The Four Stragglers
FRANK L. PACKARD
AUTHOR OF “THE MIRACLE MAN’’
In this story a Cockney flower a petted doll.
PROLOGUE The Four of Them
THE crash of guns. A
Battle. Dismay. Death. A night of chaos. And four men in a thicket.
One of them spoke:
“A bloody Hun prison, that’s us! My Heavens! Where are we?”
Another answered caustically:
“Monsieur, we are lost—and very tired.”
A third man laughed. The laugh was short.
“A Frenchman! Where in hell did you come from?” “Where you and the rest of us came from.” The Frenchman’s voice was polished; his English faultless. “We come from the tickling of the German bayonets.” The first man elaborated the statement gratuitously: “I don’t know about you ’uns; but our crowd was done in good and proper two days ago. Heavens! Ain’t there no end to ’em? Millions! And us running! What I says is let ’em have the blinking Channel Ports, and let us clear out. I wasn’t noways in favor of mussing up in this when the bleeding parliament says up and at ’em in the beginning, leastways nothing except the navy.”
“Drafted, I take it?” observed the third man coolly. There was no answer.
The fourth man said nothing.
There was a whir in the air. . . .closer. . . .closer; a roar that surged at the ear drums; a terrific crash near at hand; a tremble of the earth like a shuddering sob.
The first man echoed the sob:
“Carry on! Carry on! I can't carry on. Not for hours. I’ve been running for two days. I can’t even sleep.”
“No good of carrying on for a bit,” snapped the third man. “There’s no place to carry on to. They seem to be all around us.”
“That’s the first one that’s come near us,” said the Frenchman. “Maybe it’s only—what do you call it?—a straggler.”
“Like us,” said the third man.
A FLARE, afar off, hung and dropped. Nebulous, ghostlike, a faint shimmer lay upon the thicket. It endured for but a moment. Three men, huddled against the tree trunks, torn, ragged and dishevelled men, stared into each others’ faces. A fourth man lay outstretched, motionless, at full length upon the ground, as though he were asleep or dead; his face was hidden because it was pillowed on the earth.
“Well, I’m damned!” said the third man, and whistled softly under his breath.
“Monsieur means by that?” inquired the Frenchman politely.
“Means?” repeated the third man. “Oh, yes! I mean it’s queer. Half an hour ago we were each a separate bit of driftwood tossed about out there, and now here we are blown together from the four winds and linked up as close to each other by a common stake—our lives—as ever men could be. I say it’s queer.”
He lifted his rifle, and, feeling out, prodded once or twice with the butt. It made a dull, thudding sound. “What are you doing?” asked the Frenchman.
“Giving first aid to Number Four,” said the third man grimly. “He’s done in, I guess. I’m not sure but he’s the luckiest one of the lot.”
“You’re bloody well right, he is!” gulped the first man. “I wouldn’t mind being dead, if it was all over, and I was dead. It’s the dying and the thinking about it I can’t stick.”
“I can’t see anything queer about it.” The Frenchman was judicial; he reverted to the third man’s remark as though no interruption had occurred in his train of thought. “We all knew it was coming, this last big— what do you call it?—push of the Boche. It has come. It is gigantic. It is tremendous. A tidal wave. Everything has gone down before it; units all broken up, mingled one with another, a melee. It has been sauve, qui peut for thousands like us who never saw each other before, who did not even know each other existed. I see nothing queer in it that some of us, though knowing nothing of each other, yet having the same single purpose, rest if only for a moment, shelter if only for a moment, should have come together here. To me it is not queer.”
“Well, perhaps, you’re right,” said the third man. “Perhaps adventitious would have been better than queer.”
“Nor adventitious,” dissented the Frenchman. “Since we have been nothing to each other in the past, and since our meeting now offers us collectively no better chance of safety or escape than we individually had before, there is nothing adventitious about it.”
“Perhaps again I am wrong.” There was a curious drawl in the third man’s voice now. “In fact, I will admit it. It is neither queer nor adventitious. It is quite—oh, quite!—beyond that. It can only be due to the considered machinations of the devil on his throne in the pit of hell having his bit of a fling at us—and a laugh!”
“You’re bloody well right!” mumbled the first man.
“Sacre!” said the Frenchman with asperity. “I don’t understand you at all.”
The third man laughed softly.
“Well, I don’t know how else to explain it, then,” he said. “The last time we--”
“The last time!” interrupted the Frenchman. “I did not get a very good look at you when that flare went up, I’ll admit; but enough so that I could swear I had never seen you before.”
“Quite so!” acknowledged the third man.
ALIGHT, lurid, intense for miles around opened the darkness—and died out. An explosion rocked the earth.
“Ammunition dump!” said the Frenchman. “I’m sure of it now. I’ve never seen any of you before.”
The third man sat with his rifle across his knees now. The fourth man had not moved from his origina! position.
“I thought you were officers, blimy if I didn’t, from the
way you talked,” said the first man. “Just a blinking Tommy and a blinking Pi-loo!''
“Monsieur,” said the Frenchman, and there was a challenge in his voice. “I never forget a face.”
“Nor I,” said the third man quietly. “Nor other things; things that happened a bit back—after they put the draft into England, but before they called up the older classes. I don’t know just how they worked it over here—that is, how some of them kept out of it as long as they did.” “Sacre!” snarled the Frenchman. “Monsieur, you go too far! And—monsieur appears to have a sense of humor peculiarly his own—perhaps monsieur wil be good enough to explain what he is laughing at?”
“With pleasure,” said the third man calmly. “I was laughing at the recollection of a night, not like this one, though there’s a certain analogy in it for all that, when an attack was made on—a strong box in a West End residence in London. Lord Seeton’s, to be precise.”
The first man stirred. He seemed to be groping around him where he sat.
“Foolish days! Perverted patriotism!” said the third man. “The fami y jewels, the hereditary treasures, gathered together to be offered on the altar of England’s need! Fancy! But it was being done, you know. Rather! Only in this case the papers got hold of it and played it up a bit as a wonderful example, and that’s how three men, none of whom had anything to do with the otners, got hold of it too—no, I’m wrong there. Lord Seeton’s valet naturally had inside information.”
“Blimy!” rasped the first man suddenly. “A copper in karky! That’s what! A bloody, sneaking swine!”
It was inky black in the thicket. The third man’s voice cut through the blackness like a knife.
“You put that gun down! I'll do all the gun handling there’s going to be done. Drop it!”
A SNARL answered him—a snarl, and the rattle of an YY object falling to the ground.
“There were three of them,” said the third man composedly. “The valet, who hadn’t reached his class in the draft; a Frenchman, who spoke marvellous English, which is perhaps after all the reason why he had not yet, at that time, served in France; and—and some one else.” “Monsieur,” said the Frenchman silkily, “you become interesting.”
