THE FOUR STRAGGLERS
FRANK L. PACKARD
WHEN he opened his eyes again a moonbeam lay bright along the path, and a figure in a long dressing gown was passing by. He was dreaming, wasn’t he? There was a sick sensation in his head, a giddiness—and, besides that, it gave him great pain. He raised himself up cautiously on his elbow, fighting to clear his mind—and suddenly his lips tightened grimly. There was something ironical in that moonbeam—something that mocked him in disclosing a figure in a dressing gown instead of a face that had been unmasked yet still could not be seen. He looked around him now. He was lying a few feet in from the edge of the path, and against the trunk of a large tree. Yes, he remembered now. His head had struck against the tree and he had been knocked unconscious. And the man who had been unmasked was gone.
He rose to his feet. He was very groggy—and for a moment he leaned against the tree trunk for support. The giddiness began to pass away. That was old Mr. Marlin who had just gone by. Well, neither the old madman nor his money had come to any harm, anyway! He stepped out on the path, and from there to the edge of the lawn. The old madman was just disappearing.
Locke put his hands to his eyes. How his head ached! How long had he lain there unconscious? He took out his watch. His eyes seemed blurred—or was it the meagreness of the moonlight? He was not quite sure, but it seemed to be ten minutes after three. It wasn’t very easy to figure backward. He did not know bow long he and the old maniac had been together in the aquarium, but, say, half an hour. Starting then at the hour of the rendezvous, which had been at a quarter past two, that would bring it to a quarter of three; then, say, ten minutes for what had happened afterward, including the fight, and that would make it five minutes of three. He must therefore have been lying in there unconscious for at least fifteen minutes.
THE man who had worn the mask was gone now— naturally. But perhaps it would not be so difficult to pick up the trail. Captain Francis New combe’s room offered very promising possibilities—and there was a torn coat sleeve that would not readily be replaced in fifteen minutes!
He made his way now across the lawn, and up the steps to the verandah. He tried the front door. It was locked. Of course! He had forgotten that he had left the house by crawling out of the aquarium window. There was no use going back that way because the old madman had locked the aquarium door. Mr. Marlin, though, had some means of entrance—and if that door through which the man had so suddenly appeared in the back hall meant anything, the entrance the old man used was likely to be somewhere in the rear. But Mr. Marlin would probably have locked that, too. behind him.
He looked up and down the now moon-flecked verandah—and began to try the French windows that opened upon it from the front rooms of the house. The first two were locked, as he had expected. It
was only a chance, but he might as well begin here as anywhere else. He tried the third one almost perfunctorily. It opened at a touch.
“I’m in luck!” Locke muttered, and stepped inside. He turned the knob to lock the French window behind him, and found the bolt already thrown. Queer! He stood frowning for an instant, then stooped and felt along the inside edge of the threshold. The socket that ordinarily housed the bolt-bar was gone. The same condition therefore obviously existed at the top, as the long bar had a double throw.
He straightened up, a curious smile twitching at his lips now, and, making his way silently to the stairs, he reached the upper hall, stole along it to the door of his .own room, and entered. Here, from one of his bags, he procured a revolver; and a moment later, his ear to the panel, listening, he stood outside Captain Francis New(Combe’s door.
THERE was no sound from within. Softly he began to turn the door handle—the door would hardly be locked; that would be a misplay; one didn’t lock one’s bedroom door,when a guest in a private house. No; it was not locked. He had the door ajar now. Again he listened. There was still no sound from within. Was the man back yet, or not? The absence of any sound meant nothing, save that Nqwqombe ,was probably not in the sitting room
of his suite—he might easily, however, be in either the bathroom or the bedroom beyond. Locke the door little wider
Locke swung the door a little wider open, stepped through, and closed it noiselessly behind him. Again he stood still, his revolver now outthrust a little before him.
The moonlight played across the floor. It disclosed an open door beyond. Still no sound.
Locke moved forward. He could see into the bedroom now. The bed was not only empty, but had not been slept in. He turned quickly and opened the bathroom door. The bathroom, too, was empty. Captain Francis Newcombe had not, then, as yet returned. With a grim
smile Locke thrust his revolver into his pocket. It was perhaps just as well—the time while he waited might possibly be used to very good advantage! Captain Francis Newcombe’s baggage was invitingly at one’s disposal—the Talofa, with its confined quarters, and where, on the little vessel, it was always crowded, as it were, had offered no such opportunity!
Locke opened one of the bags. His smile now had changed to one of irony. Barring any other justification, turn about was no more than fair play, was it? He possessed a moral certainty, if he lacked the actual proof, that Captain Francis Newcombe had not hesitated to invade his, Locke’s, cabin on the liner and go through his, Locke’s, effects.
He laughed a little now in low, grim mirth. He wondered which of the two, Newcombe or himself, would be the better rewarded for his efforts?
There was little light, but Locke worked swiftly by the sense of touch, with fingers that ignored the general contents, and that sought dexterously for hidden things. His fingers traversed every inch of the lining of the bag, top, bottom and sides. He disturbed nothing.
PRESENTLY he laid the bag aside, and started on ■U another—and suddenly he nodded his head sharply in satisfaction. This one was what was generally known as a Gladstone bag, and under the lining at one side his
fingers felt what seemed like a folded paper that moved under his touch. The lining was intact, of course, but there must be some way of getting in underneath it—yes, here it was! Rather clever! And ordinarily quite safe—unless one were actually looking for something of the sort! There was a flap, or pocket, at the side of the bag, the ordinary sort of thing, and at the bottom of the flap Locke’s fingers, working deftly, found that the edges of the lining, while apparently fastened together, were made, in reality, into a double fold—the lining being stiff enough, even when the edges were displaced, to fall back of its own accord into place again.
He separated the edges now, worked his fingers into the opening, and drew out an envelope. It had been torn open at one end, and there was a superscription of some sort on it in faded writing which, in the semi-darkness, he could not make out. He stood up, and went quickly to the window to obtain the full benefit of the moonlight. He could just decipher the writing now:
“Polly’s papers which is God’s truth,
Mrs. Wiekes (X) her mark.”
For a moment he stood there motionless—but his eyes had lifted from the envelope now and were fixed on the lawn below. The window here gave on the side of the lawn with the trees at the rear of the house in view. A man had just stepped out from the shadow of the trees and was coming toward the house.
Locke stared, even the envelope in his hand temporarily forgotten, as a frown of perplexity that deepened into amazed chagrin gathered on his forehead. The figure was quite recognizable, even minutely so. It was Captain Francis Newcombe. It accounted for the missing sockets on that French window perhaps—but the man was as perfectly and immaculately dressed as he had been that night at dinner. There was no torn coat—no missing coat sleeve. The man he had fought with, the man in the mask, had not been Captain Francis Newcombe.
ILJE LAUGHED now—not pleasantly. He had ob-
-1-viously been waiting here for the wrong man. There was no need of waiting any longer—unless he desired to be caught himself! Queer! Strange! But there was the envelope. Polly’s papers! What was it that was “God’s truth”? At least, he would find that out!
He thrust the envelope into his pocket, closed the bag, and returned to his own room. He switched on the light, hurriedly took the envelope from his pocket again, and from it drew out two documents. He studied them while minute after minute passed, then dropping them on the table before him, he stood with drawn face and clenched fists staring across the room. Polly’s birth certificate! The marriage certificate of her parents! He saw again the agony in the dark eyes, he heard the agony in the voice that had proclaimed a parentage outside the pale. And a great oath came now from Locke’s white lips.
He flung himself into a chair beside the table. He fought for cool, contained reasoning. These papers— Newcombe! Did it change anything, place Newcombe in any better light, because it was some other man who had worn that mask to-night? He sho'k his head in quick, emphatic dissent. It did not! He was sure, certain of that. The trail led too far back, was too well defined, too conclusive. And even to-night! What was Newcombe doing out of the house at three o’clock in the morning? Ah, yes—he had it! The old maniac’s words came back with sudden and sure significance: “Digging—digging— digging. The wrong scent. . . The hut in the woods at the rear of the house.”
Locke gnawed savagely at his lips. That was where Newcombe had come from—the woods at the rear of the house. It meant that Newcombe was the one who had been tricked by the old madman’s cunning, which could never have happened if Newcombe had not been stealthily trying to find the hidden money; it simply meant that Newcombe was the one who had been on the wrong scent —and that some one else had been on the right one!
His face was set in lines like chiselled marble now. Who was this “some one else”? Was the question very hard to answer? The field was very limited—significantly limited now! He wasn’t wrong, was he? He couldn’t be wrong! And there was always the torn sleeve!
