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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. XIV Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301071h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
AS Manning fell headlong into the room, full of one single, determined purpose, he was conscious of the amazing contrast between the conditions inside and out. He was half aware of what he saw, like one who dreams uneasily and illogically. For there, all was peace and refinement and the little odds and ends of luxury that go to make up the thing we call home.
To begin with, Edith Carson was sitting at the piano, playing some soft, elusive music to herself. There was just the suggestion of a smile on her face. The light from the subdued lamps reflected on the white blur of her dress and the diamonds in her dusky hair. Then she caught sight of Manning, and her expression changed to a sort of haughty amazement.
"Mr. Manning," she said, "what does this mean?"
Manning strode across the room and laid a heavy hand upon the girl's shoulder.
"Come along!" he said. "There is not a moment to be lost! Come without a word!"
Edith Carson rose to her feet.
"Really!" she protested. "Really!"
"Oh, there's not time for anything of that sort," Manning said bitterly. "I am not welcome, I know, but that's not the point. I will explain as we go along."
"You'll explain now," the girl said coldly.
"Very well then," Manning said between his teeth. "Those blackguards have risen at last. There's not a man on the estate who is loyal to Adair. I told you what they were—I warned you not to come here, in the disturbed state of the country. This isn't Europe; it's a little pocket-handkerchief State in No Man's Land. You ought to have stayed in the town. And now, to put it mildly, your life is in danger."
Still the girl failed to comprehend. She elevated her eyebrows daintily and scornfully. "I stay here till the Adairs come back," she said.
Manning lost no time in further argument. He slipped his arm round the girl's waist and fairly lifted her off her feet as he carried her on to the balcony. Then he switched off the electric lights.
"Look," he said, " and listen!"
It was all soft, velvety darkness outside, a tranquil summer night, fair as the stars powdering the sky overhead. But here and there lights glowed against the sky, and ever and again flashes of flame stabbed the darkness. And then there came in quick succession the sound of shots.
"There are over five hundred of the devils there," Manning said hoarsely, "looting and burning—yes, and murdering! They call it a strike. And they are coming here! Now you are beginning to understand?"
Edith Carson drew a deep breath. It was coming home to her now, right enough. But even then, in that moment of peril, she was conscious of the feeling of resentment in her heart against the man by her side. For he had warned her of this—warned her of the danger of coming so far from the town at a time of labour unrest—and he had been right. He had always been right in his simple, dogged way, even from the moment, two years ago, when he had asked her to marry him, and she had laughed him to scorn. And now here they were, side by side, face to face with a terror all the more alarming because neither of them knew in what form it had come.
"Where are the Adairs?" Edith asked.
"In Adigo by this time," Manning said. "I managed to warn them as they came along in the car, and they turned back. They could do nothing by coming on, and I promised to look after you. Even then we had to fight for it. But the car is outside, and I am waiting. If yoa have the slightest regard for your safety, come with me at once."
Still the girl sat there hesitating.
"Where is Señor del Sartes?" she asked. "He would be able to stop all this, I am sure."
Manning smiled grimly under cover of the darkness. It was not for him to say just then that del Sartes lay out there in the garden with a bullet through that black heart of his, and that the hand that fired the shot was still half clasped about the waist of her who asked the question.
"I cannot tell you," Manning said simply. "except that he is dead. But I can tell you this—Miguel del Sartes was no friend of yours. Oh, I know what you think. You think I was jealous of him, and perhaps I was. And I know that he had fascinated you with those beautiful manners of his, to say nothing of his handsome face. If he had been here half an hour before me, we should never have met again!"
"Señor del Sartes was a gentleman," Edith said.
"He wasn't," Manning said doggedly. "He was a black-hearted scoundrel. I couldn't tell you this before, because I was not sure, and I don't think, you would have believed me, anyway. But this I can tell you—he had a wife up there in the mountains, in that lonely hacienda of his, a poor creature who had lost her reason because of his treatment of her. And now do you begin to understand? Now perhaps you will believe me when I tell you that this uprising was engineered by him—well, because he has a wife, and because he had dared to raise his eyes to you."
No words came from Edith Carson's lips, though she tried to smile, but she knew very well, deep down in her heart, that this was a true thing. And she knew that Manning had come all this way, taking his life in his hands, for her sake. Another shot or two rang out, and somewhere in the garden the two standing on the balcony could hear the patter of stealthy feet. Manning waited for no more. He lifted the girl in his arms and staggered out into the night. He blundered down the path through the garden, and out into the road, where the car was waiting. He placed his burden inside and started the engine, after which he switched on the light. Then for a quarter of an hour or more the little car raced down the mountain road unmolested, save that every now and then a little flash of light from a rifle struck into the darkness. But they were through at length, and presently the car pulled up by the side of a deep ravine.
"We are fairly safe now," Manning said; "at least, we shall be till morning; and, after that, it largely depends upon your coolness and courage. We can't go back— any attempt to reach Adigo would be madness. The whole country will be in a state of chaos for days, and any Englishman or woman caught by those madmen would—well, you ought to know by this time."
They sat there, talking more or less fitfully, till the night began to fade, and then suddenly the sun shot up over the mountain peaks in a blaze of golden glory. It was wonderfully still and quiet there, with the snow-capped mountains behind them, and the deep river, cutting its way through the rocky gorge, lay at their feet. It was only a narrow gorge, not more than sixty or seventy feet at the outside, and the stream ran between with a steep precipice on either side. On the further bank the virgin forest began, a glorious tangle of tree and undergrowth, stretching back for a mile or two till the plains were reached, and it was for these plains that Manning was making.
"Perhaps I had better tell you what I am trying to do," he said. "We can't go back, because that is impossible. We should never get through to Adigo. And if we cross the river, we may reach that little station where Addison and his assistants have established themselves. You have met Addison?"
Edith nodded. She had met the distinguished naturalist more than once at the Adairs' hacienda, and, indeed, she rather liked the somewhat eccentric individual who had come all those miles from home in the interests of science.
"We shall be all right there," Manning said, "if we can only reach the place. There are half a dozen good men with Addison, and I know they have got at least one machine-gun there. But we haven't done with the danger yet. We have got to get through two miles of virgin forest, unless we go down the river's bank on the far side, and that might take at least a week. I have crossed that belt of forest only once before, and, if I lose my way, we can just sit down and starve."
"Oh, I am ready, if you are," Edith said. "And I am truly sorry, Tom. I have behaved very badly to you, and I want to tell you so. I suppose I was angry because you were right."
"Oh, we can go into all that presently," Manning said almost roughly. "We have got something else to think about now besides apologies. Those people are sure to follow us, even if it is only for the sake of getting hold of the car. What we have got to do now is to get across the river and cut off our retreat."
Across that rocky gorge, from one side to the other, with the river running two hundred feet below, was a slender steel rope, a kind of endless band running over wheels at either end. Suspended by this was a sort of basket arrangement by means of which the natives of those parts crossed the ravine. Edith looked at it and shuddered. She was plucky enough, as a rule, but the idea of crossing in that basket filled her with dismay.
"Is that the only way?" she faltered.
"Absolutely," Manning said. "It's quite safe. Now, I am going to put you in the basket, and I shall stand over you with my feet on either side. Now, then, screw your courage up. Think what would happen if any of those people were following us, and it's any money some of them are doing so. I think I had better blindfold you."
"No, no!" Edith cried. "that would be horrible. How brave you are, Tom!"
Manning grunted. He was in no smiling mood. He loved the girl by his side, but he could not altogether smother a certain resentment against her because she had quite wilfully placed herself in this position. He lifted her without ceremony in his arms and dumped her down in the bottom of the basket. He stood with his feet on either side, swaying perilously, and then began to work the steel rope over the wheel. It was a long and arduous task with the double weight, and Manning's muscles felt as if they were on fire by the time he had reached the other side and placed the girl safely on the cliff.
"You just sit there," he said, "and wait till I come back. Oh, yes, I must go. You are all right here. You see, I have got my rifle and cartridges to fetch, and I managed to get hold of a certain amount of food last night, which is in the car. I planned all this out as I came along. I knew, if I got to the hacienda before del Sartes, that we should have a good sporting chance. And, thank Heaven, I was not too late!"
Manning came back presently with the basket loaded to the top, and then slowly and patiently proceeded to saw through the steel hawser with a file. It was tedious work, but presently the last strand snapped, and the wire rope disappeared in the bed of the river. With the snapping of the last strand something seemed to give way in Manning, too, for he wiped the heavy drops from his hot face, and for the first time since they started his features relaxed into a smile.
"I think we are all right now," he said. "The wretches can't follow us—at least, not for a day or two, anyhow, and by that time we ought to reach our friends."
"A day or two!" Edith exclaimed. "I thought it was only two or three miles. Surely we shan't be all that time getting through the forest?"
"Well, we may or we may not," Manning said cheerfully. "If we take the wrong turning, it may be a week."
He spoke easily enough, and with a certain indifference that he was far from feeling. He knew only too well, sportsman and wanderer as he was, what it meant to get off the track even in four or five square miles of that dense forest. He had heard of natives, men accustomed to the woodland life, who had lain down there and died of starvation within half a mile of their own huts. It was the time of the year, too, when the vegetation grew with almost savage luxuriance, so that Manning could see almost at a first glance how all trace of track and path had disappeared. They were only a mile or two from safety, but then he had heard and seen enough of that wild country on the other side of the ravine to know the danger in which they stood.
But of this he said nothing. There would be time enough for that when the dread catastrophe stared them in the face. He had no guide or compass, nothing but his own instinct and the memory of one journey through that dense forest. Here and there was a patch of clear ground, and in one of these they camped presently and partook of a meal. It was late in the afternoon before Manning made his first attempt at progress, only to find himself driven back presently on to the clearing, with a cold sensation at his heart and the knowledge that he and his companion were in deadly peril. For there was no sign of a track to be seen anywhere, and though there were openings here and there, they were breast-high in a sea of grass and luxuriant foliage. To go back was impossible, to go forward something like madness. And as the day went on and night came, followed by another dawn, Edith Carson began to see that Manning was keeping something from her. Up to now she had undergone no hardship particularly, for the nights were mild enough, and her thin evening dress, together with Manning's coat, had been sufficient to protect her.
She turned to him suddenly.
"You are afraid?" she challenged.
"Not for myself," Manning replied. "At a pinch I could do the few miles down-stream and swim the ravine. I have matches and some cartridges, and I am used to this sort of life, as you know. But—yes, I might just as well tell you, we're in terrible danger, and I am to blame."
"You are not!" the girl cried. "We may be in terrible danger, but nothing like the peril I should have had to face if you had not come to my assistance."
"I am glad you understand that," Manning said curtly.
"Oh, I do! Del Sartes stirred up that strike. There would have been no trouble but for him. And he did it because— because—oh, I cannot say it!"
"Because he wanted to get hold of you," Manning interrupted. "His idea was that no one on the estate should survive last night's work. And if I had not heard of this and hastened to the spot, he would have succeeded. At any rate, he has paid the price. I saw to that."
"You killed him?" Edith cried.
"I shot him, certainly. On my side, at any rate, it was a fair fight. But what does it matter? Why go into all that? It is the future we have to think of."
Edith Carson bent her head in shame. She remembered now the warnings that Manning had given her, and how she had flouted them. The spoilt child of a rich American father, she had travelled the world us she pleased, making friends here and there, and living her own self-centred life until Manning had drifted across her horizon. Perhaps, if his admiration had been a little less manifest, if he had not wooed her quite so humbly, she might have given him her heart long ago. And because he had followed her half across the world, it had been her mood to treat him with a certain good-humoured contempt. But that was not her feeling now.
She turned to him suddenly, with a look in her eyes that a little while before would have filled him with gladness.
"I am responsible for all this," she said. "How foolish I have been, how blind! And yet I meant nothing. Now tell me the truth—tell me, are we standing here face to face with death? I am not without courage, Tom. I shall dread things a lot less if I really know."
"Well, then, we are," Manning said. "We can't go back, and I don't know the way forward. It's only a mile or two, if I knew the right direction, but it might be a continent as far as we are concerned. And I am afraid to leave this clearing. There are all sorts of dangers round us—snakes and wild beasts, and all that kind of thing. We have enough food for a few days, with care, and I have my gun. Good Heavens, how helpless a man is at times like this!"
They made more than one attempt to find an avenue of safety down those tangled green lanes, but each evening, before dusk fell, they were forced back again into the opening, where they sat, sharing the rapidly-decreasing stock of provisions, augmented from time to time by Manning with his gun. They kept up a good fire, there in the heart of the forest; and long after Edith had fallen asleep, to dream fitful dreams. Manning sat moodily looking into the gloom beyond the ring of the firelight, and catching the amber glow in more than one pair of restless, savage eyes. And so it went on, until there was barely enough food left for another day or so, and Manning was down to his last handful of cartridges. His clothes hung about him in rags, his face was grimy, and his chin black with a four days' growth of beard. And, in sooth, Edith Carson was in little better case. Manning had saved her as much as possible, but that filmy evening dress of hers was all in shreds, the diamonds—which she still wore in her dusky hair—looked grotesquely out of place. And so the fourth evening came, with Edith sleeping a few yards away, and Manning hunched up by the side of the fire, his empty pipe in his mouth and a look on his face that was not good to see. He was tired and worn out, and very near the breaking-point with fatigue and anxiety. Presently he began to nod, and was drifting off subconsciously into the realm of dreams, when a voice struck on his ear.
It was a strange, hoarse voice, hardly human, a croaking, mocking sort of voice from somewhere overhead, so that Manning opened his eyes with a sudden feeling that he was either dreaming or that he was on the verge of madness. He took a pull at himself and wiped the cold moisture from his forehead.
"I am going dotty!" he murmured. "I mustn't do that—I mustn't do that!"
Then the voice came again, clearly enough this time, and Manning knew beyond question that he was listening to it, cold and trembling, but with all his senses about him.
"Have a drink! Have a drink!" the voice said from somewhere overhead. "Have a whisky and soda!"
Manning laughed. A queer, hysterical feeling gripped him by the throat. Edith Carson sat up suddenly.
"Did you hear that?" she whispered. "Was it real?"
"It must be real if we both heard it," Manning said.
"I heard it last night," Edith went on. "Just the same words, only I thought I was dreaming, and didn't like to say anything about it."
The voice came no more, and daylight failed to afford any trace of a human footstep. And then, next day, towards evening, just as it was getting dark, the mysterious voice was heard once more in the dense mass of foliage overhead. At the repetition of the familiar suggestion Manning broke into a peal of unsteady laughter. He pointed upwards.
"Do you know what it is?" he asked. "It's a parrot—a parrot evidently escaped from somewhere close by, and beyond question belonging to some Englishman. Now, I wonder if that bird belongs to Addison? He's got any amount of birds there—in fact, birds are his particular hobby. He can do anything he likes with them. It's any money this parrot belongs to him."
"It must," Edith said. "But I don't see how this is going to help us."
Manning sat there furiously thinking. He moved presently a little further into the open, then beckoned Edith to his side. Silently he pointed upwards. And there, on a branch a few feet above their heads, was a great grey parrot eyeing them with a sort of solemn friendliness, and a peculiar twinkle in that beady little black orb of his.
"Whisky and soda!" he said. "Come and have a whisky and soda! Help yourself, my boy!"
"If we could only get hold of him!" Edith whispered.
"Ah, if we only could!" Manning said, with a deep breath. "Look at him! There isn't a feather out of place. He's too sleek and well fed to have escaped of his own accord. He's one of Addison's pets, and is probably allowed to fly about the forest as he likes. If we can only get hold of him, we are saved."
"Are we?" Edith asked eagerly. "How?"
"Well, the rest would be easy. We could write a little note to Addison and tie it round the bird's claw, telling our friend exactly where we are, and the rest is easy. Addison knows every inch of this ground, and he could reach us without the slightest trouble. It's any odds that bird goes back home some time or other, once a day, to be fed, certainly. Here, Polly! Pretty bird!"
As the familiar tongue struck upon the bird's ear, he burst into a laugh and hopped down two or three branches till he was almost within grasp.
"Addison's bird for a million!" Manning cried. "That's his laugh to a note. Come along, Polly!"
But the parrot refused to come any closer. It was only when Manning produced a small portion of his precious food that the grey bird showed further signs of friendliness. It was maddening to have him just one yard out of reach, when the absolute salvation of two human lives lay, so to speak, across those glossy grey wings. Manning and his companion stood there silent and motionless and hardly breathing in the tension of the moment. Then the parrot fluttered to the ground, croaking and snapping his beak at the tempting food. Manning dropped on his hands and knees, and crawled cautiously forward, knowing that two lives depended upon the next moment. Then he took his coat from his back and, reaching forward, dropped it quietly over the shining mass of grey feathers. There was a little struggle, and a volley of oaths in the Spanish tongue, and then the bird was safe in Manning's grasp.
"Take my pocket-book out of my pocket," he said, with the sweat pouring down his face. "Just write a few lines to Addison, explaining where we are. It's our only chance."
The note was written, shakily enough, and then wound round one of the bird's claws and carefully tied with some strands of silk taken from Edith Carson's dress. After that Manning pitched the parrot into the air, and he sailed away high over the tree-tops, screaming and chattering vehemently at the treatment to which he had been subjected.
"I hope to Heaven he is going straight home," Manning said. "If so, we are saved, though I expect we shall have to wait till morning."
They sat round the fire now, talking freely enough, for their hearts were full of hope, and, moreover, before they settled down to sleep, they had come to a perfect understanding. The sun was climbing high before Manning opened his eyes, and when he did so he saw the kindly face of his naturalist friend looking down upon him from behind his gold-rimmed spectacles. There were other men besides the famous naturalist gazing eagerly at the strange scene before them.
"You can tell me all about it presently, old man," Addison said. "Meanwhile, come along and bring the lady with you, and get a bath and a change of clothing. You have had a close call, evidently. If it hadn't been for the parrot—"
"Whisky and soda! Whisky and soda!" croaked a voice overhead. "Help yourself!"
"Oh, I could do with one, Polly!" Manning laughed unsteadily. "You are a wise bird."
OPPOSITE the window was a portrait of a young man; the lower part of the canvas was a red splash, and the girl shivered as she noticed it.
For this was a portrait of Norman de Montfort, the author and playwright whose tragic death had caused such a sensation in literary circles a month or two ago. Why? He had written one or two one-act comedies, and was looking forward eagerly to the success of a big drama that he had just finished. When Cecile had seen him on the morning of his death he had been in the highest possible spirits. He was rejoicing in the fact that he had the cottage entirely to himself till midnight, at least; it was his intention to devote the whole of the day to the completion of the play, after which he was going to take an entire month's rest.
The play he had refused to discuss with any one, except to tell his sister and his great friend, Philip Ayres, the artist and scene-painter, that it was a play within a play, and that no one was going to see it until it was actually finished. But from time to time Cecile had elicited certain details without really seeing any of the script.
And then she had come down that spring evening with her brother's friend, and, incidentally, the man she was going to marry, thinking only of the pleasant Sunday they were going to spend together, and she had suddenly found herself face to face with stark tragedy.
She had a task before her now, and that task she was going to see through with the aid of Philip Ayres, whom she was waiting for at that moment. He came presently, with an apology for the delay, but Cecile was not listening.
"I daresay you will wonder why I asked you to come down here, Philip," she said. "But I am more than ever convinced that poor Norman was murdered."
"Well," Ayres said, "you know I don't agree with you, though I never could see the reason—"
"Oh, I know what you are going to say. Poor old Norman hadn't an enemy in the world. You want to know what object the murderer had. Well, I'm going to tell you. He came down here to steal Norman's play."
"Ah!" Ayres exclaimed. "It was very strange that no trace of the manuscript should have been found, though we know that it was practically finished."
"It has been found," Cecile said quietly.
"What! You mean to say that you've got it?"
"No, but I have a copy of it. You will ask if I know why it is a copy. Well, perhaps I had better explain. Now, I have been at the Thespian for over a year, not playing very big parts, but for the most part understudying Stella Marx. As you know, she has been on tour for the last month or so, playing repertory with Raynor Plunkett, previous to her going to take up an engagement in America. Now, about a month ago they produced a new drama in Liverpool called 'The Arms of Chance.'"
"Yes, I saw that. From all accounts it seems to have been a magnificent success."
"Oh, indeed it was. Now my manager at the Thespian intends to produce 'The Arms of Chance' in London in about a month's time, with Raynor Plunkett in the lead, and the repertory company which is now in the North. And as Stella Marx is going to America I have been asked to play her part in London. Oh, yes, I know it's a big thing tor me, but I'm not thinking about that. I am going to tell you—"
"It's rather a funny thing, Cecile," Ayres said, "but I have been engaged to paint the scenery for the new play. The scene plot reached me only this morning."
"Yes, I know it did, Phil., and that is why I asked you to meet me here this morning. In fact, after I had read the manuscript of 'The Arms of Chance' it was I who suggested to Mr. Brentwood that he should give you the commission. I have got the play in my pocket at the present moment, and I want you to sit here for an hour or so and read it. And when you have done so you will probably have some idea of what is in my mind."
Ayres sat down with the manuscript in his hand, and for an hour or so read steadily on. Then he looked up eagerly. "By Jove! that's a funny thing," he said. "Why, the two big scenes in the drama might have taken place in this cottage. The conversation centres round a portrait of the writer painted by Jean Sacks. And there is your brother looking down upon us now in the shape of one of Sack's masterpieces. By Jove! I notice the strange handles on that Jacobean sideboard which are mentioned in the play."
"Raynor Plunkett, who himself appears in the leading character, is supposed to have written the play. He used to come here from time to time, and he would be well aware of the fact that Norman had discussed his play with no one. Why, there is one little scene that could be known only to Norman and myself."
"That is a very serious thing to say, Cecile," Ayres murmured. "Now, what do you propose to do about it?"
