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Title: Secret of the River Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305011h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Aug 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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ASHDOWN CROFT was not a great house by comparison with some of our famous show places, but it dated back to Tudor days, and had had its place more than once in history, especially in the darkest hours of the Stuarts and their followers. It stood in its own park on the banks of the River Wern a fine specimen of mediaeval architecture, with its soft, rose-tinted brick and twisted chimneys. Inside were suites of low, panelled rooms, and beyond the bedrooms in the centre, a long picture gallery, terminating in a chamber, above the broad, open fireplace of which was a sort of priest's hiding-hole, and from there, a secret way out into the grounds. Just the sort of glorious old mansion that might form the centre of a romance, as, indeed, it had on more than one occasion in the days gone by. A charming house, with a character all its own, and the cherished possession of Nevil Ashdown; and thereby hangs a tale.
For the park and the house and the long range of training stables on the south side of the park, backing on the river, had nearly been lost to its present owner ten years before. It was at the time when he had just come of age, when the old family solicitor in London told him for the first time the parlous position in which he, Nevil, stood.
Nevil Ashdown crossed the park in the winter sunshine on his way to make a call at the house where he was born. Because, for a long time past, the property had been let, just as it stood, to a wealthy City man whom Nevil had never seen till a month or two before, when he had returned from America to take up his residence in one of his own farm houses a mile or two away.
He was going through that fateful interview in his mind as the front of Ashdown Croft loomed up before him. He was hearing the lawyer telling him that the future of the house trembled in the balance, and that unless something very like a miracle occurred, it would pass out of the possession of the Ashdowns for ever.
"It's like this, my boy," the lawyer had said. "Your father was criminally extravagant. I warned him over and over again, to no effect, so that, as we stand to-day, the property is mortgaged to the extent of over £50,000. Of course, you can go on living at Ashdown if you like, but you will have to close most of the house, and discharge many of the servants. You won't have enough to keep up the gardens as you should, and you will have to sell all the horses your father had in training."
"I shan't worry much about that," Nevil smiled. "Horse racing has no attractions for me, and I never had a bet in my life. Of course, all this comes as a bit of a shock because my father never took me into his confidence. Now, tell me, Mr. Wren, what precisely have I to live on?"
"That is not exactly the point," the old lawyer had said. "But call it £1500 a year, all told."
"And if I live by my own exertions for a few years? What difference will that make?"
"All the difference in the world. If you could support yourself say for ten years and leave the management of the estate to us, we can hand it over to you intact. My idea would be to pull the stables down and sell the horses and build, where the stables are to-day, a series of glass houses. In that sheltered situation, there is quite a thousand a year to be made out of fruit grown under glass. And you have on the property, if you only knew it, one of the best gardeners in England, only he has never had a chance. Then I would put a good man in to manage the home farm, instead of the present steward, who robbed your father right and left, and I would lease your famous stretch of salmon water for a small fortune. It is the best on the river, being just above the tideway and—oh, well, there are a dozen methods of turning a dead loss into a handsome profit. If you are disposed to listen to me——"
"I am infinitely obliged to you," Nevil had said. "It shall be exactly as you say. It's hard lines if I can't get a living without touching my limited income, because I am young and strong and the West appeals to me."
So the old man and the young one had shaken hands together on the bargain and Nevil had made his way to America with just £100 in his pocket. And there he had gone through various experiences before his natural talent for the stage brought him in contact with a syndicate whose business it was to run vaudeville shows all over the West. So that, in the course of time, Nevil was not only making a good living, but actually sending money home to his solicitor in London. And now, on this bright winter morning, he had been back in England for three or four months, living in a farm house hard by and patiently waiting the time when the long tenancy of Everard Murray, the wealthy City man, came to an end. That would be a matter of something less than a year and, meanwhile Nevil was on the best of terms with Murray and his daughter Angela.
Indeed, he was on something more than good terms with Angela. He had been meeting her nearly every day and was on his way to call on her now in connection with some amateur theatrical which were being given in a day or two in the village hall for the benefit of some local charity.
It was just as Nevil had crossed the rustic bridge leading from the park into the grounds themselves that he encountered Murray himself, with two companions.
"Hello. Mr. Murray," he said. "I hardly expected to see you down here at this time of the week."
The genial head of the firm of Everard Murray and Company laughed pleasantly. He was a fine figure of a man, clear-eyed and clean-skinned, and carrying his fifty-odd years with the ease of a man half is age. With his grey moustache, and slight swagger, he might have passed for an ex-cavalry officer. Of the two other men, one was dressed in a slight caricature of fashion, with a little spiked moustache and imperial, all eminently French, which, indeed, Monsieur Jules Blanchin was. A famous chemist, Nevil had heard, and one who was an inventor of distinction, which fact, no doubt, had induced the shrewd Murray to take him into partnership. The third man was a lank and lean individual, sallow of face, and given to long periods of silence. This was Mr. Joseph Sidey, who, so Nevil understood, looked after the financial side of that extremely flourishing City business.
"Well, my boy," Murray smiled, "even business men like ourselves must have a little recreation some times. We have been working exceedingly hard lately, so we ran down last night for a long week-end, which will enable us to have the pleasure of watching those famous theatricals. I don't know whether you are aware of it, Blanchin, but our young friend here is quite a famous histrion. They tell me that if he had cared to stay in the States, he would have gone to the very top of the tree. As it is, he prefers to come back and live in the home of his ancestors and carry on a miserable existence on a few thousands a year. Between ourselves, I am trying to persuade him to put a block of capital into our show. If he did, I think we could guarantee him something like cent per cent. for his money."
Monsieur Blanchin showed his fine teeth in a grin.
"Of that there is no doubt whatever," he said. "Five or ten thousand pounds, as the case may be, and as many golden sovereigns per annum as he cared to risk. Risk! Bah, why do I speak of it? There is no risk at all."
"Oh, well, I dare say he will come to his senses in time," said Murray with his most genial laugh. "But don't worry him now, Blanchin, when he has got his mind on those theatricals. If I were to hazard a guess, I should say that he is here this morning to see Angela and not us, eh, Ashdown?"
"You've guessed it," Nevil said, with a slight change of colour. "That is, with your permission."
"Fancy young people asking the stern parent's permission at this time of the day," Murray said cheerily. "As a matter of fact, you will find Angela behind the conservatories feeding those golden pheasants of hers."
With that, Nevil went on his way, but, before going very far the girl whom he sought came from behind a shelter of laurels and met him face to face. A smile flashed like a gleam of sunshine across the lovely features of Angela Murray and he could see in her eyes a look that set his heart beating a little faster than usual. He had seen that look once or twice before and wondered why it was always so fleeting. She had, for the moment, the appearance of a girl who had come suddenly into the presence of her lover and then, in an instantaneous flash, the air of one who is meeting a stranger for the first time.
"You wanted to see me," she said, almost coldly.
"Of course I wanted to see you," Nevil said, half sadly and half angrily. "You know perfectly well that that is always my condition. Angela, why is it that when we come face to face suddenly, you look—how shall I put it—as if I was the one man in the world, and then, before my heart warms, it is as if you really disliked me?"
"Please don't talk like that," Angela said. "I have asked you not to, before, and you promised. There are reasons which I dare not tell you. If you have any regard for me——"
"I am sorry," Nevil murmured. "Perhaps, some day—but never mind. I wanted to see you about to-morrow night's show. That little bit of business where I come suddenly into the room without expecting to see you. I think we can improve on that."
NEVIL turned his back on Ashdown Croft half an hour later in a very dejected frame of mind. It seemed hard upon a man, who had just achieved what appeared to be the height of his ambition and was on the verge of stepping back into the property which he had worked so strenuously to regain to lose something that he valued still more highly. During the last month or two, he had fallen headlong in love with Angela Murray, and there were times when he had felt certain that he was by no means indifferent to her. Times when she was gay and free in her manner, times when mutual sympathy drew them close together, and she had listened with heightened colour and sparkling eyes to the tales of his struggles in America and how he had overcome all his difficulties.
And then, when everything appeared bathed in golden sunshine, there were occasions when Angela almost turned her back upon him and at any rate, treated him with a coldness and indifference as if she had discovered some discreditable incident in his past and had resolved to keep him severely at a distance. There were occasions, too, when Angela was dull and listless, and once Nevil had found her seated in the park with tears in her eyes.
And yet, outwardly, at all events, there was no apparent occasion for the swift gamut of the emotions. That Angela was in the best of health, there could be no question. She had a luxurious home, the apparent command of whatever she needed, and a father who seemed to dote upon her. And yet, with it all, it was clear that there was something radically wrong somewhere. And when this theatrical show was over, Nevil vowed that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of it.
In the meantime, he put the problem resolutely out of his mind and devoted all his time to the coming performance. It was to take place in the village hall and people from far and near were coming to witness it. All the village, of course, and everybody of importance within twenty miles. When the night arrived, despite the fact that there was something like twenty degrees of frost and rumours that the river was actually frozen over, the hall was packed. Nevil, peeping through a hole in the curtains could see that there was not a vacant seat anywhere. The front seats showed quite a dazzling array of women in evening dress, some of them sparkling with jewels, and men in gleaming shirt fronts and black ties.
"Quite a society gathering," the leading lady laughed, as she took a glance over the audience. "We shall have to do our best or be disgraced for ever. I don't mind telling you, Nevil, that I am feeling most horribly nervous."
"Of course you are," Nevil laughed, "and I am very glad to hear it. There never was an actor or an actress yet who was worth a hand who didn't know the meaning of nervousness."
He turned to Angela, who was standing by his side. "And you," he asked, "how do you feel."
Angela looked up at him with sparkling eyes. There was a quick vivacity and alertness about her to-night that he had never noticed before. In addition, all the old friendliness was back, and ever and again, the fleeting expression in those clear, beautiful grey eyes that told Nevil a flattering tale. If he could only have had her alone with himself then, it seemed to him that he could have broken down that wall of indifference for ever.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know how I feel. Not nervous, exactly, but as if something unexpected were going to happen. I don't mean anything tragic, but just tense. Oh, I don't know how to express it. I am eager enough, and ready enough to go on, but, at the same time——"
"Oh, well," Nevil said, "it won't be long now. And once you cease to be afraid of the sound of your own voice, everything will be beautiful in the garden. I know, I went through it years ago. And though I have played in our present piece a hundred times, I verily believe that I am more nervous than either of you. Very encouraging, ain't I?"
It was just as Nevil had prophesied. Once the actors and actresses had got over the first awful two or three minutes, the show went with a swing that was mainly owing to the chief character himself. With his experience of such matters, he could play his part to the life and yet, at the same time, watch the other performers and study them much as if he had been in a drawing room. And, to his great delight, Angela was carrying off her part splendidly. It was a comedy part with a touch of pathos in it and she reverted from mood to mood without the slightest trace of that strangeness he had noticed so often of late. And when, finally, the curtain came down midst a storm of applause, he made his way back to the men's dressing room with a feeling of relief.
There a good many of the guests had gathered, prominent amongst them Everard Murray, in his cheeriest mood. Few men who were strangers to that part of the world had achieved such a degree of popularity as he. Hospitable, generous, always ready to subscribe to any deserving object, he was welcome wherever he went and all were delighted to meet him.
"Topping show, old chap!" he said, slapping Nevil on the back heartily. "And, upon my word, though I say it myself, nobody came through it better than my little girl."
"There is no reason why you shouldn't say it, sir," Nevil replied, "because it is absolutely true. I shouldn't say so unless I had had so much experience myself, but won't all you people come along and help clear the stage? We want twenty or thirty chairs brought up from the hall so as to seat our guests. Lady Londmead is looking after the ladies."
It was all bustle and confusion behind the somewhat limited stage, and quite a long time before it was cleared and chairs placed around tables which had been brought in for the occasion. A couple of rooms in the village hall behind the stage had been transformed into dressing rooms for the lady guests; the men had been left to shift for themselves.
It was in the midst of this bustle and confusion that Nevil, moving swiftly from place to place, found himself almost in collision with one of the lady guests. She was a well-known figure in the hunting field and essentially a hunting woman, which was a class that Nevil cordially detested. Nevertheless, she was handsome and aristocratic, and there were not a few gossips in the neighbourhood who declared that Miss Diana Longworth would not be averse to finding herself mistress of Ashdown Croft. Moreover, she was by way of being an heiress in her own right, so that, from a worldly point of view, it might be no bad thing for a young man in the very early thirties, who was ambitious still further to push the fortunes of his family.
"I am awfully sorry," Nevil stammered. "I am afraid I trod on your foot. Did I hurt you?"
"I am not so easily hurt," the young woman said brusquely. "Too tough for that."
But, as she spoke, she put up her hand to her throat, and Nevil saw that she was wearing a sort of collar of pearls which, apparently, the shock of the meeting had disturbed.
"I really am frightfully sorry," he said. "I might have dragged that necklace from your throat."
"Oh, no, the fact is, the fastening is a bit weak, and I ought to have had it looked to before I wore the thing to-night."
It was on the tip of Nevil's tongue to tell her she ought not to have worn it at all, being much too ostentatious for a village hall entertainment. But he wisely refrained from such a comment, and went his way along an ill-lighted passage that led to the men's dressing-room. Like most of the performers, he had not removed his stage dress, but the grease paint on his face was irritating him, and his intention was to remove the greater part of it before joining the gathering now assembled on the stage. He could hear already the popping of the champagne corks and the little gush of laughter that came echoing down the corridor. He was the last to leave the dressing-room, and, as he did so, he saw, at the end of the corridor, nearest the stage and close to the dressing-room door, the Junoesque figure of Miss Longworth, who was just emerging from the seclusion of the room and striding manfully along towards the stage.
And then a strange thing happened.
Out of the shadows a figure appeared, the slim, exquisite figure of a girl. Nevil could not make out for a moment who it was, and would have been at a loss to explain why he stood there quietly watching to see what the girl was going to do. Then a gust of cold air set the oil lamps in the corridor flaring, and Nevil could see, plainly enough, Miss Longworth's pearl collar lying on the floor. A moment later the girl had picked it up and hidden it in her dress. She gave one quick glance behind her, and, with a start, Nevil recognised who she was.
Angela Murray, beyond the shadow of a doubt! Angela a thief! The furtive air, and quick concealment. Nevil stood there with the perspiration pouring down his face.
ANGELA a common thief!
The mere thought of it struck Nevil like a blow over the heart. It seemed almost impossible to believe that Angela should stoop to so mean and sordid a crime. To place herself upon the same level with those poor, unfortunate creatures who find themselves, from time to time, in the dock charged with shop-lifting and attempting to explain away their weakness and vanity with some story of nerves, drink, or drugs.
And to imagine Angela in such a category was sheer madness. No one could look into those glorious grey eyes of hers or study those features, so clear and innocent, and believe for a moment that Angela came under a stigma so terrible. It seemed to Nevil as if he would wake up presently from a bad dream and find what he had just seen no more than the figment of a diseased imagination. And yet, he had witnessed it for himself—seen Angela steal out of the shadows and creep on tiptoe to the glittering object that Diana Longworth had dropped, and hide it away with every appearance of greed and cupidity.
For a moment or two, Nevil stood there, in the semi-darkness, trying to collect his thoughts and wondering what to do next. He was wavering between two decisions—one to get this hideous business put straight at any cost, short of denouncing Angela as a thief, and the other to contrive some method by which he could get away with it safely and leave the world to believe that the whole thing had been nothing more than a mistake. Moreover, he wanted to put it in such a way as to induce Angela to delude herself with the idea that nobody, not even Nevil, had known the full intention that had lurked in the back of her mind.
And then something like inspiration came to him. His long training on the stage was going to stand him in good stead now, and, if he could maintain a bold front for the next quarter of an hour or so, then all might be well. He wiped the perspiration from his face and went slowly in the direction of the stage. He could hear the bursts of laughter and light gaiety and the popping of corks, and this jarred upon his senses to such an extent that he was half inclined to turn his back upon the whole thing and leave the rest to chance. All the same, he pushed forward and took his seat at the table as if nothing had happened.
Immediately opposite to him was Angela, who seemed to be in a contemplative mood. There was no trace whatever of agitation about her, those grey eyes were clear and candid and her whole aspect was one of maidenly innocence and openness. Almost by a coincidence, Nevil found himself seated next to Diana Longworth, who was chatting to her next door neighbour in her bold, free manner, and apparently utterly unconscious of the fact that the pearl collar no longer adorned her neck. And, moreover, nobody else seated there appeared to have noticed the loss. Well, so far, all was to the good and the delay was everything in the way of gain to Nevil in working out the scheme he had at the back of his mind.
There came a lull presently in the noise and chatter, and then someone on the opposite side of the table broke the silence with a question that fairly startled Ashdown. The man who spoke was one of Nevil's most intimate friends, a retired doctor who had bought a model farm in the neighbourhood, and was living there with his wife, the pretty little woman with the vivacious manner, who was sitting alongside him. Tom Blissett it was who leant half across the table with his eyes on Diana Longworth, and an expression on his face that did not fail to attract the attention of more than one of those gathered round the festive board.
"Why, Diana," he cried, "what on earth have you done with that pearl collar of yours?"
Diana's hand went swiftly to her throat, and an expression of alarm crossed her face.
"It's gone!" she almost screamed. "I have lost it. I am certain I was wearing it a few minutes ago."
"So I thought," Ashdown said. "But I am bound to say that if you have lost it, it is entirely your own fault. You won't forget telling me a little time ago that the fastening was defective, and that you ought to have seen to it before you came."
"I am not going to deny it," Diana said sharply, "but the fact remains that I was wearing the collar a few minutes ago, and now it has gone."
It was Everard Murray who next broke in.
"Don't let there be any panic about this business," he said. "It is all very unfortunate, but we mustn't lose our heads. I propose that we make an immediate search everywhere. The thing is sure to turn up sooner or later. Are you quite sure you were wearing it a few minutes ago, Miss Longworth. Oh, I know what you women are—you put a thing down, leave it near a lavatory basin, and then swear by all your gods that you had it in your possession an hour later. Let us go and have a look round."
"And a very good idea, too," Nevil said lightly. "Of course, nobody here in this room could have anything to do with it, and I don't want people who came in from outside to help us this evening to labour under any suspicion—I mean the two or three villagers who kindly gave their services in the way of scene shifting and that sort of thing. I am not saying one of them may not have picked up the collar—in fact, I am not saying anything until we have had a thorough search."
With one accord the guests rose from the table, and for the next half hour or so, the village hall was searched from end to end in every nook and corner, but without avail. Then, in a subdued frame of mind, and in an atmosphere charged with suspicion and doubt, one by one, the guests returned to the stage and sat down almost gloomily to continue the supper.
"Well," Nevil broke the silence at length. "Apparently, we are just as we were before. Now, look here, Diana—you are as much to blame as anybody else. You came here asking for trouble, and, apparently, you have found it. If you had taken the precaution before you left home to see that the fastening——"
"Oh, for goodness sake, don't go into that again," Diana cried. "I am not going to deny it, I always was careless about jewellery, and I suppose I always shall be."
"Ah, then I suppose that the lesson that two of us have tried to teach you has been thrown away," Nevil laughed.
"Here, what's that?" Murray exclaimed. "Am I to understand that the whole thing is a practical joke?"
Nevil smiled, absolutely grateful for the suggestion.
"Something like that," he said. "Wasn't it, Angela?"
Angela looked up with a strange expression in her eyes, but, fortunately, nobody seemed to notice.
"I—I suppose so," she said, almost under her breath.
"Well, I won't keep you in suspense any longer," Nevil said, with a flourish and a smile that deceived everybody. "As a matter of fact, it was Angela Murray who picked up the collar. There was no concealment about it, because I saw it done. It was Angela's idea to give you a bit of a fright, Diana, and I think she has succeeded. Now, Angela, if you please."
Like one in a kind of dream, Angela plunged her hand into the bosom of her dress and produced the missing collar. She seemed to do this mechanically, as if impelled by some unseen force. And Nevil, watching her, thanked his gods from the bottom of his heart that not a single soul gathered round the table had the smallest insight as to the tragi-comedy that was being enacted there and then, save perhaps the lank and melancholy Joseph Sidey, who was sitting on the far side of the table close to his partners, Murray and Blanchin. There was an expression on his face that rather disturbed Nevil, but it was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared.
"And now, Angela," Nevil said. "Tell them all about it."
"Don't you think it would come better from you?" Angela replied.
"Well, perhaps so," Nevil agreed. "Anyhow, there is practically nothing to tell, except to repeat that the whole thing was more or less in the nature of a practical joke. I knew exactly what Angela was going to do when she picked up the necklace and I tacitly fell in with her idea. A sort of case, don't you know, when two minds think exactly alike, and there are no words to be said."
It seemed to Nevil that he had succeeded in averting a serious scandal and he fondly hoped, at the same time, that he had convinced Angela of his absolute sincerity and belief in her integrity. She smiled a little wanly at him across the table and then, fortunately, somebody created a diversion and the whole thing was forgotten as if it had never happened. And when, presently, Nevil said good-night to Angela, her hand lay in his without the slightest tremor and she looked into his face as innocently as a child.
He felt that there was something strangely wrong here. Something he must get to the bottom of. Something that stood between him and his happiness—something that might account for Angela's strange manner from time to time.
He was still turning this over in his mind and standing abstractedly in the midst of the departing guests when Blissett came up behind him and smote him on the shoulders.
"What are you dreaming about?" Tom Blissett asked, in his breezy way. "Are you going to stand here all night? Have you forgotten that we were going to drive you back in our car and drop you at your house? Come on, old chap, get a move on."
"Oh, I suppose I was thinking of something else," Nevil said. "Anyhow, I am ready for you and Eleanor as soon as you like. Been a jolly evening hasn't it?"
"Jolly indeed," Blissett agreed. "And a jolly good lesson to that sporting young woman, which I hope she will remember."
TOM BLISSETT and his popular wife had not been so many years in residence in the neighbourhood. Blissett was quite a young man, not yet in the forties, and a thorough sportsman in all departments of the game. He had been, ages ago, or so it seemed now, captain of a famous public school where he and Nevil were educated, from whence he had graduated as a bachelor of science at Oxford, and thence to Harley-street, where he had finally become recognised as a scientist of distinction. His ambition had been greater than his strength, so that a complete nervous breakdown had followed. On the top of this, a distant relative had left him a small fortune, and with the money behind him he had determined to turn his back on London and devote himself, for the future, to his farm and his sport. The result was a return to perfect health, and a resolve that the world of science should know him no more.
All the same, he did a lot of reading in his spare time, and kept himself thoroughly abreast of modern scientific developments. But nobody would have known this who had not been acquainted with his past, for he kept the matter severely in the background, and one of the few people in his secret was Nevil Ashdown.
Nevil knew that he could trust Blissett implicitly. He knew that anything he had to say would be regarded, much as a doctor regards the admissions of his patients. Not that Nevil was going to say too much, but he certainly wanted to ask his friend a few things not entirely unconnected with the strange case of Angela Murray. Therefore, on the following morning, he walked across the fields to his farm-house lodging in the direction of Blissett's house and found the latter busy, or apparently busy, with the "Times."
"I hardly expected to find you at home this morning," Nevil said.
"Oh, why not?" Blissett asked. "What is there for a chap to do when this frost is hanging round? The shooting is pretty nearly finished and hunting is out of the question. Now, sit down and light your pipe and let us have a comfortable chat."
Nevil intimated that there was nothing he would like better, so he loaded his pipe and threw himself back in the armchair, and, by gradual degrees, approached the subject nearest his heart.
"I wonder if you could give me a bit of information," he began. "It's something to do with a play I am half inclined to write, and that little stunt I worked with Angela last night has brought it back to my mind. Of course, the whole thing was a bit of innocent fun, but I am not sure that everybody believed it."
"I did, at any rate," Blissett said stoutly.
"Of course you did, old chap, and so did most of the guests. But that long, lean, melancholy partner of Murray's—I mean Sidey—seemed to hold a different opinion. It was only for a moment or two, but there was an expression on his face that almost impelled me to get up and smash him between those repulsive black eyes of his."
"Oh, Sidey's all right," Blissett said. "You see he is the man in Murray's firm who looks after the financial side of things—just the cool, cautious sort of blade that a dashing speculator like Murray needs as a drag on the coach. I ought to know, because I have had dealings with Sidey during the last month or two."
"What, you mean you have been speculating?"
"Well, I shouldn't call it that," Blissett said. "I don't know whether you are aware of it or not, but that Frenchman, Blanchin, is one of the cleverest chemists in the world. There is no authority on poisons or drugs to touch him. He is on the verge of discovering a serum that is going to revolutionise both medicine and surgery. I know, because he has told me a good deal about it. Not the real secret, because he isn't that sort of man. And he, unlike so many other scientists, has a fine eye to the main chance. I don't suppose you know it, but he has set up a rather elaborate laboratory in your old home, and I have watched several experiments there. My word, they were a revelation to me. And that, strictly between ourselves, is why I have put a goodish bit into Murray's business."
