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Title: The Phantom Car Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1303901h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jul 2013 Most recent update: Jul 2013 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. 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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This PGA/RGL edition of The Phantom Car was produced by Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy as part of their ongoing project to collect the works of Fred M. White and present them to readers all over the world via Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library. So far as is known, this is the first time that The Phantom Car has appeared in book form since Ward Lock & Co. published it in 1929.
Indicidentally, the novel contains a passage which, in view of the fact that Fred M. White was the son of a lawyer and worked in his father's office before becoming a writer, is obviously of an autobiographical nature. In Chapter IX he writes:
"In those days the leading firm of solicitors in Marchwick had been Manthon and Manthon, in other words, Roy's father had been the surviving partner in a firm which had been established over a hundred years. To all practical purposes, the Manthons had been county people, and for a radius of thirty or forty miles all the leading families placed their affairs in the capable hands of Mr. Nicholas Manthon. And there, in Marchwick, almost under the shadow of the old cathedral, Roy Manthon himself had been brought up in a sort of monastic residence where the family had flourished during their long and hospitable career. In the course of time, he had gone to Winchester and, thence, back again into the office of his father with the idea of carrying on the best traditions of the house.
"But almost from the first, he had turned with marked dislike from the dry study of the law. Its maxims and hair-splittings and queer, mixed logic, drove him further and further away from his intended career, so that by the time he had finished his articles and had actually signed the roll of solicitors, he had made up his mind that the law was not for him. Long before he had listened to the call of the muses and, indeed, before his twenty-first birthday, he was already regarded as one of the coming forces in imaginative literature. In other words, he was earning enough to buy the books he needed and keep himself in something like comfort. Then he had taken his courage in both hands and told his disgruntled father that the law was not for him, nor he for the law; in other words, that he was going to devote himself for the rest of his life to fiction."
Margaret Ferris came down the broad stone steps leading from the house into the garden and from thence into the serenity of that perfect May morning. It was early yet with the dew on the grass, and in the lofty elms around the house which, so to speak, christened it, the birds were singing to the glory of the day. And in all that lovely garden there was no fairer flower than Peggy Ferris herself.
She was tall and slim, a poem in white and gold, like her own Madonna lilies which were blooming in the borders—in short, all that a beautiful English girl might be. There was a filmy introspection in those deep, violet eyes of hers and a faint suggestion of mysticism which might have been inherited from some far off Eastern ancestors, a dreaminess that was not one of the least of her charms.
She glanced round that fair domain of hers with a sense of pleasure and happiness that is born of perfect health and youth at its best and brightest. Because Peggy was young with all the world before her and not even the shadow of a trouble in sight. Because Long Elms was absolutely her own property and the princely income that went with it was entirely in her own discretion. A lovely old house in its green setting which was a part of Peggy's very being. Small wonder, then, that she glanced about her with a certain innocent pride in the knowledge that all this, and more, was hers.
It was early yet and Peggy had not breakfasted. She walked down between the wide herbaceous borders, across the tennis lawn and thence to a rose garden, beyond which stood a pair of hammered iron gates, leading to the road. So far, there was nobody in sight, so that she had the whole of the fair prospect to herself. Then, from somewhere outside the great gates came the sound of wheels, and, a few moments later, an invalid chair pulled up on the other side of the bars.
"You are early this morning, Mr. Wilde," Peggy cried.
The man in the chair looked up with a slow benevolent smile. He was without a hat and his venerable grey hair that reached to his shoulders and his flowing beard were slightly ruffled by the morning breeze. He presented a fine picturesque figure as he leaned back in his invalid chair and the long arms with which he had been propelling himself by means of a pair of levers resting by his side. He might have been some great statesman or ambassador, so striking was his personality, and a natural dignity seemed to cling to his shoulders like a garment. For, according to all accounts, Sebastian Wilde was a great man indeed. Even the most critical would have been prepared to admit that, without knowing more of Wilde than might have been gleaned from his personal appearance. He seemed to be paralysed from his hips downwards, which, indeed, was the case, though his arms were vigorous enough and his affliction had not robbed him of the brightness of his eyes or blunted the edge of his amazing intellect. He looked up now with a slow smile dawning upon those striking features of his.
"Ah, Miss Peggy," he said, in a deep musical voice. "It does an old man like me good to see youth and beauty greeting this perfect morn. May I come inside?"
"Why, of course," Peggy cried. "But, tell me, Mr. Wilde, how do you come to be about so early?"
"Because I came to see you," the great man smiled. "I came to bring you those books I promised. I want you, one of these evenings, to come over to my house and discuss the matter about which we have spoken more than once. Not that there is any hurry. I am rather busy myself with a treatise I am writing on occult influences. I have been working on that ever since I came here two years ago."
"Then you have finished it?" Peggy asked.
"Well, not quite," Wilde said. "You see, there has been so much to do. And when everything seemed to be going so smoothly, this unfortunate trouble came upon me. That is why I had to abandon my scientific investigations in South Africa and hasten back home. It is a great blow to me, but I am getting resigned to it now. After all, I have a lot to be thankful for. I can still work as well as ever."
There was a world of sympathy and pity in Peggy's eyes as she glanced down at the stricken giant in the bath chair. Two years ago, Sebastian Wilde had come into that neighbourhood looking for peace and quietness and the placid atmosphere which was necessary to his recovery and, since then, Peggy and her old aunt, who more or less acted as her chaperone, had seen a great deal of the Anglo-American who had settled down in what had once been an old priory, half a mile further along the road. There he seemed to spend most of his time in strict seclusion, together with his secretary, James Ebbsmith, and an elderly couple called Brettle, who presided over his modest wants and took care of his household.
Naturally enough, the neighbours had been rather curious when the elderly man with the leonine face and noble head first came into the locality and speculation had been aroused. But as time went on, all that had been forgotten and now Sebastian Wilde was accepted as part and parcel of the place. He had no friends and no visitors; he was content, he said, to work quietly at the task of his lifetime and perhaps, when that was finished, he might emerge from his obscurity and take his proper place in the great world once more. Meanwhile, he was content with his labours and an occasional visit to Long Elms, where he could bask in the society of Peggy and that pleasant old aunt of hers who was supposed to keep watch and ward over her.
Very dexterously, Wilde steered his chair through the gate and up the drive till the house was reached. There he paused to make a few scholarly and learned remarks on the subject of some late bulbs which were flowering under the dining-room window. He was still discussing these when the iron gates were flung open and a young man came up the path.
"Cheerio, Peggy," he cried. "Am I too late or too early? What I mean is, have you breakfasted?"
"No, I haven't, Trevor," Peggy smiled. "And I should be surprised to hear that you have either. I was tempted outside by the loveliness of the morning and wandered as far as the gate, when I found Mr. Wilde making an early call."
"Ah, good morning, sir," Trevor Capner cried heartily. "What an example to set us young people. Do you often get out in your chair as early as this?"
"Very seldom," Wilde admitted. "But it was so perfect that I couldn't sleep. You see, I can manage to dress myself and get about the ground floor on two sticks. So I tumbled out of bed and—well—here I am. This is one of the advantages of having a bedroom on the ground floor. Even my man Ebbsmith has not the remotest notion that I have ventured out this morning. But don't let me detain you, Miss Peggy."
"Oh, there is no hurry," Peggy said. "Now you are here, why not come in and have breakfast with us?"
"Does that include me?" Capner asked smilingly.
"Oh, well, you are a law unto yourself," Peggy retorted. "I was thinking more about Mr. Wilde than you."
"Alas, that I have to decline," Wilde said resignedly. "You see, dear young lady, breakfast is a meal I never touch. I find it interferes with my work and there is no time like the morning for clear thinking. Just give me a hand and I will let you have those books I spoke about."
"What books are those?" Trevor asked.
"Two scientific treatises," Wilde explained. "They are by a German professor who is the greatest authority living to-day on which I might call psychic reactions. Not exactly spiritualism, if you understand what I mean, but scientific measurement of phenomena. Ah, you may shake your head, young fellow, but there is more in that business than you imagine."
Trevor Capner scowled slightly. There was a dogged expression on his face and a gleam in his eye.
"I dare say there is, sir," he said coldly. "But it is not the sort of stuff for outsiders to play with. I take the same view of spiritualism as the churches do. It is dangerous and morbid and calculated to undermine faith in the hereafter. I know of a very sad case of a young and impressionable girl, not unlike Peggy, who got bitten with that sort of thing and eventually committed suicide. If you take my advice, my dear girl, you will thank Mr. Wilde for his offer and tell him politely to take his books back again."
It was a challenge in a way and a claim to interference which Peggy was inclined to resent. Just for a moment, her eyes flashed and a flush mounted to her cheeks. It seemed to her that Trevor was taking just a little too much upon himself. She was exceedingly fond of him and knew that he literally worshipped the ground she trod on, knew—too, that if nothing happened, they would marry, ere long—but this was a case where Trevor's air of possession had been carried a step too far.
"What nonsense," she said, almost angrily. "My dear boy, you don't suppose there is anything morbid about me, do you? Why shouldn't I take an interest in this psychic business?"
"Because it is not good for you," Capner said almost curtly. "It isn't good for any woman, unless she happens to be one of the modern, scientific school. I hate the whole thing. I would just as soon see you take up surgery."
"Again why not?" Peggy asked. "There are several celebrated lady surgeons to-day. My dear boy, because you happen to be a famous airman, which means that you haven't any nerves, you seem to imagine that women are not endowed with the same strength of mind. Now, Mr. Wilde, if you will let me have those books, we will talk about something else."
With a deeper frown between his brows, Capner turned on one side, whilst Peggy helped Wilde to retrieve the books from the depths of his chair. All this time Wilde had said nothing, though, under those penthouse brows of his, he had been watching the little scene with a sort of benevolent malice.
"There you are, my dear young lady," he said. "Take the books and keep them as long as you like. But don't try to understand too much. If you get into a tangle, let me know and I will do my best to put it right for you. Now, if you don't mind, I will go. Far be it for a selfish old bachelor like me to keep youth and beauty from its breakfast."
"I will come with you a little way, if you don't mind," Capner said. "There is something I have to say. You go in to breakfast, Peggy, and I will come along later on and discuss that tennis tournament with you. I may not be able to play myself, but I can't say definitely till after the middle-day post comes in. Now, sir, let me give you a shove along the road."
"As you like," Peggy said coldly, as she turned towards the house. "I am not going out this morning."
Capner turned away without another word.
As the morning stole away and the pearly mists melted before the caressing touch of the sun, Peggy felt her own ill temper vanishing into nothingness. Perhaps she had been disposed to resent Trevor's air of complete proprietorship, perhaps she had been too quick in reading a wrong interpretation of what he had said. She was conscious, moreover, that she was more deeply interested in this psychic business than she had pretended. There was a romantic, dreamy side to her nature which she shyly hid, almost from herself, but it was there, all the same, and she was always conscious of it.
And there was another matter, a sacred thing of which she spoke but seldom and then with dimmed eyes and bated breath. Because there had been a time when Long Elms and its estate and all the revenues thereto had not belonged to Peggy, but to her only brother, who had been killed in the Great War. He like Trevor Capner, had had a brilliant career in the Air Force, where he had won the Victoria Cross in a never-to-be-forgotten exploit, only to be brought down during the very last week of the war in flames. And though Peggy was but a child at the time and many years had elapsed since, she had never forgotten her brother Victor, to whom she had been devoted and who had represented to her all that was worth while in the world. Even now, there were times when she woke in the night and thought of her dead brother, and there were times when he seemed to be very near to her, so near, indeed, that she could almost touch him. As if he were somewhere behind a veil striving in vain to get in contact with her.
It was not until after Sebastian Wilde had come into the neighbourhood and she had fallen somewhat under his influence that she began, tentatively, to discuss these mysteries with that eminent man of science. And he had not laughed at her, as she had half expected. On the contrary, he had been most understanding and sympathetic.
"Of course," he had said. "There are such things as mediums. Second sight and intermediaries and all that sort of thing. They are gifts you can cultivate—in fact, I have cultivated them myself. It is rather out of my line, but more than once I have succeeded in conjuring up pictures that almost frighten me. There is a scientific basis for them all, if we only knew what it was, but I hesitate to carry you along that path with me. Your temperament is too highly strung and romantic. If anything happened to you, I should never cease to blame myself. I mean, if anything happened to you mentally. Mind you, I am not saying that you could not rise to heights, but one never can tell, especially when dealing with one of your sex. And I am not going to say it is impossible for you to communicate with your brother on the other side. I myself have had some startling experiences."
At that point, Wilde had broken off and declined to say any more. From time to time he allowed Peggy to flirt round the subject, but he never encouraged her beyond the field of ordinary speculation. From time to time he lent her certain books, written, for the most part, by abstruse authors on a highly scientific plane, and with this Peggy was fain to be content. But the subject was never very far from her mind, a mind that was not naturally inclined to the morbid.
However, she put all this out of her head and busied herself for an hour or two in the garden until towards lunch-time, when Trevor Capner reappeared. There was a flush on his face and a sparkle in his eyes that aroused a vague alarm in Peggy's breast. She could not have said why, but that was what was uppermost in her head as Trevor came towards her.
"Look here, old thing," he said. "I am very sorry if I upset you this morning. Of course, I was a fool to talk like I did before Wilde and I shouldn't have done it if he hadn't annoyed me. And he did annoy me."
"Did he?" Peggy asked. "In what way?"
"Oh, well, if you put it like that, I can't tell you. He is a great man and a fine old fellow, and all that sort of thing, and I have the greatest possible respect for him, but he does encourage you in that spiritualistic nonsense."
"But he doesn't," Peggy protested. "He is always warning me to leave it alone. He says it is not the sort of thing that anybody with a romantic disposition like mine should embark upon. He is never tired of saying so."
"Oh, I dare say. But he is always lending you books and all that sort of thing. Cut it out, Peggy, cut it out. It only makes you miserable. Perhaps you think I don't notice it, but you spend a lot of time dreaming about poor old Victor. He was a splendid chap, and I know what a terrible blow his death was to you. I believe that if I hadn't been an airman like Victor, you would never have fallen in love with me. And you would give this place and all the money you have to bring the poor old chap back to your side again. But he is dead and gone, and you can't reach him. You never will reach him till you pass over to the other side yourself. Don't dwell upon it, darling, don't dwell upon it. After all, you have a lot to be thankful for, and so have I, for that matter. So let us be happy and thankful for the goods the gods provide."
"I am happy and I am thankful," Peggy whispered. "And I am none the less thankful because you promised me that you would give up flying. I should never have a moment's peace if I thought that my husband was an airman. I should regard it as a distinct affront to providence. Oh, you can call me foolish if you like. You may say that I should never have spoken like that if my dearest Victor had not been taken. Very well, Trevor darling, let us forget all about it. I won't think about Victor that way now you have given up your commission in the Air Force. Mr. Wilde can have his books back and—but what is the matter?"
"Well, it's like this," Capner stammered. "You see, I hadn't actually resigned my commission, although I promised you I would do so. You know how one puts that sort of thing off. Besides, I am interested in aeroplane construction, as you know. There was that helicopter of mine."
"Yes, yes, I know all about that," Peggy said eagerly. "It is one thing to design flying machines, and quite another to exploit them in the air. Trevor, you don't mean to say you have promised—I mean you are not committed——"
"Well, I am afraid I am, in a way," Capner blundered on. "You see, I haven't sent in my papers. I was so busy on that new bus of mine that I forgot all about it. I am still in the Air Force, and if I am called upon for a big stunt, then I shall have to obey. Think what people would say if I didn't. They would say that I was going to marry a girl with a heap of money and that I was thinking more of my own skin than of my country. More than that, they would say that I wouldn't dare to fly the plane for which I claim so much."
"Let us sit down," Peggy said a little faintly. "Let us sit down and talk it over quietly. I am very much afraid, Trevor, that you have something serious to say to me."
Capner gave a sign that might have been anxiety, and yet, on the other hand, might have been relief.
"Well, I have," he confessed. "I told you that I was expecting an important letter by the middle-day post, and here it is. Read it yourself. You can see that it comes from the Air Ministry. They highly approve of my new plane, which is equally adapted to war or peace. They want me to give it a thorough test. I have been asked—nay—ordered to fly from Croydon to Australia, and I am expected to make a record of it. If I accept, then I shall be off almost at once."
"And if you refuse," Peggy whispered.
"My dearest girl, how can I possibly refuse? Do you want me to be stamped for ever as a coward?"
"A coward," Peggy mocked. "With your reputation!"
"Well, it would look like it. And I am a coward in a way, because I was afraid to come and tell you what I have just said. Can't you see how cruelly I am situated? If I refuse this offer, I shall have it flung in my teeth that I was thinking of my personal comfort first."
"But of course that would not be true," Peggy cried. "Ridiculous to say that you are marrying me for my money, when your own private income is nearly as big as mine. And your own place is, if possible, a more desirable residence than Long Elms. And isn't the promise you made to your future wife just as sacred as your duty to the Air Force? For the last six or seven years you have done your country splendid service. You have taken risks that few men would care to face, and there are no new honours for you. Besides, I feel it in my bones that if you set off on this expedition you will never return. Oh, can't you see how cruel it is? First of all I lost a brother I loved more than I loved myself, and now I am asked to lend the man I have given my heart to with a risk that I may never see him again. Why should I be put to this double sacrifice? You promised, Trevor, you promised."
"I know I did," Trevor groaned. "And it was a promise I meant to keep. I will keep it now if I can."
"Wouldn't that be easy?" Peggy demanded eagerly. "You have done a great work in the past, you are presenting your country with a new type of 'plane from which great things are expected and, surely, there are plenty of ambitious young officers who would give an eye to have the chance that lies before you. Why not stand aside and let them have the opportunity?"
Peggy dropped her voice to a low and pleading tone that shook Trevor to the centre of his being. To sit there and watch the tears gathering in her eyes and see the mute appeal on that lovely face of hers moved him strangely.
"Very well," he said at length. "I will see what can be done. I don't like the task at all, because I know exactly what the big men at the Air Ministry will think. And there are others who will think, too, who won't be nice in the way they express their thoughts. And those confounded newspapers will get hold of it, too, and my rivals. They will hint that I have successfully deceived the Ministry and that I am selling them a machine that I dare not fly myself. Can't you see this? Can't you see the position in which I am placed?"
Peggy bent her head lower and lower, like one of her own lilies. There was no blinding herself to the cruel logic of Trevor's words. Still, he had made a promise to her and, womanlike, she could only see that that promise must be carried out to the letter.
"Then you will go to London?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, I shall go to London," Trevor said. "But, first of all, I will get on to a friend of mine at the Ministry through the telephone. I shall be able to catch him before he goes to lunch if I put a call through now. But if there is any doubt about it, then, my dear, I shall have to go."
"I think that would be the best," Peggy whispered. "And I rely upon you, Trevor, to do all you can."
Capner rose hastily from his seat.
"Very well, darling," he said. "Very well. But it is going to be cruelly hard either way."
Sebastian Wilde had turned away from Peggy and Trevor Capner in the garden at Long Elms and had steered his way along the road in the direction of his own house with a little frown between his brows and a rather puzzled expression on that fine, leonine face. It was as if he was working out some problem in his mind, for the veins on his forehead had swollen and there was a sort of baffled look in his eyes. So deeply intent was he upon his thoughts that a little way further down the road he almost collided with a passing car and only by a dexterous swerve into the ditch saved himself from what might have been a serious accident. The owner of the car shouted some abuse over his shoulder, but Wilde was too busy extricating himself to take any notice. Then, just as he had swerved on to the roadway again, a voice from the other side of the hedge accosted him. He looked up to see a keen pair of dark eyes in a humorous face regarding him half seriously.
"That was a pretty narrow squeak," the man behind the hedge said. "I dared not cry out, Mr. Wilde, because I might have startled you. Let me congratulate you on the strength of your arms. At any rate, there is nothing the matter with them."
"Yes, my arms are all right," Wilde admitted. "If my legs were half as good, I should not have much to grumble about. But where have you been lately, Mr. Manthon?"
The man with the humorous face and the keen, penetrating eyes bent over the hedge with a pipe in his mouth. The two seemed to be on fairly good terms and had been ever since Wilde had come into the neighbourhood, but for some reason or another he was not enamoured of Roy Manthon, the novelist and psychologist, whose intimate studies of the workings of the human mind had brought him fame and fortune at an age when most authors are still struggling for recognition. But he was famous now, and on the way to fortune, perfectly happy in that quaint old bungalow of his, which he had adapted out of a pair of workmen's cottages. Most of his time was spent in the village of Lincombe, where he had made a few friends, which included Peggy Ferris and Trevor Capner; indeed, there were shrewd observers who had been heard to declare that if Capner had been out of the way, Peggy would have had no need to look further for a husband. But whether that was true or not, that secret was locked in Manthon's breast and none could question his loyalty towards the lovers.
He looked down at the man in the invalid chair with that quizzical gaze that, for some reason of other, always seemed to disconcert the eminent man of science. It was as if this master of introspection was gazing into his soul, or analysing his thoughts through a mental microscope. It was a feeling Wilde could never rid himself of. Not that he was a man to shirk an issue of that sort. On the contrary, he rather cultivated Manthon's acquaintance and had made him free of the old half-ruined priory called Monkshole which he had purchased when he came to the neighbourhood a year or two before. Manthon was free to come and go as he pleased, and there they discussed such occult matters that their minds mutually delighted in.
But, behind it all, there was ever that feeling on Wilde's part that the younger man was holding him in balance and weighing him. It was a new sensation for Wilde and one that annoyed him, because he had been accustomed to a monopoly of that sort of thing himself. It was a case of opposites attracting one another and, for the moment, Wilde was content to let it go at that. He smiled up into the face of the man standing above him and murmured some commonplaces about the beauty of the morning. Manthon smiled in response.
"Lovely morning indeed," he said. "But where, may I ask, have you been so early?"
"I have been as far as Long Elms," Wilde explained. "Taking some books which I promised to Miss Ferris."
"Oh, indeed?" Manthon observed. "Do you find her interested in your sort of work? I have known her pretty intimately for a long time now, but I have never detected any scientific leaning on her part. But then, a many sided man like you has divers interests—the psychic, for instance. I should not be at all surprised to find that Peggy Ferris is attracted by that."
There was almost a challenge in Wilde's eyes as he looked up. Was this man a thought reader, he wondered?
"What make you think that?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know. Miss Ferris is a bit of a dreamer, despite her outdoor activities. Her's is a perfect specimen of the normal mind in a sound and healthy body. But there is an Eastern strain in her blood somewhere, a certain mystical vein that shows itself to observing eyes on occasions. I have seen it more than once. In fact, I have seen it every time she speaks of her dead brother. Have you noticed that?"
Wilde hastened to say that he had not. All the same, he was not telling the truth, and both of them knew it. Then Wilde switched off the conversation abruptly to something else and, a moment or two later, was propelling his way along the road in the direction of Monkshole. Manthon watched him until the old man was out of sight.
"A most fascinating enigma," he told himself. "The sort of character that Robert Louis Stevenson would have delighted in. Not the Jekyll and Hyde business exactly, but something suggesting that dual psychology. On the whole, the most interesting bit of character study I ever encountered."
Time ago, and that not very long since, the house called Monkshole has been little more than a mediaeval ruin. There were ruins about it now, the remains of a chapel, a few stones standing where a great monastery had once been, and in the centre of it the Prior's residence, which had withstood the assaults of time. A rambling house with one great sitting room, now turned into a library, a bedroom or two, with part of a ruined tower overhead and certain domestic offices. Here Wilde had established himself with a man and his wife to look after his comfort, and for the rest, his secretary, James Ebbsmith, who was, in his way, almost as remarkable a character as his employer.
In the great library Wilde had placed his books. It was lighted by a big dormer window at the one end and lined throughout with wonderfully carved panelling, relieved here and there by slender oak pillars that rose up to the roof twenty feet overhead. A wonderful room, and eminently suited to the personality of the man who occupied it.
In the centre of one of the walls was a broad, deep fireplace with its enormous chimney and its two great powder closets on either side. Everything there was exactly as it had been three hundred years before, save for the carpets on the floor and the comfortable chairs scattered around the room.
Apart from the well-lined bookshelves, there was little else to indicate that here was the workshop of a great scientist. There was no machinery or mechanical appliance of any sort, nothing to suggest a laboratory of a man who was deeply engaged in new discoveries or inventions. From one point of view, it was rather a disappointing room, save for its air of repose and quiet dignity which impressed itself at once upon the most casual observer.
At a small table under the big window the secretary, James Ebbsmith, sat writing. He was a little man with sharp, rather irregular features, and quick, evasive eyes which seemed to elude, rather than avoid, the look of anyone who was addressing him. In a queer way, he suggested flexibility, much as if he had been constructed out of india-rubber, which was not remarkable, considering that he had started life, many years ago, as a circus contortionist and conjurer. How and where Wilde had found him nobody but that strangely assorted couple ever knew. But he was the ideal secretary that Wilde had been searching for for years, and the understanding between them was complete.
Not that Ebbsmith had the smallest claim to call himself a scientist. It was his nimbleness of body and quick apprehension of mind on the part of others that was the chief asset in his usefulness to Sebastian Wilde. Mentally, they were as far apart as the poles, but that did not prevent a perfect understanding between them.
Ebbsmith looked up quickly as his employer entered.
"Well?" he demanded. "Well?"
"Oh, not so fast, please," Wilde smiled. "I have been as far as Long Elms with those books for Miss Ferris. I suppose you marked the passages I spoke about?"
"Yes, I did all that, boss," Ebbsmith said. "I suppose you didn't happen to see young Capner there?"
Wilde smiled approvingly at his subordinate.
"You are really getting on, James," he said. "That telepathic complex of yours is getting more marked every day. As a matter of fact, I did happen to see Trevor Capner. There is something wrong between those two young people."
"What, do you mean they have had a quarrel?"
"I won't go as far as to say that, but there is a rift in the lute somewhere. Mind you, Trevor is not the easy-going sportsman that we take him for. He resents the friendship between Peggy Ferris and myself. Just fancy a handsome young airman with his reputation being jealous of a poor, miserable paralysed man like Sebastian Wilde."
For some reason or another, this remark seemed to strike Ebbsmith as being particularly humorous, for he threw back his head and filled the room with cackling laughter.
"Oh, yes, I see your point of view," Wilde smiled tolerantly. "But there are other things. James Ebbsmith, what is it that I want more particularly than anything else at the present moment?"
"Well, I should say £50,000," Ebbsmith grinned.
"At the very least," Wilde went on. "And I want it in cash, where I can handle it as required. The great invention stands still for need of a sum like that. Why is it that all we scientists are so poor?"
"Well, you haven't done so badly without money."
"That is true enough, yes. But consider the months of maddening weary waiting between the supplies. Five hundred here and a thousand there, and then weeks doing nothing. I tell you, if I could put my hand upon a round sum in cash, I could startle the world, within a year. They talk about their television, which I am not denying is the opening up of a wonderful new field, but I could take it a great deal further than flashing photographs across the Atlantic and showing a lot of gaping fools a theatrical performance on a white screen. I am talking now, James, as I have never talked to you before. What would you think if I told you that I am within striking distance of making myself invisible."
"Coo," Ebbsmith purred. "Great, boss. Invisible, eh? My sacred aunt! Mean to say you could walk about the world without anybody seeing you, as they did in the fairy stories?"
"Yes, I mean even that," Wilde declared. "The thing is possible. Anything is possible now that a man can sit in a room believing himself to be in utter darkness when he is really in the centre of a blaze of light."
"You are not pulling my leg?" Ebbsmith asked.
"Nothing of the sort, James. What I speak of has been done. It is done every day. If I wanted to televise you, I should place you in front of a simple apparatus and reproduce your features, yes, even your cigarette and the smoke from it, on a screen a thousand miles away. And you would sit in the operating room under the impression that you were in pitch darkness, but you wouldn't be. You would be in the centre of an illumination from which everything but the infra-red rays of light would be abstracted. I don't want to go into technical details, but in my workshop overhead I have satisfied myself that the thing can be done. Indeed, the Scotch inventor, Baird, has already told the world as much. Now, listen. If I can make you believe that you are sitting in a ring of electric light when, so far as your eyes are concerned, you are in absolute darkness, then I can invert the process. My experiments with those rays tell me that I can so manipulate light within a radius of a few feet from my own person that you, or anybody else, could stand, say two yards away, and never know that I was present. That is what I am going to do."
Wilde had sunk his voice almost to a whisper. Ebbsmith regarded him with open mouth and staring eyes.
"You absolutely mean that, boss," he gasped. "My word, if you can do that, then you don't want to go plunging about looking for money. You could go and take it. You could walk into a big house in the West End, when the family sat at dinner, and help yourself from my lady's jewel case, even when her maid was actually in her dressing-room."
A tolerant smile crossed Wilde's lips.
"Yes, I could do that," he said. "And I should be perfectly safe so long as nobody touched me, or came within a few feet of my aura. I could walk behind one of the counters of the Bank of England and get away with banknotes to a fabulous amount, as easily as you could cross this room. But, my dear James, a lot has to be done before we reach that stage. I want all sorts of things. To begin with, I need radium. I could do with a bit, not much more than a pin's head, but even that would cost something like £10,000. And that is only one of the items. If I am going to succeed in what I have set myself out to attain then I need £50,000."
"And you think that Miss Ferris——"
"Ah, there you go again, James, with your telepathic vision." Wilde interrupted. "Yes, she could do it easily enough. And she would not miss it, either. I suppose she must be worth at least four times that amount. And the man she is going to marry is rich. I am wondering——"
"Yes, that is all very well," Ebbsmith cut in. "But isn't the mere fact that Capner is a wealthy man rather a stumbling-block, eh? He would certainly have something to say in the matter. And so long as the girl is under his influence——"
"Yes, but how long will she be under his influence? She is very much in love with him I know, but I can see signs of trouble in that direction. I saw them this morning. There is something going on which I cannot quite fathom. It may be mere imagination on my part, but it seems to me that Capner is contemplating something to which the girl objects. And if he goes on with it, there will be complications. What the trouble is I don't know. You will make it your business to find out. You can go and see Capner this afternoon and take him that last pamphlet I had from Germany. I mean the one that Professor Hindrich sent me. There it is, on the table. I have not looked at it myself, but it has something to do with ballistics. It is a subject which doesn't intrigue me, but naturally appeals to an enthusiastic airman like Capner. Give it to him with my compliments. And then, if you are the clever man I take you to be, you will be able to find out what is the cause of the little misunderstanding between Miss Ferris and her lover. Of course, I don't want to do anything underhanded——"
"No, you wouldn't," Ebbsmith said dryly.
"I am glad you understand me so well," Wilde went on smoothly. "But if those two agree to part, then I don't see why I should not take Miss Ferris into my confidence. She is more than interested in my work already, especially the psychic side of it. And if she and Capner drift apart, then she will want something to occupy her mind. She is a far cleverer girl than she takes herself to be. But for the fact that she was born with a gold spoon in her mouth, she might have gone a long way. She may go a long way yet, if she consents to help me to perfect my greatest discovery."
"Aren't you taking a lot for granted?" Ebbsmith asked..
"Quite right, James, quite right," Wilde agreed. "I was carried away by my imagination. Now, I want you to go as far as Capner's place somewhere about teatime, and take that pamphlet. Find out what you can and let me know. And now I think I will get on with my work."
It was shortly after four o'clock the same afternoon before Ebbsmith finished his correspondence and strolled quietly out of the big library, leaving Wilde alone there. Half an hour later, the telephone bell rang and Wilde propelled his chair across the floor to answer it. He took the receiver down and placed it to his ear and called the speaker at the other end.
"Yes, it's Wilde," he said. "Who are you? Oh, Prosser, eh? I have been expecting to hear from you all day. What's that? You can't get it. Why? Oh, I understand. Well, tell them that they shall have a cheque by the end of the week. Impress upon them that I must have those chemicals by return of post. What's that? Martin's address. Why do you particularly want it? Oh, I see. Well, I can't give it to you now, because I am alone here and it is upstairs in my workroom. Eh? Are you there? Well, if it is as urgent as all that, give me another call in an hour and I will manage to get it for you. All right. Ring off. Good-bye."
And then Wilde proceeded to do a strange thing. With his long, powerful arms, he levered himself out of his invalid chair to the floor. Once there, he flung his body and legs over his head and proceeded to propel himself across the floor until he reached one of the slender oak pillars that divided the panelling into sections. With the use of his arms alone, he climbed up the pillar, hand over hand, much as some great ape might have done, at the same time displaying a muscular strength and grip which was amazing in a man of his years.
Once at the top of the pillar, he reached out and pushed back a trap in the ceiling. Then, as if he had been a giant spider, he flung himself clear of the pillar and raised himself bodily through the open trap on to the floor above. Here he paused a minute for breath, and, after putting a little address book in his pocket, surveyed the scene around him.
If there was no machinery in the room below, there was a plethora of it in the great loft, which was lighted by a glass roof. There was something weird and uncanny about those spidery brass and steel wheels and the great discs that looked not unlike a sheet of parchment which had been removed from the head of a drum. A sort of robot arrangement, much as if the studio had been intended to take a futurist film.
But Wilde was not concerned with that for the present. He regained the library by the same means and he had reached the loft and waited for the telephone to ring again. There was a light ladder in the corner of the library, obviously used for the purpose of reaching the loft above; but with his paralysed lower limbs, it had been impossible for Wilde to use that in the absence of Ebbsmith. Then he unlocked the door, the key of which he had carefully turned before he started on his amazing expedition, and lighted a cigarette.
"So that's that," he muttered. "Just as well to know that the old training has not been altogether wasted. A sort of triumph of a body over its infirmities. All the same, I don't think I should cut a very pretty figure if I walked down the village on my hands, though I can use them for locomotion as well as many people manipulate their legs. However——"
While he was still ruminating, Ebbsmith returned. There was a grin on his face and a smile on his flexible features.
"It's all right, boss," he said. "I have not been wasting my time. I have quite a lot to tell you."
"Oh, then you did manage to see Capner?"
"Yes, I saw Captain Capner all right. I gave him the pamphlet with your compliments and he told me to give you his best thanks. But he didn't seem to worry much about the pamphlet. He seemed to have something very different on his mind."
"Did you manage to find out what it was?"
"Well, indirectly. It's like this, boss. Capner has practically given up flying. I know that because he told me so a couple of months ago. But he is interested in a new type of plane which the Air Ministry have adopted. He didn't hope that they would do anything of the sort, and, anyway, he was expecting the usual official delay. But some big bug in the Ministry happened to get sight of the thing and took it in his head that it must be tested without delay. So they carted Capner's plane to one of the big aerodromes and put it in commission. I think the idea was to fly round the world or something like that, and, of course, the inventor was asked to take charge."
"You mean he was to fly the machine?"
"That was what I said, wasn't it, boss? That is what I meant, anyhow. It is only natural that the man who invented it should be commanded to give it a real test."
"Which means, of course, that Capner is going?"
"Well, there you have me, boss. I can't say. He wants to go, and yet he doesn't want to go. I didn't ask him any questions on the subject because it is as plain as the nose on my face. But if you ask me what my opinion is, I should say that if the young lady wasn't in the way, Capner would be off like a shot."
"And she doesn't want him to go, I suppose?"
"I am quite sure she doesn't," Ebbsmith went on. "He promised her he would send in his papers a long time ago. You know that as well as I do."
"Now I come to think of it, I do," Wilde said. "He mentioned his intention to me in the presence of Miss Ferris, and she was more than delighted with what he said."
"Of course she was. You seem to have forgotten what happened to her brother."
"So I had," Wilde cried. "Stupid of me. Of course, I remember now that she hates flying. Natural enough, considering that she lost her brother, to whom she was passionately attached. Look here, Ebbsmith, it is quite plain. There is trouble between those two because Capner can't make up his mind to carry out his promise to Miss Ferris. It is quite natural he should hesitate, because people will say unpleasant things about him if he declines to back his invention personally. On the other hand, if he goes on with it, then he will have the lady to reckon with."
"That is precisely how I look at it," Ebbsmith grinned. "Of course, neither of those young people know that we are in the least interested in them; indeed, how should they know?"
"Ah, indeed," Wilde said thoughtfully. "Well, James, you have not been wasting your time and it looks to me as if it is in our hands to expedite things to racing pace. I think I will take my chair down into the village presently and drop in casually on Miss Ferris for a little chat."
An hour or so later, the invalid chair was propelled into the garden at Long Elms, where Wilde was pleased to see Peggy sitting thoughtfully on the seat by the side of the lawn.
She smiled pleasantly as he came near, but he did not fail to notice the look of distress on her face and traces of recent tears in her eyes. She wiped them furtively and then turned to Wilde with a gaiety that deceived him not at all.
"Won't you tell me about it?" Wilde asked benignly.
"Tell you all about what?" Peggy fenced.
"I am an old man," Wilde went on, "an old man who has seen a good deal of the world and has not been without his own bitter disappointments. My dear young lady, it is quite easy to see that you are in some sort of trouble. But don't let me presume. I would much rather not force your confidence if you are not disposed to give it freely."
As he spoke, Wilde looked the absolute picture of benevolence and sympathy. His tone was so kind and inviting that Peggy was moved, in spite of herself.
"Oh, it is nothing," she said. "Very likely I am imagining troubles that don't exist. But, you see, I am afraid that Trevor is going to leave me."
"Does that mean a quarrel?" Wilde asked.
"Well, not exactly. You see, it is like this, Mr. Wilde. I hate flying. Old fashioned, of course, but I have never forgotten my brother Victor met with his death in the air. Some time ago, Trevor promised me—oh, but why should I worry you?"
"It is no trouble at all, my child," Wilde murmured. "Let me help you. A little bird tells me that Mr. Capner is interested in a new type of flying machine, and I suppose the authorities want him to demonstrate. And I suppose, too, that you object. Am I right, my dear?"
"Well, something like that," Peggy confessed. "You see, he gave me his solemn promise not to do any more flying in future. And now he wants me to absolve him from that promise. He is motoring up to Town this evening——"
Peggy broke off suddenly as Capner himself came in through the front gate. He advanced in a hesitating sort of manner as if half inclined to turn back, and might have done so if Wilde had not called him by name.
"Don't run away," the latter said. "I am only staying for a minute or two."
Wilde laid a hand on the steering gear of his chair and with the same benevolent smile on his face, slowly piloted himself down the drive in the direction of the road. He would come and see Peggy again, he said, and, with that, he vanished from the garden and was lost to sight. Capner stood there before Peggy, hardly knowing what to say.
"Well?" she challenged at length.
"I hardly know how to begin," Capner said humbly. "Look here, Peggy, don't let us quarrel, for Heaven's sake. You hardly realise my position. For many reasons I don't want to go, but it is hard to get out of it."
"So hard to keep a promise, Trevor? To me?"
"Yes, that is the hardest promise of the lot. I did tell you, definitely and plainly, that I was resigning my commission. And it is my fault that I delayed and I should never have done so if I had known that the Ministry would make it a point of my testing the machine over a long flight. But can't you see that they have every right to ask me to do so? Oh, well, we have had all this over before. But please don't make it hard and don't think I am hard either. Besides, everything is not definitely settled even yet. I am going to London in an hour's time in my car to keep an appointment with Sir Everard, and everything hangs upon that. I shall dine with him and get back here very late to-night. Peggy, my dear, if I can get out of this business with honour to myself, I shall do so; but if they insist, or even strongly hint that I ought to make the big test, then I don't see how I can get out of it. But, on my honour, I will do my best. Won't you be content with that, Peggy? Won't you let things go on as they are until the critical moment arrives?"
"Very well," Peggy said coldly. "I will try and put it out of my mind and hope for the best."
"That is good," Capner said, his spirits rising immediately. "That is my dear girl again. Now, is there anything I can do for you before I set out on my errand?"
"One little thing, perhaps," Peggy smiled. "I wish you would come in the house and look at my wireless set. I don't know what is the matter with it, but it won't function properly. It can't be the batteries, because they were both of them charged early in the week."
"Sounds like valve trouble," Capner said, only too glad to get off dangerous ground. "I always told you that earth of yours is not quite as it ought to be. If I do have to go away, and you get into trouble with the set again, you can't do better than call in our friend Manthon. He knows almost as much about wireless as I do. However, come along."
The little difficulty was adjusted at length to Peggy's satisfaction and together she and Capner came out into the sunshine again. For some time they sat down under a tree on the lawn contemplating the beauty of the landscape.
"What time are you going?" Peggy asked at length.