LOCKE’S eyes fixed upon the two documents on the table again. Captain Francis Newcombe! No; it did not make Newcombe any the less a guilty man because it was not he who had worn the mask to-night. Newcombe stood out sharply defined against the light of evidence which, if only circumstantial, was strong enough to damn the man a thousand times over for what he was. And here, adding to that evidence was the proof that
Polly’s identity bad been, and was being, deliberately concealed from her. it opened a vista to uglier and still more evil things —things that only a soul dead to decency, black as the pit of hell, could have conceived and patiently put into execution. A child— alittlegutter-snipe,
Polly had called herself—rescued from naked poverty and the slums of Whitechapel by a man such as this N'ewcombe, whose only promptings were the promptings of a fiend!
Why? Was there room to question further why Captain Francis New combe had years ago adopted such a ward—when now before one’s eyes those years were bearing poison fruit? Polly’s introduction into this family here was even at this moment being traded upon to effect the theft of half a million dollars. That was too obvious now to permit denial. N'ewcombe was making of a girl, highminded, hideous
yes! All that was clear enough! But why should Potty have been deprived of her rightful name, her claim to honest parentage?
Was it to weld a stronger bond of gratitud e—or make her the more helpless, and therefore the more dependent upon her guardian?
Where were these parents? Dead or living? There was Mrs. Wickes—Mrs. Wickes, who posed as the mother! Well, there were certain quarters in London where those who strayed outside the law could be made to talk. Mrs. Wickes should be able to furnish very interesting information. It was not far to Whitechapel and London—by cable.
His mind, his brain, was working on—but now suddenly in turmoil and misery despite all effort of his to
hold himself in check.
Polly! Polly Gray!
She'loved this monster—that she thought a man, and called her guardian. Not the love of a maid for lover; but? with the love, the honor, the respect and gratitude that she would give a cherished father.
The truth would break her heart. The love her friends had given her. turned to their own undoing! The shame would be torture: the self-degradation, the abasement that she would know, would be beyond the bearing. Her faith would be a shattered thing!
Locke’s clenched hands lay outspread across the table. He drew them suddenly together and dropped his head upon them.
“And you love her,” he whispered to himself. “Do you know what that is going to mean? You did not count on that, did you? Do you know where that will lead? Do
you know the consequences?”
He answered his own questions.
•■No,” he said numbly; “I don’t know what it is going
to mean. I know I love her.”
POLLY WICKES, from her pillow, stared into the darkness. There had been no thought of sleep; it did not seem as though there ever could be again. She had undressed and gone to bed—but she had done this mechanically, because at night one went to bed, because she had always gone to bed.
Not to sleep!
The tears blinding her eyes, she had gToped her way up the stairs from the living room where she had left Howard Locke, and somehow she had reached her room. That was hours and hours ago. Surely the daylight would come soon now; surely it would soon be morning. She wanted the daylight, she wanted the morning, because the darkness and the stillness seemed to accentuate a terrible and merciless sense of isolation that had come so swiftly, so suddenly into her life—to overturn, to dominate, to stupify, to cast contemptuously aside the dreams and thoughts and hopes of happiness and contentment. And yet, though she yearned for the morning, she even
dreaded it more. How could she meet Howard Locke—at breakfast? She couldn’t. She wouldn’t go down to breakfast.
The small hands came from under the coverings, and clasped themselves tightly about the aching head—and she turned and buried her face in the pillow. She might easily, very easily evade breakfast—and postpone the inevitable for a few minutes, even a few hours. Why did she grasp at pitiful subterfuges such as that?
She was nameless.
That phrase had come hours ago. It had scorched itself upon her brain—as a branding iron at white heat sears its imprint upon quivering flesh, never to be effaced, always to endure. She was nameless. It wasn’t that she had not always known it—she always had. But it meant now what it had never meant before. Until now it had been as something that, since it must be borne, she had striven to bear with what courage was hers, and, denying its right to embitter life, had sought to imprison it in the dim recesses of her mind—but now in an instant it had broken its bonds to stand forth exposed in all its ugliness; no longer captive, but a vengeful captor, claiming its miserable right from now on to control and dominate her life.
CHE had thought of love—it would have been unnatural ^ if she had not. But she had never loved, and therefore she bad thought of it only in an abstract way. Dream love—fancies. But she loved now—she loved this man who had so suddenly come into her life—she loved Howard Locke. And happiness, greater than she had realized happiness could ever be, had unfolded itself to her gaze, and love had become a vibrant personal thing, so wonderful, so tender and so glad a thing, that beside it all the world was little and insignificant and empty; but even as the glory of it, and the joy of it had burst upon her, she had been obliged to turn away from it—not very bravely, for the tears had scalded her as she had run from the living room—because there was no other thing to do, because it was something that was not hers to have.
She could never be the wife of any man.
She was nameless.
Why had she ever found it out! It might so easily have been that she would have never known. That—that no one need ever have known! She was sure that even her guardian did not know.
She smothered her face deeper in the pillow as she cried out in anguish. She could have had happiness then—and —and it would have been honorable for her to have taken it, wouldn’t it?
She lay quiet for a little while. No; that was cowardly, selfish. If she really loved this man, she should be glad for his sake that she knew the truth, glad now of the day when she had found it out. She remembered that day. It
seemed to live’more vividly before her now than it ever had before. Mrs. Wickes—her mother—had been drinking. The words were a slip of the tongue; a slip that her mother, owing to her condition at the time, had not even been conscious of. Mrs. Wickes had been garrulously recounting some sordid crime that had rein a i n e d famous even amongst its many fellows in Whitechapel, and, in placing the date, had stated it was two years after Mr. Wickes had died. Later on, in the same garrulous account, she had again referred to the date, but had placed it this time by saying that she, Polly, was a baby not more than a month old when it had happened.^ 4 And on that day when she had listened to her mother’s tale she had still been but a child—in years. She could not have been more than twelve—but she was very old for twelve. The slums of London had seen to that. And so, the next day, when her mother had been more herself, she had asked Mrs. Wickes, more out of a precocious curiosity perhaps than anything else, for an explanation. Mrs. Wickes had flown into a furious rage.
“Mind yer own business!” Mrs. Wickes had screamed at her. “The likes of you a-slingin’ mud at yer mother! Wot you got to complain of? Ain’t I takin' care of you? If ever you says another word I’ll break yer back!”
SHE had never said another word. In one sense she had not been different from any other child of twelve then, and it had not naturally caused any change in her feelings toward her mother; nor in the after years, with their fuller light of understanding, had it ever changed or abated her love for the mother with whom she had shared hardship and distress and want. She thanked God for that now. Her mother might have been one to inspire little love and little of respect in others; but to her, Polly, when she had parted from her mother to come here to America, she had parted from the only human being in all the world she had ever loved, or who, in turn, had ever showed affection for her. She had never ceased to love her mother; instead, she had perhaps been the better able to understand, and even to add sympathy to love and to know a great pity, where bitterness and resentment and unforgiveness might otherwise have been, because she, too, had lived in those drab places where the urge of selfpreservation alone was the standard that measured ethics, where one fought and snatched at anything, no matter from where or by what means it came, that kept soul and body together—because she could look out on that life, not as one apart, but with the eyes of one who once had been a—a gutter-snipe.
Now that this crisis in her life had come—what now? She did not know. She had been trying to think calmly, but her brain would not obey her—it was crushed, stunned. It ached even in a physical way, frightfully, and— She raised her head suddenly from the pillow in a sort of incredulous amazement—and immediately afterward sat bolt upright in bed. The telephone here in her room was ringing. At this hour! Her heart suddenly seemed to stop beating. Something—something must be wrong— something must have happened—Dora—Mr. Marlin!
It was still ringing—ringing insistently.
SHE sprang from the bed, and, running to the phone, snatched the receiver from its hook.
“Yes, yes?” she answered breathlessly. "What is it?’' A voice came over the wire; a man’s voice, rising and falling creepily in a sing-song, mocking sort of way:
“Is that you, Polly—Polly Wickes—Polly Wickes— Polly Wickes—Wickes—Wickes—P-o-l-l-y W-i-c-k-e-s?” It frightened her. She felt the blood ebb from her cheeks. There was something horribly familiar in the voice—but she could not place it. Her hand reached out to the wall for support.
“Yes”—she tried to hold her voice in control, to answer steadily—“yes; I am Polly Wickes. W ho arc you? What do you want?”
She heard the sound as of a gust of wind from a door that was suddenly blown open, the beat of the sea, then the slam of a door—and then the voice again :
“Polly—Polly Wickes.” The words seemed to be choked with malicious laughter. “Why don’t you dress in black. Polly Wickes—Polly Wickes—for your mother, Polly Wickes?”