"Phil., I am more concerned for my brother's reputation. Why should he be robbed of the fruits of his genius? Why should a man who is nothing but a mere picturesque actor cloak himself in a dead man's fame? I believe that that was the term that inspired Plunkett to murder. But never mind about that for the moment. What I want you to do is to make the scene of the two big acts an exact copy of this cottage. I even want you to take the furniture away and put it on the stage of the Thespian."
"What, just as it is?" Ayres exclaimed.
"Absolutely. And see that my brother's portrait by Sacks hangs in a prominent position. Now do you begin to understand, Phil.?"
"Yes, I think I do," Ayres murmured. "And so you are going to reconstruct the crime, Cecile?"
"I want nothing else," she cried. "It is the best plan, Phil., and I am sure you are going to help me."
"Of course I will," Ayres responded. "But there are many difficulties in the way. If I grasp your scheme, it is intensely dramatic, and a sudden surprise is at the bottom of it. When you come to rehearse with Plunkett—"
"But I shan't," Cecile said, eagerly. "At least, not in the proper sense of the word. You see, I am the one new member of the company which has already made the reputation of the piece. Raynor Plunkett may pay me the compliment of giving me a couple of hours in his dressing-room or on the bare stage one morning but there will be no dress rehearsal—there will not be time. And if you do your part properly, then I have no fear of the result."
There had been a great deal of talk, of course, about the play by that eminent actor, Raynor Plunkett, which had been so successful in the North, and which was to be produced within the next week or two at the Thespian Theatre. He had come down from the North with the rest of the company, and in his own large way had proclaimed to the manager, Brentwood, that he wanted nothing besides the assurance that Stella Marx's part would be adequately filled. Not that he attached much importance to the heroine—he was too assured of his own personal triumph for that.
Nevertheless, he stared and frowned when he heard who had been cast for the part of the heroine. He would see her, of course, in the dressing-room for an hour or two for a couple of mornings before the production of the piece, and that, no doubt, would be quite sufficient. As to the rest of the company, he was perfectly satisfied.
The house was packed from floor to ceiling, of course. The mere fact that Raynor Plunkett was appearing in a new play would have been enough in itself to fill any theatre in London. The story of the Northern triumph had gone abroad, so that that critical audience were looking for something out of the common. The curtain went up presently, and the opening act with its subtle developments proceeded smoothly enough to its close. It was more a brilliant analysis of character than anything else, closely reasoned and intimately written, and it held the audience in a close grip from the start. It was the story of a play within a play, the history of a perverted genius who, after many attempts, has at last found himself and his proper medium of expression. But he is poor and struggling, and cannot find an opening for his great work. Then on the scene comes the great popular actor in the shape of the leading character, who tempts the author to sell his work out and out and dissociate himself entirely from the authorship. This he indignantly refuses to do, and eventually, in the seclusion of the author's cottage the actor does him to death when they are roughly rehearsing one of the big scenes, and sets off with the only copy of the manuscript that exists.
Then followed the second act, actually in the cottage where the main scenes of the play take place. The author is seated at work putting the final touches to the last page of his manuscript when the actor comes in. He came, of course, in the shape of Raynor Plunkett, easy and assured, and posing in a characteristic attitude for the applause to subside. Then, as he stood there, glancing easily about him, he suddenly stiffened and his whole expression changed. It was as if he had been snatched away from his surroundings and carried back to some scene that he was striving to forget. He stumbled forward and put his hand over his eyes. He was so palpably disturbed and so shaken that a thrill went through the house, and people in the stalls began to whisper together.
What was the matter with Plunkett, they asked—was he going to faint or collapse altogether? It was only for a moment, then the man on the stage pulled himself together again, and began to go through his part. But it was plain enough to the most inexperienced of theatre-goers that all the life had gone out of the part, and that the colour and light and shade had vanished. It was not at Raynor Plunkett that those people were looking, but some amateur suffering from stage fright, who paused from time to time and glanced about him as if certain objects in that cottage interior fascinated and paralysed him. There was one portrait on the wall that seemed to freeze him and tie his tongue every time he glanced at it. Ever and again the voice of the prompter could be clearly heard.
But still Plunkett struggled on, his long experience and perfect stage training keeping him from utter collapse. The lengthy scene came to an end presently with the author of the play lying dead on the floor with a bullet through his brain, and a woman in her night-clothing, with her hair hanging over her shoulders, standing in the doorway looking on, with an expression of one who walks in her sleep. Then, almost to the relief of everybody in the house, the curtain came down, and a thrill ran through the audience.
They would have thrilled more, perhaps, could they have seen what was taking place behind those closed tapestries. For Plunkett stood there shaking like a leaf from head to foot, his face wet and ghastly as he looked into a pair of burning eyes that seemed to pierce through him as Cecile de Montfort came nearer to him with an accusing question on her face. She did not speak, she turned slowly presently, and faced the portrait of her dead brother on the wall. She was strung up to it now, cool and calm enough, and yet inwardly raging, but outwardly she was a white avenging spirit. He faced her quietly enough.
But he could see that she was determined; he could see that he was up against something more than a crisis in his life. She was so cool and quiet, too, so obviously collected, so like an animal that has tracked its prey down and knows only too well that the victim is beyond the power of escape. It seemed strange to the man, fighting for his life, as he knew he was, that he should be baffled and bruised and beaten by a mere girl, just an ordinary actress that he tossed a smile or a nod to and expected her to be grateful for.
And this little bit of a thing with her reputation still to make held him and his fortune in the hollow of her hands. Just for a moment he wondered whether or not it was possible to make some compromise with her, whether or not she might be disposed to put her future before the call of nature and her desire to be avenged. But this was only for a moment, and as he looked into the girl's eyes he could see no shadow of an escape that way. And, for the life of him, he could not speak, he could not shape those cool, insolent words that played about at the back of his brain and trembled at the tip of his tongue. The situation was fast becoming intolerable. It was Cecile who broke the silence at length.
"Well," she said coldly. "It's for you to speak. Go on, I am waiting. What are you going to do?"
The man broke way and headed off the stage in the direction of the dressing-room, past a dozen curious eyes, and past the manager, who would have detained him.
"Don't stop me," he said hoarsely. "A sudden illness—a very old trouble of mine. A little brandy, perhaps, and I shall be all right again."
He tumbled almost headlong into his dressing-room, and the uneasy Brentwood heard the key turn in the lock. There would be a long wait now, and perhaps by the time the next act began all would be well. Meanwhile, a half-frightened company stood huddled in the wings, shaken and uneasy, and wondering what was going to happen next. And then a call-boy came along and put a note in Cecile's hand. She recognised Plunkett's straggling scrawl, and, without opening the envelope, handed it to Brentwood, who was standing by her side.
"I think you had better see this, Mr. Brentwood," she said. "I am very sorry for all this trouble, but there was no other way. I want you to read that letter."
With unsteady fingers Brentwood opened it. He glanced down the shaky characters, then he burst out suddenly.
"What's this?" he cried. "In the name of Heaven what's happened? Apparently this is a confession from Plunkett that he murdered your brother for the sake of the play, and got away safely with it. Ah, I begin to understand. You are in this, Ayres, I suppose? Then the scene we have just witnessed is real? The crime has been reconstructed on the spot. I take it that we have been witnessing the crime over again in your brother's cottage, Miss de Montfort? But why, why all this elaboration? Why did you not come forward and make your accusation openly? And what—what are we going to do? What am I to tell the audience?"
"It's a long story," Cecile said. "And, believe me, Mr. Brentwood, there was no other way, or assuredly I would have taken it. And as to your audience—"
From somewhere in the back of the theatre there came a dull, sullen sound that drove the blood from the manager's cheeks and froze him for a moment as he stood there. Then he broke away and hurried headlong down the corridor in the direction of the dressing-rooms. There was a murmur of broken conversation in the distance, and presently the flutter of the curtain as Brentwood, white as the shirt on his breast, stood in front of his audience and made an announcement.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, in a voice that barely reached the gallery. "A most terrible thing has happened. The performance must come to an end. With deep regret I have to tell you that the body of Mr. Raynor Plunkett has just been found in his dressing-room. There is not the slightest doubt that the unfortunate gentleman committed suicide. There is a painful story attached to the rash act which I cannot go into now, but which you will probably learn all about in due course. I must therefore ask you to leave the theatre."
THE usual placid smile was on Denny's face as he crossed the prison yard on his way to the cook house for the inevitable matutinal bread and butter and cocoa. Denny had come to Kingstown two years ago, and from the first had established himself as the prime favourite with his gaolers. He was always cheerful and always willing, and any man more unlike the fruit of the gallows it would have been hard to imagine. And yet Denny's escape from the supreme penalty had been a narrow one indeed. There was little doubt of the fact that it was his hand that had dealt the fatal blow in that wild poaching affray on the edge of Hoxton Moor, but there was just a doubt, and the sympathetic jury had given Denny the benefit of it. At that critical moment Denny's perennial smile had stood him in good stead. It was impossible to believe that a man looking so innocent and guileless could have been guilty of a cruel murder. So the jury had called it manslaughter—to the great annoyance of Mr. Justice Savory—and the latter had grimly complimented the prisoner on his escape, and had let him off with the comparatively light sentence of three years' penal servitude.
Denny smiled as he heard the sentence, smiled as he left the Court, but his heart was full of tears and the misery of it bore him down and overwhelmed him. He had never meant to injure the keeper, he had been standing on the defence with his back to a dry ditch grimly resolved to see the thing through, and it was a pure misfortune that John Stokes had run in just in time to get the butt of the gun crashing down on his head. Up to that moment Denny had never been in trouble. He was a hard-working farmer doing his best to scratch a living from a few acres of sour moorland, and naturally enough a man must have his recreations; and poaching happened to be the outstanding passion of Denny's life. It was common knowledge that up to that dreadful night no keeper had ever laid Denny by the heels, and no successful charge had ever been made against him.
* * * * *
ANOTHER three months now and there would be an end of it. When the order for release came, the leaves would be falling and the Autumn gold, burnished and shining, would be hanging in gleaming banners on the woodsides. Sometimes as Denny worked he could hear the cock pheasants challenging in the spinneys, and only yesterday he had found a covey of partridges in a ferny hollow. The smile died from his face for a moment and something caught him by the throat and filled his eyes with tears. At that moment the temptation to make a dash for liberty was strong upon him. He knew every inch of the country for miles around, knew where he could find food and shelter. All he needed was a box of matches and a loaf of bread, and for the rest nothing mattered. It would be glorious to have a few days' liberty, a few hours on the tors where the biggest trout lay, and where Denny had hidden his tackle ages ago ready for the next expedition on his lordship's preserved water. But this would only mean the freedom of the woods for an all too brief space, and the loss of the remission of sentence which good conduct and that perennial smile had won for the prisoner.
So Denny put the temptation from mind and the next morning there came the letter which was the cause of all the mischief. It was a letter from a girl, of course, and as Denny read it in the seclusion of his cell his face grew hard, and there was on his brow a frown as black as night. He went about his appointed task for the rest of the day with the ghost of a smile, and before he slept that night he had made up his mind.
* * * * *
IT was a misty morning, grey and gloomy, and the lights were still burning in the prison as he crossed to the cook house to draw his rations. He turned abruptly to the right and made for the high wall round the yard beyond which the misty moor and liberty lay. In an angle of the yard some repairs had been going on, and here and there a heap of stones ready to his hand. He whipped off his coat and unwound from his body a rope constructed from his torn sheets, one end of which he tied around one of the stones, and, exerting all his strength, threw it over the wall. With his light weight he was confident that the big stone would afford sufficient resistance for him to reach the coping. It was just touch and go for a moment, but the stone dangling over the top held firmly, and a few seconds later Denny was speeding across the moor in the direction of the tors.
He ran on smoothly and easily, full of the joy of life, the keen air filling his lungs like champagne. He knew exactly where to go; the precise direction in which to turn, so that when the prison bell clanged harshly through the unbroken silence, he smiled with the air of one well satisfied.
And Denny had no illusions. With the best of luck on his side he could not hope to be a free man more than a few days. Still, he could accomplish a good deal in that time. The first thing he had to do was to provide himself with suitable clothing, and here was the hut of Joe Braund, the shepherd, all ready for the purpose. He and old Joe had shot many a pheasant together, but when Joe heard the news and subsequently found an old coat and pair of trousers missing—well, Joe would know how to be silent.
It was past 10 before Denny had finished his breakfast. He had borrowed some bread and a box of matches, and with the aid of his fishing tackle had caught a brace of his lordship's trout, and had cooked them over a dry wood fire. Then he lay down like a dog in the sweet-smelling bracken and slept for hours.
* * * * *
THE light was failing in the western sky as he woke and turned his steps in the direction of a cluster of twinkling lights which he knew outlined the little hamlet of Weston. He skirted the village cautiously until he came to a cottage lying back in a garden, the door of which was open, so that he could see the cheap oil lamp burning smokily on the table. As he crept along the flagged pathway he saw that someone was moving inside. He saw a girl, tall and slim and dark, oval of face, and looking out through a cloud of dusky hair. She was young and straight and vigorous, with a suggestion about her that spoke more of the South than the pink and white robustness of the typical Devonshire lass. She was distinctly handsome, too, in her wild, hawk-like fashion, and Denny drew a long deep breath, as he saw her, like some portrait of Rembrandt flashing against the dingy background. Assured that there was no one else in the room, Denny stepped quietly inside and closed the door behind him.
The girl turned swiftly, the olive skin grew white, the dark eyes filled with the nameless fear.
"You, you," she gasped. "Are you mad?"
"Maybe I am," Denny said slowly. "There's no fool like a fool what's lost his heart over a woman."
"If father happens to come back," the girl stammered.
"Your father will come back when they closes the doors of the Three Bells," Denny went on in the same toneless voice. The smile was no longer on his face, his eyes were troubled. "Now hearken to me, Meg. When they sent me up yonder I was as good as a dead man. Seemed to me as if my life was finished. Three years! Three years behind prison bars!"
* * * * *
"I'm very sorry, Denny," the girl stammered.
"Now that's a lie," Denny said stolidly. "You ain't a bit sorry. You've got the wrong blood in you, my lass. There never yet was a Vincent, man or woman, who cared for anybody but themselves. I suppose you can't help it. I knows as you comes from some of them that settled, 'ere back in the days when the Armady was wrecked. Your men's 'andsome and your women's beautiful enough, and never a heart amongst the lot o' ye. Yet I was fool enough to think you was different to the rest. It's nigh on three years now since I put my arm round you and kissed you, and you swore as 'ow you was the 'appiest girl in Devonshire. And I believed you. I wouldn't listen when they told me that behind my back you was carrying on with that lily-livered John Glass. Curse his pretty face and them taking ways of 'is. And when the trouble came, you swore that you would wait for me, and be my wife when I was free again. And now you are going to marry John Glass tomorrow. Is it really true, or have I been misinformed?"
"Who told you?" the girl asked unsteadily.
"I don't see that it matters," Denny said. "We get letters in prison sometimes, but you seem to have forgotten it. Anyway, not one line 'ave I 'ad from you all the time. 'Ere, what are ye goin' to do? I don't leave the cottage, nor you neither, till I've finished what I've got to say. A friend wrote and told me all about this thing. You're not worth a thought, you and this new man of yours, but because I've suffered and know what it is—well, you wouldn't understand that. Before they put me away I showed you where my money was. I showed you over a hundred pound, hard earned in sweat and toil, and that was to make a home for us when my time was up. Many a bitter night have I been cheered by the thought of that. Little did I think that you had taken my savings and bought yourself and that scamp Glass your outfits for Canada and your passages. Don't say a word to me. Where else did the money come from? Glass hasn't a penny, nor you. And you thought I should know nothing of this till I came out of prison. Do you know why I am here now? Can you guess?"
* * * * *
THE girl shook her head slowly. She stood there by the side of the table, breathing fiercely: her lips parted with a fear that was beyond all disguising. What was this man going to do to her, she wondered. He had altered strangely since she had last seen him; he was hard and haggard, and the prison taint was plainly to be seen. There was blood on his hands still; would there be blood on his hands again before he had finished with her? For all that he had said was true. In the days gone by she had been flattered by his attentions, she had flaunted Denny before the other girls in the village, she had succeeded where most of them had failed. And from the moment that the prison doors had closed upon him she had never given him another thought. She had never lacked admirers, and, in any case, there was always John Glass to fall back on. Then the temptation had come to her, and she had taken Denny's money from its hiding-place. She was going to marry Glass on the morrow, and long before Denny was free she and her husband would be thousands of miles away. Not in her wildest dreams had she anticipated such a crisis as this. It had not seemed possible for Denny to find out how he had been betrayed.
"You've got no proof of this," she said sullenly.
"What more proof do I want?" Denny demanded. "You couldn't marry Glass without money. Neither of you ever earned a penny in your lives. And when Ada—I mean my friend, wrote and told me the news, it didn't take much brains to see where the money came from."
"So that's where you got it from?" she cried. "Ada Knott wrote and told you. The white-faced cat, the jealous little fool! So that's how the silly little doll took her revenge on me?"
"She's a good girl, and always was," Denny said stolidly. "And so you are conceited enough to think that she is jealous of you. Why, she could have Glass a score of times if she had minded."
"I wasn't talking about John," she cried. "It was you that Ada Knott was after. She used to cry her eyes out when first we took to walking together. I could see what was the matter when she came whining up to me and wished me 'appiness. Couldn't keep her voice steady 'ardly. Everybody in the village knew it except you."
* * * * *
A dull red rose to Denny's cheeks.
All this was as if the girl had suddenly struck him a blow. It was very much like a flash of lightning in a dark place when a solitary wayfarer sees danger in his path. A score of forgotten incidents grew clear and luminous in Denny's mind. And there had been a time when he and Ada Knott—but he did not want to speak about that now. Nor could he believe for a moment that the letter he had received was dictated by any feeling of petty jealousy.
"I ain't goin' to argue this with you," he said. "There are lots of things that you can't understand. And now let's have the truth. I want to know just what you've done with my money?"
The girl shook her head sullenly.
"You've got no money," she said. "Never 'ad none. Who's going to believe a story told by a gaol bird? Don't you come 'ere threatening me. Don't you dare to say—"
"The money was in notes," Denny went on quietly. "Bank of England notes, they was, and I took 'em out myself when there was all that talk about Luker's Bank down to Oakleigh. Manager said I was a fule for takin' 'em. Like as not they'd be stolen from the cottage. So e' takes the numbers of the notes and enters them in a little book. It ain't my word as you're up against, Meg. And now, what have you two done with my money?"
The girl turned a little white about the lips. She was frightened now; the terror in her eyes leapt out, and Denny saw it. But there was no triumph in his face, nothing but a gentle melancholy bred of some vague intangible regret.
"You'd never charge us, Denny?" the girl asked. "The money was no use to you; besides, I'm sick and tired of this place. And there's always a chance out there in Canady."
"Not for the likes of John Glass," Denny said. "Seems to me as I'm getting my revenge later on all right. I suppose you spent it all? Not a penny of it left?"
"I didn't want to take it," the girl said hoarsely. "After I told Glass he never let me rest. And I did want to get away so bad. Hark, there's somebody outside. I'll pull down the blind. You mustn't be seen here, Denny. I'll get you away."
"You won't do nothing of the sort," Denny said doggedly. "I know that step anywhere. Many a night when we've been lying out in a dry ditch waiting for the moon to go down—Come in, John. You didn't expect to see me here tonight."
* * * * *
A slim weed of a man came jauntily into the room, and Denny caught him by the shoulder. The easy smile died away from the newcomer's lips, the strength seemed to go from his limbs, he dropped into a chair as if he had been an empty sack. The red hair plastered in a horrible fringe upon his forehead grew damp, the little ferret eyes dilated like those of a cat in the dark.
"My god, it's Denny," he faltered. "Denny come back to life again. What—what do you want?"
"I came here to kill you," he said slowly. "I knew as how I should find you here, you two together, and I promised myself—well, never mind what I promised myself. And now we are face to face I can't do it. It isn't as if you was a right and proper man, John Glass. You're just a miserable rat of a chap, just a boasting coward and no more. Funny thing to me that any woman can see anything in a bloke like you. Call yourself a poacher. Oh, yes, you used to come with us sometimes, but you always took good care to keep out of harm's way. And when there was a chance of trouble, you showed the white feather, and went whining to his lordship for mercy. It was you as put the keepers on us that night; but for you I should be a free man at this moment. Oh, I know all about it. I knew all about it at the time of the trial. And one of the luxuries I promised myself then was the leathering I was going to give you when I was a free man again. And now some'ow I can't do it. It would be almost as bad as 'itting a woman. Still, there be other ways. I could send you to jail if I 'ad a mind."
* * * * *
"You've never gone and told 'im, Meg?" Glass gasped.
"'Ere, be a man," Meg cried contemptuously. "I didn't tell 'im; 'e knew all about it when 'e came. And 'e says the bank manager over at Oakleigh 'as got the number of the notes. Might just as well own up. Besides, 'e can't do nothing. 'E'll be back in jail within a week."
There was something almost fine in this hard, shameless taunt. Whatever the man might feel, the woman was utterly unconcerned. Denny looked at her with a certain contempt for his own past blindness.
This creature was the woman he had wanted to marry! For the love of her he had seen red, in his desire for her, and his rage against the other man he had broken prison deliberately, full well knowing what the consequences might be. And now it suddenly dawned upon him that the beauty whom he had idealised was no more than a village slut, and a bold, black-eyed wench, too lazy to keep clean and too selfish to care for aught but herself. The anger and contempt and self-pity were fading from Denny's heart now as these truths dawned upon him.
"I told you what I come 'ere tonight for," he said. "Leastwise, what I thought I 'ad come for. I said as 'ow I was sure of findin' Glass 'ere, and it were my intent to kill 'im. And now I knows as I was altogether wrong. Stand up, John Glass, and face me like a man if you can."
Glass scrambled to his feet shamefacedly.
"I b'aint afraid of you," he said.
