Dacre Wynne had vanished, leaving behind him no trace of mortal remains, and only a patch of charred grass in the middle of the uninhabited Fens to mark the spot. And Nigel Merriton, whose guest the man was, must of necessity be told the fruitlessness of the searchers' self-appointed task. The doctor volunteered to do it.
Tony West accompanied him as far as Nigel's, and then he suddenly recollected that Merriton had locked it the night before. There was nothing for it but to hammer upon the panels, or—pick the lock.
"And he'll be sleeping like a dead man, if I know anything of sleeping draughts," said the doctor, shaking his head. "Got a penknife, West?"
West nodded. He whipped the knife out of his pocket and began methodically to work at the worn lock with all the precision of an experienced burglar. But the action brought no smile to his lips, no little mocking jest to help on the job. There was something grim in the set of West's lips, and in the tension of the doctor's slight figure. Tragedy had stalked unnoticed into the Towers that evening and they had become enmeshed in the folds of its cloak. They felt it in the cold clamminess of the atmosphere, in the quiet peace of the long corridors.
Finally the thing was done. West turned the handle and the door swung inward. The doctor crossed to the bedside and took hold of the sleeping man's shoulder. He shook it vigorously.
"Nigel!" he called sharply once or twice. "Wake up! Wake up!"
But Merriton never moved. The performance was repeated and the call was louder.
"Nigel! I say, wake up, wake up! We've news for you!"
The sleeping man stirred suddenly and wrenched his shoulder away.
"Let go of me, Wynne, damn you!" he broke out petulantly, his eyes opening. "I've beaten you this time, anyhow, so part of our score is marked off! Let go, I say...I...Doctor Bartholomew! What in Heaven's name's the matter? I've been asleep, haven't I? What is it? You look as though you had seen a ghost!"
He was thoroughly awake now, and struggled to a sitting position. The doctor's face twisted wryly.
"I wish I had, Nigel," he said bitterly. "Even ghosts would be better than nothing at all. We've been out searching for Wynne, and I"
"Yes, across the Fens. We were anxious. Wynne didn't come back, you know, and so after we'd got you to bed we thought we'd make up a search party among ourselves and look into the thing. But we haven't found him, Nigel. He's vanished completely!"
Merriton was out of bed now, still staring sleepily at them. Something in the boyishness of him struck a chord of sympathy in the doctor's heart. He alone of all of them had guessed at the genuineness of Nigel's fear for Wynne, he alone had seen into the man's heart, and discovered the half-belief that lurked there.
"I'm afraid it's perfectly true," he said quietly, as Merriton came to him and caught him by the arm, his face white. "We followed his tracks across the Fens it had been raining and it was extremely easy to do until they suddenly ended in a patch of half-charred grass. It was uncanny! We made a further search to make sure, but nothing rewarded our efforts. Dacre Wynne's gone somewhere, and those devilish flames of yours will be counting another victim to their lengthening list to-night."
Merriton's lips trembled, and his fingers dropped from the doctor's arm.
"But I tell you it's impossible, man!" he broke out suddenly. "The thing's beyond human credulity, Doctor."
"Well, be that as it may, the fact remains Wynne's gone," returned the doctor gloomily. "Of course we must communicate with the police. That's the next thing to do. We'll send over to make sure Wynne isn't at the Brellier's but I think there isn't a chance of it myself. Where he did go beats me completely!"
"And it fair beats me, too!" said Merriton, in a shocked voice, beginning mechanically to struggle into his clothes. "One of you might 'phone the police though what they'll be able to do for us I don't know. It's a one-horse show in the village, and the chap who's chief constable was the fellow who told me of the other man that disappeared, and seemed quite willing to accept a supernatural explanation. Still, of course, it's the thing to be done.... And I actually saw, with my own eyes, that new flame flash out!"
He said the last words in a sort of undertone, but the doctor heard them, and twitched up an enquiring eyebrow.
"You saw the new flame? Oh course. And you never mind. Our next move is to telephone the police."
But what the police could do for them was so pitifully small as to be absurd. Constable Haggers was a man whose superstitious fear of the flames got the better of his constabulary training in every way. He said he would do what he could, but he would certainly attempt nothing until broad daylight. He believed the story in every particular and said that it was well nigh impossible to trace the vanished man. "There had been others," was all he would say, "and never a trace of 'em 'ave we ever seen!"
Telephoning the Brelliers was a mere matter of minutes, and by that means Merriton made perfectly sure that Wynne had not put in an appearance at Withersby Hall. Brellier himself answered the phone, and said that he was just thinking that as Wynne hadn't turned up yet, they must indeed have been making a night of it at the Towers.
"However," he continued, "if you say you all retired around about one o'clock, and Wynne left you soon after ten well, I can't think what has become of him...."
"He went out to investigate those devilish flames!" remarked Merriton, as a rather shamefaced explanation. Then he fairly heard the wires jump with the force of Brellier's exclamation.
"Eh what? What's that you say? He went out to investigate the flames, Merriton? What fool let him go? Surely you know the story?"
"We did. And we did our best to dissuade him, Mr. Brellier," replied Merriton wearily. "But he went. You know Dacre Wynne as well as I do. He was set upon going. But he has not come back, and some of the chaps here set up a search-party to hunt for him. They discovered nothing. Simply some charred grass in the middle of the Fens and the end of his footprints.... So he didn't come round to your place then? Thanks. I'm awfully sorry to have bothered you, but you can understand my anxiety I know. I'll keep you posted as to any news we get. Yes, horrible, isn't it? So...so beastly uncanny...."
He hung up the receiver with a drawn face.
"Well, Wynne didn't go there, anyway," he said to the group of men who clustered round him. "So that's done with. Now we'll just have to possess our souls in patience, and see what Constable Haggers can do for us. I vote we tumble in for forty winks before the sun gets too high in the heavens. It is the most reasonable thing to do in the circumstances."
The days that followed brought them little light upon the matter. Wynne, it proved, was a man apparently without relations, and devoid of friends. The local police could make nothing of it. They had had such cases before, and were perfectly willing to let the matter rest where it was. Interest, once so high, began to flag. The thing dropped into the commonplace, and was soon forgotten, together with the man who had caused it.
But Nigel was far from satisfied. That he and Dacre Wynne were really enemies, who had posed as friends made not a particle of difference. Dacre Wynne had disappeared during the brief time that he was a guest in Merriton's house. The subject did not die with the owner of Merriton Towers. He spent many long evenings with Doctor Bartholomew talking the thing over, trying to reconstruct it, probe into it, hunt for new clues, new anything which might lead to a solution. But such talks always came to nothing. Every stone had already been turned, and the dry dust of the highway afforded little knowledge to Merriton.
Across the clear sky of his happiness a cloud had gloomed, spoiling for a time the perfection of it. He could not think of marriage while the mystery of Dacre Wynne's death remained unsolved. It seemed unthinkable.
Tony West told him he was getting morbid about it, and to have a change.
"Come up to London and see some of your friends," was West's advice. But Merriton never took it.
'Toinette seemed the only person who understood how he felt, and the knowledge of this only served to draw them closer together. She, too, felt that marriage was for the time being unthinkable, and despite Brellier's constant urging in that direction, she held her ground firmly, telling him that they preferred to wait awhile.