“What do you mean?” she cried frantically. “Who are you? Who are you? What do you mean?”
There was no answer.
She kept calling into the phone.
Nothing! No reply! The voice was gone.
She stood there staring wildly through the darkness. Black. . . for her mother. . . dead! No, no. . it couldn’t be true! That voice. . . yes, it was like the horrible voice that had called out the other night. .. she knew now why it was familiar....
Terror stricken, the receiver dropped from her hand. Dpad! Her mother dead! It couldn’t be true! She began to grope around her. The chair—her dressing gown. Her hands felt the garment. She snatched it up, flung it around her, and stumbled to the door and along the hall to Captain Francis Newcombe’s room. And here she knocked mechanically, but, without listening for response opened the door, and, stumbling still in a blind way, crossed the threshold.
“Guardy! Guardy! Oh, Guardy!” she sobbed out.
CAPTAIN FPANCIS NEWCOMBE was not asleep.
Quite apart from the fact that he had only got to bed but a very short while before, the cards that night had gone too badly against him, and there was a savage sense of fury upon him that would not quiet down. And now, as he heard his door open and heard Polly call, he was out of bed and into a dressing gown in an instant. Polly out there in his sitting room—at halfpast four in the morning! And she was sobbing. She sobbed now as he heard her call again :
“Guardy! Guardy! Oh, Guardy!”
This was queer—damned queer! His face was suddenly set in the darkness as he crossed the bedroom floor—but his voice was quiet, cool, reassuring, as he answered her: “Right-o, Polly! I’m coming!”
He switched on the light as he entered the sitting room. It brought a quick, startled cry over the sobs.
“Oh, please, Guardy!” she faltered out. “ —I—please turn off the light.”
“Of course!” he said quietly—and it was dark in the room again.
He had caught a glimpse of a little figure crouching just inside the door—a little figure with white, strained face, with great, wondrous masses of hair tumbling about her shoulders, with hands that clasppd some filmy drapery tightly across her bosom, and small, dainty feet that were bare of covering. And as he moved toward her now across the room, another mood took precedence over the savagery he had just been nursing—a mood no holier. It might be queer, th s visit of hers; but that glimpse of her, alluring, intimate, of a moment gone, had set his blood afire again —and far more violently than it had on that first occasion when he had seen her here on the island two nights ago. It brought again to the fore the question that, through a cursed nightmare of happenings, had almost since that time lain dormant .
Was he going to let Locke have her—or was he going to keep her for himself?
How far had she gone with Locke? They had been a lot together. Well, that mattered little—if he wanted her for himself he would make the way to get her,
Locke and hell combined to the contrary! The woman—against her potential value as somebody else’s wife! Damn it, that was the wonder of her—that she could even hold her own when weighed on such scales. There were lots of women.
He had reached her now, and touched her, found her hand and taken it in his own.
“What is it, Polly?” he asked gently. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s—it’s mother,” she whispered brokenly. “The téléphoné in my room rang a few minutes ago, and some one—a man—and, oh, Guardy, I’m sure it was the same voice that we heard when we were in the woods the night before last—asked m'‘ why I didn’t wear black for my mother. It—it couldn’t mean anything else but—but that mother is dead. Oh, Guardy, Guardy! How could he know, Guardy? How could he know?”
/CAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE made no move^ ment, save to place his arm around the thinly clad shoulders, and draw the little figure closer to him. It was dark here, she could not have seen his face anyway, but it was composed, calm, tranquil. Perhaps the lips straightened a little at the corners—nothing more. But the brain of the man was working at lightning speed. Here was disaster, ruin, exposure, if he made the slightest slip. Again, eh? This was the fourth time this devil from the pit had shown his hand! The reckoning would be adequate! But how was he to answer Polly? Quick! She must not notice any hesitation. Tell her that Mrs. Wickes was dead? He had a ready explanation on his tongue, formulated days ago, to account for having withheld that information. Seize this opportunity to tell her that Mrs, Wickes was not her mother? No! Impossible! He had meant to use all this to his advantage, and in his own good time. It was too late now. He was left holding the bag! If he admitted that Mrs. Wickes was dead, he admitted that there was some one on this island whose mysterious presence, whose mysterious knowledge, must cause a furor, a search, with possible results that at any hazard he dared not risk. Polly would tell Locke—Dora —everybody. It was impossible! But against this, sooner or later, Polly must know of Mrs. Wickes’ death, and— Bah! Was he become a child, the old cunning gone? He would keep her for a while from England—travel—anything—and, months on, the word would come that Mrs. Wickes was dead, and found in the old hag’s effects would be Polly’s papers. The one safe play, the only play, was not alone to reassure the girl now, but to keep her mouth shut. Above all to keep her mouth shut! But—how? How1 Yes! He had it now! His soul began to laugh in unholy glee. His voice was grave, earnest, tender, sympathetic.
“He couldn’t have known, Polly,” he said. “That is at once evident on the face of it. How could any one on this little out-of-the-way island possibly know a thing like that when I, who am the only one who could know, and who have just come direct from England, know it to be untrue. Don’t you see, Polly?”
He had drawn her head against his shoulder, stroking back the hair from her forehead. She raised it now quickly.
“Yes, Guardy!” she said eagerly. “I—I see; and I’m so glad I came to you at once. But—but it is so strange,
and—and it still frightens me terribly. I don’t understand I—I can’t understand. Why should any one ring the telephone in my room at this hour, and—and tell me a thing like that if it were not true?”
“Or even if it were true—at such an hour, or in such a manner,” he injected quietly. “Tell me exactly what happened. Polly.”
“I think I’ve told you everything,” she said. “I don’t think there was anything else. When I answered the phone, the voice asked if I were Polly Wickes, and kept on repeating my name over and over again in a horrible crazy, sing-song way, and then I heard a sound as though a door had been blown open by the wind, and I could hear the waves pounding, and then the door was evidently slammed shut again, and the voice said what I —I have told you about wearing black for my mother. And then I couldn’t hear anything more, and I couldn’t get any answer, though I called again and again into the phone. Oh, Guardy, I can’t understand! I—I’m sure it was the same voice as that other night. What does it mean? Guardy, what should w7e do? Who could it be?”
A DOOR blown open by the wind! The sound of the -t*waves! Where was there a telephone that would measure up to those requirements? Not in the house! Captain Francis Newcombe smiled grimly in the darkness. The private installation was restricted to the house and its immediate surroundings. Therefore the boathouse! The boathouse had a phone connection. And there was still an hour or more to daybreak! But first to shut Polly’s mouth.
“Polly,” he said gravely, measuring his words, “I haven’t the slightest doubt but that it was the same voice we heard in the woods; in fact, I’m quite sure of it. And I’m equally sure now that I know who it is.”
She drew back from him in a quick, startled way.
“But, Guardy, you said it was only some one cat-calling to—”
“Yes; I know,” he interrupted seriously. “But I did not tell you what I was really suspicious of all along. With what I had to go on then, it did not seem that I had any right to do so. It’s quite a different matter now, however, after what has happened to-night.”
“Yes?” she prompted anxiously.
“There can be only two possible explanations,” he said. “Either some one is playing a cruel hoax; or it is the work of an unhinged mind, an irrational act, a phase of insanity that—”
“Guardy!” she cried out sharply. “You mean—
“Yes,” he said steadily; “I do, Polly. And there can really be no question about it at all. Can you imagine any one doing such a thing merely from a perverted sense of humor?—any one of us here? —for it must have been some one of us who is connected with the household in order to have had access to a telephone. It is unthinkable, absurd, isn’t it? On the other hand, the hour, the irresponsible words, their ‘crazy’ mode of expression, as you yourself said, the motiveless declaration of a palpable untruth, all stamp it as the work of one who is not accountable for his actions—of one wrho is literally insane. And then the fact that you recognized the voice as the one we heard two nights ago is additional proof, if such were needed, which it very obviously is not. You remember that we had seen Mr. Marlin in his dressing gown disappear under the verandah a few minutes before we heard the calls and cries and w7ild. insane laughter. My first thought then was that it was Mr. Marlin, and I was afraid that either harm had, or might, come to him. I sent you at once back to the house, and I ran into the woods to look for him. I did not find him; and therefore, as there was always the possibility then that I had been mistaken, I felt that I should not alarm any of you here, and particularly Miss Marlin, by suggesting that Mr. Marlin’s condition was decidedly worse than even it was sup-
posed to be. Is it quite plain, Polly? I do not think we hmf . far to look for the one who telephoned you tonight."
nK COULD just see her in the darkness, a little white, shadowy form, as she stood slightly away from him now One of her hands was pressed in an agitated way to her face and eyes; the other still held tightly to the throat of her dressing gown.