"That's a lie," Denny went on with the same even tone. "You'm in such a mortal fear that you can't stand upright. And yet there's no cause for nothing of the kind. You can say, if you like, as I come 'ere tonight to say good-bye to two old friends, and wish 'em 'appiness in the new sphere which it pleases Providence to call 'em. I learned that from a sermon what the chaplain preached in the chapel last Sunday, and I've learnt lots of things that you wouldn't understand. But that isn't what I meant to say. I come 'ere to wish you 'appiness and make you a little present. I've got a 'undred pounds 'idden away, and Meg knows where to find it. That's my wedding present to you, and if you give me a pen and a bit of paper, I'll put it down in writing. I don't want no gossip in the village, I don't want it said afterwards as 'ow you two went off with something that didn't belong to you. You can just show that paper to anyone you like. It won't matter nothing to me, because when my time's up I'm going to Canady too. I dare say when I sell up my few sticks I shall have enough to take me out yonder. Now then, what about that bit o' paper?"
* * * * *
A sullen flush rose to the girl's face, for Denny had penetrated her armour of callous selfishness at last. It was only just for a moment she was touched, only just for a moment she hesitated between admiration for Denny's generosity and an innate conviction that he was a born fool. There could be no gratitude either, seeing that the gift had already been spent. Without a word she produced a scrap of paper and a rusty pen. The suspicion of a smile flickered on her lips as she watched Denny's laborious attempt at composition. He placed his head on one side, and regarded his handiwork with pardonable pride.
"I think that's all right," he said. "No; I don't want no thanks. There'll be children presently, and it's just as well as they shan't have a' couple of thieves for their parents. And now I'll be off."
Without waiting for another word he turned and left the cottage and walked boldly out into the night. He no longer skirted along under cover of the darkness, no longer bore himself like a hunted creature flying from justice, for he had done his work, and was not afraid. As he reached the turn of the road a figure came out from the woodside and a hand was timidly laid on his arm. In the pallid moonlight he saw a pretty, anxious face and a pair of blue eyes all swimming with tears.
"So it's you, Ada?" he said. "It's good of you to stop and speak to the likes of me. If I hadn't been a fool—"
He stopped, for something seemed to catch him by the throat and choke him. He was standing in the centre of one of those blinding illuminating flashes again. And when the sear of the lightning had passed, it had fused upon his soul the lasting knowledge that this was the girl he had always loved, and that the other thing had been a mere obsession. He held out his hands unsteadily.
* * * * *
"OH, my dear, my dear," he said. "If I'd only—but it's no use to talk of that now. It was good of you to send me that letter. But 'ow did you 'appen to know as I was 'ere?"
"I saw you creeping up to the cottage," the girl exclaimed. "And then I knew who the escaped convict was. And all this because I sent you that letter. I always knew as you cared for 'er, Denny, always felt as you would go through fire and water for 'er. And she's not worth the love of any man. And that's why I wrote you the letter. I knew your time was getting near, but I didn't want you to feel the cruel disappointment when you came out. And now you've learnt the truth from them two, and it does my 'eart good to see as 'ow you've taken it like a man. If you will try in time to forget 'er—-"
"It's done already," Denny said simply. "I come 'ere tonight to make them two a wedding present, and wish 'em good luck. And I don't want ever to see neither of them again. And I don't love Meg Vincent, and I never did. And the strange thing is that I didn't know it till an hour ago. You learns lots of things in prison, my dear, but I ain't got no time to tell you about them now. If you don't mind walking down the road a little way with me—"
"Down the road?" the girl gasped. "Why, there's two warders hiding in the plantation, Denny."
"That's all right, lass," Denny said easily. "I don't mind 'em now. And you jest listen to me. I ain't blind any longer. Ada, tell me the truth. Could you love me and be my wife later on if so be as I could prove to you—"
* * * * *
"OH, you know, you know," the girl whispered. "All the village knew. And you're a good man, Denny, in spite of it all. Let us turn back. I dare say I could manage—"
Denny drew her to his side and kissed her tenderly.
"It can't be done that way, dear," he said. "Now I tell you that many things are to be learnt in prison, and in my spare time I've read more books than I ever read in my life before. And the books I have studied most are those about Canady. And that's where we're going later on, my dear. When the time comes I'll sell everything, and we'll face the new world together."
"I'd want no better happiness," the girl said. "And I've got a bit of money saved too. If you can only get away into some hiding place till they forget."
"It can't be done that way," Denny said. "I'm going back again, girlie. I'm going to see it out; I'll not cross the water till I can go as a free man. Now dry your eyes, and kiss me, and let me go. And remember that by the time the swallows are here again—Goodbye."
He gently drew her arms from about his neck, and then, without another word, with head erect and swinging step, strode off down the hill to the spot where he knew the warders were awaiting him.
THE rime on the bracken and heather, that a few minutes ago had been one sparkle of gems in the sunshine, was now no more than a dripping mist. The wind had suddenly swung round to the north-east, so that, with the cooling of the atmosphere, a thick blanket of fog came over Dartmoor with the suddenness of a dream. One moment brilliant sunshine and the vivid joy of a great September day, and the next blankness and desolation everywhere. Here and there a figure loomed gigantic out of the yellow atmosphere, and the armed guards of the convict gang moved uneasily from spot to spot, for this fog was a thing to be dreaded when it was impossible to see half a dozen yards ahead.
Five minutes later two figures crept along a dry watercourse, with their faces turned towards the open moor. They moved not with hesitation nor the uncertainty of the future, but with bold yet cautious strides of men who knew every inch of the ground, as indeed they did. If the fog only held for a quarter of an hour, they might be beyond the reach of their guard for many a day to come. And it was for this that George Shenstone had been waiting all through those hot summer months.
There came a time presently when the fog lifted a little, and down there in the valley they could hear the shrill sound of whistles and presently the dull report of a rifle. Shenstone smiled grimly to himself as he turned to his companion.
"Did you hear that, Dan?" he asked. "They've found out. But they haven't got us yet. It'll be our own fault if they see anything of us for the next week."
This was no idle boast on Shenstone's part, for he had been born and bred on the edge of the moor, over there in the little market town of Helsmere, and there was not one yard of the moor that he did not know as well as be knew the palm of his own hand. In early boyhood he had bird's nested there, he had fished in the rivers, and, later on, had hunted with two packs of hounds from the sea right away to Tor Point. It had been his boast that he could find his way about Dartmoor blindfold, and that was really no figure of speech.
He was a lover of the country and a sportsman to his finger-tips, an outdoor man, if ever there was one, with the joy of life tingling in his veins and a love of the deep-red Devonshire earth which was to him something like a religion—the sort of man who, despite his recklessness and strength of character, would have pined and died in the close confinement of a city street.
And yet, with all this, with all the advantage of birth and money and the ownership of Shenstone's Bank, he had fallen, and now, by the irony of Fate, found himself a prisoner on the very ground that he had roamed a free man since boyhood.
They came presently to what, in the winter, had been a waterfall up there on the top of the tors. The mist had cleared a little now in the fitful, shifty way of Dartmoor fog, so that from their hiding-place behind the bushes they could look down into the valley below, with the big convict settlement in the distance. It was possible for anyone who knew the way to climb up the almost perpendicular face of the cliff without being followed, or, indeed, without anybody dreaming that they had come that way. It was a hiding-place in a hundred, where, given food and clothing, they might lie secure for weeks. And Shenstone had found this himself many years ago, when he had come that way in search of the nest of some rare bird that dwelt there.
Back in the hollow of the rocks was a packet of food, together with a bottle or two and some cigarettes. One of these latter Shenstone lighted, and lay back, inhaling the tobacco with a sense of luxury that he had not experienced since he stood face to face with the judge six months ago in the Assize Court at Exeter. The other man sat at his feet, smoking likewise.
"Ah, that's good!" Shenstone said, drawing a deep breath. "This first taste of luxury likes me well, Dan. Ah, what a thing it is to be free once more!"
"I am glad for your sake, Mr. George," Dan Mavis said.
"You always were a faithful creature, Dan. Did it ever occur to you that if I hadn't been a fool, or something worse, you would be a free man to-day? It was all wrong, Dan. You weren't any more to blame than a child. You only did what I told you to do, because the Mavises have always done what the Shenstones told them. You ought to hate me, Dan."
"I don't feel like that, sir, somehow," the ex-bank clerk said. "Don't you trouble about me, Mr. George. What are you going to do? It doesn't much matter whether they get me again or not, but you'd die yonder. Either you'd die or you'd break out into one of those passions of yours and kill one of those warders. I know you would—it was always your way. You let me go and find Mr. Boyden. I'll manage it all right. I can get along after dark, and I dare say—"
"That's not the idea at all, Dan," Shenstone said. "I haven't been plotting and scheming all these months for that. I dare say you think you know all about it, but you don't. I have been thinking, Dan, which is a thing that my old father told me I never did. In that stuffy little cell of mine I've been thinking a lot lately. I am not going to say that I did wrong, and I am not going to say that I am sorry, but I am. It was a great big chance, and I took it because I could see my way out. I wasn't satisfied with being comfortably off, Dan; I wanted to be rich, not for my own sake, but for the sake of—"
Mavis nodded sympathetically.
"I know, sir," he said—"for the sake of a girl. We are all like that at times, sir, though I am sure that Miss Revel—I beg your pardon, sir. I ought not to have mentioned her name."
"Well, why not?" Shenstone asked. "It's the truth. I wanted her to care for me. By Heavens, I believe she did at one time, before Ralph Pentyre came home. And because I wanted to show those two what I could do I went mad. I took my clients' money and my own, and I speculated with it. And when the crash came I ruined those who trusted me, and, what was worse, I ruined you and others in my employ who simply did what they were told because a Shenstone said it. And that wasn't the worst, Dan—I dragged Pentyre into it, too. I wanted to ruin him, I wanted to see him in the dock, I wanted him to suffer as I was suffering. I see how wrong it all was now; but the mischief's done, and when those officials from the Board of Trade come to investigate matters further, it's as sure as there is a sky above us that Ralph Pentyre will have to stand his trial, too. Of course, it wasn't his fault that he inherited from his father the post of trustee to Shenstone's Bank, but the fact remains that he is trustee, and that he signed every document I put before him without looking at it. He trusted me, Dan—he trusted me because I was a Shenstone, and because he had faith in my word, and I betrayed him deliberately, like the dog that I am."
"Oh, dear, sir," Mavis cried, "it isn't as bad as all that! Why did you do it?"
"Oh, because I was mad," Shenstone said—"mad with love for a girl who would not look at me. No, that isn't true, Dan. She was always sweet and kind and gentle, but she didn't love me, and I ought to have faced my trouble like a man. I didn't. I speculated wildly with the money of the bank and the money of clients. I was going to be a millionaire and dazzle Maud Revel with my riches. Ah, I wonder how many fools have thought the same thing! But I wasn't content with that. When I saw how things were going, all that was bad in my nature came out, and, like a dog in the manger, I resolved that, as Maud Revel was beyond my reach, I would drag down Pentyre in the ruin and disgrace him too. Neither of them know what is hanging over his head yet, but it's coming, and before long Pentyre will wear a uniform with a number, like you and me. Ah, my faithful Dan, you never guessed this, did you? You sit there without a frown on your face, thinking about nothing but the honour of the Shenstones and the safety of the man who degraded it. You don't even blame me for bringing you to this pass. You don't even ask me why we are here and what is going to happen to us."
"That's all in your hands, Mr. George," Mavis said easily. "I am trusting you. I suppose it was Mr. Boyden who brought these things here for us. He is coming to see us presently and arrange for our escape."
Shenstone shook his head thoughtfully.
"Nothing of the kind, Dan, nothing of the kind," he said. "I only brought you here for the sake of companionship and so that I might have a chance to explain to you exactly how things stood. I wanted you to know everything. Now listen. I have got something to do, a big thing, the really big thing that every man has to face once in his lifetime. It's the only chance I have of showing the world—or, at least, that portion of it that concerns me—that I am not utterly vile. I have been planning it for weeks, Dan. I knew that the fog must come some time, and I knew that when it did, with my knowledge of the moor, I could get away with the greatest of ease. And I wanted you to come along with me in case anything went wrong. But I am going back again."
"Back there?" Mavis cried. "Back into the settlement? No, no, Mr. George, you mustn't do it! It was killing you. Ah, if you could only realise what six months there has done for you!"
"I do," Shenstone said grimly; "I can feel it in my bones. Ah, only a man who has been brought up in the open air, the man who thrives on the smell of the good red earth, and knows the joy of the saddle, can tell what I have suffered. Three months ago it was all different. Three months ago I was planning my escape—aye, and I could have managed it, too—for my own sake alone. And because I realised what the torture and agony of it is, I can feel for others. Heavens, it's bad enough to suffer as I do, knowing myself to be guilty, but if I'd been an innocent man, I should have gone mad. I should have murdered one of those warders, as you suggest, for the sake of being hanged and thus get out of my misery. But I see things from a different angle now, Dan. I am going to stick it, my boy—I am going to stick it for the next two years—and then, when I have earned my freedom, I am going abroad to try and build up again what I have lost, and you are coming with me, old boy. I want you, Dan. For a hundred and fifty years the Mavises have served the Shenstones, and I can't break all the old links."
Mavis shook his head gloomily.
"I don't, like it, Mr. George, I don't like it a bit," he said. "Here we are, free, and Mr. Boyden will do anything for us. And why didn't you write?"
"I couldn't," Shenstone said thoughtfully. "Any letter of mine would have been read by the Governor, and my explanation would have implicated still more people who at present are quite free. No, I must do it myself, Dan, and I must do it to-night. I must face people who will regard me coldly and scornfully, but it must be done. Now, I want you to stay here—stay here till I come back. It may be in a couple of hours, and it may not be before morning. But rest assured that I shall come back, and then to-morrow we can join our gang as if nothing had happened. We can tell them that we lost our way in the fog, or something of that sort. So long as we give ourselves up, there is not much chance of punishment. Now, you just curl yourself up here and smoke these cigarettes while you have got a chance. Don't you worry about me."
The fog had fallen again now, and lay in thick folds over the hillsides and valleys, as Shenstone climbed out of his hiding-place and made his way cautiously across the heather and the bracken, with his face turned towards the town of Helsmere, some seven miles away. There was no occasion for him to expose himself or to feel his way, for that was quite familiar to him. Here was a deep tussock of gorse and bracken where he had found his first night-jar's nest, and a little further on a threadlike stream where he had hunted down the home of a pair of ring-ousels, and yet a little further down the stream, under a shelving bank, the spot where he, together with two terriers of his, had killed an otter. Every bush and bramble seemed to hold some memory, the scent of the earth was in his nostrils now as he pressed eagerly forward with the air of a man who knows exactly where he is going.
But there were open spots here and there on the higher ground, where the wide sheets of heather afforded no cover for anything bigger than a bird, and here he had to move cautiously, in case the fog should lift and he stood exposed against the hillside to those lynx eyes watching in the valley. It was nearly dusk before he reached the outskirts of the town. Then he made his way through a wood and thence past a thick shrubbery that opened on to a wide lawn in front of a long, low, white house that gleamed pale and ghostly through the mist of the falling night. On the edge of the lawn was the empty basin of a fountain, into which Shenstone crept, and there he lay hidden until the night fell at length and the windows in front of him turned to squares of yellow flame.
Three of those windows were open to the lawn, and in one of them, by some oversight, probably, the blind had not been drawn. And presently from the open windows came the sound of music. Somebody was playing some soft and dreamy melody that carried familiarly to Shenstone's ears and brought a mist into his eyes. He dashed it away angrily, for it was not time for sentiment. He listened acutely for sign or sound or movement, then, feeling that all was safe, he crept out of his hiding-place and moved swiftly across the dew-drenched lawn until he stood under the shadow of the lighted windows. From his hiding-place he looked into a room that was as familiar to him as the moor and the trout stream outside.
He noted the long low room with the old panelled walls and the old mezzotints, the pictures mellowed by the hand of Time, and, above all, the dainty suggestion of the feminine spirit there in the shape of the flowers in the vases, the music littered on the piano, and the thousand and one odds and ends that go to make up all the difference between a house and a home.
As Shenstone stood there, the player rose from the piano and crossed the room, so that she was almost near enough for him to touch. He could see into the violet depths of her eyes could see the clear-cut pallor of her cheeks and the drooping expression of trouble on her lips. She moved, unconscious of his presence, towards a little alcove by one of the windows, as if seeking for something; then it seemed to Shenstone that he could hear the quick ripple of a telephone bell.
But for the moment that was not troubling him. He was watching the slim figure in its simple evening-dress with all his heart in his eyes. He was trying to recall the last time he had looked into that room, not as a fugitive from justice, but as an honoured guest and a welcome companion. For he had been there more times than he could think. He could picture the ancient dining-room across the hall, where he had always been sure of a warm greeting from that genial host of his, and a meal at any time he cared to drop in. And there had been many meals there—hunting breakfasts in the early dawn, lunch after a morning's shoot, and cheery dinners where all the county was only too glad to see a Shenstone sitting amongst them.
And all this he had lost—deliberately thrown away in that vain pursuit of wealth which had been the ruin of so many. Never more would he sit there amongst his peers, never more would he take those slim fingers in his and see the light of welcome in Maud Revel's shining eyes. Just for a moment he had half a mind to turn back and renounce all those aspirations of his. He stood there, afraid to meet the girl, or afraid of what she might say, and most of all afraid of the contempt and scorn that he was about to waken in her eyes.
Then the telephone in the alcove rang again, and the girl took down the receiver. Shenstone could plainly see the expression on her face as she listened to the voice at the other end of the wire. And he knew a moment later that she was talking to the very man whom at one time he had been pleased to regard as the source of all the mischief. He ought not to have listened, perhaps, but it seemed to him that he had a sufficiently good excuse, so he stood there, watching the girl at the telephone, noting every change in her face and the expressions that fleeted across it as shadows flit across an autumn moor.
"Yes, yes," she was saying. "You are talking to her. I am Maud. Is that you, Ralph? I am so glad. I have been waiting anxiously to hear from you for hours. What's that? Oh, you have just got back. Never mind about that.. .. Is that true?.. .. Oh, it can't be! I won't believe it.. .. Yes. What—you of all men? It's preposterous, Ralph.. .. Certainly. Of course I believe you. My dear boy, I should believe you if you stood in the dock and all the world gave evidence against you. I only heard this afternoon, and you can imagine the shock it was to me. What's that you say? The line is not very good. Yes, I think you'd better. At once. Yes, as soon as you like. I am quite alone here, because father is dining out. Oh, do come! A quarter of an hour. Come straight into the drawing-room."
Shenstone stood listening out there, following this conversation easily enough. There was no reason for anyone to tell him that Maud Revel was talking to his rival, and that the blow had fallen like a bolt from the blue when it had been least expected. Evidently things had been moving rapidly lately. Those investigations had been made, and there was no time to be lost now if the big thing was to be done and Pentyre's reputation cleared. And as Shenstone looked into the eyes of the girl standing there, he knew well enough that, if anything happened to Pentyre, the light of happiness would never shine in them again. He took a step forward and walked through the window into the room.
He stood there before the girl, a somewhat gaunt and haggard figure, with his prison clothes about him and a certain dogged recklessness on his face.
It was a vivid contrast indeed between the convict in his dingy suit and the slim figure in black, with not one single ornament to relieve it. Then their eyes met, and the girl started back as if she had seen a ghost.
"George!" she cried. "George!"
"Yes, it's I right enough," Shenstone said. "I wondered if you would recognise me."
"You must go away," the girl said. "Go away at once! We heard an hour or two ago that there had been an escape, but we did not dream that it was you. They have been here already."
"Oh, really," Shenstone said. "They haven't lost any time. I suppose they calculated that I should make for a familiar hiding-place, as the fox does when the hounds are after him. Well, for once they were right. But all the warders in Dartmoor would never guess what brings me here to-night."
"Why did you come?" Maud asked.
"Well, shall we call it pride? Honour, if you like."
"Pride and honour!" the girl echoed.
"Well, why not? Even a convict may possess some of both. Now, listen to me, Maud. Perhaps I ought not to call you that."
"Oh, call me what you like," the girl said. "You are in danger. Let me help you."
"Ah, I expected to hear you talk like that," Shenstone said. "But no one can help me now except yourself. Were you talking to Pentyre on the telephone just now?"
"I was," Maud said somewhat coldly.
"I thought so. I listened to that conversation. So it is all out at last, and there is every chance of Pentyre standing where I stood six months ago. There is no escape for him unless—well, we'll come to that presently. His father trusted me and he trusted me, and I betrayed them both. And yet it is in my power to say the word—"
"Ah, I understand," Maud said swiftly. "It has all come to me in a flash. George, why did you do this thing?"
"I think you know," Shenstone said quietly. "They say that every girl knows when a man is in love with her."
The girl bowed her head and her face flushed.
"Ah, I see you know," Shenstone went on. "And things might have been different if Ralph Pentyre had not come back from India. From the day he came I saw my hopes fade away, and, because of that, I did wrong. I was going to be rich—so rich that even you would be dazzled. And when I found that it was all the dream of a madman, then I resolved that, if I could not make you my wife, Pentyre never should. I could see clearly enough that, by suppressing certain facts and keeping back certain papers, I could involve Pentyre in my ruin, and I did so deliberately."
Maud Revel started back as if he had struck her.
"Is this thing really true?" she cried.