“The curious part of it is,” said the third man, “that each of them in turn got the swag, and each of them could have got away with it with hardly any doing at all, if it hadn’t been that in turn each one chivied the other. The Frenchman took it from the valet, as the valet, stuffed like a pouter pigeon with diamonds and brooches and pendants and little odds and ends like that, was on his way to a certain pinch-faced fence named Konitsky in a slimy bit of neighborhood in the East End; the Frenchman, who was an Englishman in France, took the swag to a strange little place in a strange little street, not far from the bank of the Seine, the place of one Pere Mouche, a place that in times of great stress also became the shelter and home of this same Frenchman, wTho—shall I say?—I believe is outstandingly entitled to the honor of having raised his profession to a degree of art unapproached by any of his confreres in France to-day.”
“Sacre nom!” said the Frenchman with a gasp. “There is only one Englishman who knew that, and I thought he was dead. An Englishman beside whom the Frenchman you speak of is not to be compared. You are——’’
‘7 haven't mentioned any names,” said the third man smoothly. “Why should you?”
“You are right,” said the Frenchman. "Perhaps we have already said too much. There is a fourth here.”
'‘No,” said the third man. 'T had not forgotten him.” He toyed with the rifle on his knee. "But I had thought perhaps you would have recognized the valet’s face.” "Strike me pink!” muttered the first man. “So Frenchy’s the blighter that did me in, was he!”
‘Tt is the uniform, and the dirt perhaps, and the very poor light,” said the Frenchman apologetically. “But you — pardon, monsieur, I mean the other of the three—I did not see him: and monsieur will perhaps understand that I am deeply interested in the rest of the story.”
The third man did not answer. A sort of momentary weird and breathless silence had settled on the thicket, on all around, on the night, save only for the whining of some on-coming thing through the air. Whine. . . .whine tc-ksae. The nerves, tautened, loosened, were jangling things. The third man raised his rifle. And somewhere the whining shell burst. And in the thicket a minor crash; a flash, gone on the instant, eye-blinding.
The first man screamed out :
"Great Heavens! What have you done?”
"I think he was done in anyway,” said the third man calmly. "It was as well to make sure.”
The first man whimpered.
"Monsieur," said the Frenchman, “I have always heard that you were incomparable. I salute you! As you said, you had not forgotten. We can speak at ease now. The rest of the story—•”
The third man laughed.
"Come to me in London—after the war,” he said, “and l will tell it to you. And perhaps there will be—other things to talk about.”
"I shall be honored.” said the Frenchman. “We three!
I begin to understand now. A house should not be divided against itself. Is it not so? We should go far! It is fate to-night that—”
“Or the devil,” said the third man.
My Heavens!” The first man began to laugh—a •racked, jarring laugh. “After the war, the blinking war —after hell! There ain’t no end, there ain’t no—”
And then a flare hung again in the heavens, and in the thicket three men sat huddled against the tree trunks, tom. ragged and dishevelled men, but they were net staring into each others’ faces now; ---------------------
they were staring, their eyes magnetically attracted, at a spot on the ground where a man, a man murdered, should be lying.
But the man was not there.
Th» fourth man wa3 gone.
Three Yearn Later
T'HE East End being, as it were, more akin to the technique and the mechanics of the thing, applauded the •’raftsmanship; the West End. a little grimly on the part of the men, and with a loquacity not wholly free from nervousness on the part of the women, wondered who would be next.
“The cove as is runnin’ that show," said the East End, with its tongue delightedly in its cheek, “knows ’is wye abaht. Wish I wa3 ’im!"
“The police are nincompoops!” said the masculine West End. “Absolutely!”
“Yes, of course! It’s quite too impossible for words!” said the female of the West End. “One never knows when one’s own—do let me give you some tea, dear Lady Wintern
From something that had merely been of faint and passing interest, a subject of casual remark, it had grown steadily, insidiously, had become conversationally epidemic. All London talked; the paper's talked—virulently. Alone in that great metropolis, New
Scotland Yard was silent, due, if the journals were to be believed, to the fact that that world-famous institution was come upon a state of hopeless and atrophied senility.
With foreknowledge obtained in some amazing manlier, with ingenuity, with boldness, and invariably with success, a series of crimes, stretching back several years, had been, were being, perpetrated with insistent regularity. These crimes had been confined to the West End of London, save on a few occasions when the perpetrators had gone slightly afield—because certain wealthy WestEnders had for the moment changed their accustomed habitat. The journals at spasmodic intervals printed a summary of the transactions. In jewels, and plate, and cash, the figures had reached an astounding Jotal, not one penny of which had ever been recovered or traced. Secret wall safes, hidden depositories of valuables opened with obliging celerity and disgorged their contents to some apparition which immediately vanished. There was no clu?. It simply happened again and again. Traps had been set with patience and considerable artifice. The traps had never been violated. London was accustomed to crimes, just as any great city was; there were hundreds of crimes committed in London; but these were of a genre all their own, these were distinctive, these were not to be confused with other crimes, or their authors with other criminals.
And so London talked—-and waited.
IT WAS raining—a thin drizzle. The night was uninviting without; cozy within the precincts of a certain well known West End club, the Claremont, to be exact. Two men sat in the lounge,in a little recess by the window. One, a man of perhaps thirty-three, of athletic build, with short-cropped black hair and clean-shaven face, a onetime captain of territorials in the late war, and though once known on the club membership roll as Captain Francis Newcombe was to be found there now as Francis Newcombe, Esquire; the other, a very much older man, with a thin, gray little face and thin, gray hair, would, on recourse to the club roll, have been found to be Sir Harris Greaves, Bart.
The baronet made a gesture with his cigar, indicative of profound disgust.
“Democracy!” he ejaculated. “The world safe for demmocracy! I am nauseated with that phrase. What does it mean? What did it ever mean? We have had three years now since the war which was to work that marvel, and I have seen no signs of it yet. So far as I--”
Captain Francis Newcombe interrupted the Baronet— “And yet,” he said, “I embody in my person one of those signs. You can hardly deny that, Sir Harris. Certainly I would never have had, shall I call it the distinction, of being admitted to this club had it not been for the democratic leaven working through the war. You remember, of course? An officer and a gentleman! We of England were certainly consistent in that respect.While one was an officer one was a gentleman. The clubs were all pretty generally thrown open to officers during the war. Some of them came from the Lord knows where. T. G’s. they were called, you remember—Temporary Gentlemen. Afterward—but of course that’s another story so far as most of them were concerned. Take my own case. I enlisted in the ranks, and toward the latter end of the war I obtained my commission I became a T. G. And as such I enjoyed the privileges of this club. I was eventually, however, one of the fortunate ones. At the close of the war the club took me on its permanent strength and, ergo, I became a—Permanent Gentleman. Democracy! Private Francis Newcombe— Captain Francis Newcombe—Francis Newcombe, Esquire.”
A RATHER thin case!” smiled the baronet. “What I was about to say when you interrupted me was that, so far as I can see, all that the world has been made safe for by the war is the active expression of the predatory instinct in man. I refer to the big interests, the trusts; to the radical outcroppings of certain labor elements; to—yes!”—he tapped the newspaper that lay on the table beside him— “the Simon-pure criminal such as this mysterious gang of desperadoes that has London at its wits’ ends, and those of us who have anything to lose in a state of constant apoplexy.”
Captain Francis Newcombe shook his head.