"I thought of starting somewhere about half-past five," Capner explained. "It won't take me more than an hour to get to Town and I shan't have to dress. With any luck, I shall have finished with the big man by ten o'clock to-night and then I shall get back here as soon as possible."
"And you will let me know at once, Trevor?"
"Certainly, darling. At any rate, the first thing to-morrow morning. You will probably be in bed before I come back. You see, I might be later than I expect."
"Oh, you must try," Peggy implored. "I don't think you quite realise what this suspense means to me, Trevor. Can't you come in for a minute, however late it is?"
"Well, I hardly like to do that," Capner said. "It looks rather silly, don't you think? Look here, I will tell you what. If I am not back at a reasonable time, you go to bed. I shall be passing this house at any rate between ten o'clock and midnight and if you like to listen I will give you a sign."
"What do you mean by that?" Peggy asked.
"Well, a sort of signal. Quite the romantic touch. Suppose I do manage to satisfy the big men in the Air Ministry and save my honour at the same time, I will give you three toots on my horn as I go by. If, on the other hand, I am compelled to go, then I will give six blasts on my Klaxon. There can't be any mistake, because you will recognise that cracked note on my horn at once. I wonder how many times you have asked me to get a new one. Will that satisfy you, Peggy?"
It was a childish idea, but somehow it appealed to the romantic side of Peggy's nature. She smiled up into her lover's face and nestled a little closer to him.
"Do you know, that is rather a pretty idea, old boy," she said. "I think, on the whole, I like it better than a personal call. I shan't go to bed early, because it will be impossible to sleep until I hear from you, and there is a rather fine broadcast from Hilversum to-night which I am anxious to hear. You will try your best, won't you, Trevor? Do try and remember you are all I have in the world. I have given you my heart and everything that goes with it, so that only my soul belongs to me. And I have been so happy in the knowledge that I have found consolation for the loss of my brother. If anything happens to you, I don't know what I shall do. I ought to keep you. I ought to insist, here and now, that you get in contact with the Ministry and tell them plainly that you can't go. I ought to say that it is the parting of the ways as far as you are concerned and that it is to be either me or that machine of yours."
"But you wouldn't do that, Peggy?" Trevor asked.
"Perhaps not," Peggy agreed. "But I think I know what the answer would be if I did. Don't you see, Trevor, that you are putting me second. No girl likes that."
"But I am not," Capner said eagerly. "I am trying to hold the balance true between my duty and my inclination. Come, Peggy, don't make it more difficult than it is."
Peggy appeared as if about to speak, then changed her mind, and for a long time there was silence. But there was no warmth lacking in her kiss as she parted with her lover at the garden gate and watched him out of sight.
And there was more than regret in Capner's eyes as he turned in the direction of his home. He left the road presently in the direction Manthon's bungalow. The latter came out to greet him on the doorstep.
"Hello!" he said. "You look precious grave, old chap."
"Well, I feel rather like that," Capner confessed.
"Oh, then you are really going, after all?"
"Going to London, certainly. But the rest of the adventure is on the knees of the gods. Now, look here, Roy, old chap, if I have to go, I shall probably be off very early to-morrow after collecting my traps here, and I want you to keep an eye on Peggy. Of course, it will break her heart and it may end in breaking off our engagement, but I shall have to risk that. Now, if Peggy wants anything or she gets into any sort of trouble, I hope that you will do your best to pull her through."
"Oh, I will do all that," Manthon said quietly. "But you don't tell me you have quarrelled."
"Well it hasn't come to that yet, and it may be all right in the long run. Still, I am not quite easy in my mind as to Peggy and those people at Monkshole."
"You mean that you don't trust the benevolent Wilde?"
"Well, I wouldn't, perhaps, go so far as to say that. But you know Peggy has a very strong, romantic strain in her composition and, in certain circumstances, might become decidedly psychic. I have overheard one or two little conversations between Wilde and herself that have made me feel rather uneasy. It is all very well for a man with a strong brain and intelligence to play with that sort of thing, but I can see the spiritualistic stuff driving Peggy insane in time. If we had got married in the ordinary course of things, there would have been nothing to fear, because I should be always handy to administer a strong dose of common sense. But if anything happened to me, I can visualise Peggy under the influence of Sebastian Wilde. I know; he is a great intellectual force, but, at the same time, he is a visionary who hopes to probe all sorts of mysterious happenings in the future. And all that money of Peggy's would be mighty useful to an inventive genius."
"Well, there is certainly a good deal in what you say," Manthon said thoughtfully. "Wilde is a great man and a great scientist and, with a brain like his, the dividing line between high genius and sheer madness is a very fine one. You know what I mean—'Great minds to madness nearly are akin,' and all that sort of thing. Oh, yes, I can see Sebastian Wilde in the light of a dangerous fanatic. All right, old chap, I will keep my eyes open if you don't come back, so you can rely upon me to do my best."
With that, the two friends parted and Capner went on his way, leaving Manthon in a curious frame of mind. He had willingly undertaken a serious charge, which he regarded as none the less sacred, because he was in love with Peggy himself. He had been in love with her ever since they first met, but that was a secret which he deemed to be locked safely away in his own breast, though possibly Peggy, with her womanly instinct, had divined it long ago.
It was much later that night than Capner had expected before he turned his back on London and drove his car in a homeward direction rather slowly and thoughtfully. He had the road practically to himself, so that he was alone with his own rather gloomy thoughts.
As often happened in such circumstances, the interview after dinner with the big man in the Air Ministry had not gone in the least as Capner had expected. When, at length he left the house in Sloane Street where the interview had taken place, he found himself pledged to certain things, beyond recall. From the very first, his arguments had been swept aside as if they had been no more than so many cobwebs; indeed, the great man had, apparently, not regarded them as arguments at all. And Trevor knew that everything he had been listening to could have only led up to one conclusion.
It was very still and silent as he drew near the village of Lincombe and approached Long Elms, where he could see that a light was still burning in Peggy's bedroom. A clock in the neighbouring church struck the hour of midnight.
Trevor hesitated for a moment or two; then, almost recklessly, pressed the button of his horn.
Three times the cracked note cut through the night air and then a short pause; then, almost mournfully, the sound uprose again and three more notes followed.
For hours it seemed to Peggy that she had been listening and waiting in the seclusion of her room. She had gone to bed earlier than she had intended, because, for once in a way, the pleasant chatter of her aunt and companion had driven her almost wild, so that she was fain to shut down her wireless set and seek the seclusion of her room. Here, by means of a switch, she was able to work a second loudspeaker from the set downstairs and listened more or less abstractedly to the dance music from the Royal Thames Hotel, where on many a happy occasion, she and Trevor had danced together before the shadow of trouble had come between them.
Quite two nights a week they had been in the habit of running up to Town in the two-seater and dining at the hotel in question, after which they turned into the ballroom for an hour or two and whiled away the time with the aid of what Peggy regarded as the best band in London. She could see it now, as she sat near the loudspeaker, see the lounge and the gardens beyond, into which it was possible to steal on a summer's night and sit watching the lights rippling on the river.
It all came back to Peggy with double force as she sat there with one ear for the music and the other for the signal which seemed as it it would never come. Then, as it grew later and the world outside became still, Peggy rose from her seat and moved restlessly about the room.
Then, suddenly, without any warning, the signal came. She heard the first three hoots on the weird, cracked horn, and just for a moment it seemed as if her heart was standing still. Then Trevor had managed after all, to satisfy his superiors and his own conscience at the same time. It was only for an instant, and then come the other three notes, like a passing knell; it brought her almost to her knees and caused the tears to rise into her eyes. It was as if the whole of her universe lay in ruins about her feet.
But only for a brief spell, which was succeeded almost at once by hardening lines about the corners of her mouth and a resolution that she proceeded to put into effect.
She switched off the dance music that was now mocking her ears and, crossing the room to a table in one of the windows, she sat down and wrote a letter.
And this was what the letter said:—
"It is just five minutes past twelve and I heard your message. There was no mistaking it, because I should recognise that cracked note anywhere, and I believe it will ring in my ears till the end of time.
"So, after all, you have decided that I take a second place in your affections. It is just as well to know that, because I might have married you and discovered the fact when it was too late. At any rate I am free now to do as I please, and I want you to regard yourself as absolved from any promise you ever made. In other words, our engagement is at an end.
"I did think, when you hit upon that happy idea of telling me that I was to listen in my bedroom for the message of your horn, that love was to have all its own way, and that your personal ambition would be relegated into obscurity. But it seems it was not to be. I give you credit for believing that you would be successful in getting out of your obligation and coming back to me a free man. That is, free, as far as you and I were concerned. And I think, even now, if I had been firm with you this morning and had implored you with my arms around your neck and my kisses on your lips, you would have declined to go to London and written the Air Ministry that, so far as you were concerned, the thing was finished.
"And I came very near to doing so. I know you could not have refused me if I had allowed my natural feelings to run away with me. But, because I am as proud in my way as you are in yours, I managed to restrain myself and, all the more so, because I hoped that you would realise that you owed for more to me than you did to a mere Government department. And even as I sit here writing these words without passion and without anger, I am not sure whether I am glad or sorry.
"But it is no use to dwell upon that. For better or for worse, our romance is finished. I am leaving this letter so that you can get it the first thing in the morning by one of the servants. I presume that you will be on your way back again to London soon after breakfast and I think it is just as well that it should be so.
"Because I don't want to see you again, if you will do me one last favour, it is to keep out of my way. Don't make the slightest attempt to see me, because it will be only a painful thing for both of us. My mind is absolutely made up, and that is the last word I have to say.
Very quietly and calmly, as if she were doing nothing out of the common, Peggy placed the letter in an envelope and sealed it. Then, on a separate sheet of paper, she wrote the words "To be delivered at once" and placed this, together with the letter, on the hall table. After that, she returned to her room again, and, much to her own astonishment, undressed and slept peacefully throughout the night.
When she came downstairs to breakfast in the morning, the note was no longer there, so she came to the natural conclusion that one of the servants had seen to it that the letter had been delivered. In the dining-room Miss Bancroft, her aunt and companion, was awaiting breakfast for her with her usual cheery smile. Nothing ever disturbed her serenity.
"Well, my dear," she said. "You are late. I have been out in the garden the last two hours. Do you know, Trevor has actually gone to London again. But, of course, you are aware of that."
"I wasn't," Peggy said with a thin smile.
"Perhaps he did not know till the post was in. I happened to be standing by the gate when he went by. When he told me he wouldn't be back for at least a month, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Now I come to think of it, I am not sure he didn't say three months. My dear, you haven't had——"
"A quarrel," Peggy said swiftly. "Oh, dear no. You can disabuse your mind of that, aunt. I expect Trevor has gone to London in connection with that new aeroplane of his. No doubt we shall hear more about it in the course of a day or two. And now, will you help me to some of those fried eggs?"
All unsuspecting, the benevolent old lady who presided over Peggy's household did as she was asked, little dreaming of the tragedy which had wrecked the girl's life during the past few hours. And Peggy had not the least intention of alluding to the matter, unless circumstances forced her to do so. And so the days went on, until the best part of a month had elapsed, without further sign from Trevor. He had taken Peggy at her word and gone out of her life as if he had been no more than a mere episode in her career.
But, naturally, she did hear a good deal about him from the daily press. For some days he had occupied a prominent space in the news and more than one photograph of the new 'plane of his had appeared in the pictorial journals. He was on his way to Australia, with the intention of more or less following the famous Hinckler route, only that his alighting place before reaching the continent "down under" would be Singapore. In a vague, numbed sort of way, Peggy followed him from Croydon to Rome and from thence all across Asia Minor and, eventually to Singapore, where, according to a brief cablegram, he had arrived in safety. So far, he had succeeded in his attempt to lower the record, and now it looked as if he would reach his destination well inside the standard time.
And then came an ominous pause. Two days elapsed with no further sign from the airman, and those interested in his flight were beginning to get anxious. Followed the next day in the press an account of a great storm in the Pacific, in which more than one ship had foundered.
"It is feared," said the paper from which Peggy was reading, "that Captain Trevor Capner has been caught on the fringe of one of the greatest hurricanes which have been recorded in the Pacific for many years. At the time the airman left Singapore, the weather was fine and clear, and there was no sign of any atmospheric trouble. But in those tropical latitudes such phenomena are by no means rare, and frequently arise unexpectedly out of nowhere in the course of an hour. It is early yet to prophesy the worst, but we understand that Captain Capner's friends are by no means sanguine. At the present moment, the Government at Singapore and also off the Australian coast are doing everything to get in contact with the missing 'plane. It would indeed be a thousand pities if such a splendid flight should end in tragedy just when——"
The paper fluttered from Peggy's hand.
"My fault," she told herself. "My fault entirely. I could have stopped him if I had not been so proud and vain and foolish. Oh, it would have been so easy to do so. And I was telling myself that I had ceased to love him. What a lie!"
And so another day or two drifted on with no news and hope growing more and more faint. Then came the third evening when Peggy was sitting in her own room listening idly to the nine o'clock bulletin from 2LO that the blow fell with a force that seemed to crush her into the earth.
"The Admiralty regret to announce that all hope of Captain Capner's safety must be abandoned. A fragment of the 'plane has been picked up two hundred miles south of Singapore by a tramp steamer, which seems to prove conclusively that the airman has been lost."
The speaker droned on, but Peggy heard not another word.
Roy Manthon had been using no mere figure of speech when he had promised Trevor Capner that he would keep an eye on Peggy. All the same, it was going to be no easy task, because when a young man is deeply in love with a girl, even though that girl happens to be engaged to his dearest friend, it is a trying ordeal and likely to strain loyalty to the breaking-point. And now that Trevor Capner was out of the way, it was even more difficult than it had been before.
For if the misunderstanding between the lovers had remained and never been healed, then Manthon might have felt himself justified in putting his own fate to the touch. But now that Trevor was no more, he realised that Peggy would make a martyr of him and probably remain faithful to his memory for all time. Because Peggy was just that sort of girl—romantic and rather mystic and fully persuaded that it was her fault because Capner had gone to his death.
She had said so more than once, in as many words to her aunt, Miss Sarah Bancroft. Naturally, Miss Bancroft, who was the soul of kindness and good nature, had been deeply grieved when she had heard the Admiralty announcement; but in spite of her amiability and rather limited understanding, she was not altogether devoid of common sense, and it did not take her long to realise that Peggy must not be allowed to get into a condition of morbid sensibility, because Miss Bancroft knew that this was a weakness which had displayed itself more than once on Peggy's side of the family with disastrous results. So that when Peggy proclaimed herself to be little less than a murderess and talked rather wildly of getting in touch with her dead lover on the other side of the borderland, it seemed to the elder lady that it was quite time to call in some outside assistance, if this deplorable state of things was to be nipped in the bud without further delay.
"I think, my dear, you are taking an altogether extreme view of the case," she ventured to say to Peggy, a week or two later. "I may be wrong, of course, but I cannot see how you can possibly be blamed. Let us look at the matter as if it were an outside case. You know perfectly well that our poor dear Trevor made you a distinct promise. Carelessness, or something like that prevented him from carrying out his promise. If he had done so, then there would have been an end to the matter, and he would have been perfectly justified in refusing to start on that last flight. As things turned out, he could not have done anything else."
"Oh, I know that," Peggy cried. "But I could have stopped him. I am sure that he would have listened to me if I had been a little more considerate. But now he has gone, and I feel as if I had deliberately sent him to his death. Oh, if only I could recall that cruel letter I wrote to him! I must get in touch with him auntie, I must."
"And how are you going to do that, my dear?"
"Don't ask me, because I cannot tell you. But such things have been done. Oh, you may shake your head, auntie, but it is true. Look at the eminent people in the world who firmly believe that we can get in touch with those who have passed over. Mr. Wilde believes it for one."
"Oh, you have been talking to him, have you?" Miss Bancroft said, with a touch of shrewdness. "Of course, I know he is a wonderful man, but I was not aware that he was a spiritualist."
"He isn't," Peggy said. "That is, not a professing one. But he knows all about the science; in fact, there is hardly anything he does not know. And he has read all the books on the subject that ever were written."
"And some of those he has lent to you?" Miss Bancroft suggested. "Yes, I happened to see one or two in your bedroom. Send them back, Peggy, send them back. It is all very well for Mr. Wilde, with his calm, logical mind, but that sort of thing spells madness for a highly-strung girl like yourself. Get rid of those books at once, I implore you. I will speak to Mr. Wilde myself. He has no business to encourage you in such wicked nonsense. And it is wicked nonsense, because the vicar told me so only a few days ago. Get out in the fresh air, go back to your tennis and golf and put such dreadful thoughts out of your mind. Really, I tremble for you, Peggy."
"You are quite wrong, auntie," Peggy said. "Mr. Wilde has not been encouraging me. I don't suppose he would ever have mentioned the subject of spiritualism if I had not introduced it myself. On the contrary, he has advised me not to have anything to do with occultism. Of course, he knows all about spiritualistic manifestations and mediums and all the rest of it, because, at one time, he studied the subject. You don't suppose a man like that would try and deceive me?"
Rather wisely, Miss Bancroft said no more. But she took the first opportunity of seeing Roy Manthon and unburdening herself with regard to what she considered to be a danger lying ahead of Peggy.
"Of course, I will do what I can," Manthon said. "But it is not going to be easy. Long ago I noticed that peculiar mystic strain in Peggy's temperament. But I said nothing about it, because her surroundings were so healthy and normal, that it did not seem worth while. Besides, she was quite happy as long as poor old Trevor was alive, and there seemed to be no cloud upon the horizon. But what you tell me is rather disturbing. Anyway, I will do what I can. Leave Peggy to me and, if I can interest her in the old pursuits, I will. I am going over to Clyde Court this afternoon to play tennis with Basil Faber and his sister Maud, and I will try and induce Peggy to make up a four. It will do her all the good in the world. I will drop in after lunch and ask her to come along with me."
It took Manthon some time to arouse Peggy from her state of despondency, but at length he succeeded, and they set out together later in the afternoon to cover the mile which lay between Long Elms and their destination. It was a fine old house, standing in its own grounds where the highly successful big game hunter, Basil Faber, resided with his sister, who kept house for him. They were both comparatively young people, and on the friendliest terms with Peggy and the other favoured inhabitants of Lincombe. Both Faber and his sister were only too pleased to see Peggy looking something like her old self again, and welcomed her warmly.
It was after tea, when tennis had been abandoned for the moment, and the two men were enjoying a drink and a smoke in Faber's den, that the latter ventured to suggest that Peggy was taking her trouble more bravely than he had expected.
"But I am afraid she isn't," Manthon said. "I managed to almost shame her out of the luxury of grief this afternoon, though I don't know how long it will last. What she ought to do is to go away from here altogether. A long Continental trip or something of that sort. She isn't safe here, old chap."
"Isn't safe here. What do you mean?"
"Well, she has got a sort of leaning towards spiritualism. Wants to get in contact with Capner across the border. You know the sort of stuff they talk. And I am afraid that she has been encouraged by that wonderful chap Wilde. You know Wilde, don't you? Fellow who lives at Monkshole."
"Oh Lord, yes," Faber said. "That is, I have met him once or twice and I have been inside his house. I wanted some information with regard to some skins I had sent me by a friend of mine, who had been shooting somewhere in Africa, where a white man has never been before. The skins were quite new to me, and it occurred to me that with that wonderful general knowledge of his, Wilde might be able to throw some light on the subject. And, by Jove, he did. He told me about an animal I had never heard of before. There seems to be no subject on which he is ignorant. But, somehow, I don't like him."
"Well, now you mention it, neither do I," Manthon agreed. "I have never said as much before, and if you asked me for my reasons, I couldn't give them. He is a great man, is Wilde, but there is something wrong in his mental make up. You see, I have rather an uncanny flair for that sort of thing. A sort of second sight into human nature. And I am quite sure that man is a fanatic. If he made up his mind to go through with anything, nothing would stop him. A splendid friend, no doubt, but an equally terrible enemy. Not that he looks like it with that wonderfully benevolent head of his and his calm, philosophic manner. I tell you, Faber, that Wilde is a dangerous element in Peggy's present state of mind, and if I can keep those two people apart, I am going to do so. Of course, all this is quite between ourselves. You may regard it as the vapouring of an imaginative novelist, but it is something more than that, and I am going to ask you and your sister to help. We must keep Peggy as busy as we can, and stop her from brooding on the past. However, that will do for the present. Now, what do you say to another turn on the court before the dew begins to fall?"
Faber laid a detaining hand on Manthon's arm.
"Just one moment," he said. "I want to tell you something. You know that I am a bit of an amateur sculptor as well as a big game hunter."
"Of course I do," Manthon agreed. "Busts and plaster casts and all that sort of work."
"Precisely, my dear chap, precisely. I want to show you a plaster cast I took outside the library window a day or two ago. You know there is a balcony just over the library, and on the flower bed outside I saw some extraordinary prints. I probably shouldn't have noticed them, only the night before I fancied I heard somebody moving, so I got out of bed and switched on the lights. I suppose that frightened off whoever or whatever it was, so I went back to bed again and thought no more about it. But, after breakfast, I had the curiosity to go out and see if I could find any marks and, sure enough, on the flower bed where one of the gardeners had, a few hours before, planted out some asters, I found them."
"What, do you mean footprints?"
"Well, that is just where you have got me guessing," Faber went on. "I didn't say anything to anybody, and Maud doesn't know now. But I took a cast of those marks, and if you will wait a minute, I will go and fetch them."
Faber came back shortly afterwards and laid two plaster casts on the table in front of his guest.
"Now, what do you make of those?" he demanded. "What do you think they are? Footprints."
"Well, I should say not," Manthon said, after a close inspection. "They look to me more like large hands—big hands with long, thin fingers. But what are they?"
"I don't know," Faber admitted. "You call them hands and you are right when you say they are not feet. My idea is that they are the hands of some sort of ape."
"Ape?" Manthon cried. "What on earth would an ape be doing round here after midnight?"
"Again I don't know," Faber said. "But wouldn't it be possible to train an ape to commit burglary? But not a word of this to Maud or anybody else."
On the same afternoon that Faber was discussing the strange matter of the mysterious footprints with Manthon, Sebastian Wilde was sitting in his library working on an intricate maze of figures, whilst Ebbsmith sat at his comfortable seat in the window going through the household accounts. For a long time there was silence between them, then Wilde pushed his papers on one side and lighted a cigarette.
"That is as far as I can go for the present," he said. "If you have finished those books, Ebbsmith, I want you to give me your attention. How are we off for money?"
Ebbsmith turned away from the table and also helped himself to a cigarette from the box in front of him.
"Precious bad," he said. "Those people in London are worrying again, and here is a letter this morning from that electrical firm in the north declining to send that last lot of apparatus unless we forward a cheque. I don't think you quite realise how much it is the curse of scientists all the last couple of months."
"Money, what do I care about money?" Wilde asked impatiently. "It is the curse of scientists all the world over."
"Ah, that is all very well," Ebbsmith said, "but you can't cut much ice without it. Why don't you sit down to one of those practical inventions of yours and turn out something we can churn into cash, instead of worrying yourself to death over that inverse television of yours? Do you actually believe that one of these early days you are going to envelop a concrete form in an invisible sort of halo so that you, for instance, could walk about without anybody knowing you were there unless you came in actual contact with them?"
"Well, why not?" Wilde demanded. "If I had told you five years ago that I could flash a photograph of yourself across the Atlantic into a newspaper office in New York, you would not be a bit more incredulous than you are now. And yet the thing has been done. And so will this shielded invisibility be perfected by myself. It would have been done before now if it had not been through lack of means. Give me £50,000 and six months' peace of mind, and the problem is solved."
Wilde spoke almost passionately and, for once in a way, his philosophic calm seemed to have deserted him. Ebbsmith watched him with growing admiration.
"Gee," he exclaimed. "That would be a stunt. Why, there wouldn't be anything safe from you. And you mean to say you could actually do it if you had the money you speak of?"
"Beyond the shadow of doubt," Wilde said. "But, tell me where is that fortune to come from?"
"It looks to me as if the gods are actually chucking it at you," Ebbsmith grinned. "What about Miss Ferris? Almost aching to come under your influence. Longing to be brought in contact with her lover across the borderland and ready to believe anything you say. I have lived among crooks and thieves all my life, so I flatter myself I am a fair judge of human nature. And if Miss Ferris isn't both neurotic and romantic, then call me a fool, that is all. Here is a girl worth two hundred thousand pounds, absolutely in her own right, which is far more money than she can possibly want, and here are you, a scientist, ready to set the world on fire. You have the brains and she has the money. What more ideal partnership do you need? And you can get round her with your influence as easy as kiss my hand. And if your conscience troubles you afterwards, you can easily pay her back again when your invention comes on the market. Its possibilities are amazing. In my mind's eye I can see an invisible aeroplane, a death-dealing machine loaded with bombs floating over some doomed city and—well, I don't want to be poetical because it is not in my line. If you want to play the game with Miss Ferris, you can do it easily. I don't see why you need hesitate. If there ever was a case where the end justifies the means this is it."
For some time Wilde turned over this suggestion in silence.
"Yes," he said at length. "There seems to be a lot in what you say. I am not a sentimentalist, James, as you know. I am, first and last, an inventor."
"With something else in between," Ebbsmith grinned.
"Very likely, very likely. But that is because I cannot realise my ambitions in any other way. But if this thing is to be done on the lines you suggest, it will have to be achieved very cautiously. You seem to think that Miss Ferris is absolutely alone in the world, with the exception of that innocent old aunt of hers. Well, you are mistaken. There is Manthon, for example. A fine intellect that, James, a very fine intellect. I am not exactly afraid of him, but I have an uneasy impression that he has summed me up accurately. Moreover, he is over head and ears in love with Miss Ferris and, no doubt, hopes in the course of time, to make her his wife. He would fight for her to the death. He will come between the girl and ourselves at whatever cost to himself. At least, that is how I read his character. I shall have to think this thing very carefully out, James."
"Well, that is your side of the matter," Ebbsmith said. "But if Manthon makes himself very objectionable——"
"Now, none of that, none of that," Wilde cried. "No violence if you want to stay with me. Not a single step do you move without consulting me first. When my big scheme is through and you have more money than you can possibly spend, then you can leave me when you like. Really, I am ashamed of you, James. You talk like one of those crude burglars, who go about with loaded revolvers in their pockets. However, there is plenty of time. We have all the summer before us."
"Yes, but have we?" Ebbsmith urged. "Didn't I tell you just now that we were painfully short of ready money? Your balance at the bank in London is overdrawn, and I am instructed not to send in any more cheques. We have always paid our way since we came down here and it would look bad if we began to run up accounts now. What are we going to do about it?"
Wilde waved the suggestion aside impatiently.
"That difficulty we can get over in a day or two," he said. "You know what I mean. Don't worry me now; let me have just an hour to think things out. And while I am doing that, you might go as far as Trevor Capner's house and see if you can't get his housekeeper to give you that pamphlet on ballistics which I lent him not long before he left England. I want it to verify some calculations of mine."
Ebbsmith rose obediently and left the house in search of the pamphlet. He walked along the road until he came to Capner's residence, where he rang the bell and asked to speak to the housekeeper. So far, the establishment had not been closed, and servants had been kept on for the present by Capner's legal representatives. It would be some time before the court allowed the executors to presume the death of the airman and, meanwhile, the household went on much as if nothing had happened. It was just possible, too, that Trevor Capner was not dead, though the odds were overwhelmingly against such a supposition. Still, English courts of justice are slow to move in such matters, and it would probably be a long time before the domestic staff was disbanded and the house closed.
Ebbsmith found himself presently in the library in company with the elderly housekeeper.
"I am afraid I don't know what it is you want, sir," she said. "But you are quite at liberty to look for the book which you say Mr. Wilde lent my poor dead master. Nothing has been touched since he went away. In fact, I haven't had the heart to interfere with his papers. And a more untidy gentlemen, though I ought not to say it, never lived than Captain Capner. But you can see that for yourself, sir."
Ebbsmith nodded as he looked at the mass of papers and litter on the big writing-table in one of the windows. There were books on the shelves with manuscripts and pamphlets of all kinds which seemed to have been set down at random.
"Yes, I quite see what you mean," Ebbsmith said. "But don't let me detain you. From what I can see, I gather that it will take me some time to find what I am looking for. If I do find it, I will ring and let you know."
The housekeeper turned away, satisfied with this arrangement, and for a long time Ebbsmith ploughed through the litter on the shelves and on the table until nearly the end of a hour had passed when his eye lighted upon the dingy cover of the pamphlet. He was about to turn away with this in his pocket when, under a blotting pad he had just turned over, he saw what appeared to be a letter written to Capner, which letter was in a feminine handwriting. Without the slightest hesitation, Ebbsmith read it. When he had done so, there was a queer grin on his face, and he placed the letter in his pocket and, having signified to the housekeeper that he had been successful in his search, left the place and made his way home.
In the library at Monkshole, he found Wilde, still seated in the attitude of profound meditation. He took the letter from his pocket and thrust it under his employer's nose.
"Read that," he said curtly. "Read that and see if you can't use it. If you don't think so, I shall be very much mistaken."
Very slowly and carefully, Wilde read the letter which Peggy had written to Trevor Capner on the night when he had given her the agreed signal and dashed all her hopes of happiness to the ground. He read it twice before he looked up.
"Well?" Ebbsmith demanded impatiently. "Well?"
"Undoubtedly it will be useful," Wilde said in his thoughtful manner. "I can't quite see how we can turn it to account yet, but I shall before long. What are you grinning at?"
By way of reply, Ebbsmith bent down and whispered a few words in his employer's ear. Gradually a slow smile spread over Wilde's face, a smile of appreciation.
"Now, really, that is a great thought," he said. "One moment. Yes, I begin to see. Don't interrupt."
With that, Wilde propelled his chair across to the fireplace, and, bending over sideways, glanced up the wide, open chimney. Then he proceeded to open the big powder closets on either side. Once he had done this, he came to his desk and Ebbsmith could judge from the expression on his face that he had come to some important decision.
"Yes, I think you're right, James," he said. "But there will be two points to consider. I don't want anybody in this except you and myself. There is no third party I can trust, but I think, with a little rehearsing, that the business can be managed. The lawyers say time is the essence of the contract. When I say time, I mean that you and I must have two watches that exactly tally. Then we must have a kind of Bradshaw's guide worked out to the minutest detail, one copy of which you will keep and the other will be locked up in my desk."
"So you think it is a real brain wave?" Ebbsmith asked.
"I do, James, I do. Now collect me all the radio catalogues there are in the house and let me have them at once."
The sunny days went on and May had given way to a glorious June without a single word or trace of the missing airman. He was given up for good now, and never likely to be heard of again. In a way, this state of things might be said to favour Roy Manthon; but, to do him justice, he was not thinking of himself at all. He was thinking of nothing but Peggy's happiness and her future. And, as the days went on, and certain ominous signs forced themselves on his notice, he became more and more anxious as to the outcome of Peggy's rather mysterious friendship with Sebastian Wilde.
Outwardly, at least, there seemed to be no harm in it, but Manthon was convinced that there was something going on behind the scenes, which he would have to fathom, if Peggy was ever to be brought back to peace and happiness again.
And, strangely enough, he was confirmed in his impressions by no less a person than Miss Bancroft. She was about the last person in the world who he would have expected to see anything that was going on more than a foot in front of her nose, because that genial and kindly old lady was by no means of an observant nature, and always hopelessly inclined to think the very best of everybody. Nevertheless, it was she who, rather timidly, introduced Sebastian Wilde's name. She was sitting in the drawing-room at Long Elm, chatting with Manthon, who had come over in response to a telephone message from Peggy, who wanted his advice with regard to something that had gone wrong with her wireless set. Manthon was almost as expert in radio matters as Trevor Capner had been, so that when some little irregularity had manifested itself, Peggy had not hesitated to send for him. She happened to be out just at the moment of his arrival, so he sat there in the big, pleasant drawing-room, chatting with Miss Bancroft and waiting Peggy's return.
The elderly lady looked up presently with a sudden fire of resolution in her kindly eyes.
"Roy," she said earnestly, "I am troubled in my mind. It is about Peggy. I dare say you will think that I am an imaginative old woman, but that is not altogether true."
"I am perfectly sure it isn't," Manthon smiled. "Your worst enemy would not call you imaginative. What is the matter? What are you afraid of?"
"Ah," Miss Bancroft sighed. "I wish I could tell you. It may possibly be nothing but an old woman's fancy, but it is not that, Roy, it isn't that. Of course, you will argue that Peggy has been through a terribly trying time lately, and, of course, that is quite true. But at one time she was so normal, and now I am beginning to feel frightened. There is something going on between her and Mr. Wilde."
Manthon repressed a start. Strange, he thought, that this placid old lady should have jumped to the same conclusion as himself. And yet it was quite plain to him that Miss Bancroft had nothing definite to go on.
"Can't you go a bit further than that?" he asked.
"Well, no, I can't," Miss Bancroft replied. "Oh, don't you understand what I mean? Peggy's grief is not of the ordinary type. Girls have lost their lovers before now, and, after the first wild outburst of sorrow, have become reconciled to the inevitable. One might have expected that from Peggy, but it isn't there. She has strange moods of depression, followed by hours of exaltation. And these always come on after she has been to Monkshole. What do you make of Mr. Wilde? I know he is a great man and that he has a wonderful brain. But does he strike you as altogether—well—honourable?"
"Well, I am bound to confess that I have seen nothing to the contrary, so far," Manthon admitted. "Do you mean to say that Peggy is in the habit of paying Wilde secret visits?"
"Well, perhaps secret is not exactly the right word to use," Miss Bancroft went on. "But I do know she goes to Monkshole frequently and says nothing about it afterwards. Now, that is so unlike Peggy. If I ask her where she has been, she makes some vague reply, then her eyes begin to glow and her cheeks to flush like a girl who is seeing things. What the Scotch call fey. And one night recently, Peggy was out very late. She didn't come in till after twelve. She doesn't know I am aware of that, because I didn't tell her; but it is true, all the same. I wish you would talk to her and try and bring her round to a rational frame of mind. I am very disturbed about her. If she goes on like this, I shall begin to fear for her sanity."
To all of which Manthon listened with deep uneasiness. There was something going on here and he was not going to be satisfied until he got to the bottom of it. With his scanty knowledge, he could not argue that there was anything morally wrong with Professor Wilde; but, at the same time, the man was gaining a strong influence over a young girl who was still smarting under her terrible loss.
"That is all you can tell me?" Manthon asked.
"All but one thing," Miss Bancroft said almost in a whisper. "You know that Peggy is her own mistress, and that she has the command of something like ten thousand a year. And I think you must be aware that Mr. Wilde is anything but a rich man. Supposing that he had enlisted Peggy's aid in financing one of those wonderful discoveries of his, he is always hinting at. That would not be absolutely dishonest, and at the same time, would not be very honourable, would it?"
"No, I don't think it would," Manthon agreed. "I know that Wilde is an inventor of outstanding genius, which means that his mind is concentrated upon his work to the exclusion of everything else. And I never knew an inventor yet who had all the money he wanted. Inventors are notoriously poor, and the poorer they are, the more ambitious. Have you any reason to suppose that Peggy has helped him financially?"
"Not definitely," Miss Bancroft said. "But I should not be surprised to find that Mr. Wilde has had more than one sum of money from Peggy. Can't you find out?"
Manthon shook his head doubtfully. "I will do the best I can," he said. "Leave it to me for the moment and I will sound Peggy on the subject."
He had his opportunity half an hour later when he found himself in Peggy's private siting-room examining her elaborate wireless set. It was a heterodyne six, with all the latest improvements, and it had been a veritable labour of love on Capner's part to construct it. At the end of an hour, it seemed to Manthon that he had discovered where the fault lay.
"I think it is this power valve," he said. "Yes, I am pretty sure it is. It seems to me that the filament has worked loose. Yes, that is right. I suppose you haven't a spare one in the house?"
Peggy shook her head.
"I haven't," she said. "Poor Trevor told me that I need not worry about my valves for the next year or so. I don't suppose you can lend me one?"
"No, I can't," Manthon said. "But I will tell you what I will do. I will get the car out presently and run over to Marchwick and see my friend Sam Purchase."
"And who may he be?" Peggy asked.
"Oh, don't you know Sam Purchase? I thought you would have heard of him from poor old Trevor. He is the leading optician in Marchwick and his hobby is wireless. He is one of those broadcasting amateurs to whom radio owes so much. I suppose he has the finest transmitting set in the south of England. As I said just now, Purchase is an optician, but he neglects his business for wireless. If it wasn't for that side of his shop he would very soon be in the bankruptcy court. A clever little man, but a visionary, all the same. He is pretty sure to have one of those power valves, because he stocks practically everything connected with radio. Anyway, I will run over there presently and see what I can do."
"That is awfully kind of you," Peggy smiled. "You don't know how I miss my set when anything goes wrong. I dare say it sounds foolish to you, but on those nights when 2LO transmits dance music from the Royal Thames Hotel, I like to sit in my bedroom with the set switched on there and listen to the band to which Trevor and myself used to dance in the days which will never come back again."
Manthon saw his chance and rose to it.
"Isn't that rather morbid?" he suggested.
"Morbid," Peggy echoed. "Why morbid?"
"Oh, well, I don't know. I hope you won't think me unfeeling, but it doesn't do for a girl of your age and temperament to dwell too much on the past. Look here, Peggy, you and I have known one another for years and are very good friends. You are young yet; you have youth and health and beauty and a large fortune of your own. More than that, you have probably many years to live. Don't you think that your advantages altogether outweigh your troubles? Listen to me. Put these morbid thoughts out of your mind. Go back to your outdoor sports again. You haven't played a game of tennis or golf for weeks. It is wrong of you to sit at home and mope as you do. More than that, it is downright cowardly."
Peggy flushed up to the roots of her hair.
"Cowardly," she cried. "Cowardly?"
"Yes, certainly," Manthon went on. "The luxury of grief is always cowardly, not to say selfish. You are making yourself unhappy, but it doesn't end there, because you make everybody else unhappy as well. You may say it is no business of mine, and, to all practical purposes, it isn't. But if I were you, I should turn my back on Sebastian Wilde and have nothing more to do with him. He is not good for you."
"You don't know what you are talking about," Peggy said with passionate intenseness. "How should you? Mr. Sebastian Wilde is the greatest comfort I have. He is a wonderful man; I don't think there is a man in the world who knows as much. He can show you things people don't dream of."
"So can any conjurer," Manthon said grimly. "So can any pseudo-spiritualistic medium. Ah, so that is it."
Peggy had changed colour again and showed certain signs of confusion. Then she faced Manthon resolutely.
"It isn't spiritualism, or anything like it," she said. "Look here, Roy, let me speak quite plainly. I sent poor Trevor to his death. You need not shake your head, because it is true. If I had put my senseless pride in my pocket and asked Trevor to place me in front of everything else, he would have done so. It might have cost him a deal of his self-respect, but he would not have hesitated. And before he went I felt in my very bones that the flight was going to end in disaster. And yet you ask me why I am unhappy, and why I consider nobody but myself. It is because I want to find happiness for everybody that I am not going to be deterred by anything you say with regard to Mr. Wilde. If I can't find the light without his help, then I am indeed lost."
With Peggy in this frame of mind, it was useless to say any more. Very reluctantly, Manthon dropped the subject and left the house with the defective valve in his pocket.
Manthon drove his car slowly and thoughtfully along the twenty miles of road that intervened between Lincombe and the prosperous and respectable cathedral city of Marchwick, where, thirty odd years ago, he had been born.
In those days the leading firm of solicitors in Marchwick had been Manthon and Manthon, in other words, Roy's father had been the surviving partner in a firm which had been established over a hundred years. To all practical purposes, the Manthons had been county people, and for a radius of thirty or forty miles all the leading families placed their affairs in the capable hands of Mr. Nicholas Manthon. And there, in Marchwick, almost under the shadow of the old cathedral, Roy Manthon himself had been brought up in a sort of monastic residence where the family had flourished during their long and hospitable career. In the course of time, he had gone to Winchester and, thence, back again into the office of his father with the idea of carrying on the best traditions of the house.
But almost from the first, he had turned with marked dislike from the dry study of the law. Its maxims and hair-splittings and queer, mixed logic, drove him further and further away from his intended career, so that by the time he had finished his articles and had actually signed the roll of solicitors, he had made up his mind that the law was not for him. Long before he had listened to the call of the muses and, indeed, before his twenty-first birthday, he was already regarded as one of the coming forces in imaginative literature. In other words, he was earning enough to buy the books he needed and keep himself in something like comfort. Then he had taken his courage in both hands and told his disgruntled father that the law was not for him, nor he for the law; in other words, that he was going to devote himself for the rest of his life to fiction.