"I'm going to solve the blessed thing, 'Toinette," Nigel told her over and over again during these long weeks and days that followed, "if I grow gray-headed in the attempt. Dacre Wynne was no true friend of mine, but he was my guest at the time of his disappearance, and I mean to find the reason of it."
If he had only known what the future held in store for them both, would he still have clung to his purpose? Who can tell?
It was at night that the thing obsessed him worst. When darkness had fallen Merriton would sit, evening after evening, looking out upon that same scene that he had shown his companions that eventful night. And always the flames danced on their maddening way, mocking him, holding behind the screen of their brilliancy the key to Dacre Wynne's inexplicable disappearance. Merriton would sit and watch them for hours, and sometimes find himself talking to them.
What was the matter with him? Was he going insane? Or was this Dacre Wynne's abominable idea of a revenge for having stolen 'Toinette's heart away from him? To have died and sent his spirit back to haunt the man he hated seemed to Merriton sometimes the answer to the questions which constantly puzzled him.
THE SECOND VICTIM
The alterations at Merriton Towers were certainly a success, from the builder's point of view at any rate. White paint had helped to dispel some of its gloominess, though there were those who said that the whole place was ruined thereby. However, it was certainly an improvement to be able to have windows that opened, and to look into rooms that beckoned you with promises of cozy inglenooks, and plenty of brilliant sunshine.
Borkins looked upon these improvements with a censorious eye. He was one of those who believed in "lettin' things be"; to whom innovation is a crime, and modernity nothing short of madness. To him the dignity of the house had gone. But when it came to Nigel installing a new staff of servants, the good Borkins literally threw up his hands and cried aloud in anguish. He did not hold with frilled aprons, any more than he held with women assuming places that were not meant for them.
But if the maids annoyed Borkins, his patience reached its breaking point when Merriton paying a flying visit to town returned in company with a short, thickset person, who spoke with a harsh, cockney accent, and whom Merriton introduced as his "batman", "Whatever that might be," said Borkins, holding forth to Dimmock, one of the under-grooms. James Collins soon became a necessary part of the household machinery, a little cog in fact upon which the great wheel of tragedy was soon to turn.
Within a week he was completely at home in his new surroundings. Collins, in fact, was the perfect "gentleman's servant" and thus he liked always to think himself. Many a word he and Borkins had over their master's likes and dislikes. But invariably Collins won out. While every other servant in the place liked him and trusted him, the sight of his honest, red face and his ginger eyebrows was enough to make Borkins look like a thundercloud.
The climax was reached one night in the autumn when the evening papers failed to appear at their appointed time. Collins confronted Borkins with the fact and got snubbed for his pains.
"'Ere you," he said, he hadn't much respect for Borkins and made no attempt to hide the fact"what the dooce 'as become of his lordship's pypers? 'Ave you bin 'avin' a squint at 'em, ole pieface? Jist like your bloomin' cheek!"
"Not so much of your impidence, Mr. Collins," retorted Borkins. "When you h'addresses a gentleman try to remember 'ow to speak to 'im. I've 'ad nothink whatever to do with Sir Nigel's evenin' papers, and you know it. If they're late, well, wouldn't it be worth your while to go down to the station and 'ave a gentle word or two with one of the officials there?"
"Oh well, then, old Fiddlefyce," retorted Collins, with a good-natured grin, "don't lose yer wool over it; you ain't got any ter spare. 'Is Lordship's been a-arskin' fer 'em, and like as not they ain't turned up. Let's see what's the time? 'Arf-past eight." He shook his bullet shaped head. "Well, I'll be doin' as you say. Slap on me 'at and jacket and myke off ter the blinkin' stytion. What's the shortest w'y, Borkins, me beauty?"
Borkins looked at him a moment, and his face went a dull brick colour. Then he smirked sarcastically.
"Like as not you're so brave you wouldn't mind goin' across the Fens," he said. "Them there flames wouldn't be scarin' such a 'ero as Mr. James Collins. Oh no! You'll find it a mile or so less than the three miles by road. It's the shortest cut, but I don't recommend it. 'Owever, that lies with you. I'll tell Sir Nigel where you're gone if 'e asks me, you may be sure!"
"Orl right! Across the Fens is the shortest, you says. Well, I'll try it ternight and see. You're right fer once. I ain't afraid. It tykes more'n twiddley little bits er lights ter scare James Collins, I tells yer. So long."
Borkins, standing at the window in the dining room and peering through the dusk at Collins' sturdy figure as it swung past him down the drive, bit his lip a moment, and made as if to go after him.
"No, I'll be danged if I do!" he said suddenly. "If 'e knows such a lot, well, let 'im take the risk. I warned 'im anyhow, so I've done my bit. The flames'll do the rest." And he laughed.
But James Collins did not come back, when he ought to have done, and the evening papers arrived before him, brought by the station-master's son Jacob. Jacob had seen nothing of Collins, and Merriton, who did not know that the man had gone on this errand, made no remark when the hours went slowly by, and no sign of Collins appeared.
At eleven o'clock the household retired. Merriton, still ignorant of his man's absence, went to bed and slept soundly. The first knowledge he received of Collins' absence was when Borkins appeared in his bedroom in the morning.
"Where the deuce is Collins?" Merriton said pettishly, for he did not like Borkins, and they both knew it.
"That's exactly what I 'ave been tryin' ter find out, sir," responded Borkins, bravely. "'E 'asn't been back since last night, so far as I could make out."
"Last night?" Merriton sat bolt upright in bed and ran his fingers through his hair. "What the dickens do you mean?"
"Collins went out last night, sir, to fetch your papers. Leastways that was what he said he was goin' for," responded Borkins patiently, "and so far as I knows he 'asn't returned yet. Whether he dropped into a public 'ouse on the way or not, I don't know, or whether he took the short cut to the station across the Fens isn't for me to say. But'e 'asn't come back yet, sir!"
Merriton looked anxious. Collins had a strong hold upon his master's heart. He certainly wouldn't like anything to happen to him.
"You mean to say," he said sharply, "that Collins went out last night to fetch my papers from the station and was fool enough to take the short cut across the Fens?"
"I warned him against doin' so," said Borkins, "since 'e said 'e'd probably go that way. That no Frozen Flames was a-goin' ter frighten 'im, an'...an' 'is language was most offensive. But I've no doubt 'e went."
"Then why the devil didn't you tell me last night?" exclaimed Merriton angrily, jumping out of bed. "You knew the ...the truth about Mr. Wynne's disappearance, and yet you deliberately let that man go out to his death. If anything's happened to James Collins, Borkins, I'll...I'll wring your damned neck. Understand?"
Borkins went a shade or two paler, and took a step backward.
"Sir Nigel, sir I..."
"When did Collins go?"
"'Arf past eight, sir!" Borkins' voice trembled a little. "And believe me or not, sir, I did my best to persuade Collins from doin' such an extremely dangerous thing. I begged 'im not to think o' doin' it, but Collins is pig-'eaded, if you'll forgive the word, sir, and he was bent upon gettin' your papers. I swear, sir, I ain't 'ad anythin' ter do with it, and when 'e didn't come back last night before I went to bed I said to meself, I said, 'Collins 'as dropped into a public 'ouse and made a ass of hisself', I said. And thought no more about it, expectin' he'd be in later. But 'is bed 'asn't been slept in, and there 's no sign of 'im anywhere."