“I think you’re wrong, sir,” he said judicially. “It isn’t the aftermath of the war, or the result of the war. It is the war, of which the recent struggle was only a phase. It’s been going on since the days of the cave man. You’ve only to reduce the nation to the terms of the individual, and you have it. A nation lusts after something which does not belong to it. It proceeds to take it by force. If it fails it is punished. That is war. The criminal lusts after something. He flings down his challenge. If he is caught he is punished. That is war. What is the difference?” The baronet sipped at his Scotch and soda.
“H’m! Which brings us?” he suggested.
“Nowhere!” said Captain Francis Newcombe promptly. “It’s been going on for ages; it’ll go on for all time. Always the individual predatory; inevitably, in cycles, the cumulative individual running amuck as a nation. Why, you, sir, yourself, ’ a little while ago when somebody here in the room made a remark to the effect that he believed this particular series of crimes was directly attributable to the war because it would seem that some one of ourselves, some one who has the entree everywhere, who, through being contaminated by the filth out there, had lost poise and was probably the guilty one, meaning, I take it, that the chap finding himself in a hole wasn’t so nice or particular in his choice of the way out of it as he would have been but for the war—you, Sir Harris, denied this quite emphatically. It—er —wouldn’t you say, rather bears me out?”
The old baronet smiled grimly.
“Quite possibly!” he said. “But if so, I must confess that my conclusion was based on a very different premise from yours. In fact, for the moment, I was denying the theory that the criminal in question was one of ourselves, quite apart from any bearing the war might have had upon the matter.”
The ex-captain of territorials selected a cigarette with care from his case.
“Yes?” he inquired politely. The old baronet cleared his throat. He glanced a little whimsically at hi? companion.
“It’s been .a hobby, of course, purely a hobby; but in an amateurish sort of way as a criminologist I have spent a great deal of time and money in—”
“By Jove! Really!” exclaimed Captain Newcombe. “I didn’t know, Sir Harrris, that you—He paused suddenly in confusion. “That’s anything but a compliment to your reputation though, I’m afraid, isn’t it? Á bit raw of me! I—I’m sorry, sir.”
“Not at all!” said the old baronet pleasantly; and then, with a wry smile: “You need not feel badly. In certain
quarters much more intimate with the subject than you could be supposed to be, I am equally unrecognized.”
“It’s very good of you to let me down so easily,” said the ex-captain of territorials contritely. “Will you go on, sir? You were saying that you did not believe these crimes were being perpetrated by one in the same sphere of life as those who were being victimized. Why is that, sir? The theory seemed rather logical.”
“Because,” said the old baronet quietly, “I believe I know the man who is guilty.”
The ex-captain of territorials stared.
“Good Heavens, sir!” he gasped out. “You—you can’t mean that?”
“Just that!” A grim brusqueness had crept into the old baronet’s voice. “And one of these days I propose to prove it!”
“But, sir”—the ex-captain of territorials in his amazement was still apparently groping out for his bearings— “in that case, the authorities—surely you—”
“They were very polite at Scotland Yard—very!” The old baronet smiled dryly again. “That was the quarter to which I referred. Soc’ally and criminologically—if I may be permitted the word—I fear that the Yard regards me from widely divergent angles. But damme, sir”—he became suddenly irascible—“they’re too self-sufficient! I am a doddering and interfering old idiot! But nevertheless I am firmly convinced that I am right, and they haven’t heard the end of the matter—if I hrve to devote every penny I’ve got to substantiating my theory and bringing the guilty man to justice!”
Captain Francis Newcombe coughed in an embarrassed way.
The old baronet reached for his tumbler, and drank generously. It appeared to soothe his feelings.
“Tut, tut!” he said self-chidingly. “I mean every word of that—that is, as to my determination to pursue my own investigations to the end; but perhaps I have not been wholly fair to the Yard. So far, I lack proof; I have only theory. And the Yard too has its theory. It is a very common disease. The theory of the Yard is that the man I believe to be guilty of these crimes of to-day died somewhere around the middle stages of the war.”
“By Jove!” Captain Francis Newcombe leaned sharply forward on the arms of his chair. “You don’t say!”
npHE old baronet wrinkled his brows, and was silent for a moment.
“It’s quite extraordinary!” he said at last, with a puzzled smile. “I can’t for the life of me understand how I got on this subject, for I think we were discussing democracy—but you appear to be interested.”
“That is expressing it mildly,” said the ex-captain of territorials earnestly. “You can’t in common decency refuse me the rest of the story now, Sir Harris.”
“There is no reason that I know of why I should.” said the old baronet. “Did you ever hear of a man called Shadow Varne?”
Captain Francis Newcombe shook hi? head.
“No,” he said.
“Possibly, then,” said the old baronet, “you may remembertherobbery atLord Seeton’s place? It was during the war.”
“No,” said the other thoughtfully. “I can’t say I do. I don’t think I ever heard of it.”
“Well, perhaps you wouldn’t,” nodded the old baronet. “It happened at a time when, from what you’ve said, I would imagine you were in the ranks, and—however, it doesn’t matter. The point is that the robbery at Lord Seeton’s is amazingly like, I could almost say, each and every one of this series of robberies that is taking place today. The same exact fore-knowledge, the hidden wall safe, or hiding place, or repository, or whatever it might be, that was supposedly known only to the family; the utter absence of any clue; the complete disappearance of —shall we call it?—the loot itself. There is only one difference. In the case of Lord Seeton, the jewels—it was principally a jewel robbery—were eventually recovered. They were found in the possession of Shadow Varne. But”—the old baronet smiled a little grimly again— “the police were not to blame for that.”
CIR HARRIS GREAVES, amateur criminologist, re^ verted to his tumbler of Scotch and soda.
Captain Francis Newcombe knocked the ash from his cigarette with little taps of his forefinger.
“Yes?” he said.
“It’s a bit of a story,” resumed the old baronet slowly. “Yes, quite a bit of a story. I do not know how Shadow Varne got to Paris; I simply know that, had he not taken sick, neither he nor the jewels would everhave been found. But perhaps I am getting a little too far ahead. I think I ought to say that Shadow Varne, though he had never actually up to this time been known in a physical sense to the police, had established for himself a widespread and international reputation. His name here, for instance amongst the criminal element of our own East End wasa sort of Talisman, something to conjure with, as it were though no one could ever be found who had seen or could describe the man. I suppose that is how he got the name of Shadow. Some must have known him, of course, but they were tight lipped; and even these, I am inclined to believe, would never have been able to lay fingers on him, even had they dared. He was at once an inscrutable and diabolical character. I would say, and in this at least Scotland Yard will agree with me, he seemed like some evil, unembodied spirit upon whom one could never come in a tangible sense, but that hovered always in the background, dominating, permeating with his personality the criminal world.”
“But if this is so, if no one knew him. or had ever seen him.” said the ex-captain of territorials in a puzzled way, “how was he recognized as Shadow Varne in Paris?”