It was a great blow to his father, but he took it philosophically and a partner at the same time. And when he died, not so very long after, Manthon found himself in possession of quite a handsome fortune, apart from his own increased earnings, and Marchwick knew the name of Manthon no more.
But, in a way, Roy still kept up his friendship with certain people in the ancient cathedral town, though he had long settled down in the village of Lincombe, twenty miles away. So that, when he pulled up his car in front of an old-fashioned bow-windowed shop in Marchwick High Street, he was feeling thoroughly and completely at home.
Inside, an alert little man in glasses came forward and greeted him with considerable warmth.
"Ah, Mr. Roy," he said. "Quite a pleasure to see you again. You haven't been inside my modest establishment for months. Now, what can I have the privilege of doing for you?"
Manthon produced the damaged valve from his pocket.
"I think this is the cause of the trouble, Sam," he said. "You can see what it is, a power valve, from Miss Ferris' set. Looks to me as if the filament is broken. Anyway, she can't get any reception and the rest of the set seems all right. I wonder if you can test this for me."
"That I can do in a minute," the old man smiled. "I will put it in my own set and switch over to 2LO. Let me see, oh yes. Music from the Marble Arch Pavilion. Doesn't matter much what it is, so long as we get reception."
The erring valve replaced another in the elaborate set at the back of the shop, and then followed a blurred travesty of music, with the addition of mysterious tappings and something very like distortion. Mr. Sam Purchase shook his head, as he removed the faulty valve and replaced it with his own again, after which the music came through loud and clear.
"That's it, Mr. Roy," he said. "You are quite right. The valve is practically done for."
"Yes, I thought it was," Manthon replied. "I am only too glad to know it is no worse. The point is, can you supply the deficiency?"
"Of course I can," the little man said promptly. "I flatter myself that I can meet every ordinary requirement, so far as radio is concerned. Yes, I have two or three of these valves in stock. Would you like to take one?"
Manthon took one and paid for it, and then proceeded, for the next half hour, to discuss wireless in general, after the fashion of enthusiasts when they once get together. And then, more or less by accident, the name of Wilde was introduced.
"Oh, you know him, do you?" Roy asked. "Yes, I thought you would. Does he ever come here?"
"Yes, quite frequently," Purchase explained. "In fact, he has bought several out-of-the-way appliances from me and only last week he came in with quite a large order for scientific apparatus of his own design. I don't want to seem conceited, Mr. Roy, but those blue prints Mr. Wilde brought me are most mysterious. Not that I ought to worry, because if I get my profit on the making of them, I ought to be satisfied. I suppose you happen to know Mr. Wilde quite well."
"No, I don't," Roy smiled. "As a matter of fact, nobody knows him quite well, with the possible exception of his secretary,—I mean Mr. Ebbsmith."
Purchase seemed to hesitate for a moment.
"Now, look here, sir," he said. "What I am going to say now is quite between ourselves. Would you say I should be justified in accepting that order from Mr. Wilde? You see, it runs into hundreds of pounds and he made no mention of payment on account. I am no money-grubber, sir, but I can't afford to lose what I must lose over that transaction, if I can't obtain payment from Mr. Wilde. I thought, perhaps, as he is a next-door neighbour of yours, more or less, you would be able to tell me something about his financial position."
"No, I am afraid I can't," Roy said. "I regard Sebastian Wilde as a man of outstanding intellect, who may go down to posterity amongst famous scientists. But he is not what you would call communicative; and though I have been in that strange old house of his more than once, I never feel that I am a welcome guest. If you ask me, I should say he is not particularly endowed with this world's goods. Mind you, I may be altogether wrong. He is a man who lives very simply and his establishment is run on economic lines. On the other hand, his experiments may be very costly and I have no doubt he spends vast sums on them. And that is about all I can tell you."
The little man seemed to be troubled about something.
"Perhaps I ought not to have said as much as I have done," he went on. "But I don't quite know what to do over that order. You see, I heard a rumour—which, however, is something more than a rumour—that the big Radio Power Company is suing Mr. Wilde for a large sum of money. In fact, I have been told that a writ was issued and that your old firm is acting as the local agent for the Radio Power Company's London solicitors. Of course, if this is a fact, I am likely to lose what Mr. Wilde owes me, and it would be madness on my part if I placed the big order I told you about just now. Now, sir, I have known you all your life and you know me for a straightforward man. Would you mind trying to as certain from your late father's successor whether what I have said is, or is not, true?"
"Oh, I will try, if you like," Manthon said somewhat dubiously. "It is not exactly what is called regular business; but if I can do you a good turn, I will. I will just run across to Cathedral Square and drop in at the office. I am sure Mr. Fenton will help me if he can. If there is anything doing, I will come back and let you know."
Roy turned presently to the office of Messrs. Manthon and Fenton, where a few moments later, he succeeded in obtaining an interview with a florid, rather sporting-looking individual who had taken his place in the flourishing business that his father, at one time, had hoped to hand over to him. Without any beating about the bush, he came straight to the point and asked for the information which he desired.
"Oh, well, I don't see why I shouldn't tell you," Fenton said. "It is common property in the office. From what you say it seems to be common property all over the city. Anyway, Sam Purchase is a very decent chap and is by way of being a bit of a client of ours. So, if I can prevent him from losing any more money than he has already lost——"
"Then what Purchase said was correct, eh?"
"Yes, my boy, yes. You see, a writ was issued against Wilde by the Radio Power Company and, in the course of time, judgement was signed. You know what that means."
"Yes; you are in a position to levy execution at any moment. And as your firm is, at the moment, acting as Clerk to the Shrievealty you are in a position to take possession and levy execution at Monkshole at once."
"I see you have not forgotten all your law," Fenton grinned. "As a matter of fact, you have stated the case perfectly correctly. We are in a position to levy an execution when we please. That means that I have already handed over the necessity authority to the High Bailiff of the County Court here and I suppose they will put a man in possession forthwith."
"Quite so, and that man will remain in possession for eight days, or until the exact amount of debt and costs is paid. Failing that, there will be a sale at Monkshole. Please tell me if I am wrong. I dare say you will wonder why I am concerned in the matter. I can't explain for the moment, because the subject wants rather delicate handling. Still, I have got a bit of a brain wave, and if it is on a sound basis, then I think I can help my old friend Sam Purchase, and—er—somebody else at the same time. I wonder if you could manage to find out for me the name of the man who is employed by the High Bailiff to carry through the execution. Can you do that?"
"Well, of course I can," Fenton said reluctantly. "But you are asking me to play it rather low down, eh?"
"My dear chap," Manthon said seriously. "There is a good deal more hanging to this than you imagine. Now, do please give me your assistance."
"Very well," Fenton replied.
With that, he picked up the telephone on his desk and called a certain number on the local exchange. After few seconds' conversation, he replaced the instrument and turned with a smile on his face to his companion.
"There you are," he said. "That's done. I don't in the least know how it is going to help you, or why you should be interested in the type of broken humanity that isn't ashamed to find employment in the—er—profession of what is vulgarly known as a bum-bailiff. But the man whom you seem to be so anxious about is a queer local character who rejoices in the appropriate name of Joe Biddle."
"You don't say so?" Manthon exclaimed. "Joe Biddle, poacher of fish, fur and feather, once in the British Army and the holder of a Military Medal. Gracious me, Joe was in our battalion in France. He was one of my disreputable companions in the days when I was mad on birds' nesting. A man, who, if he had had a little education, might have done pretty well anything. I suppose you can't tell me where I can find him."
"'Fraid I can't," the lawyer smiled. "I am not particularly interested in what the late General Booth used to call the submerged tenth; but if you are anxious to find this man Biddle, I suggest that you should comb some of the public-houses in the east end, across the river."
Manthon thanked his successor and departed upon what proved to be rather a long errand. It was a good three hours later before he ran his man to earth, in a small beer-house. Biddle was seated in solitary state in a sort of apology for a bar, gazing gloomily at an empty tankard. There was nobody else there at the moment, so that Manthon could speak freely.
"Well, Joe," he said. "I dare say you are surprised to see me here, but the fact is I have a job of work for you."
Mr. Joe Biddle stood up and touched the peak of his dingy cap. He was a middle-aged man, tough, and wiry and more than a little inclined to run to seed. But he had an alert and observant eye and a certain meed of intelligence, both of which are necessary attributes to a successful poacher.
"I am very glad to hear that, Master Roy," he said. "Leastwise, I beg your pardon, sir, I ought to have said Mr. Manthon. But, Lor' bless you, sir, it only seems yesterday as you was a boy and that keen on fur and feather as never was. You mind the time we found that hawk's nest in Squire Thornton's spinney? And that day on the river when I teached you 'ow to snare trout with a bit of piany wire?"
"That's all right, Joe," Manthon said. "I have not forgotten. But I am afraid that you were but an ill companion for an innocent youth like myself, though I did enjoy those illicit expeditions of ours."
"Aye, that you did, sir," Biddle went on. "And I never did you no 'arm in any other way. And I never seen the inside of a jail unless it was a conviction for poaching. And, to my mind, that don't count. But, look here, sir, what's the like of a gentleman like yourself doing in a dirty little beer-house like this? Why, I wouldn't come 'ere myself if I wasn't 'ard up. Real broke, I am. But thank the Lord I've got a job for to-morrow that will keep me going till something turn up."
"So I understand," Manthon said. "Am I right in supposing your job is going to take you out as far as Lincombe?"
"Why, that's right, sir," Biddle said in some surprise. "But how you come to know that beats me."
"Never mind how I come to know it. Is it a fact that you are going to Lincombe to-morrow to spend a few days with a neighbour of mine whose name happens to be Sebastian Wilde?"
"That's right, sir," Biddle agreed. "But look here, Mr. Roy, I ain't no talker where business is concerned. That's why I keeps my job with the County Court people, because they know I've got a silent tongue in me 'ead. Of course, lots and lots of people in Marchwick know Joe Biddle, the bum-bailiff, and when you see 'im setting out with 'is best clothes on, you wants to know where 'e is going. Partly curiosity and partly because there is some satisfaction in hearing about the troubles and worries of one's next-door neighbour."
"That is quite right, Joe," Manthon agreed. "Your sentiment is a sound one and has been expressed in rather better language by a sardonic philosopher who died two or three centuries ago. And though I am not in the least interested in the misfortunes of my neighbours, I have some very good reasons for wanting all the information I can get as to the interior economy of Monkshole."
"Lor', Mr. Roy, 'ow nice you do talk to be sure," Joe said admiringly. "Comes as pat to you as kiss me 'and. I suppose all you novel-writing gentlemen are alike. And it so 'appens I can tell you a lot about Monkshole."
"Do you mean to say you have been there before?"
"Three times altogether," Joe said. "And nobody none the wiser for it. Three times I've been sent out by the County Court to levy an execution at Monkshole and three times the money 'as been paid. Once within twenty-four hours, but the other times not before a week 'ad elapsed."
"That is rather surprising," Manthon said. "I was quite under the impression that, in a village like Lincombe, that sort of thing would be known within a few minutes."
"And so it would, sir, if Monkshole were an ordinary house'old. But then, it ain't. There's Mr. Wilde and that india-rubber man wot 'e calls 'is secretary. Most mysterious bloke is Mr James Ebbsmith. Comes and goes like a shadow. In London one day and down at Lincombe the next. Then there's a man and 'is wife wot's the most silent couple I ever come across. Not a word can you get out of either of them. I ought to know because I lived in the kitchen with them for a fortnight, on and off, and I don't suppose we changed twenty words the whole time."
"Still I suppose they made you comfortable?"
"In a sense, yes, sir. They rig me up a bedroom on the ground floor and serve my meals regular. No animosity, you must understand, but just looking at me as wot people calls a necessary evil. You see, all I 'ave to do is to stay in the 'ouse till the mony's paid or the auctioneer comes along to sell up. My business is to see that nothing goes off the premises, though I've known occasions when I've bin badly done in the eye that way. Not that it worries me much, because a chap working single'anded and rather fond of a good night's sleep can't be playin' watch dog all the time. You see, it is more or less a matter of form."
"Yes, I suppose it is," Roy said thoughtfully. "But I suppose you get out sometimes, don't you?"
"Why, yes, sir. Just pottering about the grounds not very far out of sight of the 'ouse. Must get a mouthful of fresh air now and again. But what do you want——"
"I am just coming to that," Manthon interrupted. "Now, listen to me, Joe. I know you feel sure that I won't ask you to do anything wrong, but there are reasons, very urgent reasons, why I should know a great deal of what is going on in Monkshole. According to your own showing, you may be there for a day or you may be there for a week. If for the longer period, so much the better. Now, do you think you could smuggle me into the house? I mean some time after dark."
Biddle looked a little dubiously at the speaker.
"I am not saying as 'ow I couldn't, sir," he said. "But it would have to be pretty late, and if anything came out about it then I'd lose my job to a certainty. You might say it ain't much of a job, but it's beter'n the work'ouse or goin' on the dole, especially in the winter time, when things are quiet."
"I think we shall be able to put that all right," said Manthon. "If you suffer over this business, I will see that you are none the worse off for it. Now, tell me, did you ever notice anything particularly strange at Monkshole?"
Mr. Joe Biddle paused for some considerable time.
"No, I can't say I did," he said. "Only sort of mysterious goings on. Mr. Wilde, 'e pushes 'isself all about the 'ouse in 'is chair and comes on you sometimes like a ghost. But he spends most of 'is time in the big library that's full of books. Over the library is a great loft which, at one time formed part of a tower. And in this loft there's all sorts of extraordinary machinery. Wheels and shafts and all that sort of thing like so many cobwebs. Sort of place you might dream about. I was up there once when Mr. Ebbsmith was away in London and Mr. Wilde was down in the village. Mere curiosity on my part, that was. It was curiosity as got Mrs. Bluebeard into trouble. You gets up in the loft with a ladder. Course, I 'ad to be careful, 'cause I'd no business in that part of the 'ouse, though I dare say I might 'ave got way with it if I'd been discovered."
"I know most of what you have already told me," Manthon said. "I have been in the library, where I do remember seeing a light ladder leaning against one of the walls. All the same, I didn't connect it with that loft overhead. I had not the remotest idea there was such a place. So that is where Mr. Wilde works, is it? But how on earth does a man who is paralysed in his lower limbs manage to get up a ladder?"
"Ah, there you are askin' me a question, sir," Biddle grinned. "I don't know whether Ebbsmith carries the old gentleman up on 'is back or not, but I am perfectly certain as Mr. Wilde 'as got some way of getting up aloft. Besides, Ebbsmith doesn't understand much about machinery."
"Are you quite sure of that, Joe?"
"Well, pretty certain, sir. One night when I was prowling about the 'ouse after the servants 'ad gone to bed, I 'eard them two talking in the library."
"Oh, you did, did you? And what were you doing?"
"Well, I don't tell you no lies, sir," Biddle said candidly. "I was lookin' for something to smoke. Thought I might be able to lay me 'and on a packet of fags, perhaps. And I did, in the dining-room. However, that 'as nothing to do with it. Those two was talking and Mr. Wilde 'e was trying to explain to Ebbsmith some sort of a gadget 'e wanted the india-rubber man to bring 'im back from town. And 'e couldn't make 'im realise at all what was needed. So Mr. Wilde, 'e calls for a pencil and a bit o' paper and makes a drawing. At least, I suppose 'e did, but I 'eard enough to convince me that Ebbsmith wasn't no use as far as that machinery was concerned."
"Well, never mind about that for the moment," Manthon went on. "When are you going to Monkshole?"
"I catches the 9.45 to-morrow morning and goes straight there," Biddle explained. "It's just possible that I might get paid to-morrow and then where should we be?"
"I rather think that depends upon the amount," Manthon said. "How much is the execution for?"
Biddle explained that the levy was for something over four hundred pounds, including costs. It was the largest sum for which execution was issued against Wilde, and the bailiff rather expected that Monkshole would supply him with quarters for a week. More than that, he could not possibly say.
"Oh, very well," Manthon remarked. "I am afraid we shall have to leave a certain amount to chance. Now, look here, Joe, suppose we say to-morrow night or the next night, not long before twelve o'clock? I mean that I shall be not very far off the front door at Monkshole at that time, and if you can come out and meet me, so much the better."
"I can do all that easy enough, sir," Biddle responded. "Unless the old gentleman is very interested in some particular experiment, 'e goes to 'is room pretty early where 'e is undressed by that bloomin' manservant of 'is. Once that's done, of course 'e's safe for the night. And then, again, Ebbsmith is away two or three days a week. If I am lucky enough to find a night when Mr. Wilde retires early and Ebbsmith 'appens to be off the premises, I can let you know. My bedroom is on the ground floor and was used at one time as an indoor lavatory. There's a little window by the side of the porch. If there's a light in that window, then you'll know that there's something afoot; if there isn't, then you can go back 'ome again. Now, what do you say to that little arrangement, sir?"
"Excellent," Manthon agreed. "All right, Joe. And here's a Treasury note for you to go on with."
Sebastian Wilde was seated at the big library table over a mass of figures and calculations when the gloomy manservant entered and stood waiting for his employer to look up.
"Well, what is it?" Wilde growled. "Why do you come worrying me like this now, Fish?"
The man addressed as Fish showed no sort of feeling as he jerked his thumb over his left shoulder.
"It's that man come back again, sir," he said. "That man Biddle from Marchwick."
Something like an oath burst from Wilde's lips. Just for a moment, his philosophic calm deserted him entirely and a spasm of rage gripped and distorted his features.
"So soon," he muttered. "So soon. I wrote and asked those people to give me another week. They might have known I could have paid them in that time, as I did before. However, fetch the man here and let me speak to him."
Biddle shuffled rather furtively into the library and cast an apologetic glance at the angry scientist.
"Very sorry, sir," he muttered. "Much rather be somewhere else, sir, but chaps like me ain't got much choice. It's that wireless company. Comes to over four hundred pounds. Of course, if you like to give me a cheque for the money——"
"To the devil with you and the company," Wilde cried. "Of course, I can't give you a cheque. You know perfectly well. But why should I blame you, my man? Go and find Fish and ask him to make you as comfortable as he can, because you are likely to be here for the best part of a week."
Biddle departed without any further words and not entirely displeased to hear that his sojourn in Monkshole was likely to last for some considerable time. As he turned into the hall, he encountered Ebbsmith, who grinned knowingly.
"Hello, my friend," said the latter. "So you're here again."
"That's right, sir," Biddle said cheerfully.
Ebbsmith waited for no more, but walked into the library and closed the door carefully behind him.
"Isn't this rather awkward, guv'nor?" he asked.
"Awkward," Wilde echoed. "It is a calamity. I would not have had this happen just at this moment for any money. I suppose we can't get rid of the fellow?"
"No, we can't," Ebbsmith said, grimly. "There is practically nothing in the bank and, for the moment, no prospect of raiding a five-pound note. Of course, there is always the chance that something may turn up from London.
"A broken reed," Wilde muttered. "Here am I, tied down by this cursed trouble of mine when I ought to be up and doing. I tell you, that money must be found. Of course, this man is only a mere country bumpkin who can't see a foot beyond his nose; but, all the same, he is a peril in the house just now. Is there nothing you can suggest, James?"
"Several things," Ebbsmith said. "But nothing very practicable. What about our young friend Miss Ferris?"
Wilde brought his hand down with a crash on the table.
"No," he cried. "A thousand times no. The thing would be absolute madness."
"Can't say I see it," Ebbsmith retorted. "If you asked her for a monkey, she would let you have it like a shot."
"Of course she would," Wilde said scornfully, "or probably double the amount. But how long would it be before that man Manthon found out all about it? I tell you, he is a live danger to us. He suspects me and he suspects you and he is over head and ears in love with Miss Ferris. Some of these days he expects to take the unfortunate Capner's place, and he will probably succeed in doing so. He already guesses that I have some sort of an influence over the girl, and his instinct tells him that it is not for her good. Of course, she is very beautiful and rich and all that, but she is an impressionable and romantic little fool and transparent as the day. If I borrowed money from her, as you suggest, Manthon would know all about it within a week. And then what would he do?"
"Well what could he possibly do?"
"I will tell you," Wilde snarled. "I will tell you. You may regard Manthon as a careless, easy-going scribbler who lives in his books and doesn't worry about outside matters, but you are quite wrong. That man not only has a brilliant intellect but he possesses an uncanny insight into other people's minds. He has never said a word, or given a sign that he mistrusts me, but I know he does. And I know that he is watching the relations between Miss Ferris and myself as a cat watches a mouse. If I did help myself to her money, then it would not be long before Manthon was in London enquiring into my past. And I don't want that, my friend; I don't want that."
"It would be awkward, wouldn't it?" Ebbsmith grinned.
"Yes, and it would be equally awkward for you," Wilde retorted. "James Ebbsmith, contortionist and conjurer. Also an old jail-bird with convictions against him on the Continent and in America. James Ebbsmith, whom the Chicago police would be very pleased to interview. Oh, you needn't answer back, because neither of us can afford to throw stones. And some of these days, if all goes well, the name of Sebastian Wilde will ring all round the world. Never mind about my past. I am one of the greatest living scientists, James, and you know it. I have brooded over those discoveries of mine for years and, so far, I have been able to finance them without going to the business world where the capitalists would have wanted half the credit and nine-tenths of the profits. How that financing was done is only known to you and me. And when the big thing is ready, then we shall be the two richest men in the world. But don't you ask me to ruin everything for the sake of a few paltry hundreds when success is practically in my grasp. It may be one of these days that Miss Ferris will be my financial partner; but when she is, it won't be for a beggarly four hundred pounds, but something much more like fifty thousand. No, James, we must get out of this mess as we have done before. You had better go to London to-morrow and see what can be done, whilst I shall not be altogether idle at this end. If I have to take a risk, I will do so. And I think I can see my way to getting hold of a thousand or so by the end of the week. Meanwhile, you had better go to London and see if anything is doing there. If there is, give me a ring on the telephone. And, whatever you do, before you go, have a look at that chronometer watch in my bedroom and set your own by it exactly."
Ebbsmith grinned appreciatively.
"Oh, it's one of those stunts, is it?" he asked.
"Needs must when the devil drives," Wilde growled. "I hate that sort of thing myself, it is so mean and paltry. Just the sort of trick you were up to when we first came in contact with one another. All very well to tide over a little difficulty, but no use where big business is concerned."
"Yes, but deuced useful when an imaginative young woman is concerned. What an extraordinary chap you are, Wilde! In some respects, utterly unscrupulous. And yet so frequently making two bites at a cherry. If I didn't know you as well as I do, I should say you were in love with Miss Ferris."
Wilde's face blazed angrily.
"Well, suppose I am," he demanded. "Would there be anything very wonderful in that? I may be a cripple, but my infirmity is not due to natural causes, but is entirely due to that business many years ago in South Africa. Apart from that, I am as good a man as you are, and better. And I have all the average man's natural feelings and impulses. Miss Ferris is a charming and delightful girl and would be a splendid match for anybody, even if she hadn't a penny in the world. But, you see, she has a great many pennies in the world, and that makes all the difference. If I had a fortune of my own, there would not be a single individual who could hold a reproachful finger at me. If I could carry out my big schemes without the help of the woman we are talking about, then I would make a great many sacrifices to do so. But I am not going to sit on my hind legs like a dog and beg coppers from her. Oh, I can influence her, I know. She will listen to everything I have to say; but so far, I am not sure, I am not sure. Given time, she will come to me with open hands and offer me anything I need, and that is what I am waiting for. I want her to be my willing partner, not my foolish dupe. After that, if all goes well, and I can stand out as the greatest scientist of all ages, it will be my privilege to take her by the hand and introduce her to two continents as the woman who believed in Sebastian Wilde and helped him to reach the summit of his ambition."
Wilde paused and glanced at his companion. He had poured out the words in a wild cascade, during which he had climbed into his chair and propelled himself furiously round and round the library, almost as if he were trying to get away from himself and his own troubled thoughts. And Ebbsmith looking at him, could not withhold a meed of admiration.
"Well, perhaps there is a good deal in what you say," he admitted. "But it is infernally dangerous, all the same. Now what is the next move?"
"At this end, do you mean?" Wilde asked. "Well, I think you can leave that to me. You go to London to-day and do your best with the people up there. If I want you back, I will telephone. If I don't, stay where you are. I may possibly send you a parcel by registered post in a day or two, and, if so, you will know what to do with the contents."
Ebbsmith nodded curtly and departed. An hour later, he was on his way to London in Wilde's runabout car.
His business in Marchwick having been concluded, Manthon turned his car thoughtfully in the direction of Lincombe and made his way homewards. He had a good deal to occupy his attention, and he was still brooding over the problem that lay before him, when he was passing the iron gates that led up to the abode of his friends the Fabers.
Just as he was slipping by the lodge, Basil Faber came out into the road and held up his hand.
"The very man I want to see," he said in his breezy way. "I tried to get you on the telephone an hour or two ago, but I was told that you were in Marchwick. If you are not in any hurry, I wish you would step inside. You see, Maud would like to have a word or two with you about Peggy Ferris."
"Very well," Manthon said. "I will just run the car inside the gate, if you don't mind, and then we will discuss the matter together. As a matter of fact, I am just as uneasy about Peggy as anybody else."
Faber led the way into the house, but he did not linger in the drawing-room, as Manthon expected, explaining to the latter that he had an appointment in the village and that Maud would be able to speak for both of them. Maud rose and extended a very friendly hand to Manthon. They were old acquaintances and old playfellows and, up to a certain point, there was a perfect understanding between them.
"Well, what is it you want?" Manthon asked, after Faber had left the room. "Anything I can do, Maud?"
Maud Faber nodded her curly head emphatically.
"I think you can do a great deal," she said. "Do you know, Roy, I hardly know how to put it. It is very awkward indeed. I want to speak plainly and yet, if I do, you may mistake my meaning. But I am acting for the best."
"Of that I am perfectly sure," Roy said earnestly. "Please go on. And speak as candidly as you like."
Something like a wave of colour crept into Maud's cheeks and in her blue eyes there was a depth of expression which moved Manthon strangely. Hitherto, he had only known Maud as a happy, sunny, outdoor girl, who revelled in sport and frankly preferred the company of men to that of her own sex. A sort of charming boy, with a boy's open, engaging smile and a frank manner that was not without its own peculiar charm.
But now she was presenting to Manthon's startled gaze an entirely new Maud altogether. He was asking himself vaguely why he had, hitherto, failed to notice what a really lovely and attractive girl she was. If anybody had asked him an hour or two before if Maud Faber was beautiful, he would have denied it more or less emphatically. But not now.
"We have always been the best of friends, Roy," Maud said, with a peculiar thrill in her voice. "And I think I know you rather better than you know me. Now, tell me as one friend to another, how long you have been in love with Peggy Ferris?"
"Love with Peggy Ferris," Manthon stammered. "You don't mean to say you have noticed anything——"
"My dear boy, it is as plain, yes, as plain as the nose on my face. At least, most women would guess your secret if they ever saw you two together. But, never mind, Roy, I don't want to make things any harder for you than they are."
"I am not going to deny it," Roy said, under his breath. "I suppose you have some good reason for this—this——"
"Impertinence," Maud smiled. "You might just as well say it. At any rate, you must be thinking so."
"I assure you I am not," Manthon said eagerly. "And I am equally sure that you have some good reason for speaking so plainly. Go on—I am interrupting you."
"I hardly know how to," Maud said. "And yet somebody must prevent you from ruining your life. I mean, you must realise that your feelings for Peggy are absolutely hopeless. If my brother had spoken to you like this, you would only have lost your temper with him and that is why I have had to interfere. And it is hopeless, Roy. I have known Peggy ever since we were little girls together, and where her affections are concerned, she never changes. She is not that sort of woman. She gave all that she had to Trevor Capner and, for his sake, she will never marry. I don't say she might not have done so, if Trevor had died in any other fashion; but she is quite convinced that she sent him to his death and that his blood is on her head. This may sound a wild sort of statement, but Peggy believes if from the bottom of her heart. We shall never induce her to take any other view. But we can try and shake her out of her morbid state. It is our duty to do so. It rests with us to show her that life is not all dust and ashes, but that if she gives herself a proper chance there are many happy years before her. Yes, Roy, and many happy years before you, if you will only take a grip on yourself and realise that Peggy is not for you. Oh, my dear boy, it almost frightens me to talk like this. I don't know what you must think of me, because it is almost as if I was throwing myself at your head and reminding you that there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it. But it isn't that Roy, is isn't that. I want to help, I ache to help."
"But what can we do?" Manthon asked.
For a moment or two Maud was silent. Manthon could see that she was shaken to the centre of her soul, and that she was moved to the depths by what appeared, on the surface, to be something at once bold and unmaidenly. But then, he had only to glance into the depths of those eloquent blue eyes to realise that no thought of self was actuating her.
"Well, I thought you might help me in that respect," Maud went on. "Peggy has got into a very despondent mood and there are moments when I fear for her sanity. We must not let her go on like this. We must take her out of herself, make her play tennis and golf again. You see what mean. Now, look here, Roy, I went over to see her this afternoon to try and persuade her to come here to-morrow night and dine with us. She wouldn't say yes and she wouldn't say no. Would you mind calling on your way past her house and adding your entreaties to mine? Do your utmost to get her here, to-morrow evening and bring her with you in the car."
Manthon gave the desired promise readily enough, and went on his way homeward. He stopped, as promised, at Long Elms, and went into the drawing-room there where Peggy was listlessly playing with a book which she was pretending to read.
"So you have got back," she said indifferently.
"As you see," Manthon smiled. "I went into Marchwick on your business and I discovered, as I expected, that there was something wrong with the power valve on your set. Sam Purchase tested it in my presence, and proved it to be defective. So I took the liberty of getting you a new one."
"That is very good of you," Peggy said with a cold indifference that caused Manthon a certain irritation. He had never felt that feeling towards her before, and it rather astonished him. "But why did you take all that trouble?"
"Well, I don't know," Manthon said. "I thought it would please you. You don't mean to tell me that you have lost all interest in your wireless?"
"Well, perhaps not," Peggy admitted. "Of course not. I missed it last night, I missed it because—but I don't see why I should speak about that to anybody."
"Now, look here, Peggy," Manthon said, keeping his temper with an effort. "It is perfectly ridiculous for you to go on in this way. You asked me to do my best to put your set right, and, after all the trouble I have taken to do so, you assume an air of indifference which is rather ungrateful, to say the least of it. Why do you treat me like this?"
"Oh, I don't know," Peggy cried. "Something seems to have altered me altogether. When I sent Trevor to his death in the cruel way which I did——"
"Absolute nonsense," Manthon declared. "You did nothing of the sort. You may have acted very rashly and foolishly, but really you have nothing to blame yourself for. And if you have no consideration for yourself, you might have some for your friends. There is your aunt, Miss Bancroft, worrying herself into her grave over you, and Faber and his sister talking about nothing else. Do you know what will happen to you unless you abandon your present dangerous introspection?"
"I am sure I don't know," Peggy sighed.
"Then let me tell you. You will finish in a lunatic asylum. A prey to melancholia and an object of pity for everybody about you. You with all your beauty and grace and charm, your youth and your wealth, to finish like that! The mere thought of it is impossible. You might as well take the veil and spend the rest of your life in some convent."
For the first time since her early childhood Manthon saw the spectacle of Peggy in tears.
"I—I am very sorry," he stammered.
"It isn't that," Peggy sobbed. "I know you are speaking for my own good, and I don't resent it in the least. But I am haunted, Roy, I am haunted."
"Haunted? What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that I am haunted by a phantom car."
"A phantom car? What on earth is the girl talking about? What car? Whose car? When?"
"Perhaps I had better tell you the story," Peggy went on more calmly. "When Trevor went to Town to settle the matter one way or another with the Air Board, his intention was to get back late the same night and let me know what had happened. Of course, it would be too late for him to call and see me, so he said, if he got out of his flight, he would give three blasts on his Klaxon horn and six blasts if he had agreed to undertake the journey that cost him his life. So I lay awake and listened. It was very late when the signal came, and, when it did come, it was six long-drawn notes on that peculiarly cracked horn. You know it as well as I do, Roy; you have heard it hundreds of times. But it seemed to strike on my heart like a death knell. It was the end of all my hope and all my happiness. I ought, perhaps, to have seen Trevor the next morning, but I declined to do so, and he went off by an early train and we never met again."
"But surely it doesn't haunt you," Roy cried.
"But it does, it does," Peggy said, in a small, still voice. "I have heard that mysterious horn more than once—yes, more than ten times during the last month. Sometimes in the afternoon and sometimes at night when I am listening to dance music from one of the London hotels. The sound of the horn cuts through as clear as a bell. And when it does so, I know that Trevor is calling me from somewhere on the other side. It is a sign that he has a message to deliver to me, and until he can deliver that message, then his soul will never rest, nor will mine. No, Roy, it is not imagination, the haunted car is there, and there it will be till the end of time."
Manthon stared hopelessly at Peggy. There was no doubt in her belief in the matter of the haunted car, or of the sincerity with which she told her story.
"There must be some explanation," he said. "Peggy, will you let me try and find it for you?"
"Oh, I only wish you could," Peggy cried. "But there is no explanation. You may laugh, Roy, you may analyse this business as much as you like, but you will never convince me that I am not face to face with the supernatural."
"Well," Roy said, with an effort at cheerfulness. "Perhaps not. But, at any rate, I can try. And you will make an effort, won't you? It is no use my devoting all my energies to this strange business, if you are going to let yourself go. And, at any rate, you will dine with the Fabers to-morrow night, won't you?"
"If you wish it, I will," Peggy agreed. "You can call for me in the car at about seven o'clock and, in the meanwhile, would you mind putting that new valve in my set?"
Manthon made the necessary change in the set and then switched on for what was just the tail end of the children's hour. The voices from 2LO came through, clear and strong, much as if they were in the room.
"There you are, Peggy," Manthon said. "I told you it was a defective valve. What a capital set yours is! I think it is the best that poor old Trevor ever made. Not that I have anything to complain of in mine, but I don't think my aerial is as good as yours. Now you can go on and listen as long as you like, but don't tell me to-morrow that you have heard the phantom horn again. And, oh, just one moment before I go."
Manthon turned back as if a sudden thought had occurred to him. It was an idea that he did not want to discuss with anybody for the moment; but, all the same, he was not disposed to leave the house until he was sure of his ground.
"Now, look here, Peggy," he said. "You told me something just now that I find very disturbing. I mean the story about the signal between Trevor and yourself, and your being haunted with six blasts on the phantom horn. Now, how many people had you discussed that with before you spoke to me about it?"
"Not one," Peggy said, looking him squarely in the face. "I have never mentioned it to a single soul. What would have been the good? I shouldn't have spoken on the matter even to you if you hadn't more or less bullied me into it. Perhaps I ought not to say bullied, but you know what I mean. I have no doubt that you were acting for the best——"
"Yes, I think you can give me that credit," Manthon said. "And you are quite sure that your secret has not become known to anybody outside us two?"
"Absolutely," Peggy said firmly.
"Well, never mind why for the moment," Manthon said evasively. "You see, these things are capable of explanation sometimes, especially when they are common property. But what you say only renders my task all the more difficult."
With that, Roy turned and left the room. He was more agitated in his mind than he had let Peggy know. He believed her implicitly when she assured him that she had never discussed this matter with a soul. He had half expected to hear her say that she might have mentioned the subject of the horn on one of her visits to Monkshole. But that, apparently, was not so.
Then in what direction was he to look for some solution of this strange happening? He could not bring himself to believe yet, that Peggy was suffering from delusions, because, although she looked so strange and distrait and there were great purple rings under her eyes, she seemed, so far, to be absolutely normal. Nor was Manthon inclined to believe that he was face to face with some supernatural manifestation. There was a deep mystery here somewhere that left him helpless, and baffled; but if there was a key to the mystery, then he was going to find it.
He was careful enough not to allude further to the subject when he called at Long Elms the following evening to pick up Peggy on his way to the Faber establishment. He was pleased to see that Peggy had shaken off a good deal of her depression, and was taking an almost intelligent interest in what was going on around her. She was almost herself as she stood on the broad verandah outside the drawing-room window with her host and hostess. It was a perfect summer evening, with the sun still shining high in the heavens and the four of them stood there on the shady verandah looking out across the wide landscape. There was an air of peace and tranquillity everywhere, so that even Peggy was feeling the influence of it.
Maud Faber drew Manthon on one side under the pretence of showing him one of her roses, whilst Peggy and her brother remained behind. Maud looked up with that frank, boyish smile of hers and Manthon was not indifferent to the attraction of it.
"So you managed to bring her," Maud said. "Upon my word, Roy, she looks wonderfully well this evening. How did you manage it? Did you talk to her seriously?"
"Well, you might put it that way, if you like," Manthon said. "You might even go further. I didn't want to bully her, but I am afraid I did. But this is going to be a long business, Maud. There are one or two little things I can't tell you, because it would not be quite fair. It will take us all our time to bring Peggy back to solid ground again."
"Well, we have got to try," Maud smiled. "Now, if you will regard her as an ordinary individual and not a divine creature to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped——"
"I think you can cut that out," Manthon said. "I had a long consultation with myself last night, and I came to the conclusion that what you told me was absolutely right. To be frank with you, Maud, I was hopelessly in love with Peggy. I knew that it was useless, but that makes precious little difference when a chap gets it as badly as I did. And then, when I sat after dinner last night for an hour or two in my smoking-room, I began to ask myself questions. I began to see that you were right when you said that Peggy would never give her heart to anybody but poor old Trevor and, what is more, I began to see that even if I could persuade her to marry me one of these days, I should have no more than the husks of a dead affection. I dare say you will think it strange of me to talk to you like this; but it was you who taught me to look at myself and face an issue that had to be decided one way or another."
"And that decision?" Maud asked.
"Was to regard Peggy, in future, as no more than a friend. I am sure if we try our hardest, we can bring her back to herself again, and convince her that there is a long and happy future ahead. But it will take some doing."
"Of course it will," Maud agreed. "I am very glad to hear you say what you have, Roy, because, if the worst comes to the worst, it will be only one life that is spoilt and not two. So you think that you have succeeded?"
"So far as I am personally concerned?" Roy asked. "Yes, I think so. I lay awake most of the night meditating on the subject, and when I came down to breakfast this morning I was rather like some dipsomaniac who has fought a battle with the demon alcohol and beaten him. But that doesn't prevent me from being loyal to poor old Trevor. There are strange forces at work, Maud, and we have got to grapple with them. Not a word of this to Peggy. Come along. Wasn't that the dinner-bell?"
They went back to the house smilingly, with something like a perfect understanding between them. Then into the dining-room, where they sat until the dusk turned to the velvety darkness of a summer's night, and the shaded lights on the table threw a warm glow on crystal and silver and flowers. It was quite late when, at length, the four of them made their way into the drawing-room and Maud crossed over to the wireless.
"Let's have some music," she said gaily. "Pass me the Radio Times, Basil will you? I seem to have an idea there is something special on this evening."
"You are quite right," Basil said. "A novelty. Henley Regatta week. Have you forgotten?"
"So it is," Roy exclaimed. "And the first Henley I have missed for many years. I thought I saw somethings in the papers this morning about a river fete and fireworks."
"That's it," Faber agreed. "The band of His Majesty's Royal Grenadiers in the Henley enclosure, supported by a rather fine pierrot show. Fireworks on the river and all that sort of thing. It ought to come through splendidly on a night like this. Would you like to hear it, Peggy?"
"Yes, I suppose I should," Peggy said more or less indifferently. "But isn't it getting rather late?"
"Only just a few minutes past ten," Faber said as he consulted his watch. "Turn on the set, Maud."
Maud manipulated the controls and instantly the room was flooded with the strain of the famous Guards' band. On that still, starry night, the melody flowed as smoothly and as evenly as a rippling stream, and came with soothing effect to the frayed nerves of one listener, at least.
"What a wonderful thing it is," Manthon said thoughtfully. "The more I think of it, the more amazingly it strikes me. Five years ago, no one would have dreamt of such a miracle. To my mind wireless is the greatest invention of the last hundred years. And we are still on the fringe of its amazing possibilities."
The others acquiesced in silence. It was good to sit there in the semi-darkness and listen without speaking. Then the band ceased and there followed a song by a famous comedian which was one of the gems of some recent musical comedy. The voice ceased at length and the shouts of approval could be heard distinctly as the singer was warmly encored.