"Oh, you have, have you?" Nevil exclaimed.
"Yes, indeed, I have, and if Murray gives you a chance, I should advise you to follow suit."
"Really? Well, I could do with a bit of extra money. As you know, I am only waiting now for Murray to clear out in a few months' time to go back to Ashdown Croft, by which time the estate will be absolutely free from debt. As a matter of fact, I made a bit of money in America over and above what I sent to the family lawyers, and I could find, say £5000, if you think it really is worth my while to approach Murray on the subject."
"I am absolutely certain that you will get your money back three or four times over," Blissett said emphatically. "At the moment, Murray and Co. can do with all the capital they can lay their hands on, and—yes, by Jove—it's rather singular that Murray himself asked me last week if I thought that you would be interested in Blanchin's latest exploits. I told him I didn't know, and that he had better ask you. I suppose he hasn't done so?"
"Well, not what you might call directly," Nevil said, "Just a hint. Still, it is worth thinking about."
And so it came about that Nevil wended his way home after lunch without consulting Blissett on the subject that was uppermost in his mind. He only realised this when he was close to his own house, and resolved to go back again the next morning and see if he could discover anything that might bring him a little more peace of mind. It was later in the afternoon, just as it was getting dark, and he was returning to his farm quarters, after an hour or two's exercise on the road, that he came in contact with Everard Murray.
The latter greeted him with his usual geniality and promptly asked him into the house for a drink and a smoke.
"That is, if you have nothing better to do," Murray said. "Confound this frost—it puts a stop to everything. Shooting nearly finished, no hunting, and no exercise but walking. If it lasts over to-morrow, I shall be off to town again. They tell me that the river is frozen over, so that a couple more nights' frost will make it bear. Such a thing has been unknown for a lifetime. But come inside, my dear boy, come inside and let us try and forget our troubles."
In the big hall with its panelled walls and low rafters that Nevil knew so well, the two sat down before a roaring log fire whilst Jakes, the old butler, who had been a servant in the house for nearly forty years, came in with decanters and syphons.
"A fine type of servant, that," Murray said, when the old butler had gone. "I am glad he decided to stay with me when I took the house over. But then, I don't suppose he would be happy anywhere else. The breed is fast dying out, unfortunately."
"Jakes was born and bred on the estate," Nevil said. "And he is not so old as he looks. You wouldn't believe how powerful he is, and what a cool head he has in an emergency. I could tell you one or two stories about him that would rather astonish you."
"Yes," Murray said. "I can quite understand. That man has served me well, but I know what a happy day it will be for him when my tenancy comes to an end. By the way, I suppose you intend to return to the place and live here in future?"
"That is my intention," Nevil laughed.
"Yes quite natural, of course, but rather an expensive place to keep up these times, what? Taking local gossip for what it is worth, I suppose you will have about five thousand a year? You will want every penny of it. Now, suppose I could show you how to make a good deal more money without lifting a hand. If you have a few thousands to spare out of your savings, why not put it into my business? Come on the board and all that sort of thing. It will only mean a couple of days a week in town for the next two or three months and, after that, you can rest on your oars and draw your share of the profits. And if you have any doubts on the subject, you ask your friend Blissett what he thinks."
"Curiously enough, Blissett only mentioned the subject to me this very morning," Nevil explained. "Mind you, Murray, I don't know anything whatever about business, but I haven't done so badly in my own line. In fact, ever since I attained my majority, I haven't drawn a penny from the estate. Now, suppose you tell me something about the way you run your own affairs and more particularly, where that wonderful chemist, Blanchin, comes in."
Apparently, Murray wanted nothing better. He launched out into a long discussion and presently produced books and papers with which he backed up his declarations. He had practically finished when Blanchin himself came downstairs from the gallery that ran round the hall and helped himself to a whisky and soda with an air of detachment that rather impressed Ashdown.
"Ah, it ees beeziness," the Frenchman said. "I know 'im not. But I know 'ow to take care of myself."
"Yes, he does that," Murray laughed. "Hello, here's Sidey."
At that moment, the lank and melancholy individual came into the hall and frowned slightly as he saw the papers lying on the table.
"Excuse me, Mr. Ashdown," he said, in his mournful drawl. "But I see you have been talking business with our chairman. Now, if it is not a liberty, I ask you to be careful. Far too sanguine is our friend Murray. A wonderful man and a great power in the City, but without me to drag him back, he would be in trouble sooner or later. So please, Mr. Ashdown, be careful, because I feel quite sure that my friend Murray has been offering you a small corner in our inventions department. Isn't that so, sir?"
"Absolutely," Ashdown smiled. "And I take it kindly of you to give me this warning. But, as far as I can gather, the concern is very sound and the profits likely to be enormous."
"Oh, of that there is no question," Sidey said. And with that he directed the conversation into another channel. A little later Nevil Ashdown shook hands with the three and departed.
No sooner had he gone than Murray smiled broadly.
"The bird is in the net," he said. "But I must say, Sidey, that you did your best to show him the meshes."
"Oh dear no," Sidey said, coolly. "My little bit of artistry will clinch the business. The bird is in the net, right enough."
THE man, Joseph Sidey, had been perfectly right when he told his companions that Ashdown had been convinced by the solemn warning conveyed to him by one who was actually a partner in the firm of Murray and Co. And that was just what Ashdown felt when he left the Croft on his way to the farmhouse. It was absolutely impossible for anybody to like the pessimistic Sidey, but, obviously, the man was honest and was doing his best to prevent Ashdown from embarking on what might prove to be a long commercial career.
One thing was certain—if Ashdown resolved to accept Murray's proposition, which he had practically decided to do, he would throw himself into it, heart and soul, which was one of his characteristics.
But not for a day or two. He felt it impossible to rest until he had solved the mystery surrounding the business of the pearl collar. That there was something sinister about the whole thing he felt sure. But he would not have felt quite so certain had he not been over head and ears in love with Angela Murray. If he had been indifferent to her, he knew perfectly well that he could only have come to one conclusion. He had seen Diana Longworth drop the collar, and he had watched Angela, waiting hidden in the back ground, until the owner of the ornament was out of sight. He had seen the furtive way in which the pearls were snatched, and the guilty look on Angela's face as she looked round to make sure that no one had noticed her action. And he knew that if the case had come into a court of law, and he was dragged in as a witness, he would be bound, as a man of honour, to speak just as he thought. And there could only be one end to that.
Meanwhile, there was no doubt of the fact that Angela was avoiding him. He saw her the next day when he called upon Murray to inform him of his decision to go into business—he saw her at tea time, and afterwards, without the chance of speaking to her alone. She seemed to be in a calm, collected frame of mind as if she had nothing on her conscience, and treated Nevil with a sort of distant friendliness that drove him almost to distraction. No longer was she changeable, flashing him smiles one moment and retreating within herself the next. It was a new mood to Nevil entirely.
Should he mention the matter to Eleanor Blissett? he asked himself. He had a warm regard for Mrs. Blissett, and, to a great extent, she was in his confidence. A happy, pleasant little woman, with a large fund of sympathy for the misfortunes of her neighbours and a store of practical kindness that made her very popular in the locality. Perhaps, on the whole, it would be as well if he asked his friend's wife to help him. Not to tell her the story of the stolen pearls, of course, but to explain how he felt towards Angela and ask another woman if she could expound the strange moods and fancies which kept Nevil awake at night thinking about them.
As he expected, he found a most sympathetic listener in Nelly Blissett. She followed with characteristic patience and that expression of kindly humour that so endeared her to her friends.
"I don't know whether you are aware of it or not," Nevil began tentatively. "But for some time past I have been—I have been——"
He broke off in some confusion and waited. He had not to wait long, because Mrs. Blissett seemed to know exactly what was in the back of his mind. It is a way that women of that kind have.
"Aware of the fact that you are very much in love with my friend Angela, I suppose," she said. "My dear boy, that fact has been obvious even to an ordinary mind like mine, ever since you two met. And I am quite sure that you have nothing to be afraid of."
"Meaning that Angela really cares for me?"
"Well, I am not going to say that. If you want me to declare that I have heard her confess to the fact, I am not going to do anything of the sort. It's like this, Nevil. There is no one more happily married than myself. And yet that happiness was very nearly wrecked by the action of a well-meaning friend. There are born match-makers in the world who do an incalculable amount of mischief, and a woman I once knew was one of that kind. She meant well, of course, but she very nearly succeeded in making Tom believe that I was running after him and that I was ready to fall into his arms with very little encouragement. No, Nevil, you must go your own way and fight your own battles. Of course, I have seen what was coming long before this and, to a certain extent, I am in Angela's confidence and that is why I am not going to say a word about it. Indeed, I have said too much already."
"Well, you haven't exactly depressed me," Nevil said with a smile. "But you are not going to tell me that there is nothing wrong with Angela. I mean mentally."
Mrs. Blissett showed some sign of embarrassment.
"What exactly do you mean?" she asked.
"Oh, my dear, you know as well as I do. Moods. Not the ordinary moods of a woman where a man is concerned, but swift changes. One day all smiles and sunshine and then, without any warning, a cold chilliness that turns one's blood to ice. And, more than once, I have surprised her on the verge of tears. Do you mean to say you haven't noticed that? Why, you must have done. And so must Tom."
"I am not going to deny it," Mrs. Blissett said. "You see, we were here long before you came home, and, almost directly, I grew to know Angela intimately. I was aware that she was a creature of extremes. Don't flatter yourself that you are the only one, because you are not. Tom says it's most psychological, whatever that may mean. At any rate, he is very interested in Angela's case and all the more so because it reminds him of a patient who was an inmate of the hospital where he did most of his training. He thinks that, sooner or later, Angela will grow out of it. You mustn't forget that she is quite young, barely one and twenty, and that is a period of a woman's life when she is most susceptible to outside influences."
"Yes, I know all that," Nevil said mournfully. "Now, do you think there is somebody else? I mean, some other man to whom she has promised herself and now regrets the fact."
"Having met you, of course," Mrs. Blissett said drily.
"Well, I dare say it sounded rather conceited on my part," Nevil confessed. "But it had occurred to me as one explanation. And yet it goes deeper than that, I am sure. You two are such bosom friends that Angela would have been sure to tell you if there had been another man in question. Don't you agree with me?"
They argued round and round for some time without reaching any conclusion and, when, at length, Nevil turned his face homewards, it seemed to him that he had derived precious little consolation from his heart to heart talk with Angela's best friend. He would have to see Angela and have it out with her. He would make it his business——
And then, as he walked along the path by the side of the partially frozen river, he came face to face with the object of his thoughts. She had seen him first and had half turned back before he became aware of her presence. A few rapid strides brought him to her side.
"Angela," he asked abruptly. "Why do you avoid me?"
She looked him fairly in the face with that blank expression that he had so learnt to dread. A second before he could have sworn that there was a gleam of welcome in her beautiful eyes.
"Am I avoiding you?" she asked.
"Of course you are. You have been doing it for the last day or two. Now, won't you tell me why?"
"Have you any right to ask?" Angela countered.
"Well, it you put it like that, no. But I thought we were something a little better than friends. So long as we were mere acquaintances, your expression was almost flattering. But directly you came to realise that I—well, dash it, I loved you, you changed entirely. Now and then glad to see me and almost affectionate and then, almost before I could rejoice in the realisation of it, so cold and distant. If my attentions are really repulsive to you——"
Angela threw up her hands with a little quick cry.
"Oh, why do you torture me like this?" she implored. "There are reasons, dreadful reasons why I must always remain a stranger to the happiness which I once thought I was entitled to. Don't ask me to tell you what they are, because I can't. And yet, not so long ago, you very nearly found out."
Nevil checked the words that rose to his lips. He had come very near to mentioning the affair of the pearl collar. He knew, by a sort of blind instinct, that, in some way, Angela's unhappiness was connected with the night of the amateur theatricals. But then, she had been quite as difficult and wayward before that event had happened and, not for worlds would Nevil have had her know that he had been acting a desperate part when he had pretended that the unpleasant business of the missing collar was no more than a mere practical joke. Did Angela feel that he had been deceived, or not? Anyway, it would be as well to carry on his attack from another angle.
"Don't think me unduly cruel," he said. "But, unfortunately, in this case, it is a question of the happiness of both of us. If you declare that you are indifferent to me——"
He paused significantly, as it waiting for a reply.
"Oh, I couldn't, I couldn't," Angela said, in a voice so low that he could scarcely catch the words. "It is not that, Nevil, indeed it isn't. Oh, do let me go, and think no more about me."
"No," Nevil said, "I can't part with you like that. If there is anybody else, any man who stands in the way——"
"There is no man," Angela said quite firmly. "Until I met you—but don't force me. If you only knew how unkind it is."
The pleading expression in her eyes and the unsteadiness of her lips touched Nevil.
"Very well, my dear," he said. "There are all the years before us, and I know how to wait. But we must meet as friends, because you live in my old house, and, moreover, I am going to become your father's partner in his business. This means that I shall be frequently at Ashdown Croft, and it would be very awkward indeed if we could not meet without others noticing that there was a cloud between us."
A strange look of relief and pain and suffering, all strangely and pathetically mingled, crossed Angela's face. Perhaps it was relief that was uppermost of the emotions.
"Very well, Nevil," she said. "It shall be as you say. We can, at any rate, be friends and neighbours."
THOUGH Nevil had taken up his duties with Murray and Co. more or less earnestly from the very first, he began to throw himself heart and soul into the commercial whirlpool. It was, at any rate, a medium by which he could escape from his own troubled thoughts, the more so because the frost still held and all outdoor amusements had come to an end for the time being. So he went up to London two or three days a week and began to study office life, much as he had studied the stage in those strenuous days in America. He was a partner in the firm and on the board of directors and, within a fortnight or so, began to be quite a familiar figure in financial circles.
Moreover, he liked the business. There was an air of movement and a sense of the battle of wits and the strenuous struggle that always appeals to a man of ambition, and Nevil had more than his fair share of that. Again, he found himself, ever and anon, meeting old schoolfellows, now in prominent positions in certain great City houses, and these hailed him with various degrees of enthusiasm. He would lunch with one or another and, occasionally, accompany some budding financier to his home for the night.
And yet these men who were born to the City, and whose fathers had left their distinguishing mark there, showed no particular enthusiasm when they learnt that Nevil had become a director on the board of Murray and Co. It seemed to him that, when occasionally, he came in contact with an old schoolfellow, he looked down his nose when the name of Everard Murray was mentioned. And one, perhaps a little bolder than the rest, ventured to ask him, one day, what he was doing in that galley.
"I don't follow," Nevil said a bit combatively.
"Merely a quotation, old chap," the other man said. "And perhaps I ought not to have said it. But there are firms in this old City of ours who wouldn't touch one of Murray's flotations with a barge-pole."
"Old jog-trot concerns, I suppose?" Nevil laughed.
"Well, most of these great institutions are," the other man went on, "to say nothing of the Great Five' banks. My dear chap, it would be a poor day for the City of London if all of us worked on the lines of Murray and Co. But perhaps I have said too much."
Nevertheless, this conversation left a certain impression on Nevil's mind. To all appearances, Murray and Co. were sound enough, and yet there were corporations in the City of London who would have nothing to do with them. And another thing—Murray and Blanchin and Sidey seemed to form a sort of inner cabinet from which Nevil and two other directors were ingeniously excluded. Still, there seemed to be ample funds and one or two transactions organised by Murray himself had come off with brilliant success. They were busy enough, in all conscience, the telephone bells were ringing incessantly, there were interviews with important people every hour of the day and so many letters to sign that Nevil found himself often tied to his desk long after the majority of the City offices were closed. In fact, he didn't know half that he was signing, for it was impossible to read those letters through and get them off in time for post.
But there was something exhilarating in the life, and, for the greater part of the day there was not a moment to think of Angela. It was only during the week-ends she came back before him to bring the old ache into his heart and leave him wondering how the whole thing was going to end.
It was on one of these Friday nights, towards the end of February, when Nevil had been dining at Ashdown Croft, that Murray swept him away into the library directly the meal was over, though he would fain have lingered for half an hour or so on the chance of sharing Angela's company. She had sat through the meal almost in silence, and it seemed to Nevil that he had never seen her more depressed. And yet, when he had entered the drawing-room before dinner, he had noticed the old look in her eyes, and that sweet, alluring expression that he knew only too well. It had come and gone in a flash, just as it had done on more occasions than Nevil could count.
"Do you really want to talk business to-night?" he asked Murray. "Can't we forget it just for once?"
"You can never forget business once you are in it," Sidney croaked. "And it isn't all actual money-making, either. We all have our ups and downs. And this is one of the downs."
There was an ominous ring in the pessimist's voice, and a very serious expression on the face of the Frenchman, Blanchin. Murray, too, seemed to have shed a good deal of his geniality directly the dining-room door closed on Angela. An atmosphere had suddenly sprung up that chilled Nevil, though he could hardly have said why. It was as if catastrophe was hovering in the air.
But what was it? What did it all mean? Nevil had seen nothing wrong, and, if the worst came to the worst, he would be merely the poorer by five thousand pounds, and that was the end of it. Once inside the library, the gloom deepened. Murray threw himself back in an armchair and glanced sullenly at Sidey, moodily biting his nails at the same time. Blanchin walked agitatedly up and down the room, muttering to himself, and Sidey faced the other two with a certain hostility he made no attempt to disguise.
"What does all this mean?" Nevil asked. "Anybody would think that Murray and Co. was on the verge of bankruptcy. I come here after what appears to be a successful week in the City to a cheery dinner and a relaxation from work, and suddenly I am face to face with three of my fellow directors who appear to be having an open quarrel. I may be wrong, but that is the impression that you give me."
"Not so very wrong either," Sidey barked.
"I don't understand," Nevil said, utterly bewildered.
"No, and you won't if I have my way," Murray shot out angrily. "My dear boy, you are a partner in my firm and one of my directors. You have picked up knowledge of business in a most amazing manner, but you don't know everything, and it is just as well you shouldn't. Even in the Cabinet there is a small section round the Prime Minister who know things of which the rest of their colleagues remain in complete ignorance. And so it is with Murray and Co. The inner cabinet consists of myself and Sidey and Blanchin. You will be told in time of certain commitments we have entered into, but, meanwhile, these are hidden from you. There is nothing novel about that, and you would not have known until you saw certain balance sheets what a big thing we had pulled off. But Sidey will have none of it. He is one of those superlatively honest men who make it their business to let their right hand know what their left is doing. And by his left, I mean you, Ashdown."
Sidey started from his chair with what sounded like an oath.
"I won't have it, Murray," he said, "I won't have it. It isn't fair to keep Ashdown in the dark."
"You infernal traitor," Murray snarled.
"Pig! Imbecile!" Blanchin screamed at the top of his voice.
Nevil rose to his feet with the rest.
"Come, out with it," he cried. "If there is not something sinister and underhand going on here, I am very much mistaken. And I am not going to leave this room until I know, for certain, one way or another. Sidey, you seem to take the most honest view of the situation. Perhaps you will tell me the whole truth. If I am to lose my money, then I must. Five thousand pounds is no great matter, though it will make a considerable difference for some time to come."
"I wish it were no worse," Sidey said.
"You infernal fool," Murray screamed. "Will you keep your mouth shut, or shall I have to force you to be silent?"
The genial sportsman had vanished, and in his place a red-faced bully with scowling brow and clenched fist stood confessed. Sidey backed a pace or two and snatched a poker from the tender.
"None of your violence," he said. "You come closer and I will brain you with this weapon. I gave you warning to-night that I should tell Ashdown everything, and I am going to do so."
Baffled and furious, Murray flung himself back into his chair, while Blanchin stood silent on the other side of the room.
"Well——" Nevil said, "well, I am waiting."
"It's like this," Sidey went on. "One of our big commitments has gone wrong. It was a guarantee for a large sum of money that, on the face of it, looked like growing into a fortune in two or three months. Our information appeared to be quite reliable, and I believe it was. But the people who were behind were, in turn, committed to another enterprise, and that will be in liquidation in a few days."
"But where do we come in?" Nevil asked.
"To put it in a nutshell," Sidey resumed, "I have raised every penny we can lay our hands on in the last two or three days, and we are still something like £20,000 short. Unless you are prepared to find that money, Mr. Ashdown, the firm of Murray and Co. is done for. We shall be a byword in the city in eight and forty hours."
Suddenly Murray took up the tale.
"You might just as well know the worst, Ashdown," he said. "You remember those Central Copper Bonds you took to Haywood and Co. on Wednesday, with a view to raising a big loan?"
"In which I was successful," Nevil said.
"Yes, I know you were," Murray went on. "That is where the trouble comes in. I was so certain that I could raise £100,000 by depositing other shares and thus putting us in easy street, but the scheme failed to materialize, and—well—those bonds were forgeries."
"Forgeries?" Nevil cried. "You mean you gave me parcel of Copper Bonds to take to Haywood and Co. which were deliberately forged? Oh, I decline to stay with you another moment."
"Oh, not so fast," Murray said. "Don't think you are going to get out of it like that. We are all in the same boat together. And don't forget that the letter to the printers covering the order for the forged bonds was signed by yourself."
"And I never knew it," Nevil cried.
"Well, you know it now," Murray snarled. "I am not making any excuses, but those are the plain facts. £20,000 in cash will put it absolutely right. And you've got to find it. Now, are you prepared to deposit the title deeds of your estate with our bankers?"
NEVIL'S first impulse was to fly at his companions and smash their sullen faces in. But a moment's reflection showed him the futility of this, so that he held himself severely in check. He was breathing heavily as he turned to Murray.
"Now, let us have this quite clear," he said. "Am I to understand definitely that those Copper Bonds we deposited with Haywood and Co. are deliberate forgeries?"
"I have already told you so," Murray replied. "There was absolutely no help for it. It would take me a good hour or two to explain the exact situation to you, and why we were suddenly faced with ruin, or the raising of a large sum of money. And we are not entirely to blame. We trusted other people and they let us down. If we can see the end of the next week or two, we shall be on velvet. Come, Ashdown, be a sport!"
"Sport be hanged!" Ashdown said passionately. "The thing is bad enough as it is. And why put it entirely on my shoulders? Here am I, a new-comer in the business, trusting you implicitly, and you go out of your way deliberately to fasten the guilt of this wretched transaction on me. At least, one of you three might have signed the letter to the printers and seen Haywood and Co. without bringing me in, as you have done. You have deliberately taken advantage of my ignorance of City affairs and made me appear to be the guilty party."
"Yes, I am afraid we have," Sidey said miserably. "That is what's troubling me."
"Rather late in the day, isn't it?" Nevil said bitterly. "I gave the order for the printing of those bonds and I negotiated the loan. And if the matter comes out, then I can see how easy it would be for you three infernal rascals to escape punishment and leave me to face penal servitude."
"Nothing of the kind, my lad," Murray struck in. "It was just a coincidence that you happened to sign that particular letter, and it might just as well have been myself or my friends here who went to see Haywood and Co. Beyond that, I can't see how you can say that we have thrust the thing on to your shoulders. It might have happened to anybody. And, if we play the bold game, everything will come right yet. Only, for the moment, you are the only one of the four of us who can raise any money."
"And the risk, 'e ees nothing," Blanchin said. "There ees a leetle invention of mine nearly complete, which I could take to a friend in the City in the course of a few days, and, behold, 'e will let me 'ave all the money I require. But the thing ees urgent. At any hour Haywood and Co. might discover the trick that 'as been played on them. Come, mon cher, cheer up, it ees all going to end 'apply."
As the Frenchman spoke, there came a knock at the door, and the elderly butler, Jakes, entered the room.
"You are wanted on the telephone, sir," he said, turning to Murray. "It is a trunk call."
Murray followed Jakes hastily out of the library, and, for the next few minutes, a gloomy silence prevailed. Then Murray returned with every sign of perturbation on his face.
"You 'ave 'eard some bad news, yes?" Blanchin asked.
"Rotten," Murray groaned. "It was young Haywood himself on the telephone. I tell you, they smell a rat. We shall have to find that money by Monday morning. That gives us just over eight and forty hours."
"Did he make an accusation?" Sidey asked.
"Well, not in so many words," Murray said. "Young Haywood called me up. Things are serious. It looks to me as if we are the victims of a bit of sheer bad luck."
"And precisely what does that mean?" Nevil demanded.