“I am coming to that,” said the old baronet quietly. “As you know very well, in those days they were always poking into every rat hole in Paris for draft evaders. That is how they stumbled on Shadow Varne. They dug him out of one of those holes, a very filthy hole, like a rat —like a very sick rat. The man was raving in delirium. That is how they knew they had caught Shadow Varne— because in his delirium he disclosed his identity. And that is how they recovered Lord Seeton’s jewels.”
“My word!” ejaculated Captain Francis Newcombe. “A bit tough, I call that! My sympathies are almost with the accused!”
“I am afraid I have failed to make you understand the inhuman qualities of the man,” said the old baronet tersely. “However, Shadow Varne was even then too much for them —at, least temporarily. A few nights later
he escaped from the hospital; but he was still too sick a man to stand the pace, and they were too close on his heels. He had possibly, all told, a couple of hours of liberty, running, dodging through the streets of Paris. The chase ended somewhere on the bank of tne Seine. He was fired at here as he ran, and though quite a few yards in the lead, he appeared to have been hit, for he was seen to stagger, fall, then recover himself and go on. He refused to halt. They fired and hihim again—or so they believed. He fell to the ground—and rolled over the edge into the water. And that was the last that was ever seen of him.”
“My word!” ejaculated the ex-captain of territorials again. “That’s a nice end! And I must say, -with all due deference to you, Sir Harris, that I can’t see anything wrong with Scotland Yard’s deduction. I fancy he’s dead, fast enough.”
“Yes,” said the old baronet deliberat ly, “I imagined you would say so; and I, too, would agree were it not for two reasons. First, had it been any other man than Shadow Varne; and, second, that the body was never recovered.”
“DUT,” objected Captain Francis Newcombe, “if, as you believe, the man is still carrying on, having been identified once, he would, wouldn’t you say, be recognized again?”
“Not at all!” said the oldbaronet decidedly. “You must take into account the man’s sick and emaciated condition when he was caught, and the subsequent hospital surroundings. Let those who saw him then see the same man to-day, robust, in health, and in an entirely different atmosphere, locality and environment! Recognized? I would lay long odds against it, even leaving out of account the man’s known ingenuity for evading recognition.”
The ex-captain of territorials nodded thoughtfully.
“Yes,” he said, “that is quite possible; but,even granting that he is still alive, I can’t see—”
“Why should I believe he is at the bottom of what is going on to-day here in London?” supplied the old baronet quickly. “Perhaps intuition, perhaps the mystery about the man that has interested me from the time I first heard of him in the early days of the war, and which has ever since been a fascinating study with me, has something to do with it. I told you to begin with that my proof was theory. But I believe it. I do not say he is alone in this, or was alone in the Lord Seeton affair; but he is certainly the head and front and brains of whatever he was, or is, engaged in. As for the similarity of the cases, I will admit that might be pure coincidence, but we know that Shadow Varne did have the Seeton jewels in his possession. The strongest point, however, that I have to offer in a tangible sense, bearing in mind the man himself and his hideously elusive propensities, is the fact that there is no absolute proof of his death. Why wasn’t his body recovered? You will answer me probably along the same lines that the Paris police argued and that were accepted by Scotland Yard. You will say that it was dark, that the body might not have come to the surface immediately, and under the existing conditions, by the time they procured a boat and began their search, it might easily be mised. Very good! That is quite possible. But why, then, was not the body eventually recovered in two or three days, say—a week, if you like? You will say that this would probably be very far indeed from being the first instance in which a body was never recovered from the Seine. And here, too, you would be quite right. But I do not believe it. I do not believe it was a dead man or a man mortally wounded, or a man wounded so badly that he must inevitably drown, who pitched helplessly into the water that night. I believe he did it voluntarily, and with considered cunning, as the only chance he had. Go into the East End. Listen to the stories you will hear about him. The world does not get rid of such as he so easily! The man is not human. The crimes he has committed would turn your blood cold. He is the mos" despicable. the most wanton thing that I ever heard of. He would kill with no more compunction than you would break in two that match you are holding in your hand. Where he came from God alone knows, and—”
A club attendant had stopped beside the old baronet’s chair.
“Yes?” said the old baronet.
"I beg pardon. Sir Harris, but your car is here,” announced the man.
“Very good! Thank you!” The old baronet drained his glass and stood up. “Well, you have heard the story, captain.” he said with a dry smile. "I shall not embarrass you by asking you to decide between Scotland V ard and myself, but I shall at least expect you to admit that there is some slight justification for my theory.”
HT HE ex-captain of territorials, as he rose in courtesy,
* shook his head quietly.
“If I felt only that way about it,” he said slowly, “I should simply thank you for a very interesting story and your confidence. As it is. there is so much justification I feel impelled to say to you that, if this man is what you describe him to be. is as dangerous as you say he is, I would advise you. Sir Harris, in all seriousness, to leave him —to Scotland Yard.”
"What!” exclaimed the old baronet sharply. “And let him go free! No, sir! Not if every effort I can put forth will prevent it! Never, sir—under any circumstances!”
Captain Francis Newcomb? smiled gravely, and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, at least, I felt I ought to say it,” hesaid. “Good night. Sir Harris—and thank you so much!”
“Good-night, captain!” replied the old baronet cordially. as he turned away. “Good-night to you, sir!”
Captain Francis Newcombe watched the other leave the room, then he walked over to the window. The drizzle had developed into a downpour, with gusts of wind that now pelted the rain viciously at the window’ panes. He frowned at the streaming glass.
A moment later, as he moved away from the window, he consulted his watch. It was a quarter past eleven. Downstairs he secured his hat and stick, and spoke to the doorman.
“Get a taxi, please, Martin,” he requested, “and tell the chap to drive me home.”
He lighted a cigarette as he w’aited, and then under the shelter of the doorman’s umbrella entered the taxi.
It was not far. The taxi stopped before a flat in a fashionable neighborhood that was quite in keeping with the fashionable club Captain Francis Newcombe had just left. His man admitted him.
“It’s a filthy night, Runnells,” said the ex-captain of territorials.
Runnells slammed the door against a gust of wind.
“You’re bloody well right!” said Runnells.
CHAPTER 2 An Iron in the Fire
IT WAS a neighborhood of alleyways and lanes of ferocious darkness: of ill-lighted, baleful streets, of shadows; and of doorways where no doors existed, black, cavernous and sinister openings to inner chambers of misery. of squalid want, of God-knows-what.
It was the following evening, and still early—barely eight o'clock. Captain Francis Newcombe turned the corner of one of these gloomily lighted streets, and drew instantly back to crouch, as an animal crouches before it springs, in the deep shadow’s of a wretched tenement building. Light footfalls sounded; came nearer. Two forms, skulking, yet moving swiftly, came into sight around the corner.
Captain Francis Newcombe sprang. His fist crashed with terrific force to the point of an opposing jaw. A queer grunt—and one of the two men sprawled his length on the pavement and lay quite still. Captain Francis Newcombe’s movements were incredibly swift. His left hand was at the second man’s throat now, and a revolver was shoved into the other’s face.
The tableau held for a second.