"It is amazing," Peggy murmured. "It is——"
She broke off suddenly, for, clear and loud above the ripple of voices and the clapping of hands, came six distinct hoots from a broken Klaxon horn. The piercing discord of it seemed to echo mockingly round the room.
With a little cry that almost escaped attention, Peggy swayed forward, only to be upheld by Manthon's retaining hand.
"Be brave," he whispered. "Pull yourself together."
"Then you heard it?" Peggy asked under her breath.
By way of reply, Manthon gripped her firmly by the forearm. The whole incident only occupied a few seconds, and Manthon was pleased to notice that it passed absolutely unobserved over the heads of both Faber and his sister.
"Very, very strange," he said, an hour or so later as he drove Peggy homewards. "Yes, I am not surprised that you should be carried off your feet by that dreadful noise. But, look here, Peggy, there must be some proper explanation for it, there must. I am not going to rest till I get to the bottom of it. Good night, my dear, and don't let this disturb your rest."
It was before breakfast the following morning that Manthon, with an ingenious excuse, found himself inside the garage of Trevor Capner's house. There stood his two-seater car and there, by the side of it was the cracked Klaxon horn.
"Very, very strange," Manthon told himself. "But there will be stranger things in this world yet, and clever people will get to the bottom of them. Anyway, I am not going to be satisfied until I have found out how the thing is worked."
Joe Biddle had asked himself no questions, before he had fallen in with Manthon's suggestion that he should play the part of general spy, during his more or less indefinite stay at Monkshole. He knew, of course, that Manthon was not moved by any sinister motive, and that it would be well worth his while in the long run to do as he was asked. And even if things ended in disaster, Manthon has promised Biddle that he should not suffer. Therefore, Biddle went about his work with a light heart, and for the next two days lay more or less low, awaiting Manthon's orders, so to speak.
But it was a dreary business and what appeared to be a dismal and commonplace household. Monkshole was the last word in dullness and boredom without any redeeming light and, from Biddle's point of view, the man Fish and his wife might have been moulded by nature to take the part of domestics in that gloomy establishment. And if there was anything sinister going on there, Biddle was persuaded that neither Fish nor his wife had anything whatever to do with it.
Fish was a big man about sixty years of age with a black beard and a countenance that spoke of perpetual depression. His wife, the housekeeper, was equally reticent and restrained, and in every way a suitable mate for her husband. It was with these people, then, that Biddle found himself in contact, and no efforts on his part could shake the depressing couple out of their characteristic silence.
Therefore, the next day or two dragged on without anything to vary the monotony of the establishment and, so far, Manthon had given no sign. Nor was there anything within the house that struck Biddle as being anything out of the common. In the course of his duty, it was his business to see that nothing was removed from the premises, and this gave him a certain latitude of movement in which he could indulge without exciting suspicion. Not that he anticipated any move on the part of Sebastian Wilde which was in any way contrary to the law, but it was just as well to let the eminent scientist know that he, Joe Biddle, was entitled to visit every room in the house just when and where he pleased. But he could see nothing for the first two days that suggested anything in the way of illegality. He did his best to drag Fish and his wife into conversation, but, after a time he gave that up as hopeless, and set himself down patiently to wait for the first sign of developments on Manthon's part.
The first night was uneventful enough. Wilde had gone into the library after he had his dinner, and there he had remained until the small hours of the morning, apparently engaged upon a mass of calculations. Biddle knew that, because he was a light sleeper, and was still lying awake in the impromptu bedroom off the hall when he heard Wilde's bell ring and, after that, a murmur of voices which seemed to show that Fish was putting his employer to bed. As far as Biddle could make out, that would be about two o'clock in the morning.
The next night, however, Biddle satisfied himself that Wilde had retired to his bedroom very early indeed. He had actually seen the little procession cross the hall at about ten o'clock, and heard a gruff good night exchanged between the master of the house and the reticent Fish. Then, a little later on, Fish and his wife had sought their own room and, after that, the house lapsed into a silence that could be felt.
Biddle slipped back into his clothes again and slightly pulled aside the heavy curtain covering the window of his bedroom, so that a slit of light might show through into the wilderness of garden beyond. If Manthon was anywhere about, it would be a sign to him that the coast was clear and, if he wanted to communicate with Biddle here was his chance.
A clock in the hall was wheezily striking out the hour of midnight when there came the faintest tap on the window, and Biddle sprang to attention. He threw away the cigarette he was smoking, and lifted the sash to its full height.
"Are you there, sir?" he whispered.
"Yes, I'm here, Joe," Manthon whispered. "Can you manage to open the front door for me?"
"Well, I dare say I could, sir," Biddle said. "But I don't think it would be advisable. You see, Mr. Wilde sleeps on the ground floor, and though Fish put him to bed a long time ago, 'e may still be awake. Why not come through the window, sir."
"Good idea," Manthon said.
He climbed through the window, and drew the sash down behind him, after which Biddle took the precaution of blanketing the light so that no sign of it could be seen from outside.
"Well, here we are, Joe," Manthon said. "Any particular developments since I saw you last?"
"Absolutely none, sir," Biddle said. "Of course, it is no business of mine; but I hope, sir, that there is nothing in particular wrong with this 'ere 'aunted 'ouse."
"Ah, that we have to find out," Manthon said. "I am not suggesting that Mr. Wilde is a criminal in the ordinary sense of the word, but I do think there is something going on here that wants a lot of explanation. I can't take you into my confidence, Joe, because the business is not entirely my own; but I don't think you would believe me capable of dragging you into anything that was not honest, unless I was pretty sure of my ground. And, whatever happens you won't suffer."
"Thank you, sir," Biddle said gratefully. "Not as I was worrying much about that. You always was a gentleman, just the same as that father of yours afore you."
"So that's all right," Manthon smiled. "And now to business, Joe. I want to look all over the house, especially in the library and that loft you told me about. To begin with, where is the electric light plant?"
"I don't know, sir," Joe replied. "In one of the outhouses, I expect. For some reason or another, it is always turned off at the main when Fish goes to bed. That is why I've got this oil lamp. I don't see 'ow we're going to manage, unless you've got a candle or something of that sort."
"No, but I've a pair of electric torches in my pocket," Manthon explained. "You take this one and I will keep the other. You had better remove your boots. It doesn't matter about mine because I am wearing rubber-soled tennis shoes."
Very carefully and softly the two of them stepped out into the hall and crossed in the direction of the library. They had no more than a thin pencil of light to guide them but it was quite sufficient for their purpose, seeing that the hall itself was practically devoid of furniture, with the exception of an oak chest or two. As they passed a certain door on their way to the library, Biddle turned a thumb towards it.
"That is Mr. Wilde's bedroom," he said, his lips close to Manthon's ear. "If you listen carefully, I think you will be able to hear him breathing."
Manthon paused and placed his head close the the door. Surely enough, from inside came the sound very like a snore.
"Seems to have gone off all right, Joe," Manthon whispered. "There is one thing I quite forgot to ask you. I suppose you have seen no sign of that man, Ebbsmith?"
"None whatever, sir," Biddle said. "'E's gone to London. 'E went up in Mr. Wilde's two-seater car, which is the only car on the premises, and I know the car wasn't back in the garage when I went to bed. If I'd been a day sooner, Mr. Ebbsmith would 'ave 'ad to walk to London or gone by train. You see, sir, as it was, 'e just got away by the skin of 'is teeth. But the main thing is he has gone."
Manthon drew a sigh of relief. He mistrusted the man Ebbsmith almost as much as he mistrusted his employer. It was just as well, therefore, that the fellow should be out of the way. Even if he returned unexpectedly, the noise of the incoming car would be sufficient warning.
There was nothing to hold Manthon's attention in the library. Still, he stood there for quite a long time flashing his torch in various directions. He looked up the wide, open chimney and carefully studied the lines of the room. Then, at a sign from him, Biddle took the ladder from the place where it was lying by the bookshelf and, together, they made their way into the loft overhead, which was Wilde's workshop.
"A wonderful show this, Joe," Manthon said. "A sort of fairyland of machinery. Most of it looks as though it were made out of cobwebs."
"You are about right there, sir," Joe agreed. "Fair makes my 'air stand on end, it does. I daren't touch one of those things, not if you was to offer me a thousand pound. It's like one o' them magician's caves I used to read about when I was a boy. Only the other day I read in the papers as a man lost 'is life by touching a steel wire in some engineer's workshop. I'll do anything you like, sir, but don't you ask me to lay so much as a finger on one o' them gadgets."
"You can make your mind easy on that score, Joe," Manthon smiled. "All that machinery is innocent enough, and I have no doubt it represents many amazing discoveries. But it isn't that machinery I'm after."
"That's all right, sir," Joe said. "I suppose the old gentleman is after something new like the wireless was some time ago. But if you ain't interested in all those wires and wheels, then aren't we wasting our time 'ere, sir?"
Manthon responded that such remained to be proved. He flashed his light on the high walls of the half-ruined tower and noted the fact that a steel shaft ran through a hole that had been made on the solid masonry and to this he applied his undivided attention for a minute or two.
"Look here, Joe," he said. "What's on the end of that shaft? It runs right through to the other side of the wall and, what is more, it is the main shaft that controls every wheel in the place. There must be a dynamo somewhere behind the wall. Bring your light here and let us have a look."
For a long time the two beams of light played upon the rugged masonry, whilst Manthon felt with his hand over the surface, expecting to find some sort of spring. He tapped on the masonry and there came no more for a moment than a hollow echo. Then, with a cry, Manthon bent forward.
"Look here," he said. "Three or four of those stones are hinged. Yes, here it is, and if I am not mistaken, that little metal stud in the middle of those four great stones is the key to the mystery. This is a kind of priests' hole, Joe. Yes, that's it. Monkshole. The name of the house. Now then, come on, both together, press on that knob as hard as you can. Steady on, it's giving away."
The mass of stone slowly turned on what appeared to be a well-oiled hinge and disclosed a gaping chasm beyond. But from the top of the orifice down to the black pit below ran a steel ladder that glowed brightly in the flash of the electric torches.
"Oho," Manthon chuckled. "There is nothing mediaeval about that ladder, anyway. Now, look here, Joe, you stand here and keep guard while I go down to the bottom and investigate."
Whilst Biddle remained at the top with his torch in his hand, Manthon took the other and slowly descended the slippery steel ladder which shone and glistened in the rays of the torch as if it had recently been oiled. It was an extremely light structure, very narrow, and had evidently been made for the purpose to which it was applied. As Manthon descended, he took the precaution of counting the steps, so that when he reached what appeared to be a concrete floor, he knew that there were just over sixty rungs in the ladder. Roughly speaking, then, the ladder was sixty feet long.
Down below was a sort of cave, rather wide and high, though, towards the far side, the roof sloped down and the way to what appeared to be the exit narrowed, so that it was almost impossible for Manthon to stand upright.
That he was not very far from the open, he could judge from the cool breeze that blew on his face. It seemed to him, also, that he could hear the rustling of the night wind as it played amongst the foliage some distance away. The further Manthon advanced, the stronger did the draught become.
Then he had almost to go on his hands and knees before he could clear the tunnel, which opened again into a sort of lofty chamber. Glancing round this, Manthon made out a sort of cage at the far end, a cage cut out of the solid rock and protected in front by a grating of steel bars. Behind these bars something rustled and whined and, just for a moment, Manthon was conscious of a queer creeping at the base of his scalp. Then he flashed his torch full on the cage.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. "By Jove!"
In the cage itself, half squatting on a bed of straw, was a giant chimpanzee. A big, black creature with grinning teeth and menacing arms that had something pathetic as well as repulsive about it. The great ape stood trembling in front of the pencil of light and clutched at the bars as if imploring the intruder to give him his freedom.
For quite a time Manthon stood there, fascinated by the amazing sight. All sorts of strange ideas and almost impossible theories raced through his mind. But these he sternly put on one side and, turning his back upon the chimpanzee, he pushed forward until at length he could see a dim ray of light penetrating a mass of foliage in front of him.
He knew, now, that he had reached the end of his journey. He knew that a few yards further would take him into the open some little distance from the house, and that he was in a sort of thicket in the neglected grounds where no gardener had been at work for many years. And then, just before he emerged into the open air, he made another discovery.
Against the wall on a frame stood a motor bicycle. It was practically a new machine, fitted with all the latest devices and had obviously only been used a few times.
"Well, we are getting on," Manthon told himself. "Now, let us see what the garden will have to show us."
It was not so much a garden into which he emerged, as a wilderness. Here were stunted trees and wide patches of gorse through which ran a sort of narrow track, not wide enough for a motor, but sufficient to allow the passage of a cycle. By bending down and examining the ground with the aid of his torch, Manthon could make out the actual pattern of a motor tyre imprinted on a bare patch here and there.
So far as he could judge, he was about sixty or seventy yards away from the main road. There, for some time he stood studying the lie of the land round him and uncertain as to what to do next. He had half expected to make some startling discovery, but nothing so strange as this. It seemed to him that Wilde was a man of many activities, but he could not visualise the use of a motor cycle in connection with these. No man suffering from Wilde's infirmities could possibly ride that machine or indeed take any part in outdoor exercise. Still, he was not alone in his schemes. There was the india-rubber man to consider. Where did Ebbsmith come in with regard to these activities?
But it was impossible to stand there in the early hours of the morning wondering over problems which would have to be solved in the light of further discoveries. So Manthon made his way back again and, shortly afterwards, joined Biddle in the workshop above the library.
"Any sport, sir?" Biddle asked.
"Well, yes," Manthon replied. "I have found one or two things, Joe, such queer things that I had half a mind to go into Marchwick to-morrow and have a chat with the superintendent of police."
"Mean to say they're wrong, sir?" Biddle asked.
"Well, perhaps it wouldn't be fair to go quite as far as that," Manthon said thoughtfully. "And it would be just as well if I don't take you any further into my confidence for the moment. And I think that is about all for to-night, Joe. If you will let me out the way I came, I'll get back home. If the coast is clear to-morrow night, I should like to have another look round. All being well, you show your light and I will tap on the window as I did just now. If I don't take any notice of the light, then you can conclude that I am detained."
Five minutes later, Manthon was on his way home. He let himself into his own house and went thoughtfully to bed. But it was a long time before sleep visited his pillow.
There were many things to occupy his mind. To begin with, the discoveries he had made within the last few hours, sinister discoveries which pointed clearly enough to something like crime on the part of the inhabitants of Monkshole. There could be no question that Sebastian Wilde was a great man with a great mind and a scientist of outstanding order. But that did not prevent him from having a criminal bent, and here was proof positive that Wilde was the type of enthusiast ready to do anything for the necessary money to complete his experiments and, on the top of that, was the knowledge that he was being severely handicapped, not to say crippled, by the want of the aforesaid cash. And he was not the man to allow scruples to stand in his light when he was on the verge of epoch-making discoveries.
Then, again, was the strange discovery of that black chimpanzee hidden away in the passage, which had once been used by fugitives from justice, and which passage, no doubt, had given the name to the ancient domain of Monkshole.
What was the meaning of it all, and why was the great simian hidden away there from the light of day?
And then an explanation flashed into Manthon's mind. He would go over on the following day to see Faber and tell him everything that he had discovered. With this thought uppermost, he turned over in bed and forced himself to sleep.
But it was quite late the following night before he could put his resolution into practice. He had learnt from Maud Faber over the telephone that her brother had gone off at the last minute with some local cricket team, and that he was dining at a country house afterwards, and not expected back till very late in the evening.
"Very well, Maud," Manthon replied. "It is rather important, so you can tell Basil that I will come over this evening, however late it is. Say eleven o'clock."
"Is it all that important?" Maud asked. "Anything to do with our dear Peggy, for instance?"
"Ah, that I can't say as yet," Manthon explained. "But I should not wonder in the least. However, you can be present when I come over to-night and hear what I have to say."
It was nearer twelve than eleven before Manthon reached the Faber establishment that night. He had contrived in the course of the afternoon to get a word or two with Joe Biddle and inform him that there would be nothing doing that evening. So, with his mind quite free, he had set out on his errand, and presently found himself in Faber's smoking-room where Maud was seated eagerly awaiting him. Then, for quite a long time, he told the story of his adventure to his friends.
"What an extraordinary thing!" Maud exclaimed. "What do you make of it, Roy? Do you think that Sebastian Wilde really is a great scientist, or merely an extremely able thief in a sort of disguise?"
"Oh, I don't think there is any doubt about his scientific knowledge," Manthon said. "But that doesn't mean that he is not a crook. What do you make of it, Basil? Doesn't my story of the chimpanzee suggest something to you?"
"By Jove, I never thought of that," Faber cried.
Maud glanced quickly from Manthon to her brother.
"Is this another mystery?" she demanded.
"Well, to a certain extent," Faber admitted. "I didn't want to tell you, because there was no object in unnecessarily alarming you. But something happened here the other night which it would be just as well that I should explain to you."
With that, Faber told the story of the interrupted burglar and the strange footprints, casts of which he had taken and which he now produced for Maud's inspection.
"It is a weird business altogether," Manthon said presently. "I dare say you will laugh at my theory as the fervid imagination of a novelist, but it looks very much to me as if Wilde and his friends had actually trained a monkey to commit burglary."
"And why not?" Maud demanded. "That wonderful ape, Consul, has an intelligence almost equal to most men. I don't see that the thing is in the least impossible."
"It isn't," Faber agreed. "Don't laugh, but I wonder if Roy discovered the chimpanzee's motor bike."
But there was no disposition on anybody's part to smile at the suggestion that somewhere in mysterious Monkshole was a chimpanzee trained in the art of burglary.
"I don't see why not," Basil Faber said thoughtfully. "Don't you remember how wonderfully human and intelligent the famous Consul was? As a matter of fact, there was more than one Consul, though the public didn't know it, all of which proves how easy it is to train that class of simian to do almost anything besides speak. There was Consul, dressed like an ordinary individual sitting up at table and using the common utensils and helping himself to wine, just as any of us might do. Oh, yes, I can quite see how it is possible to transform a chimpanzee into a cat burglar."
"You don't suggest that Mr. Wilde is the sort of man who would lend himself to that sort of thing?" Maud asked.
"I am not saying so," Faber replied. "But, all the same, I am speaking of possibilities. On the other hand, Sebastian Wilde may have purchased the animal merely with a purpose of studying its ways and habits."
"Yes, but not to make such a secret about it," Maud protested.
"Well, perhaps not. I am merely stating the facts. You see, Wilde is a man with many brilliant facets to his character. I know he has a knowledge of natural history, because we have discussed the fauna of Central Africa and the Far East on more than one occasion. Wilde doesn't know either of these parts, but I do and that is why he asked me for certain information. It was wonderful what an intimate insight the man has into wild life, considering that he has never seen it on its native heath, so to speak. It is just possible that the chimpanzee that Roy saw is being used for some experiment."
"Possibly," Manthon agreed. "Possibly. But don't forget the fact that Wilde is at his wits' ends for money. His profession is an exceedingly expensive one and he must have spent thousands of pounds in getting together all that machinery in his workshop. Now, where does the money come from? Wilde may have private means, but I am rather disposed to think not. And this is the third time that my disreputable friend Joe Biddle has been installed at Monkshole on behalf of the Sheriff, and, very probably, it won't be the last. Wilde must get money from somewhere and, as far as we know, he has no friends whatever. That is why I made the suggestion about the monkey burglar."
"Well, and not a bad suggestion either," Faber agreed. "It looks to me very much as if we have evidence to prove that statement, lying on the table here in front of us. Of course, I am speaking of the plaster casts I took outside this house the other night. I told you at the time that they were the impression of hands and you agreed with me."
"I certainly did," Manthon said. "But then I am not so good a judge of that sort of thing as you are. I have not been out in the wild and shot savage animals, nor do I know anything of their habits. Do you think those casts are somebody's hands, or may they not be the feet of a chimpanzee?"
"Oh, they may," Faber said. "You throw quite a fresh light on the matter to me. Suppose we argue for the moment that those plaster casts represent feet. That is the feet of some animal. This means that when I disturbed the would-be burglar the other night I was not on the track of a human being, but a trained simian. To argue the point a little further, I suggest that this ape was either brought here to rob the house, or he escaped from captivity and reached the flower beds under the library more or less by accident. Yes, I think it is fair to assume that those impressions were made by the chimpanzee you saw last night in the Monkshole cave. But that doesn't prove anything, does it? So far, we have got hold of a broken thread which seems to lead nowhere. Don't you think so?"
"For the moment perhaps you are right," Manthon said. "But having once got hold of that thread, I am not going to release it. I am going to follow it up, even if I don't get any sleep for the next two or three nights."
Manthon paused as if about to say too much and gazed thoughtfully at the plaster casts on the table before him. He did not want, in that stage of his investigations, to say too much about Peggy or the delusions from which she was suffering. If he had to speak about that later on, he would, meanwhile, that was going to be a secret between them.
"Let's see that we are perfectly sound in our thesis," he said presently. "I mean, isn't there any way of checking those casts? You have lots of books on natural history, Basil, with illustrations and measurements."
"Quite right," Faber agreed. "I had forgotten that. Wait a moment, I will go in the library and consult a volume or two. Then I will get my callipers and measure the casts, so that there can be no possibility of mistake."
With that, Faber hurried from the room and Maud turned eagerly towards Manthon. It seemed to him that she was looking at her best that evening, a slender flower in a golden sheath, and everything that was attractive in young womanhood. He noticed the fascinating natural wave in her hair and the boyish audacity of her charming smile.
"Well, Roy," she said. "Have you quite forgotten my advice, or are you still——"
"No, I have not forgotten," Manthon declared. "It is a very strange thing, Maud, but it came easier than I expected. When I realised that Peggy was for nobody but poor old Trevor, then I felt as if the whole world had changed and—oh, well, let us say, without further sentiment, that I am cured."
But Maud did not laugh as Manthon had half expected.
"I am glad to hear that," she said. "Very glad, indeed. But, of course, that doesn't mean that you are going to regard Peggy as an ordinary friend in future."
"That you may be certain," Manthon said emphatically.
"That is good, too," Maud replied. "Because I am quite sure that Peggy never wanted a real friend more than she does now. You are keeping something back, Roy, I am sure you are."
"How on earth did you guess that?" Manthon asked.
"Call it womanly intuition or second sight, whichever you like. Aren't you going to tell me what it is?"
"Not for the moment," Roy replied. "Because I really don't know. I can only say that Peggy is in great danger and that it will take her friends all their time to save her from it."
"But you are going to let me help?"
"That is as it may be. I don't want to bring you into this business if I can help it. If I see later that you can be of assistance to us, then you shall. You see, I am not at liberty to say any more for the moment. But this I can admit—Peggy does not realise the perilous position in which she stands. Even if I pointed it out to her, she would not believe me. That is, at the present. Don't ask me any more questions, Maud, please."
"Very well," Maud promised. "But I don't think you quite realise how anxious I am to help."
The reappearance of Faber prevented any further conversation between Manthon and Maud and, a little later, Roy went thoughtfully on his way homewards. It was after luncheon the next day when he made some excuse to go over to Long Elms and see Peggy. He was anxious to know if there were any further developments so far as the haunted car was concerned.
But he did not find Peggy in the drawing-room, as usual, but Miss Bancroft welcomed him eagerly.
"Oh, I am so glad you have called, Roy," she said. "I am so worried that I don't know what to do."
"On Peggy's account," Manthon asked. "Where is she?"
"She hasn't come down yet. I heard her walking about her room for half the night, and when I went to see her this morning to tell her that breakfast was ready, she looked like a ghost. She wouldn't say what was wrong or what had happened, except that she had a dreadful headache. My dear boy, if this sort of thing goes on, we shall have to call in a specialist. I am really afraid of Peggy's sanity. She is so different from what she used to be. You may see that she is still mourning over the loss of her lover, but I am certain it goes a good deal deeper than that. Of course, Peggy was always romantic and highly strung and inclined to be hysterical if she were not checked, but she was a normal girl, all the same, and there was nothing morbid about her. You know how keen she has always been on outdoor sports. She was passionately attached to her mother, who died five years ago, but she met that sorrow bravely enough. There is something here that I cannot fathom."
Manthon murmured something in reply. He had no intention at present, at any rate, of discussing the grave crisis in Peggy's affairs with Miss Bancroft or anybody else. Moreover, it was quite clear to him that Peggy had not taken Miss Bancroft into her confidence.
"We must hope for the best," he said. "Try and rouse Peggy and keep her in the open air as much as possible. I am sorry not to be able to see her to-day, but——"
Before Manthon could complete his sentence, Peggy herself walked into the room. She seemed almost like one in a dream, her face was pale and the deep shadows under her eyes filled Manthon with compassion and pity. He spoke to her twice before she seemed aware of his presence.
"So it's you, is it?" she said listlessly.
At a sign from Manthon, Miss Bancroft slid quietly out of the room, leaving the other two alone. Manthon crossed over to Peggy and laid his hands firmly on her shoulders.
"Now then," he said almost sternly. "Look me straight in the face. Do you realise who you are talking to? You do. Tell me what has happened since I saw you last."
Peggy seemed to come slowly to earth. A little colour crept into her cheeks and her faded eyes resumed their deep violet hue. It was as if she had come suddenly out of a deep sleep and found herself on earth again.
"I—I can't help it, Roy," she said. "I heard that awful horn again last night. I was sitting up late, listening to the dance band from the Royal Thames Hotel in London, when the horn sounded, not once or twice, but half a dozen times. The noise of it seemed to fill the whole house. I was afraid that my aunt might wake up and come and ask me what was the matter."
"So that is the source of the trouble, is it?" Manthon asked quietly. "My dear girl, do you really believe that you heard Trevor Capner sounding his own horn so that only you should hear it? Do you believe that Trevor, somewhere in another world, is blowing a phantom horn and trying to get in communication with you across the border line."
The blue eyes met Manthon's firmly.
"Yes, I do," Peggy said. "I am certain of it. Nothing will convince me to the contrary. I am sure Trevor has some message for me, which he is trying to send, and that he will never be happy until that message reaches my ears. How or when it is coming I don't know, But I do know that some of these days it will be delivered and then I shall be at peace."
An infinite compassion shone in Manthon's face. But when he spoke, his words were firm enough.
"You are not telling the truth, Peggy," he said. "You are trying to get hold of that message and somebody is helping you. Let me guess who that somebody is. Am I right in saying that you have told your story to Sebastian Wilde?"
"How do you know that?" Peggy asked with a startled air.
"I don't think we need to go into that," Manthon replied. "It may be nothing but mere guesswork on my part. I want you to let me help you if you will. Now, come outside with me and let us have a single on the tennis court."
Peggy yielded none too willingly and for the next hour or so, tried her best to throw herself into the spirit of the game. But she was only a shadow of her ordinary self, and Manthon was not sorry when the game came to an end. Still, it had not been without its effect, for the colour was glowing in Peggy's cheeks again and she appeared to be almost cheerful when she parted with him at the gate.
But there was nothing cheerful about Manthon as he plodded homewards. He had made a promise, and that promise he was going to carry out at all hazard. Nor did he underrate what he felt to be the danger of the undertaking.
It was very late the same evening before he changed his dinner jacket for a dark coat and slipped his feet into a pair of tennis shoes. After this, he took a short cut across the fields in the direction of Monkshole. He was going to have another talk with Joe Biddle and to make a further attempt to spy out the scene of what might become a real tragedy if it were not handled with care and delicacy. Just before he emerged into the road a hundred yards before the gate of Monkshole, it seemed to him that he could make out a dim figure flitting on ahead. He closed up with it cautiously and, as the vision floated into the grounds at Monkshole, he realised, not altogether to his surprise, that Peggy was just in front of him.
Very cautiously, he crept up behind her, until he was half hidden behind a laurel bush that stood by the side of the drive within a few yards of the front door of the house. Then he saw, to his surprise, that a light gleamed over the top of the door, and when the oak was opened in response to Peggy's gentle knock, the watcher saw that Wilde had appeared, evidently expecting his visitor. Manthon could see into the hall, and noted that Wilde was seated in his invalid chair. Then the door was closed again and lights leapt up in the library.
Manthon advanced across the path and tapped gently on the window of Biddle's bedroom. As no reply came from inside, Manthon tried the window sash and smiled grimly to himself as it opened without making the slightest sound. This was evidently a bit of foresight on Biddle's part, for which Manthon was quite sufficiently grateful. He climbed into the room and flashed his torch across the bed. He had half expected to find that Biddle was not there, but that individual lay peacefully sleeping and Manthon had no wish to disturb him. If he wanted Biddle later on, it would be easy enough to wake him.
He stole gently into the hall and waited there a minute or two until he was assured that the house was silent. Not the slightest sound came from anywhere, except a murmur of voices in the library, the door of which was not closed, so that it was possible for Manthon to look in and see what was going on. Just inside was a broad threefold screen with a fancy filigree top and, taking his courage in both hands, Manthon crept behind this and raised his head sufficiently high to see what was taking place at the big table in the centre of the room.
He saw Peggy seated at one end gazing intently at Wilde, who had levered himself out of his invalid chair into another one opposite Peggy, and in front of him was a huge crystal globe some eighteen inches in diameter.
Wilde, with his fine impressive face turned towards the ceiling, seemed to be losing himself in a sort of reverie which almost amounted to a trance. He was like a man who moved involuntarily, as if impelled by some unseen power. There was something weird and fascinating about him, and it was plain to Manthon that Peggy was realising the truth to this. Wilde's lips were moving and certain broken words came from him which it was difficult for the listener to follow. And all the time there came from somewhere apparently in the air, or it might have been under the table, mysterious tappings that seemed, to Manthon's novelist's imagination, to resemble the drumming of finger-nails on the polished surface by someone who was trying to hammer out a tune. Indeed, as Manthon listened, he was perfectly certain that the tune was one of the famous airs from the Mikado known far and wide as "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring." Then, as suddenly, the stillness of the room was broken by six cracked notes on a Klaxon horn.
Manthon fairly started and it was only by sheer good luck that he did not betray himself. He saw Peggy rise with a gasping cry to her feet, then sink into her chair again. At the same moment, a clock somewhere in the house struck midnight.
"Sit down, my child, sit down," Wilde murmured. "There is no occasion for alarm. You are perfectly safe so long as you are with me. It is your lover calling you. Control yourself and you may perhaps hear what he has to say."
The mysterious tapping still went on as Wilde looked down at a great glass globe in front of him and began to talk as if to himself. The words came as if from afar off.
"It is here, my child, it is here," he said. "But dimly, so dimly that I can't make it out. There is an evil influence at work somewhere, an unruly spirit that is trying to come between the light and the message from the other side. Let us call it the Imp of the Perverse. You can hear the spirit rappings, but they are too vague for me to make any message from them. I see all sorts of things here in the crystal, events that will happen to-morrow or the day after and events that are taking place at the present moment."
"But that does not help me," Peggy murmured.
"Perhaps not, my child, perhaps not. But you never know when it will. I see a man, a well-known man, sitting alone in a room at the top of a great house in one of the West End squares. I can't make out the name of the square, but the house is there, large and stately, and is inhabited by wealthy people. The man I see is in evening dress and on the table before him are three or four shabby-looking cases. See, he opens those cases and the room is immediately filled with rays of dazzling light. Gems, my child, gems of priceless value. The man looks at them and then, putting them on one side, he begins to write a letter. He has only written the name of the person for whom the letter was intended when a man with a black mask over his face creeps into the room. He has come through an open window which he has managed to gain from the ground below. He tries to hide behind a curtain, but he stumbles and the man writing the letter looks up to see he is no longer alone. He crosses the room in the direction of the bell, but, before he can touch it, the miscreant is upon him and a struggle takes place. I see a flash of steel and the owner of the house lying on the carpet in front of the fire with his dead face turned to the ceiling. Then the murderer escapes by the way he came and—but I can see no more. It is the Imp of the Perverse again."
To all this Manthon listened with an astonishment that set him tingling from head to foot. Was this mere mummery, he wondered, or the result of some amazing scientific discovery which lay in the heart of the great crystal ball? Had Wilde discovered the secret of annihilating distance and penetrating bricks and mortar so that certain scenes, miles away, could be recorded in the quiet library at Monkshole by some species of X-ray? Or was it mere mummery on Wilde's part, designed to impress a simple country girl with a delusion that she was dealing with a man who possessed supernatural powers.
"But what is all this to me," Peggy said imploringly. "You told me if I came here to-night that you could give me a message from the dead. All I have heard up to now is six hoots on a cracked Klaxon horn which sounded very much like the horn that my lover had on his own car."
"What is that you are saying?" Wilde demanded. "You heard the hoot of a motor horn?"
"Didn't we both hear it?" Peggy asked.
"Not I," Wilde said. "No sound broke the silence as far as my ears were concerned."
"What?" Peggy said. "You didn't hear that horn?"
"My child, you must be dreaming," Wilde said with his most benevolent smile. "And you must have patience. It is not for me to control the spirits, but to obey them. When the tide is with us seekers after the truth, we can see everything; but when the tide is against us, it is no more than knocking our heads against a stone wall. Strange how impetuous youth is when it has so many years before it, strange how we only learn patience when we grow old! It has taken me the best part of my life to evolve that crystal. I have learnt its secrets, slowly and painfully, one by one; yet, here are you, a mere girl in years, expecting the globe to give up its secrets almost before you are aware that it exists. I want you to try and realise that this globe cost me, from first to last, over fifty thousand pounds. I know it isn't perfect, and it never will be perfect, until I have as much again to spend on it. Some day, perhaps, some unenlightened person will come forward and give me the funds I need. But you are not interested."
Manthon, fretting and fuming behind the screen, felt a wild temptation to spring out and take Wilde by the scruff of his neck and fling him across the room. So this was what Wilde was after. No paltry loan of a few hundreds, but a grand coup, embracing thousands of pounds to an extent that was likely to cost Peggy a quarter of her fortune. But even that was as nothing compared with the torture which the girl was enduring at the hands of a callous scoundrel who was not going to stop at anything that came between him and the realisation of his ambitions.
"I am sorry," Peggy said hurriedly. "I hope——"
Wilde waved her impatiently aside.
"Don't interrupt," he said sternly. "We may get a manifestation yet. The spirits are abroad; you can hear their signals on the table. But they are broken signals, because the Imp of the Perverse is abroad to-night and, for some reason known to himself, or herself, wants to interfere with the message. I very much fear, my child, that you will have to come again. We shall get nothing now before daylight. And, mind, not a word about these nocturnal excursions to a single soul."
"I have already given you my promise," Peggy said faintly.
As Peggy spoke, she rose to her feet and stood clinging to the table with an agitation that made the angry blood actually sing in Manthon's head. With a great effort, he controlled himself, and, realising that the sitting was at an end, slipped into the hall and from thence into Biddle's bedroom. Three minutes later, he was on his way home again.
When Manthon came down to breakfast on the morning following the amazing scene in the library at Monkshole, he had intended to devote the best part of the day to what he considered to be a vital problem, and this would, of course, be shared by Basil Faber. But a rather pressing letter from his literary agent in Town and a desire to see the author at once upset that scheme, at any rate, for the moment. So, instead of going over to Faber's place, as he intended, Manthon found himself, shortly after ten o'clock, embarking for London at Marchwick Junction in the hope that he would be able to get his business through quickly and return to Lincombe some time in the afternoon.
In this he was more or less successful. By a quarter to five he was back at Victoria again, and, having purchased the six o'clock edition of the "Evening News," he threw himself down in a corner of a first class carriage and, having the compartment to himself, unfolded his newspaper.
At the first glance there was nothing of particular interest, and he might have thrown the sheet aside altogether if his eye had not caught a heavily-headed paragraph concerned with what appeared to be the last thing in the way of a sentimental murder.
As he read, his interest quickened strangely. He went through the whole of the column, not once, but twice, with a thoughtful frown between his brows and a quickening of breath. And this was the story he read:—
Brutal Murder in Burlington Square
Mr. Everard Found Dead
"Early this morning, the servants in the house of Mr. Everard, the well-known virtuoso and art dealer, were shocked to discover the dead body of their master in one of the sitting-rooms on the top of the house in Burlington Square. It was shortly after seven o'clock this morning when one of the housemaids had occasion to visit the sitting-room on the second floor where her employer had been at work the night before in connection with a lot of historic gems which he had purchased in the course of the afternoon. He had gone up to that particular apartment after a solitary dinner, and had told his butler that he was on no account to be disturbed. And whoever called was to be told that Mr. Everard was not to be seen. Accordingly, his wishes were respected, and when the domestic staff retired for the night, having seen that the house was properly secured against intruders, it was seen that a light was shining from under the bottom of the door of the room in which the body was subsequently found. It is practically certain that Mr. Everard was alive when his household staff went to bed, because one of them heard him cough, and another noted the fact that the landing outside the room was strongly impregnated with fresh tobacco smoke.
"When the housemaid in question came down in the morning, she proceeded to open the sitting-room door with the object of tidying up. The first thing she noticed was that one of the windows was open and the curtains drawn back, a rather unusual thing, seeing that the night before the same servant had closed the windows and drawn the curtains herself. The she saw the dead body of Mr. Everard lying on the carpet in front of the fireplace with his face turned upwards. There was a deep wound in his left breast that had apparently been inflicted with a dagger of some sort, for his dress shirt had been cut and the front of it absolutely deluged in blood.
"The housemaid immediately gave the alarm, and the rest of the servants came rushing in. When the police arrived, the butler informed them that when he had last seen his master a few hours before, the latter was examining two or three cases of jewellery, no trace of which had been left behind.
"So far, the whole tragedy is wrapped in mystery. But there is very little doubt that the crime was the work of a cat burglar, who climbed up the pipe outside the house and entered the sitting-room by means of the window. Distinct marks were discovered scratched on the drain-pipe that seem to suggest the means by which the murderer entered the house. In one corner of the room was a small fireproof safe in which the key had been left. The examination of this showed that the safe was practically empty, and there is little doubt that the miscreant got away without being observed and that, moreover, he escaped with valuables worth many thousands of pounds. As evidence of this, the empty cases were still on the table, but no sign of their recent contents. An inquest will be held to-morrow, when sensational disclosures are expected."
There was nothing more—at least, nothing more that was material—so Manthon folded up the paper and placed it in his pocket. In the ordinary way, the paragraph would not have troubled him greatly. It was the extraordinary resemblance between that drastic story and the queer narrative he had heard from Sebastian Wilde's lips the night before that thrilled him to the very marrow.
Here was a crime, committed in London, at some time, presumedly between eleven o'clock at night and early morning, the details of which exactly tallied with the thrilling story that had come from Sebastian Wilde whilst he was gazing at the gigantic crystal before him on his library table.
It was impossible to believe that this could be pure coincidence. To begin with, Wilde had told Peggy Ferris that the murder had been committed high up in a room in one of the fashionable West End squares. And, undoubtedly, Burlington Square was one of these. Again, the unfortunate victim was alone in that room examining some cases of valuable jewellery. Through one of the windows the burglar had entered, exactly in the same way as Wilde had described it as he saw the drama pictured on the face of the crystal. If Wilde had been hidden in the room in Burlington Square where the tragedy took place, he could not have described it with greater accuracy of detail. And yet at the time when the murder was probably committed, Wilde had been sitting in his own library, fifty miles away.
The more Manthon thought the matter over, the more puzzled he became. Was it possible, he wondered, that Wilde had hit upon some stupendous discovery, by means of which scenes taking place many miles away could be transported through bricks and mortar and faithfully recorded in every detail in the heart of that great crystal globe. The thing sounded like a nightmare; but then a few years ago the scientific world had been inclined to scoff at the possibility of wireless reception. If a decade ago, anyone had ventured to prophesy the possibility of sitting in a room a hundred miles away from London, listening to an Albert Hall concert, for instance, he would have been laughed to scorn. And yet the thing had been done, almost before the suggestion was made. Then, again, there was this television. Who would have believed within a short span, that it was possible for a man to sit smoking a cigarette in London and have his features and actions recorded simultaneously in New York. That had been a sensation at the time, but now it was accepted as a matter of course, just like cross-ocean telephoning. It might, therefore, be possible that Wilde had hit upon some great new scientific truth and that he was using it to impress Peggy Ferris with his amazing powers and get her helplessly under his influence.
From this point of view, at any rate, Manthon felt sure that he was on safe ground. The business of the crystal globe was intended, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to impress Peggy and show her the sort of superman she had to deal with. She would probably read all about the murder in the morrow's newspapers and immediately connect it with what Wilde had told her after a close study of the crystal globe. The more Manthon thought it over, the more he began to realise the amazing mental powers of the man he had to deal with.
His mind was still in a state of whirl and confusion and doubt when he reached home and called up Basil Faber on the telephone. The latter answered the call in person.
