SHORT STORIES

The Stained Mackintosh

HEADON HILL February 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

The Stained Mackintosh

HEADON HILL February 1 1910

The Stained Mackintosh

SHORT STORIES

By

HEADON HILL

MOTOR-CARS and mysteries! Having run a public garage as a means of livelihood for over five years, I had long outgrown the tendency of the tyro to connect the two. I used to smile when I noted the fruitful vein of romance worked by ingenious novelists with such matter-of-fact commercial assets as motor-cars for the mainsprings of their amazing plots. And then, suddenly, I was drawn into the central whirlpool of the most stupendous mystery that ever had a petrol-driven vehicle for its pivot.

It was about four o’clock on a dark December afternoon, when that tall, sinister-looking man came into the garage and asked my foreman if he could hire a powerful car for fourand-twenty hours. As he stipulated that he should not require the‘services of a driver, which was against my most stringent rule, the foreman brought him to me in the office. I took an instant dislike to the big fellow’s overbearing demeanour, and promptly confirmed my servant’s refusal.

“No, sir; if you are competent to drive yourself you are at liberty to do so, but one of my chauffeurs must go with you,” I said politely, but firmly.

The would-be customer measured me with an ugly eye, and broke into a harsh laugh. “Afraid I should steal the car, I suppose?” he said with the trace of a foreign accent. “Well, trot out your chauffeur, my

friend. I should like to inspect him first.”

I sent for Jem Bradley, one of my most capable and reliable men. I knew that he could be trusted to take care of my property, and that was all that I was concerned with. Jem was a wiry little chap, with rather a melancholy cast of countenance, and the customer, after looking him up and down, said that he would do. He then gave instructions that the car Avas to be outside Artillery Mansions, Westminister, at five o’clock, planked down a deposit of ten pounds, and departed. I bade Bradley select a forty horse power Daimler for the service, and shortly afterwards left the garage for my home at Brixton.

I went to business the next day as usual, of course, expecting to see or hear nothing more of Tern Bradley or the car till late in the afternoon, when the time for which they had been hired would expire. Yet to my horror and surprise, I had not been at my office many minutes when I received a telegram from the police at Chelmsford, stating that Bradley had early that morning been found dead in the road about tAvo miles beyond the tOAvn, the body being identified by letters in his possession. No mention Avas made of the car.

I reached the sleepy old Essex town as nuicklv as I could, onlv to discover that the truth was infinitelv more horrible than the fir^t tidings had led me to expect. My faith-

ful servant hail been murdered — stabbed in the back, presumably, as he sat at the wheel—and then flung out into the road. The police could tell me nothing of the car. A good number of automobiles had passed through the town on the previous evening, but as they were all conforming with the law no particular attention had been paid to them. My car. as well as its mysterious hirer, had vanished completely, though on being furnished with its number and description, and with a fairlv vivid word-picture of my dreadful customer, they were confident of being able to trace it if it were on anv road in the kingdom.

But that was just where the big Daimler was not. Three days passed without any news, and then I was notified that the car had been discovered by a wildfowler out after duck in the desolate marshland at the back of Mersea Island. It was lying, nearly submerged, in a creek of the Blackwater not far from Tollesbury, having apparently been driven or fallen into the water from an unfrequented road skirting the creek.

When I arrived on the scene the car had been raised on to the roadway, presenting a woeful sight of smashed mechanism and sodden upholstery. My first question was whether the body of whoever had been driving at the time of the accident had been found, but the sergeant of police in charge of the gang of workers answered in the negative.

“The only clue to anyone who may have been traveling in the car is this,” he said, holding up a bedraggled garment. It was a lady’s caped mackintosh. On the back and or one side of it there was a dark red stain.

“Why, that is blood !” I cried, pointing to the smear. “Jem Bradlev’s blood for a fiver!”

“That’s how I figure it out,” responded the sergeant stolidly. “She must have been in the car when your

man was attacked and thrown out. If we could cop the pretty dear this belonged to we should soon run in the murderer.”

“How far is this from the spot where my chauffeur’s body was found?” I asked.