“A bit of a ‘eushing’ expedition, was it?” said the excaptain of territorials calmly. “1 looked a likely victim, didn’t I? Just the usual bash on the head with a neddy, and then the usual stripping even down to the boots if they were good enough—and mine were good enough, eh? And I might get over that bash on the head, or my skull might be cracked; I might wake up in one of your filthy passageways here, or I might never wake up! What would it matter? It’s done every night. You make your
living that w’ay. And who’s to know who did it?” His grip tightened suddenly on the other’s throat. “Your kind are better dead,” said Captain Francis Newcombe, and there was something of horrible callousness in his conversational tones. “You lack art; you have no single redeeming feature.” It was as though now he were debating in cold precision with himself. “Yes, you are much better dead!”
“Gor’blimy, guv’nor, let me go,” half choked, half
YY/’HO is the FOURTH Straggler? That is the tantalizing, mystifying puzzle in this story. Can you guess it before the author lays the secret before you? This is not a war story. It is the first novel the author of “The Miracle Man” has written since “Pawned.”
whined the other. “ We wasn’t goin’ to touch you. No fear! Me an’ me mate was just goin’ round to the pub for an ’arf-pint—”
“It would make a noise,” said Captain Francis Newcombe unemotionally. “That is the trouble. I should have to clear out of here, and be put to the annoyance of waiting a half hour or so before I could come back and attend to my own affairs. That’s the only reason I haven’t fired this thing off, and I’m not sure that reason’s good enough. But it’s a bit of a fag to argue it out, so— don’t move, you swine, or that’ll settle it quicker still!” His fingers, from the other’s throat, searched his own waistcoat pocket, and produced a silver coin. “Heads or tails?” he inquired casually. “You call it.”
“My Gawd, guv’nor,” whimpered the man, “yer don’t mean that! Yer wouldn’t shoot a cove down like that, would yer? Yer wouldn’t do that!”
“Heads or tails?” The ex-captain of territorials’ voice was bored. “I shan’t ask you again.”
The light was poor. The man’s features, save that they were dirty and unshaven, were almost indistinguishable; but the eyes roved everywhere in hunted fear, and he lumped the fingers of one hand together and plucked with them in an unhinged way at his lips.
“I—no!” gurgled the man. “My Gawd!” His words were thick. His fingers, plucking, clogged his lips. “I carn’t— —” The mechanism of the revolver intruded itself—an unemotional click. The man screamed out. “No, no—wait, guv’nor! Wait!” he screamed. “’Eads! Gawd! ’Eads!”
CAPTAIN FRANCIS NEWCOMBE examined the coin; the sense of touch, as he rubbed his fingers over it, helping out the bad light.
“Right you are!” he said indifferently. “Heads it is! You’re in luck!” He tossed the coin on the pavement. “I’d keep that, if I were you.” His voice was still level, still bored. “You haven’t got anything, of course, to do any sniping with, for anything as valuable as that would never remain in the possession of your kind for more than five minutes before you would have pawned it.” He glanced at the prostrate form of the thug’s companion, who was showing some signs of returnmg consciousness. “I fancy you’ll find his jaw’s broken. Better give him a leg up,” he said, and, turning on his heel, walked on down the street.
Captain Francis Newcombe did not look back. He traversed the murky block, turned a corner, turned still another, and presently made his way through an entrance, long since doorless, into the hallway of a tenement house. It was little better than a pit of blackness here, but his movements were without hesitation, as one long and intimately familiar with his surroundings. He mounted a ricketty flight of stairs, and, without ceremony, opened the door of a room on the first landing, entered, and closed the door behind him. The room had no light in it.
“Who’s there?” demanded a weak, querulous, female voice.
The visitor made no immediate reply. The place reeked with the odor of salt fish; the air was stale, and an offence that assaulted the nostrils. Captain Francis Newcombe crossed to the window, wrenched at it, and flung it viciously open. I
A protracted fit of coughing came from a corner behind him.
“Didn’t I tell you never to send for me?” he snapped out in abrupt menace.
“ ’Ow, it’s you, is it?” said the woman’s voice. “Well,I ain’t never done it afore, ’ave I? Not in three years I ain’t.”
“You’ve done it now; you’ve done it to-night—and that’s once too often!” returned Captain Francis Newcombe savagely. “And before I’m through with you, I’ll promise you you’ll never do it again!”
“No,” she answered out of the darkness. “I won’t never do it again, an’ that’s why I done it to-night— ’cause I won’t never ’ave another chance. The doctor ’e
says he is sure I ain’t goin’ to be ’ere in the mornin’. .
Captain Francis Newcombe lit a match. It disclosed a tallow dip and a piece of salt fish on a battered chair— —and, beyond, the shadowy outline of a bed. He swept the piece of fish to the floor out of his way, lighted the candle, and, leaning forward, held it over the bed.
A woman’s face stared back at him in the flickering light; a curiously blotched face, and one that was emaciated until the cheek bones seemed the dominant feature. Her dull, almost glazed, gray eyes blinked painfully in even the'candle rays; a dirty woollen wrap was fastened loosely around a scrawny neck, and over this there straggled strands of tangled and unkempt gray hair.
“Well, I fancy the diagnosis isn’t far wrong,” said the ex-captain of territorials critically. “I’ve been too good to you— and prosperity’s let you down. For three years you haven’t lifted a finger except to carry a glass of gin to your lips. And now this is the end, is it?”
THE woman did not answer. She breathed heavily. The hectic spots on her cheeks burned a little wider. Captain Francis Newcombe set the candle back on the chair, and, with his hands in his pockets, stood looking at her. His face exhibited no emotion.
“I haven’t heard yet why you sent for me,” he said sharply.
“Polly,” she said thickly. “I wanter know wot abaht Polly?”
Captain Francis Newcombe smiled without mirth.
“My dear Mrs. Wickes,” he said evenly, “you know all about Polly. I distinctly remember bringing you the letter she enclosed for you in mine ten days ago, because I distinctly remember that after you had read it I watched you tear it up. And as your education is such that you cannot write in return, I also distinctly remember that you gave me messages for her which I was to incorporate in my own reply. Since then I have not heardfromPolly.” The woman raised herself suddenly on her elbow, and, her face contorted, shook her fist.
“My dear Mrs. Wickes!” she mimicked furiously through a burst of coughing. “Yer a cool ’un, yer are. That’s wot yer says, yer stands there an’ smiles like a bloomin’ hangel, an’ yer says, ‘my dear Mrs. Wickes!’ Curse yer, I knows more abaht yer than yer thinks for. Three years I’ve watched yer, an’ hif I’ve kept my tongue to meself that don’t say I don’t know wot I knows.” “Indeed!” Captain Francis Newcombe shrugged his shoulders. He smiled slightly. “Then I should say, if it were true, that it is sometimes dangerous, Mrs. Wickes— to know even a little about some things.”
The woman rocked in the bed, and hugged her thin bosom against a spasm of coughing that came near to strangulation.
“Bah!” she shouted, when she could get her breath. “I ain’t afraid of yer any more. Curse yer, I’m dyin’ anyhow! It’s nothin’ to you wiv yer smug smile, except yer glad I’ll be out of the wye—an —an’ it ain’t nothin’ to me either. I’m sick of it all, an’ I’m glad, I am; but afore I goes I wanter know wot abaht Polly. Wot’d yer tyke her awye for three years ago?”