"Absolutely," Shenstone went on. "And I did it. And I wasn't sorry, either—at least, not at first. Then, when the horrors of that place yonder began to get a grip on me, and I realised what it was for a man who loves the open air to be shut up, my point of view changed. I saw what a terrible thing it was to drag another man down into the hell that I was suffering, and rightly suffering, mind you. So gradually I made up my mind that your happiness and Pentyre's honour meant as much to me as freedom itself. I would have written had I only dared, but I could not do that, as my letter would have involved other people, faithful tools of mine, who ought not to suffer for my crime. And so I made up my mind, when the first of the fogs came, to escape for a few hours, so that I could come here and, if fortune was on my side, tell you what I am telling you now. Tom Boyden is the man to go to. He is the one who stuck to me through thick and thin. And he has all the papers necessary to clear Pentyre entirely. They are locked up in a sealed box which was not to be opened without my consent. Go to Boyden and tell him of this interview, and give him my authority to break the seal. The documents I speak of are in a blue envelope on the top. All the other papers are to be burnt. And I think—yes, I really think that is about all I have to say, Maud. It was a vile thing for me to do, but I have done my best to make amends."
Maud stood there with her hand on her heart, as if some pain was gnawing at it. Her face was white and her eyes shone like stars as she faced the man in the convict garb.
"And you have done this for our sakes, George?" she whispered. "That is very fine of you."
"Could I do anything else?" Shenstone asked. "And yet I don't think I could have brought myself to do so if they had not made a prisoner of me. Every time I looked out and saw the sun on the moor I felt as if I was being stifled. And, mind you, I deserved all I got. That was the one reflection that kept me sane. But if I had been innocent, as Pentyre is, then, by Heavens, I would not have been responsible for what I might have done. Every morning that I woke up this thought came back to me, till I could see nothing else. I could only picture Pentyre's feelings in my place, and try to imagine what you would say or think when you lost the man you loved. And—oh, here I am, a broken convict, trying to do the big thing. Ralph and I in our boyhood always used to talk about the big thing, and how we should do it when the time came. But we never expected anything like this. It isn't a big thing, after all, but in the circumstances the biggest thing that I will do. It isn't much, is it?"
Maud was looking at him now with shining eyes and an unsteady smile about her lips.
"You must leave others to judge that," she said. "I think it is a very big thing indeed, not because it affects me and my happiness, but because I know that very few men could have done it, and perhaps—But I won't go into that."
As she spoke the door opened and another man came in. He stood there, in the lamp-light, gazing in astonishment at the drab figure in the shadow of the window.
"George!" he cried. "George!"
"Eh, lad, it's George right enough," Shenstone said quietly.
"But I did not know—"
"What does it matter?" Shenstone asked. "They are after me, and they may be here at any moment now. Sit down, Ralph, and let me tell you the story I have just been telling Maud."
"No, no," Maud cried, "let me tell the story! I must. It's my story as much as yours, George, and I shall do it far more justice than you can. Listen, Ralph!"
She told the sequence of events in her own glowing words until she had finished at length, so that even Shenstone could see in what light his conduct had presented itself to these old friends of his. It was a long time before anyone spoke. It was Pentyre who at length broke the silence. With a smile on his face and an outstretched hand he reached over to Shenstone.
"That was a big thing, George," he said—"a very big thing. I always knew you would do it if the time came. And you were never its bad as you made yourself out to be. Reckless and headstrong and sanguine to a fault, but never really bad. And there's my hand on it."
"Yes, it was very fine," Maud said.
"Nothing of the kind," Shenstone said gruffly. "For Heaven's sake don't talk to me like that, you people, or else I shall do something foolish! You'll be making me out to be a hero presently. Now, look here, Ralph, get on the telephone and call up Devereux at the prison. I am only a number to him now, but there was a time, of course, when we dined and hunted and shot together, and I don't think he has altogether forgotten it. Tell him I am here. Tell him I wandered off a bit in the fog, and that the temptation to visit some dear friends of mine was too much for me. Say I am waiting for a guard here, and that I am ready to come back as soon as they fetch me. And if you want to do something for me, give me a cigarette and a chance to taste a decent whisky and soda again. Only, for Heaven's sake, don't be sentimental, because to a man in my position that sort of thing hurts like the devil. After all, it's only a couple of years I've got to serve, and when I come out I know I shall find some friends waiting for me."
"You will that," Pentyre said heartily.
Maud made no reply in words, but there was a look on her face and an expression in her eyes that was worth all the words in the world to the man standing there.
LET it not be imagined by thoughtless readers that the Gentle Buccaneers were always splashing about in purple patches. There were intervals between lightning streaks of lurid adventure when they sat quietly down round their own fireside, so to speak, and occasionally indulged in the dubious pleasures of introspection. Now, introspection is not always a pleasant thing, even to an amateur pirate, especially if he be connected with some ancient family and still bears upon him the rags of tradition as taught in English schools and universities. Even if such a man has done something which parts him violently and secretly from this native land, he cannot altogether forget the playing fields and the covert side and the glamor of the river. And some such thoughts as these obsessed Jimmy Graydon, otherwise known as Truthful James, as he sat on the deck of the Gehenna with the Buccaneers around him. And, sooth to say, Wallace, known as the Brigadier, was in somewhat similar case. They were both suffering from what Peter Shacklock, otherwise the Prodigal Son, called hobnail conscience, or an enlargement of the moral spleen. Anyway, they were a moody crowd, conversing fitfully in the absence of Endellion the Skipper, who just then was down below in confab with the taciturn individual who was responsible for the Gehenna's wireless. This, by-the-way, was something of a new toy, and had been installed on the Gehenna after a furtive visit to a nameless port in North New Zealand, where Endellion had been in secret conclave for at least two days with the officer in command of an English destroyer. What it all meant Endellion had not said. There were certain things he kept to himself, which is one of the privileges of the commander all the world over.
For some days now, they had been aimlessly drifting about amongst the little group of coral islands, two or three hundred miles away from the usual base, and perhaps the slowness of the proceedings had something to do with the gloom which had settled upon the Gentle Buccaneers. For a week they had enjoyed the inestimable privilege of a lady's company on board, until at length they had deported Audrey Lashford and her father in a place of comparative safety with a view to conveying them elsewhere as soon as circumstances would permit.
So they were lounging on the deck under the lee of a little island and waiting on events. They had been talking in a desultory sort of way for some time, and, for the most part, listening to the lamentations of the Brigadier with regard to the cruel circumstances that prevented him offering his services to a distressed motherland in the hour of her need. For the Brigadier received papers from time to time, and, now that their wireless had been installed, was not entirely outside the ring of current events.
"I ought not to be here," the Brigadier said moodily.
"Well, if it comes to that," said Jimmy Graydon, "neither should any of us."
"Yes, but my case is different," Wallace went on. "I was a gunner, remember, and a dashed good officer, too, though I say it as shouldn't. They could do with me out in France now."
"Yes, you'd better give yourself up," Shacklock drawled unkindly. "Throw yourself on the mercy of the court."
"I couldn't do it," the Brigadier groaned. "They'd know all about me in a week. I was wondering if we couldn't help in the great game out here."
"I'm not quite sure we can't," said Endellion as he came up on deck and joined the group. "If I'm right, sonny, you may be able to strike a blow for the flag yet."
The Brigadier's face cleared.
"Get on with it," he said. "You've got some deep scheme in your mind, I'm sure, else you'd never have shoved up that wireless. Now, then, cough it up."
Endellion proceeded to unfold a newspaper.
"Well, it's like this," he said. "Here is an old copy of the 'Times,' which contains an interesting account of the voyage of a huge German submarine called the Deutschland."
"Isn't that the boat that went to America before we came in?" Shacklock asked. "Crossed the Atlantic under water and got back home with a cargo of rubber."
"That's right," Endellion said. "She used to be a pioneer, they were going to build a fleet of 'em, and cheat the British blockade that way. Now, this Deutschland was never heard of after the return voyage, and when the British unofficially claimed to have sunk her the Huns didn't deny it. Because why? I think I can tell you. It was all bluff. Germany never expected to feed her population by U-boats, however big. Her game was to supply submarines thousands of miles from their base with lubricating oils and petrol."
"I believe that's right," Shacklock said. "Don't you remember that soon after the first voyage of the Deutschland certain English vessels were torpedoed off the American coast? That was done to get the wind up Uncle Sam. But still they did it."
"You are very bright this afternoon, my worthy prodigal," Endellion smiled. "Yes, you've got it. That was a brainy idea. But no one seemed to spot it, at least, I thought nobody had till I met that naval acquaintance of mine the other day. He told me that the Deutschland was never sunk at all. She's knocking about in these seas feeding the U-boats responsible for the sinking of shipping in the Bay of Bengal. And somewhere, on one of these coral islands here, is a vast store of 'juice' ready for the Deutschland when she wants it. And now you understand why I was closeted for two days with a certain naval officer and why we had that wireless installed. Boys, the Deutschland is not far off, and if we can down her then I reckon we shall have struck a blow for the old flag that we can be proud of. What says the Brigadier?"
"Oh, the Brigadier's willing enough," Wallace replied grimly. "But where, precisely, do I come in?"
"Well, I suppose you can still handle a four-inch gun," Endellion said. "Don't forget that we have got a couple on board."
The Brigadier's eyes lighted up.
"I have forgotten nothing," he said. "I guess I'm as good a shot as ever I was. Give me a clear horizon, and the Deutschland, and I'll sink her at four miles in as many shots, or for ever hold my peace. Now, then, commodore, what's the little scheme?"
They talked on for an hour or so as they lay in that little bay until presently round the headland appeared a rowing boat with four men aboard. It was clear that the Gehenna was their destination, for they pulled straight to the side and presently two men scrambled on her deck. At the sight of one of them Endellion stuck his glass in his eye and for once in his life appeared to be almost astonished.
"Great Scott, it's Billy Hutton," he said. "Now what does that infernal rascal want here?"
The big man with the huge black beard came smilingly across the deck in Endellion's direction with the air of one who is sure of his welcome, and serene in the knowledge that there was no enmity between them.
"Didn't expect to see me, eh?" he said. "Well, Billy Hutton never bore no malice. You downed me in fair fight right enough, and I'm too big a man not to admit it."
"That's very nice of you," Endellion said sweetly. "Now what can I do for you, Mr. Hutton?"
"Well, you see, we're both Englishmen," Hutton said. "And I thought there being a war on, as you might like to help me. That is, me and my friend here. Mr. Franks, the great naturalist. Let me introduce him."
The man called Franks brought his heels together and bowed stiffly from the waist. He was of middle age, stiffly built, and looking every inch of him as hard as nails, as he removed his cap he disclosed a close-cropped head of grey hair that stood up right from a forehead absolutely square. He spoke pleasantly enough, his English refined and correct.
"What my friend Mr. Hutton says is quite right," he said. "I am a naturalist connected with the Museum of South Kensington. Unfortunately, some of my specimen cases were capsized into a place where the water is too deep to recover them, that is, without injury to the tin cases. So I thought, we might be able to pump the little lagoon dry and recover them, without rough handling. Mr. Hutton has a high pressure pump, but no armored hose. I thought perhaps you might be able to supply the deficiency. We only want it for a day or two."
"I dare say I could," Endellion drawled. "On second thoughts, I am quite sure I can. And I shall be happy to deliver the hose anywhere you want."
"Ah, that is very good of you," Franks said. "It is not very far away. On the north-west of the island there are three palm trees and there the coral reef sheers away into deep water. The lagoon is just behind."
"Oh, that's all right," Endellion said. "I will see that you have the stuff tomorrow morning. In fact, I'll take it myself. Will forty fathoms be sufficient?"
Mr. Franks was of the opinion that it would be more than ample. He was exceedingly sorry to trouble Mr. Endellion and was overwhelmed with the latter's kindness. He partook of the whisky and soda and cigars hospitably produced by Endellion, and after a further exchange of compliments left the deck of the Gehenna in the wake of the grinning Hutton.
"Well, what do you think of that?" Graydon asked. "What's the game, Skipper?"
"I don't know," Endellion said thoughtfully. "Perhaps I shall be able to tell you more about it after I have delivered the goods to-morrow. But Billy Hutton is hardly the sort of man to go out of his way to help a harmless naturalist."
"Naturalist, be damned," Shacklock exclaimed. "Why, that man's a German officer. He's got it written all over him. And see how he stood. Did you see how he brought his heels together and bowed from his waist? Why, another second and he would have given us a salute."
"A regular man of the world, the Prodigal Son," Wallace laughed. "What makes you so sure, old chap?"
"Because I have seen the tribe before," Shacklock grinned. "During my brief but brilliant career in the United States I put in a few months at West Point, and there we had a dozen or more retired German officers. They were quite a cult with us at one time. Oh, I am sure I am right."
"And so am I," Endellion said curtly. "That chap's a German naval officer, and Billy Hutton's in his pay. Now, what I make of it is this. We are almost on the top of a big petrol store and unless I'm greatly mistaken the Deutschland is coming here before long to fill up. That's what they want the armored hose for. They have lost theirs, or they haven't got enough. The whole thing's plain as a pikestaff. The oil is hidden just round the headland yonder so that it can be pumped straight into the submarine. You heard what our quasi- naturalist said about the edge of the island where the reef sheers into deep water. Well, there you are, and within the next eight-and-forty hours the biggest submarine in the world will be here. Now, if we can down that boat I guess we can stop all these raids on shipping in the Indian Ocean. At least, that's my idea, and that was the idea of the Naval Lieutenant who shall be nameless. And there's no time to be lost. We'll just get out to sea as soon as the tide turns."
"You've got a scheme?" the brigadier asked eagerly.
"More than one," Endellion said. "But with any luck one will be enough. Now then, lads, jump about a bit. Take a boat, two of you, and dump down that armored hose on the spot indicated by the gentle Mr. Franks. And, whatever you do, don't go prospecting around. Just chuck the stuff on shore and come away."
Nightfall saw the Gehenna out at sea steering an erratic course till dawn, when she ran alongside a dirty, dilapidated tramp steamer that was at once a byword and a laughing-stock in the whole of those tropical seas. She was dirty and dingy and rusty and slow, a veritable mollusc of the ocean creeping from port to port and floating more by the grace of God than anything else. A grimy-looking individual behind a short pipe grunted something in response to Endellion's hail. As far as the eye could see there was no sign of a sail anywhere.
"That you, Gunter?" Endellion asked.
"Tain't nobody else," the man behind the black pipe grunted. "What will you be wantin' with me?"
"Well, come on board and I'll tell you," Endellion replied. "We've still got a bottle or two of whisky left."
Five minutes later the skipper of the tramp Sardonyx lounged on the spotless deck of the Gehenna. After his fourth excursion in the direction of the whisky bottle he began to listen more complacently to the proposal that Endellion had to make. Briefly, it was this.
For a valuable consideration Mr. Gunter contracted to hand over the Sardonyx to the crew of the Gehenna and take himself modestly away, with his men to one of the little islands in the neighborhood where they were to remain hidden for a week. And, meanwhile, the Gehenna would anchor up in one of the many tiny harbors, not only as a guarantee of good faith, but as an earnest that both tobacco and whisky would be plentiful so far as the voluntary prisoners were concerned. And if anything happened to the Sardonyx then Endellion contracted to make good the loss. And as he was known in those seas as a man of his word, and as he was recognised as a man of substance, Gunter raised no further objections.
"That's all right, sir," he said. "You can sink the confounded old hooker if you like. If I can get a new boat out of this business I shall be well satisfied."
These high diplomatic arrangements having been completed, the two boats lay side by side in a little land-locked harbor far away from all prying eyes, and for the next few hours the two crews worked harder than they had ever worked in their lives before. By sunset the wireless installation of the Gehenna had been transferred to the Sardonyx, and so, also, had the two four- inch guns. And the crew of the Gehenna, who were crawling about the deck of the Sardonyx like so many lice, were transformed out of all recognition, too. Gone were their smart uniforms, gone all semblance of discipline and order, and in the place of a smart collection of sailormen appeared a lounging set of deck hands, sullen almost to the verge of mutiny. It was a fine piece of stage work, and Endellion was naturally proud of it. But there was a method behind all this, despite the grease and dirt, and the blackened, visages. And so the Sardonyx crept across the surface of the waters, a greasy dingy oily outrage on the face of the ocean. It was, in the language of Graydon, who had a pretty turn for metaphor, like a squashed blue-bottle flattened out on the surface of a marine landscape.
The one individual who viewed the whole scene with an indifference born of familiarity was Gunter, the owner of the Sardonyx, who had been taken on board at the last moment, or so he thought, though this was part of Endellion's strategy. It had been no part of his scheme to let the grimy little Welshman into the secret until they were afloat. Not that Gunter minded, for the little man was quite a patriot in his way, especially when patriotism and pocket walked hand in hand, so to speak.
"So that's the game, whatever, Mr. Endellion," he said. "Well you can count me in, look you. And if the old tub goes down, why you'll just make it good."
"Of course I will," Endellion said.
"And if there is any trouble with that man Hutton, then I'll ask you to see me through. For it is not likely that these parts will be healthy for me in future."
"Oh, that's all right," Endellion laughed. "You'll get well paid, and if this little stunt turns up trumps I don't think you will find the Admiralty likely to be stingy. Why you ought to be able to retire out of this business."
Gunter responded that he wanted nothing better. He had done fairly well with that rusty old barge of his, and, if he could see a further thousand or two, had made up his mind to settle down somewhere in New Zealand and devote the balance of his existence to the intensive culture of vegetables. There was evidently a vein of poetry in the little man.
And so for the next twelve hours the Sardonyx blundered along, whilst miracles were being wrought on her deck. The dingy, dirty-faced crew worked like heroes until at length the two 4-in. guns were in place and trained almost to Wallace's satisfaction. To a certain extent he had had to make bricks without straw. He had rigged up iron sheeting and steel plates and bolts until a couple of fairly efficient platforms had been made. These he eyed dubiously.
"I hope they will be all right," he said. "Though I has ma doots. If those guns break loose they'll shake the guts out of this old barge. Well, we'll hope for the best."
So they drifted on through the night, apparently without aim or direction, until at length they fetched up to the lee of the coral reef where Endellion's crew had dumped down the armored hose. They were lying some three miles away from a clump of palms that marked the spot, lying lazily in the trough of a silver sea with steam oozing out of every joint of the Sardonyx. It was as if something had gone wrong with the rotten engines, a complete breakdown leaving it at the mercy of any storm that came along. The Sardonyx lay there, a pathetic object, and, at the same time, an object of proper contempt for any craft worthy of the name. Any passing boat familiar with those seas would have known at once that here was the Sardonyx in trouble, again waiting pathetically for a tow, or, in the alternative, going down to the bottom, where she should have been long ago. She was flying a distress signal, and apparently her crew were resigned to despair. A more pathetic, lamentable spectacle had never blotted the South Pacific.
All this to the outward eye, at least. But the grimy crew with their blackened faces and the temporary commander who might have just finished crawling up the funnel, were eagerly watching with keen eyes for the first sign of life on the edge of the coral reef. Endellion stood by the rail with a pair of powerful glasses to his eyes. And there he watched hour after hour until at length his patience was rewarded.
He saw a boat beached on the sand from which two men emerged dragging a box after them. Then he made out clearly enough the big burly figure of Billy Hutton and the trim, square-built man who could have been none else than the pseudo-naturalist, who called himself Franks. For a little time the two busied themselves, until presently the Sardonyx dawned upon them. Apparently this vision of beauty was rather disturbing to Franks, for he pointed it out to his companion, and an earnest conversation apparently followed. Then the motor boat slid out to the sea again with Hutton upon it, and a little later swept round under the counter of the derelict. Hutton hailed her.
At a sign from Endellion, Gunter lounged forward and stood with his elbows on the rail. The rest of the crew followed with a certain moody indifference.
"What's the trouble?" Hutton asked.
"Oh, the usual, look you," Gunter said. "Engine trouble whatever."
Then followed some jargon in the language of machinery to which Hutton listened with polite indifference.
"I can't do anything for you yet, old man," he said. "I am rather busy over yonder for an hour or two, and if you can keep going till night I'll arrange a tow for you. The usual terms, I suppose?"
The Welshman indicated that it was all the same to him, and Hutton steamed off again, apparently quite easy in his mind and suspecting no mischief. There was no time to be lost, and, in any case, it did not matter. The crew of the Sardonyx were too far away to take in any details, and even if they knew what was going on it would be out of their power to do anything till the big grey raider was at sea again. And so another hour or two passed, until suddenly Endellion emitted a sound between a sigh and a gasp, and handed over his glasses to Wallace.
"There you are, old man," he said. "She's come."
"By Jove, you are right," Wallace exclaimed as he gazed steadily through the binoculars. "The father and mother of all submarines. Lord, she must be nearly six hundred feet long! And, what a mark!"
The glasses were passed from hand to hand until there was not a man on board who had not had a good view of the big German U-boat. She lay there, on the edge of the coral reef, broadside on to the Sardonyx that yawed and dipped in a perfect bath of steam as if her last moment had come. Behind this camouflage five-and-twenty pair of eyes were watching the drama that was taking place on the edge of the reef.
"I think she's our bird now, old man," Endellion said cheerfully. "She's not a bit suspicious of us."
"Well, I hope not," Wallace said. "It looks like a case of rock me to sleep, mother, all right. But you never know with those devils. They might take it into their heads at any moment to hand us a dozen shells out of mere mischief. And if I don't get her first shot or two, we're done."
"Yes, I had thought of that," Endellion said. "When the band begins to play, we'll get the boats out, leaving just you and me and one or two more on board. They'll never see the boats in this sea, and, if the worst comes to the worst, we can pull round the point and land in the bay beyond."
To all of which the crew demurred as one man. But Endellion was firm enough, and a few moments later the deck was deserted save for the Gentle Buccaneers and the little Welshman who owned the Sardonyx.
Meanwhile a score of men had landed from the submarine and were busy on the reef, evidently opening the petrol tank and connecting it with the U-boat. Gradually the Sardonyx yawed round, still oozing steam at every pore until the guns were trained on the long grey hull that rose out of the sea like some gigantic whale.
"Let her have it," Shacklock yelled excitedly. "Plug her under the fifth rib, brigadier. Show us what Daddy did in the Great War."
