and came forward.
"What are you doing here, Hester?" demanded Maurice. His voice was a snarl and Stella realised that he was frightened as well as angry, She seized the opportunity to slip away out of his reach.
"What am I doing here?" repeated Hester. "It looks to me that's the question I should be asking, when I find the man who's promised to marry me making love to another girl."
"Marry a slut like you? Do you think I'm crazy?" retorted Maurice, brutally.
"A slut, am I?" Hester raised her hand, and pointed to Maurice with a superb gesture. "I'm what you made me, Maurice, and what I suppose you're trying to make this girl, too."
"Shut your mouth," cried Maurice in a fury. "Shut it, or I'll shut it for you." He advanced threateningly, but Heater did not move.
"You can't scare me," she said scornfully. "I dare say you'd like to beat me, but you daren't do it."
"You'll see what I dare do, if you don't clear out, my girl," growled Maurice, and Stella shivered at the look on his face. She, of course, had never seen Hester before, and did not know who she was, but the reason for her presence was plain enough. Hester showed no sign of fear and faced the furious Maurice with superb composure.
"I knew it was all lies you told me this morning," she said, in her deep, rich voice. "Swearing that you were thinking of your cousin and nobody else. Then sneaking off when you thought no one was watching. But I saw which way you went and I followed, and I've been outside the window watching you and listening." She smiled bitterly. "Seems to me this girl wasn't so anxious to be fooled by you as I was."
The veins on Maurice's forehead stood out like ropes, his upper lip was twitching. Stella thought she had never seen anything so ugly as his face—or so dangerous.
"Will you be quiet?" he asked, in a voice that fairly grated.
"No, I won't be quiet, Maurice Taverner," returned Hester. "This it the show down, and I want to know where I am. Are you going to marry me, as you swore you would, or—"
"I'll see you damned first," broke in Maurice furiously.
"That's your last word. Is it?"
"It is, and it'll be yours if you don't clear out this instant." Hester still faced him, her eyes blazed back into his. "You think you can scare me, do you? I'll teach you that you can't. A dirty dog like you, that lets another man go to prison. You killed Vedder—"
That was as far as she got, for with a leap, Maurice had her by the throat. "I'll kill you for that!" he roared.
FOR a moment Hester struggled, striking at him with her hands. Her nails caught his cheek, cutting it so that the blood poured down. But Maurice was a powerful man and for the moment insane with rage. Stella watching in horror, saw Hester's face turn purple, saw her knees give and her body crumple under Maurice's savage grip. With a scream of terror she dashed past them and on into the passage. She flung open the cellar door.
"Miles! Miles!" she cried.
Miles came tearing up the steps.
"What's the matter? Have they hurt you, Stella?"
"It's—it's Maurice," gasped Stella. "He's killing a girl in the drawing-room." Miles did not wait for any further explanations. He was past her like a flash. Hester was on her knees; Maurice, his face a mask of rage, still had her by the throat. As Miles shot into the room he released her and flung up his hands to defend himself.
He wasn't nearly quick enough. Before he knew what was happening Miles's right fist, iron-hard with long days of pick and shovel work, caught him full on the nose, smashing it flat to his face, and sending him reeling away. His knees caught against a stool, and he came down on his back with a crash that shook the room. Miles turned to see Stella bending over Hester.
"Help me lift her on to the sofa, Miles," she said, quickly. Between them they lifted the poor girl's limp body. "Now I'll get water and brandy. You watch Maurice," Stella added, and hurried away, leaving Miles in a state of complete amazement. He had not a notion who Hester was, why Maurice had tried to murder her, or how Maurice had come to Snaily House. It looked to him as if the whole business of the escape was blown on, yet it was same satisfaction to feel that he had got even with Maurice.
"Spoilt his looks, anyhow," he remarked aloud, as he noticed the ruin he had made of his cousin's nose. Stella came back with a decanter of brandy and a jug of water.
"Miles, you must go back," she said anxiously. "Go back and hide."
Miles shook his head.
"Not while that fellow is here," he said, pointing to Maurice.
"But—" began Stella, and then the front door opened, there were quick steps in the passage, and Jay Scorson burst into the room.
"Are you plumb crazy, Miles?" he exclaimed. "Get back to your cellar. There's a policeman up on the hill, watching the house."
Stella gave a cry of dismay, but Miles stood his ground.
"Then it's no good," he remarked calmly. "They're bound to have me."
"Talk sense," retorted Jay. "He'll never find you in that place even if he's got a search-warrant, and that's not likely." So far he had had eyes only for Miles, but now he saw Maurice on the floor, and Hester lying, still insensible, on the couch.