“For the price of two quid paid weekly to a certain Mrs. Wickes, who is Polly’s mother,” said Captain Francis Newcombe composedly; “and with which the said Mrs. Wickes has swam in gin ever since.”
Mrs. Wickes fell back exhausted on her pillow.
“Wot for?” she whispered in fiere 3 insistence. “I wanter know wot for?”
“Well,” said Captain Francis Newcombe, “even at fifteen Polly was an amazingly pretty little girl—and she showed amazing promise. I’m wondering how she has developed. Extremely clever youngster! Don’t see, in fact, Mrs. Wickes, where she got it from! Not even the local desecration of the king’s English—in spite of the board schools! Amazing! We couldn’t let a flower like that bloom uncultivated, could we?”
The woman was up in the bed again.
A GUTTER brat!” she cried out. “An’ you says send ’er to school wiv the toffs in America, ’cause there wouldn’t be no chance of doin’ that ’ere at 'ome; an I says the toffs don’t tyke ’er kind there neither. An you says she goesasyerward,an’yer can get ’erin,onlyshe ’as to forget abaht these ’ere London slums. An’ she ain’t to write no letters to me except through you, ’cause hif any was found down ’ere they’d turn their noses up over there an’ give Polly the bounce.”
“Quite right, Mrs. Wickes!” said Captain Francis Newcombe imperturbably. “And for three years Polly has been in one of the most exclusive girls’ seminaries in America—and incidentally I might say I am arranging to go over there shortly for a little visit. If her photographs are to be relied upon, she has more than fulfilled her early promise. A very beautiful young woman, educated, and now, Mrs. Wickes—a lady. She has made a circle of friends among the best and the wealthiest. Why even now, with the summer holidays coming on, you know, I understand she is to be the guest of a school friend in a millionaire’s home. Think of that, Mrs. Wickes! What more could any woman ask for her daughter? And why should you. for instance, ask more to-night? Why this eleventh hour curiosity? You agreed to it all three years ago, Mrs. Wickes—for two quid a week.”
“Yes,” said the woman passionately, “an’ I’m probably goin’ to ’ell for it now! I knowed then yer wasn’t doin’ this for Polly’s sake, an’ in the three years I kept on knowin’ yer more an’ more for the devil you are. But I says to meself that I’m ’ere to see Polly don’t come to no harm, but—but I ain’t goin’ to be ’ere no more, an’ that’s wot I wants to know to-night. An’ I asks yer, wot’s yer game?”
“Really!” Captain Francis Newcombe shrugged his shoulders again. “This isn’t very interesting, Mrs. Wickes. And in any case, I fail to see what you are going to do about it, or what lever you could possibly bring to bear to make me divulge what you are pleased to imagine is some base and ulterior motive in what I have done. It is quite well known among Captain Newcombe’s circle that he is educating a ward in America. It is—er—rather to his credit, is it not?”
“Curse yer wiv yer smooth tongue!” said Mrs. Wickes wildly. “I knows! I knows yer got a game—some dirty game wiv Polly in it. Yer clever, yer are—an’ yer ain’t human. But yer won’t win, an’ all along Polly. She won’t do nothin’ that ain’t straight, she won’t. Polly ain’t that kind.”
“Oh, as to that, and granting my wickedness,” said Captain Francis Newcombe indifferently, “I shouldn’t worry. Having you in mind, Mrs. Wickes, I fancy even that would be quite all right—blood always tells, you know.”
“Blood! Blood’ll tell, will it?” The woman was rocking in the bed again. She burst into harsh laughter. It brought on another, and even more severe, strangling fit of coughing. “Blood’ll tell, will it?” she choked, as she gasped for breath. “Well, so it will! So it will!”
Captain Francis Newcombe stared at her from narrowed eyes.
“What do you mean by that?” he demanded sharply.
But Mrs. Wickes had fallen back upon her pillow in utter exhaustion. She lay fighting painfully, pitifully now for every breath.
“What do you mean by that?” repeated Captain Francis Newcombe still more sharply.
AND then suddenly, as though some strange premonition were at work, all fight gone from her, the woman threw out her arms in a broken gesture of supplication
“I’m a wicked woman, a bloody wicked ’un I’ve been. Gawd forgive me for it!” she whispered. “Polly ain’t no blood of mine.”
Captain Francis Newcombe rested his elbows on the back of the chair, and smiled coolly.
“I think,” he said evenly, “it’s my turn now to ask what the game is? That’s a bit thick, isn’t it—after three years?”
The hectic spots had faded from the woman’s face, and an ominous grayness was taking their place. She was crying now.
“It’s Gawd’s truth,” she said. “I was afraid yer wouldn’t ’ave give me the two quid a week hif yer’d known I ’adn’t no ’old on ’er. Polly don’t know. No one knows but me, an’—” Her voice trailed off through weakness.
Captain Francis Newcombe, save that his eyes had narrowed a little more, made no movement. He watched her without comment as she struggled for her breath again.
“I didn’t mean to ’ave no fight wiv yer, Gawd knows I
didn’t. Gawd knows I didn’t send for yer for that. I only wanted to ask yer wot abaht Polly, an’ to ask yer to be good to ’er, an’— an’ tell yer wot I’m tellin’ yer now afore it’s too late. “An’—an’—” She raised herself with ^ a sudden convulsive effort to her elbow. “Gawd, I—I’m goin’ now."
With a swift movement Captain Francis Newcombe whipped a flask from his pocket, and held it to the woman’s lips.
She swallowed a few drops with difficulty, and lay still.
Presently Mrs. Wickes’ lips moved.
Captain Francis Newcombe, close beside the bed now, leaned over her.
“A lydy ’er mother was, an’ ’er father, ’e was a gentleman born, ’e was. I —I don’t know nothin abaht em except she was a governess an’ ’e ’adn’t much money. Neither of ’em ’adn’t no family accordin’ to ’er, an’ countin’ wot ’appened she told the truth, poor soul.
Again Mrs. Wickes lay silent. Her lips continued to move, but they were soundless. She seemed suddenly to become conscious of this, and motioned weakly for the flask. And again with difficulty she swallowed a few drops
“Years ago this was.” Mrs. Wickes forced the words
with long pauses between. “ ’Ard times came^ on em. ’E got killed in a haccident. An’ she took sick after Polly came, an’ the money went, an’ she wouldn’t ’ave charity, an’ she got down to this, like us ’uns ere, tryin^ to keep body an’ soul together on the bit she ’ad left. An she died, an’ I took Poíly. Two years old she was then. There wasn’t no good of tellin’ Polly an’ ’ave er gi\e ’erself airs when she ’ad to go out an’ do ’er bit an earn something. Polly Wickes—Polly Wickes—the flower girl. Flowers—posies—pretty posies—that’s where yer saw ’er—”
The woman’s voice had thickened; her words, in snatches, were incoherent:
“Polly Wickes—Polly Wickes—Polly Gray—Polly Gray ’er name is—Polly Gray. I got the lines an the birth paper. I kept ’em all these years. ’Ere! I got ’em ’ere.”