"Oh, yes, it's plain, Guardy,” she whispered miserably. "It’s —it’s too plain. Poor, poor Mr. Marlin! What are we to do? It would hurt Dora terribly if she knew her father had done this. I—I can’t tell her.”
"Of course, you can’t,” said Captain Francis Newcombe gravely. "Your position is even more delicate than mine was the other’night. 1 do not see that you can do anything—except to say nothing about it to any one for the present."
‘"Yes," she agreed numbly.
She began to move toward the door.
"It’s not likely to happen again,” said Captain Francis Newcombe reassuringly; "and. anyway, you can make sure it won’t by just leaving t he receiver off the hook. Do that. Polly.” And then, solicitously: "But you’re not frightened any more now, are you, Polly? A mystery explained loses its terror, doesn’t it? And, besides, the main thing was to know that your mother was all right.” “My mother—”
He thought he heard her catch her breath in a quick, sudden half sob.
’•It’s all right. Polly.” he said hastily. "Don’t think of that part of it any more. Everything’s all right.”
“Yes; I—I know.” Her voice was very low'. “It’s—all right. I—good-night. Guardy.”
She had opened the door.
"I’ll see you to your room,” he said.
"No,” she answered; "I’m not frightened any more. Good—good-night, Guardy.”
"Good-night, Polly,” he said.
The door closed.
Captain Francis Newcombe stood in the darkness. And for a moment he did not move—but the mask was gone now. and the laughter that came low from his lips wTas a mirthless sound, and the working face was black with fury. And then he turned, and with a bound was back in the bedroom, and snatching at his clothes began to dress. There was still an hour to daybreak.
The White Shirt Sleeve
AN HOUR to daybreak! Passion, unchecked and unrestrained. was stamped on Captain Francis Newcombe’s face as he dressed now w'ith savage, ferocious haste. He swore and snarled, making low venomous sounds in the fury that possessed him. There was no longer room for the fear that last night, here in his rooms, had gnawed at his soul itself—the fear of the unknown', there was no longer room for fear in any sense, whether born of the intangible, for whether it knew its source in man, or God, or devil,—there'was only murder, that alone, in his heart.
The blows were coming nearer and nearer home. Too near! And his efforts to strike one in return had resulted in little to boast about so far! Disaster, ruin, that dangling gibbet chain, were inevitable if this went on. He had been too cautious perhaps! Well, that was ended now! He swore again—bitter, sacrilegious in his rage. The luck had been running against him. Even an old fool had tricked him—even a maniac, a cracked-brained idiot, and one almost in his dotage besides, had tricked him! Last night after he had read that infernal message at the hut he had made no effort to uncover the madman’s horde— he had lain there waiting. Hours of waiting, patient waiting—listening—his revolver in his hand—the one chance that the unknown might not have gone away, might have lingered, hidden in the foliage, to gloat—and die. He had waited in vain. To-night he had gone back to the hut only to find after hours of search that the old madman’s money, wherever else it might be, was not there. And then he had returned here—and again the unknown had struck swiftly, viciously, cunningly.
When, where, how would the next blow fall?—unless he could now strike the quicker, and strike surely! How much further was it to the abyss of exposure? To-night he had stood perilously close to its edge, hadn’t he? If he had not been able to pull the wool over Polly’s eyes with the specious explanation that it was old Marlin who had telephoned, he would—
He stood suddenly motionless, tense, with his coat half on, his working lips drawn for the moment tight together. Had it been, after all, merely a specious explanation? Was he so sure that it wasn't old Marlin, after all, who had telephoned? The old madman was cunning; and, granting
that fact as a premise, his act last night in pretending to go to his money in the hut must have been prompted by suspicion of some sort. The money had never been in that hut. The bit of flooring that was loose was flush with the ground beneath, and the ground had never been disturbed —and this was true of everywhere else in the hut. The old maniac, then, was suspicious that he was being followed by somebody, and had set a false trail. Of whom would he be suspicious? The question answered itself. The newcomers on the island, of course. And, being suspicious of them, he would want to drive them away. To frighten Polly into the belief that her mother was dead might very easily appeal to an insane brain, and even to one that wasn’t, as a very clever and effective means of accomplishing this end surreptitiously. Polly might very logically be expected in her grief to wish to bring her visit here to an end, even if she did not, indeed, insist on returning to England at once -and the result would be that all who had come here, Locke, Runnells and himself. would naturally leave with her. Why not? The madman was certainly cunning enough; he could have telephoned—and the motive was there.
No! With an angry, self-contemptuous snarl, Captain Francis Newcombe jerked on his coat. Was he trying to qualify for an insane asylum himself? The old maniac could have done this to-night, otherwise the explanation made to Polly would have been merely an absurdity; but old Marlin had not been on the liner and could not have fired that shot through the cabin'window—nor could the old man have known, as instanced by that voice in the woods, that he, Newcombe, was Shadow Varne—or known anything of the murder of Sir Harris Greaves. The man who had telephoned to-night —making the fourth mysterious blow that had been struck—was the man who had showed his hand on these three former occasions. This was so blatantly obvious that to have allowed his brain to shoot off at a tangent so idiotic but increased his anger now.
HE SNEERED at himself as he finished dressing.
There was only one man on the island who could be made to fit into each and every one of the four niches. Runnells! Runnells had been on board ship, even though at the time Runnells had apparently been asleep; Runnells was in a position to know, and to know what now appeared to be certainly foo much, about Shadow Varne; and Runnells, though the man could prove nothing, was, more than any one else, in a position to entertain suspicions in reference to the murder of the baronet who meddled so gratuitously with the affairs of others.
Captain Francis Newcombe slipped a flashlight and a revolver into his pocket, and made for the door of his room. Quite so! All this was nothing new—no new angle—he had mulled this over a hundred times before. But up to now he had held his hand—and for two very good reasons. In the first place he had not been able to bring himself to believe that it was Runnells, for he could not see where Runnells would profit by any such game; and, secondly, as he had already argued with himself, should it not prove to be Runnells, he almost inevitably disclosed hi own hand and his real purpose in coming here to Manwa Island, and it would in that case make a partner of Runnells—and partners shared in the profits! But the time for hesitation on any such score as that was gone now; not only because the ice he was treading on, already thin, had nearly broken through to-night, and the promise of imminent and final disaster was forcing his hand, but because, in respect of Runnells, the absence of apparent motive—Runnells would be made to explain that!—counted for nothing now in view of the fact that he, Newcombe, had more to go on to-night than he had had before. Not only was Runnells one who fitted into the role of the “unknown” on each of the four occasion , but Runnells, as though to clear the matter of all doubt, knew what surely no one else on the island could possibly know—that Mrs.
Wickes actually was dead.
He, Newcombe, had himself to blame for that, and it appeared now that he had trusted R nnells too far; but somebody had had to bury the old hag. Not Captain Francis Newcombe!
To have left her in the status of a pauper for the authorities, or the Mission Boards, or any of that ilk to have taken care of, and in view of the fact that it must have been known amongst her neighbors that she had for a long time received money from somewhere, talk, comment, investigation, official this and official that, would have been invited. It might have
amounted to nothing—but if a rock that is held in one’s hand is not thrown into the calm waters of a pool the placid surface is not disturbed! He had delegated Runnells to interview the undertaker and arrange for the quiet and unostentatious disposal of Mrs. Wickes’ mortal remains. Runnells, for the time being, did very well as a nephew of the deceased, who, though in neither close nor loving touch with his somewhat questionable relation, at least recognized the family tie to the extent of paying for her very modest and unpretentious obsequies.
OAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE crept quietly ^ along the hall now. Runnells’ room, thanks to the hospitable thoughtfulness of Miss Marlin, in order that the “man” might be nearer at hand and therefore the better able to serve his “master,” was not in the servants’ quarters, but was at the extreme end of the hall here just at the head of the stairs. Captain Francis Newcombe’s hand felt along the wall to guide him in the darkness. He had no desire to stumble over anything and arouse anybody; Locke, or Dora Marlin, for instance—and he had not forgotten that Polly was probably lying wide awake. The only one to be aroused was Runnells—and that very quietly. Runnells was a professional criminal, not a particularly clever one, but possessed, where a question of self-preservation was concerned, of a certain low cunning born of his hazardous career, a cunning that was not to be ignored. Cornered here in his room, for instance, Runnells, though quite well aware that he, Captain Francis Newcombe, would have no more hesitation about putting an end to him than an end to an obnoxious fly, would be equally well aware that here in the house he was possessed of a defence that rendered him invulnerable because no threat could be put into execution in silence, and that a cry, a shout, and, if necessary, to those who came to his succor, a confession of his own past misdeeds in order to prove his alliance with, and implicate his “master” in criminal intrigue, would protect him—for the moment—utterly.