Merriton twisted round upon his heel and looked at the man keenly for a moment.
"I'm fond of Collins, Borkins," he said abruptly. "We've known each other a long time. I shouldn't like anything to happen to the chap while he's in my service, that's all. Get out now and make enquiries in every direction. Have Dimmock go down to the village. And ransack every public house round about. If you can't find any trace of him" his lips tightened for a moment, "then I'll fetch in the police. I'll get the finest detective in the land on this thing, I'll get Cleek himself if it costs me every penny I possess, but I'll have him traced somehow. Those devilish flames are taking too heavy a toll. I've reached the end of my tether!"
He waved Borkins out with an imperious hand, and went on with his dressing, his heart sick. What if Collins had met with the same fate as Dacre Wynne? What were those fiendish flames, anyhow, that men disappeared completely, leaving neither sight nor sound? Surely there was some brain clever enough to probe the mystery of them.
"If Collins doesn't turn up this morning," he told himself as he shaved with a very unsteady hand, "I'll go straight up to London by the twelve o'clock train and straight to Scotland Yard. But I'll find him, damn it, I'll find him."
But no trace of James Collins could be found. He was gone completely. No one had seen him, no one but Borkins had known of his probable journey across the Fens at night-time, and Borkins excused himself upon the plea that Collins hadn't actually said he was going that way. He had simply vanished as Dacre Wynne had vanished, as Will Myers and all that long list of others had vanished. Eaten up by the flames and in Twentieth Century England! But the fact remained. Dacre Wynne had disappeared, and now James Collins had followed him. And a new flame shone among the others, a newer, brighter flame than any before. Merriton saw it himself, that was the devilish part of it. His own eyes had seen the thing appear, just as he had seen it upon the night when Dacre Wynne had vanished. But he didn't shoot at it this time. Instead, he packed a small bag, ran over and said good-bye to 'Toinette and told her he was going to have a day in town, but told her nothing else. Then he took the twelve o'clock train to town. A taxi whisked him to Scotland Yard.
....AND THE LADY
And this was the extraordinary chain of events which brought young Merriton into Mr. Narkom's office that day while Cleek was sitting there, and on being introduced as "Mr. Headland" heard the story from Sir Nigel's lips.
As he came to the last "And no trace of either body has ever been found," Cleek suddenly switched round in his chair and exclaimed:
"An extraordinary rigmarole altogether!" Meeting Merriton's astonished eyes with his own keen ones, he went on: "The flames, of course, are a plant of some sort. That goes without saying. But the thing to find out is what they're there for to hide. When you've discovered that, you'll have got half way to the truth, and the rest will follow as a matter of course.... What's that, Mr. Narkom? Yes, I'll take the case, Sir Nigel. My name's Cleek Hamilton Cleek, at your service. Now let's hear the thing all over again, please. I've one or two questions I'd like to ask."
Merriton left Scotland Yard an hour later, lighter in heart than he had been for some time ever since, in fact, Dacre Wynne's tragic disappearance had cast such a gloom over his life's happiness. He had unburdened his soul to Cleek absolutely. And Cleek had treated the confession with a decent sort of respect which was enough to win any chap over to him. Merriton in fact had found in Cleek a friend as well as a detective. He had been a little astonished at his general get-up and appearance, but Merriton had heard of his peculiar birthright, and felt that the man himself was capable of almost anything. Certainly he proved full of sympathetic understanding.
Cleek understood the ground upon which he stood with regard to his friendship with Dacre Wynne. He had, with a wonderful intuition, sensed the peculiar influence of the man upon Nigel this by look and gesture rather than by use of tongue and speech. And Cleek had already drawn his own conclusions. He heard of Nigel's engagement to Antoinette Brellier, and of how Dacre Wynne had taken it, heard indeed all the little personal things which Merriton had never told to any man, and certainly hadn't intended telling to this one.
But that was Cleek's way. He secured a man's confidence and by that method got at the truth. A bond of friendship had sprung up between them, and Cleek and Mr. Narkom had promised that before a couple of days were over, they would put in an appearance at Fetchworth, and look into things more closely. It was agreed that they were to pose as friends of Sir Nigel, since Cleek felt that in that way he could pursue his investigations unsuspected, and make more headway in the case.
But there was but one thing Nigel hadn't spoken of, and that was the very foolish and ridiculous action of his upon that fateful evening of the dinner party. Only he and Doctor Bartholomew who was as close-mouthed as the devil himself over some things knew of the incident of the pistol-shooting, so far as Merriton was aware. And the young man was too ashamed of the whole futile affair and what it very apparently proved to the listener that he had certainly drunk more than was good for him to wish any one else to share in the absurd little secret. It could have no bearing upon the affair, and if 'Toinette got to hear of it, well, he'd look all sorts of a fool, and possibly be treated to a sermon a prospect which he did not relish in the slightest.
As he left the Yard and turned into the keen autumn sunshine, he lifted his face to the skies and thanked the stars that he had come to London after all and placed things in proper hands. There was nothing now for him to do but to go back to Merriton Towers and as expeditiously as possible make up for the day lost from 'Toinette.
So, after a visit to a big confectioners in Regent Street, and another to a little jeweller in Piccadilly, Merriton got into the train at Waterloo, carrying his parcels with a happy heart. He got out at Fetchworth station three hours later, hailed the only hack that stood there for he had forgotten to apprise any one at the Towers of his quick return and drove straightway to Withersby Hall.
'Toinette was at the window as he swung open the great gate. When she saw him she darted away and came flying down the drive to meet him.
The contents of the various packages made her happy as a child, and it was some time after they reached the house that Nigel asked some question concerning her uncle.
Her face clouded ever so little, and for the first time Nigel noticed that she was pale.
"Uncle has gone away for a few days," she replied. "He said it was business what would you? But I told him I should be lonesome in this great house, and I am so frightened at those horrible little flames that twinkle twinkle all night long. I cannot sleep when I am alone, Nigel. I am a baby I know, but I cannot help it. It makes me feel so afraid!"
As was usual in moments of emotion with 'Toinette, her accent became more pronounced. He stroked her hair with a gentle hand, as though she were in very truth the child she tried not to be.
"Poor little one! I wish I could come across and put up here for the night. Hang conventions, anyway! And then too I have to make ready for some visitors who will be down to-morrow or the next day."
"Yes, dear. I've a couple of friends coming to spend a short time with me. Chaps I met in London to-day."
"What did you go up for, Nigel, really?"
He coloured a little, and was thankful that she turned away at that moment to straighten the collar of her blouse. He didn't like lying to the woman he was going to marry. But he had given his word to Cleek.