"Hello, Roy," he said. "Anything wrong?"
"Well, I think you had better come over here and judge for yourself," Manthon said. "Come and have dinner with me; never mind about dressing. But don't say anything about it to Maud for the moment. Make some ordinary excuse and get here as quickly as you can."
Half an hour later the two men were seated in Manthon's smoking-room. For a long time Faber sat there listening to what Manthon had to say. Then he took up the copy of the Evening News and read the paragraph for himself.
"This is absolutely uncanny," he said presently. "Do you mean to tell me that you stood in Wilde's library last night and heard him describe that very crime to Peggy?"
"I haven't the slightest doubt of it," Manthon said. "Consider the details for yourself. Take that newspaper and read the paragraph again, checking my story with that. I don't think you will find there is the slightest discrepancy between the two. Now then, are you ready?"
They went through the narrative, or rather, the two narratives with meticulous care, and at the end Basil threw the Evening News aside and whistled loud and long.
"Well, if that doesn't fairly beat the band," he said. "Now, what on earth do you make of it?"
"I don't make anything of it at all," Manthon confessed. "It has me fairly gasping. Of course, you can see why Wilde told Peggy that story, but how on earth did he know at about eleven o'clock last night that unfortunate man was being murdered?"
"Here, steady on," Faber cried. "That doesn't quite tally, old chap. In the course of describing last night's happenings, you told me that Sebastian Wilde was in the marrow of his narrative somewhere about midnight. Don't you remember saying that you distinctly heard a clock somewhere in the house striking twelve? That seems rather important."
"Possibly," Manthon agreed. "Anyway, you are right as to the time. But there is no evidence in the account in the Evening News to show exactly at what time the unfortunate Everard received the fatal blow. It doesn't even say at what hour the servants went to bed."
"Neither does it," Faber agreed. "I think that if the police don't succeed in laying their hands upon the murderer, we ought to take some sort of a hand in this game."
Manthon looked up with a startled expression.
"Do you think so?" he said. "We might land ourselves in no end of trouble, and, at the same time, defeat the very object we have in view. It looks to me as if we are up against something entirely new in the way of criminal development. A couple of super-crooks working with scientific apparatus never before dreamt of. Anyway, it is a mighty queer household at Monkshole. Do you think those servants are in it?"
"I couldn't say. I should be rather inclined to think not. That man Brettle——"
"Brettle? You mean Fish, don't you?"
"Well, no one seems to know quite what their name is. Sometimes Wilde calls the man Fish, sometimes Brettle. I rather fancy that his name is Fish Brettle, Fish being a nickname so to speak. At any rate, the people in the village always speak of them as Mr. and Mrs. Brettle. I don't think we will worry about them, if you don't mind. The question is: What are we going to do, and how are we going to do it? What I should like to know is the method by which Wilde knew all about that crime in London last night."
"Yes, I dare say you would," Manthon grinned a little uncomfortably. "If we could put our finger on that spot, then I think all Peggy's troubles would be over. And, of course, you can guess why Wilde pulled that stunt last night."
"Sheer vanity, I suppose?" Faber laughed.
"No, I don't think so. No, he expects that Peggy will read all about that case in the paper and be tremendously impressed by Wilde's occult powers. And remember what I said when I was telling you of the hints Wilde dropped last night. His idea is to get Peggy under his thumb entirely and bleed her at leisure. And he won't bleed her by the hundred, but by the thousand, because that is the sort of ambitious man he is."
"Yes, I think you are right," Faber said thoughtfully. "In fact, I am pretty sure about it. We can't let matters remain where they are, and if, on the other hand, you go and tell your story to the police, you might precipitate the very tragedy you most dread. All I can see for it is that you should carry on at Monkshole and see if you can get hold of a real clue."
Manthon sat brooding over the maddening problem long after he had dined and seen Faber on his way back home again. In the seclusion of his library, with a lamp behind him, he sat there until the household was absolutely silent and he heard the servants fastening up before retiring for the night. He sat on until the lamp at his elbow began to flicker and smoke, and, finally, sobbed itself in the darkness. For some little time he did not realise that the lamp had gone out, and then smiled to himself as he came back to earth again.
It was no use sitting up there any longer, so he decided to go to bed. There were candles on a shelf by the door, but he did not trouble about these as he knew that somewhere on the table within reach of his arm was one of his electric torches. He fumbled for this until he found it, then pressed the button and filled the room with a shaft of light. With the torch in his hand he crept across the hall in his slippered feet and made his way silently up the broad stairs. Some of these early days he would install electric light in that rambling Georgian structure, indeed, he had threatened to do so for some time and had gone so far as to obtain estimates from one of the leading firms of electricians in Marchwick. Really, he would have to see to this, he told himself, as he stumbled over a loose stair. It was ridiculous going on like this with oil lamps, nasty smoking, smelly things with always the chance of an explosion at the hands of some careless servant.
He was turning this over in his mind as he reached the corridor, thinking sleepily of the necessary change. Then he came suddenly to himself with every sense on the alert.
From somewhere out of the velvety darkness of the corridor came a high pitched scream of a woman's voice. Then another and another and, after that, a white, flying figure, rushing with bare feet in the direction of the stairs. A further foot or two and the woman would have pitched headlong down had it not been for Manthon's restraining arm.
"Here, steady on, Mary," he said. "What on earth is the matter? Seen a ghost or something?"
But the housemaid was too far gone to reply coherently.
"It's a man," she screamed. "A man in my bedroom. He came in through the window. He's there now."
"Nonsense," Manthon cried. "You are dreaming."
"I'm not, indeed I'm not," the girl said. "I was wide awake. Toothache, sir. I was getting out of bed to rub some oil of cloves on it and I distinctly saw the outline of a man against the window frame. A dreadful creature with great long arms and face——"
"That will do, that will do," Manthon interrupted. "You go on downstairs. Find a box of matches and light some candles. Did you wake the rest of them?"
There was no occasion to ask the question, because the rest of the servants came towards the top of the stairs in a huddled heap. First the cook, then the parlourmaid and, lagging behind fastening his braces, the butler.
"Here, Simms," Manthon cried. "I may get a bit of sense out of you. Mary says that some curious sort of monster is playing about in her bedroom. Of course, it is all nonsense, but you had better take this torch and go into my room and bring me the revolver you will find at the bottom of my collar drawer. Of course, there is nobody there——"
"Begging your pardon, sir, I believe there is," the butler replied. "I was asleep when Mary screamed out, but she woke me all right. So I came into the corridor to see what was going on, and something passed me like the wind. Of course, being pretty dark, I couldn't make out at first, but when my eyes got accustomed to the gloom, it looked to me as if I could see a strange creature like a monkey. I hope you won't laugh at me, sir, but you know——"
"I am not laughing at all," Manthon cut in. "And, after all, it is not very dark. It never is in June. I suppose the thing you saw got alarmed and bolted from Mary's room into the corridor. Is that what you mean?"
"That's about the size of it, sir," Simms said. "It must be somewhere down the west wing. Ah, there it goes, see? Into the room where you keep your fishing tackle and golf clubs and all that sort of thing. Can't you see it, sir?"
Surely enough, it seemed to Manthon he could make out a queer figure against a dim light that shone through a curtained window. Then the window was pushed up, and a pair of long hairy arms, like that of some gigantic spider, gripped the window sash as a misshapen body was uplifted. Without the slightest hesitation, Manthon fired one shot from his revolver, the report of which was followed by a grunt, as if someone was in pain. Then the monster disappeared through the open window and, by the time that he could snatch the torch from Simms and flash the rays of it on the garden below, the strange nocturnal visitor had disappeared as completely as if the earth had opened and swallowed him up. Manthon concealed his vexation and disappointment as best he could.
"There," he said. "There is an end of that. I don't know what that creature was, but it looked to me like a monkey of some sort which has probably escaped from some passing menagerie. Or it might be a pet of somebody's a few miles away. I dare say the poor creature was seeking shelter for the night, which would account for its trying to get into the house. At any rate, it has gone now, and I don't think there is any chance of it coming back again. Now, be off to bed, all of you and think no more about it. It would be just as well, perhaps, if you saw that the windows were securely fastened, because we don't want a repetition of this sort of thing."
With that, Manthon turned into his own room and closed the door behind him. But he had no intention of retiring just yet. He waited until the house was plunged into silence once more, and then, creeping downstairs in his slippers with a torch in his hand, he opened the front door and crept round the garden until he stood under the window by which the queer nocturnal visitor had made its escape. Bending down over a flower bed, he examined the damp soil there closely. Surely enough, in four or five places he found the same kind of strange impressions from which Faber had taken his plaster casts.
"Yes, it's the same creature," Manthon told himself. "I will call up Faber in the morning and get him to bring his plaster over here and take those impressions while they are fresh."
Then, at length, he turned and reentered the house, making his way upstairs as silently as he had come. He wondered whether he had done the midnight visitor any serious injury or if he had merely inflicted a flesh wound when he fired that revolver shot. Possibly it was nothing more than a scratch, because there was no trace of a body to be found.
It was almost directly after breakfast that Manthon called up Faber on the telephone again and, half an hour later, the latter arrived with the necessary materials for taking the impressions on the earth outside the window. When this was done, and the plaster of Paris was beginning to set, Faber examined his work with particular care.
"You are quite right," he said. "It is the same creature beyond the shadow of a doubt. You have been favoured with a visit, the same as I was. But I don't think these are marks made by the ordinary chimpanzee. What you saw in the cave at Monkshole is a chimpanzee beyond question, and the natural inference is that the animal has been brought here for some sinister purpose. All the same, it doesn't seem to me that a chimpanzee could make exactly that type of hand or foot mark. I have seen heaps of the beggars in the wild and have helped to capture more than one. But, you see, I am a big game hunter first and a naturalist afterwards. I couldn't speak offhand about measurements, even when I have consulted the books that I have in my own library. So I tell you what I am going to do. In a day or two I will take these casts up to London and show them to one of the big swells at the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. He will be able to tell us exactly what they are, so that we need not go on guessing. We are up against a big problem, old chap, so big that it doesn't do to take anything for granted. Don't you think I am right?"
"I am perfectly sure you are," Manthon agreed. "We won't do anything more until you have been up to London and had those prints verified. But that won't prevent me keeping an eye upon Monkshole. I shall turn out to-night, after it gets dark, and prowl about that old place and, very possibly, have another look round the premises after Wilde has retired for the night. I am quite sure that Peggy will go and see Wilde again and I think it just as well not to interfere with that arrangement. If I can sneak into the library at Monkshole when the next conference is going on, I may be able to pick up a lot more valuable information. As long as Joe Biddle is on the premises, I can go in and out of Monkshole more or less as I please."
"All right," Faber said. "I think that is a very good idea. Look, there is Wilde going down the road now in his chair."
They were in the garden at that moment, and had a clear view of Sebastian Wilde as he passed. Then Manthon laid a hand on Faber's arm and gripped it significantly.
"Do you notice anything?" he demanded.
"No, I can't say I do," Faber replied.
"Well, Wilde's left hand was all bandaged up," Manthon cried. "I am beginning to wonder if——"
"Yes, I see what is at the back of your mind," Faber murmured. "But it doesn't make our task any the less difficult."
Manthon parted with Faber presently, and went back to his desk, there to resume work on his latest book which he had been neglecting terribly of late. But after sitting for a quarter of an hour, staring blankly at his portable typewriter, he snapped down the lid of the machine impatiently and strode through the open French window into the garden.
He had not told Faber what was in the back of his mind, and how a certain theory had shaped itself the moment he had caught sight of Wilde propelling himself down the road. It was such a strange theory that he was half ashamed of it himself. Perhaps, later on, when he had time to think it out, he might mention it to Basil Faber, but for the present, at any rate, he was going to keep it himself. He walked up and down the tennis lawn in front of the house, and, after smoking a couple of ruminative cigarettes, he went back to his library and took up the morning paper which, so far, he had forgotten to scan as was his usual habit. First of all, he looked to see if there were any further developments in connection with the Burlington Square tragedy, but though there were a couple of columns of it, very little information was concealed in the clever journalistic verbiage by which the average newspaper man contrives to make bricks without straw.
Nothing further transpired, though, of course, there was the usual suggestion that the police were following up an important clue, and that sensational developments might be expected at any moment. The one thing that attracted Manthon's attention was the fact that at two o'clock the following afternoon, the inquest on the body of Mr. Everard would be opened at the Burlington Rooms, close by the scene of the tragedy.
It occurred to Manthon that he might not be wasting his time if he went up to town and attended the proceedings. In all probability, nothing would transpire to help him; but then one never knew, and it was just possible that he might pick up some little clue or another that fitted in with the fantastic theory which he had been ashamed to mention to Faber.
Yes, he would run up to London and follow the inquiry on the off-chance of learning something. But, first of all, he was going to see Peggy Ferris and ascertain, if possible, what effect Wilde's performance with the crystal globe had had upon her on the night when Manthon had penetrated into Monkshole and watched what appeared to be a piece of sheer theatrical display, merely intended to impress a neurotic girl who was only too ready to believe anything that she saw and heard.
With this intention uppermost in his mind, Manthon walked down the road in the direction of Long Elms. Just before he came to the gate, he saw Maud Faber emerging.
"So you have been calling at Long Elms this morning, have you? I suppose you have been talking to Peggy."
"Yes," Maud said. "I wanted to see if I could get her to go out with me in the car for the day. Anything to take her out of herself and keep her mind occupied."
"That is just what I should have expected of you," Manthon said. "What is the programme?"
"Well, I am afraid there is no programme," Maud confessed. "I found Peggy a most extraordinary frame of mind. Cast down and hysterical at one moment and strangely exalted the next. She has been seeing Sebastian Wilde. She told me a most extraordinary story about his occult powers. She says that he can look into a crystal globe and see what is actually happening a hundred miles away. She seems to think he is some sort of a god. If we don't get her away from here, then I fear the worst. That man has the most amazing influence over her. Possibly he is only trying to use her financially, which would not so much matter, but there is another side to the question. How much longer can her mind stand the strain? I tell you, Roy, something must be done. If it isn't, then before long Peggy will be hopelessly insane."
"But what can we do?" Roy asked. "It is all very well to say that Wilde is driving Peggy mad with those conjuring tricks of his, but that is not a criminal matter. It has happened over and over again with weak-minded people who take everything that fraudulent mediums tell them for gospel. How many hundreds of men and women are there in the world to-day who pay handsome sums to psychic imposters for manifestations which are purely fraudulent. It is the most difficult thing in the world to get a conviction against these people."
"But surely you can think of something," Maud urged. "Peggy says that Sebastian Wilde absolutely foresaw that crime that took place a night or two ago in Burlington Square. Of course, I don't believe a word of it, but Peggy is absolutely convinced that Wilde has invented a crystal in which he can see events whilst they are taking place."
Manthon smiled none too comfortably. He had no intention, at present, of telling Maud of the strange scene he had witnessed himself not so many hours before.
"Oh, well," he said. "I must see what I can do. I don't mind admitting to you, Maud, that I am absolutely puzzled over this business. The supernatural does not appeal to me in the least and I have no sort of use for it. But I am not going to say that it is impossible for science to discover some method by which scenes which are taking place a hundred miles away may be recorded on a screen or in a crystal or something of that sort. In other words, it is within the bounds of possibility that Wilde has hit upon some great new scientific truth. Something like wireless or television, for instance. On the other hand, he may be merely a master charlatan. I think, when I have seen Peggy; I will go as far as Monkshole and have a chat with Wilde."
A minute or two later, Manthon found himself in the drawing-room at Long Elms in conversation with Peggy. It took no more than a glance at the unfortunate girl's flushed, excited face to see that Maud had not exaggerated when she had said that Peggy was on the verge of a mental crisis.
"What's all this I hear?" Manthon demanded sternly. "What have you been telling Maud Faber?"
Peggy broke into a laugh that struck unpleasantly on Manthon's ears. He had seen that the pupils of her eyes were dilated and that she was almost beside herself.
"It's true, it's true," she cried. "It is possible to see what is going on all around us and know the course of events miles and miles away. It is possible that I shall know, some of these early days, exactly how poor Trevor died. And Mr. Wilde is going to tell me. He can find out everything. He found out all about that horrible murder in Burlington Square."
"Oh, he did, did he?" Manthon said quietly. "Now, you sit down and tell me all about it. Take your time, try and calm that excitement of yours and talk rationally."
"How can I, when I am face to face with the unknown?" Peggy demanded. "I am going to see the veil that hides the future torn away. I am going to be one of the high priestesses of a new era. You can't understand, Roy."
"Perhaps I can understand a good deal more than you think," Roy said, holding himself in with an effort. "Sit down, girl, sit down and try and be a rational human being."
By way of reply, Peggy snatched up a copy of a daily paper and held it under Manthon's nose.
"Look at that," she said. "It is a full account of a murder that took place the other night in Burlington Square. And while that crime was being committed, I was in the library at Monkshole and Mr. Wilde looked into the big crystal of his and told me all about it. It is almost as if I had been there. Oh, yes, I have just been reading all about it. Roy, Roy, what is to become of me?"
Manthon would have given all that he was worth at that moment for a satisfactory answer to her question. He could not laugh, nor could he sneer at what Peggy had to say, because he had been present during that manifestation, and heard the amazing revelation for himself. He could do no more than try and divert Peggy's thoughts from the dangerous cycle in which they were moving and bring her back to a normal plane again. In this he succeeded to a certain extent, but it was some time in the doing, and by the time he had turned his back on Long Elms in the direction of Monkshole, it was past twelve o'clock.
So far as he could see, there was only one thing for it. And that was, by force if necessary, to remove Peggy from Lincombe and take her somewhere overseas where Sebastian Wilde could not follow. Later on in the afternoon, he would arrange a conference between himself and Miss Bancroft, with a view to bringing this about without delay. Rather comforted by this decision, he pushed on towards Monkshole.
He was nearing the front door when some bushes in the ragged shrubbery parted, and Joe Biddle's face looked out.
"Don't take any notice of me, sir," the latter whispered. "Just pretend you are watching something. I saw you coming up the drive, but I don't want anybody to know that I am talking to you. Will that be all right, sir?"
Manthon stooped down as if to adjust a shoe-lace.
"Go on, Joe," he murmured. "Go on."
"Well, it's like this, sir," Biddle said. "There is some sort of game going on, and I can't get to the bottom of it no'ow. Ever since I come 'ere, Mr. Wilde, 'e's been keeping out o' my way. Of course, 'e knows as I am in the 'ouse, but it suits 'im to pretend as I ain't. Well, last night, 'e cops me in the 'all and 'e says to me, 'e says, 'Biddle, I ain't goin' to be troubled with you much longer. Tomorrow you'll be gone,' and then 'e just chuckles to 'isself and pedals along in that old chair of 'is as if 'e 'ad cracked a joke which pleased 'im immense. Of course, I just grins back so as to show the old gent as there wasn't no animosity and there was an end of it. But this morning 'e meets me just as I was going for a bit o' fresh air lookin' like a demon. Face all white and screwed up, and eyes glowin' like 'ot coals. 'E spouts out a lot as I couldn't understand, but from what I could make out, 'e's been disappointed over some money, which means as I ain't goin' back to Marchwick as quick as I thought. And if that money ain't forthcomin' in a day or two, then the Sheriff's officer comes in and sells the whole show up."
Manthon heard this rather disturbing news, though in one way it was not without its compensation. If the disaster foreshadowed by Biddle actually took place, then there would be an end of Monkshole, so far as Wilde was concerned, which was not quite what Manthon wanted. Despite the critical state of Peggy's affairs, he would have much preferred that things remained as they were until he had time to pursue his investigations further. Still, the information was valuable, and Biddle was thanked in a whisper.
"All right, Joe," Manthon said. "I think I will push on now. If I stand here any longer, I shall be calling attention to myself, and that is the last thing I want."
Manthon turned his back on the friendly laurel bush and rang the front-door bell. After a little delay, he found himself in the library, where Wilde turned from the table in a swivel chair and confronted him amiably.
"This is rather an unexpected pleasure, Mr. Manthon," he said.
"I hope I am not interrupting you," Manthon said. "But I think you may be able to help me in a little matter concerning my poor friend Capner. You see, when he died, he left a pamphlet connected with flying in an incomplete state. I think he intended to publish it later on and I have undertaken to finish it. In the manuscript, I have found allusions to certain information which seems to come from a book by a German authority which you lent to Capner. Now, I wonder if I could borrow that book again for a day or two?"
"Certainly you can," Wilde agreed. "You will find it on the third shelf yonder, just at the corner. Anything I can do will be a pleasure."
Manthon crossed the room and took down the little volume with its stiff cover and held it in his hand. Then, just as he was taking his seat again, he bent forward eagerly and, making a sweep with his right hand, struck Wilde just under the right kneecap a smart blow, at the same time apologising for his clumsiness. But Wilde did not appear to notice.
"I am fearfully sorry," Manthon said. "I certainly didn't mean to touch you at all. But there was a wasp settling on your knee and I thought it might sting you."
"I didn't see it," Wilde said indifferently. "And it would not have mattered if it had. Nor did you hurt me in the least. Since my distressing accident some years ago, I have been completely paralysed from the waist downwards and there is no feeling in my lower limbs whatever."
Manthon nodded. He had noticed that, or the edge of the book striking Wilde's right leg as it was crossed over the left must have produced some sort of reaction.
"Well, at any rate, it was very clumsy of me," Manthon said. "Thanks very much for the book. I will let you have it back in a day or two. I won't detain you any longer."
"Just a minute," Wilde said. "Now, I wonder, Mr. Manthon, if you can help me in a little matter. I have been spending a vast amount of money lately in connection with certain experiments of mine and I am rather in a quandary. In other words, I have outrun the constable and come to the end of my resources. It is only temporary and, in the course of two or three weeks, I shall be in ample funds again. I wonder if you would mind lending me five hundred pounds?"
"It's a considerable sum of money," Manthon temporised.
"Well, it is and it isn't. At any rate, it isn't much to you. I will be quite candid with you; if I don't find the money within the next day or two, then I shall have to leave Monkshole, which I particularly don't want to do. To put it vulgarly, I shall be sold up."
"That would be exceedingly awkward," Manthon murmured.
"Very awkward indeed," Wilde went on. "You see, I have thousands of pounds worth of machinery overhead, delicate, intricate machinery, especially made for me and of no earthly use to anybody else. Nobody could use it unless they were aware of what I am on the verge of discovering. If the stuff was put up for auction, it would fetch only a few pounds, which means that I should have to begin all over again. I am rather a lonely man, Mr. Manthon and I have no friends to speak of. I dare not go to the scientific world for obvious reasons, and there is no time to approach the class of city financier who is prepared to back an inventor so long as he gets nine-tenths of the plunder. Of course, it is a mere chance and a gamble as far as you are concerned; but if you can see your way to finding that money, then I can return it to you a hundredfold."
"Very well," Manthon said. "If you are on the verge of a big thing, it would be a thousand pities to have it ruined for the want of a little capital. And I don't want anything special in the way of a reward. If you like, I will go back home and send you a cheque in the course of an hour."
"That is very kind of you," Wilde said gratefully.
The follow afternoon Manthon found himself in the midst of a crowd of other people attending the inquest on the unfortunate Everard in the Burlington Rooms. The coroner opened the proceedings in the usual formal manner and went on to give some account of the deceased.
"Mr Everard," he said, "was an elderly gentleman who lived alone in his own house in Burlington Square, he being a bachelor of quiet and sedentary habits. He had few friends, and practically no one ever called at Burlington Square, all his business being conducted in his office in Hatton Garden. His usual mode of procedure was to go down to his place of business each morning shortly after ten in his car, and stay there until about four o'clock in the afternoon, taking his lunch with him and subsequently returning to Burlington Square, after which he seldom went out. He was known to be a man of considerable wealth and a collector of antique gems, as well as a dealer in precious stones. This collection was one of the finest in the kingdom, though, curiously enough, it was not kept on the premises at Burlington Square, but either deposited with his bankers or lent to some public gallery for exhibition. At the time of his death, most of those historic gems were on loan to the Corporation of Liverpool.
"On the day of his death, Mr. Everard went to the auction rooms of the famous firm of Dandy and Co. with the object of buying four complete sets of historic jewels which were on sale that afternoon. He seems to have taken no pains to conceal the fact that he intended to purchase these stones and that he was prepared to go the limit to obtain possession of them. It was an open secret; indeed, the matter has been mentioned more than once in the gossipy columns of certain daily journals. Mr. Everard attended the sale in person and succeeded in procuring the whole miniature collection which was knocked down to him, amidst applause, for a sum running well into five figures. There were thousands of people within an hour or two of the sale who knew the name of the purchaser.
"Mr. Everard left the auction room at about four o'clock in the afternoon with those precious cases in his pocket. He gave a cheque for them which was accepted by the auctioneers and, after that, the unfortunate gentleman got into his car and went straight home. And, after dining, went up to his sitting-room at the top of the house, giving his servants instructions that he was not to be disturbed for any reason. There can be no doubt that he wanted to be left entirely alone, so that he might thoroughly examine his new treasures.
"After that, we can only conjecture what happened. Probably the murderer, who had carefully studied the movements of the dead man, arrived outside the house late at night and, having satisfied himself that the servants had gone to bed, climbed up a water-pipe to the room in which Mr. Everard was seated. It is fair to assume that the assassin knew beforehand where to look for his victim and was thoroughly aware that the private sitting-room was on an upper floor. The miscreant would have several days to effect his plans, because it was common knowledge, weeks before, that Mr. Everard had every intention of purchasing those particular gems. No doubt the man responsible for the crime followed his victim to the auction rooms and satisfied himself that the deal had taken place. He probably also satisfied himself of the fact that Mr. Everard had taken the historic stuff home with him. Then, later on at night, the light in the sitting-room would prove to the murderer that his victim was alone at the top of the house, examining his recently acquired treasures. To the average cat burglar, or any one connected with the sea, the ascent of that drain pipe would not be a difficult matter; indeed, the police are already satisfied, from the examination of it, that somebody using light leg irons had climbed up to the window on the night of the crime. It would not be a difficult matter for this criminal to force the window catch and enter the room. I think we may fairly assume that something like a struggle took place and that Mr. Everard put up a much better fight than his assailant had expected. Probably the thief had gone there with no murderous intent, but quite ready, if he found himself in a tight place, to use the knife with which the murder was committed. He did use the knife and, in the course of a few hours, Mr. Everard was found dead in his sitting-room.
"So far, the police have failed to trace the man responsible for Mr. Everard's death. You will hear what the dead man's butler has to say, and the evidence of the detective-inspector who has the case in hand. We shall only be able to take formal evidence to-day, and when one or two witnesses have been examined, the inquiry will be formally adjourned."
With that, the coroner lay back in his chair and the Everard butler proceeded to give his scanty evidence. After him, came the police officer indicated by the coroner.
"I have very little to tell you, sir," he said. "The police surgeon will certify that the deceased died in consequence of a dagger thrust through the heart, which must have been immediately fatal. I have satisfied myself that when the servants at Burlington Square went to bed, the downstairs premises were properly secured and that no one entered them during the night. Moreover, when the last witness came down in the morning, everything was in absolute order, and it may be taken for granted that the murderer made his way to the upstairs sitting-room by means of a pipe outside the window. I have ascertained that in the last month the woodwork and piping of the house has been painted, and fresh scratches on the paintwork of the water-pipe have been made quite recently. I don't think there is any doubt whatever of the means used by the murderer to reach his victim. There is only one thing more I desire to mention before applying for adjournment. I am going to call the police constable who recovered the missing gems."
Something like a shout arose as the witness made this utterly unexpected dramatic statement. He stepped from the box, and the stolid-looking constable took his place.
"I was on special duty near Burlington Square on the night of the murder," the constable said, "somewhere just after eleven o'clock, when my suspicions were aroused by the movements of a man who shot past me at the corner of the square. He was wearing rubber-soled shoes, and, because of this, I hailed him. He immediately took to his heels, and I followed, blowing my whistle at the same time. Just as I got up to the man, he threw two or three objects on the pavement, and, flashing round the corner, was lost to sight. I stopped to pick up what he had dropped, and I found that they were the cases which I now produce. I saw no further signs of the criminal."
Five minutes later, Manthon was in the street. On the whole, he certainly had not been wasting time.
With an hour or two to spare, before he had to catch his train back to Lincombe, Manthon turned his steps, after leaving Burlington Rooms, in the direction of the Strand, with the intention of getting a cup of tea and smoking a cigarette in the exclusive precincts of the Senior Bohemian Club. It was some time since he had last visited that free and easy institute, and he was rather looking forward to meeting an old literary friend or two. All the same, he had plenty of food for thought as he walked along in the afternoon sunshine.
From what he could gather, it did not seem to him that the murder of Everard had been premeditated. No doubt the thief had made some error of calculation after he had climbed to the sitting-room of the house in Burlington Square, which mistake had led to his presence being discovered and the rest had followed with such tragic results. Still, there the murder was, and if Manthon could do anything to bring the miscreant to justice, then he was not going to hesitate. He would go back to Lincombe presently and tell Faber all that he had discovered. There were still one or two points which he had not disclosed to Faber, and these he would hold back no longer.
He turned into the club presently and made his way to the big smoking-room which at that time of the afternoon was practically deserted. He made out one recumbent figure, half buried in a huge arm-chair, and when his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he recognised who the individual was.
"Hullo, Scudamore," he cried. "What are you doing here? I thought you were tied to the South of France."
The man called Scudamore pulled himself up in his chair. "Why, it's Roy Manthon. My dear chap, I haven't seen you for nearly ten years. That last push just outside Mons in November, 1918. Do you remember? Here, pull up your chair and ring the bell. This meeting calls for a libation."
The two novelists chatted for some time over a whisky and soda and a cigarette before Manthon began to lead up to the subject that was uppermost in his mind.
"Look here, Scudamore," he said. "I want you to give me a bit of advice. You remember Trevor Capner?"
"Of course I do," Scudamore cried. "One of the very best. And an airman almost without equal. I was terribly cut up when I heard of his death. But where does he come in?"
"Well, personally, he doesn't come in at all," Manthon said. "It's a matter concerning a girl that he was engaged to. I have known her for many years now, and I have a very high opinion of her. I can't go into details, old chap, because the story is not altogether mine. She is a beautiful girl and an heiress to boot."
"Oho,"' Scudamore said. "A romance, I suspect."
"Nothing of the kind," Manthon said. "I might have had some inclinations that way once, but not now. Now look here, Scudamore, when a girl is prostrated with grief over the death of her lover, and, moreover, when she is of a rather neurotic turn of mind, she is just in a psychological mood to become the prey of the first adventurer who comes along."
"Yes, I think I understand," Scudamore murmured. "Who is the villain of the piece, eh?"
"I don't think we need go into that," Manthon said hastily. "In fact, I don't want to discuss the matter with you at all, if you don't mind my saying so. The reason why I brought up the topic was my recollection that during the war you were in the intelligence department of the British Army."
"That's right," Scudamore agreed. "And a precious ass I made of myself on more than one occasion. You are not going to ask me to play the private detective, are you?"
"No, of course not," Manthon smiled. "But I though perhaps you might be able to tell me the name of some colleague of yours who still carries on that sort of thing. If I had been in the intelligence department of the Army and not a mere novelist, I should most certainly have gone into business as a private inquiry agent."
"Not a bad idea, either," Scudamore agreed. "By Jove, I can tell you the name of the very man you want. Do you happen to remember George Vincent by any chance?"
"Vincent, Vincent," Manthon echoed. "Oh, Lord, yes. Sort of Lawrence in his way, wasn't he? Spoke four languages and spent half his time in Germany and Austria and the back of beyond in Turkey. A most surprising chap. I often wondered what had become of him."
"Well, he is not very far off," Scudamore explained. "He has an office in Norfolk Street. Tudor Mansions, I think the building is called. He opened a business as an inquiry agent a year or two after the war, and I believe he is doing exceedingly well. Mind you, he doesn't advertise. He calls himself a commission agent. You had better look him up in the telephone directory and give him a call."
A few moments later Manthon had discovered the name he wanted, and stepping into the sound-proof telephone box in the hall of the club, called up a certain number. Almost immediately a voice replied, asking him what he wanted.
"I want to speak to Mr. Vincent, if he is there," Manthon replied. "Tell him that Mr. Roy Manthon is on the telephone with a view to consulting him over some business."
"Very good, sir," the voice at the other end of the wire said. "If you will hold on for a minute or two I will put you through to Mr. Vincent's private room."
Presently there came the sound of another voice, and Manthon proceeded to state his business.
"Very glad you remember me, Vincent," he said. "It was Scudamore who recommended me to apply to you for assistance in a rather delicate matter. Would you mind giving me an appointment?"
"I couldn't this afternoon," Vincent said. "But if you could manage some time to-morrow. Why not meet me and let us lunch together?"
"That," Manthon said, "would suit me very well. I am calling you up from the Senior Bohemian Club, and you can come around here at one o'clock to-morrow. I think I shall be able to give you a pretty good meal, and I shall want you for at least an hour or two."
"Um, sounds rather big," Vincent said.
"Yes, it is. Most important. And from a business point of view, well worth your while. It isn't my own affair, but that of a friend of mine. And if it is a question of money, I don't care what it costs me up to three or four thousand pounds. In fact, money is no object."
"I like to hear my clients talking like that," Vincent laughed. "So long, old chap; see you to-morrow at one."
Whereupon Manthon rang off, and a little later left the club for Victoria Station. Arrived at Lincombe, he went immediately over to Faber's house and gave the latter a vivid account of the day's proceedings.
"What do you make of it?" he asked at the conclusion.
"Well, upon my word, I don't know what to say," Faber confessed. "There is one thing about which I feel pretty certain. I don't believe for a moment that there is anything supernatural about those manifestation's which seem to have made such an extraordinary impression upon Peggy Ferris. And I don't believe for a moment, either, that Sebastian Wilde has made some stupendous scientific discovery which has enabled him to see things that are taking place miles away."
"Well, I won't go quite so far as to say that," Manthon observed. "In the face of wireless and television, I am almost prepared to believe anything."
"Yes, I dare say. But just consider for a moment. You were present when Wilde was playing a sort of mumbo jumbo with that crystal globe, and you heard everything that took place. Now, are you quite convinced that Wilde's statement as to the crime he saw being committed was not just coincidence?"
"I don't see how it could be," Manthon said. "The details tallied too accurately. And all the time those spirit rappings went on. No, I don't think we ought to rule out the possibilities altogether of Wilde having found out something new. That would be a mistake on out part."
"Very well, then," Faber said. "Let's get down to another point of view. Here is an elderly inventor of apparently benevolent nature, who gazes into a crystal and sees a brutal murder being enacted. Did he show any signs of horror or repulsion? Was he at all distracted?"
"Now I come to think of it," Manthon said, "he wasn't. He spoke more or less as a man in a dream. You know what I mean. I dare say you have had a horrible dream or two in your time without feeling particularly upset about it. Well, that is the impression that Wilde gave me."
"Very likely," the more practical Faber said. "But I am a gross materialist. I have no use whatever for the spiritualistic side of things. I believe, myself, that there is some logical explanation of the whole thing. I couldn't for the life of me say how the thing was done, but don't forget that Wilde has a confidential private secretary. I mean that chap we call the india-rubber man Ebbsmith. Has it ever occurred to you that he could tell us a few things if he liked?"
"Well, yes," Manthon said. "It did not occur to me that possibly Ebbsmith could throw some light on the mystery. I think I will mention him when I see Vincent to-morrow."
Punctual to the moment, Captain George Vincent made his appearance at the Senior Bohemian, and, after an elaborate lunch with his old acquaintance, suggested that they should adjourn to the office in Norfolk-street, where they could talk over the business without any chance of interruption.
They were three modest rooms in which Vincent conducted his negotiations. There was no suggestion of mystery about the offices, and nothing to lead the most astute mind to the conclusion that Vincent was engaged in anything but the most prosaic occupation. He seated himself in a chair and indicated another to Manthon. Then cigarettes were lighted, and Manthon sat down to tell his story.
Vincent listened to the end without moving a feature until the recital was finished to the last detail.
"Very remarkable," he said at length. "It seems to me that you are up against a most striking intellectual force. Now would you mind telling me how long this brilliant genius Sebastian Wilde has been living in Lincombe?"
"Certainly not more than three or four years," Manthon explained. "If he wasn't——"
"Just one moment," Vincent interrupted. "It is a small point, but are you quite sure that Sebastian Wilde is the physical wreck you take him for? In other words, are you certain that his lower limbs are paralysed?"
"Absolutely," Manthon replied. "That point occurred to me and I tested him only a day or two ago. I struck him with the edge of a book under his right knee-cap when he had one leg crossed over the other and there was no reaction whatever. I am absolutely sure he never felt the touch of that book, though I did deal him a very smart blow. And when I apologised, pretending that I had seen a wasp buzzing about his knee, he assured me that he had felt nothing, and I am certain that he told me the truth."
"Ah, well, it doesn't much matter. Now, you have lived in Lincombe for a long time, haven't you?"
"Well, I might say more or less all my life," Manthon agreed. "True, I was born at Marchwick, some twenty miles away; but the house I lived in belonged to my father and as a boy I spent a lot of time there. You see, I am very seldom in Town; I hate London. I wouldn't live here if you paid me."
"Just so, just so," Vincent said. "I take it that Lincombe is just a mere village where everybody knows everybody else's business? That being so, you would be pretty certain to know whether Wilde had visitors or not."
"I think we can take that for granted. I can't recollect anybody ever staying at Monkshole."
"Ah, I rather expected you to say that. Now, here we have a great scientist on his own showing, on the verge of an amazing discovery, who shuts himself away from the world and sees nobody except a rather mysterious private secretary who does not appear to be scientifically inclined himself. Of course, it may be that Wilde is of rather a jealous nature and careful to guard his secrets from the prying eye of his fellow-savants. But, on the other hand, he may be hiding. Let us suppose for a moment that he is a master criminal. Let us argue that the police in one or two countries would be very pleased to meet him. Now, what better disguise could a man of that sort have than that of a scientist? Let us assume, for a moment, if you like, that he wears some sort of physical make up which is entirely different from his real appearance."
"By Jove. I never thought of that," Manthon said.
"No, I don't suppose you have. But I am merely suggesting possibilities. According to your account, Sebastian Wilde is playing on the nerves of Miss Ferris. All that stuff about crystal globes watching murders being committed seems to me very much like the paraphernalia used by fraudulent mediums to delude their victims. Quite recently, something of the sort came within my experience. Spirit messages and music, through a long silver trumpet. All done to impress an elderly lady who had more money than sense. But I managed to get hold of that trumpet directly after the lights had gone up, and I found the mouth of it not only warm but moist. So that put an end to the swindle I am speaking about, and my old lady client told me only a day or two ago that she could not be sufficiently grateful. Mind you, I am not saying there is nothing in spiritualism, because very likely there is. But my experience is that whenever mechanical appliances are used, then fraud is not far off. And don't you forget that some of the finest brains in this country have been utterly deceived by so-called mediums who are no more than clever conjurers. And, unless I am greatly mistaken, that is what we shall find Sebastian Wilde to be. However, I don't want to waste your time on generalisms like this, so, if you don't mind, we will get to the point."
"What is the point?" Manthon asked.
"The particular point in this case is how, Wilde, fifty miles away from London, knew all about that murder. According to what you tell me, Miss Ferris was shut up with Wilde in his library between eleven and twelve o'clock on that fateful night. And I have not the slightest doubt that before midnight the murder took place. How did Wilde know that?"
"Ah, there you have me guessing," Manthon admitted.
"Well, I am going to do a bit of guessing myself. I suggest that the man who committed that murder was well known to Wilde, and that he burgled the house in Burlington Square practically at Wilde's instigation. I don't suppose for a moment that murder was contemplated, but whoever committed the crime made a noise in entering the sitting-room and a struggle followed. There can be no doubt about that whatever, because you heard Wilde say so. What beats me is that a man of Wilde's intellect should have been vain enough to have told Miss Ferris what he saw in the crystal. He naturally imagined she would read all about the crime in the newspapers and recognise the faithfulness of it from his description."
"But it would be very impressive," Manthon pointed out.
"Tremendously impressive." Vincent agreed. "So much so that Wilde could not resist the temptation. All the same, it was a mad thing to do. Still, probably he thought that Miss Ferris would never mention it to a soul, which is where he made a mistake, because it is exceedingly perilous to show a highly-strung woman things of that sort. Now, let us go a little further. You are in a position to prove that Wilde is in desperate straits for money. He has an execution in his house at the present moment, which is the third in the course of a comparatively short time. That you know from what your useful ally, Joe Biddle, told you."