But Wallace did not appear to be heeding. He was too engrossed on his task to hear anything that was going on around him. Presently there was a puff of smoke and a dull roar, and a shell from one of the guns pitched neatly into the centre of the group hovering around the petrol tanks. Then there was a sort of dissolving view, visible enough through the binoculars, and the trim figure of the man Franks crumpled up and lay like a brown speck on the burning sands.
"That was a good 'un," Graydon said. "But not quite good enough, old man."
"Oh, not bad for a sighting shot," Wallace said coolly. "Let's hand 'em another pasteboard."
The second shot was effective enough, for it struck the submarine forward, tearing a huge hole in her bows, and, exploding, seemed to fill the air with fragments of steel and fractured machinery. But apparently no vital spot had been struck, for the crew gathered to the attack, and almost before Wallace could get in another shot the submarine had fired in her turn, and with a crash down came most of the top hamper of the Sardonyx. Another and another shot followed, the third one sheering away part of the bows of the Sardonyx without apparently disturbing Wallace, who worked his guns grimly. It was touch and go even now, and it might have gone hard indeed with those on board but for the fact that Wallace's fifth and sixth shots were absolutely pictures. The fifth pitched plumb on the deck of the submarine, blowing the crew thereon into fragments, and the sixth got into the very vitals of the U-boat, for the explosion that followed shook the crazy old Sardonyx from stem to stern. Then the bows of the submarine rose until she stood on end in the grotesque likeness of a church steeple. Just for a moment she hung quivering there, then gradually went down in a cloud of steam and smoke into 400 fathoms of water off the edge of the reef and was seen no more. All that remained of her consisted of Billy Hutton and two German sailors dancing frantically on the reef and shaking their fists in the direction of the Sardonyx, which was settling by the head.
"So that's that," Wallace drawled.
"Amen, not to say Prosit," Graydon cried. "But come on, lads, we haven't got a minute to spare."
They swarmed down the side into the last boat and pulled away vigorously from the doomed Sardonyx. She went down presently like a stone, there was a ripple on the sea, and a dull explosion somewhere, and the old tram was finished.
"Now what do you think of that for a day's work?" Endellion asked. "Well, we can't take any credit, boys. That will all go to Gunter. He'll have all the kudos, to say nothing of the Admiralty dollars. But I'm sorry about the old hooker."
"Now, don't you go fretting your fat about that," Gunter grinned. "If you are satisfied and the Admiralty is satisfied, then there's no cause for me to grumble whatever. And if ever you want any really nice vegetables, you send to David Gunter and he will supply you with all you want."
THE GIRL slipped out of her evening wrap, and stood before Blinn in all that strange seductive beauty of hers, which was at once so apparent and so elusive.
"Mr. Lionel Blinn, I think," she said. "It was very good of you to suggest that we should dine here, at the Ritz. Now, shall we sit down and get on simultaneously with the dinner and the business? My time is limited. I am due at a big function presently on behalf of my paper, the 'Herald.' You want me to smuggle the six finest pearls in the world across the Atlantic and hand them over to Mr. Rufus Steuveyant; is that not so?"
"My dear young lady!" Blinn expostulated.
"Don't be nervous," the girl smiled. "I always believe in letting the enemy see apparently all that I am doing. You see, my position on the staff of the 'Daily Herald' enables me to run backwards and forwards to America frequently. I have always a good excuse for crossing the Atlantic; you know my reputation as a journalist. If I am found out on this occasion, all you have to do is to pay the duty, and take over the pearls, leaving me to get out of the mess as best I can. Now do you see what I am driving at? I want you to put all your cards on the table. I am perfectly aware that you want money very badly, and that you have an option on six unique pearls, which you have provisionally sold to Mr. Rufus Steuveyant. He is purchasing these stones to replace six pearls that were damaged some time ago, and which formed part of the famous Navarre necklace, at one time the property of Margaret of Anjou, and a rare historical gem. This, I understand, is to be a birthday present to Miss Steuveyant from her doting father. Is that about right?"
"Absolutely correct," Blinn murmured. "100,000 pounds is the price to be paid on delivery in New York."
"And that is the subtle distinction," Coralie said. "The old man will pay 100,000 pounds in New York, which means, of course, that if you can smuggle them across the water you can make an extra profit of 20,000 pounds, represented by the amount of duty saved. Now, where do I come in? Halves?"
"Very well," Blinn said. "It shall be as you like, and I will hand over the pearls to you whenever you are ready. I wish you had not chosen this spot to discuss matters. If anybody overheard you—"
Coralie produced a newspaper cutting from the bosom of her dress.
"On the contrary," she said. "The more publicity the better. Now, I know a good deal about you and your affairs, and, being convinced that you would employ me, I wrote this paragraph, which appeared in the 'Herald' this morning. As you will see, it is to the effect that Mr. Steuveyant has purchased those pearls from you, and that they are intended to make good the missing ones in the Navarre necklace."
"You are mad," Blinn gasped.
"My very dear sir," Coralie drawled, "for a stockbroker you are exceedingly simple. Don't you understand that I want to have the limelight concentrated on me? Look across to the fourth table on the left, the table decorated with lilies-of-the-valley. Do you see a young man there, a beautifully-groomed youth, young and good-looking, with eyes like blue agates. That is Mr. Silas Flint, the astutest man in the American Customs to-day. He does little else but travel backwards and forwards on the big liners with an eye to Uncle Sam's revenue account. With Mr. Flint in my eye, I wrote the paragraph which seems to have disturbed you so strangely. And I took good care that Flint should see it. Up to now he cannot prove that I have ever smuggled a stone across the Atlantic, but he knows perfectly well that he has me to thank for one or two successful little ventures. I am quite glad he has seen us here this evening. I wanted him to, in fact."
"Can you cross by the Campagnia on the 14th?" Blinn asked.
"I don't think so," Coralie said. "But I can let you know in a minute or two. But I rather think it will be the Albania on the 19th. Ah, I see Mr. Flint is moving. He is pretty sure to come across and speak to me."
The immaculately-groomed young man with the handsome face and steel-blue eyes lounged smilingly in the direction of the carnation-decked table.
"Ah, Miss Rouget," he said. "Delighted to see you again. Do you happen to be coming our way on Saturday?"
"Saturday week," Coralie corrected. "I suppose you couldn't put off your trip for another seven days, so that we might travel together, could you?"
"I ought not to, but I will," Flint said grimly. "I could not refuse so flattering an invitation."
It was with profound misgivings that Blinn parted with his precious pearls on the morning of the Friday week. At any rate, the die was cast now, and the Albania started from the Mersey with a full complement of passengers, including Flint and the lady with the pearls. That Coralie had the gems in her possession Flint did not entertain the slightest doubt. He knew, of course, that primarily her business was connected with her newspaper, but this was only an excuse to cover a far more remunerative transaction. And Coralie knew that he knew it.
She also knew that Flint admired her tremendously, and that if she only said the word, she would have the pride of the American Customs at her feet.
And so things drifted on to the night before the end of the voyage. That evening a special show took place in the big saloon. As usual, there was more than one theatrical company on board, including several stars of musical comedy and a group of Spanish dancers who attracted a good deal of attention in London during the past few months. It was a daring and audacious show, Michel Lopez did some astounding things in connection with a number of live cobras with which he appeared on the stage. This was rather trying to the nerves of the more timid passengers, for it was known that the snakes were in full possession of their fangs, and that the slightest accident would probably result in a horrible death to their owner.
"I'm glad that's over," Coralie sighed. "Where does Senor Lopez keep those reptiles?"
"In his cabin, I believe," Flint replied. "Nice sort of companions to pass the night with."
"I was wondering what would happen if they got loose," Coralie said. "Just imagine the panic if they did. I'll get Senor Lopez to give me an interview. I guess I could make a fine column article for the 'New York Mail.' Would you mind getting hold of the Senor for me presently. We might go forward, and have a glass of champagne together."
"Consider it done," Flint said. "When I come to think of it, doesn't old Steuveyant control the 'New York Mail?' You know who I mean?"
Coralie shot a keen glance at her companion. It seemed to her that there might be something behind that innocent question.
"I believe he does," she said. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing. Come along, and I'll fix you up in a comfortable corner of the saloon and bring the Senor round."
The Spaniard was honestly impressed by Coralie's outspoken admiration of his performance, and promised, too, that hers should be an exclusive interview, but shook her head when the champagne bottle was pushed towards him.
"Ah, I dare not, madame. I loff the champagne, but he loff not me. One little glass, and for an hour I am almost intoxicated. I haf the weakest head in the world."
"Oh, nonsense," Coralie smiled. "You don't expect me to believe that a man with a nerve like yours is afraid of a glass of champagne. Your pets are safe enough."
Lopez hesitated for a moment, then, as if hypnotised by the golden flecks in those wonderful brown eyes, lifted the glass to his lips, and drank to the last drop. Then followed five minutes loquacity, couched in the purest Spanish, and shortly afterwards, a precipitate retreat on the part of Lopez in the direction to his cabin.
"Funny thing," Flint said. "Still, I have seem instances of the kind before. Yes, I'll look into Lopez's cabin as I go to bed, just to see that it's all safe. A man in his state shut up in the same cabin with half a dozen high velocity cobras—!"
It was nearly midnight before Flint glanced into the Spaniard's cabin. The electrics were full on, and, in his berth, Lopez was lying outside the counterpane attired only in his pyjamas. His eyes were wide open and staring, and there was a green tinge on his cheeks, and a rigidity of the jaw, which could not have been produced by one glass of champagne. And then, as Flint looked again, he saw the cause of the frozen horror on the face of the Spaniard. For there, curled up on the pit of his stomach, with wicked head uplifted and forked tongue viciously displayed, was one of the cobras. In the far corner of the cabin was the glass case, containing the rest of them, and these, as far as Flint could judge, were safe.
"Good heavens, man," Flint whispered, hoarsely. "Do you understand your danger?"
"Perfectly," the Spaniard said. "I understand. When I got back in the cabin, I was fool enough to feed those reptiles. It was a mad thing to do, as I could hardly see what I was up to. Jane managed to get out. Just see if the other five are there, will you? Everything depends on your coolness now."
With his hair lifting on his scalp, and a pricking sensation playing up and down his spine, Flint tiptoed across the cabin and glanced into the glass tank containing the rest of the reptiles. Holding himself in hand he counted.
"That's all right," he said. "There are five of them."
"Then there's a chance yet," Lopez said between his white lips. "This one here I have only had in my collection about a month. I have hardly dared to touch Jane, though I believe she is getting to know me. When I undressed, I lay down here, feeling hot and uncomfortable, and I suppose it was the warmth of my body that attracted her."
"Yes, but what do you want me to do?" Flint asked.
"Nothing will happen as long as I lie perfectly still. Now, go to the steward, and bring me a shallow bowl and a jug of milk. Put the bowl as near to the cot as you dare, and froth the milk into it slowly. My life is in your hands."
In a sort of waking nightmare, Flint procured the milk, and returned with it to the cabin. Now that the first horror was over, he was as calm and collected as Lopez himself. He poured the milk into the bowl, and, almost immediately, the reptile began to move. Inch by inch, in leaden moments which seemed like hours, the coils were unloosened, and the long, lean head reached over the edge of the cot in the direction of the tempting liquid, then, with a flop, the sinuous body dropped to the floor, and the Spaniard promptly collapsed.
He opened his eyes a moment or two later, and sat up, staring wildly about him.
"Where am I?" he murmured. "Oh, I remember. In the corner of the cabin just opposite you is a forked stick. Throw it across to me. No hurry, the danger is over."
"You are going to kill the brute?" Flint asked.
"No. I am going to catch it. The fault is entirely mine, and it is not Jane who should suffer."
A moment later, and the head of the cobra was dexterously pinned to the cabin floor, and held there in the cleft of the stick. Lopez smiled faintly.
"One more little favour," he said. "Go to the steward and ask him for a small glass of brandy. I want it badly, my friend, and it will not hurt me now, I am sure."
When Flint returned with the spirit, Lopez was in the act of restoring the recreant Jane to her prison house. He appeared to have her firmly gripped by the back of the neck, and then he slammed down the lid and turned the key in the lock.
"I had to force myself to do that, or I should have found my nerve failing me the next time I came to handle my pets in public. And I owe you a debt of gratitude, Mr. Flint. Perhaps you will be seeing Miss Coralie Rouget to-morrow. Will you give her my compliments? Tell her that I think that I can add a chapter most remarkable to that interview of hers."
"By jove, that's not a bad idea," Flint said. "I shall be seeing Miss Rouget in the morning."
In saying this, he spoke no more than the truth, for so far he had been baffled and beaten, and it was his fixed intention not to lose sight of Coralie before he had seen her safely as far as her hotel. Moreover, if the pearls were to be intercepted, there was no time to be lost. He was getting anxious and restless, and the fear of failure loomed over him like a cloud. Was he going to be beaten?
It was 12 o'clock the following day, the Custom's House examination was over, and Coralie had departed to her hotel with a promise to see Lopez later in the afternoon, while Flint made his way with a heavy heart in the direction of his chief's office to confess that 100,000 pounds of pearls had been smuggled into the United States, and that he had been powerless to prevent it. In other words, the pride of the Customs House had met his Waterloo. The chief was duly sympathetic.
"Well, I guess the best of us get done by a woman sometime," he said. "And I calculate that Coralie Rouget is some woman, too. Why don't you fix up a contract? Why don't you marry her? Between you two Uncle Sam would have a good time."
Meanwhile Coralie was ostensibly on her way to see Lopez, and complete the story with which she hoped to make something of a sensation in that evening's edition of the 'New York Mail.' She found Lopez in his sitting room awaiting her. In the corner of the room was the glass and wire case covered with a blanket. Knowing what she knew even then Coralie shuddered slightly as the Spaniard opened the case, and, plunging his hand inside, produced the body of a snake.
"You need not be alarmed," he said. "This is the lamented Jane, who died suddenly in my cabin last night. Only, of course, as our clever friend was not there at the time, he did not know it. Nor does he know that I bought Jane on purpose for the little expedition, and that she has had no fangs for years. She is dead, as you see, because it is necessary. And now, my dear madame, to business."
Saying which, Lopez took the snake by the tail, and, drawing his hand towards the throat, dislodged six small packages wrapped in silver paper.
"Behold your pearls," he said. "Which you will now take to the millionaire who bought them, and collect the promised cheque. Also, later in the day, perhaps you would send me your cheque, and, moreover, there is no reason why you should not draw a handsome sum of money for the story of what happened last night. I think it is what you newspaper people call a 'scoop,' and I am not blind to the advertisement. To tell the truth, few professionals are. I smile to myself when I think of Mr. Flint's face last night."
It was about 6 o'clock the same evening when Coralie daintily tripped up the steps towards the editorial offices of the 'Mail' with her thrilling and exclusive story in her hand. She had killed two birds with one stone, and she evinced no astonishment in meeting Steuveyant himself at the top of the stairs. It might have been a coincidence, on the other hand, it might have been part of an elaborate arrangement. For Coralie said nothing, and merely handed over a small packet to the millionaire, who examined the contents.
"I guess that was smart," he said, "How did you manage it?"
"Ah, that's my secret," Coralie laughed. "I can only tell it to one man, and even he is not likely to know unless I make up my mind to marry him."
"Come and dine with us," Steuveyant said, cordially enough. "Guess my daughter will be glad to meet you on her birthday."
"I should love to," Coralie said sweetly.
THE master-miracle had exploded like a blinding bomb before Barwick's dazed vision, and he was gazing at it blindly still with eyes that saw not and a mind struggling dimly back to consciousness. Had Chance been superlatively good to him, or was it only another phase of the old hideous nightmare?
If things were real, if the world had suddenly turned turtle, or Armageddon had gone up in an explosion that shook the universe, then he was free. On the wall opposite was a calendar, peeled to the bone almost by the daily shedding of a leaf, and the date staring him in the face was November 11, 1918—a blazing scar on the heart of history, had he only known it.
He knew—though, for the life of him, he could not have told why—that he was seated in a big resounding beer-hall in Dammer Strasse, which was just off the Wilhelmstrasse, and that the man by his side had been a prisoner of war, too. And now they were free. A few hours before the prison doors had been flung open, and a German gaoler, who actually smiled, had told them that they could go where they liked. Barwick had gathered that something or other had been signed, and that Berlin was in the hands of the mob. And so he had gone forth like a caged bird that seeks the light. He was a homing pigeon with a broken wing, and the prevailing instinct in him bade him to turn his face towards the sea, and perhaps in time he might taste the salt lick of the brine on his lips again.
Now, this man had been a prisoner at Ruhleben for something like three years. He had been picked like a fly from an island in the Southern Seas, where his life lay and his work had held him, and he bad come thence by a U-boat to Zeebrugge, from which port he had been brought to Germany.
For they had wanted him—wanted him badly. There was a secret that he could tell them—a secret that the Wilhelmstrasse had heard, fourteen thousand miles away, back in the early days of the century—in 1913, to be exact—a secret in connection with the extraction of heavy oils from marine refuse, and the Great General Staff had been interested in that. So that his name had been on the secret ledger of the Devil's lieutenants what time Barwick modestly regarded himself as a humble individual seeking a becoming fortune for his wife and child, waiting for him patiently enough in Eastbourne.
So they had brought him back carefully in a fugitive U-boat that had survived the destruction of the Emden, and dropped him finally at Ruhleben, to be attended to in due course and his secret forced from him, only, unhappily, an obtuse sentry, not in the confidence of his superiors, had shown his patriotism and his sense of Deutschland über Alles by bashing Barwick over the head with a rifle—probably the one instance of brutality ever genuinely regretted by a German official, because from that moment Barwick ceased to take any interest in most mundane things, and the secret was safe.
He was getting over it now. He didn't know how he had got into the café, he didn't understand the sullen, indifferent crowd and the red flags that had broken out like a rash. In a hazy way he missed the clicking of heels and the brutal commands of gold-laced authority; but he was beginning to comprehend that he had found a friend, and that the individual opposite him was an Australian sailor-man called Van Cutting, lately a resident at the Spandau prisoners' camp.
So they sat there, drinking beer out of pewter-topped stone mugs—a queer couple, the one clad in fragments of sacking and boots bound up with ropes of hay, the other in khaki breeches, tattered sweater, and a poacher's cloth cap. There were Germans of all classes around them, officers without their badges or with badges roughly torn from their shoulders, who sat in moody groups with listless eyes, listening without astonishment to the two men freely talking English there without let or hindrance. Oh, yes, the super-miracle had come all right.
A waiter, polite—indeed, almost courteous —refilled the mugs at a sign from Cutting, and gazed with something like awe upon a ten-shilling Treasury note that the Australian had put into his hand. Barwick regarded him with the dawn of a smile oh his face. Gradually, very gradually, he was coming back to the kingdom of his mind, till the dark curtain of the past black years rolled away, and his mental focus resolved itself into a cool and sane perspective.
He was beginning to enjoy it; he was beginning to realise that Germany was beaten, and that the people around him were slowly coming to a realisation of the truth. It was almost incredible, all the same, to a man who had passed five years of his youth on the left bank of the Rhine. For Barwick had been a student at Bonn, and he knew what the soul of Germany had been in those days. It faintly amused him to see an infantryman, with a white band round his arm, swaying drunkenly on a table and singing the "Marseillaise" at the top of his voice. And this incredible thing was happening in Berlin!
"What do you think of it?" Cutting asked.
"I'm only just beginning to think," Barwick replied. "But never mind about that. The question is, what are we going to do? We can't stay here."
"That'll be all right," the Australian said. "These chaps are down and out. We're safe enough, and, after all, it's only a matter of money."
"Is that all?" Barwick asked, with a smile—the first genuine smile on his face for two years. Cutting tapped the side of his coat and shed a wink.
"I've got it," he whispered. "I've had it all the time—between the soles of my boots. When I went to the Front, I put a wad or two there, half expecting something of this sort; and when those swine got hold of me, I hid the boodle under a brick in my cell. I've got over fifty pounds here. It'll take us over the frontier all right—? plenty for both of us."
"But you don't know me," Barwick protested.
"Yes, I do. I was in the Australian coasting trade before I joined up. You are the chap who was running that queer joint at Shinti amongst the cannibals. Had a German partner called Oppner. Some dodge for getting oil out of seaweed. Saw you once, though you never spotted me. But say, partner, was that stunt of yours a good egg?"
Barwick nodded vaguely. The muttering roar of the restaurant was in his ears; from outside came the hum of a city that resembled the noise made by a hive of angry bees. Then he pulled himself together again.
"It was all right," he said. "It was all right from the first. I tried it when I had finished my course at Bonn, eight years ago. I tried it in London. Heavens, I tried it till I hadn't a shilling of capital left! Mind you, Cutting, I didn't know they were watching me, but they must have been doing so before I left Germany. And I suppose that's why they followed me half across the world, after the War broke out, and got me at last. I couldn't get anybody in England to take it up; I couldn't get the stuff I wanted for my purpose. I knew where it was, I knew that there were millions of tons of it down there off the Solomon Isles— Shinti, to be exact. It's a big oily sort of weed that grows in the lagoons and up the rivers as far as the tides run. So I scraped together all I could, and went out there with Oppner. He believed in it—he couldn't help it. So we set out from the Fanto Group in a motor-boat we got hold of, and landed at Shinti with some scrap machinery and a case of Winchester rifles. It was a desperate venture, because we knew what we had to face; but we trusted to our rifles to put the fear of the Lord into the hearts of the niggers, and, by George, they did. We made friends with one of them—the only one who would come near us—and precious useful he was. You see, we fed him and gave him presents, and whenever there was any treachery on foot he always let us know, so that we were ready. And there, for two years before the War, we hammered out our primitive machinery and turned out the stuff. I tell you, Cutting, there's no better heavy oil in the world, and any amount, too, for the making."
"Sounds good," Cutting murmured, "especially just now, when there's a world shortage of that sort of thing, and likely to be, for that matter."
"There's a fortune in it," Barwick said. "And it's cheap to make. Why, Oppner and myself, with our comic machinery, made a couple of tons a day easily."