"Oh," he said off-handedly, "I...I went to my tailor's. And then stepped in to buy you that little trinket and your precious chocs, and came along home again. Met these fellows on my way across town. Rather nice chaps, one of 'em, anyhow. Used to know some friends of friends of his, girl called Ailsa Lorne. And the other one happened to be there so I asked him, too. They won't worry you much, 'Toinette. They're frightfully keen about the country, and will be sure to go out shootin' and snuffin' round like these town johnnies always do when they get in places like this.... Well, as Mr. Brellier isn't here I suppose I'd better be making my way home again. Wish we were married, 'Toinette. There'd be no more of these everlasting separations then. No more nightmares for you, little one. Only happiness and joy, and...and heaps of other rippin' things. Never mind, we'll make it soon, won't we?"
She raised her face suddenly and her eyes met his. There was a haunted look in them that made him draw closer, his own face anxious.
"What is it, dear?" he said in a low, worried tone.
"Only Dacre Wynne. Always Dacre Wynne these days," she replied unsteadily. "Do you know, Nigel, I am a silly girl, I know, but somehow I dare not think of marriage with you until
everything is finally cleared up, and his death or disappearance, or whatever the dreadful affair was, discovered. I feel in some inexplicable way responsible. It is as if his spirit were standing between us and our happiness. Tell me I am foolish, please."
"You are more than foolish," said Nigel obediently, and laughed carelessly to show her how he treated the thing. But in his heart he knew her feelings, knew them and fully understood. It was exactly as he had felt about it also. The bond that bound Dacre Wynne's life to his had not yet been snapped, the mystery of his disappearance seemed only to strengthen it. He wondered dully when he would ever feel free again, and then laughed inwardly at himself for making a farce of the whole thing, for building a mountain out of a stupid little molehill. And 'Toinette was helping him. They were both unutterably foolish. Anyhow, Cleek was coming soon to clear matters up. He wished with all his heart that he might tell 'Toinette, and thus relieve the tension of her mind, but he had given his word to Cleek, and with a man of his type his word was sacred.
So he kissed her good-bye and laughed, and went back to Merriton Towers to prepare for their coming. But the cloud had dropped across his horizon again, and the sun was once more obscured. There was no smile upon his lips as he clanged the great front door to behind him.
THE SECRET OF THE FLAMES
Fetchworth, as everybody knows, lies in that part of the Fen district of Lincolnshire that borders on the coast, and in the curve of its motherlike arm Saltfleet Bay, a tiny shipping centre with miniature harbour, drowses its days in pleasant idleness.
And so it was that upon the morning of Cleek's and Mr. Narkom's arrival at Merriton Towers. They came disguised as two idlers interested in the surrounding country, after having satiated themselves at the fountain of London's gaieties, and bore the pseudonyms of "George Headland" and "Mr. Gregory Lake" respectively. Cleek himself was primed, so to speak, on every point of the landscape. He knew all about Fetchworth that there was to know saving the secret of the Frozen Flames, and that he was expected to know very soon and the traffic of Saltfleet Bay and its tiny harbour was an open book to him.
Even Withersby Hall and its environs had had the same close intensive study, and everything that was to be learnt from guide-books, tourists' enquiry offices and the like, was hidden away in the innermost recesses of his remarkable brain.
Borkins, standing at the smoking-room window a favourite haunt of his from which he was able to see without too ostensibly being seen noted their coming up the broad driveway, with something of disfavour in his look. Merriton had given him certain directions only the night before, and Borkins was a keen-sighted man. Also, the little fat johnny at any rate, didn't quite look the type of man that the Merriton's were in the habit of entertaining at the Towers.
However, he opened the door with a flourish, and told the gentlemen that "Sir Nigel is in the drorin'-room," whither he led them with much pomp.
Cleek took in the place at a glance. Noted the wide, deep hallway; the old-fashioned outlines of the house, smartened up freshly by the hands of modern workmen; the set of each door and window that he passed, and stowed away these impressions in the pigeon-holes of his mind. As he proceeded to the drawing-room he set out in his mind's eye the whole scene of that night's occurrence as had been related to him by Sir Nigel. There was the smoking-room door, open and showing the type of room behind it; there the hall-stand from which Dacre Wynne had fatefully wrenched his coat and hat, to go lurching out into oblivion, half-drunk and maddened with something more than intoxication if Merriton had told his story truly, and Cleek believed he had. It was, in fact, in that very smoking-room that the legend which had led up to the tragedy had been told. Hmm. There certainly was much to be cleared up here while he was waiting for that other business at the War Office to adjust itself. He wouldn't find time hanging heavily upon his hands there was no doubt of that, and the thought that this man who had come to him for help was a one-time friend of Ailsa Lorne's, the one dear woman in the world, added fuel to the fire of his already awakened interest.
He greeted Merriton with all the bored ennui of the part he had adopted, during such time as he was under Borkins' watchful eye. Even Mr. Narkom played his part creditably, and won a glance of approval from his justly celebrated ally.
"Hello, old chap," said Cleek, extending a hand, and screwing a monocle still farther into his left eye. "Awfully pleased to see you, doncherknow. Devilish long journey, what? Beastly fine place you've got here, I must say. What you think, Lake?"
Merriton gasped, bit his lip, and then suddenly realizing who the gentleman thus addressing him was, made an attempt at the right sort of reply.
"Er....yes, yes, of course," he responded, though somewhat at random, for this absolutely new creature that Cleek had become rather took his breath away. "Afraid you're very tired and all that. Cold, Mr....er Headland?"
Cleek frowned at the slight hesitation before the name. He didn't want to take chances of any one guessing his identity and Borkins was still half-way within the room, and probably had sharp ears. His sort of man had!
"Not very," he responded, as the door closed behind the butler. "At least that is, Sir Nigel," speaking in his natural voice "it really was pretty chilly coming down. Winter's setting in fast, you know. That your man?"
He jerked his head in the direction of the closed door, and twitched an enquiring eyebrow.
"Yes," he said, "that's Borkins. Looks a trustworthy specimen, doesn't he? For my part I don't trust him farther than I can see him, Mr. er, Headland (awfully sorry but I keep forgetting your name somehow). He's too shifty-eyed for me. What do you think?"
"Tell you better when I've had a good look at him," responded Cleek, guardedly. "And lots of honest men are shifty-eyed, Sir Nigel, and vice versa. That doesn't count for anything, you know. Well, my dear Mr. Lake, finding your part a bit too much for you?" he added, with a laugh, turning to Mr. Narkom, who was sitting on the extreme edge of his chair, mournfully fingering his collar, which was higher and tighter than the somewhat careless affair which he usually adopted. "Never mind. As the poet sings, 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women, etc.' You're simply one of 'em, now. Try to remember that. And remember, also, that the eyes of the gallery are not always upon you. Sir Nigel, I ask you, isn't our friend's make-up the perfection of the er elderly man about town?"
Sir Nigel laughingly had to admit that it was, whereupon Mr. Narkom blushed exceedingly, and the ice was broken as Cleek had intended it should be.
They adjourned to the smoking-room, where a huge log-fire burnt in the grate, and easy chairs invited. They discussed the topics of the day with evident relish during such time as Borkins was in the room, and smoked their cigars with the air of men to whom the hours were as naught, and life simply a chessboard to move their little pieces upon as they willed. But how soon they were to cry checkmate upon this case which they were all investigating, even Cleek did not know. Then of a sudden he looked up from his task of studying the fire with knitted brows.