But he, Captain Francis Newcombe, had no intention of making any such unpardonable misplay as that! Runnells would never look down the barrel of a revolver with a confidence born of the fact that the trigger dared not be pulled; Runnells would never feel a grip upon his throat and still be able to defy the clutching fingers because he knew they feared the cry, the gasp, the noise of strangulation. It would not be in Runnells’ room that the man would lay bare his soul through fear to-night! Runnells would be played as a fish is played!
CAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE was halfway along the hall now. His mind, despite the fury that from smoldering rage had broken into flaming heat, was logical, measured, precise. That telephone message could have come from nowhere else but from the boathouse. That was self-evident. If Runnells, thèn, was at the bottom of this, the question now was whether Runnells had got back to his room yet or not? And, if he were back, how long had he been back?—the man must be allowed time to undress and get into bed. To discover Runnells fully dressed at this hour was to force the issue then and there in Runnells’ room; for Runnells, caught like that, while he might be voluble with explanations, would of necessity at the same time be thrown instantly upon his guard, and would not be fool enought to be enticed into any trap, no matter how apparently genuine the pretense of accepting his explanations might be made to appear.
Captain Francis Newcombe was at the door now listening. Runnells would have had time by now to have got to bed; certainly there was no sound from within, and— He drew back from the door suddenly, but as silently as a shadow. There was no sound from within, but someone was creeping, though with every attempt at silence, up the staircase. Captain Francis Newcombe retreated still a little farther back along the hall, and, with body hugged now close against the wall, waited in
the darkness. He could see nothing—not even across the hall; and, therefore, he was quite secure from being observed himself, but his hand, in his pocket, now was closed over the butt of his revolver.
The sounds were very faint, but they were equally unmistakable—now the muffled, protesting creak of a stair tread; now that sound, like no other sound so much as the padded footfall of an animal, as weight was placed on the carpeted stairs. The footsteps came nearer and rearer to the upper landing, slow, laborious in their caution and stealth. And then another sound—equally faint and equally unmistakable—the opening and closing of the door at the head of the stairs.
CAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE relaxed. His lips twisted into a smile of malignant satisfaction. Runnells!
So it was Runnells who had indulged in that little telephone conversation; Runnells, the pitiful, foolhardy moth—and the flame! Runnells, instead of being already in bed, was just getting back. So much the better—it would tax Runnells’ ingenuity a little beyond its limitations to explain this unseemly hour! It made it perhaps just a little easier to handle and break the man.
Captain Francis Newcombe moved silently back again to the door of Runnells’ room, and again listened at the panels. The sound of movement from within was distinctly audible. Runnells was preparing to go to bed.
THE minutes passed—five—ten of them. It was quiet inside the room now. And then Captain Francis Newcombe knocked softly with his knuckles on the door— two raps in quick succession, then a single one followed by two more.
There was a sound almost on the instant as of the sudden creaking of the bed, and then the hurry of feet across the floor to the door. Then sil nee again. Captain Francis Newcombe smiled thinly to himself. Runnells was caution itself. He repeated the knocks precisely as before.
The door opened. Runnells showed as a white, vague figure in his night clothes.
“What’s up?” whispered Runnells anxiously.
“I’m afraid we’ve been spotted,” said Captain Francis Newcombe tersely.
“Spotted!” Runnells echoed the word with a gulp. “Who by?”
“Some swine from the Yard, I suppose,” replied Captain Francis Newcombe as tersely as before. “Do you remember Detective-Sergeant Mullins?”
“Him?” gasped Runnells. “My Gawd, he ain’t followed us here, has he? Strike me pink! My Gawd! I said all along it was damned queer him showing up at the rooms that night. Are you sure?”
“Not yet—and I never will be if you stand there gawking,” said Captain Francis Newcombe sharply. “Go and get your clothes on—and hurry up aboutit! It’ll soon be daylight. Every minute counts. Meet me down on the verandah.”
He did not wait for Runnells’ reply. It was not necessary. Runnells had swallowed bait, hook and line. Captain Francis Newcombe indulged in a low, savage chuckle, as, descending the stairs, he unlocked the fi ont door and stepped quietly out on the verandah. He had not lunged in the dark, nor was it chance that had prompted him to endow his bogey with the personality of Detective-S e rgeant Mullins—he had not forgotten Runnells’ white face on the occasion when the man from Scotland Yard had sent in his card!
And now as he waited^on the
verandah, the low, savage chuckle came again. The boathouse would serve admirably—since Runnells seemed to have a penchant for it! It was far enough away to obviate the possibility of any sound carrying to the house; and, inside, it possessed light. He wanted light when he handled Runnells! Quite apart from the fact that darkness in itself afforded too many chances for a lucky escape, he could not read Runnells in the darkness. Also, affording him a malicious delight, there was exquisite irony in the thought that the setting for what was to come should be the one that Runnells had himself chosen tonight—for quite another purpose than that it should be the scene of his own undoing!
The front door opened and Runnells emerged.
“What’s the game?” Runnells asked hoarsely. “D’ye know where he is?”
It was quite unnecessary to be anything but frank with Runnells as to their destination. Runnells, safe in the belief that he had been mistaken for one DetectiveSergeant Mullins and that his “master” was wide of the mark and astray, would also enjoy the irony to be found in a trip to the boathouse. It would be a pity to deprive Runnells of anything like that! Captain Francis Newcombe nodded curtly, as, motioning the other to follow, he led the way across the lawn.
“Yes; I think so,” he said. “I’ve ieason to believe he’s been using the boathouse to hide and live in.”
“Strike me pink!” mumbled Runnells. “That’s what I always said to myself after that night: I says, look out for that bird—and I was bloody well right.”
“I fancy you were,!’ agreed Captain Francis Newcombe coolly, “though I didn’t think so at the time. But hurry up! There’s no time to lose if we want to trap him.”
They had entered the wooded path leading to the shore, and, curiously enough, Runnells was now in front—and in the darkness, as it swung at his side, Captain Francis Newcombe’s hand held a revolver.
“How’d he get here?” Runnells jerked back over his shoulder. “How’d you twig it? And when did he come?” “About the same time we did, I imagine,” replied Captain Francis Newcombe shortly. “Don’t talk so loud —or any more at all, for that matter. The wind has died down a bit, and we might be heard. Make straight for one of those little bridges at the boathouse—the one on this side—the nearer one. Understand? And look out for yourself—the man’s no fool, I’ll say that for him.” “Right!” said Runnells in a muffled voice, as they came out of the woods and the boathouse loomed up, shadowy and indistinct, some fifty yards away.
' I 'HERE was laughter in Captain Francis Neweombe’s A soul now, a mirth parented out of savagery and vindictiveness, a laugh at the blind fool treading so warily and cautiously and silently across the sandy beach here in order that he should not be denied the shambles! The laugh seemed to demand physical, audible expression. He choked it back. In a moment or so more he could laugh to his heart’s content. The boathouse was only a few yards away now. He rubbed close against Runnells’ side, as though to preserve touch with the other in the darkness. Runnells’ revolver was in the right-hand coat pocket, and—
Both men had halted simultaneously. Close to the boathouse now and in its lee, the sound of the breaking waves was somewhat deadened, but from under the over hang of the verandah there had come another sound, as though a vicious slapping were being given the comparatively smooth water under the boathouse, and then a sudden floundering and splashing, and then the slapping again.
Runnells’ hand went to his side pocket—« but as it came out again with his revolver Captain Francis Newcombe’s hand closed upon it like a vise, and with a quick twist and wrench secured the weapon.
“What —what did you do that for?” Runnells stammered in a low, startled way. “Didn’t you hear that in under the boathouse? There’s some one there. Maybe it’s ■him.”
Captain Francis Newcombe laughed now— aloud.
“So you think there’s some one in under there, do you, Runnells?” he drawled.
“Yes,” said Runnells, and drew a little away. “You heard it just the same as I did, but—but I don’t understand what you—”
“You will in a minute!” Captain Francis Newcombe’s voice was still a drawd. “But meanwhile we’ll see whether you’re right or not. You don’t mind going first, do you, Runnells?” His revolver muzzle wras suddenly pressed against the small of Runnells’ back, “I’ve known you to be a bit tricky at times. Go on!”
Something like a whimper came from Runnells. He stood irresolute.
“Go on! In under there! We’ll see this ‘some one’ of yours first of all!” Captain Francis Newcombe’s voice snapped now. “Move!”
A push from the revolver muzzle sent Runneils forward.