"Well, in manipulating those bonds, we had to have them numbered. Can't you imagine the possibility of Haywood's people handling genuine Copper Bonds for a client, and happening to spot that the two sets of numbers coincided? A million to one against it, but those odds come off sometimes, unfortunately."
"Yes, I begin to see," Nevil said grimly. "At any rate, one thing is beyond question—my honour is at stake, and, rather than have our name besmirched by this dirty business, I will raise every penny I possess. We have had gamblers in the family and drunkards, and men of loose living, but never a deliberate criminal before. And how long have I got to find this money? I don't propose to find it at all until I am convinced that there is no other way out of the trouble. You say we have eight and forty hours in which to decide. You say, too, that Haywood and Co. have discovered something. Well, I should like to be convinced of that. If I could speak to one of the firm——"
"Oh, that is easily arranged," Murray said. "Young Haywood called me up from his house at Wimbledon just now, and if you would like me to put through another call, I have his number, and you can have a little chat with him yourself."
"Nothing I should like better," Nevil said curtly.
Whereupon Murray left the room to return presently with the information that he had put the call through. Then followed five and twenty minutes of strained silence, broken every now and again by the excited Frenchman, whose suggestions were treated with stony contempt by his companions. When, at length, the telephone bell could be heard, at a sign from Murray, Nevil crossed the hall and shut himself in the little box where the instrument was situated. In reply to his "Hello" a voice at the other end, which he recognised as that of the younger Haywood, answered him.
"This is Ashdown speaking," he said. "I happen to be dining with Murray, here, to-night, together with two other of our directors. He doesn't seem quite to understand what is wrong. What's that? Oh, I beg your pardon. You didn't say there was anything wrong?"
"Not in as many words," the voice came along the line. "But you see, it's like this, Ashdown. You will remember coming to us in connection with a loan which you proposed to raise on the security of some Central Copper Bonds."
"Of course I do," Nevil said.
"Yes, I thought you would. I suppose there wouldn't be any difficulty on your part in taking these up at a few moments' notice—say on Monday?"
"Oh, I couldn't say off hand," Nevil replied. "But why all this hurry on your part?"
"Well, let's call it circumstances," the voice came drifting over the wire. "A sudden call, if you like. A wonderful opportunity if we only had the spare cash to grasp it. A dozen different things. And may I remind you that no time was specified for the redemption of the bonds. It may sound a bit harsh on my part, but they must he redeemed on Monday."
"And they shall be," Nevil said firmly. "I suppose you know that I am a man of independent means, living on my own unencumbered property and all that sort of thing?"
"Oh, yes, I know all about that," the reply came. "And if you are prepared to give me our personal guarantee——"
"Not quite so fast, Haywood," Nevil said. "We can talk about that when we meet on Monday morning. If you like to make an appointment for ten o'clock. I will be at your office."
"Oh, that is quite all right," the voice said in a tone of evident relief. "I hope you don't think I am insinuating that anything is wrong. As a matter of fact, I am very sorry to worry you at this time of night, and would not have done so, if the matter had not been so pressing. Monday morning, then."
Nevil gave the desired assurance, and the line went dead. Very slowly and thoughtfully he returned to the library where his fellow directors awaited him.
"Well?" Murray asked eagerly. "Well?"
"The police have not been consulted yet," Nevil said gravely. "Nor are any of us likely to be arrested before the end of the week. But Haywoods know—beyond the shadow of a doubt they know—that those bonds are forged. And they are not going to take any proceedings until they are satisfied that there is no chance of getting their money back."
"Yes, that is rather what I expected," Murray went on. "People like Haywoods are not fools. Of course, they would prosecute like a shot if we failed to meet our obligations. But though they know exactly what has happened, not a word of it will pass their lips if we can satisfy their claim on Monday. And if you can't do it, Ashdown, then nobody can."
"I will do my best," Nevil replied. "I am going to call upon Haywoods on Monday and see if I can't come to some understanding with them. I am not going to stop, now, and tell you three what I think of you, because that would be a sheer waste of breath. And, when Monday has come and gone, there will be an end of our connection for all time."
As Nevil spoke, he flashed his eyes round the group opposite him, and saw a deliberate wink pass between the saturnine Sidey, and Murray, who stood within a few feet of him. A sinister grin trembled for a moment on Sidey's lips and then he seemed to be once more plunged into a deep melancholy.
But Nevil knew. He knew now that he had been lured deliberately into a trap from whence he could see but one means of escape.
THEREFORE, Nevil waited to hear no more. He turned his back deliberately on the conspirators and closed the library door with a bang behind him. He had one thought only uppermost in his mind and that was to get away from an atmosphere in which he could hardly breathe. He crossed the hall, snatching up his hat as he did so, and then found himself face to face with Angela, who came out of a room much as if she had been lying in wait to intercept him.
"You are going already?" she asked.
"Yes, I am going," Nevil said. "And I am afraid it will be a long time before I come back again."
"You have been having some sort of a dispute," Angela said. "Oh, yes, I heard your voices raised more than once. And the telephone box is not quite so soundproof as you think; moreover, the room in which I pass much of my time is exactly behind it. Tell me, Nevil, is there anything wrong?"
"I can't tell you anything, my dear," Nevil groaned. "For the present, my lips are sealed."
Angela laid her hand upon her heart, much as it she were conscious of some pain there.
"Is it anything to do with my father?" she asked.
Nevil started and certain words rose to his lips. For Angela's question had set fire to a suspicion which had been smouldering in his mind for a long time. What he was asking himself now was whether Angela knew certain things about her father and the way in which he had made his money. Did she know he was a rascal? And was that why she kept him at a distance and told him that he must think no more about her?
"In a way, perhaps," Nevil said evasively. "You see, I am not used to this city life on which I have lately embarked and there are things connected with it which hardly fit in with my particular code of honour. Oh, don't mistake me—I don't mean criminal things. There are lots of people in the city who would resent hotly the suggestion of fraud, and, at the same time, commit acts every day that they would not dare to do in private life. Men who wouldn't cheat at cards or offend against the social code in any way, but when it comes to business—but perhaps I had better not say any more."
Nevil was doing his best to make the situation as easy as he could for Angela but, at the same time, he had an uneasy feeling at the back of his mind that Angela had heard a great deal more of those telephone calls than she cared to tell him.
"Isn't this sort of thing rather out of your line?" he asked lightly. "And perhaps I am taking matters rather too seriously. Very likely in a day or two we shall come to an understanding that will enable me to retain my directorship in your father's business. One can be too scrupulous, you know."
Angela flashed him one of her most brilliant smiles. It was the right expression that he had come to look for at one time with that almost caressing gesture that had so often raised his hopes high only to have them dashed a moment later.
"How good and kind you are," she whispered. "Always the same, whatever the weather may be as they say in these parts. If you cared for me less than you do, Nevil——"
"I shall always care for you," Nevil said. "What does it matter to us that other people—oh, you know what I mean. Your father. And his companions. Never mind them. If I could only hear you say once that you really cared——"
Once more that look in Angela's eyes, and then she was in Nevil's arms. He held her to him closely, he kissed her long and tenderly on the lips whilst he could feel the clinging whiteness of her arms about his neck. It was only for one brief moment, before Angela snatched herself away and dashed her hand passionately across her eyes.
"I ought not to have done it," she said brokenly. "I ought not to have tempted you. But, Nevil, I do love you with my whole soul and nothing I do afterwards will unsay what I have just confessed almost unasked. But I can never marry you, never."
Before Nevil could make any suitable reply, Angela was half way up the stairs, leaving him gazing after her, utterly helpless, and hardly knowing what to do next. Then, very slowly, he gathered his scattered wits and walked out into the cold and frosty night. It was barely half a mile to his lodgings and, on the way, he found time to turn over in his mind the startling events of that disastrous evening.
And the more he thought of it the more puzzled he became. One thing, however, was sure. He had been the cat's paw of the other three in raising that loan, and if events reached their culmination in a court of law, then he would be the main sufferer. For it was he who had given the order for the forged bonds and signed the letter, and he who had negotiated the loan. Of course, Murray and Co. had the benefit of the transaction, but it would not be difficult for some smart K.C. to prove that neither Murray nor Blanchin nor Sidey were cognisant of the forgery.
And then another idea flashed into Nevil's mind. Were those bonds actually forgeries or not? The Central Copper Company was more or less a child of Murray's creating, and it may be that the articles of association of the company gave him the right to raise extra capital by means of further bonds. And yet the younger Haywood had hinted plainly enough, short of an actual declaration, that he was aware of the fraud that had been practised on his company. There was no getting away from that.
And then another thought—was the whole thing a conspiracy all round to rob him of £20,000? Murray had always posed as a man of substantial wealth, but then, one never knew, where those City people were concerned. How many apparent millionaires had gone down in a hideous crash during the last few years, leaving nothing behind them but ruin and suffering. On the other hand, Murray might be just solvent and in urgent need of that particular sum to put him on his feet again. If so, then he had not hesitated to weave a net round Nevil from which, for the moment, at any rate, he could see no possibility of escape.
He lay hour after hour turning these bewildering problems over in his mind until, towards morning, he dropped into a troubled sleep, to awake later on to a hard, crisp morning with a stinging frost in the air and a dull sun in a copper sky.
Saturday morning. A Saturday morning he had looked forward to with considerable pleasure. But all the joy of life had gone now with the knowledge that he would be face to face with a disastrous crisis before many hours had passed over his head. Still, he could not stay there, brooding. He would go over to Tom Blissett's place and have a few words with him and his wife. He made something of a poor breakfast, and then at a few minutes past ten, set off across the frozen fields to Blissett's residence.
Blissett rose from a late breakfast table to greet him.
"Ah, here you are," he said. "Topping morning, isn't it? Another night like last, and we shall be skating on the river. Not that it's going to last, because I am told there is a thaw in the hills, and if the snow water comes down, it will burst up the river ice like a charge of dynamite. But what's the matter? You look like a man who has seen a ghost."
"Blame the City, not me," Nevil forced a laugh. "I am getting tired of it and, sooner or later, shall chuck the whole business. Don't forget I only went into it temporarily."
"Well, that's all right," Blissett said. "You are going to make another fortune and look after my little bit at the same time."
Nevil rather evaded the point.
"You never can tell when you are engaged in work like our's," he said. "There is always a risk and you never know your fellow directors until you have come to test them. Now, you have met all three of my colleagues—what do you think of them?"
"Well, I suppose they are all right," Blissett said, rather dubiously. "Murray is, of course, a real sound chap. But I don't much care for that miserable bloke, Sidey, and I know that Blanchin is a downright brute."
"Oh—when did you learn that?"
"Well, you see, we are both scientists and more than once I have been in Blanchin's laboratory which, as I dare say you know, is in one of the blind corridors at Ashdown Croft. And there, a day or two ago, I saw an experiment on an unfortunate rabbit which, for downright brutality, I have never seen equalled. I was only too glad to find myself outside the house again and how it was I didn't fetch Blanchin a crack on the jaw, I don't know. But never mind about those chaps—are you game for an hour or two on the ice to-morrow in case the frost holds? It won't be for very long and there is no other decent water within miles."
Ashdown made no reply for a minute or two, for a sudden inspiration had come to him in a blinding flash, so that he had temporarily lost the use of speech. But when he spoke again, it was in his own natural tone.
"All right," he said, "I can't get away before twelve o'clock, so I will call for you and Eleanor and we will all go down to the river together. Meanwhile, I am going to ask you a particular favour. Will you lend me £500 in Treasury notes—and could you manage to let me have the money before lunch?"
"What the Dickens——?" Blissett began.
"Oh, never mind about that. The point is—can you do it and say nothing whatever about it to a soul, not even your wife. I want you to get in your runabout and see your local banker and bring me the cash back again. I will potter about in the neighbourhood and drop in to lunch, if you like."
"I'll do it now," Blissett said promptly. "I suppose you don't mean to tell me what the game is, do you?"
Nevil shook his head resolutely, but as he saw his friend off in his two-seater, there was on his face a grim, determined look that boded ill for somebody who was not far off.
LIKE the loyal friend that he was, Blissett made no comment on what was bound to appear to him to be an unusual request on the part of Ashdown. He did not stop to ask why Nevil could not have obtained the money for himself, especially as he had an account with the local bank at Wernport, less than 20 miles away, and he might, therefore, have gone that distance and obtained the five hundred pounds in Treasury notes for himself. But there it was, and accordingly Blissett drove into Wernport, and came back, presently, with the money.
This he handed over to his friend without comment and, without comment, Nevil put it in his pocket.
"Thanks, old chap," he said. "I daresay you will think it rather a singular request, but you will see presently what it all means. As a matter of fact, I am making a little Continental trip which will occupy the best part of the next fortnight. Just a little idea of my own, which I have not mentioned as yet to Murray and the other fellows."
"Oh, quite so," Blissett said casually. "Only too pleased to be able to serve you."
Just then, Eleanor Blissett came downstairs and announced the fact that luncheon was ready. So the pleasant meal proceeded without any suggestion of uneasiness on Nevil's part. He entered into the conversation quite normally, and when, at length, the time came for him to leave, he was his own cheerful self.
"Well, I must be getting along," he said. "There are several things I have to do and some business matters to talk over with Murray before I go to bed to-night. I will walk over to-morrow morning if the frost lasts, and we can go down to the river and have an hour or two on the ice, after which I am going to ask you to give me another lunch. Oh, by the way, before I go, there is another little favour that you might do me, Tom."
"Anything in the world, old chap," Blissett said genially.
"Well, you see, it's like this. As you can imagine, I came in contact with all sorts and conditions of men during the time I was in America. And there was one man I ran against when I was in the southern States who rather attracted me. He was a professor of some American University, the name of which I have forgotten, and his hobby, when on vacation, was collecting butterflies and moths. He used to tell me that he had the finest collection of these insects in the United States. Rather a dear old chap, and just what you would have expected from that sort of man. Old, of course, with close-cropped grey hair and side whiskers and a round face, rosy, as an apple. Speaking with a pronounced American drawl, but apart from that, unmistakably a man of culture."
"Sounds like a typical stage character," Eleanor Blissett laughed. "In my mind's eye I can see him clearly."
"Well, upon my word, you are right," Nevil agreed. "He might have just stepped out of 'A Pair of Spectacles.' Benjamin Goldfinch. And, by a still more remarkable coincidence, his name is Finch. Professor Timothy Finch, to be exact."
"But what does all this lead to?" Tom Blissett asked.
"Oh, yes, of course," Nevil said. "I am wandering from the point now. The professor is in England, and I had a letter from him this morning. He is taking a year's holiday and spending half of it in England studying our moths and butterflies. What he particularly wants to know is why the butterfly known as Camberwell Beauty has disappeared from this country, though there are still plenty of them in Holland. The old man potters about looking for larvae in the woods and under the bark of decayed trees and all that kind of thing. But the real point of what I am saying is that he is coming down here in the next two or three days and has asked me to find him some rooms. That I can easily do, because I propose to put him under the same roof as myself. He intends to make a thorough survey of this neighbourhood, because he tells me that on the low, marshy ground near the river between here and Wernport, the Camberwell Beauty used to be quite common. You will look the old boy up, won't you?"
"Most certainly we will," Eleanor Blissett said.
Nevil thanked her and went his way, promising to return about midday on Sunday, and for the rest of the afternoon was engaged in his own unhappy affairs, after which he went as far as Ashdown Croft, where he spent some little time in conversation with Jakes, the old family butler. The latter listened to what one whom he still regarded as his master had to say, and, without waiting to see any of the inmates of the Croft, Nevil returned to his farmhouse quarters, where he was busy for the rest of the day.
He dined in the evening with Murray and the others and was, on the whole, rather thankful than otherwise that Angela had failed to put in an appearance.
"She is not particularly well," Murray explained. "Got a bad headache and all that sort of thing. I am awfully sorry, Ashdown, about that unpleasant business which——"
Nevil held up a hand in protest.
"I don't want to hear another word about it," he said. "There are certain things to be done, and they shall be done. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing to be gained by a lot of idle talk. The best thing you three can do is to stay here for a day or so, or, at any rate, over Monday, and, probably, in the meantime, I shall be able to report progress on the telephone."
With that, Nevil left his partners to their own devices and once more sought his humble quarters. The next morning, with the frost still severe and an invigorating tang in the air, he strode across the fields until he reached Blissett's residence. He found the latter awaiting him, all ready for the morning's sport, and Eleanor equally keen.
"I think we had better get away at once," Blissett said. "It looks as if the frost might last for a month, but I notice a change or two in the West, and, an hour or so ago, an acquaintance of mine, who was motoring through from up country, told me that there was a rapid thaw going on it the Wern hills. If that is so and the river rises an inch or two, it will blow all the ice to blazes."
"It's over five inches thick, anyway," Nevil said. "My landlord told me that just after breakfast."
"Oh, let's get along," Mrs. Blissett said impatiently.
"You go on, old thing!" Blissett said. "We will catch you up in a minute or two. I want to show Nevil a letter I had this morning. Rather a curious letter."
Mrs. Blissett, however, seemed to show no curiosity herself and dashed out of the house, carrying her skates in a bag. As she vanished, Blissett's expression changed and his air became at once serious and concerned.
"Look here, old chap," he said. "This is a thing that you ought to know. I don't want to worry my wife about it yet, and I was not exactly telling the truth when I said the letter in question came by post. As a matter of fact, it was put through my letter box last night. Nelly had gone upstairs, and I was just thinking about following her example when I thought I heard footsteps on the gravel outside. And then I heard the click of the letter box and went to see what it meant. And there, in the box, I found this scrap of paper."
With that Blissett held out a piece of paper which had evidently been torn from the edge of a newspaper. On it, in capital letters, a message had been written.
"Read it for yourself," Blissett said.
As Nevil turned the dirty scrap towards the light, he saw what the import of the anonymous communication was. There was no beginning or end to it, and it ran thus:—
"This is written by a friend, one who knows you well and would do you a good turn at any time. Take my advice and dispose of your holding in the firm of Murray and Co., otherwise you will lose everything that you have put into that rotten show and perhaps be called upon to find more besides. Don't hesitate to act, because this is written by one who knows."
Just that, and nothing more. Nevil looked steadily into the face of his friend, waiting for the latter to speak.
"I was bound to show you that," Blissett said. "I shouldn't have been acting honestly otherwise. Now, what do you make of it, old chap? If you don't know how to advise me, who can? You being a partner and all that sort of thing."
"Oh, there is no doubt about the partnership," Nevil said grimly. "And don't forget it was you who first persuaded me that Murray and his lot were on to a thing that was going to revolutionise the world by means of Blanchin's serum, the profits of which were to be enormous."
"I still believe that," Blissett said emphatically. "But, at the same time, I can't afford to lose that money and, if there is any underhanded business going on, I think, old chap, that I should be the first to know."
It was a direct challenge to Nevil and he accepted it.
"Quite right," he said. "There have been certain happenings which make me feel uneasy. Still, so long as I am in it, I am going to see the thing through. But there is no reason why you should. Why not sell the shares—you can do it to-morrow through your broker and, if I give you the tip to buy again, then that can easily be managed."
"Then you strongly advise me to sell?"
"Well, I should hardly put it quite as definitely as that. Sell out for the time being. I can see you are pretty badly shaken. One doesn't usually take any notice of anonymous communications like this, but you never know."
"Very well," Blissett said, with a certain air of relief. "I will do what you suggest, Nevil."
A FEW minutes later, having apparently forgotten all about their recent serious discussion, the two friends were on their way to the river. There, on a long sluggish pool, just above a weir by the side of which was a salmon ladder, were some hundreds of people disporting themselves on a perfect piece of ice. The Wern, as a rule, was a swiftly running river, but here, above the weir, for a quarter of a mile or so, was a deep pool where, in the proper season of the year, the salmon lay on their way to the headwaters of the Wern where, in due time, they spawned, and the young fish came to life. Despite the fact that it was Sunday, practically everybody in the neighbourhood had rushed down to the riverside.
"This is the first time I have ever seen anybody on the Wern," Nevil said. "I believe it is fifty-three years since there was any skating on the river. In fact, old Jakes told me so yesterday. It looks as solid as a rock."
"Eh, it looks solid enough," a voice in the background said.
Nevil turned to confront a seedy looking individual, attired in a rough blue Jersey and what were once substantial sea boots. In him he recognised a well-known salmon poacher who had been before the magistrates on several occasions and had served two or three short terms of imprisonment. Apart from that the man was honest enough and Nevil greeted him quite cheerfully. He knew that here was an individual who knew the river in all its moods and exactly when and where to take advantage of them.
"Hello, Floyd," Nevil cried. "That you? Well, if anybody was a judge, you ought to be. But what, precisely, do you mean when you say that the ice looks all right?"
"Because it isn't all right, sir, beggin' your pardon," the old poacher replied with his forefinger to his cap. "The last time there was skating here much the same thing 'appened, only it come in the night, which was fortunit."
"Meaning there is trouble here?" Blissett asked.
"I shouldn't wonder," Floyd said. "If you look across the river towards the West, where it comes from, you will notice them little specks atween us and the sun. There'll be a flaw, and a rapid one afore you get up to-morrow morning, and I did hear tell just now as it was rainin' up in the 'ills. And if that's so, with them all covered with snow, then you can look forward to a rise in the water of three or four inches at any minute."
"Oh, don't let's stop talking to this old croaker," Nelly Blissett laughed. "Even if he is right. We have got an hour or two before us. Come along, you two."
A minute or two later, and all three of them were on the ice. To Nevil, at any rate, it was all pure enjoyment. With a good pair of skates and a polished surface under his feet, he forgot all about his troubles and gave himself over to the pleasure of the moment. He was a fine skater, too, for he had spent more than one winter in Canada in the towns, and there he had perfected himself in perhaps the most graceful of all sports. For the next hour or more he weaved intricate patterns on the ice without noticing that the temperature had risen slightly. Then, all at once, he was conscious of the fact that he was slurring his figures, and that the skates were no longer gripping the polished surface.
Up to him presently came Blissett.
"Well, this is pretty fine, isn't it?" the latter said. "But it looks to me as if that old rascal Floyd wasn't so far out, after all. Am I mistaken, or is the ice a bit softer than it was? You ought to know."
"It is, most certainly," Nevil said. "Here, what's that?"
In the distance, from the side of the river, came a shrill whistle from a locomotive, and then the lumbering roar of an approaching train. For some miles down the stream the rails ran parallel with the river, and so on for the rest of the journey down through Wernport.
What the two men could hear was the one passenger train that ran between the biggish town up the river and Wernport on a Sunday. The train came nearer and nearer, and, presently, emerged from behind a slight embankment in full view of those on the ice. The fireman of the locomotive was standing on the footplate, waving his arms vigorously and shouting something that it was not possible to catch. Then he yelled a little louder, and Blissett picked up the sense of what the man was saying.
"Did you hear that," he said, turning to Nevil. "He says the river is rising, and that, here and there, the ice is broken up. He has been racing the spate all the way down. It seems to me that the sooner we get off the ice the better. I'll just fly round and warn the crowd generally."
Blissett sped on his way, and within a few minutes half the crowd of skaters sought the safety of the banks. But there were others, as is always the case, who merely scoffed at the warning. Nevil could see Blissett and his wife on the bank and one or two other friends. Then he turned his back on them and took a wide circle behind a patch of rushes which hid him from sight, evidently with the intention of having the last few seconds of enjoyment before joining his companions.
By this time there were not more than fifty people on the surface of the river. And these, it seemed, had made up their minds to ignore the signal of the man on the engine.
"Come off, you fools!" Blissett yelled at the top of his voice. "Come off, if you don't want to be drowned."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before there came a splitting roar, followed by what sounded like a salvo of shells, and then as if an earthquake had taken place in the bed of the stream, the sheet of ice cracked in the middle, flung upwards and crashed down again, leaving a score or two of struggling people in the icy water. The thaw had come indeed.
Those standing on the bank were taken utterly unprepared. There were no life-saving appliances of any kind, not even a hurdle or a ladder. There were those on the bank who boldly plunged into the stream and saved a few lives at the risk of their own. But this was as nothing in the nightmare of those terrible moments, moments that dragged on as if to eternity, and yet were all too brief. Almost before those on the bank had realised the tragedy, it became pitiably plain that they were spectators of the greatest tragedy that part of the world had ever seen.
Presently motors began to arrive, then a doctor or two, and, here and there a nurse. People with blankets and cordials, all trying to do their best, but, for the most part, too late.
It was a good hour before the river's bank was cleared, except for a few of the local fishermen who had brought out their punts and were engaged in the gruesome task of dragging the bed of the river. And, whilst they worked, the stream rose by inches until early in the afternoon it was racing down under the urge of some two feet of flood water.
Blissett and Eleanor had done what they could, and it was only when they realised that their services were no longer needed that they came to understand how exhausted they were.