"He told me more than that," Manthon pointed out. "Don't forget that Wilde went out of his way to tell Biddle that the debt would be paid within a few hours. Well, as a matter of fact, the debt was paid within a few hours, and Wilde was so desperately in need of cash that he borrowed five hundred pounds from me. I don't mind telling you I lent him that money, not because I particularly wanted to, but because I was anxious that he should not be sold up and driven out of the neighbourhood. Well, I prevented that, anyway."
"Not a bad move on your part, either," Vincent said approvingly. "Another question: Where is Ebbsmith at the present moment? Is he in Lincombe?"
"No, he isn't," Manthon said. "He went to London by car a day or two before the affair in Burlington Square, and has not returned since. Significant, isn't it?"
"More than significant," Vincent said under his breath. "It may sound like a wild theory, but I am rather inclined to believe that Ebbsmith is responsible for the death of Mr. Everard. Of course, you may not agree with me."
"I rather think I do," Manthon said. "Taking all the facts into consideration, everything points that way. It was no secret that Mr. Everard was after those jewels, and practically all London knew that he had bought them within an hour or two of the sale. It is more than possible that Ebbsmith was present in the auction rooms and saw this transaction put through."
"Certain," Vincent declared. "And he had all his plans arranged beforehand. By some means or another, Ebbsmith contrived to learn all about the domestic arrangements in Mr. Everard's house, and, therefore, the housebreaking side of the transaction was not difficult. But what Ebbsmith did not reckon on was being spotted by a policeman and followed. He was so frightened that he threw the jewel cases away, so that if he happened to fall into the hands of the police before he found shelter somewhere, he would be able to declare that he had nothing whatever to do with the crime. Now, he managed to get to his lodgings or his hiding-place or something of that sort, and immediately he did so, he contrived, by some subterranean means, to communicate with Wilde at Lincombe. Within a few minutes of the murder Wilde knew all about it, and, again, a few minutes later, he knew that Ebbsmith had failed in his mission. How this was done we have yet to find out. But I am certain it is by some mechanical means or another."
"You are making out a pretty good case," Manthon smiled.
"My dear chap, that is just the reason why you employed me. I think, if you don't mind, we won't worry ourselves at present with the medium through which communication is established between those two scoundrels. Monkshole is the headquarters of the conspiracy, but there must be a branch office in London somewhere. Where that branch office is I don't know, but I am going to find out. For the next few days I shall be devoted to what I call donkey work. You must contrive to find out, possibly through Joe Biddle, where Ebbsmith is at present. I am quite convinced that he is in London somewhere. If you can put me on his track, then I will have him followed up by one or two of my sleuths, and you can rest assured that in the course of a few days I shall know all about Mr. James Ebbsmith and his associates. I suppose you don't know where he came from in the first place."
"I haven't the remotest idea," Manthon said. "I know he knows nothing whatever about science or things of that sort, and I don't believe he is a man of very much education. We call him the india-rubber man, because he is so lithe and active. Just the sort of man that you could imagine swarming up a drain-pipe in search of loot somewhere in the West End. However, when I get back home, I will try and see Biddle tonight, and see if he can find out where Ebbsmith is to be found."
"Perhaps Wilde writes to him," Vincent suggested.
"I don't think he does. Why should he? If they have some secret means of communicating with one another, there is no occasion for correspondence, and, anyway, correspondence is apt to be dangerous. No, I don't think we shall be able to work it that way. I know this, that Ebbsmith is very often in Town. He comes and goes at all sorts of odd times. Why not run down to Lincombe yourself and spend a day or two with me? Nobody could possibly connect you with a private inquiry office. If you can manage to get away for a long week-end and keep an eye upon Ebbsmith, then you can follow him to Town in your own car, and mark his hiding place for yourself."
"That's not a bad idea," Vincent cried. "You say that money is no object so far as this case is concerned, so I will put everything else on one side and devote myself to the mystery that surrounds Miss Ferris. When Ebbsmith turns up next, you can give me a call on the telephone and I will be in Lincombe within a couple of hours."
The two parted at length, and Manthon made his way back to Lincombe once more. It was on the third day that he sent his telephone message to Vincent, and, on the following Saturday, Vincent, after spending three or four days with Manthon, came into the library hurriedly and announced the fact that he was returning to Town without delay.
"Something has transpired?" Manthon asked.
"You have it," Vincent said. "I was in the village tobacconist's shop just now when Ebbsmith came in. He happened to mention to the shopkeeper quite casually that he was motoring up to London this afternoon at three o'clock, so I came here and packed my bag. I shall be after him almost before he has left the village. Things are beginning to move, Manthon."
"Meaning that you are going to London at once?" Manthon asked. "But what's the matter?"
Captain George Vincent placed himself in such a position that he could command a view of the high road.
"That's the idea," he said. "I will just stay where I am till I see Ebbsmith go by and then follow him. I don't want him to suspect what is the object I have in view, so I am travelling to Town just as I am. I will get you to put a label on my suit-case and send it by train to my private address."
"I can do that," Manthon said. "Or leave the case at your office, if you like. I have half arranged to go to London this afternoon myself with Faber. We are paying a visit to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington to try and ascertain the exact value of those plaster casts."
"What plaster casts?" Vincent asked curtly.
"Oh, didn't I tell you? Come to think of it, I didn't."
Briefly, Manthon related the history of the imprints outside his own house and that of Faber, to which Vincent listened with a rather sardonic smile.
"There you go," he said. "Now didn't I tell you to let me know everything in connection with this business? And yet, but for a mere accident, I should never have heard a word about an attempted burglary both here and at Faber's."
"Yes, but why should you think that had any connection with Miss Ferris and her trouble?"
"I don't," Vincent said. "But you never can tell. It is just as likely as not that this mystery is part of Wilde's scheme. I don't see how it fits in at present, but I may later on. It's like this——"
Vincent broke off abruptly and strode in the direction of the door. At that moment a car passed along the main road, and Manthon had just time to see that the man, James Ebbsmith, was at the wheel. Without another word Vincent ran down the garden and out into the road where his own car was drawn up, waiting for him to take his place. Five minutes later he was out of sight. Then Manthon called up Faber on the telephone, and within half an hour the two of them were on their way to London, and, late in the afternoon found themselves in the office of one of the curators of South Kensington Museum.
"Oh, yes," that individual said, when Faber had finished his story. "You have come to the right place, I think. If you will show me what you have, then I may be able to give you all the information that you require."
"Well, you see, it is like this, Professor Simpson," Faber said. "I don't know if my visiting card conveys anything to you, but I am pretty well known as a big game hunter."
"Yes, I am aware of that," the Professor smiled. "I have heard of you from several of my friends. I believe that we have two or three specimens of rare animals which you presented to the museum a few years ago."
"Well, that makes matters rather easier," Faber said. "I have brought certain plaster casts with me, and I have them in a box. They puzzle me entirely. Mind you, I am not a scientific naturalist, and I don't claim to speak with any authority, but I do know the spoor of pretty well every wild animal that haunts the jungle or the forest, but I have never come upon one exactly like the specimens I have brought with me."
"Were they taken on the spot?" the Professor asked. "I mean, were the casts recorded in the wild?"
"No, they were not," Faber explained. "They were found outside my house on a flower bed. I might say that other casts of an exactly similar nature were taken on some soft soil in the garden of my friend here. On the two occasions I am speaking of, an undoubted attempt to burgle our premises by some mysterious individual was made, and that he, or it, was disturbed without any losses sustained. Mr. Manthon actually saw the creature, though it was in the middle of the night and too dark for him to make anything definite of it."
"That is quite true," Manthon took up the tale. "I saw the outline of the thing, and it looked to me like a huge chimpanzee. I fired at it but apparently without effect, because it got clear of the premises and I didn't see it again. But I found the marks of it on some soft soil outside and we took impressions of it in plaster of Paris. So far as we can see, both sets of footprints exactly tally."
"A most extraordinary story," the Professor murmured.
"Yes, isn't it," Manthon agreed. "You may laugh at us, but we are under the impression that we are on the track of something new in the way of burglary. Our theory is that somebody has trained an ape to enter people's houses and get away with what he can lay his hands on."
"Well, it is not such a wild theory, after all," the Professor said. "I suppose you got that idea after having watched that clever ape Consul and his entertainment."
"Precisely," Faber said. "You see, given an ape with that amazing intelligence, it would not be a difficult matter to train him to distinguish the difference between valuable and common articles. And just consider the advantage of having an animal like that. He could go where no man could and climb up the side of a house, if necessary. However, this is all mere speculation. What we want to know, if you can tell us, is the name of the creature we are trying to identify."
The casts were produced and for a long time the Professor studied them through his spectacles. There was a puzzled frown on his face, as if he was not quite sure of his ground.
"I can't make this out at all," he said at length. "As a matter of fact, those impressions are none too good. I think I shall have to photograph them, then I can enlarge the negative and we may get results. But that will take time. However, if you are in no hurry, we will get on with it."
There was no hurry, and for an hour or so Manthon and Faber killed time as best they could whilst the Professor was out of the room with his photographer. He came back presently with a photograph in his hand. It was an enlargement, over a foot in diameter, and so clear that even the faintest lines were visible on the face of the print. With a magnifying glass the Professor made a still further examination.
"Well?" Faber asked eagerly. "Well?"
"Oh, yes," the Professor smiled. "I think we have got to the bottom of the mystery. You see, with a photograph like this, showing every trivial detail, it is possible to speak more positively. As a matter of fact, this is not the imprint of the foot or paw of any animal, but just a very large and well-defined human hand."
Faber and Manthon stared at the speaker in astonishment.
"Are you quite sure?" the latter asked.
"Absolutely," the Professor said almost curtly. "Examine the print for yourself under this powerful magnifying glass. The line of life is perfectly distinct; moreover, you can see the whorls and lines of the skin. It is a most unusual hand, very long and very narrow and indicating great muscular power. If it had been paws of an ape, then, as the impressions are so deep, the camera would certainly have recorded the claws and the end of the fingers. Here there are no claws to be seen. No, there is no doubt whatever about it, gentlemen—you are looking at the photograph of a human hand."
"Wait a minute," Faber exclaimed. "I went over all the ground carefully and I am quite sure that I didn't miss an imprint of any sort. If you are prepared to accept that statement, then let me ask you a question. Where are the feet-marks? There must have been feet-marks and yet they didn't exist. There was no dragging of the soil, either, as if a man had been crawling on his hands and knees. It seems a most remarkable thing that the burglar, if he had been a human being, should have left no trace of anything but his hands."
"Ah, there you are travelling out side my orbit," the Professor smiled. "I am a scientist and not a detective. There is no doubt that there is something mysterious behind this business, but I think you will admit that it is no concern of mine. I showed that photograph to two or three of my colleagues upstairs and they all agree with me that we have here a human hand. In view of those lines, it would be impossible to deny it. I think if you gentlemen want to go any further in this business, it would be as well for you to call in Scotland Yard."
It was a very logical explanation and both Manthon and Faber were inclined to agree with it. It was quite plain to them now that the ape theory would have to be abandoned, and that they would have to look elsewhere for a solution of the mystery.
"Not that it much matters," Faber said, once they were outside. "Still, I should very much like to know how our burglar friend managed to get away, leaving nothing but the impression of his hands behind him. It is not sense to ask us to believe that the fellow dropped out of the bedroom window to the garden beneath on his hands and got away without further injury. It begins to look to me as if these mysterious attempts at burglary have nothing to do with the peril in which Peggy Ferris stands at the present moment. Just strange coincidences. I think we had better forget all about them."
"I am inclined to agree with you," Manthon said. "What shall we do now?"
"Go somewhere and get some tea, I suppose," Faber said. "Yes, and don't forget that we have to drop that suit-case at Vincent's office. It is just possible he may be back there by this time, and will have something to tell us."
They hailed a taxi, into which Faber threw the boxes of casts and Vincent's suit-case, and drove off in the direction of the Strand. They broke their journey whilst they had tea at the Senior Bohemian Club and discussed afresh the strange things that had happened in the course of the afternoon.
"All the same," Manthon said, "we don't seem to get much further, old chap. When we found those prints, and I hit upon the chimpanzee in the priest's hole, I really thought we had got hold of something that we could tie round Wilde's neck. And now all that has gone phut and poor little Peggy seems to be in more danger than ever."
"I am afraid she is," Faber agreed. "But I would not think so much about her, if I were you."
"Well, I am not thinking about her in that way at all. I have been a bit of an ass, Basil, as far as Peggy is concerned, like a man who can't see the wood for the trees. Funny how we are so often blind to our own interests, and how we stretch out our hands for a thing we think we want, when the thing that is really intended for us is holding out its hand."
"In other words?" Faber asked.
"Well, in other words, I am just Peggy's friend and no more. You don't want me to speak any more plainly than that. Now, come along, let's get rid of this blessed suit-case and make the best of our way home again."
Meanwhile, Vincent had been steadily pursuing the yellow car in front of him all the way from Lincombe to London. His own two-seater was faster than the one in front, so that it was an easy matter to lie back a couple of hundred yards or so and keep Ebbsmith in sight. They went on and on, right into the heart of London, until Ebbsmith steered his way into one of the narrow streets close to the British Museum. There he pulled up and, jumping out of the car, entered a tall, shabby-looking house in front of him with the aid of a latchkey which he took from his pocket for that purpose. Evidently, Ebbsmith had a sort of pied-a-terre here, for he bustled up the steps with the air of a man who is thoroughly at home and never so much as looked over his shoulder when he slipped the key in the lock. The front door closed behind him and, as Vincent slid leisurely by, he saw that the number of the house was six, for a shabby figure to that effect showed on the fanlight in front of a dingy card containing the one word "Apartments." Vincent smiled as he noted the placard, then he drew up his car against the pavement a few doors away and sat at the wheel with the air of one who is waiting the coming of another.
At the expiration of half an hour, Ebbsmith left No. 6, Cannon Street, and bustled along in the direction of the Museum. As he faded out of sight, Vincent pushed in the clutch and, in a short time, reached his own office. There he handed over the car to the office boy with instructions to garage it and, after that, went up to his own private room, from which he emerged a few moments later changed beyond recognition.
He was no longer the smartly dressed man of the world with a slightly military bearing, but a bronzed individual with a heavy moustache and short, stubbly beard. His broad-shouldered coat and nobby boots suggested the American of a certain class; in fact, Vincent might have been a prospector who had been successful in his undertakings and was now in England with the object of finding someone to finance a silver mine, or something of that sort. With a short pipe between his teeth, he crossed the Strand and made his way along Endall Street and Gower Street until he came, at length, to the shady thoroughfare where he had tracked Ebbsmith down. For a little time he wandered about in an aimless sort of way, and then, as if suddenly making up his mind, crossed the road and rang the bell of number six. A slatternly maid-of-all-work answered the door and none too politely inquired the stranger's business.
"Got lodgings to let, haven't you?" Vincent asked.
The grubby handmaiden smiled tentatively.
"That's right," she said. "Like to see the missus? Come inside and I'll call 'er."
Vincent pushed his way into a shabby hall and stood there until the tenant of the house appeared. She was just as he had expected, hard looking, stony-faced female of uncertain years whose rather sour expression and bleak eye indicated one who found it none too easy to keep abreast of fortune.
"My name is Mattey," Vincent said. "I am a Colonial. Just come back from Canada, where I have been living the last fifteen years. I have got business in London that will occupy me for some weeks and, on the other hand, I may settle it all in a day or two. If I do settle it, then I shall take the first boat back to Canada again and that's that. But I've got to find somewhere to stay in the meantime and I haven't got any use for these hotels. What I want is a nice quiet sitting and bedroom, or bed-sitting-room where I can do as I like and no questions asked. Gas ring and that sort of thing where I can cook my own food. If you have got anything of the sort vacant in your house, I would like to have a look at it and no questions asked. We shan't quarrel about terms, either."
The sour-faced woman smiled bleakly.
"It so happens that I've got just what you want," she said. "You can have a bedroom and a sitting-room, or if you prefer a large bed-sitting-room on the top floor facing the street, you can have it. There is a gas ring and a gas fire in the big bed-sitting-room, and it's two pounds a week."
As the woman spoke, she looked somewhat defiantly at Vincent, as if challenging him to question her terms.
"Bit stiff, isn't it?" he asked. "However, we won't say anything about it until I have seen the rooms."
"And a fortnight in advance," the woman said.
"Oh, that's all right," Vincent agreed. "Quite fair and reasonable. You don't know me or anything about me and I haven't got any luggage to speak of. There is a box of mine down at the docks which I shall fetch presently if we come to terms, and I can get my wardrobe a bit at a time as I want it. Now let's give that room of yours a once over."
The landlady led the way up to the top of the house and showed Vincent a comparatively large room, by no means badly furnished, in which stood a table and a couple of arm-chairs and a bed in an alcove which was concealed by a curtain.
"There you are, sir," she said. "You can come in any time you like and stay as long as you please. All I ask is a week's notice before you leave, and, as I said before, a fortnight's rent paid in advance. I am not a grasping woman, but you have got to be careful in London and I have been done more than once, though I am as cautious as I can be."
Vincent took a five-pound note from his pocket and handed it over to his landlady.
"There you are," he said. "Short reckonings make long friends. When that has run out, let me know, and I will give you another bill to go on with. I shan't want any cooking done, only my bed made when I am out and my boots cleaned and that sort of thing. I am used to roughing it and I have made myself comfortable in worse quarters than these. All I want is quiet. I hope you haven't got any noisy lodgers."
"That I haven't," the woman said. "There is an old woman and gentleman on the ground floor and a foreigner who teaches languages has the drawing-room suite. Then, behind you, is a single man who is a sort of commercial traveller. As he is away from London about half his time, you will have this floor almost to yourself."
"Yes, that sounds all right," Vincent said. "What's the name of the man who has the room behind mine?"
"Name of Ebbsmith," the woman said. "Very quiet, his is, and keeps hisself quite to hisself. Pays regular and no trouble to nobody. Been with me for the last two years."
After a few desultory remarks of the same nature, Vincent, on the plea of fetching his box and getting certain provisions, obtained the usual latchkey and sauntered out into the street. A little later he was back in his office again, where he found Manthon and Faber awaiting him. They stared in something like embarrassment as they came into the private office to find themselves confronted with an individual who, apparently, had just returned from the back woods.
"Ah, well," Vincent said. "You don't recognise me. I knew you wouldn't. This is rather a favourite disguise of mine, and one that I always find to be effective."
"It certainly is," Manthon agreed.
"Well, never mind that," Vincent said. "I have not been wasting my afternoon. I have tracked Ebbsmith to a house in Cannon-street, Bloomsbury, close to the British Museum, where he has a small sitting-room and bedroom. He has made no attempt to disguise his name and, according to his landlady, is supposed to be a commercial traveller. You see, that gives him a good excuse for being frequently out of town and coming and going as he likes. As a matter of fact, I have booked a bed-sitting-room on the same floor as Ebbsmith's apartments and there I propose to stay, in this disguise, until he goes back to Lincombe. I shall be able to keep a close eye on him, and it won't be my fault if I don't know a great deal more about his sitting-room and bedroom within a few hours than I do now."
"You certainly have not lost any time," Manthon said. "Now, suppose we want to communicate with you? How are we going to do it? It wouldn't be safe to telephone."
"It certainly would not," Vincent agreed. "Besides, it is any odds that there is no telephone in the shabby-genteel house in Cannon-street. I don't see why you shouldn't write to me. My present pseudonym is Mattey—John Mattey. What I am after now is to discover the means by which certain events happening in London are transmitted to Wilde at Lincombe. There must be some logical explanation of it, quite outside any suggestion of the supernatural. And, unless I am greatly mistaken, Ebbsmith has the key to the puzzle in Cannon-street. In the meantime, you two can go quietly back home and wait upon events. Directly I have anything to communicate, I will let you know. You see, I can walk in and out of my office in this disguise without anybody being any the wiser, except my own staff, and I can trust every one of them. I can go to Cannon-street as John Mattey and do my work there, and then, if necessary, I can come back here and be myself again. We have made a very good start, but, unless I am greatly mistaken, there is a lot to be done before we run these two scoundrels to earth."
A few minutes later the conference came to an end, and having finished his afternoon's work, Vincent, in his disguise, strolled back to Cannon-street. He had arranged to deliver a battered-looking box containing his wardrobe and certain cooking utensils and these arrived in the course of the evening. Then, having procured a small supply of provisions, he fried himself a steak and made an omelette over the gas-ring.
He could hear his next-door neighbour moving about in the sitting-room, and smiled as he realised how thin the partition wall was between his own quarters and those of Ebbsmith. It was nearly dark before he had placed everything away, neatly, and in order, and then walked down the stairs with the idea of amusing himself for an hour or two at some picture palace or music hall. As he opened the front door, he came in contact with a big flashily-dressed individual whose air and manner had a suggestion of the circus ring about him. He was a large man, with a heavy moustache of the cavalry type and an overpowering suit of clothes in broad black and white checks. On both hands were what might, by courtesy, be called diamond rings, and another flash-looking stone glittered in a tie that was clamant in its colouring.
"Here, say," the gorgeous apparition remarked. "I guess you live in this location."
"You guess, right," Vincent said. "Why?"
"Waal, if you do, I calculate you know a boarder of the name of Ebbsmith. Is he at home?"
Vincent assured the stranger that such was the case and advised the newcomer to make his way up to the top of the house and knock on the first door at the back. As the man disappeared, Vincent retraced his steps up the stairs very softly.
Vincent stole quietly back behind the flashily dressed man and saw him, presently, hammering on the door of Ebbsmith's sitting-room. Then in the opening appeared the face of the india-rubber man and a stifled cry broke from his lips. Vincent could see how pale and agitated he was.
"Good Lord," Ebbsmith cried. "Dick Barrs."
"Yes, I guess that's me," the flashily dressed man said, with a shade of triumph in his voice. "You didn't expect a visit after all these years, what? Thought I was still on the other side of the big drink. Waal, going to ask me in?"
"Oh, come on," Ebbsmith stammered, and carefully closed the door behind him as the stranger disappeared.
Very quietly, Vincent entered his own room and then crossed to the wall next to the adjoining apartment and laid his ear to it. At some time or another, the two rooms had been one, so that the partition was a light and fragile one. It was quite possible, standing there, to hear everything that was going on in the next room. Apparently, the big man had thrown himself into a chair, for Vincent heard a creak and then, for a minute or two, there was nothing but the scratching of a match, as if the newcomer was lighting a pipe or a cigarette.
"What do you want?" Ebbsmith asked.
"What do I want," the other man echoed. "That's a pretty nice question for you to ask me. Just cast your mind back to what happened in the States five years ago. There were three of us in the business then—you and me and the man we used to call the professor. When I speak of the Professor, I mean that two-faced scoundrel Sebastian Wilde. I suppose you don't happen to know what has become of him."
"I haven't the remotest idea," Ebbsmith said readily.
"Gee, what a liar you are," the man called Barrs said with a certain tone of admiration in his voice. "You know where he is as well as I do."
"Then if you know, why ask me?" Ebbsmith murmured sulkily.
"Oh, just to test you. Now, look here. Five years ago the three of us were making almost as much money as we wanted. We had the finest stunt in the way of a show that ever toured the Pacific Coast. There was the Professor with those electrical stunts of his, and you with your conjuring tricks and your contortionist displays. We could rake in a clear profit of six or seven thousand dollars a week and expenses didn't amount to much. If you two had been content to stay with me, we should all have been rich men by this time. But no, that was not good enough, so you put your heads together and double-crossed me, and left poor old Dick Barrs to fend for himself. I would not have minded so much if you hadn't forged those cheques on my banking account and stripped me bare. And I wouldn't have minded so much, either, if you had left Gobo behind. If you had done that, I could easily have trained another man to play your original part of the human monkey."
"Now, look here, Dick," Ebbsmith began.
"Here, cut it out," the other interrupted. "I am doing all the talking at present and don't you forget it. And when I put a question to you, you just answer it. Where is Sebastian Wilde at the present moment?"
"How should I know?" Ebbsmith said eagerly. "We parted company long ago."
"Oh, that's a fact, is it? Quarrelled over the plunder, I suppose. Here, what sort of a jay do you take me for? Might just as well tell the truth and have done with it. And listen to me, Jim Ebbsmith; what do you know about an old gentleman called Everard who lived in this berg at a place called Burlington Square? Don't hurry; take your time."
Standing with his ear to the wall, Vincent could hear the swift indrawing of Ebbsmith's breath and the queer, strangled cry that rose to his lips.
"All right," the big man went on mockingly. "As I said before, take your time."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Ebbsmith contrived to gasp. "I never heard——"
"Oh, all right, all right. Lapse of memory, I guess. I am speaking about the old gentleman who had a weakness for collecting historic diamonds. The man who was murdered in his private sitting-room in his house a few days ago by a cat burglar who got away with the goods. But he didn't get very far before one of the busies was after him. So he had to drop the plunder in case he was picked up with the sparklers in his possession. He managed to get away all right and I dare say he thinks he is safe. But he ain't, Ebbsmith, he ain't—that is, not unless he behaves himself. When I read that piece in one of the London papers, I began to see daylight. It was just the sort of stunt you used to work in California——"
"We used to work, you mean," Ebbsmith corrected.
"Oh, very well, we, if you like. I found the money for those little stunts and you and Gobo did the work and we shared the plunder equally between the three of us. Any decent chap would have been satisfied; but then you and the Professor, as we used to call Wilde, never had enough. If he had left those experiments of his alone, he might have retired from the profession and become a member of Congress or something of that sort. But that wasn't good enough for friend Sebastian. Always got a bee in his bonnet, he had. Always on the verge of some wonderful discovery that was going to shake the world and chucking his money about in the purchase of machinery like so much water. I suppose that is why he robbed me in the end and persuaded you to come to England with him. Where is he?"
"Upon my soul," Ebbsmith started to protest.
"Now, cut it out, cut it out. What is the good of trying to humbug me? When I brought my little show to England two years ago, I swore I would track you down if it cost me my last penny. I am going to have everything back that you two stole from me and a lot more besides. I suppose you would be surprised if I told you that I saw you the day those diamonds were sold to Mr. Everard in the sale room. I wandered in there quite by chance, and the first person I spotted there was my dear old friend Jimmy Ebbsmith. So I kept in the background and watched. I saw the old gentleman go off with his plunder, and I saw you follow him to his own house in a taxi. I was in another taxi, just behind, and, well, putting two and two together, it didn't take me long to make up my mind that Jimmy Ebbsmith, the human ape, was up to his old tricks. When, later on, I saw the account of that murder in the papers, I was absolutely certain of it. I have got you in the hollow of my hand."
"What do you want?" Ebbsmith burst out.
"What do I want? To get my own back, of course. And to have my share in the profits of Sebastian Wilde's inventions. I have been dogging you for the last week, I don't mind telling you. I have been down to Lincombe and know all about the old house there which is called Monkshole. I have not been inside it, but I have seen Sebastian Wilde. I wonder what would happen if I were to drop a few lines to the chief of police in San Francisco telling him that a certain benevolent old gentleman in much respected scientific circles in England is none other than this individual called Slippery Sam."
"Go on," Ebbsmith groaned. "I can see you know all about it. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to do a great many things. What is more, you will do them at my own price, so will our dear friend Sebastian for that matter. He isn't much use bodily since that accident of his, but he has got the big brain all right and that is what I shall need a bit later on. Tell me, what has become of Gobo? Have you got him still, or is he dead?"
Vincent, listening intently to the conversation, pricked up his ears. Who and what was this mysterious Gobo? It didn't sound like the name of a man, neither did the tone of the conversation suggest a human being. Vincent racked his brains to remember anything that Manthon and Faber had told him with regard to an animal, save that they had been under the impression that a monkey was mixed up in the mysterious business of those two attempted burglaries. It was rather unfortunate, in the circumstances, that in telling his story of the visits to Monkshole, Manthon had said nothing about the chimpanzee which he had found in the cave where he had stumbled on the motor bicycle.
But Ebbsmith's next words made that position clear.
"Oh, Gobo is all right," he said. "Getting a bit old now, but just as spry and as full of tricks as ever."
"That's good hearing," Barrs said. "Because we are going to make use of Gobo and put a good many thousands of English pounds in our pockets. Do you remember that stunt of the burgled house? I mean the one that was our star turn?"
"Of course I do," Ebbsmith replied.
"Very well, then. I propose to revive that in England. I have been all round the provinces for the last year or two making a kind of a sort of a living, but leaving precious little to spare in the way of luxury. My Home of Illusion scheme is only a shadow of what it used to be; but if I can get you and the chimpanzee back into it again, then there is a gold mine in it. I start on a fresh circuit the week after next, opening in the drill hall at Marchwick."
"Oh, do you?" Ebbsmith cried. "Marchwick is only about twenty miles away from the village where we are hiding."
"Yes, I know that. I am opening in Marchwick for a couple of nights and then moving along close to Lincombe, following those local cattle fairs. Of course, in those jay villages, I can't get halls lofty enough for my purpose, so I am carrying a tent. But I am hoping to get one or two London managers down to see that show at Marchwick with a view to contracts in this metropolis at top of the bill terms. Once we get a start of that sort, then the rest will be all right. But do you think Gobo is up to the work, as he used to be?"
"I am perfectly sure he is," Ebbsmith replied. "Nobody has ever seen him since we have been at Monkshole. He spends a lot of time in the house and he is just as clever as ever he was. Now, look here, Barrs, by a bit of good luck you have got a strong hold over me and I have got to do what you want me to. But let me tell you this—Sebastian Wilde is a far greater genius than ever you took him for. Oh, I know that in the old days we were nothing better than three ordinary crooks, but Wilde is far beyond that. He really is a genius and on the verge of discoveries which will shake the world. And when he gets those through, then he will be a millionaire ten times over."
"And in the meantime he hasn't a bob, I suppose?"
"Well, there is something in that," Ebbsmith agreed. "We make a few hundred occasionally in the old way and, so far, we haven't been laid by the heels. But it is infernally risky business in a country like this, where you can't bribe the police, and where you can't hide if you get into their clutches. There are times when we have creditors in possession at Monkshole and the matters are very critical indeed. Only a day or two ago Wilde was forced to borrow a few hundred pounds from a neighbour of his to save his machinery from being sold up. I wonder if you would like to help him out?"
"If I thought it worth while," Barrs said. "But then, as I told you just now I have got nothing. By the time I have paid for the drill hall at Marchwick and the advertising, I shall be down to my last fifty dollars. But if all goes well and you will consent to play your old part and bring Gobo in as your assistant, then you shall have half the takings and not another word said. But, mind you, I am not going to be double-crossed this time. If I like to drop a line to Scotland Yard, you will find yourself pulled in for the murder of Mr. Everard, and once the police get their hands on you, they will never let go. More than that, if I liked to drop another line to the police in San Francisco, there would be an end to the activities of Sebastian Wilde for some weeks to come. I don't want to act as informer, and I don't want to do you any harm, but you have served me in a way I can't forget, and I am not going to, either. I don't know what game you are up to here, lodging in London, because that is no business of mine. I dare say that you have got some deep scheme on for putting money in your pockets, and you can carry on without interference from me. But if there is a fortune, as you say, in Wilde's inventions, then I am going to have my share of it. You had better shut down here for the present and go down to Lincombe and tell Wilde all that has happened in this room to-night. Tell him I am going to have a third share in everything. I will be in your neighbourhood in a day or two, when I will run over to Lincombe and have a chat with my dear old pal. There can be no harm in doing that, because nobody knows anything about me in this country and we have got to settle things on pretty definite lines. Now, don't you forget to let Sebastian Wilde know that I have got you boys by the short hair. I wonder——"
The speaker paused and Vincent heard him walking rapidly up and down the sitting-room. Then he came to a stop at length, and threw himself into the creaking chair again.
"I have got an idea, Ebbsmith," he said in a hoarse whisper. "You say that Wilde wants money badly; in fact, we all do. I think I can see your way of getting two or three thousand pounds in ready money without much trouble. There is a certain amount of risk, but I don't mind sharing it if you are game."
"Oh, I am game right enough," Ebbsmith declared. "Only tell me what it is, that's all."
"Waal, there are three or four cattle fairs during the next week, and one of them is within three miles of Lincombe. That means that the village bank is open till about five o'clock in the afternoon for the convenience of the local farmers and dealers in the district. The village I mean has a local bank which is only open one day a week and that will be on the occasion of the cattle fair. I don't suppose you realise how much money changes hands on such occasions, but I am told that it runs into thousands. That means so much money lying in the bank safe all night. And I suppose that the manager of the nearest legitimate branch sends for it next day, but it remains over night. Now, what is to prevent us getting hold of that? We might work it in the old way——"
"Hush," Ebbsmith whispered. "Not so loud. You don't know who is listening. I believe that in the next room a new lodger has just come."
"Oh, him," Barrs said. "You needn't worry about that, because he was leaving the house as I came in. A rough Colonial looking chap with a ragged beard."
"That's the man," Ebbsmith agreed. "Gone out, has he? Well, we can't be too careful. Go on."
After that, the conversation was carried on in whispers, so that Vincent could hear no more. He heard the door of Ebbsmith's room open presently and two sets of footsteps echoing down the stairs. Then he lighted a cigarette and lay back in his chair, quite content with his work, so far.
Telling his temporary landlady, the next morning, that he was going out of Town to visit friends for the week-end, Vincent went back to his office, and having shed his disguise and attended to one or two important matters, ordered his car round and set off for Lincombe, where he arrived just in time to share a lunch with Manthon, who was only too glad to see him.
"Rather unexpected, isn't it?" the latter said. "I scarcely hoped to see you back so soon."
"Neither did I," Vincent smiled. "But when you come to investigate these sort of things, you never can tell where you are likely to be from one hour to another. Let's have lunch and a cigarette, and then I will tell you everything that has happened since I saw you last."
Lunch was finished presently and the cigarettes on the table in the library before Vincent began to talk.
"You are not a very good hand at relating a story," he said. "You professed to know all about the inside of Monkshole and its queer menage, to say nothing of those amazing stunts of Sebastian Wilde's and the machinery with which he expects to revolutionise the world. Not a single word did you say to me as to the presence on the premises of a chimpanzee."
"By Jove," Manthon cried, "neither did I. As a matter of fact, it never occurred to me that the ape in question had anything to do with our investigations."
"Oh, then you have seen it," Vincent asked.
Manthon went on to explain in what circumstances he had found the ape and the motor cycle. Vincent listened with a very open and flattering attention.
"Ah, there you are," he said. "Now, why on earth couldn't you have told me that at first? I had to drag the information about those plaster casts from you."
Manthon smiled just a little sheepishly.
"I am very sorry," he confessed. "But I had so much on my mind that I forgot all about the chimpanzee."
"Yes, but you were under the impression that a simian of some sort was connected with the attempt at burglary."
"Granted," Manthon said. "That is true enough. But after we had interviewed Professor Simpson at the South Kensington Museum, I thought that theory was washed out."
"And so, to a certain extent, it is. Those prints were not footprints at all, but the marks of a man's hand. How they got there is a mystery at present, but I shall find out before I have finished. Now, you just listen carefully to all I have to say, and don't miss a single point."
Whereupon Vincent dilated at length upon the conversation he had heard the day before in the seclusion of the dingy house in Bloomsbury. He had intended to make a deep impression on Manthon and he succeeded beyond his expectations.
"Well," Manthon exclaimed when Vincent had finished, "we seem to be up against a most dangerous and unscrupulous gang of scoundrels. One of them is a murderer, at any rate. What a fool I was not to have told you before about that chimpanzee! Where do you suppose the animal comes in?"
"Ah, as to do that I am rather uncertain," Vincent replied. "But on fair night in Marchwick, we are going to attend that performance in the drill hall, and when we come away, I shall be greatly disappointed if we fail to glean a mass of vital information. And don't forget what I told you just now with regard to what that man Barrs said respecting a bank robbery. There are one or two villages where cattle fairs are being held during the next week, so we are rather left guessing as to the particular place which Barrs had in his eye when he threw out that hint to Ebbsmith. Unfortunately, just at that moment they dropped their voices, so that I was not able to hear any more. But we know, now, that the whole gang is desperately hard up for money and, before long, they will make an attempt to put themselves in funds. Just for the minute, at any rate, Wilde has nothing in particular to worry him, as, of course, he is using the money you gave him to get rid of your man Joe Biddle. I suppose that is done by this time."
Manthon explained that it was. Joe Biddle had been seen, only an hour or two before, on his way to the station. He had had no opportunity of communicating with Manthon without attracting attention, but he had stopped outside the gate, ostensibly to tie up a boot-lace, and he had whistled so that Manthon had spotted him as he went down the road and knew that, for the present, his confederate was no longer available.
"Well, that is rather a pity in a way," Vincent said. "That man's presence in Monkshole would have been invaluable for the next day or two. Now, tell me, is there any further development as far as Miss Ferris is concerned?"
"I am afraid there is," Manthon said sadly. "I made an excuse to call there after breakfast this morning and found the poor girl in a very excited, hysterical condition. From what I can gather, she was up at Monkshole last night again and says that she saw the ghost of her dead lover. So far as I can gather, he spoke to her, telling her that he was well and happy and all that sort of thing, and that she was to be guided entirely in what she did by Sebastian Wilde."
"By Jove, that is bad," Vincent said. "You can see quite plainly what that man is after. He wants to get Miss Ferris in his power, and unless something dramatic happens in the next few days, he will. I shouldn't wonder if he marries her."
"What a horrible idea!" Manthon exclaimed. "Fancy a rich and beautiful girl like Peggy Ferris being allied to a monster of that type. She couldn't do it."
"Oh, yes, she could. When a girl of her temperament is on the borderland between madness and sanity, she is capable of anything. I have no doubt she looks upon Sebastian Wilde as something of a god. It is no use our talking to her in the ordinary way and trying to persuade her that she is the victim of a scoundrel. If we tell her that Wilde is only after her money, she will be more likely to go over to Monkshole and stay there. You will have to be very careful, and so will Miss Faber. Get her out of doors and keep her in the open air as much as possible, and sympathise with her without in the least pandering to her morbid ideas. With any luck, we shall have something definite to go on before the end of the week, and when I can show my hand to that unfortunate girl, I shall be in a better position to open her eyes to her danger."
"What's the next move?" Manthon asked.
"Well, we can't do much till after we have seen that performance in the drill hall at Marchwick," Vincent explained. "But to-night I am going to explore Monkshole. With your help we can enter the place by the secret passage."
Into the intimate conversation between Manthon and Vincent, Maud Faber burst unexpectedly. She appeared to be eager and excited, and rather disturbed in her manner. She seemed to pull up as she caught sight of Vincent.
"Oh," she exclaimed. "I didn't know you were here."
"Does it really matter?" Vincent asked good-naturedly. "Of course, if you have something private for Manthon's ear alone, then I will remove myself. But if your trouble has anything to do with Miss Ferris, then don't you think I might just as well hear what it is? You see, I am down here to help in solving this mystery and——"
Vincent waved his hand comprehensively.
"I think you had better speak, Maud," Manthon said.
"Of course I will," Maud replied. "I was rather taken aback for a moment, to find Captain Vincent here. It's all about Peggy. I was at Long Elms just now, to see how she was getting on, and I found her in a most deplorable state. I have never seen her quite as bad. She is haunted day and night, she says, by that phantom car with that ghostly horn which she is quite sure holds a message for her. She says she is going away, but she didn't seem to be able to tell me where, and I am quite sure that Mr. Sebastian Wilde is at the bottom of the whole business. Do you know she is going to find him money?"
"Ah, that is exactly what were afraid of," Vincent said. "I suppose you didn't happen to hear how much?"
"Well, a good many thousands of pounds. Peggy spoke as if nothing mattered so long as she could be put in communication with poor Trevor. She said something to the effect that it would be much easier to do that if she went to America. Goodness knows what she meant, but she was in such an extraordinary neurotic state that I could hardly follow her."
"This is very serious," Vincent said gravely. "Is Miss Ferris in a position to deal with her own money? If she is, that man will have the lot before long."
"Well, so far as I can see she is and she isn't," Maud explained. "She is of age, and all that sort of thing, and, under her father's will she is absolutely mistress of her fortune. I believe there are clauses as to what the lawyers call contingent interests, which I take it would mean children, in case she married and all that sort of thing. I know the property is virtually vested in trustees who happen to be a firm of lawyers in London. I know this from a casual remark that Miss Bancroft once made to me."