“What—what are you doing this to me for?” the man burst out in a shaken voice again.
Captain Francis Newcombe made no answer. He too had heard the sounds in under there, but if Runnells were up to some more of his games it would avail Runnells very little now. Runnells’ body, if there were by any chance some one ahead here in the darkness, made a most excellent and effective shield. It was inky black in here, and now underfoot, as they went forward, in place of the pure sand there were rocks and a slightly muddv bottom.
HIS left hand deposited the surplus revolver in his pocket, and in exchange drew out his flashlight. He thrust the flashlight out past Runnells’ side in front of them both, and switched it on.
A cry broke on the instant from Runnells’ lips—a cry of terror.
“Look! Look!” Runnells cried. “Let me go! Let me get out of here! This is a horrible, slimy, ghastly hole! Let me go—let me go! It’s—it’s a dead man!”
} Captain Francis Newcombe’s jaws had clamped. Into the focus of the round white ray had come the big concrete pier that supported the building in the center, slime-draped, green and oozy now with the tide still low;
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and, nearer in again, a black ribbon of water, strangely like silk in its rippling under the light, for the sea wall way out beyond had lulled it here into the quiet almost of a pond, lapped at the shore, lapped and lapped, as though striving with hideous patience to creep yet another inch onward, and yet another, and always another, that it might reach a huddled thing that lay still several yards away.
A huddled thing!
Captain Francis Newcombe ruthlessly pushed Runnells forward until they both stood directly over it. And now the flashlight’s ray played upon it—upon a twisted crumpled form, a dead thing, a man whose clothes in places were in ribbons as though the very body had been mangled, a man in a white shirt sleeve where the sleeve of the coat had been torn away at the armpit, a man around whose neck and across whose face were long, horribly regular lines of round, lurid marks, near purple now against the bloodless skin.
And Runnells with a scream shrank back and covered his face with his hands.
“My Gawd!” he screamed out in terror. “It’s Paul!” he screamed. “It’s Paul Cremarre!”
CHAPTER II The Bronze Key
PAUL CREMARRE! And the man was not a pleasant sight!
The slime, the water and the mud! The Stygian blackness that seemed to mock and jeer at the puny ray of the flashlight! The lap-lap-lap of the wavelets that echoed back in hollow, ghostly whispers from the flooring of the boathouse above! And Runnells, grovelling, drawing in his breath with loud, sucking sounds. Noises of sea and air—indefinable—all discord ant—like imps in jubilee! It was a ghouls’ hole!
But Captain Francis Newcombe smiled —with a thin parting of the lips. He knew a sudden elation, a stupendous uplift. He found joy in each of those abominable marks on the face of the Thing that lay at the end of his flashlight’s ray. They were not pretty—but they were all too few!
“Got your wind up, has it, Runnells?” he sneered—and thereafter for a moment, though he never let Runnells entirely out of the light’s focus, gave his fuller attention to Paul Cremarre.
The man was dead, wasn’t he? It was a matter that could not be left in doubt— even where doubt seemed to be dispelled at a glance. He bent down over the other. An instant’s examination satisfied him. The man was dead. His eyes roved over the body, and held suddenly on one of the man’s hands. Rather peculiar, that! The hand was tightly clenched. One did not ordinarily die with one hand clenched and the other open! He forced the hand open. Something fell to the ground. He picked it
up. It was a large, bronze key about three inches in length. Cupping it in bis hand so that Runnells might not inadvertently see it, he stared at it speculatively for a moment, then dropped it into his pocket.
This was interesting, decidedly interesting—and suggestive! His flashlight became more inquisitive in respect of the immediate surroundings. Those footprints, for instance, in the half mud and sand, deep, irregular, which, leading up from the edge of the water some four or five yards away, ended where Paul Cremarre now lay—and another series of footprints, a little to the right, quite regular, which, though they also started from the water's edge, lost themselves in the direction of the beach in front of the boathouse.
CAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE worked swiftly now. He searched through the dead man’s pockets, transferring the contents, without stopping to examine them, to his own pockets—and then abruptly and without ceremony swung upon Runnells.
“We’ll finish this up in the boathouse!” he snapped.
Runnells’ reply was inarticulate. Captain Francis Newcombe, with his revolver again at the small of Runnells' back, drove the man before him—out from under the verandah, up one of the ramp-like bridges and into the little lounge room of the boathouse. Here, he switched on the light—and with a sudden, savage grip around Runnells’ throat, flung the man sprawling into one of the big easy chairs.
“Now, my man,” he said, “we’ll have our little settlement, since Paul has already had his! I congratulate you—both! And perhaps you ipay have a very early opportunity of letting him know that I did not overlook him in my felicitations. Very neat — very clever of you two to play the game like this! I must confess that I did not think of Paul Cremarre in connection with what has been going on. I fancy that the very fact of you being here—the three divided, as it were—must have helped to act as a sort of mental blanket upon me in that respect. And even you I was forced to eliminate until to-night because I could not arrive at any logical reason that would explain your motive—for if I left the island here you would leave too. The combination, however, would be very effective! Paul Cremarre would be left behind with a free hand, eh?” Captain Francis Newcombe’s voice rasped suddenly. “Now, then, you cur, what happened in under the boathouse here to-night? What killed Paul?”
Runnells’ face was a pasty white. He shrank back into the farthest recesses of the chair, and licked nervously at his lips. He tried to speak—ineffectually. His
eyes seemed fascinated, not by the revolver that Captain Francis Newcombe had transferred to his left hand, but by Captain Francis Newcombe’s right hand that came creeping now with menacing, half curled fingers toward his throat.
“Answer me—and answer quick!” snarled Captain Francis Newcombe.
“I—I don’t know.” Runnells forced a shaken whisper. “So help me, Gawd, I don’t! I don’t know who killed him.”
“I didn’t say who; I said what!” Captain Francis Newcombe’s hand crept still closer to Runnells’ throat. “Don’t try any of that kind of game—you’re not brainy enough! It wasn’t anything human that killed Paul Cremarre.”
“No,” mumbled Runnells, “no; it wasn’t anything human. Oh, my Gawd, the look of it! It — it made me sick. Those— those round red things on his face~and the eyes—the eyes— I—I ain’t afraid of a dead man, but—but I was afraid in there.”
“Runnells,” said Captain Francis Newcombe evenly, “at bottom you are a stinking coward, a spineless thing—you always were. But you’ve never really known fear—not yet! I’m going to teach you what fear is!”
“No!” Runnells screamed out, and pawed at the other’s hand that was now tight around his throat. “I’m telling the truth. I swear to Gawd I am! I don’t know what happened. I didn’t know Paul was there. I never saw him since we left London.”
“Don’t lie!” Captain Francis Newcombe coolly and viciously twisted at the flesh in which his fingers were enmeshed. “I’m going to have the whole story now — or else you’ll follow Paul Cremarre. You’ve
seen enough in the last three years to know that I never make an idle threat. It will be quite simple. You will disappear. I, myself, will be the most solicitous of all about your disappearance. It would never be attributed to me. Is it quite plain, Runnells? You deserve it, anyway! Perhaps it’s a waste of time to do anything but get rid of you now before daylight. I’d rather like to do it, Runnells. It’s rather bad policy to give a man a chance to stab you a second time in the back.”
THE man was almost in a state of collapse. Captain Francis'Newcombe loosened his hold, and, standing back a little and toying with caressing fingers at his revolver’s mechanism, surveyed the other with eyes that, in meditation now, were utterly callous.
“I—I know you’d do it.” Runnells, gasping for his breath, blurted out his words wildly. “I know it wouldn’t do me any good to lie—but I ain’t lying. Can’t you believe me? I wasn’t in it at all. I never knew Paul was on the island until just now.”
“Go on!” encouraged Captain Francis Newcombe ironically. “So it wasn’t you who telephoned Polly from the boathouse here a little while ago?”
Runnells’ eyes widened.
“Me? No!” he cried out vehemently. “I haven’t been near here.”
Captain Francis Newcombe frowned. He knew Runnells and Runnells’ caliber intimately and well. The man’s surprise was genuine. Another angle! It was possible, of course, that Paul Cremarre had been playing a lone hand; but against that was Runnells’ own actions to-night. Well, as it stood now, it was a very simple matter to put Runnells’ sincerity, or insincerity, to the proof.
“No, of course not!” he observed caustically. “I didn’t expect you to admit it. Why don’t you tell me you spent the evening playing solitaire, then went to bed and slept like a child until I rapped on your door?”
Runnells lifted miserable, hunted eyes to Captain Francis Newcombe’s face.