“Not more than nine miles as the crow flies, but a matter of seventeen by road,” said the sergeant. “To get here the car must have passed through Maldon after your man was killed. We must advertise the discovery of this blessed waterproof. Perhaps some one will come forward and give us a hint.”

I am no detective, but it struck me as a feeble sort of straw to rely on. However, it was so clearly a police matter that I contented myself with arranging for the salvage of the wrecked car, and returned to London more puzzled than ever. The mystery of Jem Bradley’s untimely end was intensified by the introduction of the female element. The ill-omened foreigner who had hired the car had not worn the aspect of an eloping lover. Yet there was fairly clear evidence that a woman had been a passenger in the Daimler, and that she had vanished .from the scene of these strange happenings as completely as had my sinister customer.

Three days passed without the police communicating to me any result from the descriptive paragraphs and advertisements for the owner of a missing waterproof which I noticed in the newspapers, and from this fact I drew the conclusion that the woman to whom it belonged shared the guilty responsibility of her male companion for poor young Bradley’s death.

If she was without offence why had she not come forward to claim her property and assist the authorities? The only hope now seemed to be in the advertisement being answered by some person other than she who had worn it on the fatal

night—someone who was aware that such a garment was not in its accustomed place. For instance, the maid of the owner might tender the information in the hope of reward.

To some extent I was right in my surmise, though it was not from a menial source that information came, nor was it offered to the police. I was engaged in my office when a card was brought to me bearing the name and address of “Mr. Marston Vigors, The Flail, Little Badham, Essex.” Giving orders for the visitor to be shown in, I was confronted by a gentleman who had certainly not called on the ordinary business of the garage. He was a good-looking young fellow enough, with suggestions of fresh air and country life in the cut of his clothes and his open-air complexion, but he had the eyes of one haunted by a great horror—eyes from which sleep had been banished for several nights.

“I have come about the waterproof coat that was found in the wreck of your car,” he began in a low, strained voice, advancing to my desk as soon as he had assured himself that we were alone. “Are you a married man, Mr. Ramage? You are. Then I can the better hope to enlist your help and sympathy. I have been married just three months, sir, to the dearest and best girl in the world, and I believe that that coat is hers. My place is only seven miles from where your car was found, and my wife has been missing since the night your chauffeur was murdered near Chelmsford. She had such a coat as the one found, and that also is gone.”

Fie had my sympathy already, for his distress was obviously genuine. But my help was another matter. I felt quite helpless myself.

“You have been to the police?” I said. “They attach great importance to the discovery of the owner of the coat.”

He waved his brown hand in a

gesture of impatience. “Exactly what I want to avoid,” he replied, eyeing me askance. And then, as though reassured by the pity he saw in my face, he went on, with a break in his voice: “Look here, Mr. Ramage, I feel that you’re a good sort. I simply cannot have my Muriel's name smirched by being subjected to the ghastly inferences which the police and the public would draw. I have got a man outside—Zambra, the well-known private detective. He’s at the top of the tree at the game, and will get round this thing without any publicity unless it’s absolutely necessary. May I have him in to hear what you can tell us about the hiring of the car?”

I knew by repute the man he mentioned as a clever solver of mysteries, and as bearing a character for the strictest integrity. I did not like working behind the backs of the police, but for a certain distance the interests of Mr. Vigors and myself marched side by side, and if they were found to diverge I should not be committed to a continuance of the alliance.

“Very well, sir,” I said; “I will help you all I can on the understanding that the police are called in to deal with any culprit whom Mr. Zambra may discover. I have not the slightest intention of assisting you to compound a felony which had as its victim an honest and valued servant.”

“I agree to that without hesitation, for I have absolute confidence that whatever has befallen my wife, her part has been an innocent one,” replied Mr. Vigors eagerly; and, stepping to the door, he admitted a short, rather corpulent mán, who at once reminded me of the popular conception of the first Napoleon. The sombre eyes were secretive without being sly; the massive jowl betokened strength of purpose. In a few words Mr. Vigors acquainted him

with my conditional assent to be of use to their independent inquiry.