“W'here?” said Captain Francis New'combe tersely.
“ ’Ere!” Mrs. Wickes plucked feebly at the edge of the bed clothing. “ ’Ere!”
Captain Francis Newcombe thrust his hand quickly in under the mattress. After a moment’s search he brought out a soiled envelope. It bore a faded superscription in a scrawling hand. He picked up the candle from the chair and read it:
“Polly’s papers which is God’s truth,
Mrs. Wickes ‘X’ her mark.”
He tore the envelope open rather carefully at the end. It contained two papers that were turned a little yellow with age. Yes, it was quite true! His eyes travelled swiftly over the names:
“Harold Morton Gray____Elizabeth Pauline Forbes .
There was a sudden sound from the bed—like a long, fluttering sigh. Captain Francis Newcombe swung sharply about. The woman’s arm was stretched out toward him; dulled eyes seemed to be striving desperately in their fading vision to search his face.
“Polly!” Mrs. Wickes whispered. “Be—be good to
Polly—be good to—”
The outstretched arm fell to the bed covering—and Mrs. Wickes lay still.
Captain Francis Newcombe leaned forward, holding the candle, searching the form on the bed critically with
Continued on page 62 his eyes. After a moment he straightened up.
The Four Stragglers
Continued from page 21
Mrs. Wiekes was dead.
Captain Francis Newcombe replaced the papers in the envelope, and placed the envelope in his pocket. He set the candle back on the chair, blew it out, and walked across the room to the door.
“Gray, eh?” said Captain Francis Newcombe under his breath, as he closed the door behind him. “Polly Gray, eh? Well.it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s just as good an iron in the fire whether it’s— Wickes or Gray!”
Three of Them
TWENTY-FIVE minutes later, Captain Francis Newcombe stood at the door of his apartment. Runnells admitted him.
“Paul Cremarre here yet?” demanded the ex-captain of territorials briskly.
“Yes,” said Runnells. “Been here half an hour.”
With Runnells behind him, Captain Francis Newcombe entered the living room of the apartment. A tall man, immaculately dressed, with a small, very carefully trimmed black moustache, with eyes that were equally black but whose pupils were curiously minute, stood by the mantel.
“Ah, monsieur!” He waved his arm in greeting. “Saint!”
“Back, eh, Paul?” nodded Captain Francis Newcombe flinging himself into a lounge chair. “Expected you, of course, to-night. Well, how’s Pere Mouche?” “Ah!” murmured the Frenchman. “That is another story! I am afraid it is true that his back is really bending under the load. He has done amazingly; but though the continent is wide, it can only absorb so much, and there are always difficulties. He says himself that we feed him too well.”
Captain Francis Newcombe frowned. “Well, he’s right, of course! Leduc and Colferre, eh? I don’t like it! If we needed anything further to back us up in our decision lately that it was about time to lay low for a while, we’ve got it here. There is to-morrow night’s affair, of course, that naturally we will carry through, but after that I think we should come to a full stop for, say—a six months’ holiday. Personally, as you know, I’m rather anxious to make a little trip to America. I’ll take Runnells along as my man for the looks of it. He can play at valeting and still enjoy himself if he keeps out of mischief—which I will see to it”—Captain Francis Newcombe’s lips thinned—“that he does! That will account for the temporary closing up of this apartment here. And you, Paul—I suppose it will be the Riviera for you?”
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders. “Ah!” he said. “As to that I do not know, but what does it matter?” He laughed good humoredly. “I have no attraction such as monsieur with a charming ward in America. I am oft.hedesolate, one of the forlorn of the earth in whom no one has more than a passing interest.”
EXCEPT Scotland Yard and the Prefecture,” said the ex-captain of territorials with a grim smile.
“You’re bloody well right!” said Runnells gruffly. “I don’t know how, but it’s true. Let the cops nose a cold scent for a while, I says. I can do with a bit of America whenever you’re ready!”
“Quite so!” said Captain Francis Newcombe. “It’s in the air. Like Runnells,
I do not know exactly where it comes from, but I know it’s there.”
“Monsieur,” said the Frenchman, “I have often wondered about the fourth— stragglers, I think you called us that night—about the fourth straggler.”
“You mean?” demanded Captain Francis Newcombe sharply.
“Nothing!” said the Frenchman. “One sometimes wonders, that is all. The thought flashed through my mind as you spoke. But it means nothing. How could it? More than three years have gone. Let us forget my remark.” He flicked the ash from his cigareette. “Well, then, as I am the only one left to speak, I will say that I too agree. For six months we do not exist so far as business is concerned-— after to-morrow night. I have made a promise to the little Pere Mouche that when I return he shall eat a ragout from a veritable gold plate, and that Scotland Yard—”
The doorbell interrupted the Frenchman’s words.
Runnells left the room to answer the summons. He was back in a moment with a card on a silver tray, which he handed to the ex-captain of territorials.
The card tray was significant. Captain Francis Newcombe glanced first at Runnell’s face, frowned—then picked up the card. His eyes narrowed as he read it.
DETECTIVE-SERGEANT MULLINS New Scotland Yard
He handed the card coolly to Paul Cremarre.
“Everything all right so far as you are concerned?” he demanded in a low, quick tone.
THE Frenchman smiled at the card in a curious way, handed it back, and lighted a fresh cigarette.
“Yes,” he said.
A minute later, Runnells ushered in a thick-set, florid-faced man.
“Sergeant Mullins, sir!” he announced, and withdrew from the room.
The sergeant looked inquiringly from one to the other of the two men.
“I’m sorry to intrude, gentlemen,” he said. “It’s Captain Newcombe, I—” Captain Francis Newcombe waved his hand pleasantly.
“Not at all, sergeant!” he said. “I am Captain Newcombe. What can I do for you?”
“Well, sir,” said the man from Scotland Yard “even if the papers hadn’t been full of it all day, you’d probably know about it anyway, being as how you were a friend of his. it’s Sir Harris Greaves, sir—Sir Harris’ murder.”
Captain Francis Newcombe, as though instinctively, turned toward an evening paper that lay upon the table, its great headlines screaming the murder across the front page.
“Good Heavens, sergeant—yes!” he exclaimed. “It’s a shocking thing! You’ve read it, of course, Paul?”
“I’ve never read anything like it before,” said the Frenchman grimly. “The most wanton thing I ever heard of! Absolutely purposeless!”
“Exactly!” agreed Captain Francis Newcombe. “But you'll pardon me, sergeant, if I appear a bit curious as to why you should have come to me aboutit.” “Well, sir,” said Sergeant Mullins, “that’s simple enough. You are the last one as had any conversation with Sir Harris before he was murdered.”
Captain Francis Newcombe stared at the Scotland Yard man in a puzzled way. “I am afraid I don’t quite understand, sergeant,” he said a little helplessly. “According to the published accounts, Sir Harris was stabbed in his bed, presumably during the early morning hours, though no sound was heard, and the crime wasn’t discovered until his man went to take Sir Harris his tea at the usual hour this morning. But perhaps the accounts are inaccurate?”