"By the way," he said off-handedly, "I hope you don't mind. My man will be coming down by the next train with our traps. I never travel without him, he's such a useful beggar. You can manage to put him up somewhere, I suppose? I was a fool not to have mentioned it before, but the lad entirely slipped my memory. He helps me, too, in other things, and there is always a good deal to be learned from the servants' hall, you know, Sir Nigel.... You can manage with Dollops, can't you? Otherwise he can put up at the village inn."
Merriton shook his head decisively.
"Of course not, Mr. Headland. Wouldn't hear of such a thing. Anybody who is going to be useful to you in this case is, as you know, absolutely welcome to Merriton Towers. He won't get much out of Borkins though, I don't mind telling you."
"Hmm. Well that remains to be seen, doesn't it, Mr. Narkom?" returned Cleek, with a smile. "Dollops has a way. And he knows it. I'll warrant there won't be much that Borkins can keep from the sharp little devil! Well, it seems to be getting dusk rapidly, Sir Nigel, what about those flames now, eh? I'd like to have a look at 'em if it's possible."
Merriton screwed his head round to the window, and noted the gathering gloom which the fire and the electric lights within had managed to neutralize. Then he got to his feet. There was a trace of excitement in his manner. Here was the moment he had been waiting for, and here the master-mind which, if anything ever could, must unravel this fiendish mystery that surrounded two men's disappearances and a group of silly, flickering little flames.
He turned from the window with his eyes bright.
"Look here," he said, rapidly. "They're just beginnin' to appear. See 'em? Mr. Cleek, see 'em? Now tell me what the dickens they are and how they are connected with Dacre Wynne's disappearance."
Cleek got to his feet slowly, and strode over to the window. In the gathering gloom of the early winter night, the flames were flashing out one by one, here and there and everywhere hanging low against the grass across the bar of horizon directly in front of them. Cleek stared at them for a long time. Mr. Narkom coming up behind him peered out over his shoulder, rubbed his eyes, looked again and gave out a hasty "God bless my soul!" of genuine astonishment, then dropped into silence again, his eyes upon Cleek's face. Sir Nigel, too, was watching that face, his own nervous, a trifle distraught.
But Cleek stood there at the window with his hands in his trousers' pockets, humming a little tune and watching this amazing phenomenon which a whole village had believed to be witchcraft, as though the thing surprised him not one whit; as though, in fact, he was a trifle amused at it. Which indeed he was.
Finally he swung round upon his heels and looked at each of the faces in turn, his own broadening into a grin, his eyes expressing incredulity, wonderment, and lastly mirth. At length he spoke:
"Gad!" he ejaculated with a little whistle of astonishment. "You mean to tell me that a whole township has been hanging by the heels, so to speak, upon as ridiculously easy an affair as that?" He jerked his thumb outward toward the flames and threw back his head with a laugh. "Where is your 'general knowledge' which you learnt at school, man? Didn't they teach you any? What amazes me most is that there are others, forgive me, equally as ignorant. Want to know what those flames are, eh?"
"Well, well, just to think that you've actually been losing sleep on it! Shows what asses we human beings are, doesn't it? No offence meant, of course. As for you, Mr. Narkom or Mr. Gregory Lake, as I must remember to call you for the good of the cause I'm ashamed of you, I am indeed! You ought to know better, a man of your years!"
"But the flames, Cleek, the flames!" There was a tension in Merriton's voice that spoke of nerves near to the breaking point. Instantly Cleek was serious. He reached out a hand and laid it upon the young man's shoulder. Merriton was trembling, but he steadied under the grip, just as it was meant that he should.
"See here," Cleek said, bluntly, "you oughtn't to work yourself up into such a state. It's not good for you; you'll go all to pieces one of these days. Those flames, eh? Why I thought any one knew enough about natural phenomena to answer that question. But it seems I'm wrong. Those flames are nothing more nor less than marsh gas, Sir Nigel, evolved from the decomposition of vegetation, and therefore only found in swampy regions such as this. Whew! and to think that here is a community that has been bowing down to these things as symbols from another world!"
"Marsh gas, Mr."
"Headland, please. It is wiser, and will help better to remember when the necessity arises," returned Cleek, with a smile. "Yes, that is all they are the outcome of marsh gas."
"But what is marsh gas, Mr. Headland?" Merriton's voice was still strained.
Cleek motioned to a chair.
"Better sit down to it, my young friend," he said, gently. "Because, to one who isn't interested, it is an extremely dull subject. However, it is better that you should know as you don't seem to have learnt it at school. Here goes: marsh gas, or methane as it is sometimes called, is the first of the group of hydrocarbons known as paraffins. Whether that conveys anything to you I don't know. But you've asked for knowledge and I mean you to have it." He smiled again, and Merriton gravely shook his head, while Mr. Narkom, dropping for the time being his air of pompous boredom, became the interested listener in every line of his ample proportions.
"Go on, old chap," he said eagerly.
"Methane," said Cleek, serenely, "is a colourless, absolutely odourless gas, slightly soluble in water. It burns with a yellowish flame which golden tinge you have no doubt noticed in these famous flames of yours with the production of carbonic acid and water. In the neighbourhood of oil wells in America, and also in the Caucasus, if my memory doesn't fail me, the gas escapes from the earth, and in some districts particularly in Baku it has actually been burning for years as sacred fires. A question of atmosphere and education, you see, Sir Nigel."
"Good Heavens! Then you mean to say that those beastly things out there are not lit by any human or superhuman agency at all!" exploded Merriton at this juncture. "And that they have nothing whatever to do with the vanishing of Wynne and Collins?"
Cleek shook his head emphatically.
"Pardon me," he said, "but I didn't say that. The first part of the sentence I agree with entirely. Those so-called flames are lit only by the hand of the Infinite. And the Infinite is always mysterious, Sir Nigel. But as to whether they have any bearing upon the disappearances of those two men is a horse of another colour. We'll look into that later on. In coal-mines marsh gas is considered highly dangerous, and the miners call it fire-damp. But that is by the way. What enters into the immediate question is the fact that there is a patch of charred grass upon the Fens where you say the vanished man, Dacre Wynne's footprints suddenly ended. Hmm."
He stopped speaking suddenly, and getting up again crossed over to the window. He stood for a moment looking out of it, his brows drawn down, his face set in the stern lines that betokened concentration of thought.
Mr. Narkom and Merriton watched him with something of wonder in their eyes. To Merriton, at any rate, who really knew so little of Cleek's unique and powerful mind, the fact of a policeman having such extensive information was surprising in the extreme.
"You don't think, then," he said, breaking the silence that had fallen upon them, "that this, er, marsh gas could have caused the death of Wynne and Collins? Burnt 'em alive, so to speak?"
Cleek did not move at this question. They merely saw his shoulders twitch as though he didn't wish to be bothered at the moment.
"Don't know," he said laconically, "and if that were true, where are the bodies?... Gad! Just as I thought! Come here, gentlemen, this may interest you. See that flame there! It's no more natural marsh gas than I am! There's human agency all right, Sir Nigel. There's natural marsh gas and there are other things as well. Those marsh lights are being augmented. But for what purpose? What reason? That's the thing we've got to find out."