"We can do no more," Blissett said. "My dear girl, you look ready to drop. We must get home at once and have something to eat. And drink, which is much more important."
"But is there nothing more we can do?" Eleanor almost wailed.
"Nothing on earth, ma'am," came the voice of Floyd from his punt, just underneath where the two were standing. "And I am much afraid that we are wasting our time, too. If this thaw goes on, and it will for the next 12 hours, the river will be in flood and every poor soul wot's lost his or her life will be carried out to sea."
Blissett put his hand under his wife's arm and hurried her away. The whole business was terrible enough without listening to the croaking of a raven like Floyd, even although his warning had been justified by events. They had hardly got away into the silence of the fields when they were confronted by Angela.
Her face was white as death, there was a wild look in her eyes as she flung herself frantically on Eleanor.
"Oh, this is dreadful—dreadful," she cried. "I only heard of it a quarter of an hour ago. But thank God you two are safe!"
"Tom!" Eleanor cried suddenly, clutching her husband by the arm. "Have you forgotten?"
"Forgotten what?" Blissett asked, half dazedly.
"Why—Nevil Ashdown! I don't remember seeing him at all after the ice broke up. What has become of him?"
"Good God!" Blissett said under his breath. "It went clean out of my mind. I think I have been out of my mind myself. I dare say he ran home to get a change."
"The last thing he would do, and you ought to be ashamed to say so," Eleanor said. "Oh, look at Angela."
Angela would have fallen had not Blissett turned just in time to catch her in his arms. She lay there for a few seconds, as if in a dead faint, then she opened her eyes and looked into those of Blissett with an expression of agony.
"I—I went as far as the farm when I heard of this dreadful tragedy, and when I came away just now Nevil had not returned. Oh, don't tell me he is drowned."
"We don't know," Blissett said gently.
"It is to be hoped not. You go along with Eleanor and I will make inquiries. Take her home, Eleanor, and make her drink some brandy."
Whilst Mrs. Blissett and Angela went one way Tom went the other. It was quite late in the evening before he returned to his own house, and, at the first sight of his face, Angela threw up her hands and collapsed on a sofa.
"Dead!" she moaned. "Dead! God help me!"
ELEANOR BLISSETT did everything in her power to try and comfort the stricken girl, but it was quite a long time before Angela was in a position to speak coherently. She lay there, white of face and staring as if she could see some vision which was invisible to her sympathetic companion. But all they could say and do made no difference, and, from time to time, Angela's lamentations broke out afresh. It almost seemed as if she were blaming herself for the tragic events of the morning.
"You are more than kind," she murmured. "But it is no use, no use. Oh, if I had only told him the truth."
"Perhaps it would ease your mind if you told us," Eleanor said. "We are always your friends."
"Oh, I know that, I know that. But if I had told him everything it would have been so different. He is dead now, and I can't do it. And yet I loved him so. Yes, I loved him and I kept him at arm's length because I dared not tell him about that dreadful thing. And I can't tell you either, Eleanor."
"But don't you think, perhaps——"
What Eleanor was about to say was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Murray. He came headlong into the room without apology or explanation, but, when he caught sight of Angela's pallid face, he gave a sigh of relief.
"Thank Heaven?" he cried. "I began to be desperately frightened about you, my child. I waited and waited, but you did not come, and then I feared that perhaps you had gone down to the river with the rest of them. Ah, no wonder you are upset. She looks dreadful, Mrs. Blissett. My dear, if you take my advice, you will come home at once and let them put you to bed. You are not fit to be out of doors in your present condition."
Murray spoke earnestly enough, but it seemed to Blissett that there was something more than mere concern for Angela's condition behind all this solicitude. But still, it was only what might have been expected from a father with an only child, and, at length, Angela professed herself ready to accompany Murray so that, a little later, the two left the house together.
It was a quiet walk across the fields, with no word spoken on either side, until Ashdown Croft was reached and Murray handed over Angela to the care of his housekeeper. Then the look of solicitude left his face, and it was with a moody frown and a tense expression in his eyes that he sought his confederates.
He found them seated in the library, smoking cigarettes and discussing the appalling disaster of the morning.
"A really horrible business," Sidey said.
"Worse than that," Murray muttered. "These accidents will happen and nothing is gained by shedding tears over them. I am thinking more about ourselves."
"We 'ave been debating that point," Blanchin said drily.
"Yes," Sidey agreed. "The suffering is not altogether on one side. Ashdown is lost beyond the shadow of a doubt, which, of course, is very lamentable. But it is still more lamentable to think that we have lost £20,000."
"Cursed bad luck," Murray snarled. "Especially as we had that cash practically in our grip. Of course, we shan't get it now."
"But later on, perhaps," Blanchin said. "Eet was an agreement between us, and our unfortunate friend left a large, unencumbered estate behind heem. Ees that right? Yes?"
"In a way," Murray said. "But seeing that Ashdown died without issue and that the estates are settled ones and virtually belong to the next of kin, we can whistle for our money. The question is, what is to be done?"
"Oh, well," Sidey said. "It is not so bad as all that. We have plenty of ready cash to go on with, and if we can get those people in Geneva to wait for a month or two, our friend Blanchin's invention will put us on our feet again."
"More than that," Blanchin exclaimed. "Eet will mean a 'uge fortune for all of us. We shall be millionaires. Come, mes amis, all ees not lost yet."
For a long time the conspirators sat in brooding silence, and then the semblance of a smile began to dawn on Murray's face.
"I begin to see my way," he said. "Blanchin is right. He can stay down here, and perfect his experiments whilst you and I go to Town to-morrow and see what we can do with the Haywood people. It all depends upon how long Blanchin will be before he is ready to put that stuff on the market."
"Give me a fortnight," Blanchin said. "Fourteen leetle days and I shall be ready."
"Then that's all right," Murray remarked with a cheerful air. "I suppose there is no possible chance that our young friend Ashdown managed to escape?"
"You can put that idea out of your head at once," Sidey said. "I have been having a chat with some of the fishermen. I mean those men who are out with the drags. The last time Ashdown was seen he was skating round that bed of reeds on the far side of the river a few seconds before the crash came. And no one has seen him since. Why? Because there will be three or four feet of flood water in the river to-morrow morning and every body will be washed out to sea. Nobody drowned there is ever picked up, even at sea. But what has all this to do with our talk?"
"Nothing whatever, as far as I can see," Murray said. "We have lost that money and there is the end of it."
"Which was a great pity," Blanchin said.
"Well, that's a mild way of putting it," Murray grunted. "And such a nice little plot, too. One of the very best I ever invented. But there you are. The next thing to do is to get those bonds back from Haywood and Co."
"No difficulty about that," Sidey remarked.
"Well, I am not too sure," Murray said. "Young Haywood has been very useful to us and he talks as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but he is not quite the soft individual he pretends to be. If he got on to that little Geneva scheme of ours, he might turn nasty. He wasn't very pleased when he didn't get his share of that French business, six months ago. Mind you, we promised him his percentage, and it was no particular fault of ours that we had to let him down. And that wasn't the first occasion, either."
Blanchin blew a cloud of smoke into the air.
"Pouf, what does it matter?" he said, "'E may suspect, 'e probably does suspect, but in so short a time we shall be able to seal 'is mouth with gold, more gold than 'e ever dreamt of. We shall 'ave no trouble with Mr. Alfred Haywood."
"Well, perhaps not," Murray said.
"But you never know. As to our inner secrets, he is an absolute stranger. But with regard to Ashdown and that money, he had to take somebody into our confidence, and young Alfred was the man. However, we shall know all about that in a few hours. You stay down here, Blanchin, and get on with your work, and Sidey and myself will go up to London to-morrow and have a chat with young Haywood. I want to get those bonds back. So long as they are in other hands than ours, there is danger. If not exactly danger—risk, anyhow. Just remember what happened. Ashdown took those bonds to Haywood at our suggestion, and obtained a cheque from them for £20,000 as an advance against them."
"Stop a minute," Sidey said. "What became of that cheque? We didn't pay it into our bank, because we knew precious well that it would never be met if we did."
"Of course," Murray agreed. "That is all part of the game. Young Haywood knew that they were forged bonds, just as well as he knew that he was giving us a dud cheque in exchange for them. Otherwise, he would have deposited the bonds at his bank and arranged with the manager to credit him with their face value, so that he could draw a genuine cheque in favour of Murray and Co. I don't want to go over the whole thing again, but just to refresh your memory."
"Yes, but where is Haywood's cheque," Sidey persisted. "Of course, it wasn't an atom of use presenting it for payment, and we didn't want to, because we expected to compel Ashdown, for his own sake, to raise a sufficient loan so that he could get back the bonds which he believed to be genuine."
"Upon my word, I don't know," Murray said. "You see, it was Ashdown himself who went to Haywood's——"
"Of course it was," Sidey said impatiently. "That was part of the scheme. He took those bonds to Haywood's and came away with a cheque for their face value. But if you ask me what became of that cheque, then I can't tell you, any more than the dead. All I wanted was to be convinced that Ashdown had fallen into the trap, and, when I knew he had done so, I didn't trouble any more about the matter. Nobody seems to have done."
"But the cheque must be somewhere," Murray fumed. "It is essential that we should have it. Of course, it was no part of Ashdown's business to pay it into the bank with our drafts, and, very likely, we shall find it locked up in the desk in his office. I don't want to feel that Haywood has got any more pull over us than he has at present. You see what I mean?"
"Oh, he's got no pull over us," Sidey said contemptuously. "He is as deep in the conspiracy as we are. Anyway, we will have to go up to town to-morrow and have the whole thing out."
"Yes, and get those bonds back," Murray said grimly. "On that I am determined. So long as Haywood has those in his possession, I don't feel quite safe."
"We can bully them out of him, if necessary," Sidey laughed. "I don't know anybody who can do that sort of thing better than you. But, really, after all, I don't suppose it will be necessary. He is a poor sort of a creature—Alfred Haywood."
Murray pulled thoughtfully at his cigarette.
"I am not quite so sure of that," he said. "Those cat men know how to fight when their backs are to the wall."
THE firm of Haywood and Co. occupied three modest rooms high up in a building in Crutched Friars, and consisted of the elder Haywood, a man now practically past business, and his son Alfred. A clerk or two, and a typist in an outer office, comprised the staff. Ostensibly, they were a firm of outside brokers, buying and selling on commission, and doing a certain amount by means of correspondence. Not exactly a shady firm, but one of little importance and carrying no weight whatever amongst their more prosperous neighbours.
It was some time on the Monday morning following the disaster on the river that Alfred Haywood sat in his office awaiting the arrival of Murray and Sidey. He was an individual on the small side, with light hair and eyelashes, and giving the impression of one of poor physique. Yet, every now and again, there was a gleam in his eyes like one sees in those of a dog when he expects to be deprived of a bone. A rather furtive young man, whose mildness of manner and somewhat hesitating speech successfully hid a certain determination of purpose and a tenacity that had something feline about it. He rose as Murray and Sidey came in and motioned them to be seated. He passed a box of cigarettes across the table and waited almost humbly for Murray to speak.
"Well, this is a pretty rotten business, young fellow," Murray said in his breeziest manner.
"Most unfortunate, sir," Haywood said. "I was reading all about it in my paper when I came up to town this morning. I am afraid that we have seen the last of Mr. Ashdown."
"You can certainly make up your mind to that," Murray said. "We made careful inquiries and it is quite certain that Nevil Ashdown was drowned, together with several other people. And, that being so, we need not trouble any more about it."
"You are a wonderful man, Mr. Murray," Haywood said softly. "You speak as if the loss of £20,000 was nothing. And yet if this accident had happened a week later, you would have been all that money to the good, and I should be a thousand or two better off. I suppose there is no possible chance——"
"Not the slightest," Murray said. "That scheme is washed out altogether. The only thing now is for us to give you your cheque back again and for you to get those bonds from your bank and hand them over to us. Then we can destroy those bonds and you can burn your cheque and the whole thing never existed. Never leave old tags hanging about, my boy. You can't tell who will pick them up and turn them to advantage. Many a blackmailed business man has found that out to his cost."
"Yes, I suppose he has," Haywood murmured. "But, all the same, Mr. Murray, I think I will take the risk."
"Eh—what's that?" Murray said sharply. "What's that?"
"I think I will take the risk," Haywood repeated. "I am not a bit afraid about that cheque, because, if you present it, and it comes back dishonoured, I shall be no worse off. It wouldn't be the first time in my business career that such a thing had happened. Besides, I called on my bank people on the way to business this morning and stopped the cheque."
"What the devil did you do that for?" Murray blustered.
"Why not, my dear sir—why not? Directly I read all about that skating accident in the paper this morning, I knew that the game was up. It was quite a shock to me to see Mr. Ashdown's name amongst the missing, but I wasn't so overcome with sorrow as to be blind to the fact that our little scheme had been knocked on the head. And, again, you must recollect that it was an honourable understanding between us that my cheque was not to be presented for payment. As far as I can understand, your story to Ashdown was that Haywood and Co. were sound financiers who made advances on approved securities, and that you wanted him to come to us to raise that loan. And, of course, when he did come, I gave him my cheque. That was my side of the business. I pretended to be a man of capital, and Ashdown knew nothing to the contrary. He came, as arranged; he deposited the bonds with me, and I gave him my cheque, well knowing that it would never be presented. The rest of the comedy was yours. It was not for me to tell your victim that the firm of Murray and Co. was faced with a financial crisis, and that you had taken the desperate step of forging fresh share certificates of Central Copper and raising money on them, which I suppose you did?"
"Let that pass," Murray said, with an ugly expression. "We did our part all right."
"Yes, and Ashdown did his. The whole thing was a conspiracy——"
"In which you played a part, remember," Sidey said.
"I think," Haywood said, with a queer little smile. "I think, my dear friends, that you would have a lot of difficulty in proving that—I mean, proving that I was party to the conspiracy. Don't forget, Mr. Murray, that you are Chairman of the Central Copper Company, the capital of which, I believe, is not altogether subscribed. That being so, there is nothing to prevent you legitimately issuing fresh stock with a view to a loan."
"Well, I didn't," Murray snapped.
"No, of course, you didn't. Your idea was to forge stock with a separate series of numbers on the certificates—in other words, to drag Ashdown into a vortex from which there was no escape, except by raising money on his property."
"Well, we are here together without any listeners, so I don't mind admitting what you say," Murray said. "So what's your game? Why do you want to hang on to that scrip?"
"Well, it's like this, Murray," Haywood said with a feline grin. It was the first time he had ever addressed Murray curtly by his name, and the latter stiffened as he noticed. "It's like this, Murray. You are a very clever chap, but perhaps, not quite so clever as you think you are. A fine specimen of a sportsman and all that, dressing and acting the part to perfection. On the committee of two or three important golf clubs and a familiar figure in the select enclosures at race meetings. Hundreds of people know Everard Murray and regard him as the beau ideal of the good old English gentleman. But some of us know otherwise—at least, I do, and that is sufficient for me."
"You are threatening me," Murray growled ominously.
"Not in the least, my dear fellow, not in the least," Haywood went on in the same familiar tone. "Let us admit, at once, that we are the three biggest rascals in London and that we have just lost an opportunity to robbing an honourable gentleman of a large sum of money. Is the motion carried?"
"As far as I am concerned," Sidey said coolly.
"Very well then," Haywood went on. "I have just been going through my private diary and I find that on no less than five occasions I have been the instrument in pulling some exceedingly hot chestnuts out of a dangerous fire. These chestnuts were handed over to you, just as they came, on the understanding that I was to have my share when you had pulled off the shells. And, on every occasion, you let me down. By this time, I should have had a few thousands of pounds, instead of which I have got exactly nothing—that is, nothing but promises. Glorious prospects in the future and all that. As I happen to be a man with a family to keep, I propose to retain in my possession that which will—I won't say compel you—but induce you not only to keep your promises to me in the future, but to redeem those made in the past. Nor is it the slightest use you telling me that you are short of money, because I know better. You did not need that money from our unfortunate friend Ashdown, but you couldn't resist the temptation of robbing him when the chance offered. And that is why I am going to retain those bonds in my possession."
It was quite a long speech for Haywood to make, but he made it with a calmness and an air of resolution that thoroughly astonished Murray, who had hitherto regarded him as a poor tool, ready to dance to any tune he liked to play. Evidently it was useless to try and bluff the man out of the bonds, so that Murray restrained himself and rose with a smile on his lips.
"Oh, all right, my boy, all right, please yourself. I am not going to quarrel with you on a trivial matter like that. But I don't think your line is going to pay in the long run."
With that, Murray put on his hat and left the office with Sidey, and together they returned to their own quarters. It was only when they were in Murray's own luxurious den that the mask fell from his face and a gloomy frown took its place.
"Now, who the devil would have thought of Haywood turning out like that?" he exclaimed. "I tell you, Sidey, my boy, I don't like it. It took me all my time to restrain myself from taking the little reptile by the throat and tearing the bonds out of him."
"Good thing, you didn't," the melancholy Sidey said, "I have seen that timid, feline type of man with his back to the wall before. Teeth and claws, my dear fellow. You leave it to me. I'll handle Haywood later on and get those certificates out of him. And don't you forget that that is a very nice point he made when he said we had nothing on him. If the case came into court, any smart barrister could get Haywood out of it with clean hands. You ought to see that for yourself."
"Oh, I do, I do," Murray said moodily. "But that is not quite the point, my dear chap. I never believe in taking more risks than I can help, and, though the story was good enough for our purpose with Ashdown, he didn't quite realise how matters stand. Neither did you, because I prefer to keep everything to myself as long as possible, even from my pals!"
"What! What! You don't mean to say——" Sidey began.
"Yes, I do," Murray confessed. "As a matter of fact, you might just as well know, now, what you didn't know before. Those bonds are genuine, and I am afraid Haywood has found it out."
SIDEY shot his chief a malevolent glance.
"You are just too clever to live," he sneered. "I don't like it, Murray, and I am not going to stand it. Why the deuce you couldn't have told Blanchin and myself at first, I can't for the life of me understand. How do you suppose we are going to put any confidence in you if you are always playing tricks on us like this? It isn't the first time, either."
"Well, you know now, anyway," Murray said, with a laugh. "You don't suppose that I am going to run my head into a noose with my eyes wide open. And, anyway, seeing that Haywood is not one of us, I wasn't going to trust him too far. However, we can go into that later on. There is plenty of work in front of us for the next two or three hours without starting a row."
It was fairly late in the afternoon before Sidey brought up the question of the Central Copper bonds again. Murray looked at his partner in a tired sort of way.
"Oh, you are determined to have it out, are you?" he asked. "Very well, then. Up to a certain point, we carried out our plan for getting a stranglehold on Ashdown, because there were certain bonds forged and, as you know, we contrived that Ashdown should sign that letter to the printers, giving the order. But when the parcel of dud stuff was delivered, I thought it just as well to substitute unissued bonds of genuine stock for the forgeries. That was a kind of insurance if anything happened to go wrong, because, if things had gone really badly, then we might have been in the soup, together with Ashdown. Of course, Haywood thought he was dealing in dud stuff, and passed his cheque over for it on the understanding that the draft was not to be cleared. But, as I said just now, Haywood really was advancing what appeared to be genuine money on genuine stock. And you know perfectly well that Central Copper is about the only stuff that we hold which is worth its face value. So that is simple enough, isn't it?"
"Yes, up to a point," Sidey grumbled. "But you said this morning that you were afraid that Haywood had tumbled to the fact that those bonds he holds are the real stuff."
"Yes, there is that," Murray admitted.
"Which, in other words, means that Haywood has done us down for £20,000. It is just possible that he has been handling one or two other lots of Central Copper Bonds, and comparing the serial numbers. If he did that, then he would probably jump to the conclusion that he had got his hooks on to a big fortune. According to your statement, that is exactly what has happened. As I told you this morning, you are a darned sight too clever. But that isn't altogether the point. We've got to get those certificates back from Haywood, and if you can show me how it can be done, I'll give you best."
Murray's expression was not a pleasant one as he grinned across the table at his confederate.
"You leave that to me," he said.
Sidey's only answer was to grasp for the telephone receiver, and give Haywood's number to the exchange. A moment or two later, he was talking to the man himself, whilst Murray watched with a certain amusement and cynical enjoyment.
"Sidey calling," the latter said. "That you, Haywood? Oh, it is. Anybody listening? Good. Now, listen to me. You've got to send those bonds back. You've got to play the game with us as we are playing it with you. You know perfectly well that we had no intention of presenting your cheque for payment, and we have not done so. Now, what's you game?"
"I might just as well ask what is yours," the voice came down the wire. "Not that it matters much, either way. I have been your cat's paw long enough, and, so far, I have had nothing but promises, instead of the various sums of money I ought to have had long ago. Your lot took their share of the plunder, and fobbed me off with excuses. I am not going to let you down, and I am not going to let myself down either."
"But what the devil is the good of hanging on to the stuff?" Sidey asked angrily. "What can do you with those duds?"
An unpleasant laugh struck on Sidey's ears.
"Well, you see, my dear chap," the voice said, with a mocking intonation, "I have discovered that the stuff is not dud. And, what is more, I have verified my information. I hold £20,000 worth of Central Copper Bonds, worth nearly as much in the market to-day, and I am going to hang on to them."
A furious reply by Sidey was checked as Murray grabbed the telephone receiver and began to speak. His voice was cheery and good natured enough, but Sidey could see the expression on his face was absolutely murderous.
"Hello, Haywood," he said, "I am afraid, from what I could hear, that Sidey has been rubbing you up the wrong way. He does that with most people unfortunately. He is one of those chaps who doesn't know how to take a licking. I do. You've got the best of us this time, through a slice of unexpected luck, and you are welcome to your little triumph. There is no reason why we should quarrel, all the more so because I have got a very big thing in view, and I shall want your assistance. No risk to speak of, and anything up to £100,000 at the end of it. Now, what do you say to coming to Ashdown Croft for the week-end and talking the matter over? There is a deuce of a lot to say and to explain. Of course, if you are satisfied so far——"
Murray broke off, with a significant pause, feeling pretty sure of the answer he would get from the man he was talking to. Surely enough, an eager response came.
"Oh, well, if it is anything like that, of course I'll come," Haywood said. "What time on Friday?"
"Any time you like. And come as secretly as possible. I mean, don't let anybody know where you are passing the week-end and all that sort of thing. You see, there are others on the job and the more we keep them in the dark, the better. So long."
Haywood responded to the effect that he would be down at Ashdown Croft on Friday in time for dinner and that finished the telephone conversation. Murray grinned at his companion.
"There, you see," he said, "much better than having trouble. You will see, I shall know how to put Haywood right and——"
Before Murray could complete his sentence, a clerk knocked at the door and entered with a visiting card in his hand.
"A gentleman to see you, sir," he said, addressing Murray.
Murray glanced at the card in his hand.
"Finch," he murmured, "Finch? I don't know anybody named Timothy Finch. There couldn't possibly be a man with a name like that engaged in City business. What's he like, Smith?"
A broad grin crossed the clerk's face.
"Well, sir," he said, "it's rather hard to way. He is an old gentleman with whiskers and a beard and the biggest and thickest horn-rimmed spectacles I have ever seen."
"He didn't state his business?" Sidey asked.
"No, sir, he wouldn't," the clerk replied. "He particularly wanted to see Mr. Murray."
"Oh, well, ask him to come in," Murray said. He turned to Sidey with a predatory grin on his face. "You never know."
There entered, a moment later, a little, rather bent old man with short silver hair on his head and, on his cheeks, a pair of spreading whiskers that swept his chest. Two mild blue eyes looked through concave glasses and seemed to take in his surroundings with an air of mild curiosity. As to his dress, it consisted of a rather shabby frock coat and vest, terminating in a pair of shepherd's plaid trousers and boots with elastic sides.
"I am sorry to intrude upon you gentlemen," the stranger said in a thin, squeaky voice. "But I am told that one of you is Mr. Murray, the owner of Ashdown Croft, which is situated not very far from Wernport. If I am not mistaken——"
"Oh, dear, no," Murray said in a genial fashion. "As a matter of fact, I am Mr. Everard Murray, and I do live at Ashdown Croft. If I can serve you in any way, I shall be delighted."
"Well, it's like this," the old gentleman went on, "I am a professor at one of the American universities. It is not a very large institution, and the name could convey nothing to you. But that is the fact, all the same. My particular line, as you City people call it, is mineralogy. But my one pastime, which is almost a passion with me, is entomology."
"Something to do with insects, isn't it?" Murray asked.