“Most reasonable,” said the detective. “Now, Mr. Ramage, I need not trouble you to recount all the circumstances of the hiring of the car, for I have read your evidence at the inquest on your chauffeur. But I will ask you if there is any addition you could make to that evidence— any point, I mean, on which you were not questioned, yet which may have occurred to you afterwards as relative?”

I began to have a respect for Zambra, for there was such a point, and I had been seriously debating whether I ought not to inform the police of it. “Yes,” I answered; “not having been asked the question, I omitted to state where the hirer of the car started from. The evidence read as if he might have got into it here at the garage and driven straight off. That was not the case. He left orders for the car to pick him up at Artillery Mansion, Westminster, an hour later, which would have been about five o’clock. I instructed Bradley accordingly, and I assume that it was done.”

Zambra pondered my answer, and turning to his client, inquired if he knew anyone residing at Artillery Mansions. The reply was in the negative. Mr. Vigors had no friends in the block of residential flats mentioned, and he was quite sure that his wife had none either. Had it been so he would have been aware of it. They had no secrets from each other.

“I should wish to have a fuller description of the gentleman who hired the car,” said Zambra. “There was not much to be gathered from what you said at the inquest,” he added with the ghost of a smile, “except that you did not like his looks.”

To the best of my ability I supplied the omission, dwelling on the man’s great size, on his scowling

brow, on his arrogant demeanour, and, above all, on the faint foreign accent which I had observed in his speech. Some item in my statement seemed to make an impression, for the detective remained silent for over a minute, ruminating on ft. Then he arose slowly from the chair in which I had installed him.

“There is nothing more to be done here,” he said. “We are angling in a very deep pool for a wary fish. I shall more likely be of use to you, Mr. Vigors, by transferring the inquiry to your house at Little Badham. We had better go down there at once as speedily as possible.”

“The quickest way for you to get there would be for you to let me drive you down in one of my cars,” I ventured to suggest. “And something might arise to make my presence of advantage—for instance, to identify the person who started with Bradley.”

Zambra expressed prompt approval of my offer, and Mr. Vigors was profuse in his thanks. The three of us were soon seated in the tonneau of a high-powered Panhard, with one of my best drivers in front at the wheel. Shortly after passing Chelmsford we slowed down to allow the detective a view of the spot where Bradley’s body had been found, though, as nearly a week had elapsed and much rain had fallen, he did not trouble to get out to search for signs that must have been washed away long since. Our route then lay through Maldon, but on leaving that town, by Mr. Vigor’s directions, it quitted the road which the doomed car must have traversed to reach the scene of its disaster, and turned north along the road to Tiptree. A few miles further on we came to the secluded village of Little Badham, and swung through the lodge gates of a picturesque Jacobean mansion, which Mr. Vigors indicated as his home.

He led us through an imposing en-

trance-hall to a fine old oak-panelled library and rang for refreshments. I noticed that the butler who served them cast a half-furtive look of inquiry at his master, which was evidently not lost upon Zambra, for as soon as we were alone again he said :

“I observe that you have not taken the servants into your confidence as to your anxiety about Mrs. Vigors’ absence.

“How could I — without implying a mistrust in her that I do not feel?” our host replied, almost angrily. “I

have let them think that she has gone on a visit to friends.”

“Which is the very last thing they are thinking,” said Zambra dryly. “If I am to do any good we must alter that and have it plainly known that Mrs. Vigors is missing. You have already told me that you were hunting on the day she disappeared, that she had left home when you returned, and that it was only when you had kept dinner back a considerable time that you pretended to remember that she had probably gone to London. Having committed your-

self to that. I presume that you did not question the servants as to your wife’s movements that day ”

“How could I.” repeated Mr. Vigors, with a plaintive feebleness all out of keeping with his sunburnt face and athletic physique. “They would have thought that I suspected her—that there was something wrong. It was only when that infernal waterproof was found that I feared that some real harm had befallen her.”

Zambra flashed a swift glance at him. like the gleam of a two-edged sword. “Then you must have had some reason in your mind satisfying you, after reflection as to Mrs. Viggors’ absence,” he retorted. “No husband so obviously devoted as you are would endure the suspense which you must have gone through unless he had some adequate explanation to comfort him.”