"AS A THIEF IN THE NIGHT"
The arrival of Dollops lighted a spark of great interest in the servants' hall. The newly engaged maids accepted him for his youth and sharp manners, as an innovation which they rather fancied than otherwise. Borkins alone stood aloof. It seemed to the man that here, in Dollops' lithe, young form, in the very ginger of his carrotty hair, in the stridency of this cockney accent which Cleek had endeavoured to eradicate without a particle of success was the reembodiment of the older, shorter, more mature James Collins. To hear him speak in that sharp, young voice of his was to make the hair upon one's neck prick in supernatural discomfort. It was as though James Collins had come back to life again in the form of this East Side youngster, who was so extremely unlike his drawling, over-pampered master.
But Dollops had been primed for his task, and set to work at it with a will.
"Been in these 'ere parts long, Mr. Borkins?" he queried as they all sat at supper, and he himself munched bread and butter and fish paste with a vigour that was lacking in only one quality manners.
Borkins sniffed, and passed up his cup to the housekeeper.
"Before you were born, I dessay," he responded tartly.
"Is that so, Methuselah?" Dollops gave a little boyish giggle at sight of the butler's face. "Well, seein' as I'm gettin' along in life, you must be a good way parst the meridian, if yer don't mind my sayin' so.... Funny thing, on the way down I run across a chap wot's visitin' pals in this 'ere village, and 'e pulls me the strangest yarn as ever a body 'eard. Summink to do wiv flames it were Frozen Flames or icicles or frost of some kind. But 'e was so full up of mystery that there weren't no gettin' nuffin out er 'im. Any one 'ere tell me the story? 'E fair got me curiosity fired, 'e did!"
A glance laden with sinister meaning flew around the table. Borkins cleared his throat as every eye fastened itself upon him, and he swelled visibly beneath his brass-buttoned waistcoat.
"If you're any wiser than you look, young man, you'll leave well alone, and not go stickin' your fingers in other peoples' pie!" he gave out sententiously. "Yes, there is a story and a very unpleasant one, too. If you use your eyes to-night and look out of the smoking-room window as dusk comes on, you'll see the Frozen Flame for yerself, and won't want to be arskin' me any fool questions about it. One of the servants 'ere and a rude, unmannerly London creetur 'e was too! disappeared a while ago, goin' out across the Fens after night-time when 'e was warned not to. Never seen a sight of 'im since though I'm not mournin' any, as you kin see!"
"Go on!" Dollops' voice expressed incredulity, amazement, and an awed interest that rather flattered the butler.
"True as I'm sittin' 'ere!" he responded grimly. "And before that a friend of Sir Nigel's, a fine, big upstandin' man 'e were, name of Wynne went the same way. Got a little the worse for drink and laughed at the story. Said 'e'd go out and investigate for 'imself. 'E never come back from that day to this!"
"Gawd's truf! 'Ow orful! You won't find yer 'umble a 'ankerin' after the fresh air come night-time!" broke in Dollops with a little shiver of terror that was remarkably real. "I'll keep to me downy thank you, an' as you say, Mr. Borkins, leave well enough alone. You're a wise gentleman, you are!"
Borkins, flattered, still further expanded.
"I won't say as all you cockney chaps are the same as Collins," he returned magnanimously, "for it takes all kinds ter make a world. If you feels inclined some time, I'll walk you down to the Pig and Whistle and you shall 'ave a word or two with a chap I know. 'E'll tell yer somethink that'll make your 'air stand on end. You jist trot along ter me when you're free, and we'll take a little stroll together."
Dollops' countenance widened into a delighted grin.
Later, Dollops, in the act of laying out Cleek's clothes for dinner, while Cleek himself unpacked leisurely and made the braces that held the mirror of the dressingtable gay with multi-coloured ties, gave out the news of his promised visit to the Pig and Whistle with the august Borkins with something akin to triumph.
"That's right, lad, that's right. Get friendly with 'em!" returned Cleek with a pleased smile. "I've an idea we're going to have a pretty lively time down here, if I'm not much mistaken. Stick to that chap Borkins as you would to glue. Don't let him get away from you. Follow him wherever he goes, but don't let the other servants in the place slip out from your watchful eye, either. Those Frozen Flames want looking into. I have grave suspicions of Borkins. His sort generally knows more than almost any other sort, and he appeared to be sizing me up pretty carefully. I shouldn't wonder at all, if he had an idea already that I am not the 'man about town' I appear to be. It will be rotten luck if he has.... Time I got into my togs, boy.... Here, just hand me that shirt, will you?"
That night certainly proved an even more exciting one than Cleek had prophesied. The household retired early, as country households are apt to do, but Cleek, however, did not undress. He sat at his window, which faced upon the Fens, watching the trail of the flames dancing across the horizon of night, and trying to solve the riddle that he had come to find the answer to.
He heard the church clock in the distance chime out the hour of twelve; and still he sat on. The peace of the quiet night stole over him, filling his active brain with a restfulness that had been foreign to it for some time in the stress of his busy life in London. He felt glad he had taken up this case, if only for the view of the countryside at night, the stillness of the untrod marshes, and the absolute absence of every living thing at this hour.
The clock chimed one, and he heeded it not. Two half-past . Of a sudden he sat bolt upright, then got noiselessly to his feet and glided across the floor to where his bed stood, a monstrous black object with heavy canopy and curtains, a relic of the Victorianism in which this house was born. He moved like a cat, absolutely without sound, fleet, sure. His fingers found the coverlet and he tore it down, tumbling the clothes and pushing down the pillow so that it looked as if he himself lay there, peacefully sleeping beneath the sheltering blankets.... Then, still noiseless, panther-like, he slid his lithe figure under the bed.... Then the noise came again. Just the whisper of footsteps in the wide hall, and then, his door opened soundlessly and for a moment the footsteps stopped. He could feel a presence in the room. If it were Dollops the lad would give some sign. If not, He lay still, scarcely breathing in the enveloping darkness. The footsteps came again, softly, softly padding across the room toward him. He saw the black shadows of stockinged feet as they crossed the path of moonlight, and sucked in his breath. Man's feet!... Whose?... Then something shook the bedstead with tremendous force, but without sound. It was as if some object had been hurled forcibly into its softness. The footsteps turned again, hurriedly this time, and there was a sound of a deepdrawn breath a breath full of pent-up, passionate hatred. Then the figure ran lightly across the room, and as it flashed for a moment through the bar of moonlight, Cleek looked out from his safe hiding-place and saw! The eyes were narrowed in the ivorytinted face, the jaw heavy and undershot as a bulldog's, while a dark coloured mustache straggled untidily across the upper lip. The moonlight, cruelly clear, picked out the point of something sharp that shone in one clenched hand, something that looked like a knifethat was a knife.
Then the figure vanished and the door closed noiselessly behind him.
Hmm. So this question of the Frozen Flame was as urgent as all that, was it? To attempt to murder him, here, in the house of the Squire of Fetchworth. He wriggled out of his hiding place, a little stiff from the cramped position he had held, and guardedly lit his candle. Then he surveyed the bed with set mouth and narrowed eyes. There was a sharp incision through the clothes, an incision quite three inches long, that had punctured the pillow which lay beneath them the pillow that had saved him his life and buried itself in the mattress beneath. Gad! a powerful hand that! He stood a moment thinking, pinching up his chin the while. He had had his suspicions of Borkins, but the face that he had seen in the moonlight was not the butler's face. Whose, then, was it?