"Oh, come, that's better," Vincent said. "In that case all the money is invested in gilt-edged securities. If this means anything, it means that Miss Ferris will have to go to her trustees and get them to deal with those securities before she can handle a large sum of ready money. This spells a certain amount of delay, which is all in our favour. If I were you, Miss Faber, I would tell Miss Bancroft everything you heard this afternoon and get her to go to Town and see the solicitor and tell him exactly how things stand. Don't you think that is the proper thing to do, Manthon?"
Manthon was decidedly of the opinion that it was. He suggested that Maud should return at once to Long Elms and inform Miss Bancroft as to the situation. On that Maud left the room, followed to her car by Manthon.
"This is very distressing," he said. "I suppose you are quite powerless to do anything, Maud?"
"Absolutely," Maud said, in accents of despair. "I have done everything possible. Don't you think——"
"I don't know what to think," Manthon said. "I know we are on the verge of certain discoveries which may lead to the unmasking of those two scoundrels, Wilde and his secretary, Ebbsmith. But it all takes time and any false step on our part may put them on their guard. It is very lamentable, Maud."
"Dreadful," Maud agreed. "It makes my heart bleed to see a girl like Peggy losing her reason in this way, and terrible for you, who—well, shall I say love her?"
"You can if you like," Manthon smiled slightly. "But if I have any affection for Peggy, it is not of the kind that you suggest. There was a time, but that time is past. I thought I had told you that some time ago."
"Oh!" Maud exclaimed. "Oh! Yes, I think I see what you mean, Roy. But in the circumstances——"
She broke off abruptly, climbed into her car and drove away in the direction of Long Elms without saying another word. But there was something in her heightened colour and the half-smile on her face that strangely comforted the bewildered young man who stood there watching till she was out of sight. Then he turned on his heel and went back to the house.
It was very late the same evening before Vincent and his host left the house with the intention of going as far as Monkshole and spying out how the land lay there. Vincent was dressed for the occasion in a dark sports suit and wore a pair of rubber-soled shoes. They made their way through the gorse and bracken which constituted what was once the Monkshole garden until they came at length to the tangle of bushes and overhanging foliage that marked the entrance to the secret passage leading from the grounds into the loft above Wilde's library. Here Vincent paused as he produced his pocket lamp.
"I think that will do, Manthon," he said. "I shan't trouble you to come any further. You stay where you are till I come back. There is no occasion for us both to go."
To this Manthon agreed and Vincent plunged into the darkness of the cave. With his torch in his hand, he made his way along until he came to the spot where Manthon had told him was the chimpanzee, which he now knew by the name of Gobo, was caged. Then he went on until he came to the foot of the steel ladder, which he climbed as noiselessly as a cat and at length found himself in the loft over the library contemplating, in the flashes of light, the amazing tangle of machinery which Wilde had erected there. He saw that the trap-door from the library was open, so that he could look down and see what was taking place below. By lying flat on the floor, he could see pretty well all that was going on in the big, luxurious room, notably what appeared to be a large glass screen at the one end.
He could see Wilde seated at the big table, working away at a set of figures. The house was absolutely silent, with no sound coming from anywhere. Probably by this time the man called Fish, or Brettle, and his wife had retired for the night. Manthon hoped that Ebbsmith was still detained in London. Not that it mattered very much; but if the india-rubber man was on the premises, then it might be awkward if anything interposed between Vincent and his line of retreat.
But apparently Ebbsmith was not there, and Wilde continued at his work until somewhere in the distance, a bell rang. With an agility surprising in a man so afflicted, Wilde levered himself into his chair and propelled it across the room in the direction of the door. He was back in a few minutes, with Peggy Ferris following him closely behind.
Vincent drew a sharp breath. He did not fail to see the striking pallor on the girl's face or the strange light that gleamed like a living coal in her eyes. She flung herself down in a chair, panting, as if she had run fast and far, almost to the verge of physical exhaustion.
"There, there," Wilde said in a bland, fatherly way. "Pray compose yourself. There is nothing whatever to be afraid of."
"Oh, I know that," Peggy cried. "But I am haunted by the phantom horn. I hear it nearly every night. It came to my ears just before I left the house. I was listening to dance music on my wireless and it struck on my ears, well, like a blow. It seemed to freeze my heart. Oh, shall I ever get rid of it? Or is it going to drive me mad?"
"Not if I can help it," Wilde said. "It is unfortunate that you have to go through all this trouble, but we can never attain what we need without suffering or affliction. You must be brave, my child, and do exactly as I tell you. Here, drink this, and you will feel better presently."
So saying, Wilde poured some cordial out of a quaint-looking bottle into a cut glass vessel and handed it to Peggy. She drank the contents off at a gulp, and presently a little colour crept back into her pallid cheeks.
"Ah, that is better," Wilde said encouragingly. "Your troubles will soon be gone. You are just on the borderline at present, and before long you will cross it and then you will be at peace with all mankind. You would like to see your lover?"
"Oh, yes, yes, yes," Peggy said. "Like you showed me last time I was here. But his form was so visionary that it had gone almost before it came."
"Yes, that was because your faith was not sufficient. You must have faith, my child. Now, cross over to the door and switch the light off. Then come back and take your place in your chair and, if the tide is with us, we shall see something that ought to bring you infinite content."
The lights went out, and Vincent, lying there peering eagerly into the darkness, saw the veil lift presently and, on what appeared to be the glass screen at the end of the room, the outline of a figure began to shape itself. It grew clearer and clearer until it assumed the aspect of a man, so clear and vivid that, for a moment, Vincent actually believed that someone of flesh and blood had crept into the room. With a wild cry, Peggy sprang towards it.
"Stop, stop," Wilde thundered. "Stop, you mad, inconsequent creature! Do you want to destroy me and yourself at the same time? You must not interfere with the work of a spirit like that. Ah, see your very movements have driven it away. You can put the lights up again, because there will be no further manifestations to-night."
"I am very sorry," Peggy said humbly.
"My dear child," Wilde went on, "you must really learn to control yourself. I want to bring you face to face with the man you have lost, so that you may hear from his own lips how happy he is. And so you will, if you will be guided entirely by me. You don't seem to understand what an enormous amount of work and trouble I have had to get in touch with those across the borderline. These things take time and—yes—money. Thousands of pounds, and I am a poor man."
"Oh, what does it matter?" Peggy cried. "I can let you have as much money as you need. Twenty, thirty, fifty thousand pounds. Anything that you like to ask."
"Then you had better come and see me to-morrow," Wilde said, in a voice that had suddenly become business-like. "I don't want to do this thing, and I wouldn't if I was not so very sorry for you. Now, sit down and listen to what I have to say."
Overhead, Vincent rose and stole softly away.
"Well?" Manthon demanded impatiently. "Well?"
Vincent shut off his torch as he emerged into the open, and he and his companion turned away in the direction of Manthon's house. They were in the road before Vincent spoke.
"Well," he said, "I have not been wasting my time there. Oh, yes, that rascal has got Miss Ferris in hand all right. She was there to-night, in fact, she is there now."
Something like an oath escaped Manthon's lips.
"Yes, I was rather afraid you would say that," he said. "But tell me what happened."
Vincent proceeded to relate the strange thing that he had seen on the glass screen in the library.
"Of course you understand how it was done," he said.
"No, I will be hanged if I do," Manthon replied.
"Well, it was a kind of Pepper's Ghost arrangement. The sort of entertainment that used to be popular when we were boys. It is worked with a sort of magic lantern that throws a figure, either a dummy or a real one, on a double glass screen. Very effective and all that sort of thing, but quite simple when you know how it is done. I remember, years ago, seeing Dickens' Christmas Carol done with the assistance of that apparatus. You can quite see how Miss Ferris, in her present state of mind, mistook it for a real spiritualistic manifestation and firmly believed that she was looking at the shade of her lover. Of course, Wilde could not allow her to touch it, because, if she had, she would have recognised the imposture even in her pitiful state. But it served its purpose and is going to put thousands of pounds into Wilde's pocket if we don't stop it. But never mind about that for the moment. There is another thing I discovered during my journey."
"And what might that be?" Manthon asked.
"Well, that the chimpanzee Gobo was not in its cage. I should think, from symptoms I saw both inside and outside of it, he has not been there for several days."
"Roaming somewhere about the house, you think?"
"No, I don't. I should say somewhere in London."
Manthon looked at the speaker in amazement.
"Somewhere in London," he exclaimed. "Why, whatever for? What possible reason would there be——"
"My dear fellow," Vincent said solemnly, "I think I have made a stupendous discovery. I believe I am on the verge of laying bare the facts of one of the most amazing crimes that ever happened in the course of history. I cannot say any more for the moment, because my theory is so fantastic and outlandish that I hesitate to describe it even to myself. However, we shall know more about that after we have been into Marchwick and witnessed the performance of Mr. Dick Barrs' company in the drill hall there. Meanwhile, I prefer to be silent."
The next day or two passed without incident, except that Miss Bancroft went up to Town to see Peggy's trustees and informed them of the danger that lay over the head of their client. She came back with the reassuring information that it would be some little time before it was possible for Peggy to raise any large sum of money, and, with this, Manthon and Faber and Vincent had to remain content.
Then came the night of Marchwick's fair, when the three of them went into the cathedral city, with a view to attending the performance of the Barrs' company at the drill hall. This was a huge barracks of a place, some seventy or eighty feet high and a floor space for some thousands of spectators. When the visitors arrived, the building was packed with town and country people, who flocked there during fair time, ready to pay their money to see anything, good, bad, or indifferent, in the way of a show.
At the far end of the room was a small platform, and behind it a structure reaching to the roof which represented the front of a large dwelling house. For some time a varied performance went on, with acrobats and trapeze artists and conjurers, in fact the usual olla podrida appertaining to what the proprietor was pleased to call his unique variety entertainment. It was a poor show on the whole, and three of the audience, at least, were bored by it, until Barrs, resplendent in flashing evening dress and sham diamonds, came onto the platform and made a long florid statement. When this had finished, he lifted the lid of a box on the stage and, almost immediately, a big chimpanzee jumped out and grinned at the audience.
"This, ladies and gentlemen," Barrs said, "is the nearest approach to a human being that the world has ever seen. Let me introduce you to the famous ape, Gobo. Trained on his native heath and in this country by an eminent scientist who modestly desires to remain anonymous, Gobo can do anything except speak. Certainly, he has a thorough understanding of the English language. Let me show you what he can do."
It really was a most remarkable performance. For half an hour or more the huge chimpanzee kept the thousands of watchers in a state of constant delight. Then, presently, Barrs came forward again and indicated the outline of the house that stood at the back of the hall.
"Now I want you to watch this," he said. "The structure behind me is intended to represent a good-class dwelling-house, it is inhabited by a large family, and the time is supposed to be late at night. All in the house are in bed and asleep and quite ignorant of their danger. You are to understand, ladies and gentlemen, that a fire breaks out."
With that, the speaker raised his hand, and almost immediately smoke began to appear from the house, and flames were seen behind one or two of the upper windows. Two or three of these were opened, and presently the flames grew fiercer.
At a sign from Barrs, the chimpanzee sprang forward, and drawing a police whistle from the pocket of his coat, placed it to his lips and blew a long, shrill blast. Then the outline of a figure appeared at one of the upstairs windows holding in its arms what seemed to be a baby wrapped up in a blanket. Immediately on this, the monkey dashed forward and, climbing up the drain-pipe in front of the house, reached the window and, with one paw, clutched the bundle and removed it so that he could take it in his teeth. Then, hand over hand, Gobo came down the pipe and brought the bundle safely to the ground amidst the loud applause of the thousands of people assembled.
"That, ladies and gentlemen," Barrs said, "is the end of Gobo's famous entertainment. We are moving on to-morrow in connection with the various cattle fairs, and I would respectfully ask you, ladies and gentlemen, who have been able to see this amazing display of animal sagacity to-night, to tell your friends and neighbours, so that when we come into their vicinity, they may be able to see these things for themselves."
Five minutes later the three friends were on their way back to Lincombe in Manthon's car. It was not until they were seated in the house with a whisky and soda and cigarettes before them that Manthon broke the silence.
"That was rather a fine display of animal intelligence," he said. "But I don't quite see how it helps us. I suppose there is not the slightest doubt that the Gobo in question is the same chimpanzee I discovered in the cave at Monkshole. Of course, that must be so after what Vincent told us of the conversation he heard. I mean when he tracked Ebbsmith to those rooms in London and established himself where he could keep an eye upon that slippery individual."
"Yes, I quite agree," Faber said. "It is rather strange that we should know all about Gobo before he emerged into the public light again. But what do we gain by the knowledge——"
"I don't wonder at your being puzzled," Vincent smiled. "To be quite candid, I was puzzled myself, until I saw that show this evening. And then I began to see something more than daylight. I wonder if you will be astonished when I tell you that Gobo has been in London recently."
"But, in the name of fortune, why?" Manthon demanded.
"Ah! that is rather a long story. I want you to believe that Ebbsmith smuggled the chimpanzee up to town, probably in a big basket or something of that sort, and hid the beast in his Bloomsbury lodging. Not so difficult a matter as it appears at first sight, because he had the use of Wilde's car and he could carry the chimpanzee upstairs in the basket himself."
"Oh, we will grant all that," Faber said impatiently. "But what I want to know is the reason for it."
"I am coming to that," Vincent smiled. "Let us suppose that Ebbsmith has carried out that plan. We know perfectly well that Gobo has an amazing fund of intelligence and fully understands all that is said to him. A miracle of patience and training, but there you are. Now, figure to yourself, as the French say, Ebbsmith taking a walk in London very late at night with the monkey by his side. The monkey knows perfectly well that he has to keep himself hidden, and on no account to betray himself to any curious passer-by or, more especially, a policeman on duty. Mind, he could easily do it. To begin with, he can move about without making the slightest sound, and he could run all fours or upright equally well. All he would have to do was to keep in the shadows, taking advantage of every bit of cover and remaining twenty or thirty yards behind Ebbsmith as the latter strode along in front of him. I think you will admit, after what you saw to-night, that I am not outstripping the bounds of possibility in saying so much."
The others agreed that what Vincent had outlined was well within the bounds of possibility, and the latter went on to elaborate his argument.
"Very well, then," he said. "Let us get a step further. Gobo can eat and drink like a human being; he can smoke and wear clothes just as if he were a man. Why shouldn't he be trained to act the part of a thief? I don't see anything fantastic in it. You can train a dog to catch a burglar, and I don't see why you shouldn't train a monkey to steal a lot of diamonds. Now do you begin to see what I am driving at?"
Manthon and Faber exchanged glances and the latter whistled loud and long.
"What's that?" he demanded. "Are you insinuating that Gobo was actually the thief who stole those diamonds from the unfortunate Everard in Burlington Square?"
"Something like that," Vincent grinned.
"Oh, I am not saying that it is impossible. But don't forget that Mr. Everard was murdered."
"I am perfectly well aware of that," Vincent said. "But murdered by whom and what? Why not a chimpanzee as well as a man? It would never have done for Gobo to have been caught in the very act of getting away with those stones, so, probably, he was armed with some effective weapon."
"And with that weapon he killed Everard."
"I have not said so," Vincent murmured. "But I am not going to say that it is altogether impossible."
"It sounds like one of Edgar Allen Poe's weird stories," Faber said. "Won't you go on?"
"Well, not at the moment, if you don't mind," Vincent replied. "Perhaps I have said too much already. But this much I can promise you—within eight and forty hours I ought to be able to speak definitely. Meanwhile, I am getting back to Town as soon as possible, so if you will order my car round, I will be off at once. I shall be back on Friday or Saturday and then we may see some real fireworks."
A little later, and Vincent was on his way to Town. But he did not go there direct; on the contrary, he made a slight detour so that he could take in Marchwick on his way. He was some little time there before he found Joe Biddle, who was back again after Wilde had cashed Manthon's cheque and satisfied the debt which had brought about all the trouble.
"Now, look here, Joe," Vincent said. "You don't know who I am, but I am a friend of Mr. Manthon's and I am down here to help in clearing up that mysterious business at Monkshole. In that I think you can help. Now, here is a five-pound note for you. Take it and use it in keeping an eye upon the man who gave that show last night at the drill hall. You know what I mean—Mr. Dick Barrs and his famous company. I wonder if you happened to be there."
"Well, sir, as a matter of fact, I was," Biddle said. "I had a bob's worth and a fine show it was. But what is it as you wants me to do, sir?"
"Well, I want you to keep an eye upon Barrs, who, I understand, is moving from Marchwick and following those local cattle fairs. I believe that, in the villages round here, he is going to give some sort of a performance night by night."
"That's right, sir," Biddle said. "Morton this evening and Longworth to-morrow, winding up with Withington on Saturday night. I seen that on the bills."
"Oh, that's so, is it?" Vincent asked. "I suppose these are small villages. I mean villages with a fairly big population all round, but not boasting a bank, or anything of that sort. Do you see what I mean?"
"Oh, I ain't blind, sir," Biddle grinned. "There is no bank in the first two villages, but there's one in Withington, though it's only open on Saturdays and that between ten o'clock and one. But on the occasion of the cattle fair in Withington the bank don't shut till five."
Vincent nodded approvingly. This was almost more than he had dared to hope for. During the time he had been listening to the interview between Barrs and Ebbsmith in the dingy Bloomsbury lodgings, he had heard enough to know that something in the way of a local bank robbery was afoot. And here, more by accident than anything else, he had learnt from Biddle practically where the robbery was to take place.
There was not the slightest doubt that some time on the Saturday, probably late in the evening, an attempt would be made to get away with a considerable sum of money which the cashier at Withington would take in the course of a long Saturday afternoon. The temporary bank would not close till five o'clock, which meant that the man in charge would not be able to get away to his head office in Marchwick till long after that establishment shut down. And this meant, if it meant anything, that the cashier would remain in the village of Withington till late on the Sunday, or, more probably, early on the Monday morning.
"Very good, Joe," Vincent said. "Now, I want to keep a careful eye upon Barrs and his companions, whoever they may be and follow them from village to village. Attend all their performances and don't be too eager to keep yourself in the background. Those people won't have the slightest idea that you are shadowing them, and they will probably take you for some local rustic who is fascinated by the performance of the animal which is known as Gobo. By the way, I suppose that they still have that amazingly clever ape in their possession."
"They had this morning, sir," Biddle said. "I happened to see them leaving Marchwick and there was the monkey on the box seat of the first waggon as large as life."
Vincent nodded approvingly. Everything seemed to be going well so far, and, with any ordinary luck, he would be able to carry out the coup that he had in the back of his mind.
"Capital," he said. "Of course Barrs can't work that stunt of the burning house in anything but a big building, so he will probably content himself with filling his treasury from the pockets of the country people who flock to the show to see Gobo going through his amazing performance. Now, you keep those people in sight, especially on Saturday night. Hang about the caravans after the evening performance is over, and when you have marked Barrs and a confederate of his down not very far from the house in Withington where the bank is, keep an eye open for me. I shall not be very far off. And if you like to imitate the call of the common brown owl, it will be a signal for me to come out of my hiding-place and join you."
"Lor' bless you, sir," Biddle grinned. "I can do that. There ain't a bird or an animal I can't imitate. I ain't been a poacher all my life for nothin'."
Well satisfied that his time had not been wasted, Vincent sought his car again and made his way to London without further delay. After a few minutes in his office, he went down the slope leading from Norfolk Street on to the Embankment and, eventually reached New Scotland Yard. Once arrived there, he handed in his card and asked if it was possible to see Deputy Commissioner Sutton for a few minutes.
He found himself presently in a private office upstairs face to face with a youngish man of military bearing who received him with every sign of pleasure.
"Hello, Vincent," the deputy said. "I haven't seen you for a long time. How goes the detective business?"
"I have nothing to complain of," Vincent smiled. "I have more than I can manage, though I have half a dozen assistants. But never mind about me, I have much more important things to discuss. I want to help you and I want to help myself at the same time. That Burlington Square murder, you know."
"Oh? Now what do you happen to know about that?"
"My dear chap, I happen to know a lot about it. Partly by accident and partly because it is a sort of crosscurrent in a case I am investigating. Now, what should you say, Sutton, if I told you I could put my hand on the criminal?"
"Thank you very much," Sutton said promptly.
"Well, I think I can. It is a long row to hoe, and I am far from the end of it as yet."
"Which means you are not going to tell me much?"
"Not for the moment, if you don't mind. You would only laugh at me if I told you my theory as to how the crime was committed. When the details do appear in the Press, I think you will say that never in the history of Scotland Yard has there been such a sensational disclosure. Now, I wonder if you will help me, because I can't do or say anything definite until I can link up one or two facts so as to make my chain complete. I think you know me well enough to believe that I am not wasting your time, or trying to get the best of you in any way. From the point of view of the case I am investigating, the Burlington murder is only a side show, and anybody can have the credit for bringing the criminal to justice, as far as I am concerned. The people whose case I am engaged on have not the remotest idea that the Burlington Square affair has anything whatever to do with my activities."
"What is all this leading up to?" Sutton asked.
"Well, put in a nutshell, this. I want you to give me a written authority to call at Burlington Square and go over the room where Mr. Everard was murdered. I don't suppose I shall be there more than half an hour, and I promise you that nothing will be interfered with. But perhaps the house is shut up."
"No, it isn't," Sutton said. "Nothing has been done, so far. I believe the manservant has left, but the housekeeper and two female servants are still on the premises. If you like, I will write a note for you and explain to the woman of whom I have just spoken that you are to have the run of the premises."
It was about a quarter of an hour later when Vincent found himself in the big establishment chatting in the most friendly way to the woman Wathen, who had been introduced to him as Mr. Everard's housekeeper. A few moments' conversation in Vincent's pleasant, breezy manner had established quite cordial relations between them.
"Now, Mrs. Wathen," Vincent said at length, "I wonder if you will do me a favour. I want you to take me up to the room where your master was killed and show me exactly where he lay after the murder. I suppose nothing has been disturbed."
"No, sir," the house keeper explained. "I hadn't the heart to do so. I just tidied up and made the room neat again, but there has been no cleaning done, if that is what you mean."
"That is precisely what I do mean," Vincent smiled. "Now come along with me and show me the spot."
The room was commonplace enough, and held no suggestion of the recent tragedy, save for a dark, ominous stain on the carpet in front of the fireplace.
"I wonder if you have such a thing in the house as an electric cleaner," Vincent suggested. "You know what I mean, one of those patent affairs that sucks up all the dust and collects it in a bag. Do you use that sort of thing?"
"We have got a Duplex Vacuum," the housekeeper explained. "I will fetch it for you if you like."
The sweeper was produced presently, and for the next twenty minutes Vincent worked it himself, sweeping the carpet and the furniture, especially in front of the window by which the murderer had entered and the spot in front of the fireplace where the body had been found. At the end of that time, Vincent had collected something like a quart of fluff and dust, which he placed in a paper bag which the woman Wathen had found him at his suggestion. Then, with this under his arm, he professed himself to be satisfied and went in the direction of the British Museum, where he called upon a friend of his who was known as Professor John Arthy.
"I have got a little job for you, Arthy," he said. "I want you to analyse this bagful of dust and tell me what it contains. Just for the present moment, I think a rough inspection with a powerful microscope will serve my purpose."
"Another mystery, I suppose?" the Professor smiled. "Ah, well, I suppose it is no use asking you questions about it. Give me the stuff and I will put a section of it under one of my most powerful lenses. Then, if you want anything more elaborate, I shall have to take my time."
"Never mind about that for a moment," Vincent said. "Tell me if you can see any stray hairs in that fluff."
It was a long time before the Professor spoke. He took three or four pinches of fluff from the bag and examined them in turn with meticulous care. Then he separated from the mass, with the aid of a camel's-hair brush a dozen or so short spines which he arranged on a clean sheet of paper.
"Quite correct," he said. "As a matter of fact, the sample is full of hairs. Some of them short, some of them long, the long ones grey, and the short ones a deepish brown."
Vincent listened with gleaming eyes.
"Human or animal hairs?" he asked.
"Oh, animal, undoubtedly," the Professor explained. "No human hair is as fine as that. Besides, human hair always shows signs of having been cut, I mean, signs of barber's shears. But these appear to have been shed from an animal's body in the ordinary way. And here are three or four of them hunched together. Do you notice that?"
"Certainly I do," Vincent said.
"Yes, sort of congealed. Of course, one could not be certain from a mere microscopic examination, but I should say that blood had been the cause of it. But blood undoubtedly. However, if you will let me have four and twenty hours, I shall be able to let you know definitely. I will send you an analysis, if you like. To your office, I suppose?"
Vincent rather thought not. He gave Manthon's address at Lincombe, with a request that the Professor should forward his report there as soon as possible.
He was by no means displeased with the result of his last hour's experiments. Before bedtime he was back again at Lincombe, but said nothing as to what had transpired from the time he had left the village until the hour of his return. All he had to do now was to kill time as best he could until the Saturday afternoon, when he took himself off without telling his host where he was going, and with no information, except that it might be somewhere in the small hours before he returned. Anyway, Manthon was not to wait up for him; and if the latter could lend him a latchkey, so much the better.
Attired in a shabby old suit of clothes, Vincent turned his steps in the direction of the village of Withington, which was some six miles away. For reasons of his own, he did not wish to take the car, preferring to walk both ways in case anything like an accident might happen. It was shortly before seven when he arrived at Withington. The cattle fair was over by that time, and the three long, straggling streets which made up the village were packed from end to end with a seething crowd of country men and women who looked upon cattle fair day as their one annual holiday. There were shows and booths and refreshments here and there, and on the village green the large circular tent which was the centre of the Barrs' activities. It was quite clear that in so limited a space there was no opportunity of carrying out the fire rescue scene which Vincent had witnessed in Marchwick drill hall, and he was rightly judging the situation when he decided that the performance of Gobo, the chimpanzee, would form the chief attraction of the evening's show. Vincent would have liked to turn into the village public-house and partaken of something in the way of a meal, but there was no time for that. So, presently, he turned into the big tent and for an hour or so saw the chimpanzee go through his amazing antics to the delight of the unsophisticated crowd.
As he left the tent shortly after ten o'clock, he found Joe Biddle standing at his elbow.
"Well, here I am sir," the latter grinned. "Don't you take no notice of me, sir, but just talk without looking in my direction. You will see those two chaps come out presently——"
"What two do you mean?" Vincent asked.
"Well, sir, 'im with the sham diamonds and that other bloke as looks as if 'e were made of india-rubber. That's Ebbsmith, that is Mr. Wilde's secretary. I seed 'im more than once when I've been over at Monkshole; and if 'e ain't a wrong 'un, then I never seen one, that's all. Yes, there they go, sir, comin' round the back of the tent."
"Then you follow them, Joe," Vincent said. "And don't lose sight of them. If I am any judge of human nature, their destination is the village public-house. Go in there after them and watch them as a cat watches a mouse. It must be pretty near ten o'clock now."
"Well, don't you worry about that, sir," Biddle said. "On fair nights, once a year, the magistrates gives the local publican an hour's extension. And the one policeman in the village 'e ain't particular to a bit of time on the top of that."
Down the village street the flashy looking Barrs took his way, with Ebbsmith trotting by his side. They turned into the crowded bar of the local inn, with Biddle close behind them. The latter was taking no risks, because his features were not strange to Ebbsmith and he was not in the least anxious to be recognised. He slunk into the bar and flung himself down on an oak settle in a shadowy corner where he could watch Barrs and Ebbsmith without the slightest fear of being spotted.
Then, for an hour or more, Barrs and Ebbsmith were whispering together till, at length, the room began to empty, and it seemed to Biddle that it would be much safer for him to seek the outer air and watch from the outside. Therefore, he slid out into the darkness and was seen no more.
Meanwhile, the two conspirators sat over their drinks. They were talking in undertones, so that no word they said reached the ears of any straggler that remained.
"Are you quite sure it is all right?" Ebbsmith said.
"Well, I don't see how it can be anything else," Barrs responded. "The bank closed down five minutes past five, which I know to be a fact, because I went in there myself pretending that I wanted change for a five-pound note. That cashier chap has done a rare trade to-day and probably he has got notes in his safe running into thousands of pounds."
"Is he still in the bank?" Ebbsmith asked.
"Oh, he's there right enough," Barrs replied. "And it is not what you might call a bank in the proper sense of the word. Just a room in an old cottage with a counter in it and a safe. Mind you, that safe will take a bit of moving."
"You don't propose to move it, do you?" Ebbsmith asked uneasily. "Why, it couldn't be done."
"Now what sort of a fish do you take me for?" Barrs asked. "Of course we are going to move the safe. What we are after is the keys. I know all about it. The old girl that keeps the cottage goes to bed quite early and is as deaf as a post. By this time the cashier is in his bedroom and, no doubt, fast asleep. It is a rotten old cottage and we can break into it as easily as cutting into a piece of cheese. Our game is to get into the house and upstairs to that man's bedroom and force the keys out of him. He will have to give them up, because I shall blow his brains out if he doesn't. I have got a gun in my pocket and, if necessary, you can use that piece of lead piping I gave you. Lord bless you, it is as easy as falling off a house. All we have to do is to mask our faces and get hold of the keys. Then we can tie up the teller chap and leave him trussed on his bed till the old woman finds him in the morning. By that time we shall have hidden the swag and it will take all the police in England to lay hands on us. You won't be suspected, because no one knows you here, and, as to me, I am just going about in the ordinary way of business. Nobody would think that Dick Barrs, the famous showman, was in any way connected with this robbery. Of course, the theory will be that this is a put-up job on the part of some London crowd and that the thing has been planned for months. I have done some pretty risky things in my time, and got away with it, but I never had a softer bit of work than this."
"Yes, I suppose it is all right," Ebbsmith muttered. "But I should be a good deal more easy in my mind if I didn't more or less live in this neighbourhood. I have never been in Withington before to-day, but it doesn't follow that one or two Lincombe people have not spotted me. You know the old saying that more people know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows."
"Oh, rats," Barrs muttered. "You don't mean to tell me that you are going to try and back out of it now."
"Who said anything about backing out?" Ebbsmith grumbled.
"Very well, come along. Let us get out of this."
They lurched out of the bar to the evident relief of the landlord, who closed the door behind them and put out his lights. The two conspirators crept off down the main street, taking care to keep in the shadows, until they came, presently, to a detached cottage standing a little way back from the road. Here Barrs paused, and taking a couple of black silk masks from his pocket, handed one to his companion and donned the other himself. As they went creeping on tiptoe up the shallow path, the clock of the village church struck twelve, and, when the echoes had died away, a profound silence prevailed.
It was only the matter of a few moments, with the aid of a thin-bladed knife, that Barrs forced the window on the left-hand side of the cottage door and crept in to what passed as a bank parlour, followed by Ebbsmith. A torch flashed out, and in the thin ray of light Ebbsmith could see the safe picked out in high relief with its gleaming brass lock.
"Ah, if we can only get into that!" Barrs whispered. "You follow me up the stairs. It is the bedroom on the right, facing the street. Come along."
In the room overhead the bank official was peacefully sleeping. Barrs laid a rough hand on his shoulder and shook him till he opened his eyes and looked dreamily around. Then he became conscious of the fact that he was face to face with two masked men, one of whom held a revolver to his head, the other being armed with a short piece of lead piping.
"Not a word," Barrs whispered sternly. "Not a word unless you want me to blow your brains out. And the shot would not be heard, because the old woman is too deaf for that. Now, then, my friend, hand your keys over."
The man in bed lay there, perfectly still, looking up in the faces bent down upon him, but showing no signs of fear. It seemed as if he were hardly awake yet and failed to grasp the peril in which he stood. Then, suddenly, without a word of warning, he flung himself out of bed and, gaining his feet, made a headlong rush for the door.
"After him," Barrs cried. "After him. Give him a crack on the head with that piece of piping."
Down came the weapon on the cashier's head with a cruel force. As he fell, his right hand reached out and touched some object on the floor. Immediately there broke out overhead the harsh clanging of a great bell, loud and strident enough almost to wake the dead. The noise did not cease but went on with a clamour that seemed to fill the universe.
The bell tolled on and on with a hideous clamour that sounded, in the stillness of the night, as if clamant enough to wake the dead. It seemed to range all over the adjoining country, and the noise of it came almost paralysingly to the ears of the two discomforted scoundrels who we're bending helplessly over the unconscious body of the cashier.
"Here, do something," Barrs whispered hoarsely.
But it was all in vain, for, search as he would, Ebbsmith could find no trace of the device whereby the bank official, at the last gasp, had set the bell tolling. And, already, sounds were beginning to jar on the startled air. On the opposite side of the road a light suddenly shot out in a cottage and the reflection of it picked out the two conspirators confronting one another in dismal surprise.
"I can't find it," Ebbsmith replied. "Somewhere on the floor, I expect. It's no use staying here, unless you want to be caught red-handed."
With that he turned his back on Barrs and made a headlong dash for the stairs. He was followed almost immediately afterwards by the big man and the two of them heaved a deep sigh of relief when they found themselves once more in the open.
"Now then," Barrs snarled. "Now then."
Though he spoke in a whisper, the words came clear to the ears of Vincent and Joe Biddle, hiding within almost arm's length of the discomfited rascals.
"What do you mean?" Ebbsmith growled. "What do you mean by 'now then'? Anybody would think it was my fault. I didn't want to come here."
"Oh, it's no use quarrelling," Barrs said between his teeth. "We have missed a good thing, and the sooner we realise the game is up the better. Where are we going?"
"Back to Monkshole," Ebbsmith said promptly. "Leg it across country as fast as we can. We shall be safe there and if anybody makes inquiries, we shall be able to prove that we left the village just after the show and walked over to Monkshole to see Sebastian Wilde, who is an old friend of yours."
"That is all very well," Barrs said. "But how are we going to get into Monkshole? Knock the servants up, I suppose, and give the show away by doing it."
"Oh, come on," cried Ebbsmith, who was darting impatiently about the garden. "You need not worry about the servants, because there is more than one way of getting into the house. And the servants are all right, anyway."
Without further ado, Ebbsmith darted into the road, closely followed by his companion. They were only just in time to get clear, before half a dozen figures trickled from various cottages into the road. And, meanwhile, the hideous clamour of the bell was going on without ceasing.
"Did you hear that, sir?" Biddle whispered to Vincent. "They are off to Monkshole. Shall we stop here and see what happens, or shall we follow them?"
"Oh, follow them by all means," Vincent decided. "We can't do any good by remaining here, and, anyway, if anything has happened to that unfortunate cashier, there will be plenty of people to look after him. You know what those chaps are going to do, don't you?"
"I think I can give a pretty good guess, sir," Biddle grinned. "They are going to enter Monkshole by the secret passage and spend the night there. And not a bad idea, either. They will be able to swear they were there all night."
"That is the notion, Joe," Vincent agreed. "And that is why we are going to follow them."
At a safe distance, the two scoundrels were tracked across the country until they came, at length, to the secret entrance to the library at Monkshole, into which Ebbsmith guided his companion, until they reached the great room itself, where they found Wilde busy over his papers. He looked up in astonishment, as the two figures dropped down the light ladder and stood regarding him breathlessly. From overhead Vincent and Biddle watched and listened with all their attention.
"Dick Barrs," Wilde cried hoarsely. "Dick Barrs. Now, by what ill fortune have you got here?"
Ebbsmith gave Barrs a warning glance. Circumstances had compelled this disclosure of Barrs' presence in England, for Ebbsmith had his own reasons for not letting his chief know too much. He had said nothing about the show, nor had he intended to do so, and he was not going to do so now, until he was absolutely forced to show his hand. Because the junior scoundrel did not trust his senior. It would be quite enough to speak out if sheer necessity compelled the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And Barrs seemed to understand, for he gave a short, contemptuous laugh as he faced Wilde.
"That's right, my friend, that's right," he said. "Dick Barrs, O.K., and don't you forget it. A few years ago we were partners, before it suited you to double-cross me and leave me in the lurch on the other side of the water. If it had not been for a bit of sheer good luck, I should be in Sing Sing at the present moment. Now, you listen to me, Sebastian Wilde. I swore that if ever I met you again, I would have your life. Yes, and if I hadn't run against Ebbsmith here, I should have killed you on sight. But then I thought of a better game than that. I hunted Ebbsmith out and bound him to secrecy and he had to listen to me whether he liked it or not. First of all, I wanted money and a lot of it. I had a plan, in which I needed Ebbsmith's help and the help of something else. What that something else is we will come to later on. But this talking is dry work, Wilde. Give me a drink and plenty of it."
At a sign from Wilde, Ebbsmith produced decanters and glasses and a big silver box of cigarettes. Then, after Barrs had drunk deep, he lighted a cigarette and, flinging himself into a chair, contemplated Wilde grimly.
"Ah, that is better," he said, taking a long, deep breath. "Look here, Wilde, I have been talking to Ebbsmith about you. He tells me that you are on the verge of great discoveries. Scientific things that will startle the world and make a millionaire of you ten times over. And I believe that, because you are a long-headed, clever devil and capable of all sorts of wonders. But even you can't turn the universe upside-down without money. How much can you put your hand on at the present moment?"
"I can always find money," Wilde said.
"You are a liar," Barrs retorted dispassionately. "At the present moment, you don't know where to turn for a five-pound note. You have only just got rid of a broker who came near to selling you up. Isn't that true?"
Wilde eyed his antagonist malevolently.
"For a moment, perhaps, yes," he admitted.
"Ah, just so," Barrs went on. "And that is where I come in. If I can find you a few thousands, are you prepared to share your discoveries with me? Or shall I give the New York police a hint and stop the machinery?"
"I am more or less in your hands," Wilde said with an effort to control himself. "So you can go on. Where is this money coming from and how much? If it is a substantial amount, then I can make it worth your while."
Barrs made no reply for a minute or two.
"Oh, I can find it," he said presently. "We came within a hair's breadth of it to-night, but owing to an infernal bit of bad luck, everything went wrong and just at present we are hiding from the police. Tell him, Ebbsmith."
Ebbsmith proceeded rapidly to describe the dramatic events of the last few hours, to which Wilde listened with a evil gleam in his eye and a sardonic smile on his lips.
"Yes, I think that will be all right," he said. "If there is any suspicion against you two, then I think I shall be able to put the police off your tracks and establish your alibi. But you said just now that you could give me money, thousands of pounds. And, now, apparently, you are not a bit better off than I am. Why should I do anything for you?"
"Because you have got to," Barrs snarled. "Oh, I don't mind forgetting all about your past treachery, so long as I can handle some of that fabulous fortune of yours. But money makes money, you treacherous dog, and you can't work even a gold mine without the hard cash necessary to buy your machinery. So I am just going to sit quietly by and keep my eye upon you until your ship comes home, and then I am going to help loot it. All the same, you must have a few thousands to start the wheels turning. Where are they coming from?"
"Well, I will tell you," Wilde said. "Oh, I realise I am more or less in your power, and I know you don't mean to be shaken off, now that you have got on my tracks, again. My dear fellow, there is money enough in this business for all of us. Millions and millions. And within a week I shall have more than I know what to do with. Leave it to me."
"No, you don't," Barrs said. "That is all very well in its way, but none of your vague promises for me. You tell me here and now what is your plan."
"Well, I suppose I must," Wilde said. "There is a lady in the case. A romantic and impressionable young lady who sees ghosts and visions and hears phantom motor cars and ghostly horns. A lady with a dead lover, a lover she communicates with through me across the borderland."
"Oh, yes, the old stunt," Barrs sneered. "I have heard all that before."
"Yes, but not in the same conditions. The girl I speak of is absolutely under my influence and will do exactly as I tell her. More than that, she is mistress of over two hundred thousand pounds in her own right, and nobody can come between her and the way she deals with her capital. She is letting me have fifty thousand pounds. That was settled not many hours ago. Of course, she has to interview her bankers and trustees and that sort of thing, but the money will be forthcoming and, once I have the handling of it, I will astonish the world. I will show you things that scientists have never dreamt of. I will prove to mankind that no nation can go to war without my consent. I can paralyse armies and navies and bring all the aeroplanes in the world crashing to the ground. The secret will be mine and I can sell it. I shall have all the millionaires in the two hemispheres on their knees imploring me to take them into partnership. I shall be able to walk invisible; nay, more than that, I can move an invisible army across the world and none any the wiser till the time comes to strike."
"Is that all?" Barrs sneered.
All the same, he was deeply impressed. It was next to impossible to look into Wilde's set, white face without a conviction that he was telling no more than the truth.
"If you are not satisfied," Wilde said, "I will say no more."
"Go on," Barrs said hoarsely. "Go on."