“Because I’m only telling you the truth,” he said, with frantic insistence in his voice. “And that wouldn’t be the truth. I’ll tell you everything—everything. You can see for yourself it’s Gawd’s fact. I wasn’t asleep when you knocked. I had been out of my room, but I hadn’t been out of the house; and I hadn’t been in bed metre than ten minutes when I heard you at the door.”
“You rather surprise me, Runnells,” said Captain Francis Newcombe coolly. “Not at what you say, for I was standing in the hall when you entered your room— but that for once you are guilty of an honest statement. Go on! What were you doing around the house?”
RLTNNELLS gulped, nervously massaging his pinched throat.
“I got to go back to before we left London, if I’m going to make a clean breast of it,” he said, searching Captain Francis Newcombe’s face anxiously. “I— I knew then about the money out here. There was a letter under your pillow the day you got back from Cloverley’s, and when I propped you up in bed for your lunch I—I took it, and read it while I was feeding you your—” His words were blotted out in a sudden cry of fear. He was staring into a revolver muzzle thrust close to his face, and behind the revolver were a pair of eyes that burned like living coals. “For Gawd’s sake,” he shrieked out, “Captain—don't!"
Captain Francis Newcombe dropped the revolver to his side again.
“You are quite right, Runnells,” he said whimsically. “It would be inexcusable to stem any tide of veracity flowing from you. Well?”
“I got to make you believe I’m telling the truth,” choked Runnells, “and—and I know now I have. I didn’t say anything to Paul about it—I was keeping it to myself. And Paul didn’t say anything to me. I didn’t know he knew about it, and I don’t know now how he found out—but I suppose he must have somehow, for I suppose that’s what brought him here. As for me, what I read in that letter didn’t make any difference after all, because the minute I got here I knew what everybody else knew—that the dippy old bird had got half a million dollars hidden away somewhere.” He hesitated a moment, drawing the back of his hand several times to and fro across his lips. “Well, that’s what
I was doing to-night, and that’s what I was doing last night. I was searching the house trying to find out where he’d hidden the money. But I didn’t find it.”
“No.” said Captain Francis Newcombe grimly; “I’m quite sure you didn’t. But if you had, Runnells—what then?”
“I—I’m not sure.” Runnells licked at his tips again. "I know what you mean. It— it would have depended on you. You told me before we left London that on account of the girl being your ward we weren’t to do anything slippery in America, and if I’d made sure of that and was sure you wouldn’t come in on the job, then I’d have copped the swag and got away with it if 1 could; but if you would have come in, then I’d have told you where it was.”
“Anything more?” inquired Captain Francis Newcombe laconically.
Runnells shook his head.
“I’ve told you straight the whole thing,” he said numbly.
It was a moment before Captain Francis Newcombe spoke again.
“Even on your own say-so,” he said deliberately at last, “you were prepared to double-cross me. Once I let a man toss a coin to see whether I shot him or not— for less than that. But you are not even entitled to that much chance—except for the fact that perhaps after to-night ou’ll be less likely to stick your filthy ands into my affairs. But even that is not what is outweighing my inclination to have done with you here and now. The fact is that, though I regret to admit it, you are, for the moment at least, more valuable alive.”
RUNNELLS straightened up a little in his chair. He swept his hand over a wet brow.
“I’ll play fair after this,” he said hoarsely. "I take my oath to Gawd, I will!”
"Or turn at the first chance like the dog who has been whipped by his master,” observed Captain Francis Newcombe indifferently. “Very good, Runnells! I never prolong discussions. The matter is ended—unless you are unfortunate enough to cause the subject to be reopened at some future date! It is near daylight— and before daylight Paul Cremarre, w'hat is left of him, must be disposed of. If the man is found here, the victim of a violent death, it means an inquest, the influx of authorities, the possible discovery of Cremarre’s identity—and ours!”
“We could tie something heavy on him,” said Runnells thickly, “and drop him in the water.”
“We could—but we won’t,” said Captain Francis Newcombe curtly. “One never feels at ease with bodies disposed of in that fashion—they have been knowm to come to the surface. It might be the easiest way, but it’s not the safest. I think you’ve heard me say before, Runnells, that chance is the playground of fools. Besides, our close and intimate friendship with Paul demands a little more reverent and circumspect consideration at our hands—what? Paul shall have a decent burial. We’ll dig a hole for him back there among the trees.” He thrust his hand suddenly into his pocket, brought out his flashlight, and tossed it into Runnells’ lap. “Go up to the house and get a spade, a couple of them if you can. There ought to be plenty somewhere in the out-houses at the back. And hurry'!”
“Yes—right!” Runnells stammered, as he rose to his feet and stood hesitant as though trying to say something more.
“I said’hurry!” snarled Captain Francis Newcombe.
“Yes—right!” said Runnells mechanically again—and stumbled, half running, across the room and out of the door.
CAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE flung himself into the chair Runnells had vacated. His mind was on Paul Cremarre now. What was it that had caused the man’s death? As Runnells had said, it was a sickening sight. Well, no matter! The mode or cause of death was an incident, wasn’t it? Paul Cremarre found here on the island, whether dead or alive, was what mattered—it meant that the menace, that hellish nightmare of the ■“unknown,” that had been hanging over him, Shadow Varne. w'as gone now—that the way was clear ahead—afortune here— America once more an “open sesame”— riches, luxury, all he had builded for, his again to take at his leisure without fear now of any interference from any source. And yet he seemed to hate the man the
more because he was dead. Cremarre had done what no other man had ever done to Shadow Varne—those black hours— last night—the night before.
His hands clenched fiercely. He knew a suddsn, unbridled rush of anger directed against the agency, be it what it might, that had caused Paul Cremarre’s death— that had forever removed the man beyond his reach, that had robbed him of a right that alone was his to settle with a man. He had owed the other a debt that he could never now repay—the sort of debt that Shadow Varne, until now, had never failed to pay. It was all clear enough now. Paul Cremarre, if not from the moment he had read Polly’s letter that morning in London, had finally at any rate yielded to the temptation that the opportunity of securing so great a sum of money had dangled before his eyes. Cremarre, like Runnells, had very possibly, and perhaps unwarrantably, been skeptical about his, Captain Francis Newcombe’s, statement that the money here was to be held inviolable; but whether he had or not made very little difference in the last analysis, for, either way, it would be obvious to Paul Cremarre that he would get none of the money unless he got it through his own secret endeavors, since, even if he, Captain Francis Newcombe, were after it for himself, Cremarre would realize that he was not to share in the spoils.
TT WAS quite plain! It was Paul Cre1 marre who had fired that shot through the cabin window in the storm on the liner that night in order to possess for himself a free hand on the island here. The man, in disguise of course, had sailed on the same ship —because he would not have dared to have left London before he, Newcombe, left, for fear of arousing suspicions, since he was known to be acquainted with the contents of the letter; and he would not have dared risk a later vessel for fear of arriving too late and only to find the money gone should he, Newcombe, prove to be after it for himself. It was Paul Cremarre here on the island who had on those three occasions, ending with to-night, sought through the medium of fear, no, more than that, through an appeal to the impulse for self-preservation, to drive him, Newcombe, away—and leave Paul Cremarre in sole possession of the field. And it was quite plain now, too, why the man had not, here on the island, attempted murder again as he had done on the liner. It was not that the chances of discovery were less on board the ship; but that here a murder would cause an invasion of the island by police and detectives which would automatically hamper Cremarre in his efforts to find the money, if, indeed, it would not force him to leave the island entirely in order to make his own escape.
Captain Francis Newcombe’s hand was groping tentatively in his pocket now. It was not at all unnatural that the thought of Paul Cremarre had not entered his head. To begin with, he had trusted the hound; and, again, he had sailed immediately on the first ship after leaving the man in London. But now! Yes, that was where the crux of the whole thing lay—■ the time spent on that yachting trip of Locke’s down the coast. Paul Cremarre had probably been on the island for several days before the Talofa arrived, and—
His hand came out of his pocket. In its palm lay the bronze key. He stared at it thoughtfully. No, Paul Cremarre had not succeeded in getting the madman’s money prior to to-night, for in that case old Marlin would have discovered his loss and raised a wild fuss; and, besides, if successful, Cremarre would have left the island without loss of time. Nor had Cremarre been quite successful to-night, for the money was not on his person; but he had been—what? Captain Francis Newcombe stared for another long minute at the bronze key, then jumping suddenly up from the chair, he crossed over to the table and began to divest his pockets of the articles he had taken from Paul Cremarre. He tumbled them out on the table; A roll of bills; a passport—made out under an assumed name—to one Andre Belisle; a few papers such as railroad folders, a small map of the Florida Keys, some descriptive matter pertaining thereto, and among these a little book.
pAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE vJ snatched up the book—and suddenly he began to laugh, a strange laugh, hoarse with elation, a laugh that even found expression in the quick, triumphant
glitter in his eyes. Several times in the short period during which he had been here on the island he had seen this little book, and more than once he had endeavored unostentatiously to obtain a closer look at it, but without success. It was the old madman’s little book—the little buff-colored, paper-covered little book that the old fool, he had noticed, would frequently pull out of his pocket and consult for no reason apparently other than that it had become a habit with him-. It was a common book, a very common book—an innocent book. Its title was on the cover. It was a book of tide tables.