It was distressing to me to witness the pain in the open face of the young country gentleman. The detective’s brusqueness had touched him on a raw spot, but even to my inexperience it was patent that those rough words had come as a much needed goad.

“Yes,” he said ; “I thought that she had gone up to see her brother, Gilbert Softlaw, a clerk in the War Office. I called upon him this morning before consulting you, but he knew nothing of her.”

“A clerk in the War Office?” said Zambra thoughtfully. “Had you any special reason for thinking that she had gone to him ?”

“Only that I knew that Gilbert had been much in her mind of late,” replied Mr. Vigors irritably. “Why,

I can’t conceive. He was down here on a visit to within a week of her disappearance, and since his departure she talked a good deal about him —even in her sleep. If I could imagine her having a secret from me about anything, I could have fancied

she was concealing something in connection with her brother.”

“When you saw Mr. Softlaw this morning did you tell him about your chief grounds for uneasiness—the disappearance of the waterproof coat and the discovery of the same or a similar one in the wrecked car?”

“No; as soon as I found that he had not seen her I rushed off to you, Mr. Zambra, without wasting a moment.”

“But why,” pursued the detective, “did you wait tiil to-day to inquire of Mr. Softlaw? Surely you could have telegraphed at once?”

Vigors dashed his fist down on the table, making things rattle. The natural man was on the surface at last. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t telegraph because I was angry,” he said. “I never liked my wife’s brother, and, taking it for granted that she was with him, I behaved like a brute and an idiot. I thought I’d punish her by not seeming to care where she was.”

With a shrug for the infirmity of human nature, Zambra dismissed the subject by asking to be allowed to question such of the servants as would be able to throw any light on the matter. The first to be called in was the elderly butler. On its being explained to him that Mrs. Vigors was missing, he fixed the time of her departure from the house at six o’clock, and he supplemented this with the information, received second-hand from the lodge-keeper, that on leaving the grounds she had walked briskly off in the direction of Maldon. Mrs. Vigors’ maid came next, and said that her mistress had left no message as to being late for dinner; on the contrary, she had given directions as to the evening dress she intended to wear. She had taken no luggage with her.

The servants having retired, Zambra sat for a long time silent. Then he asked how long it would take to walk to Maldon, receiving the reply

that Mrs. Vigors could do it easily in half an hour. In answer to a further question, Mr. Vigors stated that their dinner hour was eight.

“So that assuming that she meant to return to dinner, she could have expected to have plenty of time to do so, after meeting in Maldon a motor-car that had left Westminster at four o’clock,” said Zambra. “It should be a consolation to you, sir, to know that she could not possibly have walked seven miles further to where the dead chauffeur was found, and that therefore she could not have been in the car at the time of the murder. My theory is that Mrs. Vigors, apprehending some mischief from the car, of whose advent she had warning, went into Maldon to waylay and stop it, and that for some reason she had got into the car and was driven to the scene of the smásh.”

“But,” said Vigors, “if the miswhat resulted in the murder she was too late. So why should she have got into the car?”

“Because the mischief hadn’t ended with Bradley’s death, of which probably she was ignorant,” was Zambra’s reply. “I think that Bradley came to grief through trying in a different way, and with less complete knowledge, to do just what Mrs. Vigors was doing—prevent the mischief.”

“Then, in God’s name, where is my wife?” groaned the unhappy husband. “The blood on the coat may not have been the chauffeur’s, but her own.”

“It is far too soon to jump to such a conclusion,” said Zambra. “It is more likely that the stains were caused by your wife sitting on the seat where the chauffeur had been stabbed seven miles back along the road—before she got in. Let us go and see the place where the car was found in the creek. Its destination chief she was trying to stop was

seems to be the pivot of the whole thing, and I should like to know what lies beyond.”

Within five minutes we were all seated in the Panhard, swinging down the road to Maldon, but turning to the left before we came to the town. We were now again on the track traversed by the ill-fated car. Soon after we passed Tollesbury the character of the country changed. Instead of flat arable and pasture lands, we ran through several miles of desolate marshes, with occasionally the tidal water of some silent, salt-fringed creek lapping the base of the raised roadway. At a word from me the chauffeur pulled up at the place where the big Daimler had taken its plunge, though all vestiges of it had now been removed.