"Moths and butterflies, sir, moths and butterflies," the bent old man piped shrilly. "I suppose I have the best collection in the world. But, like most collectors, I am not satisfied, and I suppose I never shall be. I am taking a long holiday in England with a view to adding to my store such butterflies and moths as are indigenous to the British Isles. Did either of you ever hear of a butterfly called the Camberwell Beauty?"
"Ah, I thought not," the speaker went on. "It's favourite haunt, so far as I can ascertain, is, or was, in the marshes and pools between Ashdown Croft and Wernport. That is why I am so anxious to explore there. I have already arranged to take up my quarters not far from the Croft, and, if you would give me the right to wander all over the estate without being bothered by your servants. I should be grateful."
"Oh, certainly," Murray said. "Go when and where you like, I will give my people instructions that you are not to be disturbed. And I hope that you will avail yourself of the hospitality of the Croft. I am not there very often, but when I am, you will be a welcome visitor at any time. But you surely don't expect to find that rare butterfly now?"
"I AM not so certain," the old man said, wagging his head gently. "And all the more so, because the butterfly we are speaking of is quite common in Holland. But I have got on my hobby, and I am keeping you gentlemen from work."
"Not at all," Sidey said, with a geniality usually foreign to him. "We had practically finished for the day when you came in. You told us just now that you were interested in mineralogy. So are we, to a certain extent, because we are connected with a copper mine somewhere in the States, and you might possibly be able to give us certain information."
The old gentleman seemed to grow more serious.
"Ah, that, sir," he said, "is my business. Not so much now as it used to be, because I am getting past it. I am too old for the prospecting life I used to lead in my youth, so that my knowledge is confined almost to the laboratory. There was a time when I used to travel all over Western America, and a very risky business it was in those days. I wonder if, by any chance, I have heard of your particular venture."
"I expect not," Murray said, "Central Copper is not as big as all that. Quite a small affair."
The old man beamed genially through his glasses.
"Ah, perhaps not so small as you think," he said. "In itself, perhaps—yes, but only as the offshoot of one of the most prosperous mines in the States. I know the ground well—in fact, I know all the copper-bearing strata we possess, from time to time my savings and the money I get from my books, have been invested in copper. That is why I should like to hear a little more about your particular flotation. You must not think I am altogether a senile old gentleman who has no thought except for books and insects, because if you do, you are wrong."
He chuckled in a senile sort of way and helped himself to a pinch of snuff from a box he took from his pocket. Murray winked significantly at his companion across the table.
"Central Copper is not doing so badly," he said. "We have always contrived to pay a dividend, although, if we could put our hands upon another £100,000 or so, we could launch out on a big scale. But, for the present, we prefer to lie low, until we have struck the big seam, which won't be long now, and then, perhaps, we shall be able to keep all the profits to ourselves, without sharing it with the general public."
"Oh, I quite understand," the old gentleman said, with a wag of his head. "Yes, we Americans know all about that. We may be professors and bookworms, but by instinct, we are essentially a business race. We must talk about this again, Mr. Murray. If you want more money, I may he able to find it. I don't say that it will be my own, but I think you will find that my favourable word in the States will go a long way to help you. Now, really, I must be going. I am only sorry to have detained you so long."
With that, the old man took up his antiquated hat and his umbrella and shuffled out of the room.
"Well, that is a queer specimen," Murray said, after the old man had gone. "But distinctly a bird to be encouraged. We must have him over to the Croft for dinner once or twice. Looks to me as it he were going to be useful."
For the next day or two Murray and his associates heard nothing of the American professor, though when Murray went down to Ashdown Croft for the week-end, he gleaned a certain amount of information from Angela. It appeared that she had encountered the old gentleman wandering in the woods, where he was busy grubbing at the roots of a decayed beech tree, evidently intent on finding some sort of larvae. Finch had spoken to her in the free way which Americans have, and she had been most interested in his conversation.
"Where is he staying?" Murray asked.
"Well, really, I forgot to ask him," Angela said. "But I know it is somewhere in the neighbourhood—at one of the farm-houses on the other side of the river, I believe. You seem to have made quite a favourable impression on him."
Meanwhile, the old gentleman was settling down, as Angela had suggested, in the comfortable farmhouse quarters across the river. She had omitted, or forgotten, to tell her father that Professor Finch had known Nevil Ashdown in America. Probably she did not mention this, because it caused her distress to mention Nevil's name, even to her own father. All the same, she had taken rather a fancy to the elderly man and hoped that she would see him fairly often at Ashdown Croft.
It was a day or two later still, before Professor Finch finished a busy morning grubbing about in the Ashdown Croft woods, after which he put away his paraphernalia, and set out in the direction of Tom Blissett's residence. Here he was fortunate enough to find that individual at home. Sending in his card, he waited in the drawing room until Blissett appeared.
Tom was holding the card in his hand and looking at it with a puzzled expression, as if it conveyed nothing to him.
"You wish to see me, sir?" he asked.
"Well, yes," the old man said shrilly. "I rather thought you might have been expecting me. You see, I happened to know Mr. Nevil Ashdown fairly well, back in the States. Ah, what a terrible business that was, to be sure."
A sudden light broke in on Blissett.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," he said. "Of course, I ought to apologise for forgetting that my poor friend mentioned your name to me just before that deplorable accident. He said that you would probably look me up and that he had already obtained rooms for you in the neighbourhood. But, you see, Professor, I have been so terribly upset over the loss of my dear friend, Ashdown, that everything else had gone out of my head."
"You are not the only one," the Professor suggested.
"No, indeed I am not. Everybody liked and respected poor Nevil. My wife and myself and——"
"And Miss Murray, perhaps," the Professor hinted tentatively. "I have seen the young lady and talked with her. You may not think it, Mr. Blissett, but I am a student of human nature and a close observer of character. And if that young lady hasn't got a secret sorrow somewhere, then I was never more mistaken in my life. Not only a sorrow, but something she is guarding from the observing eye. Has that not occurred to you?"
"Well, really," Tom Blissett said, with some show of embarrassment. "You will pardon me if I say that I would rather not discuss these intimate matters with a comparative stranger."
"Quite, quite," the old man hastened to say. "It is only that I have a bad habit of putting people under the microscope. I ought not to have mentioned it at all."
"Do you propose to make a long stay?" Blissett asked.
"Well, that depends, my dear young friend, that depends. I have some months' holiday before me, and I don't suppose I shall leave England till the autumn. I have already made one or two interesting discoveries in the woods about here, and also in the shallow pools and flats along the tideway. In a room which I have hired for the purpose in my farm-house, I am engaged in hatching out certain larvae with the aid of an oil stove. Artificial heat, you understand. But perhaps you are not interested in that."
"Well, I can't say that I am particularly," Blissett confessed. "You see, I am a retired doctor."
"Retired?" the old man said, raising his bushy eyebrows in surprise. "Retired at your time of life."
"Health," Blissett said briefly. "Scientific research, serums, and all that sort of thing. Mind you, Professor, I still take the keenest interest in my old pursuits and it is rather fortunate that one of Mr. Murray's friends, a Frenchman called Blanchin, is good enough to let me potter about his laboratory."
"Ah, Blanchin, Jules Blanchin," the professor cried. "I have heard the name before. It is well known in America. One of the greatest chemists of our time. It will be a very great pleasure indeed for me to meet Monsieur Blanchin."
Before Blissett could make any reply, Eleanor came into the room and the necessary introductions followed. Then Blissett proceeded to explain what Mr. Timothy Finch was doing there and how he proposed to spend the next few months.
"Oh, indeed," Eleanor said with one of her most pleasant smiles. "Then we must do our best, Professor, to make you as happy as possible. Indeed, any friend of poor Nevil's will be more than welcome under our roof. You knew him well?"
"I knew him more or less intimately," the Professor said. "I met him more than once, when he was on a journey and I was on one of mine. A much younger man than myself, of course, but we had a very good deal in common. What a pity it was that he could not live long enough to come back into the property that he worked so hard to recover from his father's creditors. I have not been inside Ashdown Croft yet, but from the outside, it looks such a lovely old place. And, as you know, Mrs. Blissett, we Americans revere old buildings. I am told there is a secret passage and a priest's hole and all the rest of it in the Croft."
"I rather think that is legend," Eleanor said. "I asked poor Nevil about it once or twice and he never gave me a definite reply."
"Perhaps he can do that now," the Professor said.
His voice changed entirely as he spoke. He took the glasses from his eyes and brushed his whiskers away from the side of his face. With a little scream, Eleanor advanced towards him.
"Nevil!" she cried. "Nevil!"
"Ah, that's all right," Ashdown said with a sigh of relief. "I have passed the superlative test. If I could so deceive my intimate friends, then I am safe from anybody."
ASHDOWN smiled as he realised the sensation he had created. Then he nodded significantly towards the window.
"Better be careful, you people," he said. "It would ruin everything if the truth came out."
"Why?" Eleanor said. "Why, Nevil? I am utterly bewildered. Of course, we are both overjoyed to see that you are still alive, but why this masquerade?"
"I shouldn't wonder if I could explain that," Blissett said. "But sit down, old chap. I suppose even an old gentleman whose whole life is devoted to butterflies might be seen smoking a cigarette without arousing suspicion."
Nevil helped himself from the box handed to him, and then proceeded to tell his story. But not before Eleanor had made some reference to Angela Murray.
"My dear Eleanor, for Heaven's sake get that out of your mind at once," Ashdown said earnestly. "The very last person in the world who should know what is going on is Angela. Later on of course. You must promise me not to breathe a single syllable as to my dual identity to anybody."
"But why adopt it?" Eleanor asked, naturally enough.
Nevil lowered his voice to an impressive whisper.
"Because I am the centre of a vile conspiracy," he said. "Things are going on within a short distance of us which will be fatal to the happiness of both Angela and myself unless I can see my way to get even with three of the greatest rascals that ever breathed. And this I hope to do."
"Do you mean the people at Ashdown Croft?"
It was Blissett who spoke. Nevil nodded impressively.
"Even so," he said. "It will come as a great surprise to you, I know, to hear that Everard Murray is one of the biggest scoundrels in Europe. He is well matched by Sidey, and I am not sure if Blanchin isn't the worst of the three. Do you know that those ruffians deliberately laid a plot to rob me of £20,000? I didn't suspect it—I believe that at the present moment I should be quite in ignorance of the fact if I had not seen a significant wink pass between Sidey and Murray. But I am getting on a bit too fast. If you will listen to what I have to say, you will understand all about the conspiracy."
With that, Nevil proceeded to explain the events of that fateful evening, not long ago, when he was confronted with the fact that he had been party to a deliberate forgery with a view to obtaining funds to keep the credit of Murray and Co. afloat.
"So there you are," he said. "At the moment, I believed every word that Murray had said. Of course, I saw that I had been chosen to be the cat's paw, and how easy it would have been for the other two to have got out of the trouble in the case of proceedings, by pretending ignorance of everything to do with the forgery or those bonds. But I didn't realise that it was a put-up thing until that wink I told you about just now aroused my suspicions. If it had not been for that, you can take it for granted that I should have raised every penny I could on my property, even if it was only for the sake of my own good name. As it was, I left those rascals that evening with the promise that I would carry out everything they suggested. And then I sat down and thought the whole matter out."
"Let us get this quite clear," Blissett said. "Your idea was to save the credit of the firm and your own name at the same time. Anything further than that?"
"Well, yes," Nevil resumed. "I was going to do that until I saw their exchange of glances. Then I knew that, in some way, I was being thoroughly swindled. Before I slept that night, I began to see a chance of getting even with those scoundrels. I was going to disappear mysteriously, leaving them to get out of the mess as best they could. You see, I realised that things were not nearly as bad as Murray had told me they were, and that, if I vanished those three would manage to pull through somehow or another. Therefore I hit upon the idea of my present disguise, in which I could return to the scene of activities and work out the problem under the very noses of Murray and Co. without their having the least idea with whom they are dealing. And, mind you, I had to do this at once. That was why I came to you, Tom, that Saturday morning with an urgent request for £500 in cash on the spot. And, like the good fellow that you are, you found the money without a murmur. I was going to disappear in the course of a few hours, and I should have done so, only that dreadful skating accident gave me an opportunity of disappearing in circumstances which left no doubt of the fact that my body was lying at the bottom of the river. When the ice gave way, I was on the other side of that big patch of reeds. I managed to reach the bank in safety, and, when I realised that I could do no possible good by staying where I was, I slunk away in the confusion and contrived to reach my lodgings unseen. When I got there, there was not a soul on the premises, because everybody had hurried away to the scene of that awful catastrophe."
"Yes, but how did you manage to make the change?" Eleanor asked. "And whence the costume?"
"Ah, that was quite easy," Nevil smiled. "You know that for years I was on the American stage, travelling all over the west with a stock company. And in one of the sketches I played hundreds of times, I appeared as an elderly gentleman of eccentric habits, who collected moths and butterflies. I have played that part so often that it is really my second nature. When I came home for good, I brought the clothes I am wearing at the present moment with me, thinking they would come in very well for private theatricals. You see, I had the farmhouse entirely to myself for over an hour and, at the end of that time, there was no longer any Nevil Ashdown, but an elderly professor in his place. I concealed the clothes I had been wearing, and with the money Tom had lent me, stepped out into the world in a new character. So, behold Professor Timothy Finch, the American entomologist, who is down in this neighbourhood looking for butterflies."
"Yes, but stop a moment," Blissett said. "You told me when you borrowed that money that Professor Finch was coming. Don't you remember? I mean, don't you remember saying that you had found accommodation for your friend the Professor?"
"Yes, of course I did. That was when I made up my mind to disappear and borrowed that money from you. It only meant changing from one set of rooms to another in the farmhouse."
"Then you are not afraid of discovery?" Eleanor asked.
"Not in the least," Nevil smiled. "If I can deceive you two, who know me so intimately, then there is no occasion to worry about anybody else. In the meantime, I have not been idle. Do you know that I have actually spent an hour or more in London with Murray and Sidey in their office."
"The dickens you have!" Blissett exclaimed.
"Yes, indeed I have!" Nevil grinned. "And they had not the remotest idea that they were talking to their old victim. They think I am a harmless old gentleman of some means, and, already, they are planning to get a large sum of money out of me. That is why Murray gave me such a pressing invitation to make myself quite at home under his hospitable roof."
"It's all very bewildering," Eleanor said. "For instance, I can hardly believe that Mr. Murray is the man you describe him to be. He has always appeared to me to be the perfect specimen of a country gentleman and the beau ideal sportsman."
"Well, he isn't," Nevil snapped. "Those three are consummate rascals. They are up to some devilment with Ashdown Croft as their centre, because they feel perfectly safe there, especially as Murray has established such a fine reputation in the county. But I have a sort of instinct that the kernel of the whole mystery lies in the laboratory of the man Blanchin. My idea is to get on friendly terms with him and obtain the run of the room where he carries out his experiments. I shall be able to use the Priest's Hole and the secret chamber at the back of the corridor leading to it, so that the laboratory will be a sort of open book to me."
"Yes, that is all very well," Blissett said. "But you can't wander about Ashdown Croft at any time of the day or night at your own sweet will."
Nevil smiled meaningly.
"If I have a confederate I can," he said. "And who better than my faithful old servitor, William Jakes?"
"Oh, then he is in your confidence?"
"Most certainly he is," Nevil went on. "Of course, he does not know all that I have told you, but he knows enough for my purpose, and he is on my side. I have managed to make myself known to him, and he is always at my beck and call. As you know, he sleeps in the butler's pantry, which is on the ground floor, the window of which looks out on the back of the house. Therefore, any time I want to enter the Croft in the dead of night, I can do so by creeping up to the window and waking Jakes by a little ingenious arrangement of string which we have settled upon already. And don't forget, I know every inch of my house, so that I can paddle about in the dark there without anybody being wiser. So far as I know to the contrary, Murray is entirely in ignorance of the Priest's Hole or the secret corridor that leads up to it. So, you see, I start with a considerable advantage."
THE mere fact that Murray and Sidey were frequently absent in London on business had not prevented Nevil from striking up some sort of a friendship with Blanchin. It was to the latter's interest to encourage the old gentleman, but it was nearly the end of a week before Blanchin seemed inclined to fall in with the professor's hint that the latter might be permitted the favour of a visit to the laboratory.
This came about on the following Friday afternoon, not long before Murray and Sidey were expected home from town for the week-end. They were also expecting a visitor, Blanchin explained, who was coming down by car.
"Ah, in that case, my dear Monsieur Blanchin," the disguised Nevil said in his squeaky voice, "in that case, you will all, doubtless be busy for the next two or three days. Would I be permitted to see your laboratory before then?"
"Well, I see no reason why not," Blanchin said. "You come over presently, say in one hour's time and I will be ready to show you some experiments which I 'ave been making of late. Ah, in one there is a fortune, a 'uge fortune. It ees so wonderful an invention that I 'ave not mentioned it as yet to my confreres."
Nevil smiled, as if he appreciated the compliment, but it seemed to him, at the same time, that here was a man who was prepared to do a stroke of business on his own account, whilst keeping his colleagues absolutely in the dark.
"Ah, that is very kind of you, Monsieur Blanchin," he said. "I will come over and call at four o'clock."
But it was some considerable time before the hour when the disguised Nevil walked into the hall of the Croft and, with a wink at Jakes, who opened the door to him, passed quietly up the stairs and, unannounced, entered the laboratory. His idea was to take the Frenchman unawares and, in this he succeeded entirely beyond his expectations. He saw Blanchin standing before a long table with a small bottle in either hand and he appeared to be pouring the contents from one into the other and back again. In front of the fireplace, a huge Alsatian dog lay stretched at full length. It was one of the biggest of its species that Nevil had ever seen—a sable creature, looking exactly like the wolf from which it had been bred originally. The great beast raised his head and wagged his tail and, for a few seconds, Nevil's composure trembled in the balance, for he knew the dog, which was one of three or four that Murray kept about the house, though never before had Nevil seen one inside the front door.
However, it was only for a second or two before the beast dropped its head again and lay as if asleep.
At the back of the long table was a sort of steel cage, some six feet long by about three feet wide and twice as high. There was a door in this which seemed to fasten with a spring. What such a thing was doing in a scientific laboratory Nevil could not make out. But, for the moment this was of little concern.
It was plain, though Nevil chose to ignore it, that Blanchin was anything but pleased to be interrupted in this off-hand way. It seemed to him that the Frenchman was almost agitated.
"Ah," Nevil squeaked. "Ah, I have disturbed you at the wrong moment. You are perhaps in the middle of some delicate experiment and my intrusion may have disturbed the whole train of thought, I should have knocked on the door first, but then, you see, I am so dreadfully absent-minded that I forget these little courtesies. You will forgive me, Monsieur Blanchin, I am sure. We scientific men understand one another. Even when that nice old butler of yours was conducting me up the stairs, I was so wrapped in a little scientific problem of my own that I had almost forgotten where I was."
It was all so neatly and naturally done that the Frenchman was impelled to smile. Evidently, if he was engaged in something he desired to keep an absolute secret it had been lost upon this senile old gentleman from America.
"I assure you, Professor, there ees no need to apologise," Blanchin said. "It was nothing of great importance I was doing. And now, would you like to look round?"
"I would rather talk about that wonderful serum of yours," Nevil piped. "Tell me all you can without betraying your secrets. Have you worked it all out here?"
"Ah, no," Blanchin said. "There ees much I do in the quietness of this so charming English house, but my main laboratory ees in Geneva, I go backwards and forwards, and it ees because the best part of my work ees represented in Geneva that I can show you very little 'ere. But let us talk."
Quite at his ease now, Blanchin passed a box of cigarettes across to Nevil and the talk began. It was not a particularly easy matter for Nevil to pose as a brother scientist, though he had learnt a certain amount of catch phrases and shibboleths that enabled him to hold a more or less intelligent grip on the conversation. But all the time, behind those thick lens spectacles of his, he was making observations. When he rose to go at the end of an hour, it was with a cordial invitation to come back whenever he felt inclined. And it seemed to Nevil that that inclination would be a frequent one, the more especially as he had given a broad hint to Blanchin as to certain financial proposals he was inclined to make in case the inventor required monetary assistance.
"But not a word to the others, no," Blanchin whispered. "They will come in, of course, in due season, but for the present I would like to keep it as a surprise for them. Good afternoon. And do not forget that any time you like to visit me, I shall be delighted."
Nevil cordially pressed the hand extended to him and pottered out of the laboratory into the passage outside. But not to go downstairs. A little way along the corridor, he slid his fingers along the panel, which gave way, disclosing a false passage behind. Into this he pushed his way without the slightest hesitation, closing the panel behind him. Then in pitch darkness, measuring his footsteps with the greatest care, he moved forward for six or seven yards. At the end of that distance, his foot touched a step and, when he had mounted a dozen or so of these, he dropped on his knees and looked downwards. He was in a position now, through a crack in the oak panel ceiling, to see practically everything that was taking place in the laboratory beneath.
What he wanted to know—though he could not for the moment see how it affected his plans—was exactly what was the meaning of the iron cage on the floor there and the dog lying in front of the fire. Still, all knowledge of the rascalities of his opponents was so much to the good.
He had not very long to wait. He saw Blanchin finish his experiment with the two bottles and then, with a spot of the liquid moisten a little dab of powder that lay on a slab in the centre of the table. This, presently, Blanchin rolled up into a sort of pill, which he proceeded to insert into what resembled, so far as Nevil could see, a chicken's liver, or, at any rate, the liver of some small animal. Blanchin held this against the nose of the slumbering dog, with the result that the Alsation rose and stretched out his head for it. Step by step, Blanchin backed, until he had reached the steel cage, the dog following. Then, from the back of the cage, the Frenchman held out the tit-bit and the dog naturally entered to seize it. Immediately the strong jaws closed on the meat, Blanchin rushed to the front of the cage and slammed the door, so that the dog was a prisoner.
And then the watcher saw a strange thing. He saw what he knew to be a gentle and docile animal transformed into a wild beast The change was gradual, at first, with no more than a twitching of the body, and a shake or two of the head. Then, as the powerful drug, which was undoubtedly contained in the fragment of meat, began to take effect, the change grew more rapid. At the end of five minutes, there was no longer a dog in the cage, but a dangerous wild animal with dripping jaws, wide apart, and eyes that gleamed like flame. The transformation was so swift and so revolting that the watcher had the greatest difficulty in shaking off a fit of sickness. But not so Blanchin. He stood away from the cage, studying the animal with a sort of simian intentness that, at the same time, was immensely human.
For the time being, Nevil had seen as much as he wanted to. He crept back along the way he had come, only too glad, presently, to find himself breathing the free air of the corridor and fighting down a mad impulse to rush into the laboratory and smash in the face of that cruel scoundrel who was working out his experiments on the helpless dog. He remembered now how Blissett had told him of an experiment on a live animal he had seen in the laboratory, the details of which were too horrible to mention.
But there would be time presently to think these matters over in the seclusion of his farm-house quarters. He stood for a second or two at the head of the stairs, conscious of the fact that, down below in the hall, Jakes was talking to a stranger. Outside, a car was chugging gently away in front of the house, as if the stranger had just arrived, and was sending his automobile away in charge of his chauffeur.
"No, sir," Nevil heard Jakes say, "Mr. Murray and Mr. Sidey are not down yet, but I am expecting them at any minute."
"All right," the stranger said. "They are expecting me. I suppose you know that. My name is Haywood."
Nevil slipped back in the shadow. He had recognised the voice. It was Haywood, the man whom Murray and Co. were supposed to have robbed of £20,000. And evidently down here as a welcome guest. Evidently, this amazing problem was not likely to be solved as easily as Nevil had hoped.
NEVIL lurked in the shadows at the top of the stairs until he had seen Jakes pilot the new-comer up to his room. He had ample time for reflection before his old servant returned. To begin with, he wondered how it was that the very man whom Murray and his associates had conspired to rob of a large sum of money should be the particular individual who had come down to Ashdown Croft for a week-end, apparently in the guise of a welcome guest, when he ought to have been at dagger's drawn with those three scoundrels.
Evidently there was some plot within a plot here—something that complicated the situation and rendered it more difficult of solution. But whatever was the meaning of this peculiar state of affairs, Nevil was not going to be satisfied till he had got to the bottom of it. When Jakes returned presently, he was given a sign to follow Nevil outside, and there, some yards from the house, they stood face to face in the darkness.
"Now, look here, Jakes," Nevil said, "I have told you a good deal about this sinister business, but not everything, because there are points about it that I don't want anybody to know but myself. If you will only do what I tell you and obey my instructions implicitly, I think I can see a way to a happy ending yet."
"Sir," said the old servitor, "you can trust me to the bitter end. If there is anything fresh——"
"Well, as a matter of fact, there is," Nevil interrupted. "The gentleman you have just seen to his room is the very last person in the world I ever expected to see at the Croft in Mr. Murray's time. I was staggered when I caught sight of him. I suppose he is down here for the week-end."