“No, sir,” said Sergeant Mullins; “as far as that goes, they’re accurate enough. The doctors say it must have been somewhere between two and three o’clock in the morning.”
“Quite so!” said Captain Francis Newcombe. “That is what I had in mind. Sir Harris left the club shortly before I did. I have no exact idea what the hour was, though the doorman would probably be able to say, but I am quite certain it could not have been later than half past eleven.”
“It wasn’t even as late as that, sir,” said the man from Scotland Yard seriously. “Ten after eleven, it was, when Sir Harris left; and you, sir, at a quarter past. But I didn’t say, sir that you were the last one as spoke to Sir Harris alive. Conversation was what I said, sir—and a lengthy one too. One says a lot in an hour or so, sir.”
“Oh, I see!” said Captain Francis Newcombe, with a smile. “Or, rather—I don’t! What about this conversation, sergeant?”
“Well, sir, if you don’t mind,” said Detective-Sergeant Mullins, “that’s what I’d like to know—what was it about?”
“Well, if it’s important, I’ll try to remember,” said Captain Francis Newcombe gravely. “The shows, of course, and the American Yacht race, horses, a hunting lodge Sir Harris had in Scotland, and-—yes. I believe that’s all, sergeant. But it’s quite a range, at that.”
Detective-Sergeant Mullins inspected the bottom button of his waistcoat intently.
“Sir Harris was a bit of a criminologist in his way, as perhaps you’ve heard, sir?” he said.
“Yes, I believe I have heard it said that was a hobby of his,” nodded Captain Francis Newcombe. “But I wouldn’t have known it from anything Sir Harris said last night, if that’s what you mean. The subject wasn’t mentioned.”
“Nor any crime? And particularly any particular criminal?” prodded, the Scotland Yard man.
Captain Francis Newcombe shook his head.
“Not a word,” he said.
Detective-Sergeant Mullins looked up a little gloomilyfrom hiswaistcoat button.
“I’m sorry for that,” he said.
“So am I, if it would have helped any,” said the ex-captain of territorials heartily. “But what’s the point, sergeant?”
WELL, you see, sir,” said the Scotland Yard man, “with all due respect to the dead, Sir Harris fancied himself a bit, he did, along those lines. Some queer notions he had, sir—and stubborn, as you might say. He’s got himself into trouble more than once, and the Yard’s had its own time with him. He’s been warned, sir, often enough—and if he was alive, he wouldn’t say he hadn’t. It’s what he’s been told might happen. There’s no other reason, as far as we’ve gone, why he should have been murdered. It looks the likely thing that he went too far this time, and got to know more than some crook took a notion it was safe to have him know.”
Paul Cremarre smiled inscrutably at the Scotland Yard man.
“I take back what I said about it being a purposeless murder, sergeant,” he murmured.
“Yes, sir,” said Detective-Sergeant Mullins. “Well, I fancy that’s all, gentlemen. Good-night, gentlemen!”
_ Detective-Sergeant Mullins’ foot steps died away in the hall.
Captain Francis Newcombe’s dark eyes rested unemotionally upon the Frenchman. The Frenchman leaned against the mantel and stared at the end of his cigarette. The front door closed, and Runnells came back into the room.
“Now, Runnells,” said the Captain “we will talk about—to-morrow night.”
CHAPTER 4 Gold Plate
A MOTOR ran swiftly along a country road.
Two men sat in the front seat.
“My friend Runnells,” said one of the two quizzically, after a silence that had endured for miles, “what the devil is the matter with you to-night?”
“I don’t know,” said Runnells, who drove the car. “What the captain was talking about last night, maybe—the things you feel in the air.” i( “Bah!”said Paul Cremarrecomposedly. “If it is only the air! For three years we have found nothing in the air but good fortune.”
“That’s all right,” Runnells returned sullenly. “If you want to know, what it is that has got into me, I’ll tell you. I know everything’s fixed for to-night, maybe better than it’s ever been fixed before—it ain’t that. It’s last night. It’s damned queer, that bloke from Scotland Yard showing up in our rooms!”
“Ah!” murmured Paul Cremarre. “Yes, my Runnells, I too have thought of that. But you were at home the night before, when Sir Harris Greaves was murdered, you and the captain, were you not? It is nothing, is it? A mere little coincidence— yes? Y ou should know better than I do.” “There’s nothing to know,” said Runnells shortly. “It’s just the idea of a Scotland Yard man coming to our diggings. Like a warning,somehow, it looks.” “Yes,” said Paul Cremarre. “Quite so! And the headlights now—hadn’t you better switch them off? And run a little slower, Runnells. It is not far now, if I have made no mistake in my bearings.” Darkness fell upon the road; the motor slackened its speed.
“You Were speaking of the visit from Scotland Yard,” resumed the Frenchman calmly. “You were at home, of course, when Captain Newcombe returned from the club the night before last at— what time was it, he said?”
“Oh, that’s straight enough!” grunted Runnells. “He came in about half past eleven, and we were both in bed by twelve. I’ve told you it ain’t that. What would he have to do with sticking an old toff like Sir Harris that never done him any harm?”
“Nothing,” said Paul Cremarre. “I was simply thinking that Sergeant Mullins’ theory reminded me of something that you, too, may perhaps remember.” “What’s that?” inquired Runnells.
“A rifle shot that was fired one night in a thicket when the Boche had us on the run,” said Paul Cremarre.
Runnells swung sharply in his seat and shouted hoarsely:
“What d’you want to bring that up for to-night? I—curse it—I can see it out there in the black of the road now!”
They both remained silent for some minutes.
“I mean nothing,” said Paul Cremarre, “except that Captain Francis Newcombe is a man like no other man in the world: that he is, as I once had the honor to remark—incomparable.”
Runnells grunted over the wheel. “Slower,Runnells,”ordered the Frenchman. “If I am not mistaken, we are arrived. The lodge gates can’t be more than a quarter of a mile on, and the bit of lane that borders the park ought to be just about here—yes, there it is!”
RUNNELLS stopped the motor; and then, with the engine running softly, backed it for a short distance from the main road down an intensely black, treelined lane.
“That’s far enough,” said Paul Cremarre. “We can’t take any risk of being heard from the Hall. Now edge her in under the trees.”
“What for?” grumbled Runnells. “It’s so bloody dark, I’d probably smash her. She’s right enough as she is. There’s a fat chance of any one coming along this here lane at two o’clock in the morning, ain’t there?”
“Runnells,” said the Frenchman smoothly, “I quote from the book of Captain Francis Newcombe: ‘Chance is the playground of fools.’ Back her in, my Runnells.” ., „
“Oh, all right! said Runnells—and a moment later th e lane was empty.
Still another moment, and the two men, each carrying two rather large-sized, empty travelling bags, began to make their way silently and cautiously through the thickly-wooded park of the estate. It was not easy going in the darkness. Now and then they stumbled. Once or twice Runnells cursed fiercely under his breath; once or twice the Frenchman lost his urbanity and swore softly in his native tongue.
To be Continued.