And again and again now Captain Francis Newcombe laughed. The bronze key and the book of tide tables! The pieces of the puzzle aligned themselves of their own accord into a complete whole. An hour later every night! The old madman went out an hour later every night. So did the tide! Those footprints there under the boathouse—not Paul Cremarre’s, the other ones! The succession of nights during which the old maniac went out until the hour just before daybreak was reached—and then the period of inaction. At low water, like to-night, eh? Yes, yes! He did not go out when the tide was low too early in the evening or too late in themorning; in the former case for fear of being seen, in the latter because it would be full daylight before the tide would creep in to wash away the tell-tale footprints. Paul Cremarre’s presence there—his footmarks leading away from the water to the spot where he had collapsed and died! Cremarre with a bronze key in his hand, and the old maniac’s book of tide tables—Cremarre had made an attempt to get the money after the old man had been there, and something, God knew what, had done him down instead. It must have been subsequent to the old man’s visit, for Marlin was now in his room—he, Captain Francis Newcombe, had listened at the fool’s door when he had returned long after three o’clock from that trip to the old hut in the woods—and three o’clock was past the hour of low water, and old Marlin had appeared to be quietly asleep, which under no circumstances would he have been had he been conscious of the loss of his key and book. There were a dozen theories that would logically reconstruct the scene—but none of them mattered. It was the existing fact that mattered. Cremarre, hidden himself, might, and very probably had, watched the old maniac at work; afterwards, whether the old man had lost the key and book from the pocket of his dressing gown as it flapped around him and Cremarre had found them, or Paul Cremarre, than whom there was no craftier thief in Christendom, had succeeded in purloining them, again mattered not a whit. What mattered was that there was only one place now where the old maniac’s secret depository could be—only one. And he, Captain Newcombe, now knew where that one place was.
AND yet again he laughed—loud in his evil joy, vauntingly in his triumph. It was his now! There was no longer anything to mar his plans. Nemesis was dead! No haunting thing to strike any more out of the darkness and drive him back, with bared teeth, against the wall, to make of him little better than a cornered rat. Why shouldn’t he laugh now—at man, or devil, or Heaven, or hell! He was master— as Shadow Varne had always been master. He tossed the bronze key up in the air and caught it again with deft, yet savage, grasp. The hiding place was found. There was only a keyhole to look for now. A keyhole.... a keyhole.... Mad mirth caught up the words and flung them in jocular song hither and thither within his brain. A keyhole. . . .a keyhole. . . .
“You’d raise your cursed voice to bawl at Shadow Varne, would you, Paul Cremarre?” he cried. “Well, damn you—thanks!”
Just the turning of a key in a lock! But the water was too high now—the tide was coming in. A key wasn’t any good tonight—the place wasn’t locked only by a key, it was time-locked by the tide. He snatched up the little book and consulted it hurriedly. It would be low tide to-morrow morning at a quarter past three. Well, to-morrow morning, then, since he couldn’t have a look at. the place to-night. He could well afford the time now! And meanwhile with the key gone, the old maniac couldn’t do anything—except raise an infernal row, and become even a little more maniacal, if that were possible.
Too bad! But then, the poor old man probably wouldn’t live very long anyhow! And then, besides, quite apart from the tide to-night, there was Runnells, who— He swept the articles from the table suddenly back into his pockets. Where was Runnells? What the devil was keeping the man? He should have been back by now!
Captain Francis Newcombe switched off the light, and, walking quickly from the room now, closed the door behind him. and now he frowned in impatient irritation as he made his way along the verandah of the boathouse and down to the shore. Confound Runnells, anyway! Where was he? It was already beginning to show color in the east, and the darkness was giving way to a gray, shadowy halflight. In another quarter of an hour the dawn would have broken. There was no time to spare!
HE STOOD for a moment staring toward the fringe of trees that hid the path to the house. There was still no sign of Runnells. With a quick, muttered execration at the man’s tardiness, he turned abruptly and began to make his way in under the boathouse. At the spot where Paul Cremarre’s body lay the slope of the shore was very gentle, and the incoming tide would therefore cover the ground the more rapidly. He had forgotten that._ Paul Cremarre had only been four or five yards away from what was then the water’s edge when he had left it, and unless he wanted to find the body floating around now, he had better—
He stopped short in his tracks, but close to the water now. His heart had stopped. What was that? Involuntarily now he staggered back a pace. It wasn’t light enough to see distinctly; it was only light enough to see shadowy things, things that suddenly moved in the gloom before him, things that, from the water, waved sinuously in the air—like slimy monstrous, snake-like tentacles—that reached out and crept and wriggled upon the shore itself. The place was alive with them, swarming with them. They were tentacles. They were feeling out, feeling out everywhere, and—God, were they feeling out for him! He sprang sharply backward as a light breath of air seemed to have fanned his cheek. He heard a faint pat upon the earth as of something soft striking there; he saw a slithering thing, like a reptile in shape and movement, swaying this way and that as though in search of something upon the spot where he had stood.
He felt his face blanch. He drew back still farther. A dark blotch lay near the water’s edge—that was Paul Cremarre’s body._ And now one of those sinuous, creeping tentacles, a gray, viscous, clutching arm, fell athwart the body—and the body seemed to move—slowly—jerkily as though it struggled itself to escape from some foul and loathsome touch toward the water.
Captain Francis Newcombe gazed now, a fascination of horror seizing upon him. Two curious spots showed out there in the water. Not lights—they weren’t lights— but they were in a sense luminous. They seemed to stare, full of insatiable lust, gibbous, protuberant from out of the midst of that waving, feeling, slithering forest of tentacled arms.
He swept his hand across his eyes. Was he mad? Was this some ugly fantasy that he was dreaming—and that in his sleep was making his blood run cold? Look! Look! Those two luminous spots were coming nearer and nearer—eyes, baleful, hungry—eyes, that’s what they were! They were coming closer to the shore—to the body of Paul Cremarre. A dripping tentacle, waving in the air, swayed forward, and dropped and curled and fastened around the body—that was the second one there.
TT WAS too light now! The sight was horA ror—but the fascination of horror held him motionless. There was no head to the tiling, just a monstrous, formless continuation of abhorrent bulk from which was thrust out. those huge, repulsive tentacles—from which was thrust out another now to fasten itself, for purchase, upon one of the small, outer concrete piers that rose from the deeper water beyond.
And again the body of Paul Cremarre moved. And there was a sound. The gurgling of water.
It had a beak like a parrot's beak, and the mandibles opened now—wide apart— to uncover a cavernous mouth. And the
eyes and the tentacles of the thing began to retreat from the shore.
The gurgle of water again.
A white shirt sleeve showed for an instant—and was gone.
A splashing. A commotion. A swirl. An eddy.
Then in the shadowy light a placid surface, the looming central pier of the boathouse, the little piers, the roof above— the commonplace.
A voice spoke at his side—Runnells’:
“Where’s Paul Cremarre?”
Captain Francis Nwcombe’s handkerchief, with apparent nonchalance, went to his face. It wiped away beads of sweat.
“I don’t know what you’d call the thing,” he said casually. “The scientists seem to refer to the species under a variety of names—you may take your choice, Runnells, between poulpe, devil fish and octopus. It’s a bit of an unpleasant specimen whatever name you choose. It’s gone now—and so has Paul Cremarre.”
“An octopus!” Runnells stared through | the dim light toward the water. “You | mean it—it got Paul?”
“Yes,” said Captain Francis Newcombe. He returned the handkerchief to j his pocket.
“Gawd!” said Runnells in a shaky whisper. “An octopus! I know what that is. The thing’s got suckers that would tear the flesh off you. That’s where those marks on Paul’s face must have come from. He must have had a fight with it before we found him.”
“Yes,” said Captain Francis Newcombe, “he undoubtedly did. It’s rather obvious now that he had just managed in a dying effort to break loose and reach the shore. And the brute was crafty enough to know, I fancy, and waited for the tide to come farther in to bag its prey. Anyway, you won’t need those spades you’ve got there now—and, incidentally, Runnells, where the devil have you been all this time?”
To be Continued