Zambra got down and peered over the brink, plumbing the depth of the creek with calculating eyes. Then he walked some distance in each direction, finally coming back to us with the opinion that there had been no accident, but that the car had been purposely driven into the water. Pie had come to that conclusion because the spot was the only one for a space of two hundred yards in either direction where there was a depth of water that might reasonably have been expected totally to submerge the car.

“Whoever did it wanted the car to remain undiscovered as long as possible,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the wildfowler in his punt, the object would have been gained. Close under the bank, the wreck would hardly have been noticed by anyone passing along the road. I understand, Mr. Vigors, that there are no houses for quite a long way —as a possible destination for the car?”

“No inhabited ones for another five miles,” was the reply. “There is a decayed farmhouse a couple of miles farther on that has nearly been swallowed up by the encroachments

of the sea, but no one has lived there since I can remember.”

The detective swung himself into the car. “Let’s get on,” he said shortly. “And we’ll stop at that farmhouse on the way, please.”

Once more we threaded our way through the dreary landscape, and I was glad that I had chosen a skilful driver. That road had never been made for motorcars, and I doubt if ours was not the first to traverse it, except the one whose movements we were trying to trace. Presently we sighted a jumble of gables which Vigors said were those of the farm, but from the distance the place looked as if it was on an island, and that we should have to -wade or swim to reach it. Drawing nearer, however, we found that the greedy tide had left a narrow strip of practicable foothold along the two hundred yards that separated the ruin from the road.

Leaving the car in charge of the chauffeur, we picked our way over the sodden ground towards the house, Zambra leading. I could discern no sign of life. No smoke issued from the dilapidated chimneys ; from most of the windows the glass had dropped, and no one had troubled to replace it with so much as a board. A phantom house, peopled, if at all, by phantoms of the past, it looked.

Yet why was it that Zambra, halfway from the road, paused for a moment and felt in the hip-pocket where men who go armed carry their revolvers? He said no word, and went on again directly. But passing the place where he had made that brief halt, I noticed in the muddy ooze the broken bowl of an earthenware pipe. Not till we were close under the mouldering walls did he explain his action, and then, partial as the explanation was, it was sufficient to raise the hair of a peaceloving citizen.

“We are up against a big thing,”

he said to Vigors in a hurried whisper. “I have suspected it since you. mentioned your brother-in-law’s connection with the War Office. Now I know that I was right, and that this house was the objective of Mr. Ramage’s car.”

“That broken pipe was of German make?” I hazarded under my breath.

Zambra nodded and went on: “It dosen’t look as if there was anyone here now, but we must enter with caution, as I am the only one who carries firearms.”

The front door, long since rotted from its hinges, offered no obstruction, and in single file we stole into the damp, foul-smelling hall. Into the rooms right and left of it we glanced, only Lo see at once that no one had occ upied them for years. There was no furniture, and the floors were covered with piles of fallen masonry. Following a passage that led to the rear of the house, we found that the ravages of time and weather had been less severe, and suddenly I had to strangle an ejaculation of surprise as Zambra pushed open the door of what must have been the old farmhouse kitchen. The fumes of a recently extinguished oil cooking stove assailed my nose at the same moment that my eyes were astounded by the sight of chairs and a table, the latter strewn withe dirty plates and glasses. The window stood open.

This much I had noticed when the sound of a guttural voice came through the window and made my heart jump. It was the voice of the man who had hired the car that had taken Jem Bradley to his death. Before I could impart the fact to Zambra, he stepped quickly to the open casement with Vigors and myself at his heels. I shall never forget the scene that was being enacted outside. An arm of the creek came to within fifteen paces of the house. Against the low shore lav an electric launch in which a man in a peaked

cap was sitting with his hand on the starting lever, while another man, standing in the bows, was trying to drag a young and very pretty woman into the launch.

“My God, that’s my wife!” came the hoarse cry from Vigors as he peered over Zambra’s shoulder.

“And the man handling her is my chauffeur’s murderer,” I added.