A GRUESOME DISCOVERY
Through the long watches of the night Cleek sat there thinking, his chin sunk in one hand, his eyes narrowed down to pin-points, the whole alert personality of the man vitally dominant. No, he would not tell any one of the happening except Dollops and Mr. Narkom. It would only invite suspicion, throw the house into a state of unrest which was the very thing that he was anxious to avoid. As dawn broke, and the danger for that night was past, he got to his feet, plunged his face into cold water, which cleared away the cobwebs, undressed, and then tackled the question of the injured bedding.
The mattress could be turned that was easy enough, and the slit would probably not be noticed. The bedclothes, too, might be turned the other way up, and with care the injured parts tucked in tightly at the bottom. It would leave them a little short at the top perhaps, but that couldn't be helped. Suspicion must be allayed at all costs. Time enough to bring the would be murderer to justice when he had solved the riddle in its entirety. There were two pillows, so he took the damaged one, tore off its case, and tucked that away in his kit-bag, pushed the bag under the bed, and then set about the remaking, with some small success. At least for the time, the incisions in the blanket and sheets would not be noticed, and in the morning he would invent some excuse to have them changed.
The early morning cup of tea, brought at eight by a dainty chambermaid in cap and starched blue dress, supplied the need quite nicely. He nodded to her as she left the room, and then, when the door closed, upset the cup on the coverlet, letting the liquid soak through. Then he got up and dressed himself with something like a smile upon his lips.
At breakfast, a housemaid waited upon them, and Cleek ate lustily, with the appetite that is born of good health, and a mind at peace with the world. Toward the end of the meal, however, Borkins came in. He glanced casually over the group at the table, let his eyes rest for a moment upon Cleek, and then dropped an empty dish he was carrying. As he stooped to recover it, all chance of seeing how the appearance of the man who had so nearly met his death last night affected him, was gone. He came up again still the same, quiet, dignified Borkins of yore. Not a gleam of anything but the most obsequious interest in the task before him marred the tranquillity of his features. If the man knew anything, then he was a fine actor. But did he? That was the question that interested Cleek during the remainder of the meal.
After it was over, Mr. Narkom and Sir Nigel went off to the smoking room for a quiet cigarette before setting to the real business of the day, and Cleek was left to follow them at his leisure. Borkins was pottering about the table as the two men left the breakfast room, and Cleek stood in the doorway.
"Peaceful night, last night, eh, Borkins?" he said with a slight laugh. "That's the best of this blessed country life of yours. Chap rests so well. Talk about the simple life" He broke off and laughed again, watching Borkins pick up a clean fork and carry it to the plate-basket upon the sideboard.
The man retained his perfect dignity and ease of manner.
"Quite so, sir. Quite so. I trust you slept well."
"Pretty well for a strange bed," returned Cleek with emphasis, and turned upon his heel. "If you see my man you might send him along to me. I want to arrange with him about suits that are coming down from my tailor's."
"Very good, sir."
Cleek joined the two men with something akin to admiration for the butler's impassiveness in his heart. If he knew anything, then he was a past master in the art of repression. On the other hand perhaps he didn't and there was really no reason why he should. Eavesdropping was a common enough fault with the best of servants, and curiosity a failing of most men. Borkins might be and possibly was absolutely innocent of any knowledge of last night's affair. And yet, how did the knowledge, that he was not altogether what he seemed, leak out? It was a puzzle to which, as yet, Cleek could find no answer.
Mr. Narkom greeted Cleek enthusiastically when he joined him.
"I'm off on a tour of investigation in a few minutes," he announced. "Petrie and Hammond arrived last night, as you know, and are putting up at the village inn. I'm meeting them at the edge of the Fens at ten o'clock. Then we're going to have a good look to see if we can find the bodies of the two men who have vanished. You coming along?"
Cleek nodded, and the queer little one-sided smile travelled up his cheek.
"Certainly, my dear Lake. I'd be delighted. Sir Nigel, of course, has other business to attend to. It's ten minutes to ten now. If you're going you'd better step lively. Ah," as Dollops's figure appeared in the doorway, "if you'll excuse me, Sir Nigel, I'll just have a word or two with my man." His voice dropped several tones as he addressed the boy and they moved away together. "Mr. Lake and I are going out for a walk across the Fens. Petrie and Hammond will be there at ten. I'd like you to join 'em. Better nip along now."
"And Dollops" he beckoned him back and bent his head to the lad's ear, speaking in a voice that none heard but the one it was intended for"keep a sharp look-out. I had a narrow escape last night. Someone tried to stab me in bed but he got my pillow instead"
"Ssh. And there's no need to worry. I'm still here, you see. But keep your eyes and your ears open, and if you see any strange men hanging around, report to me at once."
Dollops's usually pale, freckled countenance went a shade paler, and he caught at Cleek's arm as though he were loath to let it go.
"But, sir," he whispered in a hoarse undertone, "you won't go a-knocking about alone, will yer? If anythin' were to 'appen to you...I...I'd go along and commit that there 'harum-scarum' wot the Japanese are so fond o' doin' on the spot!"
Cleek could barely restrain a laugh. The whispered conversation had taken the merest fraction of a minute and, during it, he had had full view of the green baize door which led down to the servants' quarters. Borkins had gone through it some time before. Then he heard the butler's deep, measured tones in the garden, and caught sight of him talking to one of the grooms in the courtyard. He heaved something like a sigh of relief.
Dollops left, and Cleek then rejoined the two men who stood talking together in low, earnest tones.
"Now," said he, briskly, "if you're ready, Mr. Lake, I am. Let us be off. Sir Nigel, I hope by dinner time to have some sort of news to impart to you, whether good or ill remains to be seen. By the way, have you, in your employ, a dark, square-faced individual, with close set eyes and a straggling moustache? Rather undershot, too, I believe? It would be interesting to me to know."
Merriton considered for a moment.
"Tell you the truth, Mr. Headland, I can't fit the description in anywhere among the people here," he said after a pause. "Dimmock's fairish though he has got a moustache, but it's a military one, and Borkins is, of course, smooth shaven. The other men are clean-shaved, too, except for old Doughty, the head gardener, and he wears a full, gray beard. Why?"
Cleek shook his head.
"Nothing important. I was only just wondering. Now then, Lake, you'll be late if you loiter any longer, and our, er friends will be waiting. Goodbye, Sir Nigel, and good luck. Lunch at one-fifteen, I take it?"
He swung upon his heel and linked his arm with Mr. Narkom's, then, taking his cap from a peg on the hall stand, clapped it on his head and went down and out to the task that awaited him, and a discovery which was, to say the least of it, startling in the extreme.
They walked for some time in comparative silence, puffing at their cigarettes. Then of a sudden, Cleek spoke.
"I say, old man, you'll want to keep a close look-out upon your own personal safety," he said, abruptly, wheeling round and meeting his friend full in the eyes.
"What d'you mean, C Headland?"