"So I understand, sir," Jakes said. "At any rate, I was told to have a room prepared for a gentleman who will be here till Monday. Haywood, I think it was."
"Yes, that's him, all right. I wonder he didn't come down from Town with the other two. That is, of course, if you are expecting Mr. Murray and Mr. Sidey in time for dinner to-night."
"Oh, they are coming right enough, sir. Mr. Haywood came in a taxi he picked up at Swanwick Station."
"Then he didn't come down in his own car? Now, listen carefully, Jakes. There are frequent week-end visitors here and, as a rule, they come down for business purposes."
"That's right, sir, generally on Friday night."
"Very well, then. Now, when and where do they conduct their business conversations? You see what I mean."
"Well, it's like this, sir," Jakes explained. "As a rule, on Friday nights they don't do anything but play bridge and that sort of thing. Then, on Saturday, it's golf or shooting or something of that sort, until dinner is over, when they go to the library for their coffee and that's where the business talk goes on. I know that, because I have to go in with the drinks."
Nevil heaved a sigh of satisfaction.
"Ah," he said, "That eases up the situation considerably. Now, this being Friday, there will be nothing doing. But to-morrow night, when the party is at dinner, I want you to creep into the library and open the centre window looking out on the quadrangle. You can close it again pretty tight, so long as you leave a string hanging outside by which I can pull the casement back. Then you can clear a space in that big refectory buffet opposite the fireplace so as to give me space enough to sit comfortably inside and listen to what is going on. Nobody will know that the window is unlatched and I shall take care to fasten it, once I am in the room. I can make my way out afterwards at whatever time they finish their talk. That is all for the present."
Nevil, after arranging everything to his satisfaction, went down the drive onto the road and thence in the direction of Blissett's house. He had plenty to think about as he went along, both as to the past and the future. And then, turning over in his mind that extraordinary scene he had witnessed when concealed above the roof of the laboratory, there came to him an illuminating flash that struck him like a blow between the eyes. It was an inspiration that alternately enraged him and filled him with almost delirious delight. He was still trembling with an emotion he could barely control when he reached Blissett's front door.
"Hello—you, is it?" Tom Blissett said, as Nevil entered his friend's snuggery. "Anything fresh?"
"Quite a lot," Nevil smiled. "But before I go any further, let me ask you a question that I ought to have put to you long ago. Did you get rid of those shares in Murray and Co., as I told you to?"
"Oh, lord, yes," Blissett smiled, "I did that the best part of a week ago. But what's that got to do with the——"
"Oh, nothing, my dear chap, nothing. It only occurred to me that I had forgotten to mention it before. Now you sit down and listen carefully to what I have to say."
Blissett lighted his pipe and pushed the cigarette box across the table to his companion. Then, in detail, Nevil proceeded to tell the story of his recent visit to Blanchin and what happened both in the laboratory and afterwards.
"Well," he asked, when he had concluded. "What do you make of it? I mean, what do you make of the affair of the dog? It's rather in your line, Tom, isn't it?"
"You mean my being a doctor and all that sort of thing? Well, if you ask me off-hand to give you my opinion, I should say that the whole thing had been carefully stage managed so that Blanchin could experiment on the Alsatian without any danger to himself. All that business of the steel cage, you know. Beyond all question, you saw some dangerous drug administered to the hound and you saw the effect it had on him. That would pass, of course, and probably by this time the Alsatian is himself once more. What you witnessed was a docile and tractable animal turned into a savage beast, but if you ask me what the drug was, then I can only say, ask me another. Probably some new discovery of Blanchin's, of which the scientific world is ignorant. Now, I wonder if it would be possible for you to get hold of a pinch or two of that powder which was mixed with the liquid before being administered to the dog."
By way of reply, Nevil plunged a hand into his trouser pocket and, between his finger and thumb appeared a few grains of some grey-looking matter which he carefully laid on a sheet of paper.
"There you are," he said. "I managed to distract Blanchin's attention for a moment or two and gathered a good pinch of that stuff from a marble slab on which it was lying. Then I smoothed the mass with the palm of my hand so that my finger prints should not show. I dare say there is a bit more in my pocket."
"Turn your pocket inside out," Blissett commanded. "Careful does it. Now then, on the top of the paper with the rest. That is the idea. Of course, I can't tell you what this is, but I can send it up to a friend of mine for analysis. It will take a few days before I can speak more definitely."
"Oh, well, there is no hurry," Nevil said. "I want to know what that drug is, and whence it is derived."
"If it is a derivative or a by-product, then I shall be able to tell you," Blissett suggested. "But if it is a new drug altogether, then it won't be so easy. Is Blanchin working on it to any great extent in his laboratory over yonder?"
"He isn't," Nevil said confidently. "I know that, because he told me most of his big stuff was in Geneva."
Blissett whistled loud and long.
"Oh, Geneva, eh?" he said. "Now I begin to understand. It's about a million to one your rascally friends are dealing in illicit drugs, possibly something new to science."
"All this has been an eye-opener to me," Nevil said. "And yet, at the same time, it confirms a theory which I had at the back of my mind as I was coming along the road."
He threw his cigarette in the fireplace and bent over to whisper a few words in Blissett's ear. The latter listened with rapt attention until Nevil had finished, when he sprang to his feet and paced excitedly up and down the room.
"By George, that's an idea," he said. "I shouldn't be at all surprised if you have blundered right into the heart of the mystery. It would certainly never have occurred to me. But I don't think you have told me quite everything."
"Well, to be perfectly frank, I haven't," Nevil said, "because the secret is not altogether mine. But I have told you enough to go on with, and if you can manage to get that stuff analysed for me by one of your scientific friends in London, then I shall be heartened up tremendously. Meanwhile——"
"Meanwhile, the less said, the better," Blissett interrupted. "You go your way and I'll go mine, and if I am in Scotland afore ye', so much the better. But don't build too much upon that analysis. Your end of the investigations is just as valuable as mine, and, besides, they are both means to a common end. With any luck, we shall lay Murray and Co. by the heels yet. Lord, fancy that man being the abandoned scoundrel he does not look!"
IT was a dark, moonless night, when, on the following evening, Nevil set out upon his journey to Ashdown Croft. The frost had gone and the earth was soft and yielding beneath his feet as he made his way silently up the drive in the direction of the house. A church clock somewhere near was striking the hour of eight, as Nevil reached the terrace in front of the Croft and then proceeded, cautiously, in the direction of the main quadrangle on to which the great library window looked out. He would have some time to wait yet, because he had learnt from Jakes that the usual dinner hour was half past seven, so that it would be another hour, at least, before the party adjourned from the dining-room into the library.
There was not a soul in sight and not a sound to be heard as Nevil felt his way to the library window and, after fumbling there a few moments, found the piece of stout string which Jakes had placed there for his use. A vigorous tug, and the casement opened an inch or two, after which the rest was easy. A moment later Nevil was inside the library and standing behind the thick velvet curtains that covered the window, so that he could close the casement behind him silently and without letting more than a puff of draught into the room.
Already the lights were on, four armchairs had been drawn up near the fire, and everything seemed to be in readiness for the business conference which Nevil anticipated would follow. He shot across the room, carefully closing the curtains behind him, and hid himself in the big, roomy buffet opposite the fireplace. The buffet was big enough for him to seat himself on the floor and wait, with what patience he could, for the coming of the conspirators. He heard a clock somewhere in the room chime the three quarters, and then, to his great relief, the sound of voices outside, followed presently by the entrance of Murray and his confederates, together with Haywood. Almost at once, they seated themselves before the fire and Murray began to speak.
"Let's get the worst over first," he said genially. "And then we can forget our troubles and quarrels and have a friendly game of bridge. Now, what is it you want, Haywood?"
Haywood laughed cheerfully, after the manner of a man who has dined well and feels on the best of terms with the world.
"Oh, I don't want anything," he said. "I am perfectly satisfied with the turn of affairs. And, as far as I am concerned you might just as well get the bridge table out at once."
"Then you don't mean to give up those bonds?" Sidey asked.
"My dear fellow," Haywood said in the same jocular fashion, "why rake up that unpleasantness all over again? Life isn't all sordid business, you know. Besides, I came down here to enjoy myself. I don't often get the chance of a week-end in a house like this, and it would be a sin to spoil it."
"Ah, it pleases our friend to be funny," Blanchin grinned. "But he does not know everything, yes?"
"Quite as much as I want to," Haywood retorted.
"Now look here, my dear fellow, it's no use going on like this," Murray said. "We want those bonds back again. You can see a hole through a ladder as clearly as most men, and you must know that it was a put up thing to get a nice little sum of money out of our innocent friend, Nevil Ashdown. Therefore, why on earth do you want to stick to those bonds, unless, unless——"
"Well, finish your sentence," Haywood said. "Unless I want to use them for the purposes of blackmail. Well, my friends, I think we have all sunk pretty low, but not quite to that level yet. Besides, blackmail is an ugly business and the penalties are pretty severe. Now, you took me to a certain extent into your confidence, but not altogether, as Sidey reminded me just now. So, knowing something about your methods, to say nothing of the way in which you have treated me over the last few transactions, I took certain precautions. To begin with, I stopped payment of that cheque."
"Well, why not," Murray laughed heartily. "You knew perfectly well it would never be presented. That being so, what on earth do you want to hold on to those dud bonds for?"
Haywood puffed tranquilly at his cigarette.
"What dud bonds?" he asked. "I know nothing about any dud bonds. Certain securities were placed in the hands of my firm by Murray & Co. as security for a loan. But suppose I say they were placed in my hands as payment for services rendered? You could not fight against that claim, you know. My dear chap, I have got you in the hollow of my hand, and the sooner you realise it the better. It has been a game of dog rob dog from the first and I am not in the least annoyed because you tried to double-cross me. If you like to take proceedings to get those bonds back, do so and I shall be delighted to meet you in a court of law. But you dare not do it. So that's that."
"Very well," Murray said with an air of resignation. "If you think you have got a hold over us by keeping those forged bonds——"
"Forged bonds nothing," Haywood said with a show of temper. "What's the good of keeping up that farce? You could kid poor Ashdown with a story like that, but you can't put it across a man who is up to every trick of the game, like I am. Those are not forged bonds. They are genuine securities, as I told you over the 'phone, of the only sound concern you are connected with and that is Central Copper. Oh, I know what I am talking about. I took the trouble to verify the numbers on those certificates, and satisfied myself beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were the real thing. Now, if the position had been reversed, you would have served me just in the same way. You, at any rate, are a good sportsman, Murray, whatever the other two may be, and I expect you to take your defeat like a man."
Nevil, from his hiding place, could hear a sort of stir in the room and the quick indrawing of somebody's breath, much as if one or more of the company in the library meditated an attack on Haywood, the more so that he appeared to be enjoying the situation, and chuckling over the discomfiture of his fellow rascals. But it was Murray who threw oil on the troubled water.
"Oh, very well," he said. "I am the last man in the world to cry over spilt milk. There was just the chance we might induce you to part with those bonds, though I told Blanchin and Sidey that you might have tumbled to what was going on. Now, let us forget all about it for the moment. There is a new pigeon in the trap and it looks to me as if we shall want your help, Haywood."
"Oh, I'm game," Haywood said. "Only you will have to put all your cards on the table this time. Who is the new victim?"
Murray proceeded to explain.
"It's an old American guy," he said. "The queerest specimen you ever came across. One of those dried up old innocents who have spent all their lives in a university and know as much about the world as a new born babe. The old chap collects butterflies and moths. Indeed, he has come all the way from America to find a rare or extinct English butterfly and hopes to come across it somewhere near here. From what he says, I should think he is quite comfortably off. He is a mineralogist, too, and knows all about Central Copper. Just one moment. Didn't I hear the clock strike the hour recently?"
"About ten minutes ago," Sidey remarked.
"Oh, that's just right," Murray said. "I'll go into the next room and switch on the wireless, so that we can get the American Stock Exchange quotations for the day. I won't be long."
Presently there came the sound of a voice over the loud speaker lasting for a minute or two, and then Murray came bursting back into the room in a state of anxious agitation.
"An S.O.S.," he said. "Just handed in at the end of the news. It asks for our friend Haywood here, saying that he was staying somewhere at a country house, address mislaid, and that he was asked to return home at once as his wife was dangerously ill."
Haywood jumped to his feet, and moved towards the door with the commiseration of his companions ringing in his ears.
"I am most awfully sorry," Murray said. "But don't let us lose our heads. You take the little two-seater, Haywood, and if you step on the gas you can reach Swanwick Station in time to catch the last up train. One of the porters there will look after the car if you ask him. I suppose you can drive."
"Been driving a car for years," Haywood muttered. "Ring the bell and have my things brought down."
A minute later the library was emptied, and Nevil, in his hiding-place, could faintly hear the sound of voices outside on the terrace. For the moment, at any rate, he had heard all that was likely to be of use to him for that evening. What he had to do now was to get away as quickly as possible and make his way back to his farm-house lodgings, there to analyse the conversation to which he had just been listening. But, so long as there was a chance of one of the three men returning to the library, it was imperative that he should remain hidden.
He peered cautiously out of the cabinet, only to discover that the library door was open, so that he hastily retreated. And there, for the better part of half-an-hour, he remained, hearing voices from time to time so close that he hardly dared to move. And then, when the situation was getting almost intolerable, the voices rose into a sort of excited chorus, and the three conspirators came back into the library. They were not alone, for there was a fourth voice—an uncultivated voice speaking the local dialect.
"Ah, sir—it's perfectly true," the stranger said. "We found the car upside down in the ditch and not a sign of the poor gentleman as was driving. I reckon 'e's lyin' drowned in that there big drain as runs by the road leading to the home farm."
It was Murray who sprang to action first.
"Come on!" he said. "'There is no time to waste. This sounds like a double tragedy. If this man has got the story right, then our late unfortunate guest is lying at the bottom of the drain, a dead man. What a dreadful business!"
MURRAY'S concern seemed so genuine that, for a moment, even Nevil, hiding in the big oak buffet, was deceived. But only for a moment before he began to see that there was something quite sinister in this business than appeared on the face of it. Meanwhile, the Croft was all bustle and confusion. The library emptied and Nevil could hear all sorts of directions going on outside on the terrace until voices died away in the distance and he deemed it safe to crawl out of his retreat and make his way to safety by way of the window. He half turned as he saw a figure standing there, faintly outlined against the darkness.
"It's all right, sir," the man standing there said. "It's Jakes. I thought I would stay behind until you were clear, in case of accidents. A bad business this, sir."
Nevil looked around him before he replied. But, apparently, everybody connected with the establishment had gone off with Murray and his associates in the direction of the overturned car, so that it was possible to talk in safety.
"I am afraid it is, Jakes," Nevil murmured. "But are you quite sure that it is an accident?"
"Well, sir," Jakes replied. "That is exactly what I want to talk to you about. You see, I was going to the library with a tray of glasses and decanters, when Mr. Murray pushed past me in a great state of excitement. I heard him say something to Mr. Haywood about an accident and that the gentleman was wanted to go home at once. I don't quite know how it all came about, but it seemed to me it had something to do with the wireless."
"That's right," Nevil explained. "It was an S.O.S. call, put in at the end of the second news, asking Mr. Haywood to go home at once as his wife is dangerously ill. The whole thing sounded all right, because, even from my hiding place, I could hear the muffled voice of the announcer."
"Yes, I dare say, sir," Jakes went on. "But what puzzles me is why, when Mr. Haywood was setting out alone in the two-seater car, Mr. Murray directed him to take the left hand road that leads to the home farm, instead of going down the avenue and into the main thoroughfare. I heard Mr. Murray say that by doing this, the gentleman would cut off about a couple of miles, whereas, you know, sir, he would do nothing of the sort."
"Oh, you heard that, did you?" Nevil exclaimed. "Of course, there would be no saving. In fact, I believe by taking that semi-private road to the home farm it would be a bit further to the station at Swanwick. I don't like the look of this at all."
"Aye, I didn't suppose you would, sir," Jakes replied. "And, knowing what I do, after what you told me when you first come here, it looks to me is if it was all a put up thing."
By this time, Nevil was practically certain of it. There were matters in connection with this sordid business which he did not feel inclined to discuss with his old servant.
"I am perfectly certain of it," he said. "But come on, Jakes, let us get to the scene of action. It will be quite natural for you to be there, and if anybody asks me questions about my presence, then I can say that I was pottering about in the neighbourhood looking for larvae in the hedgerows."
They pushed on together until they reached the scene of the accident. By this time about a dozen labourers had gathered together with ropes and chains and, just as Nevil and his companion reached the group, the overturned two-seater was hauled out of the cutting in which it had fallen upside down without showing any signs of the late unfortunate driver. The road, at this point, was narrow, with a deep drain on either side and, here and there, little culvert bridges, so that it was possible to cross into the meadows on both sides of the road when the river was in flood.
In the light of a lantern or two and more than one electric torch, Nevil could see that Murray was showing considerable signs of anxiety. He was evidently puzzled and disturbed at this extraordinary disappearance of his late guest. The finding of a body, more or less mangled, or even one that was alive, would certainly have discounted Murray's patent worry, but the vanishing into thin air of the man who had lately been a guest under his roof was more than distracting.
Nor did a close search of the ditches on either side of the road tend to solve the mystery. They were deep, but the water in them was almost crystal clear after the frost, so that it would have been impossible to have hidden a body there which did not show itself immediately under the rays of the torches. For a long time the search continued and then, at last, Murray decided to call it off. He seemed to be baffled and beaten.
"We can do no more to-night," he said. "The only thing is to wait until the morning."
With that, he turned away, together with his companions, and, at a sign from Nevil, Jakes went reluctantly back in the direction of the Croft, whilst Nevil, in his disguise, pottered along the road, as if lost in thought.
But he was nothing of the kind. He had seen Tom Blissett amongst the searchers and, once the crowd had cleared away, he sprinted after his friend and laid a hand on his arm.
"What, you here?" Blissett cried.
"Yes, my boy, I have been here all the time. I have been keeping out of your way for reasons which I will explain presently. But perhaps you will tell me how you came on the scene."
"Oh, that's easy enough." Blissett said. "My gardener was coming back from the village to his cottage when he met all that gang on its way to the scene of the tragedy. And, knowing that I am something of a doctor, he came in and suggested that I should go and see what I could do. So I grabbed up this old bag of mine and filled a flask with brandy and here I am. But what in the name of fortune does the whole thing mean?"
"Murder, I think," Nevil said grimly.
With that, he went on to tell Blissett about the events of the evening, including the S.O.S. message and the tragic results that had apparently followed.
"Now, look here, Tom," he concluded. "There is something seriously wrong here. I firmly believe that those rascals engineered the whole thing with a view to getting Haywood out of the way. In fact, a premeditated crime."
"Yes, my dear chap, but where is the body? They certainly did not expect that to disappear into thin air."
"Of course not. They did expect to find the corpse, and, because they didn't, they were terribly upset. Now, as a matter of plain common sense, Haywood, or what is left of him, cannot be very far off. It looks to me as if the car struck some obstacle which had been placed deliberately in its way and, before it turned turtle in the ditch, threw the occupant for some considerable distance. He was probably going all out with the intention of catching his train at Swanwick, when he struck the snag."
Before Blissett could reply, there came from not far off, something that sounded like a faint moan.
"There you are!" Nevil said excitedly. "On the other side of that hedge, unless I am greatly mistaken. The fellow must have been thrown clean over the fence and ditch into the field beyond. Of course, they never thought of looking for him there. Come on!"
By means of one of the culverts the two crossed into the field, and there, after a short search, aided by Nevil's pocket torch, found Haywood, lying unconscious on the grass.
Blissett bent over the silent figure and made a swift examination. He plunged a hand into his breast pocket.
"Nothing so very wrong," he said. "Certainly no bones broken, and I should say no internal injuries. It's lucky this chap fell on a bed of dry rushes. Here, unscrew the top of that flask and let us see if we can't put some life into him."
The potent spirit did its work at length, and, after a little time, Haywood struggled to his feet. He was suffering still from the shock, but able to stand upright.
"What happened to me?" he asked. "Yes, I remember now, I was driving in a car when, suddenly, I was thrown violently out, and I don't recollect any more. But I must get along."
"You must do nothing of the sort, my friend!" Blissett said firmly. "If you can manage to walk a quarter of a mile, you are going as far as my house. And there you will stay until you are fit to go back to London."
"But my wife?" Haywood, protested.
"We will see to all that presently," Blissett responded. "I have got a telephone in my house, and, if you will give me the number of your private phone in London——"
But the exertion of talking had been too much for Haywood, and he seemed unable to prolong the discussion. It was quite a long time before Nevil and Blissett managed to get him as far as the latter's house, but there he was promptly put to bed with the aid of Blissett's soldier servant and his wife.
"Now, look here, Tom," Nevil said, when he had once more reiterated the story of the evening's events. "I have got an idea. I suppose you can trust your servants, Jackson and his wife?"
"Good lord—yes," Blissett said. "Jackson has been with me for years, and his wife is the soul of discretion. But what is it you are trying to get at?"
"Why not keep Haywood here for a day or two without anybody being any the wiser? I think, in the circumstances, I can make a lot of use of him. If we could only manage that then I think I am well on the way to clear up this business."
"Oh, that's easy enough," Blissett said. "But what about that S.O.S. message?"
"THE message?" Nevil echoed. "Oh yes, I had forgotten that for the moment. I am wondering if it is genuine or not. The whole thing was very nicely stage managed and all that, but supposing the message was part of the scheme to lure Haywood into that trap which nearly ended in his death?"
They were talking now in Blissett's own little den, with Eleanor an eager listener to the conversation.
"There was no S.O.S. on the late news to-night," she declared. "I missed the first bulletin, so I switched on at nine o'clock and heard everything straight away till the wireless orchestra began their concluding part of the programme. If there had been anything of the sort you mention, I must have heard it."
"Ah, that exactly confirms my theory," Nevil said. "However, we will settle that matter beyond the shadow of a doubt. You go upstairs to your patient, Tom, and get him to give you the number of his private telephone. Then you can call up his flat and ask to speak to his wife. Pretend that you are some business acquaintance who wants to get in touch with him at once, about some important transaction. See what I mean?"
Blissett nodded and vanished. Presently, the two waiting in the little room heard him come down the stairs again and hold a short conversation on the 'phone. He came back to the others with a smile on his face.
"You are quite right, Nevil," he said, "I have just been talking to Mrs. Haywood herself. There is no more the matter with her, than there is with us. I didn't enlighten her as to the accident of her husband, because there was no necessity. She does not expect to see him till Monday night, at the earliest, and, of course, is under the impression that he is still at Ashdown Croft. I have just run upstairs and told him so, to ease his mind, so that he can sleep without having to worry. But he won't want to get up to-morrow unless I am greatly mistaken."
"Will he be able to talk then?" Nevil asked.
"Oh, I think so. He is suffering more from shock than anything else, so that a good night's rest will make all the difference in the world. If you want to have a heart to heart conversation with him some time to-morrow afternoon, I don't see why you shouldn't."
"Well, there are difficulties in the way," Nevil explained. "You see, he would probably want to know what the deuce an elderly American professor was so curious about. I suggest that you start proceedings, and that I come in later on."
It was, accordingly, after lunch on the Sunday when Blissett went up to the bedroom where his involuntary guest was lying and proceeded, without diplomacy, to open up the talk.
"Now, look here, my friend," he said, "I know a good deal about you and your methods, and I happen to know quite as much about Murray and those precious associates of his. I suppose you have realised that they tried to murder you last night?"
"Looks like it," Haywood said, with a gleam in his eyes, "I was fairly taken in over that bogus S.O.S. call and, of course, I know now that the whole thing was a plant. How it was worked, exactly, I can't say, but some obstacle was put in my way and, as I was driving at nearly fifty miles an hour, it had the desired effect. But what are those three up to? Why haven't they been here to see me? I suppose they know that I am all right?"
"My good sir," Blissett said. "They have not the remotest idea that you are still in the land of the living. About a thousand people are out to-day looking for your body. But, meanwhile, you are perfectly safe where you are, because my servants are absolutely trustworthy. Now, why do those men want to do you harm?"
"Because I have something they need and something I decline to give up," Haywood explained. "But if they had succeeded in sending me to my death, then it would not have been so difficult."
"Ah, I suppose you mean those Copper Bonds," Blissett said airily. "You know what I mean. The bonds that my late friend Nevil Ashdown handed to you in exchange for your cheque."
Haywood's jaws sagged perceptibly.
"You seem to know a deuce of a lot," he said huskily.