"Ah, then he knew all about it?"
"Oh, no, he didn't." Barwick smiled. "He knew how to work the plant, but I never told him the formula. It's a mathematical formula, and if you don't get it exact, your stuff is worth little. It took me nearly two years to get those figures on a workable basis. I knew them by heart once, but now I am as ignorant of them as you are. I suppose I shall get over that clout over the head in time, but, you see, if I begin to think, my head gets stuffed with cotton-wool, and I'm good for nothing for days. And that's the trouble."
"Sounds like a hefty proposition."
"Well, it might be, but it isn't. You see, the formula is in a safe place where I hid it when the trouble came, and if I were in Shinti I could put my hands on it in five minutes."
"Better tell me the whole story," Cutting said.
"All right. We'll go back to some three years ago—about that, more or less—at any rate, it wasn't long after the War began. Mind you, I didn't know there was a war on. I got no letters, and nothing came near us except some wandering tramp to fill its water-casks. But Oppner knew. Heaven only knows how, but he did, and the beastly swine never said a word to me about it. In his spare time he was mucking about with a primitive sort of wireless arrangement, though it never occurred to me at the time to ask him where he got his material from, but I found out afterwards that a U-boat, waiting on a cruiser, had landed the stuff on the island. I suppose by that time we had eight or ten tons of oil. Then one day off the island there comes a strange-looking craft, something between a big tramp and a cruiser, and lands a boat's crew. I was lying up at the time with a touch of malaria, and precious bad, too, so I suppose Oppner thought I didn't count. But the wind was right, and I heard what they were saying. And what do you think that boat was?"
"Oh, give it up," Van Cutting said.
"My friend, it was the Emden. And she was after our oil. She came on purpose, and Oppner had fetched her up with that comic wireless of his. You see, I know German almost as well as I know my own language, so I heard everything. I knew the War had been in progress for months, I knew that the Boche had been smashed on the Marne, and I knew that Germany looked like being in a tight place for petrol and heavy lubricants, and I knew that they wanted me over in Germany to work my invention on spent minerals, such as coal and slag. And I could have done it, too."
Barwick took a long pull at his mug.
"Well, that was the game. The Emden couldn't stop then—got wind of some big trouble, perhaps—and she was off in an hour, with a promise to come back later. If she couldn't manage that, she'd send a U-boat for me."
"What happened then?" Cutting asked.
"Well, I just lay low. I saw my danger, and played the game of Brer Rabbit. I had some queer accidents, too. First of all, when I was out by myself one day, cutting seaweed, I lost the motor-launch—at least, that's what I told Oppner. But I ran her up into a creek and hid her under a heap of mango roots, where she is probably safe to this day. Then the oil caught fire and wrecked the whole of my plant. After that I took a little fireproof safe of mine and locked the formula away in it, and sank the thing in the middle of a deep lagoon, where I can find it if necessary. They were terrible misfortunes, but they seemed to worry Oppner a good deal more than they did me. And then, about a month later, the Emden came back."
"The same old game, I suppose?" Cutting said.
"Oh, no, there was no disguise this time. They were vastly polite to me, because von Müller is by way of being a gentleman, but they took me on board, and I was with them for the best part of six weeks. I knew that Germany was my destination, and what I was expected to do when I got there, but I said nothing till the real trouble began. I said nothing then because they put me on a U-boat, as I expected, and von Müller went off, hell for leather, for there was trouble sitting on his tail, and it wasn't very far off. And that's about all."
Van Cutting turned the matter over slowly in his mind. He was no longer sitting in the heart of a great nation's tragedy, collecting nightmares—he was thinking of the practical side of things. He was thinking, for instance, of that old battered steamer of his, tied up to a wharf somewhere in an Australian port, in connection with the possibilities of what Barwick had been saying. And it seemed to him that it was good.
"It's a big thing you've got, mate," he said. "Not that it means strolling along on a golden strand and filling our pockets with nuggets. But it's big because you've got what the world wants badly, and with a year or two's work it ought to be through. I've got the boat and I've got some machinery, and if you want a few hundred pounds—"
"I want nothing." Barwick said, "except your assistance, and there's half of the profits waiting for you."
"Van Cutting rose to his feet.
"It's a bet," he said briefly."
* * * * *
They had worked their way out of Germany back, to the British lines, and from thence, in a few days, to London; and when Cutting had boasted that he and Barwick would be on the high seas, bound for the Southern Cross, within a fortnight, he had said a true thing. For he was known in the Port of London, where masters were eagerly awaiting crews, and they might have picked their own ship, half a dozen times over. They had come at length to Melbourne on a fast steamer through the Canal, and a few days later they were on their way across the Southern Seas, with a scratch crew, bound for Shinti. They had taken on board all that was needed, including a couple of machine-guns, which had been picked up at scrap price now that the War was over, and one fine morning they warped into a little bay, land-locked and palm-fringed, with an oily, oozy stream running back into the heart of the island. And here for two days they lay, talking over their plans until they were ready to push up the river in one of the ship's boats in the direction of a big lagoon fringed with trees, lying there like some sinister mirror, dark and mysterious, almost as if it were a scene that Dante had pictured. And here it was that they picked up the motor-boat Barwick spoken of, hidden and half buried in rotten vegetation, but heavy with oil, so that it only needed to be cleaned and the petrol taken on board for the voyage to the shallow waters where the precious seaweed lay, all ready for the work to come. They had gone up with only two of the crew besides themselves, for the rest were not to be trusted in that silent land, where danger lay behind every bush, and where the cannibals would be waiting for them at the first opportunity. So they sped on, a day or two later, the boat moving almost noiselessly in the oily waters, with the machine-gun grinning in her bows.
They came at length to a shelving beach on the side of the big brackish waters, where a hut had been built, backed by a sheer cliff, so that, in case of an attack, the defenders could not be approached from the rear. It was here that Barwick and Oppner had worked for the best part of two years, taking watch, turn and turn about, with a Winchester rifle and a box of cartridges handy. It was in this way that they had kept the demon of fear alive in the hearts of the natives.
Barwick lay back in the stern of the boat and wiped the blinding sweat from his eyes.
"Here we are," he said. "And there's the stuff, floating on the face of the lagoon, millions of tons of it. That's the hut we built, and there, away to the right, you can see what remains of our machinery."
"It doesn't look so derelict, either," Cutting said.
"No, it doesn't," Barwick admitted. "And if that isn't smoke coming out of the hut, I'm greatly mistaken."
Beyond question a thin spiral of smoke went up from the chimney of the hut. Barwick looked about him with alert suspicion. If his eyes did not decefve him, the machinery which he had carefully destroyed had been repaired, for he could see parts of it glistening in the sunshine, and noticed certain ancient receptacles standing in a row on the beach. He was conscious, too, that something was moving in the brush; it seemed to him that he could see the outline of more than one naked black figure. Then something whizzed over the bow of the boat, and a spear, flung by a muscular arm, plopped into the water. Immediately afterwards came the unmistakable crack of a rifle-shot from somewhere on the edge of the scrub, followed by one from the door of the hut, for Barwick could distinctly see the tiny wisp of smoke that hung there.
"There's somebody in the shack," he whispered excitedly—"somebody who's working that machinery, and another somebody who is in trouble with the natives amongst the scrub. We've come just in time, Cutting. If our friends fall into jhe hands of those devils—cannibals to a man— well, I'll leave you to imagine it. Here, turn that machine-gun round and spray a belt along that bank of scrub."
The machine-gun coughed its rapid message, spraying the scrub from end to end, followed here and there by howls of anguish and a quick stampede of ebony-black figures in the direction of the big wood behind the scrub. Then another figure emerged, a tall figure of a man, armed with what appeared to be a Winchester rifle, and clad only in a loin-cloth. He had been hit, probably with a spear, for he limped across the open painfully, glancing round from time to time, much like a man who is walking in his sleep.
Barwick's eyes opened widely.
"Memsambo!" he cried. "Memsambo!"
The man, looking across the open, evidently heard, for he paused irresolutely as he looked in the direction of the boat.
"And who might Memsambo be?" Cutting asked.
"Our one friendly native," Barwick explained. "He came over to us the first week we were here. Did you ever see a lot of rooks pecking one of their colony to death—sort of court-martial arrangement?"
"Saw it once," Cutting said. "They weren't rooks, but Australian crows. Funny sight."
"Well, that was what was happening to Memsambo. Oppner and I came across the ceremony just at the right time. They were chipping pieces out of the poor wretch with their spears, preparatory to making a feast of him, no doubt. But a few rounds from the Winchester stopped that, and, as Memsambo daren't go back, he stayed with us ever after. But what the mystery was, I never could understand. Even when we had taught him some sort of English he wouldn't explain. Hi, Memsambo!"
The big native hesitated in the direction of the boat, crawling on his hands and knees, touching the ground with his forehead over and over again. He knew something of white men and their ways, as the Winchester rifle which he dragged after him showed, but the machine-gun was clearly new magic to him, and the big man was sore afraid. Still, he came on till he grovelled almost at the feet of the two white men, and looked up at them with a dumb pleading in his eyes like that of a dog.
"Don't you know me, Memsambo?" Barwick asked.
"It is the white lord who makes fire out of the sea come back," Memsambo said reverently. "It is well that the great man who plays, with the fire returns to us, for there has been a great killing, and many feasts there in the woods, and they would have killed me, too, but for the magic that you make with that little thing that coughs like a sick monkey."
They dragged Memsambo into the boat and bound up his wounds. There was nothing serious the matter—flesh wounds, for the most part, caused by the spears of the cannibals—and very soon the big native was sitting up again and examining the machine-gun with all the pleasure of a child with a new toy.
"Sit down, Memsambo," Barwick said, "and tell us all about it. Whom have you got over there in the hut? And who started my machinery again? Come, there's nothing to be afraid of. I don't think those black brethren of yours will trouble us any more, now they have learnt what a machine-gun can do. What have you been doing the last two years?"
"I stayed with my friend," Memsambo said, not without dignity. "To those blinking black niggers who eat one another's flesh I could go back no more. The white man is my brother, and his ways are my ways. So I stay because he is good to me and because them other feller kill me an' eat me if I go back. And so, when my lord Barwick go away in the big ship, I stay a long time with my lord Oppner."
"Oho!" Barwick said softly. "Oho!"
"Yes, boss," Memsambo went on more confidently. "My lord Oppner tell me you go away to fight in a great war for your country, and he stay to look after your shop. Then we get the devil engine to go again, and we make the fire-water out of the sea. But they fight us, those black niggers, they fight us day and night, until the fire for our guns is all gone. For they know, the black niggers, they know. And in the hut yonder there are just three bullets, and two I have in my loin-cloth. If you not come with the other white lord, then to-morrow we die, and they make big feast here on the beach."
"Come on, Cutting," Barwick said. "Let's get to the bottom of this business. You stay here, Memsambo, and if you see any more of your old friends prowling about, just turn that handle. We're going up to the hut."
Barwick spoke quietly enough, but there was rage in his heart and a lambent flame in his eye as he strode across the beach in the direction of the hut, followed by Cutting. Inside, in the gloom, they could make out an emaciated figure lying on the mat in the entrance, with a Winchester rifle grasped in a hand as skinny as a bird's claw, and as Barwick looked down upon the human wreck prostrate there, he knew that he was face to face with Oppner again.
"Well," he said, "I've got back, you see."
"So I observe," the German said drily. "It doesn't matter. I'm a dying man, Barwick, and I can't last another week. I'm full of fever. My medicine and quinine are all gone, and the strain has taken all the life out of me. We're down to our last handful of cartridges, and those demons know it. You can kill me, if you like—I almost wish you would."
"You served me a scurvy trick," Barwick said sternly. "I suppose you planned this from the first?"
"It was for my country," Oppner said. "You should not have patented your invention in Germany. If you had known the War was going to break out, I don't suppose you would. But we knew, and we watched, so that nothing should escape us that was likely to be useful to my country."
"And you are not ashamed of yourself?" Barwick asked.
"Ashamed? Why should I be? Ah, you English are different from us—you will never understand our German mentality."
"Oh, never mind that!" Barwick said angrily. "I ought to know, for I have had over two years in that accursed country of yours; but they got nothing out of me."
"So?" Oppner smiled. "Then why so bitter? Ah, I knew you would come back. That is why I managed to repair the machinery and reconstruct that formula of yours, which I did after a year's work on it. I knew you would come back and be my partner again, and forget what a patriot did for his country, because this is a big thing of ours, and there is a fortune for us yet. Then the War is over—it must be, or you would not be back here—the War is over, and Germany is mistress of the world!"
"Say, where have you been sleeping?" Cutting drawled. "Mean to say that you've heard nothing, boss?"
"Not a word for two years," Oppner said.
"Oh, yes, the War is over," Barwick laughed, "and I can afford to forgive you now, because Germany is beaten to the world. Her fleet is in an English port, the Mad Dog of Europe that you used to call the Kaiser is a fugitive in Holland, and a million of Allied troops are occupying German territory. Oh, yes, the War's over right enough, with a republic in Berlin, and your people thankful for the food we send them. And because of that, and because you have done me no real harm, after all, I am going to show you what an Englishman is capable of."
But Oppner, lying there, said never a word. They fed him and tended him for the next few days, during which time he never spoke, and at the end of the week they buried him deep under a grove of mangoes, after which they went back to the hut in silence. It was Cutting who uttered Oppner's epitaph.
"I suppose the poor beggar had a soul somewhere," he said, "but the beastly thing they used to call Kultur has stifled it. We're a forgiving lot, Barwick, and that's a fact. And now let's get back to business again."
MAINTREE sat on the balcony overlooking the compound, trying in vain to piece the puzzle together and evolve something logical and convincing out of the chaos. Out there in the compound the blistering sun, in a heaven of brass, shone down on the dry grass and withered vegetation, for it was the hot season of the year, and everything wilted under the merciless heat of the afternoon. There was no sign of life anywhere, except that now and again a tired sentry dragged himself across the grass and disappeared at intervals into the shadow.
For Maintree was a prisoner, detained there in that barren compound on the frontier until such time as he could be committed for trial by the Resident Magistrate and sent down country to appear before the Superior Court.
He had breakfasted more or less in solitary state, and for some hours had been sitting there, trying to see his way out of the maze of circumstantial evidence that the prosecution was weaving about his feet. And the more he thought of it, the less he liked contemplation of the future, for, indeed, everything was against him.
The mere fact that he had not killed Stooke had nothing whatever to do with it. The prosecution said he had, and, what was more to the point, they appeared to have a good deal of evidence in proof of the charge. To begin with, Maintree was known to have been on exceedingly bad terms with the tea planter; they had had at least two violent quarrels, and on one occasion, in the presence of witnesses, they had come to blows. For the purposes of the case it mattered nothing that Stooke had treated Maintree exceedingly badly. It was quite immaterial that Stooke had had a sinister reputation in the neighbourhood, and that, putting the case at its very best, he had been an exceptionally sharp man of business. In point of fact, he had done Maintree out of his garden in an almost barefaced and cynical fashion. He had taken advantage of the fact that the latter was something of a visionary and a dreamer, given over to scientific and natural pursuits, to the great detriment of his prospects. But this was in itself a proof of malice against Maintree.
He had parted with his garden under duress, and his prospects had been very bad indeed but for the fact that, just after the transaction was completed, a distant relative in England had left him a fortune. But this had come too late to prevent friction between the two men and an openly -expressed threat on Maintree's part to do Stooke a mischief if ever the opportunity should come his way.
In the course of time Maintree had turned out of his holding and had found some sort of a habitation in a more or less dilapidated bungalow on the Delhi road. And here he busied himself, pending his return to England, with his collection of moths and butterflies, which was, by common consent, the best of its kind in India. The thing might have been forgotten altogether, when it suddenly loomed large in the gossip of the district again by reason of the finding of Stooke's body lying just off the roadway, the unfortunate man having evidently been killed by a shot fired at close quarters from an ordinary sporting weapon. Stooke had evidently been killed instantly; his left side was badly torn, and the watch he was wearing penetrated by a shot or two, which had caused the little timepiece to stop at twenty-five minutes past three. This was held, very properly, to fix the time of the crime, and though Stooke had many enemies, especially amongst his employees, the district made up its mind at once that this was the work of Maintree. He had been seen in argument with the dead man not long before, his shot-gun was missing, and, when inquiries were made, Maintree professed to have lost it. Nor could he satisfactorily account for the time between the hour when he was seen talking to Stooke and the moment when he returned to his own bungalow to tea. Investigations were set on foot, with the result that Maintree had been arrested and brought before a magistrate on two occasions. On the last of these he had been remanded for a week, and to-morrow would see him before the Bench again, probably for the last time before he was committed for trial. It appeared to be a hopeless case from the first, and gradually and surely Maintree was coming to the same conclusion.
He was waiting now to see his lawyer with regard to one or two points which the latter wanted to place before the court on the morrow. Presently the gate of the compound opened and Maintree's advocate made his appearance.
"Well, have you got any further?" he asked.
Maintree shook his head thoughtfully.
"No," he said. "I am just as mystified as you are. But I never touched Stooke."
"Yes, but we have got to convince the magistrate of it. Now, let's talk this matter over as if we were detached from it altogether. Somebody killed Stooke. You have no doubt whatever about that, I suppose?"
"Go on," Maintree said; "that's admitted."
"Very well, then. Stooke was killed with a shot-gun well within an hour of being seen in conversation with you. There was bad blood between you, and you threatened him with violence on more than one occasion."
"I did, the swine!" Maintree muttered.
"Perhaps you don't see the significance of that admission. It's evidence of motive, and that counts for a good deal, let me tell you. Stooke was killed with a sporting gun using the same shot that you use yourself. You may contend that scores of men here use exactly the same shot, but that doesn't help you much. And when you are asked to produce your gun, you say you don't know where it is. That's a lot to ask a magistrate to believe."
"But it's true, all the same," Maintree said.
"Yes, but, man alive, how did you lose it? Even an absent-minded beggar like yourself can't lose a valuable sporting gun without knowing anything about it."
"Well, it was like this," Maintree said. "I had a few words with Stooke, mostly sarcastic, but we parted without any violence. He went along the main road, and I turned into the deep path between the cane brake and the water ponds, so that I was hidden from view. I was going round that way to the bungalow because I had heard a rumour from one of the natives to the effect that he had seen a laced-wing butterfly."
"Oh, go on," Denton said wearily. "Can't you forget those wretched butterflies for the moment?"
"Ah, well, perhaps it is more important than you think," Maintree said. "I didn't believe what the man said, because there hasn't been a laced-wing butterfly taken in these parts for over thirty years. I don't suppose there are half a dozen of them left in India. But you never can tell. I went that way because I knew that, if there was one of those moths to be seen, it would be somewhere near water. You may not know it, but the laced-wing is never seen except between two and four. And I found one— I found one. I dropped my gun, and I must have chased the insect for the best part of three miles before I caught him. And I can show him to you now, if you like."
Denton waved the suggestion aside.
"I took my prize home, and then I went back for my gun. I couldn't find it."
"Of course you couldn't," Denton said. "Picked up by some thieving native, no doubt. Now, I believe all this, but you'll never get a magistrate to. Oh, come, Maintree, can't you see what a tight place you are in? If what you tell me can be proved by any independent witness, then we can establish the fact that you were some miles away from the scene of the crime at the moment Stooke died. We can establish that that took place about half-past three from the unshakable evidence of the damaged watch. Did you meet anybody on the way?"
"Oh, yes," Maintree said.
"Then why on earth didn't you tell me that before? Who was it you met? Some neighbour?"
"No; a man I have never seen before. He came upon me quite suddenly just after I had secured the butterfly. I was spreading the insect out and mounting it on a sheet of cork, when somebody hailed me. I was so busy with the work that I never heard the man come up. It's a very lonely bit of road, you know, and as those pools are supposed to be haunted, no native ever willingly goes that way. I was squatting on the ground, pinning out my butterfly, when the stranger in question spoke to me. I looked up and saw a man seated on the back of a flea-bitten grey pony—a little man with a keen, clean-shaven face and a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. He looked like a good-humoured, amusing sort of chap who, I should say, would be very good company. He was very friendly, and quite free and easy in his manner. A man of about sixty, more or less. He asked me what I had found, and I told him. He was very interested, because he told me he was a bit of a collector or something of that sort, and he had never seen a laced-wing before. He didn't believe they any longer existed. I gathered from what he said that he was a stranger in these parts, probably on a visit to some planter; but we didn't go into that, and he volunteered no further details. He asked me a great many questions connected with butterflies, and I suppose we must have been chatting together for a quarter of an hour."
"What time would that be?" Denton asked.
"Oh, well, after three, anyhow. I knew that by the position of the sun. And these are things that I do understand."
"Then you didn't get the man's name?"
"I didn't, worse luck. But of course I should know him again—I should know that keen, thin face anywhere."
Denton paused in thought for a moment.
"This is very important," he said, "very important. If what you say is correct, and you can find that man, then you can walk out of the court-house to-morrow free. You'll have to appear before a deputy magistrate, because Shelton is laid up and has gone up to the hills for a week, and another man is coming down from headquarters to take his place. He's a fine chap. Very different to the Resident Magistrate— a real fine lawyer with a mind of his own. But never mind about that. What we have got to do now is to find this chap we speak about. I get about a good deal, but I don't know a single planter within fifty miles who has any outsider staying with him just now. It's a very slim chance, Maintree. It looks to me as if your man was passing through, and if he doesn't happen to catch sight of the account of your trial—well "
Denton shrugged his shoulders eloquently.
"The funny thing is," Maintree went on, "that I do know his name, but, for the life of me, I can't think of it. He was showing me a fly he had captured, and in taking out his pocket-book he dropped it. I picked it up, and saw the name in gold letters on the outside. It was marked J.E. something or other. A strange thing that one cannot think of a name like that, and yet I can remember the initials perfectly. It was a peculiar name, too, and one I never heard before."