"What's all this?" he demanded.
Stella spoke: "Mr. Tavener found out that Miles was here and tried to make me promise to marry him in return for his silence. Then this girl, Hester, came and said that he was engaged to her. That made him so angry that he started to choke her to death. I had to call Miles to save her life." Jay's grey eyes went hard as stone.
"Of all the dirty dogs I ever met, you take the complete cake, Tavener," he said, in a bitter drawl. He turned to Miles. "I'd guess he'd better go into the cellar, too." Maurice was reviving. He sat up with his handkerchief to his nose and the blood dripping down his collar and tie.
"You can't keep me there for ever," he said defiantly.
"No, but we can keep you long enough for Miles to get away," retorted Jay.
"That won't save the lot of you from being arrested the minute you land in South America," said Maurice.
"Or you from being hung for killing this girl," replied Jay, pointing to the still form of Hester on the couch.
"I haven't killed her," said Maurice sullenly. "And, anyhow, whatever happens to me won't help you."
Jay looked down at Maurice with such scorn as made him writhe. "I've a damn good mind to finish the job Miles has started," he said. "A thing like you isn't fit to live!" Stella, broke in suddenly.
"Miles, is it true that he killed Vedder, and not you?"
Miles remained silent. Stella went on:
"Cullen told me first, and now this girl says the same thing. Oh, Miles, surely after what Maurice has done to-day you are free to speak."
Miles shook his head.
"I'm sorry, Stella, dear, but I'm not, I can't say anything."
"But I can!" Hester's voice, hoarse and weak, as it was, fairly electrified them. "She's right. He"—pointing to Maurice—"he killed Vedder!"
"I hear you say so. Where's your proof?"
"My own eyes," replied Hester, as she struggled up into a sitting position. "I was outside the smoking-room window. I saw it all."
"You lie!" screamed Maurice. "You weren't at home."
"I was. It was the very night I came home. Father can tell you that."
Maurice sprang up. His face was an awful sight. Jay Scorson caught him.
"That'll be about enough, Tavener," he said drily, and with one twist flung him back into a chair. "There are two witnesses to this young woman's confession."
"Seems like there are three," came a deep voice from behind them, and turning quickly, they saw the large frame of Sergeant Tooker almost filling the doorway.
THE big policeman turned to Stella.
"You'll forgive my coming in like this, miss, but I couldn't get an answer to my ring, and hearing high voices, I thought I might be needed. It looks like I was," he added, with a significant glance around the room. Stella was too overwhelmed to speak. It was Jay who answered.
"I'm mighty glad you didn't come five minutes earlier, Sergeant. If you had you'd have been forced to take the wrong man into custody."
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you all to consider yourselves under arrest," said Tooker.
"Good gosh!—you ain't going to take Hedley back to prison?" exclaimed Jay in dismay.
"That will be my duty, sir," replied Tooker calmly. "If he's been wrongly convicted—as what I've heard seems to prove—it's only a matter of a week or two before he is released, but for the present he is still under sentence and must be treated accordingly. And now, if you please, I'll ask your name, and if you wish to make a statement—" He took out a fat notebook and a pencil, licked the end of it, and stood waiting expectantly. His calm common-sense had an immediate effect. Jay laughed.
"Sit right down, Sergeant, and I'll tell you the whole story."
Tell it he did without the slightest concealment. When he got to the planning at the escape, Tooker looked at him.
"You needn't give away more than you want to, sir," he said drily. Jay laughed.
"It's got to come sooner or later. I'd rather you had it than some other people."
"Perhaps you're wise, sir," said Tooker, as his pencil flew. That was all, but Miles and Stella both saw that the sturdy sergeant was pleased. At last it was all down. Tooker pocketed his book and looked round.
"Is there a telephone here, sir?"
"We don't run to that," said Jay. "Do you want to call up the prison?"
"I want to get a message to Okehampton—to send a car."
"Mine's here, if it's any good to you."
"You're very kind, sir, but I shouldn't feel justified in using it. Besides, I've got to have help."
"To manage your crowd of prisoners?" asked Jay, with a twinkle in his eyes.
"You might put it that way," said the sergeant, calmly. Stella spoke.
"We could send my housekeeper, Mrs. Marble, with a note to the village. The postmaster would send it on at once to Okehampton." Tooker looked at her gratefully.
"Thank you, miss. That will do fine." He wrote the note and Mrs. Marble went off. Then Stella suggested that it was lunch time, and Jay agreed that a meal would be welcome.