"My good man, I know practically everything," Blissett said. "I know all about the plot to get my friend Ashdown into the hands of that rascally gang and how they nearly succeeded in robbing him of £20,000. You were in that conspiracy, too, but the rascals deliberately tried to do you out of your share of the plunder and, when you realised that, you decided to return the bonds. And why did you decline to return them?"
"Is that a question or an assertion?" Haywood fenced.
"A statement of fact," Blissett said firmly. "You see, that arch rascal Murray was a little bit too clever. Instead of giving you forged bonds relating to Central Copper and thus possibly running a risk of the forgery being detected, he preferred to give you genuine certificates. And you found it out. That is why, last night, you declined to part with the stock and told Murray and Co. practically to go to the devil. If you had fallen in with their wishes, then there would have been no S.O.S. call, and you would not have been lying more or less helpless here at the present moment. You see, everything points in one direction."
"Well, I take off my hat to you, Mr. Blissett," Haywood said in a helpless tone. "I see you want me to do something and, after what has happened, I am your servant to command. Anything to get my own back on those three ruffians. You see, I can pose as an innocent party as far as those bonds were concerned, and tell any court of justice that I knew I was dealing with genuine security which, in fact, is true."
"Then you place yourself entirely in my hands?"
"Absolutely. Let the whole thing come out."
"Well, perhaps—and perhaps not. Of course, Murray and his lot deserve no sort of sympathy or clemency, but Murray has a daughter in whom my wife and myself are very much interested."
Then Haywood sprang a great surprise.
"Daughter, be hanged," he said. "That poor girl is no more Murray's daughter than she is mine. Fact of the matter is, Murray never has been married. Some day, perhaps, when he has made a pile big enough to get away with, he will start a family on his ill-gotten gains and continue his role of country gentleman, which is almost an obsession with him."
"Then who is the girl we know as Angela Murray?"
"Oh, I can tell you that," Haywood laughed. "Her real name is Jackson. Twenty years ago, her father and Murray were partners in a more or less honest business. Oh, I know the man I am dealing with, I can tell you all about Sidey and Blanchin, too, if you want to know. But Murray is the object for the moment. Well, he played a real, low-down trick upon his partner and left the latter and his young wife to starve in South America. Mind you, Murray has an extraordinary streak of generosity in his nature, and it comes out in all sorts of unexpected ways. By some sort of accident, a year or two after the time I am speaking about, Murray came across the track of his old partner again, only to realise that he was dead and that his wife was not likely to survive him very long. That is why he took the child and brought her up as his own. And if you think he had any real affection for her, you are mistaken; he does the right thing by her, because that queer conscience of his compels him to, but, all the time he is playing the grand old country squire here, she is a constant reminder of one of the shabbiest things he ever did in his life."
"All this you are in a position to prove?" Blissett asked.
"To the letter," Haywood said firmly. "Now, what is the next thing? Am I to stay here, more or less indefinitely and leave my wife to believe that I am still in the country, or what?"
"That, for the moment, I am not prepared to say. For the next day or two, at any rate, you will remain where you are, until I have consulted those who are more interested than myself. And now I think I had better leave you in peace."
All this, of course, was news of the greatest importance to Ashdown, who had been waiting impatiently downstairs to hear the result of the interview.
"Ah, now I begin to see my way quite clearly," he said. "But, before we go any further, we will take a little walk."
"What's the great idea?" Blissett asked.
"Ah, that you will see presently, when we get to the scene of last night's action. Till then, we must wait."
They set out presently, an hour before dusk, until they came to the spot where, the night before, the car had overturned. This was a rather lonely by-road leading only to the home farm, so that most days there was little or no traffic on it and, on a Sunday, none at all. Nevil looked cautiously round to see that there was no one in sight, and then he proceeded to make a careful search of every inch of the ground for ten or twelve yards along the road. For some time, it was in vain and then, with an exclamation of delight, he picked up something that glistened as he held it for Blissett to examine.
"Well, what is it?" the latter asked. "It looks to me like a steel hook with a buckle at the end of it."
"That is exactly what it is," Nevil explained. "A steel hook that was fastened into that tree yonder and terminating in that other tree across the road where the far end of a stout wire was affixed. In other words, a metal spring band like the main spring of a watch, which, when uncoiled, was fastened across the road. Then, when the obstruction hit it, the buckle end gave way, and the wire coiled itself up again. This tight coil, of course; was removed some time this morning by Murray or one of his lot, so that no evidence of foul play was left. But they lost the buckle end, and this is going to prove their undoing."
"I DON'T quite get it," Blissett said.
"Simple enough," Nevil replied. "A strong coil of steel spring, long enough to cross the road, so that either end can be fastened to one of those stunted trees. If anybody happens to come along the road, then somebody who is in the plot releases the buckle and the whole thing goes back with a snap and shuts up in a space of about eight inches in diameter. If we carefully examine the stems of those trees, we shall see the marks made by the clips. Ah, here you are, it's quite plain."
Surely enough, the bark about two feet from the base of the trees showed signs of excoriation.
"Oh, so that's the game, is it?" Blissett said. "Then I suppose some wretched hireling of Murray's stood by last night, ready to release the spring in case anybody came down the road.
"That is the idea," Nevil said. "And directly the intruder passed, the trap would be set again."
"Now what is the next move?" Blissett asked.
"The next move," Nevil replied, "is to get back to your place without delay. I should like to have a few words with Haywood. It seems to me that, in a sense, he holds the key to the situation. And if he doesn't want to talk, then we must make him."
"What are you going to tell him that Professor Finch is none other than the missing owner of the Croft?"
"Well, perhaps not quite that. Upon my word, I had forgotten for the moment that I was in disguise. No, I think, on the whole, as you know so much of the circumstances, you had better tackle him. That is, if he is willing to speak."
But Haywood was quite ready to give Blissett all the information he needed, and all the more so because he realised that he was in the power of his questioner, and, for the life of him, he could not understand whence Blissett had derived all his details.
"What is it you want me to tell you?" he asked.
"Well, not very much," Blissett smiled. "Of course, you understand, Mr. Haywood, I am not treating you exactly as if I were dealing with a man of unblemished integrity."
"I don't expect you to," Haywood muttered. "You know too much about me for that. I was in that conspiracy with Murray up to my neck, and I am not going to deny it. But that little stunt seems to have gone altogether wrong, and I am out to save my face and hang the consequences as far as the others are concerned, because they tried to double-cross me. All the same, mind you, it would take a precious clever lawyer to put me in the dock with the other three in case of criminal proceedings."
"Yes, I quite see, that," Blissett admitted. "I am regarding you in the light of a man who has turned King's evidence."
"Oh, you are, are you?" Haywood asked with a grin. "Then fire away. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to pursue what a great statesman once called a policy of masterly inactivity," Blissett said. "In other words, to lie low here for the next few days and leave those rascals guessing."
"Yes, that is all very well," Haywood pointed out, "I am quite willing, but what about my wife?"
"Upon my word, I had forgotten her for the moment," Blissett admitted. "Of course she must know. The story of your disappearance is pretty certain to appear in the papers to-morrow morning, and it follows, therefore, that Mrs. Haywood will read about it. I think the best thing that I can do is to run into Wernport and telephone to her from there. I dare not do it from here, because the local operator might listen in. But if I go as far as Wernport, I think I can put it all right and then, as I am going to Town to-morrow on business, I can call at your flat and tell your wife enough of the story to keep her quiet for the next few days. I don't suppose it has occurred to Murray to let Mrs. Haywood know about your accident."
"I don't see how he could," Haywood said. "Because he doesn't know my private address. Of course, it is in the London telephone directory, but Murray wouldn't think of that and he wouldn't care, for that matter. And now, the next thing, Mr. Blissett, please?"
But it seemed to Blissett that things could wait until after he had been into Wernport and got in touch with Haywood's wife. He made this suggestion to Ashdown a few minutes later and found that the latter was in agreement.
"Then I will run over to Wernport at once," Blissett said. "But look here, Nevil, an idea occurs to me. That man Blanchin. He is working out the formula of some infernal drug or another, and possibly he has found all he wants by this time, you remember that business of the dog you told me about. Can't you get hold of old Jakes and ask him if he has noticed anything peculiar about Blanchin's correspondence. Who posts the letters at the Croft? I suppose there is a post bag and all that sort of thing."
"Unless things are entirely altered, there certainly is," Nevil said. "The letters are placed on the hall table, and it is Jakes's duty to collect them and put them in a bag, after which it is locked ready for the postman. Of course, there is no collection on Sunday in a country place like this, but there will be one to-morrow."
"Ah, that's all right," Blissett smiled. "Then you see Jakes and get him to make a note of the addresses on Blanchin's correspondence. If they are foreign addresses as I expect some of them will be, I should like to know at once."
"Am I to understand you won't be here?"
"Not for the next day or two," Blissett explained. "I go to Town to-morrow and, first or all, see Mrs. Haywood and make matters right with her. I shall probably get Haywood to write her a letter, which I shall deliver in person. Then I shall call upon my scientific friend at University College and have that pinch of powder you gave me analysed. After that, we shall have to wait more or less on events. My address in London will be my club, and if anything happens at this end while I am away, call me up there. I will make a point of being on the premises from one till two and from five to seven."
It was no difficult matter to get hold of Jakes next morning and all the easier because Murray and Sidey had gone to Town, leaving Blanchin, as usual, to his work.
"Now what I want you to do, Jakes," Nevil said, "is to make a careful note of all the addresses on the letters that Blanchin writes. You can meet me casually at the back of the quadrangle just before five this afternoon if there is anything worth the telling."
Accordingly, Professor Finch met Jakes before dusk at the appointed place.
"There were four letters, sir," Jakes explained. "I have got the addresses down here on a bit of paper."
"That's right, Jakes," Nevil said. "You keep a careful eye upon those letters and I will see to the rest. I will be here to-morrow afternoon at about the same time."
In the seclusion of his sitting-room in the farm house, Nevil examined the scrap of paper given him by Jakes. He saw that the four addresses were all written to places outside England, one to Shanghai, the second to Bombay, the third to Bucharest, and the fourth to Geneva. It was the last of these that caused Nevil to raise his eyebrows and whistle softly to himself.
With the scrap of paper in his pocket, he made his way as rapidly as possible to Blissett's house, where he proceeded to call the latter on the telephone. At the end of ten minutes, he was relieved to hear his friend's voice.
"That you, Blissett," he asked. "Good. I suppose you can guess who is speaking."
"Professor Finch, surely," Blissett responded.
It was a gentle hint that Nevil was not slow to take.
"Oh yes, I am the Professor," he said. "About those friends of yours abroad. The friends whose addresses you discussed with me recently. I have certain information."
"Which I shall be very glad to have," Blissett responded.
All this caution, of course, was to put off the scent any curious operator who might chance to be listening.
"I have four of them," Nevil went on. "Three of them which I will forward by post, and the fourth to an address in Geneva. Perhaps I had better give you this in detail."
This he proceeded to do and listened carefully as Blissett repeated it, and then went on with another question.
"As to your friend at the University?" he asked. "Have you heard anything further from him?"
"Oh yes," came the response over the wire. "He has examined the sample and he confirms all that we expected. Most satisfactory indeed. Not quite a new thing; you understand, but a variation of an old one which is much more powerful. I don't think I need say any more, except that I have seen the lady we were talking about yesterday, and she understands the situation perfectly."
There was no need to say any more, so that Nevil rang off, being more than satisfied that Blissett had not been wasting his time. He went in search of Eleanor Blissett with a view to telling her all that he had just heard.
"Of course, I don't want to see Haywood just yet," he said. "But I think you had better go upstairs and tell him that you have heard from Tom and that he has delivered the letter to Mrs. Haywood which he wrote at Tom's suggestion. It's a good thing he thought of that, because the papers are full of his mysterious disappearance. Do you know, Eleanor, if this matter were not serious, it would be distinctly amusing. You can imagine the perplexity and uneasiness of those scoundrels at the Croft and what they would give if they knew as much of the mystery as we do."
IT was fairly early on the Wednesday morning when Blissett returned by car to his house. He had a good deal to say to Nevil, when the latter put in an appearance and most of it was vital to the success of the coming operations.
"First of all," he said. "Let me tell you about that powder. There was only a pinch of it, but quite sufficient for our purpose. It turns out to be a sort of offspring of heroin, only much more effective and dangerous. There was not enough to the powder to try experiments, but my man seems to think that it is practically a new drug of an extremely potent nature. Much stronger than cocaine, for instance."
"Who on earth would suspect that anything sinister was going on at Ashdown Croft?" said Nevil thoughtfully.
"Nobody, of course," Blissett agreed. "And we would not have known but for the fact that Ashdown Croft is your property and you know the secret of its ancient hiding places."
"That business of the dog, for instance," Nevil said. "Do you know, I came across that very dog in the grounds on Monday when I was talking to Jakes. Just the same big, docile creature he generally is, and quite pleased to see me. I could hardly believe that I was in the presence of the same animal."
"Well, we know how all that was brought about, of course," Blissett said. "But let me get on with my story. After I had obtained a signed report of the analysis of that powder, I went off to Scotland Yard. There I saw someone in authority, and laid certain facts before them, not bringing in your name at all. I told the man I am speaking of who I was, and what my qualifications are, so it was up to him to listen carefully. After that, I spoke of my suspicions and mentioned Blanchin as the culprit. I was not in the least surprised to find out that Blanchin's name was no strange one to the authorities in the Yard. He seems to be known to more than one police bureau in Europe, though, so far, there has been nothing against him to warrant an arrest. But when I gave the divisional inspector a copy of those addresses you sent me he did really begin to sit up and take notice. I rather gather it was the address in Geneva that moved him more than anything else. Then he got busy on the telephone and I gathered from what I could glean from a one-sided message, that all Blanchin's letters were to be intercepted and opened. I mean, letters that are addressed to those persons named on the envelopes which old Jakes handled. I shouldn't be at all surprised to read in the papers, at any moment, that Ashdown Croft has been raided, and that our friend Blanchin is safely in the hands of the law."
"Very interesting indeed," Nevil said. "Now, if you will ask Eleanor to come in here, I have something to say to you that I have never mentioned to a soul before, I should not mention it now but for the fact that what you have just told me throws a whole flood of light upon certain things which have been giving me a tremendous lot of anxiety ever since this tragi-comedy began."
A few minutes later, Ashdown, together with Blissett and his wife, were seated before the fire in the small room which Blissett always spoke of as his snuggery.
"Well, fire away," Blissett said encouragingly.
"I hardly know how to begin," Nevil remarked. "The whole thing is so terribly complicated. I have to go back to a certain event that happened before Murray and his confederates came out in their true colours and tried to rob me of large sum of money, with the aid of that fellow who is upstairs. At any rate, we have got him where we want him, and he will be useful enough when the time comes. You know, without my repeating myself, that business of those copper shares was a most ingenious conspiracy to deprive me of a large share of my fortune. And you know that I was half inclined to fall in with it to preserve my reputation and should have done so if I hadn't happened to have intercepted a signal that passed between two of the confederates. That is why I am posing here to-day as Professor Finch. When the incident that I am about to mention took place, I had not the remotest idea that I was more or less at the mercy of three abandoned scoundrels. Like you, I thought Murray was a man of the highest integrity and that his friends were equally trustworthy."
"But why go over all this again?" Blissett asked. "We know every detail of the conspiracy, not to mention the fact that Angela is not any relation to the man who poses as her father."
Nevil drew a long breath of relief.
"Ah, well," he said, "That disclosure of Haywood's fills me with satisfaction. If I had not learnt that, I should hardly know what to do. It is no light matter to tell the girl whom you passionately love that her father is an abandoned scoundrel, and, what is more, have to prove it. It will be bad enough, in any case, when everything comes out and Murray finds himself in the hands of the police."
"A nine days' wonder," Eleanor murmured. "All forgotten before we are three months' older. And everybody must recognise that Angela is not in the least to blame."
"Well, there is that consolation," Nevil admitted. "And now I had better go on with my story. I told you, Tom, how I hid myself in the Priest's Hole above the room where Blanchin is carrying out his experiments. I gave you all the details of the steel cage and how I saw the dog lured inside and some drug administered to him, and how a good tempered, docile beast was transformed into a dangerous animal. I don't think that anybody can doubt for a moment that the drug was the cause of that sinister change. It could not have been anything else."
"I think we can all agree on that," Eleanor said.
"Very well, then," Nevil went on. "The question I ask myself is this—suppose that poison had been secretly administered to me, what would have been the result?"
"You are asking me that, knowing me to be a bit of a scientist," Blissett said. "Well, frankly, I don't know, I should say that it would probably affect you in a minor degree in the same way as it affected the dog. I don't mean to say you would have gone raving mad or tried to bite anybody or displayed homicidal tendencies, but it would probably have brought out all the worst that lurks in human nature. My reading and training tell me that few men or women are as civilised as they think they are. There are hidden depths and hidden springs that, perhaps, are never touched during the whole of a lifetime. On the other hand, some queer happening has set their forces in motion. I am sure we have both met men in our time who are everything that can be desired when sober, but when drunk dangerous to the community in every sense of the word. Of course, this would depend largely upon the amount of drugs administered. If you had a small dose, then it might cause you to do some small, mean thing, of which you would be thoroughly ashamed afterwards. Do you follow me?"
"Perfectly," Nevil said. "You have but the case in a nutshell. And you are all the more convincing because I was a witness of the horrible sight brought about by Blanchin in connection with that dog. A creature usually as gentle as a lamb. You don't know how you encourage me to go on."
"You have a sympathetic audience," Eleanor said.
"Of course I have, or I should not be telling you this. Now, Eleanor, do you remember the night of the theatricals?"
"Naturally," Eleanor said. "But why?"
"Ah, I am coming to that," Nevil resumed. "I want you to recall to your mind the episode of Diana Longworth and the pearl collar that she lost, that evening."
"Go on," Eleanor said, "I remember perfectly."
"Well, the necklace was lost and nobody seemed inclined to own up to having found it, which was rather unfortunate because some of our villagers were helping us and were immediately suspected."
"Yes, but Angela had it," Eleanor cried.
"Yes, Angela had it all right." Nevil resumed. "And you all thought that it was a little joke put up between Angela and myself to give that young woman a lesson."
"Do you mean to say it wasn't?" Eleanor asked.
"No, indeed, it wasn't," Nevil said mournfully. "Angela stole it. Oh, you need not cry out. It was a clean case of theft, and I saw it myself. For a little time I was at my wits' end to see how Angela would get out of the trouble which she had brought upon herself and you saw how I succeeded in the end."
"Angela, a thief," Eleanor cried. "Impossible."
"Not a thief in the ordinary sense of the word, perhaps, but an involuntary one. I feel as sure as I sit here that that scoundrel Blanchin has been using Angela as a subject in his experiment with those infernal drugs of his."
Blissett jumped to his feet excitedly.
"You've got it!" he cried.
ELEANOR looked at her companions with mingled horror and amazement in her eyes.
"Are such things possible?" she whispered. "Would any man be fiend enough to practise such diabolical experiments on an innocent girl? Oh, I can't believe it."
"I can," Blissett said grimly. "Don't forget what Nevil has told us about that unfortunate dog."
"Such a beautiful creature, too," Eleanor said. "And so affectionate and docile. But never mind about that for the moment. What are we going to do about Angela?"
"I am afraid we shall have to wait upon events to a certain extent," Nevil said. "All my instincts prompt me to throw off my disguise and beat Blanchin to a jelly. Perhaps I shall have an opportunity later on—meanwhile we must go slow. Now tell me this, Eleanor—have you noticed anything wrong with Angela during the last few weeks? You see her very often and she is frequently a visitor here."
"Not so much as I used to," Eleanor said. "It has occurred to me more than once that Angela is trying to keep out of my way. I thought that might be a mere fancy on my part but, after what you have just told us, I am certain of it. She is so changeable, at one time her own cheerful, sunny self and then perhaps, on another occasion—well, how shall I put it?—I hate to use the word 'furtive,' but that is the proper expression."
"Yes," Nevil said sorrowfully, "I have noticed that myself. Like a child who has done something to be ashamed of and is afraid to face her elders. Now, you have known her a good deal longer than I have, because I have only been back in England for a few months and you two are on intimate terms."
"Were," Eleanor said a little sadly. "But not lately. There was a time when Angela came to me with everything. She was so open and frank and free, and then, all at once, so very reserved, and I might almost say distant."
"Well, doesn't all that confirm what I say?" Nevil asked. "I tell you, the disappearance of that pearl collar was an absolute piece of dishonesty. I saw the while thing from start to finish, and if I had to get up in a court of justice in connection with it, there could only be one construction placed on my evidence. You cannot imagine what a terrible shock it was to me. I managed to get Angela out of a terrible tangle that night of the theatricals but, even now, I don't know whether she thinks that I am—was—aware of her potential dishonesty or not. And I don't suppose she ever says anything about it to you."
"Not a word," Eleanor said emphatically. "Only she has never been quite the same to me since."
"Now, let us thrash the whole thing out," Blissett interposed. "Here we have a girl whom we have hitherto regarded as entirely outside the region of suspicion. Then, suddenly, she acts the common thief, and follows that up by avoiding the best woman friend she has, studiously. You are not going to tell me that Angela has been in the habit of practising these deceits without some reason for it. Again, there is nothing wrong with her health—no sign of a nervous breakdown or of neurasthenia, or anything of that sort. I should say that she is afraid of herself."
"I am quite sure she is," Eleanor said. "You see, there is no doubt that she was very much in love with our friend Nevil here—indeed, she told us so in this very room."
"And yet she kept me severely at a distance," Nevil said sadly. "She knew that I was just as much in love with her as she was with me, and yet she would not take me into her confidence. It would have made no difference whatever."
"Ah, you say that because you are not a woman," Eleanor said. "She didn't take you into her confidence because she dared not. She had sufficient control over herself to refuse to marry a man whose honour might suffer at her hands. I mean, supposing you had married her and some time when you were in Town she stole something from one of the big stores and was detected. Think of the scandal of it—think what people would say about the wife of the owner of Ashdown Croft. That is why she kept you at arms' length. She was in deadly terror lest the weakness should overcome her again and bring disgrace upon you both. Good gracious, how that poor child must have suffered—and is suffering."
"Yes," Blissett pointed out. "But the phase will pass. The more I think it over, the more sure I am that Blanchin has been using Angela for his nefarious purposes. Sooner or later, he would want to try the nature of that drug of his on some human being. And there was Angela ready to his hand. You two need not worry—once we have got rid of Blanchin, Angela will be her own self again in a very short time. Of course, we shall have to tell her exactly what has happened, because, until we do so, she will always brood over the fact that she once committed a mean theft."
"I think you can leave that to me," Nevil said curtly.
"Of course we can, my dear chap," Blissett agreed heartily. "But we must not spoil the whole thing by undue hurry. What we have to do is to lie low for a few days and give the police their opportunity. They are handling Blanchin's correspondence, and I am hoping for great things from that."
So, for the next two or three days, no move was made so far as Nevil and his friends were concerned, and, during that time the man Haywood lay hidden in a bedroom in Blissett's house. It was on the evening of the third day that Blissett, with a copy of an evening paper in his hand, went up to interview his patient.
Haywood looked up with a scowl as Blissett entered.
"How much longer is this game going on?" he asked. "I have been here four or five days now, and my business interests are suffering. It isn't a big business but, in my absence, a couple of clerks and a typist won't know what to do."
"Well, I should think another day would see an end of it," Blissett smiled. "By the way, I suppose you deposited those Central Copper bonds with your bankers?"
"No, I didn't," Haywood said. "As a matter of fact, relations between my bank and myself are rather strained at the moment. Only a temporary affair, you understand. That is why I placed the bonds in my safe, the key of which I have on me at the present moment. You see, in my business, which is not always as straight as it might be, I frequently have opportunities of making a handsome profit by being able to put my hands upon a thousand or two of ready cash at a moment's notice. When I want this, I don't go to my regular bankers, but to a certain firm in the City who make advances against approved paper. But why do you ask?"
"I'll come to that presently," Blissett said. "I suppose you have grasped the fact that if those scoundrels had succeeded in murdering you the other night, they would have had your body conveyed to Ashdown Croft and have searched it carefully for the key of your safe. I am quite sure that they meant to get those bonds back at any cost, and I am equally sure that they were aware of all your business habits."
"Yes, I suppose so," Haywood agreed. "I can see now how the whole thing was planned. But you don't mean to tell me that Murray has been trying to get hold of the bonds? Of course, he regards me as lying dead in some extraordinary place, but I don't see him beginning to move quite as quickly as all that."
By way of reply, Blissett handed over the copy of the evening paper he was carrying and called Haywood's attention to a paragraph therein which was headed:
STRANGE OUTRAGE IN THE CITY
DAYLIGHT ATTEMPT AT BURGLARY.