Maintree rambled on in that quick, nervous fashion of his under the cold, scrutinising eye of his advocate. He knew perfectly well that Denton was listening to him with more than suspicion—in fact, though he did not say so, he was coming to the conclusion that his client was trying to deceive him. And Maintree could not feel angry about it. either. He knew that, had the positions been reversed, his point of view would have been much the same as Denton's.
"Very strange indeed," Denton said drily. "Of course the thing's impossible. But it isn't myself you have to convince, but a magistrate, who will go entirely on evidence. He won't be prejudiced either way. It may be in your favour that you are appearing before one of the best men in India; on the other hand, it may not. My dear fellow, you must see how terribly appearances are against you. I should be lacking in my duty if I didn't point this out,
I don't want to labour the point and go over the old ground again, but if we could only find that gun of yours, it would be something. However, I'll do the best I can."
With this cold comfort Denton went his way, leaving Maintree to his own gloomy thoughts. He sat there on the verandah, looking out across the dreary compound, trying once more to find some suggestion of light in the darkness. And he was none the less unhappy because he had told Denton no more than the truth. Had the whole story been a fabrication of lies, he would have been far easier in his mind. The mere fact that he was telling the truth only served to weigh the more heavily upon him.
He could see it all before him now quite plainly. He could see the sly malice in Stooke's eyes and the smile of triumph on his thin lips. He could remember every word that passed between them, and he could have written it down verbatim. He had turned his back upon the man who had robbed him, and then he had gone down the road between the brake and the chain of water-pools, boiling with rage and filled with the hatred of contempt for the man who had swindled him. He could remember that even then, distracted as he was, his thoughts had reverted to the story which the native had told him with regard to the laced-wing butterfly, and how even at that moment he had found himself wondering if he would be fortunate enough to come across one. Not that he had been in the least sanguine, because to his certain knowledge no specimen of that gorgeous purple-and-gold insect had been secured for the past thirty years. And just as he had come to this conclusion, behold, a brilliant object rose from the centre of the brake and fluttered in all its panoply of gorgeous colouring over his head.
He remembered dropping his gun and starting in instant pursuit, but for the life of him, afterwards, he could not recollect the spot at which he had abandoned his weapon. And then the chase had begun. It had been a long and weary business, one moment in the brake, and the next knee-deep in one of the pools, a hot and sweating struggle which had ended, the best part of an hour later, in the capture of the prize. And this was the fateful hour that Maintree had to prove as one in which he had not been anywhere near the neighbourhood of his enemy. He had secured the butterfly at length at a point quite three miles from where, about that moment, Stooke had been lying dead, and a witness of the fact had appeared just at the psychological moment."
Yes, it was the exact moment, as Maintree remembered now. The grey-haired, clean-shaven man in the gold-rimmed spectacles had asked him the time. He replied casually enough, without looking at his watch, that it wanted something to half-past three—a fact which seemed to surprise the stranger, who inquired how it was that Maintree was so certain. He replied that he had made a study of such things, and, indeed, this was a fact, because there was little in the way of Nature that Maintree did not understand. He had indicated the position of the sun, and the length of shadows falling from the thick brake, and apparently the stranger had been satisfied, for he smiled and casually remarked that that was one of the sort of things that everybody ought to know.
Then they had fallen to chatting generally, and the man on the grey horse had produced his pocket-book, from which he extracted an insect which was unfamiliar to him, and which he asked Maintree to name. The latter had done so without the slightest hesitation, and it was at this point that the stranger dropped his pocket-book. In picking it up and returning it Maintree had noticed the neat gold lettering on the cover of the pigskin case. The initials " J.E." stood out in his mind now in symbols of flame. He was as sure of them as he was of his own identity, and yet, for the life of him, he could not remember what the rest was. And, indeed, it was in the interest of his own life that he was sitting there, with his head in his hands, trying to sweat it out.
Now, what was that remarkable name? It was not particularly long or intricate in the way of spelling; on the contrary, it was the sort of name that tripped readily off the tongue when once the mind had grasped it— a compact, business-like sort of word, which seemed to Maintree at the time to fit the identity of the owner like a glove. And yet, though he sat there till darkness began to shut down and it was time to go back to his narrow quarters, no sign of illumination came to him.
So far as Maintree could see, there was no getting out in that direction. Unless some blind luck came his way, he was never likely to look upon the face of that amiable stranger again. No doubt he was someone passing through—a travelling inspector, perhaps, a district superintendent, or maybe somebody doing the work of somebody else.
No doubt by this time he was hundreds of miles away—perhaps in a different part of India altogether—and unless by chance he came across the account of the trial in one of the papers, he might never know that the life of a fellow-creature was in his hands. And even if he did see the report, it was long odds against his connecting it with the casual acquaintance on the roadside who had discovered a rare butterfly, unless, indeed, Denton could see his way to make the laced-wing butterfly a prominent feature of the case, on the desperate chance of the fact being brought before the eyes of the man with the gold-rimmed spectacles.
And so the hot and weary night dragged on, till morning came, and with it Denton once again.
He was no more sanguine than he had been the night before. He listened to all that Maintree had to say, and, without enthusiasm, agreed to the latter's suggestion.
"Well, it can't do any harm," he said, "and it may attract the attention of the man you speak about. But it will take time. You will probably be committed for trial this morning, and conveyed down country to a civilian gaol. The delay is all in your favour, but it's a mighty slim chance."
"I know that," Maintree said.
"Well, I'll do my best. Your case comes on at ten o'clock, and I'll be at court at that hour."
Ten o'clock came, and with it a sergeant and his file, acting as civilian police for the time being. The sergeant was well enough known to Maintree—a sporting West of England man, who had had more than one day's shooting on Maintree's property. But he was no longer the civil individual he had been, but a gaoler now, who had evidently made up his mind as to how the case was going. Quite curtly and without prefix, he ordered his prisoner to follow him. This was the first indication to Maintree of how his own little world regarded the position in which he stood. It was something in the way of a shock, but Maintree smiled steadily as he followed.
He found himself presently in a bare whitewashed room with a long ink-splashed - table, at which native and other advocates sat, and behind this a raised platform with a big chair in the centre, and over it the Royal monogram. It was a rude court of justice, after all, but it served the purpose.
With the exception of the little knot of people round the table, the court-house was empty. As yet the legal luminary who was taking the place of the Resident Magistrate had not taken his seat, and Maintree had a little time to look about him. He stood in the dock now, with the stolid sergeant by his side. He was wondering what had become of Denton. He was wondering, too, why no curious neighbour or old acquaintance had put in an appearance. No one had seemed to rally round him, and, on the contrary, no one seemed to care to listen. Perhaps they had already made up their minds as to what was. going to happen, and thought it would be more decent to stay away.
Then a little door behind the gallery opened, and a man dressed in spotless white bustled in. As he took his seat. Maintree's lower jaw dropped, and he stared at the newcomer as if he were looking at a ghost. In that instant, with something strangely familiar dancing about before his eyes, his mind, by some unconscious process, leapt with the word that had been haunting and eluding him all night.
"Look here, Braddock " he said.
He broke off abruptly, conscious of what he was saying, and perhaps conscious, too, of the incongruity of it. Who was Braddock, and why did he use that word? Just for a moment he was too confused to understand. And yet Braddock was the right word—he knew it in his bones.
"'Ere, drop that," the sergeant said. "Remember where you are!"
A jolt in Maintree's ribs brought him to himself.
"I am very sorry," he stammered. "No disrespect to the court or Mr. Braddock."
"Sir John Braddock," the sergeant said gruffly.
Something of this seemed to catch the ears of the man on the bench, for he looked keenly in the direction of the dock. Then the eyes of judge and prisoner met, and a gleam of recognition passed between them.
"Bless my soul!" said the man on the bench. "Why, it's the man who caught the butterfly!. "
Maintree gripped the rail of the dock and tried to steady himself. He had found his witness.
THE hideous nightmare was beginning to recede into a nebulous mist of sea and land and sky, all mixed up in a spelter of returning consciousness, and Denholm was just faintly aware that M'Bisi was speaking to him. He had been dreaming of cool rippling water and the gurgle of a brown trout stream, and the sudden jolt into life seemed to shock him with a physical pain.
"The trail," M'Bisi whispered, "the trail, master!"
Denholm roused himself at last. He opened his bloodshot eyes and saw that the gloom of the trackless forest was no longer there. They had emerged into a sort of clearing, thick enough under foot, but from which the trees had been removed, and from somewhere in the distance came the unmistakable sound of running water. Denholm could not see it—indeed, he was almost past seeing anything—but M'Bisi, the faithful Wamba chief, had been smelling this fresh water for the last hour past, and that was what had kept him going. Those big limbs of his bent beneath him now, and the deep wide chest was labouring painfully, for M'Bisi had been carrying his master on his back for two strenuous, sweating miles.
They had come this way on the advice of M'Bisi, who knew the country like an open book, for he had been born here, and there had been a time when he had been a Wamba chief, commanding five hundred spears. But that was before the War came, and the Germans in the colony had led all his best young men into captivity, and had turned them into soldiers, to their great hurt and the glory of the Fatherland. But M'Bisi was wise in his generation; he knew the British and trusted them, and he was ever on their side. He had been on their side for more years than he could count. He knew their ways, and the slang of the British Tommy, so that his speech was a quaint mixture of dignified vernacular and English idiom picked up amongst the lads in khaki.
But all that is by the way for the moment. The War was over, and the colony was at peace. And, once this had happened, Denholm got himself demobilised and went up country in search of Professor Sparling and his daughter Maud.
It is, perhaps, necessary to explain at this point how the learned Professor and his only child found themselves, at the beginning of hostilities, behind the German lines; but the Professor, who was an enthusiast in his way, had gone up country as far as Aganda, where he had established Maud and himself at the French mission house. When the bolt had fallen from the blue, it was too late to get back across the border, and, incidentally, the Professor was too useful a man for the German command to part with. He was a master in the art of applied mechanics, and, as such, the foe kept him busy. News had come of the Professor and his daughter from time to time, from which it appeared that they were not at all badly treated, and that sooner or later they hoped to reach Cape Colony. And so things went on for the best part of two years.
More than once Denholm had information through the medium of M'Bisi, one of the finest scouts in the employ of the South African Army. He had penetrated on two occasions three hundred miles through the scrub, and had brought back once, at any rate, a precious letter in Maud's handwriting. She had come out to Cape Town from an English school, just before the outbreak of war, a pretty, attractive girl of nineteen, and Denholm had fallen in love with her on the spot. There had been nothing said on his side, but there was a perfect understanding between the young people, and when Maud went up country for a holiday with her father, she wore round her neck a thin gold chain that Denholm had given her as a keepsake. He would see the Professor, he told himself, after the latter's holiday was over, and till then—
Ah, well, much water had run under the bridges since then. The War had broken out, and for the next two years or more Denholm had plenty to occupy his attention. He hoped ever for the best, and, now that the conflict was over, another great adventure lay before him. For nothing had been heard of the Professor and Maud in the meantime. They seemed to have utterly vanished off the face of the earth, just before an almost decisive battle had been fought, somewhere near the French mission house at Aganda, and after that the German forces had fallen back over three hundred miles. They had fallen back so far that it was hardly worth while pursuing them.
But had they taken the Professor and his daughter with them? Denholm asked himself. Certainly nothing had been heard of either of them since then. If they had gone along, something must have been heard of them by this time; but, on the other hand, they might have hung back, hoping to be picked up by the advance guard of the British colonists. And so the months went on, till Denholm made up his mind to set out and see for himself. It had been a hard time for both himself and the faithful M'Bisi, and more than once they had lost the trail. The coming of the War had made all the difference in the world to those forest paths, for there were no longer traders and tribesmen coming and going, and the tropical vegetation grows fast. Before they finally emerged within gunshot of the ruined French mission house, they had spent almost their last cartridge, and they had been reduced more than once to the killing of pigeons and the drinking of blood to slake their thirst. But now here they were, within sight of water, fresh and cool from a mountain stream, spent and exhausted to the last breath, and with yet another danger almost within grasp of their hand.
"What are we going to do, M'Bisi?" Denholm asked. "What about that precious cousin of yours—Lomboso? You know who I mean—the chap who claims sovereignty over all you people."
M'Bisi spat with a gesture of contempt.
"A low-down nigger that," he said. "We come to him presently. He fight first on one side, and then on the other, and so save his black skin, but he tell us things. Bet you dollar he know all about Professor and the white lady."
"Well, let's go and hunt him up," Denholm suggested. "No, stop, I must think this over. For the love of Mike, go and get me a drink. I shall go mad if I don't have something to drink, and I can hear it sort of mocking me, old son."
M'Bisi came back in a moment with a rusty pan he had picked up, and Denholm buried his head in the cool, delicious water. It made a new man of him; it brought the sparkle to his eye, and the eager look to his face, and, better than that, it brought back that Irish humour of his that was one of his saving glories.
"Ah, that's better!" he gasped. "Say, where did you get that swell tin from?"
M'Bisi proceeded to explain that they were on the scene of the decisive battlefield, and that the thick, luxurious undergrowth was full of the spoils of war. And, indeed, every turn of M'Bisi's foot brought up something, a cap, a broken rifle, an empty meat tin, everything that reeked of war.
"It's like a sort of comic nightmare," Denholm went on. "But look here, M'Bisi, if we are to interview that swell cousin of yours, we must brush up a bit. Get out my safety razor and the soap, and I'll make myself fit to approach the throne. And hadn't we better wash and patch up these ragged old ducks of mine a bit? And what are you going to say to your relative when you meet?"
"He thunderin' bad lot," M'Bisi said in that queer vernacular of his. "He not alone, either. Twenty spears, perhaps, follow him. He stay here, hoping to make Wamba a big people again, and if he catch us like this, he'll cut off our heads sure."
"That's not on our programme," Denholm said drily. "But I see what you mean. What we've got to do is to put up a big bluff. Swank in on them, with a rifle on our shoulders and our bandoliers full of any old thing that looks like ammunition. I don't suppose, after all this long time, that Lomboso has a bean in the way of a cartridge. What do you think?"
"That is so, master," M'Bisi said. "For last night, when you slept, I made my way to the kraal, and, behold, there is not a rifle there that has been fired for months. I have them in my hand, and I know."
"That's the game," said Denholm enthusiastically. "We swank in and offer your rotter of a cousin a few hundred rounds of cartridges for the information he can give us. Now, then, where is the palace of this potentate?"
M'Bisi waved his hand comprehensively.
"It is there," he said, " that Lomboso makes his camp. Behold the smoke above the trees, and it is there that the mission house stood where I last saw the white Professor and the lady who gave me that letter for you, many moons ago, quite twice as many moons as I have fingers on my hand. And Lomboso, who was friends with the Germans, so long as they give him money, he can tell us, perhaps, where the white Professor is to-day."
"That's the game!" Denholm cried. "Now let's have a wash and brush up, and then we'll go and pay our respects to the mighty man who rules over Wamba."
It was something of a job to get Denholm's rags patched and washed, and a somewhat painful process to cleanse his face by means of the butt-end of a stick of shaving soap and a safety razor that had grown grey in the service. But it was all finished at length, and, with a bold front and a certain fear at their hearts, Denholm and his companion marched up to the big kraal where they knew that Lomboso was in residence. There was something more than fear in their hearts—there was deadly exhaustion from want of food—but there was nothing of this to be seen as they faced Lomboso, who grinned unpleasantly at his relative, and at the same time flourished a rifle with some display of ostentation. Then followed a few words in the language of the tribe, that Denholm could not quite follow. It was M'Bisi who came presently to the subject that was nearest to Denholm's heart.
"Behold, my brother," M'Bisi said, "we come here looking for that which is lost, and you shall help us, Lomboso, and we will reward you, for we have many things in the bush, and food for the guns-that-never-stop to last you through the hunting season, for we know that you have no food for the fire-sticks."
This was more or less a bow drawn at a venture, but the shaft went home, as M'Bisi could see from the uneasy glitter in the eyes of Lomboso.
"We come to look for the great white Professor and his daughter," he went on. "You will tell us where they are, because you know. Now, you give us food and a kraal wherein to sleep, and many presents we shall bring you."
Lomboso grinned again, the grin of the wolf when he appeared to Red Riding Hood. He stood there, a huge, glittering ebony figure in the sunlight, naked as the day that he was born, save for a loin-cloth constructed from a suit of pyjamas looted from somewhere, his only ornament a thin gold chain from which dangled a glittering gold coin that Denholm's eyes recognised as an English sovereign. With a sudden idea in the back of his mind, he approached Lomboso almost timidly and touched the gold disc with his forefinger.
"A great fetish?" he asked. "Where did you get him from, Lomboso?"
Lomboso smiled with a suggestion of his superiority.
"Behold, it comes to me from the hand of a white magician," he grinned. "With it I can make fire, and the water in the river to run up hill. Many moons ago, before the great War, and the squareheads took our men into captivity, the magician gave um to me It is the greatest magic in the world." "You are right there," Denholm said drily, as he regarded the sovereign. "It it the biggest magic in the world, if you have got enough of it."
"And there is more in the great box," Lomboso went on—"the great box that the magician took out of the fireship. And he put in it all the Juju, and he took the firestick that runs red and turns to water when the flame touches it. And this he placed in certain holes in the box, and put on them the sign of his Juju, saying that he who touches the red sign of Juju dies."
All this with a melancholy air and a longing look in Lomboso 's eyes. He was evidently quite sincere in what he said, and he was telling Denholm a great deal more than he intended. For the latter had almost forgotten the deadly peril in which he and M'Bisi stood in the illumination of that moment. He allowed the desultory talk to proceed on the subject of food and lodging, and the suggestion that, in return, Lomboso should be supplied with the ammunition that he so sorely lacked. So they parted presently, amiably enough outwardly, whilst Denholm and M'Bisi proceeded in the direction of the kraal which had been allotted to them, and where they fed almost ravenously on a bowl of seething kid's flesh. It was not till they had finished and their pipes were lighted that Denholm spoke again.
"That's a good bluff," he said. "And it came of all right, too. Your relative is a pretty picturesque liar, M'Bisi. I suppose you happened to see what he had round his neck?"
"Yes, master, a quid," M'Bisi said promptly.
"That's right, my son," Denholm smiled. "And you heard what he said about it. Now, look here, M'Bisi, that coin was made the year war broke out, because there is a sign on it that tells me so. Now, why did he lie about the time he had had it?"
"Because he no want you to know, master, and because he steal him from the white Professor."
"Yes, that's a pretty shrewd guess. But tell me, did you notice the chain as well?"
"Seen him before," M'Bisi grinned. "See him that time, long since, when I came and saw the white Professor and the beautiful lady. Then she was wearing it round her neck."
"Correct, as usual," Denholm said. "You are quite right. That chain was stolen from Miss Sparling, and I have no doubt that the sovereign was stolen, too. But what's all this talk about a box? You heard what that rascally relative of yours said—a black box that the Professor sealed with sealing wax and stamped with his signet ring. Of course it was the Professor; it couldn't have been anybody else. And you might enlighten me as to what the dickens Lomboso meant by talking about a fireship. What fireship? You don't mean to say there is anything in that legend to the effect that the Germans got a Zeppelin here early in 1917? I thought nobody believed in that silly story."
"It is a true tale, master," M'Bisi said solemnly, "because I saw him. He came down close here, the time when I came up to find the Professor for you, and, because there was a great storm, they could not float the fireship again. The big storm, he was swept by lightning, and I will show him to you presently."
"Oh, the dickens you will," Denholm exclaimed.
"Yes, even I," M'Bisi said, striking his mighty chest dramatically. "We will go there when the moon rises, and I will show you the body of the great fireship, like a whale that is stranded on a beach. And I will show you the black box that Lomboso spoke of, with the seals on him; but you not touch, because what Lomboso says is a true thing. I know, because it has come to me, down in the forest, and it is just what Lomboso say, Because Shini, who is one of Lomboso's boys, he try to get into the magic box, and lightnings come out, and, behold, he is no more than a cinder."
"Amazing!" Denholm cried. "Amazing! And yet I don't know. Upon my word, it doesn't seem so complicated, after all. It's another bluff, M'Bisi, a bluff like this. The Professor is here, almost within our grasp, and when we find him, as we must, I am sure he will bear me out. Now, according to your story, soon after the fireship came, a big decisive battle was fought here, and the Germans were scattered. That was practically the end of the campaign. Lomboso and his boys guessed that, so they hung back here, and the Professor hung back, too. It was he who gave Lomboso the sovereign and placed the rest of his money in that ammunition box. It must be an ammunition box, because it sounds just like it. You see, the Professor is a pretty shrewd man, and he never lacked pluck. When he found himself left alone here with Lomboso, he recognised the fact that his life was in danger, so he put up a bluff. He locked the money away in that box and sealed it. Just sealing wax, but it was enough to impress Lomboso. Can't you see what's happening? Here is Lomboso just aching to get hold of the rest of those sovereigns that he calls Juju, and no doubt making the Professor all sorts of promises if he will take the spell off the box. And Professor Sparling knows perfectly well that, if he does anything so foolish, his life won't be worth an hour's purchase. Lomboso would have no mercy on him; but, so long as the magic works, then Lomboso is prepared to play a game of patience. It's a game of patience on both sides."
"It is a true speech that you make, master," M'Bisi said. "And we have come just in time."
"Yes, that's all very well," said Denholm impatiently. "But there are only two of us, and we haven't got a cartridge between us. Now, unless I am greatly mistaken, that magic box is just bursting with them. What we've got to do is to break it open, because, if those boys of Lomboso's find out the truth, then we are done. And I should hate to fail at the very last moment, and when I come to think of the Professor and his daughter—"
Denholm broke off hastily. M'Bisi smiled.
"You think those boys follow Lomboso?" he asked. "Yes, perhaps so long as they are afraid of him and the magic of the Juju. But if we break that, and I say the word, will they follow him long, long way to Tipperary? You put your shirt on it that they don't. They follow me, their natural chief."