"You'll give me your word not to leave the house?" Tooker asked. Jay, Miles and Stella all agreed but Maurice was sullenly silent, so Tooker remained on guard over him. Presently Jay hurried back into the room.
"Say, Sergeant, do you want another prisoner?"
"Whatever are you talking about, sir?"
"I've just spotted Clement Cullen coming up the road, and I know darn well what he's after. See here. You hide behind the curtain and I'll let him in and you can hear what he says." A slow smile crossed Tooker's face.
"I'll do that," he said, and took up his position.
Miles was hastily bundled out of the way and Maurice locked into a little back room before Cullen reached the door. Jay let him in, and led him into the drawing room.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Cullen?" he asked politely. Cullen took the best chair, sat down, and crossed his legs comfortably.
"I hear you fixed it all right, Captain Scorson," he said.
"The escape, you mean. Yes, it went off all right."
"And you're keeping Mr. Hedley here."
"That would be telling," said Jay, with a smile.
"I don't need be told. You wouldn't be here if he wasn't."
"Then what's the use of asking?" replied Jay. "Did you come to see him?"
"It isn't him I want to see," replied Cullen coolly. "It's you."
"Well, here I am," said Jay easily. "What seems to be your trouble?"
"The trouble's yours, not mine," said the crook. "I've come for my money." A puzzled look crossed Jay's face.
"But you've had it. Five hundred was sent you in notes, by registered post."
"Oh, that," Cullen waved his hand. "Chicken feed. You didn't think I'd be content with that."
"A bargain's a bargain," Jay told him. "You've been paid, and that's all there is to it."
Cullen's face hardened. "You're not such a fool as all that, Captain Scorson. I'm asking another thousand."
"Keeping my mouth shut," replied Cullen. Jay tried to look dismayed, and succeeded fairly well.
"You mean you'd inform against us if you weren't paid?"
"Just that, mister," said Cullen with a slight sneer. "So the sooner I have the money, the better for all concerned."
"But this is blackmail," exclaimed Jay.
"Call it anything you like," was the answer. "So long as you pay."
"And if I do pay, what's to prevent you asking for another thousand, and another after that?"
"Nothing, so far as I know; I'm reckoning to have my share out of the gold mine. So long as I get it you re safe." Jay shook his head.
"Not good enough, Cullen. You've had your money and you won't get any more out of me, or Miss Drake." Cullen stared at him.
"Do you know the penalty for aiding and abetting an escape? It's two years' imprisonment. If you don't fork up you and Miss Drake will both go to quod."
"Demanding money by threats and menaces," came Tooker's voice suddenly, "and the penalty is anything up to fifteen years' penal servitude." Cullen leaped to his feet and whirled to face the sergeant. Jay saw his hand fly to his hip pocket, but he was prepared for this, and with one jump had Cullen by the wrist, wrenching his arm back with such force that the man screamed with pain.
"Thank you, sir," said Tooker, as he quickly clipped a pair of handcuffs on Cullen's wrist. "This is a chap we've long been trying to get hold of, only he's been too clever for us. But this time"—he smiled a little as he thought what such a capture would mean to him—"we've got him safe."
"Luncheon is ready," said Stella coming into the room.
"And so's the sergeant," said Jay with a grin. "I'll watch him, sergeant," he added, "while you feed."
"You re very kind, sir," said Tooker gratefully. Then in a lower voice, "I shan't forget this, Captain Scorson, and I don't think that Scotland Yard will either."
* * * * *
Tooker was right and although Miles spent that night in Dartmoor, and Jay and Stella in Exeter gaol, none of them were particularly downcast. By Tooker's good offices word had already been sent to Franklin Bartlett, and the wheels of the law were soon set in motion. In a very short time Maurice was in the dock, charged with the killing of Vedder. Luckily for him there was no evidence of Vender's blackmail, and he got off lightly with two years' hard labour, but at the same assizes Cullen was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude.
Miles received a severe lecture for his foolishness in taking on another man's crime, and a King's pardon. As for Jay and Stella, they got off with a reprimand. The Judge could not well sentence them, because the newspapers were full of the story, and for nine days they and Miles were the most popular people in England.
"Well, folk, what did I say?" said Jay Scorson, with his cheery grin, as he and Miles and Stella dined together at Anson's. "Didn't I prophecy I'd be Miles's best man before six month were out?" He lifted his glass. "Here's luck to you both," he ended. Stella lifted hers.
"And here's to the man who got us out of all our troubles."
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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