Seated up there in the loft in darkness and silence, Vincent laid a warning hand on Joe Biddle's arm, and then together they stole quietly down the steel ladder and thence, lighted by a torch, made the opening. Just before they reached it, Vincent's eye lighted on the compact frame of the motor cycle that gleamed with all its parts shining in the thin ray from the torch.
"Just one moment, Joe," Vincent said. "I have a sort of brain-wave. All sorts of ideas came into my mind when we were listening to those scoundrels. You lift the cycle off the stand and wheel it into the garden. Then you can hide it in the bushes and forget all about it. I want to cut off one line of retreat if I can."
Joe Biddle moved the cycle and hid it cunningly under a mass of dead brushwood. Then, a little later, he parted with Vincent, who crept along in the shadow of the darkness, until he reached Manthon's house, where he let himself in with the latchkey he had borrowed and, throwing himself on his bed just as he was, slept until Manthon came into the room with the announcement that it was past ten o'clock. Vincent shaved himself and bathed and breakfasted, after which he proceeded to give Manthon an account of the events of the previous night.
"Something like a dramatic story," the latter said when Vincent had finished. "But I think, on the other hand, I can give you a bit of information too. I was out pretty early this morning round the district, trying to get a cricket team for Saturday, and I heard all about the bank fellow and the attempt at burglary at Withington."
"Yes, I suppose you would," Vincent said. "Amazing how these things carry in country places. Was that poor fellow very badly hurt?"
"Not particularly," Manthon explained. "He had a nasty crack on the head from a piece of lead piping, but there was no fracture, and when they got him into hospital, they seemed to think he would be all right in a day or two. At any rate, he was well enough to give a fairly good account of what happened. You see that bell business was his own idea. He rigged it up in an attic with some ingenious gadget or another, so that when he laid his hand upon a certain wire, the bell would go on ringing until somebody cut off the connection. You see, the man was in another trouble of this sort a year or two ago, and was determined he was not going to have the same thing happen twice. That's all right, anyway. But now, tell me, what is the next move as far as you are concerned?"
"I have not quite made up my mind," Vincent said. "All I know is that I am going to London presently and I shall think out my plan of campaign on the way. Those three scoundrels can wait. They have not the least idea what has happened or that they are suspected. So we can leave them for the moment to stew in their own juice. It looks to me as though the time has come when I shall have to take Scotland Yard into my confidence. But I don't want to do that until I can see my way absolutely clear. When those ruffians are laid by the heels, it is my ambition not to have a single flaw in my case. Two or three ideas occurred to me this morning when I was in my bath and I want to put them to the test. Now in the first place, what do you know about wireless?"
Manthon's modest idea was that he knew a good deal. Not that he claimed to be an expert, but, generally speaking, he could speak with authority.
"And if I can't," he said, "then my old friend John Purchase in Marchwick can supply the deficiency. Would you like to run into Marchwick and see him?"
"Well, no, for the present, I think not," Vincent said thoughtfully. "I am going in my disguise to those rooms in Bloomsbury where Ebbsmith has his London headquarters. And if I find there what I expect to find, then I will 'phone you from London and ask you to see Purchase. Take him into your confidence and bring him up to London as fast as you can. With your car, you ought to be able to manage that in a couple of hours."
A little later, and Vincent was on his way to Town. He drove to his office, where he assumed the disguise that he used when engaging the rooms in Bloomsbury and walked round there, up to his own apartment where he remained for some little time, until he had satisfied himself that there was no chance of interruption, whereupon he boldly walked into Ebbsmith's sitting-room and made a thorough search of that apartment. In a corner cupboard, half full of books, he found, presently, what seemed to be a small wireless receiving set and, behind that, an apparatus which he recognised as an indoor aerial.
Very leisurely he examined this, feeling perfectly sure that he was not likely to be interrupted by Ebbsmith, and when at length he had finished, he went out to the nearest telephone call office and rang up Manthon.
"Is that you, Manthon," he said, directly he had got through. "Yes I think I have made a bull's eye. And I'm on the track of certain manifestations which have been manipulated so as to bring Miss Peggy Ferris under the influence of Sebastian Wilde. Of course I can't be certain, because my wireless knowledge is defective. But I do know that something I have found in this house has been used in some mysterious way to establish a connection between the sitting-room in Bloomsbury and the library at Monkshole."
"What do you want me to do?" Manthon asked.
"Well, I want you to do what I suggested this morning. Jump into your car at once and go into Marchwick and get hold of Purchase. Bring him up to Town with you and come here. I gave you the address before I started."
"Right-ho," Manthon agreed, and rang off.
Just two hours later, Manthon's car pulled up before the Bloomsbury lodging house and two men got out. A moment or two later, Purchase was examining the wireless set with all the enthusiasm of an expert.
"Yes," he said. "A short wave set. Roughly speaking, about 32 metres. The sort of thing they use for receiving messages from overseas. One of the best I have seen. But nothing out of the common."
"That is not quite the point," Vincent said. "Now I suppose Mr. Manthon has told you the whole story or you would not be here. I mean all about Wilde and Miss Ferris and that kind of thing."
"That is all right, sir," Purchase said.
"Very well, then. Now, I don't believe all that business about the phantom car and the ghostly horn. Mind you, I am not saying that Miss Ferris was suffering from delusions when she says that she hears the cracked horn of her lover's car, and that it comes to her at all sorts of unexpected odd moments. On the contrary, I am quite sure she did hear those sounds. Now, let us take our story step by step. In what circumstances does she hear the horn? Almost invariably when she is listening to music from the Royal Thames Hotel dance band. That would of course, be late at night when Daventry was shut down."
"By Gad, I never thought of that," Manthon cried.
"No, neither did I till yesterday," Vincent confessed. "And I have been kicking myself ever since for my stupidity. Now, let us go a step further. Miss Ferris heard the phantom horn most nights when she was listening to that dance band. She listened to that dance band for sentimental reasons, by which I mean that she was in the habit of dancing in that ball-room with her dead lover. Now it is summer time, and I have ascertained that during the warm months, all the windows in the Royal Thames Hotel ball-room are open. Then what is to prevent some accomplice of Wilde's driving a car with a cracked horn past the place and tooting six times. Don't forget that the six notes were a signal to Miss Ferris that her lover was going to leave her. What I suggest is that Ebbsmith, who is frequently in Town, was employed by Wilde to hang about the Royal Thames Hotel when they were transmitting dance music late at night and imitate the broken Klaxon horn."
"By Jove," Manthon cried. "You've got it."
"Of course I have," Vincent replied. "And we were a set of fools not to have tumbled to it before. But it doesn't end there. Now, Manthon, I want you to cast your mind back some little time. You were hiding at Monkshole and heard Wilde give Miss Ferris a dramatic account of the murder of Mr. Everard. At least, what appeared to be a murder and, subsequently, turned out to be one. That was supposed to be a sort of second sight business. But was it? I don't believe it was anything of the sort. Knowing what we know, the robbery at Mr. Everard's house was deliberately planned between Ebbsmith and Wilde and, when the former had to disgorge his plunder to save his own skin, he raced back to this room and contrived in some way or another to convey to Wilde the story of the night's tragedy. Otherwise, what does he want a short wave set for? Mind you, it is not a transmitting set, and even if if were, he would never have dared to communicate with Wilde by means of the spoken word. Mr. Purchase, I think this is where you come in. Is there some means, through this little short wave set, by which Ebbsmith could tell Wilde all that happened that night, and nobody be any of the wiser for it? There must be some sort of means and, until we can get to the bottom of it, I am more or less guessing."
"Stop a minute," Manthon said. "We are getting warm. Do you remember my telling you that all the time Wilde was talking to Miss Ferris that night, I heard mysterious tappings in the library? Wilde told Miss Ferris quite casually that they were spirit rappings. They seemed to me to be something like more mixed up with fingers drumming 'The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring' from the 'Mikado.' Like this."
With his nails, Manthon tapped the tune on the table, and immediately a light flashed into Purchase's eyes.
"I've got it, sir, I've got it," the little man cried. "Now I see the whole thing as plain as the nose on my face. If you put that set in action and there is a corresponding set of the same wave length within fifty or sixty miles, it is the easiest thing in the world to communicate from one end to the other in what I might call code Morse. If Ebbsmith wanted to tell Wilde what happened to Mr. Everard, all he had to do was to tune his set in unison with another one which Wilde must have somewhere concealed in his library and the rest would be easy. For instance, if I wet my fingers, I can tap a Morse message on the earth lead of this set that will record, faithfully, on a corresponding set which I have no doubt exists at Monkshole. I am absolutely certain now that I am right. However, when we get a search warrant to examine Monkshole, you will find a corresponding set hidden away in one of the cupboards there."
"Well, that seems to clear the ground a lot," Vincent said. "Anyway, we know now exactly how those so-called spiritual manifestations were brought about. I always felt sure there was some logical explanation. This has been a great day for us and unless things go entirely wrong, we shall be able to lay Wilde by the heels before many hours."
They sat talking there for a little time longer, and then having nothing further to do for the moment, Manthon went back to his car, taking Purchase with him. A little while later and Vincent left the house and went in the direction of his office. It was nearly dark by this time, but he let himself into his business premises with his latchkey and proceeded to change from his disguise into ordinary attire. He had all the evening before him now and, realising that he had had nothing to eat since lunch, went down the Strand in order to turn into the Savoy grill and there treat himself to something out of the common in the way of a dinner.
He had hardly taken his seat before he became conscious of a rather familiar figure seated alone at a little table opposite. He was not easily surprised, but, for a moment, he could scarcely believe the evidence of his own eyes.
He crossed the room with rapid strides and laid his hand on the shoulder of the man seated there.
"I don't think I am mistaken, sir," he said. "In fact, I am sure I am not. And I am equally sure you know me by sight."
The solitary diner looked up.
"Captain George Vincent, I think," he said quietly.
With all the strings sorting themselves out in his hand, so to speak, Vincent was not allowing the grass to grow under his feet. As is usually the case with painstaking individuals, he found luck on his side, and was not disposed to release the advantage that a chance meeting in the grill room at the Savoy, which fortune had literally thrown at him. So that, late as it was, he was on his way to Lincombe before ten o'clock in his car with the mysterious passenger who was muffled up to the eyes. Then, presently, he found himself in Manthon's smoking-room telling the latter a strange story.
"Lord bless my soul, is that a fact?" Manthon asked. "What a wonderful piece of news. If anybody else had told me, I would not have believed him. Anyway, we have the ball at our feet now and we can kick it where we like."
"Well, more or less," Vincent agreed. "But there is a good deal to do yet. It won't be a difficult matter to bring those scoundrels to justice; but I think you will concur with me when I say that we want something more than that—I mean as regards Peggy Ferris."
"Yes, I see what you mean," Manthon said thoughtfully. "It will take a good deal to persuade Peggy that she is the victim of a cruel impostor. What do you propose?"
"I think something in the way of a shock," Vincent said. "See what I mean? A cruel exposure that will make her not only look foolish but feel so. Of course, I know that she is in a rotten state of health and that her nerves are all to pieces. All the same, I think a mental cold douche, so to speak, would, in the circumstances, be more kind than cruel. Now, look here, Manthon. It isn't very late yet. You get on the telephone to Maud Faber and ask her to call up Peggy Ferris and ascertain what the latter is doing the next night or two. I have more than one idea that, in the next few hours, Peggy is going to see Wilde and hand him over a lot of money."
"That is perfectly correct," Manthon said eagerly. "I had that information from Miss Bancroft only to-day. It appears that Peggy is ready to give away thousands of pounds, despite all the efforts of her friends to dissuade her, and the money is now at her bankers in Marchwick."
"Ah, I expected to hear that," Vincent said. "That means she is going to give Wilde a cheque at the very first opportunity. What we have to ascertain here and now, is when the fateful meeting is to take place. It is pretty certain to resolve itself into one of those spiritual manifestations, probably to-morrow or the next night. What we have to do is to find out which night. If Miss Faber rings up Peggy and asks her to dine with them either to-morrow evening or the next, she will get, indirectly, a reply which will tell us exactly which night the meeting will take place when all that money will be handed over. Now then, get on with it."
Manthon left Vincent to his own devices for the best part of a quarter of an hour, and then came back with the information that Peggy Ferris was free on the next evening, but on the night after she had an important engagement.
"That's it," Vincent exclaimed, rubbing his hands together. "We shall be all right now. And, what is more, we have the better part of forty-eight hours in front of us. I will get back to Town, late as it is, and lay the mine which is to blow Wilde and his scheme into atoms. When I have done that, I will come back here the day after to-morrow, after dinner, and we will make Sebastian Wilde a call when he is holding his seance with his victim. I shan't come alone, either, because I shall probably bring one of the leading lights of Scotland Yard with me. I am speaking of my friend Deputy-Commissioner Sutton, who already knows something about the business. He will be armed with a search warrant, so that directly the front door at Monkshole is opened, those two servants there will be placed under arrest, and we shall listen outside the library door till the time comes for us to take a hand in the proceedings. And another thing. I think you will find that Sebastian Wilde is out, on this occasion, for something extra startling in the way of a spiritual manifestation. In that, of course, he will require the help of Ebbsmith, who will probably be sent to London to work the scheme from that end. In other words, Ebbsmith will be in his Bloomsbury lodgings manipulating the wireless set we know about. What I want you to do is to keep your eyes open to-morrow or the next day and let we have a 'phone message to my office in Norfolk Street directly Ebbsmith sets out in his car for London. I think that is about all."
A little later and Vincent was on his way to London once more. For the next twenty-four hours he had much to occupy his attention, but he was quite ready for Manthon's message with regard to Ebbsmith when it arrived the second afternoon, shortly after two o'clock. He went straight to Scotland Yard and asked to see his friend Sutton. Fortunately the latter was on the premises and quite ready to hear all that Vincent had to say.
"I am going to startle you," Vincent smiled. "I am going to tell you how Mr. Everard met his death and you shall hear the particulars from the lips of the man who was responsible for the crime. Is that any use to you?"
"Use?" Sutton echoed. "Well, yes. You mean I am to assist in arresting the murderer?"
"I didn't say that," Vincent replied. "I told you that I was going to bring you in contact with one who would tell you how the murder was committed. It was not the act of a man at all, but a chimpanzee called Gobo."
Sutton stared in amazement at the speaker.
"It sounds like one of Edgar Allen Poe's romances," he murmured.
"Precisely. That is exactly what it is. Listen."
It was some time before Vincent finished speaking, and later still when the two men, armed with certain legal documents, set out for the dingy boarding house in Bloomsbury. There Vincent let himself in with his lodger's latchkey and, without troubling to announce himself, went up the stairs, followed by Sutton. Without ceremony, he turned into the sitting room occupied by Ebbsmith, to find the latter seated there, smoking a cigarette and reading an early edition of an evening paper.
Ebbsmith looked up with a scowl on his face.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Who are you and what are you doing in my sitting-room?"
"Well, it's like this," Vincent explained. "I am a private inquiry agent and my name is Captain Vincent and my friend here is Deputy Commissioner Sutton from Scotland Yard. He has a warrant for your arrest."
The words were uttered quietly enough, but they had a marked effect on James Ebbsmith. His cigarette fell to the floor and his cheeks whitened as he stared helplessly from one to another of the two intruders.
"I—I don't understand you," he stammered.
"Then perhaps I had better make myself plain," Vincent went on. "Your name is James Ebbsmith and you are a sort of secretary to a scientific gentleman called Sebastian Wilde, who lives in Lincombe, not far from Marchwick. I am perfectly aware of the fact that neither of those names properly belongs to you and that the American police are familiar with you under others aliases. But that, for the moment, has nothing to do with us. What you will be charged with is the murder of Mr. Everard in Burlington Square a few weeks ago. He was an old gentleman who made a hobby of collecting precious stones and was robbed of a large quantity of these on the very day he purchased them at a public auction. A potential thief did not get away with his plunder, because, unfortunately for him, he was chased by a policeman and narrowly escaped capture."
"But what has all this to do with me?" Ebbsmith blustered.
"Oh, well," Vincent went on. "If you don't want to speak you need not. But don't you think you are rather foolish to allow the man who calls himself Richard Barrs to have the use of your trained chimpanzee Gobo when, only a short time before, the ape was responsible for the death of Mr. Everard?"
Again Vincent spoke in quietly measured terms, but this time his words went home to Ebbsmith with the force of a lighting shock. His jaw sagged as he collapsed in a heap into his chair and regarded his tormentor with a look of terror in his eyes that was almost pitiable.
"Come," Vincent went on. "I think you had better make a clean breast of it. After all, we can't charge you with the actual murder, so your neck is safe. But I think you will see for yourself that you are not likely to get out of this without a long term of imprisonment. I am giving you every chance to tell me the story of how Mr. Everard's death came about, and also the history of the conspiracy between Sebastian Wilde and yourself to rob a certain young lady of a vast sum of money. Your silence will not save you a bit, because we know all about it. But if you help us to complete our case and lay your confederate by the heels, then it is probable that my friend here will do his best to make things as easy for you as possible. Now then, what have you to say?"
Ebbsmith slowly pulled himself together and eyed his two antagonists in turn. Then he seemed to make up his mind, for a shadow of a smile crossed his face.
"Very well, gentlemen," he said. "I can see there is nothing to gain by keeping quiet and perhaps a good deal by making a clean breast of it. But you would never have known anything if I hadn't been fool enough to lend my ape Gobo to Dick Barrs. Of course, in a way I could not help it, because Barrs turned up out of nowhere and threatened Wilde and myself with all sorts of things. He used to be a partner of ours long ago in America, but that is another story and has nothing whatever to do with the present case. Anyway, Barrs slipped the police in America and came over here with a show of his and, by bad luck, got on my track in Marchwick and insisted upon coming into our little scheme. I don't suppose you knew that."
"Oh, but I did," Vincent said. "I know all about the secret entrance into Monkshole and the underground passage where you kept the ape and the motorcycle which you were in the habit of using on your burgling expeditions. And I know all about the attack on the bank clerk in Withington village and how you and Barrs made the best of your way, afterwards, to Monkshole and had a conference with Wilde. In fact, I may tell you that I heard every word of the conversation."
"Well, you are a fair knock out," Ebbsmith said with a grudging admiration. "No use trying to keep anything from you."
"Not a bit," Vincent said. "Now go on."
"Well, it's like this, gentlemen," Ebbsmith said. "Many years ago, when I was in America, I began training animals for a show that we were running in connection with Richard Barrs. That was long before Sebastian Wilde developed those wonderful scientific powers of his, and when we were hard put to it to get a living honestly or otherwise—mostly otherwise. And I found I had quite a way with animals and I could do pretty well what I liked with them. Mind you, I had two or three apes before Gobo, and very useful they were. You see, they could slip about under the cover of the darkness and climb up the front of the house like a cat. Many is the little robbery we got away with in that manner. And then, one thing leading to another, I got hold of Gobo and found him the most intelligent creature I had ever handled. I taught him how to burgle a house and how to defend himself with a knife, if necessary. Mind you, I didn't give him the knife to take life with, because I object to that sort of thing. The knife was given him to cut himself free if he got captured or found himself in a tight place. He was as human as a child. Why, he actually seemed to know the difference between real and paste jewellery. You see I read all about Mr. Everard in the newspapers and knew that he was going to buy that collection of stones that led to his death. And I had made a study of his habits and the ways of his household. I even knew that he used to use a sitting-room at the top of the house, the window of which was always open. And I meant to get those stones. I smuggled Gobo up from Monkshole, where I used to keep him in hiding in a cave, and gave him his instructions. Of course, you don't know what that means, but he did. I had him in this room here until late that evening when I set out with him for Burlington Square. Nobody saw him, nobody could see him, a monkey like that who knew how to conceal his presence. So he got along to the Square without attracting any attention, and all I had to do was to show Gobo the open window and send him up. He came back presently with the cases in the pocket of his jacket, and I had just time to see that the jacket and his breast were smothered in blood, and then I realised what had happened. I dropped those cases as if they had poisoned me, and rushed to my lodgings here as if all the fiends in hell were after me. For the moment, I had forgotten all about Gobo; but when I reached the doorstep here, there he was by my side."
Ebbsmith paused, as if to gain breath.
"I tell you, I was fairly paralysed," he went on presently. "It needed no one to tell me what had happened, because there was the knife that Gobo had put back in the sheath, all covered with blood, and his coat and breast dappled with it. No doubt, that poor gentleman had had a struggle with Gobo, but he would have been like a child in the ape's hands and never have the ghost of a chance. So when I pulled myself together, I got out my car, very early in the morning, and went back to Monkshole with Gobo hidden at my feet. And that is all I have to tell you, gentlemen. It sounds a wild, improbable story, but every word is true as gospel."
"The most remarkable narrative I have ever heard," Sutton said, speaking for the first time. "Is there anything more you want to stop for, Vincent? If not, I will get Ebbsmith to accompany me, and charge him formally with being an accessory after the death of Mr. Everard."
"Well, yes, there are one or two little matters," Vincent said. "Now, Ebbsmith, reverting for a moment or two to the conspiracy against Miss Ferris for her money. I know that you and Wilde were in desperate need of cash to carry out those experiments of his. And I know that Wilde used certain devices to impress on Miss Ferris that he was in possession of occult powers. And in that you helped him. Somewhere concealed in the library at Monkshole is a low wave wireless set which is tuned in to agree with another one you have in that cupboard yonder. I know the set is in the cupboard, because I have seen it. And I know all about that dodge of tapping the earth lead with wet fingers, so that you could talk in a sort of Morse which was mixed up with the music of the 'Mikado.' In other words, when Wilde was telling Miss Ferris all about actual happenings which he was pretending to see in a gigantic crystal, you were putting him wise from this end by means of the signs I have just spoken of. In fact, you told him all about the tragic death of Mr. Everard within half an hour of the tragedy. Directly Wilde got that at Monkshole, he translated it to Miss Ferris, and when she read all about it in the paper the next day she was naturally enormously impressed. I know it all sounds very wonderful, but it was sheer conceit on Wilde's part and went a long way to his undoing. Now then, if you don't mind, I should like you to produce that wireless set."
Ebbsmith complied without further hesitation. He was utterly crushed and beaten now and quite ready to do anything that he was told. Then, presently, the three of them left the house in Bloomsbury and, later on, Ebbsmith disappeared from sight, whilst Vincent and Sutton sat smiling at one another across a table in the latter's room.
"Well, I must certainly compliment you on a very neat piece of work," the latter said. "We could never have got to the bottom of that murder mystery without your assistance. Now, what do you suggest is the next move?"
"Give me four and twenty hours," Vincent said. "And, during that time, mind that not a single word reaches the Press. Then I will get you to come with me as far as Monkshole in Lincombe and you can arrest Sebastian Wilde as well. But not until I have quite finished with him."
"Very well," Sutton agreed. "It shall be exactly as you wish. I take it you want me to go down to Lincombe with you to-morrow and wait on your convenience."
"That's right," Vincent said. "That is all I want."
It was getting late the following night when Sebastian Wilde was seated alone in his library with the impatient air of one who is expecting something out of the common to happen. There was a moody frown on his face, and uneasiness that found vent presently in more or less incoherent mutterings.
"Now, what the devil has happened to Ebbsmith?" he asked himself. "Not a word from him last night and no sign all day. If I hadn't been a fool, I should have insisted that he took lodgings in London somewhere where he was on the telephone. However, it doesn't much matter, because in a few hours' time I shall be able to get rid of both Ebbsmith and Barrs, and then the world will see what it will see."
He broke off abruptly as the manservant came into the room and announced the presence of Peggy Ferris. She came in, white and shaky, the dark rings under her eyes showing almost distressingly the nervous condition that affected her. It was not for her to know that she had been followed right up to the front door at Monkshole by four men, amongst whom she might have recognised Vincent and Manthon. The front door had only closed on Peggy a few minutes before somebody rapped on it, and the servitor, having shut the library door behind him, opened the front portal and inquired who was there. The next instant he was looking down the barrel of an automatic.
"Not a word," Vincent said sternly. "Now, lead the way to your sitting-room where your wife is, and if you make the slightest sound I will blow your brains out."
Within a few seconds the man and his wife were locked in their sitting-room, and the four intruders went across the hall until they came to the library, from which, through a crack in one of the panels, a glimmer of light showed. Very softly indeed, Vincent opened the door. From where he and his companions stood, they could hear all that was going on inside.
"Now, do sit down, Miss Ferris," Wilde was saying. "There is nothing whatever to be frightened about. That is better. Now, let us see what the crystal shows us."
For a time Wilde muttered on, professing to see all sorts of visions in the crystal before him, prophesying the most amazing things for the future. Then the crystal was put on one side and Wilde began to talk more normally.
"I have something wonderful for you presently," he said. "But I have had a bit of interruption to-day. My dear child, I am greatly worried. You don't realise what it is to be hampered as I am by sordid details. You don't know what it means to see a large fortune slowly dissipated in the face of hard-working failure. To be so near a miracle, the greatest the world has ever seen, and yet to have the cup dashed from one's lips at the very instant of success. I was a rich man once, and to-day I hardly know where to turn for the necessities of life. And if the large sum I need is not forthcoming within the next day or two, then I shall have to write myself down a failure, and put an end to my miserable existence."
"Oh, no, no," Peggy cried. "Please don't do that. What is to become of me? And what about all your promises? How am I to keep in contact with my lost one if you are no longer here to be the medium between us. Oh, surely you don't think that I should let a mere thing like money come between me and what is left of my life's happiness."
"But why should I take your money, child?"
"Because I feel that it belongs to you. It is a sort of sacred trust between us two. Besides, I have enough, more than enough, for us both. See I have brought a cheque with me. It is a cheque for £50,000."
Wilde's eyes gleamed as he saw Peggy place the pink slip of paper on the table before him, but he waved it aside if for the moment it was of no importance.
"That has eased my mind," he said. "It was ordained by the stars that you should be my partner. Your name shall go down to posterity as the greatest woman that ever lived—the woman who trusted Sebastian Wilde and helped to bring happiness and prosperity to suffering humanity."
"Yes, yes," Peggy said impatiently. "But your promise. Your promise that I should see my lost one on the screen and hear the message of forgiveness coming from his own lips."
"That promise will be kept," Wilde said solemnly. "Sit where you are and on no account move."
The lights dimmed for a moment, and then on the glass screen at the end of the room a figure began to shape itself. It was a figure curiously like what Trevor Capner had been in the life and still more striking in the dim surroundings. And then, by some phonographic arrangements, the figure began to speak and words came floating across the room.
"There," Wilde whispered. "Now listen carefully."
Sutton touched the man standing next to him and immediately the latter crept forward into the room.
"Why worry with that, Peggy?" he said in a clear, resonant voice. "Why worry when the man himself is here?"
Peggy turned with a loud cry and fell forward, only to be caught in the extended arms of the intruder.
"Trevor," she screamed, "Trevor. Trevor himself speaking to me from beyond the grave."
"Trevor speaking to you in the flesh," Capner said firmly.
It was a strange scene that met the eyes of the Deputy Commissioner—probably the strangest in the course of a remarkable career. There in the dim half-light Sebastian Wilde sat at the head of the table, utterly unmoved, to all outward appearance, and preserving the benevolent aspect with which his massive head and flowing hair and beard endowed him, much as if he had been some patriarch in the old scriptural days. He looked from one to the other without the slightest change of colour and, indeed, as if he had been a spectator in the stalls watching some thrilling melodrama.
On the screen on the far side of the room the shadowy outline of Trevor Capner's counterfeit presentment still displayed itself in the dim rays of the lamp that seemed to shine through the trap-door in the loft overhead, where all Wilde's elaborate machinery was set up.
Then, very quietly, Wilde's hand stole out in a mechanical sort of way and was about to close casually over the pink slip which Peggy had brought there, when Vincent slipped forward and, taking the cheque from the table, folded it carefully and slipped it in his pocket.
"No, you don't, my friend," he said. "Money in any shape or form is not likely to interest you for many a day to come."
Sebastian Wilde bowed his head benignly. There was a smile about the corners of his lips as he looked towards Peggy, who was laughing and sobbing alternately in her lover's arms. She had not yet grasped what had happened, though, even in her half-demented state, she was aware of the fact that she was leaning on the breast of something that was very much alive, and trying to read some sort of explanation in the eyes that were looking down so intently into her own.
"Is it really you, Trevor?" she murmured.
"Absolutely," Capner smiled. "Don't move, stay where you are, and try and realise that I am not dead. It will all come out presently."
But it was quite in vain that Peggy tried to restrain herself. And it was evident to those watching that she was trembling perilously on the borderline between madness and sanity. She looked from Capner's face with a bewildered glance at the shadowy figure on the glass screen. Then Manthon, catching up a heavy paper weight from the table, flung it with all his force at the sheet of crystal, which crashed into a thousand fragments. Simultaneously, Vincent found the electric light switch and flooded the library with an illumination that seemed to bring everything back to the normal again. The shadowy figure vanished, and, as it did so, Peggy flung herself on Capner with a sob that shook her to her very soul.
"There, there," Capner said soothingly. "Try and control yourself. We will get you out of this presently and, after a good night's sleep, you will be yourself again. You have been the victim of the wiles of a scoundrel who would have robbed you of your reason if things had gone on much longer but, thank Heaven, we are in time to save that."
The words seemed to penetrate into Peggy's brain, for she grew more quiet, though her face was still hidden on Capner's shoulder. Then, in the silence that followed, Wilde looked towards his enemies and spoke.
"May I inquire," he said mildly, "what all this means? Why this intrusion at midnight on my privacy? What have I done to deserve such treatment?"
"Oh, well, you can keep up that attitude if you like," Sutton said. "Let me inform you that I am one of the leading officials of Scotland Yard and that your confederate, James Ebbsmith, is already under arrest on a charge of being connected with the murder of Mr. Everard in Burlington Square."
"You mean the gentleman who collected precious stones?" Wilde asked coolly. "Yes, I read all about that in the papers at the time. But what has that to do with me? I am but a humble student in the fields of science and, unfortunately confined to the house through an accident that paralysed my lower limbs some years ago. I fail to see how you can possibly connect me with the crime that took place in London."
"Oh, yes, he is paralysed right enough," Manthon interrupted. "I know that, because I tested him myself. I managed, on one occasion when I was here, to give him a sharp blow with a book below the kneecap and failed to notice any reaction. In fact, he didn't feel the stroke at all."
Just for an instant, Wilde favoured the speaker with a malignant glance. Then he was his bland self again.
"That was very clever of you, Mr. Manthon," he said. "But quite unnecessary. Now, my Scotland Yard friend, what have you to say to me? What have I to do with the activities of my secretary James Ebbsmith? If he was in any way connected with the crime in Burlington Square, he was acting solely, without any assistance from me, even without my knowledge."
"I did not say he had a direct hand in the crime," Sutton said. "Because no man had. You see, we know all about the ape, Gobo, which was hidden in the cave here, and how he was smuggled up to London with the intention of robbing Mr. Everard of his precious stones. More than one conversation between you two has been overheard by my friends here, so I should advise you to be careful in what you are saying."
"That is very kind of you," Wilde sneered. "But with what, precisely, am I charged?"
Sutton avoided a direct reply.
"There might be many charges," he said. "You might, for instance, be charged by Miss Ferris with obtaining, by false pretences, a large sum of money. I don't think we shall have much difficulty in proving that, seeing that we saw the money pass, and the evidence of the cheque which my friend here has in his pocket. If Miss Ferris——"
"No, no, no," Peggy cried. "Leave me out of this dreadful business if you can. I don't understand yet, but I suppose I shall in time. But I could not stand up in a court of law and proclaim to the world——"
The rest of the speech trailed off incoherently and Peggy collapsed, a dead weight, in her lover's arms. She had fainted now in earnest and, for a moment or two, it looked as if she had ceased to breathe altogether. The others gathered round, as if anxious to see what they could do, whereupon Wilde flung himself out of his chair and, throwing his legs over his back, crossed the floor of the library nimbly on his hands in the direction of the ladder leading up to the loft. He was part of the way up the ladder before Sutton saw what was happening. Then, clinging to a rung with one hand, Wilde put the other into his breast as if seeking for a weapon there.
"No, you don't," Sutton said between his teeth as he dashed forward. "None of that, if I have anything to do with it."
With that, he raced across the room and fairly smothered Wilde in a scientific rugger tackle. They both came heavily to the ground, the flowing white hair and beard and whiskers parted like magic from Wilde's massive head and disclosed beneath a close cropped thatch of red.
The transformation was so startling and so unexpected and, indeed, so, grotesque, that Sutton could scarcely refrain from laughing. He was no longer looking at a benevolent old gentleman of scholarly aspect, but a foxy-faced criminal of the conventional type. Just for a moment or two, the antagonists confronted one another and Wilde smiled unpleasantly.
"I wasn't armed," he said. "You can search me if you like. I have no belief in that sort of thing."
"And you wouldn't have got very far, either," Manthon said. "I know where you were going. You meant to slip through the secret passage and hoist yourself on to a motor cycle as you did when you were trying to burgle my house and Faber's. Now you know the secret of those mysterious hand prints you took, Faber. No doubt he had another bolt-hole somewhere or another which he has prepared in case of emergency, but we saw to it that the motor cycle was removed—in fact, Vincent did it."
Wilde contrived to get back to his chair again and sat in it facing his foes grimly.
"Well, gentlemen," he said. "What is the next move? You can't touch me over that Burlington Square affair, though you do know all about Gobo and his genius for picking up unconsidered trifles. Now, unless Miss Ferris likes to charge me, I fail to see where Scotland Yard comes in."
"Quite so," Sutton agreed amiably. "But it seems to me that beneath the disguise of Professor Sebastian Wilde I can see the features of an international crook who is badly wanted in America. I may be wrong, but I can have your photograph flashed across the Atlantic in the next few hours, and, if I am right, it will be my duty to detain you until some police officer arrives from New York to identify the paralysed criminal that American Headquarters have been seeking for a long time."
Wilde drew a long, deep breath.
"Your hole," he said grimly. "I had quite forgotten that for the moment. Well, when you want me, gentlemen, I shan't be very far off. That is one of the disadvantages of my physical condition. I have played a big game for big stakes and it very nearly came off. And now if you don't mind, I should like to be alone. Good night to you all."
"Just as you please," Sutton said. "I can come along here and pick you up whenever I want you. And now, Captain Capner, don't you think it would be just as well if you took this young lady home? Looks to me as if she has reached the breaking point."
A minute or two later, and Sebastian Wilde was left alone in the ruins of his own discomfiture.
It was none too easy a task to get Peggy Ferris as far as Long Elms, but it was accomplished at length, and, with the aid of Maud Faber and Miss Bancroft, she was put to bed, where the local doctor administered a strong injection and, at length, had the satisfaction of seeing the tortured girl sink into a deep and peaceful sleep.
"She will be all right now, I think," the man of medicine said. "She has had a terrible shock, and she has been through weeks of mental torture. But I think, on the whole, you were quite right in your course of treatment. It was a bit of a risk, opening her eyes suddenly to what has been going on, but I fancy the cure will be permanent. When she wakes in the morning I shall be surprised if she is not normal."
For a long time after Peggy was safely in bed and asleep, the conference between Sutton and the others went on in the dining-room at Long Elms, and gradually the whole tangle was straightened out. It was Vincent who supplied most of the missing details, to which the others listened with a rapt attention until he had completed his narrative.
"Of course it was a bit of sheer luck, finding Capner," he said, as he drew to the end of his story. "I was rather bucked with the way I ran Ebbsmith to earth and, as I was very hungry, I thought I would treat myself to something good for dinner. So I wandered into the Savoy grill and the first person I saw there was Capner. Of course, I knew him very well by sight, as one of our leading airmen, and I had not the slightest doubt as to who he was, though he had grown a beard and a big moustache. So I went over and spoke to him and he owned up at once. I am going to leave him tell you himself why he has acted so strangely."
"Well, it was like this," Capner said a little shamefacedly. "When I set off on my big flight, I didn't care much what happened to me, one way or the other. Of course, I had to go, because I was pledged to the Admiralty. But when Peggy wrote coldly in the cruellest possible way that it was all over between us, I lost all zest in the enterprise. However, I had to go and go I did. But my 'plane that I thought so much of was a great disappointment to me from the first. I ought to have tested her under adverse conditions, but I was so cock-sure of what she could do that I didn't. And I didn't care whether I got to Australia or not. I knew before I reached India that I was taking my life in my hands every day, and the wonder to me was that I didn't crash long before I reached Singapore. I felt pretty certain when I left that port that I should not be heard of again and, but for a miracle, there would have been an end of Trevor Capner. I did manage to get half-way across the Pacific when I ran into a sort of typhoon and, before I knew where I was, I was clinging to a broken float in the water. For two days I hung on there, expecting every moment to be my last, and when I came to myself I was on a small island in the hut of a mysterious sort of German hermit who had found me at the edge of a lagoon and brought me back to life again. I am not going to give you the man's name, because I promised not to. My impression is that he was a fugitive from justice. Still, he was a white man as far as I was concerned and, when I was fit to move at the end of a fortnight, he took me over to one of the bigger islands and advanced me the money to pay my passage home. All that time I hadn't had a shave, because he was a bearded man too and possessed no razors. And I was ashamed at having let the Admiralty down, also I was still very bitter and sore over the way I had been treated by Peggy——"
"I think that will be all right now, old chap," Manthon murmured. "I would not worry over her."
"Oh, I am not going to," Capner said with a slight smile. "Anyway, I came back, determined to lie low until I could get back what I regarded as my lost reputation, and I was not going to make myself known to my friends until that happened. Hence my coming back under an assumed name and hiding myself as if I had something to be ashamed of. Well, thank the Lord, a lucky meeting with our friend Vincent put an end to all that nonsense, and now I can come out in the open and face my fellow-men with a confident assurance as to the future. And that is about all. Don't you think it is time we went to bed?"
It was very late in the afternoon before Capner found himself face to face with Peggy in the seclusion of the drawing-room at Long Elms. She looked very pale and fragile and delicate and almost as if a breath would blow her away. Capner came into the room with his two hands extended.
"Don't say anything if you don't want to," he implored. "I am only here now, because you sent for me."
"I was bound to send for you," Peggy whispered. "Trevor, can you ever forgive me?"
"My dear girl," Capner said. "Is there anything to forgive? If there are faults, they are on both sides. I dare say if I had been in your place, I should have acted in just the same way. I did make you a solemn promise that I would give up flying, and I had every intention of carrying it out. But, you see, I was still more or less bound to the Service as far as that particular flight was concerned, and I did not see how I could get out of it with honour to myself."
"Of course," Peggy agreed. "I understand that now. I ought to have realised it before. I ought to have seen that you had to divide a duty instead of making up my mind that you thought more of your personal ambition, than you did of me. But then, you see, I have had my own way all my life, and I suppose I did not quite grasp the fact that I was a spoilt child, not knowing what was good for me. And then I was foolish enough to believe all that shameful nonsense that Wilde told me. But it was very real, Trevor, indeed. That cracked horn night after night, and the wonderful way in which Wilde convinced me that he could see events miles away as they we're happening. Of course, it all comes ridiculously easy now that one knows how it was done, but it was terribly real to me at the time. I know if it had gone on much longer, I should have lost my reason. I was very near to it, last night."
"I know that, darling," Trevor said tenderly. "It was a desperate case, calling for a desperate remedy, and I took it with both hands. I hated the idea of your shame being exposed before all those people, but it was necessary."
"Oh, indeed it was," Peggy agreed. "It was just the same as pouring a stream of icy water on a fainting person. I still feel very weak and shaky—but when I woke up this morning my head was clear and I could see things in their proper light. You must take me away from here, Trevor."
"What, you and me together?" Trevor asked.
"Why, of course," Peggy said, with glowing eyes. "That is if you want me still. A long honeymoon somewhere in the South, where we can visit fresh scenes and forget the hideous nightmare of the last few weeks. But perhaps——"
"There is no perhaps about it," Trevor replied ardently, as he took her in his arms. "Do you suppose I could forget you like that, sweetheart? Oh, no. We are going to be as happy as the day is long and, unless I am greatly mistaken, there are two other people who have made up their minds that happiness is not for us entirely. If you will look out of the window, I think you will see what I mean."
Capner indicated Manthon and Maud Faber, who were walking up and down the rose garden engaged in deep conservation. From the way in which their arms were linked, it was not difficult to draw a logical conclusion.
"What do you think of that?" Trevor asked. "I thought at one time that Manthon had rather a passion——"
"No, no," Peggy said, with pink cheeks. "Maud was always intended for him, only he didn't know it. But then, my dear, you men are always so blind."
"I dare say," Trevor laughed happily. "And if I am blind now, all I want is to remain so."
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