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Denholm asked. "Well, I'm in your hands, M'Bisi, but I hold the key, all the same."
It was getting late, and the moon was rising over the woods when Denholm and his companion crept out of their kraal and across the opening till they came to a bare space in the trees where a mountain stream flowed into the lake. Here, beyond all doubt, a big fight had been fought, for the ground was littered with broken weapons, and machine-gun belts, to say nothing of articles of clothing. Almost at Denholm 's feet was a battered bugle, which he picked up and looked at longingly.
"I wonder if I could play it," he muttered. "I used to be rather a dab on the bugle when I was at Charterhouse."
"Better not, master," M'Bisi suggested. "They are in the woods now; I can hear them moving about. Behold!"
As he spoke, M'Bisi pointed to the wreck of a gigantic Zeppelin, the bare ribs of which were marked against the great moon like the timbers of some derelict ship. It was a most amazing and impressive sight, and Denholm regarded it with thrilling interest.
"Then it was true, after all," he murmured. "We never believed it at headquarters. It's a thundering fine sight, M'Bisi. But never mind that. What I am really interested in is the black box. Now, how did you find it?"
"It was last night, when you were asleep, master," M'Bisi explained. "I crept from our hiding-place, because I had heard the story, and I wanted to know. This way."
A few yards off M'Bisi parted the bushes, and there, sure enough, lay a black steel-banded ammunition box, turned over on its side, and in the broad light of the moon Denholm could see a big splash of scarlet on the hasp of the lock, and one on each side where the hinges fell. It was light enough to see that the initials "J.S." were imprinted on the red wax. M'Bisi would have touched it with his hand, had not Denholm drawn him hastily back.
"You are a dead man if you handle that!" he whispered hoarsely. "Listen! Can't you hear Juju calling?"
There was a faint purring from a little way off, just like the noise that a lion makes over his food. It went on steadily enough for some moments, and M'Bisi started back. With all his proud boast that the effete superstitions of his tribe were nothing to one who knew the ways of the white man, he was frightened. But not for long, for almost from under his feet there rose the dark form of Lomboso, with anger in his eyes and a spear in his hand.
"What you do here?" he cried. "What you want with the magic of the white man? You no fear his anger? You no hear his voice? He will come presently and kill you!"
With that, the infuriated Wamba drew back his arm, and Denholm could see that he had a spear in his grasp. It was no moment to hesitate, because a second later that spear would have been through M'Bisi's heart. Like a flash Denholm darted forward and brought his right arm round with a hook to the big man's jaw. The blow landed fairly and squarely, so that the spear fell from Lomboso's hand and he staggered back. A twisted root caught him by the heels, so that he fell right across the black box, with his cruel, contorted face turned upwards.
It was only for an instant, and then the miracle happened. With a piercing scream that woke the echoes in the wood, Lomboso collapsed and fell from the box on to the ground, nothing more than a mere handful of incinerated flesh and bone. There was a sickening "nauseous odour in the air, and then a silence that was unbroken by Denholm and his companion. M'Bisi was frankly frightened out of his life. He had never seen the effect of electrocution before, and even Denholm turned away with a sense of physical nausea.
But it was only for a moment before he pulled himself together and realised what had happened. He was prepared for it, too, because from the first instant that that purring noise had smote upon his ear he had recognised it as the sound of a dynamo. And therefore someone was in the immediate neighbourhood, someone who was hiding there, and who must have had a practical acquaintance with applied mechanics, and who else could it possibly be but Professor Sparling?
A certain thrill of exultation and delight, in the knowledge of this discovery, impelled Denholm to raise the bugle to his lips and essay a call upon it. He had not forgotten his old skill apparently, because the echo of "The Last Post" floated back pleasantly to his ears, and, almost before he had finished, a figure came climbing down the water-course that led to the lake—a figure apparently in a German uniform, that stood there regarding the intruders steadily. Denholm could see a grey beard flowing over the grey tunic.
"One moment!" he cried. "Turn off that dynamo."
"It's already done," a cool and collected voice replied. "Is that you, Denholm? Thank Heaven!"
"Yes, yes, that's all right," Denholm said. "But how about Maud—Miss Sparling? Is she safe?"
"Quite safe, Jim," another voice came out of the darkness. "I always knew you'd come. I told father so all along. I told him, if you weren't killed, you would be certain to search for us."
She emerged and stood beside her father, two queer figures, dressed in the field-grey uniform of German infantry. Denholm turned hastily to M'Bisi.
"Now, get busy, my lad," he said. "Burst that box open and fill up the bandoliers. We may have those chaps round upon us at any moment. I've got something else to do."
M'Bisi needed no second bidding. With the aid of Lomboso's spear he forced open the top of the case, and plunged his arms into the cartridges which had been stored there. Meanwhile Denholm was shaking hands warmly with the Professor, before he turned and looked into the eyes of the girl who had awaited him with such splendid confidence.
"It's been a near thing, Maud," he said— "a precious near thing. When we blundered through last night, we were on the verge of starvation, and we hadn't a shot left; but we managed to bluff that ruffian Lomboso and his boys, and here we are. We shall be all right now, thanks to my friend M'Bisi. But I'll introduce you to him presently. I should never have got through without him, and what would have happened then, Heaven only knows."
"Well, it's been a weary time," the Professor said, "and a matter of patience on both sides. You see, I managed to get hold of all the small ammunition the Germans left behind, and sealed it up in that box. The intact engines of the Zeppelin were a godsend to me. I managed to wire the box. But I see you know all about that. I suppose you guessed it when you heard the engines going. I'd like to have a few words with M'Bisi. Don't forget that he is quite an old friend of ours."
With that the Professor crossed to where M'Bisi was filling up the bandoliers, and Denholm was left alone with Maud.
"It must have been a dreadful time for you," he said tenderly.
"No, I didn't mind much," she said. "Only I wasn't quite sure whether you were alive or dead, and that was dreadful, Jim."
Denholm smiled as he took her in his arms and kissed her.
"Oh, well," he said, "so long as I'm still Jim to you, nothing much matters."
JUST at that particular stage in its interesting career, Andrew Nulty's ship was known as the Bonny Lomond, a name which was not only picturesque, but just as good for business purposes as any other. Not that Lloyd's knew anything about it, or cared, for that matter, because the Bonny Lomond was not insured or ever likely to be. That would be almost impossible in the case of a boat that changed its name almost as often as a politician changes his opinions. And she was cosmopolitan, too, in the matter of the flag she carried, chameleon-like as to her coat, and catholic as to her funnels. In other words, she was a freebooter of the seas, a shy and modest craft, keeping as far as possible out of the main ocean tracks, and picking up a handsome living by divers means which it is just as well not to look too closely into.
She wasn't particularly pretty, either, but she was fast, and that was the great virtue in Andrew Nulty's eyes, because, you see, there were times when an extra knot or two an hour made all the difference between imprisonment and freedom. She was a blundering-looking craft, ugly and bull-nosed, but her engines were a dream. They were compound engines of the turbine type, and nothing finer had ever been turned out on the Clyde.
Now, Andrew Nulty knew something about machinery, as all Scotsmen do, and he had picked up those engines dirt cheap from a small manufacturer who had gone hopelessly bankrupt in the making of them. With a little more capital the inventor might have been a pioneer and a millionaire; but "the little more" was lacking in his case, whisky was cheap on the Clyde, and he had gone under, as many a man of his type has done before. So the engines found their way into the Bonny Lomond—then called the Robbie Burns—and Nulty had set out for the North Pacific to gratify a dazzling predatory dream which had obsessed him for many a long day.
To put it briefly, he meditated a dash on the most strictly preserved piece of water in the world. He wasn't going to fish for whales or tarpons, but for pearls in that favoured spot which, under the protection of the Japanese Government, had been leased, for some years before the War, to the inevitable German syndicate. And the mere fact that the Japanese had taken over the concession, and had closed the whole business down for the present, did not render the task any the less diflicult. These seas were patrolled by a Japanese gunboat, and, to add to the difficulty, Andrew Nulty was well enough known in those waters—known, indeed, a good deal more than he was respected.
He was not particularly afraid of being sent incontinently to the bottom, because on more than one occasion he had been made use of by the Secret Services of both Japan and England. For Nulty was a real patriot, and was always ready to put his private interests on one side where the needs of his country were concerned. And so occasionally he had carried important papers between Japan and Hong Kong and other international ports. But the old Adam was strong in him, he was a born poacher, and the lure of the illicit was irresistible. So he completed his arrangements in England, after a short time in the neighbourhood of Birmingham, after which he put boldly out to sea, in defiance of U-boats, and in the course of time reached the vantage ground, where, without delay, he set to work.
With the aid of a dozen or so of native divers, whom he paid extravagantly and treated handsomely, he found himself at the end of the month with something like eight hundred pearls of various sizes and values. And during the whole of this time he had never seen even the nose of a gunboat. But Nulty had counted on this; he knew perfectly well that the Japanese Navy had its hands full, and he knew, too, that the real danger would begin when the Bonny Lomond turned her bows to the open sea. For Nuity was no fool, he had no illusions, and he knew perfectly well that one or two of his divers, who had already left him with their pockets full, would be pretty certain to talk. But that was all in the day's work.
And so he sat on the deck of his ship, giving directions, and indulging from time to time in those whisky orgies which were his one weakness and a charm that he could never resist for long. He would bewail his backsliding afterwards in choice jeremiads (culled from a rich Presbyterian vocabulary, reminiscent of the time when he had attended the Wee Free kirk at least twice on a Sunday—a kind of sackcloth and ashes business that did nobody any harm, and certainly was powerless to check the next outburst when it was due. So he sat and prayed and smoked and drank, while the gleaming booty was piling up in the safe in the cabin, and yearned piously that he might find himself, without mishap, well out into the Pacific.
He lingered there as long as he dared, backing his luck for all it was worth till the end of the third week, when he paid off his divers and grubbed up the anchor. Then, with a fair wind behind him, and something like ten thousand pounds' worth of loot in the cabin, he turned his nose in the direction of Hong Kong, where he knew a dignified Chinaman of the mandarin class, who was prepared to take the pearls off his hands at a fair price.
The engines were working well, the weather was fine, and the end of the week ought, with any luck, to see the successful termination of the adventure. Nulty's spirits rose accordingly, and the whisky correspondingly went down into the bulb of the barometer, so to speak. Nulty was on deck, dreaming those dreams of his, just pleasantly drunk and caring nothing what happened, when presently he noticed a smudge of black smoke on the horizon, and shook his head sapiently.
He gave his orders quickly enough, too, and the Bonny Lomond went about on a wide tack as fast as those wonderful engines would carry her. But, in spite of everything, the black smudge on the horizon became more pronounced, and presently a couple of funnels lifted themselves ominously over the rim of the horizon.
"Ah, weel, the Lord's will be done!" Nulty ejaculated piously, "It seems to me, Andrew, my man, that yon's a gunboat, and, if I'm no mistaken, it's the Fan Tan."
Now, Andrew Nulty was not mistaken. It was the Fan Tan, picking him up hand over fist, and evidently meaning business. There were reasons, too, why Nulty would have preferred an interview with any other unit of the Japanese Imperial Navy. In the first place, the commander of the gunboat was personally acquainted with the wily Scotsman—indeed, they had transacted several pieces of business together, designed for the discomfiture of the wily Hun. Therefore it would be useless for Nulty to assume innocence, or to pretend that he was in those private seas entirely by accident. Indeed, the Bonny Lomond reeked of pearl-fishing; there were signs and portents everywhere which would be as so much open print to the commander of a gunboat stationed in those seas with the one object of keeping pearl poachers at a respectable distance. Also it would be futile to deny the fact that the spoil was on board. Any attempt in that direction would inevitably send the Bonny Lomond to the bottom without decent delay or benefit of clergy. And the fact that Nulty had been engaged more than once on Government service would not help him, either. As a Government official he simply did not exist. He was a number, a unit, anything that didn't count, and if he got into trouble now, he knew perfectly well that there would be no questions asked in the House of Commons in his interests.
So there was only one thing for it—to trust to his good luck and the speed of his engines, and the amazing fortune that had stood him in good stead all his life. And so for the next two or three hours he ran for it, hoping against hope, and cursing himself with lurid quotations from the Pentateuch. But all in vain. Just at sundown there came a little puff and something like a ball of cotton-wool from the bows of the gunboat, and a second later the aft funnel lurched forward and fell overboard. Then there came a second shot that just skimmed the bows of the Bonny Lomond, and, so to speak, Nulty held up his hands. A quarter of an hour later a dapper little man, looking amazingly like an English naval officer, stepped on board and greeted Nulty pleasantly enough.
"Good evenin' to ye, Captain Shinto," Nulty said. "It's lookin' for me you perhaps may be."
The little man grinned amiably.
"Glad to meet you again," he said in excellent English. "I have been looking for you a long time. Is it that you are particularly dull this evening, or is it perhaps that old enemy of yours?"
Nulty shook his head dolefully. He knew perfectly well what the little Jap was alluding to.
"Ah, weel," he said, "why is it that a man will put an enemy in his mouth to steal away his brains?"
"Oh, come off it," Shinto said. "That'll do. Now let's get on to business. I think you and I understand one another pretty well, Nulty."
Nulty shook his head again. He knew only too well that this smiling antagonist understood him all right—indeed, they had been acquaintances for many years. He knew that Captain Shinto had been at school in England; he had met him ages ago, when he was working as an engineer on the Clyde, and there had been one encounter of not too friendly a nature during the three years that Shinto had been in the R.N.R. And then, again, they had met recently on business of national importance.
"I am listening to you, Captain," he said, "and I'm not so far gone with whusky as all that. And I can't help it, ye ken. When I put that enemy in my mouth—"
"Well, it's not likely to make much difference to your brains, anyway," Shinto said. "Now, where's the stuff?"
"I'm no understanding you now," Nulty prevaricated. "What stuff might ye be askin' after?"
"There, that'll do," the other smiled. "You've been up the Gulf yonder for nearly a month. Why, you've actually been employing some of my own divers! I couldn't make up my mind what mischief the blackguards were up to, but I knew they were after no good. So, when they came back, I made inquiries, and heard all about a boat called the Bonny Lomond. I hadn't heard of her before, but I had heard of Captain Nulty and the steamer called the Robbie Burns. So I put two and two together, and—well, here we are."
"So I see," said Nulty guardedly.
"Now, look here, I've got no time to waste. As a matter of fact, I ought not to be here at all. Does it occur to you that I might have sunk you without warning?"
"I suppose you might," Nulty admitted.
"Might? It was my plain duty to do so. You know perfectly well you'd no business in these waters without a permit, and if you can show me such a thing, I shall be extremely surprised. You and I are old friends, and I wanted to give you a chance. Done pretty well, haven't you?"
"I'll no deceive you," Nulty said, with an engaging attempt at candour. "I've done very well indeed. I suppose I've got a matter of eight hundred pearls altogether. And why not? They don't belong to you, and they don't belong to your Government, either. It's spoiling the dirty Hun I've been."
"Here, let's go down below and talk it over," Shinto said. "I'm not here to argue international politics with you. What I ought to do is to take your boat into the nearest harbour and confiscate her, and you know what that means."
Nulty nodded. He knew only too well what that meant. It would mean the loss of his ship and those beloved engines, plus a few years' imprisonment in a Japanese gaol. But there was something in Shinto's manner that told him that the latter was not likely to proceed to this extreme.
"I'm glad you understand," the Japanese officer said. "Now, we'll just step down into the cabin, and you can hand over the keys of the safe to me. I'll take care of those pearls. And a precious fine get-out it is for you. But you've got to earn your liberty."
With an air of pious resignation to the will of an inscrutable Providence, Nulty led the way down to his cabin and handed over the keys of the safe. He sighed dolefully enough as he saw the result of a month's labour and the outlay of five hundred pounds stowed away in the pockets of his companion. Then he quoted an appropriate text or two regarding the laying up of treasure upon earth, and hospitably produced the whisky, which Captain Shinto did not disdain.
"Well, that's all over," he said, "and a sorrowful day for Andrew Nulty it's been. Still, it might have been worse, Captain, it might have been worse."
"You're right there," Shinto smiled. "I might have sent you to the bottom. But I've other uses for you. Now listen. I'll send some of my men along in about half an hour to rig up another funnel for you, and then you'll go as far as the south point of Balen Isles, and wait there till further orders. Take these papers. Put them somewhere where they'll be safe, and do exactly what I tell you. In a way, it's rather a godsend for me to meet you like this, because it's almost imperative that I should be in two places at once. As you say, I have other fish to fry, and I can fry them in a few hours now. That's why I didn't sink you. Even a Scotch pearl poacher has his uses."
"Ah, sheer Providence," Nulty said.
"Something like it, perhaps. But I've no time to waste talking. You know exactly what to do. About three days from this you will be spoken by another Japanese boat, and someone will come aboard you with another packet. And when you've got the two you'll put into Hong Kong and deliver those envelopes to an address which shall be given you. And I think, on the whole, you've got out of it very well."
"It might be worse," Nulty said, "and it might be better. If I'd pulled up anchor last night, we might never have met at all, and that's no pleasant thought."
"Ah, you never know your luck," Shinto said. "If you hadn't met me, you would have run smack into one of our flotillas before morning, and what would have become of the Bonny Lomond then? Don't forget the wireless."
"I hadn't forgotten it," Nulty said. "It's been in my mind this many a day to have a little installation of that same wireless myself. And it's very hard for a poor man to get an honest living since yon mon Marconi came along. And I'm thinking that I understand ye."
A few minutes later and this curious pair of associates parted with mutual expressions of good-will, and as soon as the repairs were finished, Nulty set the head of the Bonny Lomond due south, and proceeded on his errand in a frame of mind that was somewhat complicated. True, he had lost a fortune and was the poorer by five hundred pounds in hard cash, but then he had saved his ship and those beloved engines of his, and, at any rate, he would be well paid for the delivery of those dispatches. So, like the philosopher he was, he turned his back upon his regrets and the key resolutely on the cupboard where he kept his whisky. For he was a real patriot, and there would be no more of that, at any rate, till he had got rid of the envelope which Captain Shinto had entrusted to his care.
The fourth day found him at his destination, where he lingered a few hours, until he was boarded by a nondescript sort of craft that brought him another batch of papers and a set of instructions in the shape of a typewritten letter. No word passed on either side, and the whole transaction occupied only a few minutes; and this being done, the Bonny Lomond went on her way again, and in the fulness of time put into Hong Kong. There Nulty delivered up his papers, after which he let himself go, and indulged in a prolonged orgy that lasted him for the best part of a week. Then he pulled himself together, had a bath, dressed himself all in his best, and proceeded to go ashore in a stern and chastened frame of mind—a thing to which he was accustomed after one of his periodical backslidings.
He came at length to rather an imposing house at the back of Hong Kong, where he gave a fictitious name and demanded an audience with one Lo Ben. Mr. Lo Ben not only happened to be at home, but would be quite pleased to see his visitor, whom he welcomed cordially, not to say effusively. It was evident that these two were old acquaintances, and they sat down together presently over a cup of tea and a cigarette, and by easy stages led up to business.
"Now, what can I do for you?" the Chinaman said in his quaint English. "Is it money you need?"
"Who doesn't?" Nulty asked. "But. it's no the bawbees this time I'm after, my friend."
The Chinaman elevated his eyebrows.
"No?" he asked politely. "Then I have been—what is the word you use?—misinformed."
"Ah, there's little you don't know in these parts. But you're wrong for once, Lo Ben. I have something to sell."
"The pearls? Pearls, do you mean? Why, my agents told me—"
"Oh, I can guess what your agents told you," Nulty grinned. "They said I was boarded by a Japanese gunboat. So I was. You probably heard that I had to make a very heavy sacrifice to save my ship. And so I had. But there are more ways than one of throwing dust in the eyes of the heathen. Now, look here, Lo Ben, would you like to put a price on this lot?"
With this, Nulty dived his hand in his pocket and produced a wash-leather bag, the contents of which he spread out before the admiring eyes of Lo Ben. They lay there on the table in all their gleaming beauty, whilst the Celestial fingered them with a reverent touch.
"But how did you manage?" he asked.
Nulty waved the question impatiently aside.
"Oh, never mind that," he said. "I did manage. And you know where those pearls come from. There's nothing like them in any other part of the world. They're the genuine article right enough, and I'm after asking nine thousand for them."
It was a long and complicated deal, invoking protestations from one side and extracts from Holy Writ on the other, but it ended at length—that titanic contest between a Scotsman and a Chinaman— with the interchange of a piece of paper that represented something within a shade of what Nulty had asked.
"And now," said the Chinaman,—tell me."
"Well, it was like this," Nulty explained. "I knew the risk I was taking. Then, ye see, the Bonny Lomond is well known in these parts to the Japanese Navy, and there was a fine chance of my not gettin' sunk if I could only break away with the goods. And that's where the real trouble began. I did get away with the goods, but my old friend Captain Shinto, he overhauled me, and I had to throw up my hands. So he takes away all the pearls and gives me some dispatches to bring here, which I delivered all right, and that's to the good. But, ye see, Lo Ben, I was expecting some visitation of Providence of this lamentable kind, and I thinks to myself that Heaven helps those that helps themselves. Did ye ever hear tell of a town called Birmingham?"
"I handle goods from there," Lo Ben said.
"Ah, weel, in that city of wickedness they make all sorts of things, and all sorts of imitations—imitation pearls. And now, Lo Ben, ye know all about it."
"Oh, then, you—"
"Went to Birmingham and laid out a few pounds of good money on a lot of imitation pearls in the rough state that were manufactured on purpose for me. And that's the stuff that Captain Shinto took out of my cabin with him. Ay, it is very hard to get the best of a Scotsman when he's real bent on wickedness, Lo Ben, and don't you forget it."
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).
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