"The police report an extraordinary affair that took place this morning
between one and two o'clock at an office in Crutched Friars, Marchester
House being the scene of the operation. It is all the more remarkable that
this outrage should have happened in the offices of Messrs. Haywood and
Co., as the junior partner of the firm is still being sought by the
authorities in connection with a motoring accident that took place close to
Ashdown Croft on the night of Friday last. As our readers know, Mr. Haywood
was thrown out of a car when on his way to the station to catch a train
and, though the car was discovered upside down in a ditch, no sign of the
unfortunate man has been seen since.
"It seems that, at one o'clock Mr. Haywood's senior clerk and his typist left the office for lunch, as was their invariable custom, leaving the three rooms which constitute the suite to the care of a junior. According to this young man's statement, a few moments after his seniors had vanished, a man entered the room in which he was at work and, holding him up at the point of a revolver, gagged him and bound him in a chair, after which he proceeded to lock himself in Mr. Haywood's private office, where, as it subsequently transpired, a desperate attempt was made to open the safe.
"Meanwhile, the clerk contrived to throw himself forward on to his hands and drag the heavy chair in which he was bound to a window in the room that looked out on to a court. There he was fortunate enough to attract the attention of a passer-by and an alarm was given at once. Three or four persons, accompanied by a policeman, entered the offices and forced the inner door. Unfortunately, by the time they had succeeded in doing this, the burglar had escaped by means of a lavatory and a passage leading to the basement of the building where, no doubt, he coolly mingled with the passers-by, leaving no trace behind him. The rescuers were in time to prevent loss, so that the attempt was abortive. The young clerk stated that the intruder, who wore a mask over his face, was a well-dressed individual with grey hair and, apparently, about sixty years of age."
"Well, who do you suspect?" Blissett asked.
"Murray himself, for a million," Haywood cried.
BLISSETT nodded in emphatic agreement.
"I should say there is little doubt of it." he remarked. "But our friend Murray has pretty nearly shot his bolt."
"Sounds like it," Haywood grinned. "Not that I am in the least afraid of Murray. As a matter of fact, that melancholy chap Sidey is a great deal more dangerous. But how much longer have I got to hang about here? I suppose the police are searching for me all over the country, and probably half the business people I know are under the impression that I have done a bolt. If that suggestion spreads, then it is going to do a deuce of a lot of harm to me in the City. I suppose half the reporters in London have interviewed my wife by this time and probably noted the fact that she doesn't seem to be suffering over much. Of course, I know you have got me in the hollow of your hand, but, for the Lord's sake, Blissett, have a bit of pity for a chap who has a wife and family to look after. It will be bad enough to explain things as it is. But all this delay is making it a thousand times worse."
"Yes, I quite see that," Blissett admitted. "And don't forget that I have to make up some ingenious yarn to account for the fact that a missing man has been in my house for the last few days. I want to keep things as quiet as possible for the sake of my friend Ashdown, who——"
Blissett pulled up, suddenly conscious of the fact that he was on the verge of making a bad break.
"You can leave all that to me," he went on hurriedly. "Everything will come right before you are much older."
With this poor consolation, the unhappy Haywood had to be content for the moment. Down below, Nevil Ashdown was waiting for Blissett to report progress.
"Yes, I can quite understand Haywood's feelings," Nevil said when Blissett had finished speaking. "Still, mind you, he brought all this on himself, and he will have to take the consequences. On the whole, it seems to me he is getting out of the mess very well. But I am growing rather impatient over this delay. I think I will go up to the Croft to-morrow and have a chat with Blanchin. I hate the idea of being in his presence, because all my better instincts prompt me to fall on him and thrash him till he can't stand. Only the fact that I might get some useful information out of him keeps me in a rational frame of mind. I think I will drop in there some time to-morrow and see how things are going."
Accordingly, on the following afternoon, Nevil, carefully keeping his disguise, ambled up to the Croft, where he found that Blanchin was at work in his laboratory, but refrained from intruding on that clever scoundrel until he had had a few words with the faithful Jakes. But Jakes had very little to say. Mr. Murray and Sidey were away in London, though it was just possible that they would be down at the Croft again in time for tea.
A sudden thought occurred to Ashdown.
"Was Mr. Murray in town yesterday, Jakes?" he asked.
"Yes, and last night, too," Jakes replied.
Nevil nodded as if the information pleased him. It seemed to confirm Haywood's opinion that the attack on the office safe had been attempted by Murray himself. And, after all, the attempt was not so very daring. Murray would have no difficulty in ascertaining the movement of Haywood's staff and exactly the times in which the various clerks sought their midday meal. Also, it was long odds that he had been often inside Haywood's private office. The more Nevil turned this over in his mind, the more sure did he feel that he was right.
He ambled up the stairs and along the corridor in the direction of Blanchin's laboratory. There he found the Frenchman intent upon his work, and by no means pleased to be intruded upon.
Nevertheless he received his visitor with a certain politeness.
"And what can I do for you, Professor?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing, nothing," Nevil said, in his high pitched, artificial voice. "But it is always a pleasure to exchange views with such a genius as yourself."
Blanchin spread his hands out and shook his head.
"Alas, my dear Professor," he said. "I am exceedingly busy. I am desolate that I 'ave to ask you not to detain me long or certain experiments of mine will be ruined. You see for yourself that everything ees ready. Five minutes I can give you, but no longer. It ees to me a profound regret that I cannot enter into what you call amenities at this moment."
"Oh, quite, quite," Nevil said. "There is something in my pocket I have to show you, but another time, another time. Perhaps to-morrow I will look in again."
As Nevil spoke in his queer, hesitating falsetto, he was taking full stock of the room through his thick glasses. He could see on the table a handful of stamped and addressed letters, obviously intended for the afternoon post. Besides these, there were a couple of small brown paper parcels, also addressed and sealed. Then, with many expressions of regret for having intruded on the deliberations of the Frenchman, Nevil withdrew and pottered off down the stairs into the hall again. He loitered there for a minute or two, until Jakes reappeared.
"You haven't been very long, sir," the old butler said.
"That's quite right, Jakes," Nevil whispered. "I found myself rather in the way this afternoon. By the way. I noticed on Mr. Blanchin's table letters and parcels which are evidently intended for the afternoon's post. Don't forget to make a careful note of the addresses on these."
Jakes had barely given the desired assurance when there came a ring at the front door bell, which the old man proceeded to answer. On the step stood three men. One, evidently in authority, pushed his way inside, followed by his companions, one of whom shut the door behind them. The leader turned sternly to Jakes.
"You have a gentleman staying here named Blanchin," he said. "Does he happen to be in the house at the present moment?"
"Yes, sir," Jakes replied. "He is upstairs in his laboratory. Would you like me to call him down?"
The three strangers exchanged somewhat amused glances, and the man in authority shook his head.
"If you have no objection," he said, "I think we will go up to his laboratory and interview Mr. Blanchin for ourselves. You can lead the way and we will follow."
It was quite evident to Nevil, lurking in the background, that Jakes entirely failed to grasp the significance of this intrusion. But he had guessed almost at once whom these men were and what was their errand. He ambled forward.
"I'll show you the way," he squeaked. "I have just come downstairs from the laboratory, after an interview with Monsieur Blanchin. I am Professor Finch of one of the American universities."
"Oh, quite so—quite so," the man in authority said. "Perhaps you will be kind enough to lead the way, Professor."
Nevil mounted the stairs again, followed by the others, and tapped lightly on the door of the laboratory. A voice from within bade him enter, and he stepped inside, to see Blanchin bending over a pair of scales on a big table. There was the suggestion of a frown on the Frenchman's face, but he went on with his work, heedless of the fact that Nevil was no longer alone. Then, at the sound of another footstep, Blanchin looked up swiftly.
In an instant his whole expression changed to one of alertness, and, quick as a cat, he rushed in the direction of the cabinet that stood close to a big window. But, quick as he was, the man in authority was before him. Then followed for a few seconds a desperate struggle until, at length, Blanchin was overpowered and handcuffs snapped on his wrists.
"Now I think we can proceed more formally," the leader said. "I am Detective-Inspector Macklin of Scotland Yard, and I have a warrant for the arrest of you, Jules Blanchin, for dealing in illicit drugs. I will read the warrant over to you if you like, and, at the same time warn you that anything you say may be used in evidence against you."
By this time the wild light had died in Blanchin's eyes and he shrugged his shoulders like one prepared to accept the inevitable.
"As you please, Inspector," he said. "Just as you please."
Inspector Macklin went through the usual formalities and then proceeded to make a thorough search of the room. When, at length, he had finished, he jerked his thumb significantly over his left shoulder and his plain-clothed companions proceeded to remove Blanchin, whilst the inspector requested Nevil to follow him outside, whereupon he closed and locked the door of the laboratory and sealed it. Then he turned to the astonished Jakes, who stood nearby.
"We are police officers, butler," he said. "And we have arrested Mr. Blanchin for reasons which will appear in due course. Meanwhile I have sealed up this room and you are to make it clear to everybody in the house that if that seal is broken, very serious consequences will ensue. I understand that the tenant of the property, Mr. Murray, is in Town, otherwise I should like to have seen him and explained the reason for my errand."
Within five minutes, the big touring car in which the police had arrived was racing down the avenue and, almost before it had disappeared round a bend. Murray's own car, containing Sidey and himself, drew up before the front door.
"What the devil is the meaning of all this?" Murray demanded of the bewildered Jakes. "Blanchin in charge of a policeman, unless I make a great mistake. Why was he arrested?"
"I think," Nevil said in his own natural voice as he stepped forward, "that I can best explain, Mr. Murray."
IT was plain that Murray had been badly shaken. His car had turned into the avenue with no thought in the owner's mind of anything wrong until he had caught a glimpse of Blanchin, plainly in custody. And this at a moment when everything seemed moving so smoothly.
And now he stared at Nevil as if the sudden change in the tone of speech had jarred upon some forgotten cord of memory and set it vibrating. There was an ugly look in his eyes as he turned to Ashdown and demanded to know what he was doing there.
"What's the meaning of all this?" he asked.
Ashdown on the verge of committing what, in a flash, he realised to be an indiscretion, fell back upon his disguise. When he spoke again, it was in the high staccato of Professor Finch.
"I am sorry to intrude," he squeaked. "But there is something that I wanted to show you. Something you ought to see. If you will be good enough to go into the library, I will fetch it from outside. I will not keep you a moment."
"Come along, Sidey," Murray said. "If this old gentleman can throw any light——"
The latter part of the speech was lost as Murray strode into the library, followed by Sidey, and banged the door violently behind him. Nevil turned swiftly to Jakes, who was standing in the hall with his mouth wide open.
"Is Miss Angela in the house?" he demanded.
"She was a few minutes ago, sir," Jakes replied.
"Good," Nevil said. "Now, you go to her at once and tell her that she is wanted at Mr. Blissett's house. At once, mind you, Jakes. Say something has happened that needs her presence immediately."
"Very good, sir," Jakes said obediently.
"And look here, Jakes. By the time you have done that, I shall be in the library discussing certain matters with Mr. Murray. Directly you have seen Miss Angela off the premises, go to the telephone and ring up either Mr. Blissett or his wife. Tell them that Miss Angela is on her way to their house, and that, at any cost, she must be detained there till I turn up. Now, off you go."
Knowing that he could leave this matter in the hands of his old butler, Nevil entered the library, where he could see that the two men were anxiously awaiting him. With all Murray's coolness and audacity, he was evidently uneasy.
"Now, what's all this, Professor?" he demanded. "Am I to understand that Monsieur Blanchin is in the hands of the police?"
"So I gather," Nevil replied, speaking once more in his natural voice. "He was arrested in my presence on a charge of trafficking in illicit drugs, and taken to London. The inspector in charge arrested Blanchin in his laboratory and sealed up the room. On no account is the seal to be tampered with."
"I seem to smell a conspiracy here," Murray said ominously. "And I suspect that you have a hand in it, Professor."
"More or less," Nevil said. "Don't you recognise me yet?"
With that, he removed his glasses, together with his grey wig and side whiskers, and stood confessed for himself. Murray looked at him with a sort of dazed amazement.
"Nevil Ashdown!" he stammered.
"Nobody else," Nevil said. "The last man in the world you expected to see again."
Murray was fighting hard to regain a grip on his shaken nerve, and Sidey, silent in the background, was regarding his chief with a certain moody anxiety in his black shifting eyes.
"Well, go on with the play," Murray said more or less jauntily. "All the same, you might explain the meaning of this masquerade. For instance, why did you disappear in that cheap, dramatic manner, when there was no occasion for anything of the sort?"
"Oh, yes, there was," Nevil smiled. "Fortune was on my side at the moment when things were looking at their worst. I meant to disappear for the time being, in any case, but that ice accident gave me an opportunity that I could not possibly have foreseen. I dare say you wonder why I decided to hide myself for the time being behind the identity of Professor Finch, and I am going to tell you. I did it because I saw an unexpected opportunity of getting even with three of the most infernal rascals I have ever come in contact with, and I have met a few of your sort in America."
A murderous expression smouldered in Murray's eyes, and Sidey began to sidle in Nevil's direction.
"I shouldn't try any violence, if I were you," Nevil went on, calmly and evenly. "You can't play the same trick on me as you did on your accomplice Haywood. Besides, certain of my friends know where I am at the present moment and, if I don't return to them before long, they will begin to make inquiries. If you two scoundrels will only sit down and listen carefully to what I have to say, then it is just possible that I shall refrain from the pleasure of handing you over to the police."
"On what charge, pray?" Sidey sneered.
"We will come to that presently. Your bluff is absolutely useless. I am prepared to show anybody, including a criminal court judge, that you two, together with Blanchin, entered into a conspiracy to rob me of a large sum of money. It was a most ingenious plot and one that came very near to success that evening in this very room when our hypocritical friend, Sidey, almost with tears in his eyes, professed penitence for the wrong you had done and proclaimed all three of you to be common forgers. I have done a bit of acting myself, but I have never seen a better exhibition than that. But you slightly overdid it, Sidey. And when I intercepted a glance between you two, then it flashed upon me that I was the pigeon in the trap or the fly in the web. Before I slept that night, I thought the whole thing out and, subsequent information has proved that I was not wrong in my deductions, and quite sound as regards my scheme. You Murray, were not on the verge of ruin—you were not particularly short of money, neither are you at the present moment. But you and your associates are the type of rogues who cannot be honest, even if it pays. You laid a plot to rob me of a large share of my inheritance and, with the help of your confederate, Haywood, hoped to succeed. Now, for all you induced me to sign a letter ordering the printing of what you subsequently told me were forged bonds, and exchanged them with Haywood for a cheque which was never intended to be presented, they were not forged bonds at all, but genuine certificates. At the same time, Haywood was informed that the bonds were false, though, in reality, they were nothing of the kind. And that is where you were a bit too clever, Murray. Because Haywood, smarting under your treatment of him on one or two occasions, took the precaution of verifying those bonds and discovered, to his delight, that they were genuine. That is why he kept them and defied you to force him to give up possession. You got him down here to spend the week-end in a friendly way and, in this very room, he refused to surrender those certificates. He laughed at you. You accused him of blackmail and he was merely amused."
By this time, the cynical smile had been wiped off Murray's face, and Sidey sat in his chair with a hanging head and every sign of a man who acknowledges defeat.
"All this is pure supposition," Murray said.
"Nothing of the kind," Nevil answered evenly. "I heard the whole conversation myself. I was hidden in that big oak buffet yonder, and nothing that passed escaped me. More than that, I watched Blanchin more than once at his nefarious work in his laboratory. Of course, you don't know the secrets of this old house, but I do. I suppose you have never heard that there is such a thing in the place as a Priest's Hole, and a passage leading to it? But I can assure you there is. And as I could find my way about the house blindfolded, I made every use of my opportunity, carefully disguised as Professor Finch from the United States. That was easy to me, because I have played the character hundreds of times."
"Very clever, very clever indeed," Murray sneered. "But how are you going to prove this? It's only one man's word against another's. I suppose you have forgotten that?"
"Well, hardly," Nevil went on. "You see, I have a witness in the person of Mr. Haywood."
Murray started violently.
"Haywood is dead," he shouted.
"Oh, no, my dear sir, Haywood is very much alive. At the present moment, he is under the roof of my friend, Mr. Blissett, where he has been ever since the night of his accident, when you and the other two rascals tried to murder him."
"What nonsense are you talking?" Murray asked hoarsely.
"You can see him if you like," Nevil resumed. "You did not carry your search on that Saturday far enough. On the other hand, I and Mr. Blissett did. Haywood was thrown clean over the hedge into a field, where he lay unconscious until we were lucky enough to find him, just struggling back to life. We know all about that steel spring business, and how the car was wrecked, in fact, I have the buckle end of the spring in my possession. Now, if I like to prosecute you three and call Haywood as a witness, he will be able to clear himself by declaring all along that he knew the bonds to be genuine. In other words, that it was a clean business transaction on his part, he knowing nothing of the conspiracy. And, when he comes to tell a judge all about his so-called accident and Mr. Blissett and myself bear out his testimony, I thing you will admit, Murray, that you have every chance of going to prison. Now, are you going to take it fighting or lying down—it's all the same to me."
"Very well," Murray said, after a long pause. "You can dictate your own terms. What are they?"
"A GREAT deal easier than you have any right to expect," Nevil said. "I don't quite see how we are going to save a certain amount of curious gossip and, even in my case, people will be asking questions. Also, they will want to know why Haywood has been hiding for a week in my friend's house. But we need not go into that. As far as you two are concerned, you will get out of England within a fortnight or take the consequences. You are a couple of very clever scoundrels and, having the command of a good deal of capital, no doubt will do well in another sphere of life. Mind you, I am not doing this for your sake, or out of any mistaken clemency, but out of my respect for a certain lady who is known to her friends as the daughter of Everard Murray."
"Damn you," Murray said. "Is there anything you don't know?"
"Very little as far as you are concerned," Nevil smiled. "Anyway, there are my terms and you can take them or leave them as you like. Now, as far as you are concerned, I have finished. I hope I shall never see either of you again."
With that, Nevil resumed his disguise and turning his back on the discomfited rascals, made his way without further delay across the fields in the direction of Blissett's house. There he found Tom awaiting him, agog with curiosity to know what had been happening during the last hour.
"So there you are," Nevil said when he had finished his explanation. "And now perhaps you will see why I managed to send Angela over here before the explosion. I wanted to get her out of the Croft, because she was more or less in danger there and, besides, Murray tacitly admitted that the poor girl is no sort of a relation of his. Now, will you go and tell Eleanor all that has happened and get her to break the news to Angela that I am still in the land of the living and would like to see her. While you are doing this, I will get home and change into another suit of clothes and remove this rather irksome disguise of mine."
It was an hour later when Angela came down into the room where Nevil was awaiting her, almost as nervous and agitated as she was herself. All she could do was to hold out her two hands to him and falter some words that he could not hear.
"Well, Angela," he said at length, when the storm of emotion had somewhat died away and a little colour had crept into her face. "I dare say that Eleanor has explained most of my complicated story to you. But, first of all, did she tell you that Murray is no sort of relative of yours?"
"Yes, she did," Angela whispered. "Do you know, I have always felt that there was something between my so-called father and myself? I won't say that he wasn't good and kind to me, because he was, but affectionate, never. He never invited me any of his own. But is he really as bad as Eleanor says he is?"
"Well, my dear girl, you have heard my story second-hand from Eleanor and you must draw your own conclusions. My greatest gratification is that your name is not Murray. And now let us talk about something else which means everything to both of us. Listen to me carefully, Angela, and don't interrupt until I have finished. I am going to tell you a story about a dog, a dog that you know quite well and one you are rather fond of."
Then, very gently and tactfully Nevil proceeded to tell Angela of the spectacle he had witnessed when looking down from the Priest's Hole into Blanchin's laboratory, the spectacle in which the tortured dog played an important part.
"What do you make of that?" Nevil asked.
"Oh, dreadful, dreadful," Angela shuddered. "I suppose you mean that poor animal was drugged into madness by Blanchin. A horrible creature I always detested."
"That is exactly what I do mean," Nevil went on. "Of course, Eleanor told you most of this, at any rate, she told you that he had been arrested on a charge of trafficking in drugs. But did it never occur to you, my dear girl, that Blanchin might have tried an experiment or two on a human being?"
Angela's eyes opened wide in horror.
"He would never dare," she gasped.
"Oh yes he would—a scoundrel of that sort dares anything. Besides, he was inventing a new drug on purpose for human consumption. The idea was to sell this thing in large quantities all over the world. It would have been impossible, therefore, for Blanchin to launch a commercial campaign without first ascertaining that he was correct in his formula. Therefore, it is pretty certain that some poor creature had to suffer."
"Yes, I suppose that is so," Angela agreed.
"Yes, and as many drug addicts are women, Blanchin chose a woman as his subject. Now, let us ask ourselves what effect a dose of that drug would have upon—say—a girl like yourself who never touched such a thing be fore."
"What would it be?" Angela asked innocently.
"Heaven only knows, but something very terrible. I dare say you have read, from time to time, about the sufferings of drug addicts. They lose all their moral sense. They become mental degenerates and are capable of any meanness. It is just possible that a drug such as I mention administered to an unconscious subject, might cause him or her to descend to petty theft. I mean people who have no occasion to do anything of the sort."
A blaze of colour swept into Angela's cheeks and then receded, leaving her white to the very lips.
"It seems almost incredible," she gasped.
"No, my dear," Nevil said. "There is nothing incredible about it. I have just told you how I saw a good tempered, docile dog changed into a mad and dangerous creature by one dose of Blanchin's drug. After all, there is no reason why it shouldn't have the same effect upon a human being. I don't mean to say it would drive you mad like that, because the drug would be too diluted to effect anything so outrageous. But, as the same time, I can quite see how even people like you or me might be likely to descend to some mean and contemptible action when suffering from the effect of a dose of that infernal poison. Now, Angela, is it possible that Blanchin ever experimented upon you? Do you remember any occasion when you detected, say, a pungent flavour in a cup of tea or, a slice of bread and butter?"
"Well, of course I can," Angela said. "At tea time, on three occasions, an acrid, bitter taste that I could not account for. Just as if something had fallen into my cup. Oh yes, I recollect quite plainly now."
"Now, let me ask you another question," Nevil said. "Did one of those occasions happen to be the same day as our theatricals?"
Once more the colour came into Angela's face, only to drain away to an ashy whiteness again.
"Yes," she whispered. "That was a night I shall never forget. But I can't talk about it now, Nevil, I really can't. I ought not to be here talking to you in this confidential way, because there are reasons—powerful reasons—why we can't be any more to one another than just good friends."
"But that is all nonsense," Nevil said, speaking as lightly as he could. "You know perfectly well, Angela, that I love you and want you more than anyone in the world. But if you can look me in the face and say that you, on the contrary——"
"No, no," Angela cried. "No, no, don't torture me. I cannot marry you, Nevil, I cannot marry anybody. And please, please refrain from asking me the reason."
"I don't want to do that, because I am going to tell you the reason," Nevil said. "It may be painful, but where you and I are concerned the truth must be told. You are living under a cloud of misapprehension and trouble and you are trying to throw away your life's happiness—and mine—just because you think that you are beyond the pale when, in very truth, you are nothing more than the victim of a cruel circumstance. I didn't realise until I saw the experiment on that dog and then it came to me in a flash. Blanchin has been experimenting upon you. My dear girl you have just told me so. On the night of the theatricals—your tea was poisoned. That bitter taste, you know. And for the time being, the drug destroyed your sense of moral values. Angela, when you picked up that pearl collar of Diana Longworth's and hid it in your dress, you did not know what you were doing, at least, you were not acting of your own volition. I saw the whole thing done and I contrived by bluffing to get you out of a very tight place. Only at the time, I didn't realise the cause of your dreadful action. But now everything is clear between us. My Angela a thief! The mere idea is amusing."
It was quite a time before Angela spoke again.
"Oh, Nevil," she said. "You can't realise what a weight you have taken off my mind. Because, all this time, I have regarded myself as a common, vulgar thief. I never did such a thing before, and I have only had the impulse once since and I suppose that was after that monster had experimented on me. Oh, it was dreadful. I, loving you as I do, and having to keep you at a distance! And all because I was fearful lest I should fall into the same temptation again and disgrace you."
"Don't let's talk about it any more," Nevil said. "We have quite enough to occupy our time and quite enough unpleasantness to meet without dwelling on the murky past. And, so far as the rest is concerned, if you are going to marry me, it matters nothing."
Angela looked up into his face and he could see that the tears that stood in her eyes were nothing more than tears of happiness.
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