I do not know whether they heard us, those outside. There *vas no time to know, for Zambra’s revolver was pointed and sent its deadlv message almost simultaneouslv with our feeble cries. The tall man in the bows of the launch sank down with a crash that made the little vessel shiver from stem to stern. The next moment it was tearing seawards, while the woman walked towards the house, waving and smiling at us.

“All right, Marston, old boy, it’s been a narrow squeak,” she shouted : “but you’ve come in the nick of time, and I’ve saved my country.”

Then she toppled over and fainted in the wet slime of the creek shore, and we three ran out at the back and picked her up.

* * 4: * *

It was dark when the car swung through the lodge gates of the Hall at Little Badham and Muriel Vigors was safe in the oak-panelled library. On the drive home no one had questioned her, though she had quickly revived in the cool air of the marshes. We all guessed that the story she would tell was not one to be heard by my chauffeur, honest fellow as he was. Our desire for secrecy was aided by his having heard and seen nothing of what hai happened at the back of the farmhouse. I gave him a hint to keep his mouth shut as to where we had found the lady before I went into the Hall.

But when Mrs. Vigors had been refreshed with tea, and the wondering, but delighted butler had retired, her tongue was unloosed. Seated on the hearth-rug with her head on her

husband’s knee, she told her amazing tale. During her brother’s visit she had overheard him talking in a summer-house in the garden to the man Zambra had shot that afternoon. She heard enough to know that Gilbert Softlaw was a traitor to his country and that he was selling the War Office scheme of national defence for foreign gold.

She heard with tineling ears the tempter bid her brother bring copies of the scheme to him at the entrance of Artillery Mansions on a certain day and hour, where he would be waiting in a car so that in the quickest time possible he could convey them to the lonelv ruin in the Essex marshes which had been used of late as a rendezvous for foreign spies. The swift car was necessarv because a verv high official indeed was to be landed from his yacht on the day fixed in order to inspect the stolen document at the very earliest moment.

“Then, having decided what to do,” Mrs. Vigors proceeded, “I went boldly into the summer-house, and Gilbert was obliged to introduce his companion to me, naming him as the Baron Reichen, and explaining that he was staying in the neighborhood, and they had accidentally met. The introduction was all that I wanted, and as soon as I could I left them together. But on the appointed day I walked into Maldon in time to intercept the car on its way to that horrible place. I managed to stop it, and in accordance with the plan I had formed I claimed acquaintance with the Baron, who was driving and alone, begging him for a lift to the cross roads, as I was belated. He consented with ill grace, and as soon as I was seated beside him in the car I picked the pocket of his great fur coat of the precious paper, furtively tearing it in pieces and scattering them to the four winds of heaven.

“He was just about to set me

down at the turning when he discovered what I had done. With a furious oath he drove on, and I realised that I was a prisoner. Unseen by him, I slipped off my coat in the hope that it would furnish a clue to mv whereabouts. When we came opposite the ruin he dragged me across the swamp into the house. It was dark in front, but at the back it was lit up, and full of men. Handing me over to two uniformed seamen, the Baron went into the kitchen, whence there immediately arose a babel of voices in a language you can guess at. I gathered that I was to be kept there till a steamer could be sent to take me away. It had arrived off the coast when you turned up this afternoon. I have spent a horrible time in a room over the kitchen, guarded by the Baron and another man.”

“Gallant old girlie,” exclaimed Vigors proudly. “But why didn’t they take you away in the vessel that brought the gang?”

The brave woman laughed. “Because, my dear Marston,” she replied, “the cloaked figure with the grey imperial who presently stalked from the kitchen on his way out said that he couldn’t have ‘that infernal she-cat’ on his private yacht. There were some ladies of his family on board to keep up the idea of a pleasure cruise.”

“What are we to do, Zambra?” asked Vigors helplessly.

“Say nothing about the whole thing,” was the detective’s prompt reply. “It is a sure thing the foreigners won’t. The Baron undoubtedly murdered Bradley because he wouldn’t get out and let him go on alone, but my bullet has settled that score. I think, however, that Mr. Gilbert Softlaw should not be allowed to remain in the public service much longer. A hint to him ought to secure his resignation.”

“He shall have it straight from me,” said Vigors heartily.