"What I say. Someone's got wind of our real purpose here. I have a grave suspicion that that Borkins was listening at my door last evening when I was talking to Dollops. Later well, somebody or other tried to get me in bed. But I was one too many for him "
"My dear Cleek!"
"Mr. Lake, I beg of you not so loud!" ejaculated Cleek. "There are ears everywhere, which you as a policeman ought to know. Do remember my name and don't go losing any sleep over me. I can take care of myself, all right. But I had to do it pretty energetically last night. A thoughtful visitor stabbed the pillow I'd placed in bed instead of my humble self, and cut an incision three inches deep. Hit the mattress, too!"
"Headland, my God!"
"Now, don't take on so. I tell you I can take care of myself, but you do the same. No one in the house knows a word about it, and I don't intend that they shall. The less said the better, in a case like this. Only those Frozen Flames are trying to eat up something that is either very serious or very money-making. One thing or the other.... Hello, here we are! Mornin' Petrie; mornin' Hammond. All ready for the search I see."
The two constables, clad in plain clothes and accompanied by Dollops, were holding in their hands long pitchforks which looked more as if they were ready for haymaking than for the gruesome task ahead of them all. Petrie carried upon his arm a roll of rope. They swung into step behind the detectives, across the uneven, marshy ground.
It was a chilly morning, and inclined to rain. Across the flat horizon the mist hung in wraithlike forms of cloudy gray, and the deep grass into which they plunged their feet was beaded with dew. For a time they walked on quietly until they had gone perhaps a quarter of a mile. Then Cleek halted.
"Better separate here," he said, waving his arm out across the sweep of flat country. "Dollops, you take the right with Petrie. Hammond, you'd better try the left. Mr. Narkom and I will go straight ahead together. Any discovery made, just give the usual signal."
They separated at once, their feet upon the thick marshy ground leaving numberless footprints in the moist rank grass, which crushed under them like wet hay. Their heads were bent, their eyes fixed upon the ground, their faces bearing a look of utter concentration. Cleek watched them moving slowly across the wide, flat reaches of the Fens, stopping now and then to poke among the rank marsh-grass, and prod into the earth, and then turned to Mr. Narkom.
"Good fellows those three," he said with a smile. "What more can you ask than that? Straight ahead for us, Mr. Narkom. Sir Nigel tells me the patch of charred grass lies in a direct line with the edge of the Fens where we started our search. I'm keen to have a look at it."
Mr. Narkom nodded, and walked on, poking here and there with his stout walking stick. Cleek did likewise. They rarely spoke, simply pushed and poked and trod the grass down; searching, searching, searching, as had those other men upon the night of Dacre Wynne's disappearance. But they had searched in vain for any clue which would lead to the elucidation of the mystery.
Suddenly Cleek stopped. He pointed a little ahead of him with his walking stick.
"There you are!" said he briskly. "The patch of charred grass." He strode up to it, stopped and bent his eyes upon it, then suddenly exclaimed: "Look here! Below at the roots the fresh grass is springing up in little tender green shoots. That patch'll disappear shortly. And" he stopped and sucked in his breath, wheeling round upon Mr. Narkom "when you come to think of it, why shouldn't it have grown up already? There's been time enough since the man Wynne's disappearance to cover up all those singed ends in a new growth. Can't be that it's done on purpose, and yet, why is it still here?"
"Perhaps some sign or something," suggested Mr. Narkom.
"Possibly, something of the sort. And if we have signs then there must be something human behind all this talk of supernatural agents," returned Cleek. "Let us take it that this patch of charred grass hides something, or marks the way to something, something buried underneath it, or lying near by. Eh, what's that?"
"That" was a cat-call ringing out across the misty silences from the direction in which Dollops and Petrie had gone.
"They've found something!" cried out Mr. Narkom, in a hoarse whisper of excitement.
"Obviously. Well, this other thing will wait. We'll go after them."
The two of them hastened off in the direction of the repeated cat-call, and soon came upon Dollops bending over something, his eyes rather scared, just as Hammond arrived from the other direction in answer to the summons. Petrie, too, appeared rather nervous. As Cleek came up to them, his eyes fell upon the ground, and he stopped stock still.
"Gad!... Where did you find it?"
"Here, sir; half buried, but with the 'ead a-stickin' out!" returned Petrie. "Dollops and I pulled it out and 'ere it is."
Cleek glanced down at the body of a heavily built man, clad in evening clothes, and already in an advanced state of decomposition. "Looks like it was that chap Wynne," he said, in a matter-of-fact tone. "Answers the description all right. The other man was short and red-headed. And the evening clothes are well cut from what I can see. Must have been a handsome chap once.... Well, we'll have to get this very gruesome find back to the Towers as quickly as possible. Got your oilskin with you, Petrie?"
"Yessir!" Petrie miraculously produced the roll from under his tunic and spread the sheet out. Then they lifted up the body and wrapped it about so that the covering hid the awfulness of it from view. Mr. Narkom mopped his forehead with his handkerchief.
"Cinnamon, Cleek!" he ejaculated, breathlessly. "Pretty awful, isn't it? Was it much hidden, Petrie? Funny the other people didn't find it when they searched!"
"No, sir, plain as a pikestaff!" returned Petrie importantly, for he felt the burden of responsibility and hoped that this would mean promotion. Dollops, who was by no means a regular member of the force, simply looked at Cleek with considerable pride fighting through the natural horror that the find had given birth to.
"Funny thing!" broke in Cleek at this juncture. "The only solution must be that the body was placed there some time after death.... Leave it a little longer, boys, and we'll have a further search in this direction. We may come upon poor Collins in a similar fashion though thank Heaven his disappearance didn't happen quite so long ago."
They took a few steps farther in the same direction and stopped simultaneously. Before their eyes lay the figure of Collins, in his discreet black clothes, his red head against a tuffet of moss, and a bullet wound in his temple.
"God!" said Cleek, softly, and sucked in his breath. "Two of 'em. And like this!... Looks like a plant, doesn't it? Poor chap!... And yet Merriton declared that he, as well as others, had searched every inch of this ground over and over again. Seems fishy. To find 'em both here so close together.... Let's have a look at the other poor chap.... Hmm. Bullet wound through the right temple, too. Small-calibre revolver."
He bent down and examined the head carefully through his magnifying glass, then got slowly to his feet.
"Well, Mr. Narkom," said he, steadily, "nothing to be done at present, but to get these bodies back to the Towers. After that they can take 'em to the village mortuary if they like. But I've one or two things I'd like to ask you Merriton, and one or two things I want to examine. Gad! it's a beastly task, boys. That sheet's big enough, thank fortune! Cross the pitchforks, Petrie, and make a sort of stretcher out of them, that way. That's right. Now then, forward.... Gad! what a morning!"
But if he had known just exactly what the rest of that morning was to bring forth, indeed before lunch was served at onefifteen, he might have hesitated to pass judgment upon it so soon.
Slowly the cavalcade wended its way across the rank grass....
THE SPIN OF THE WHEEL
Merriton stood at the study window, looking out, and pulling at his cigar with an air of profound meditation. Upon the hearth-rug Doctor Bartholomew, clad in baggy tweeds, stood tugging at his beard and watched the man's back with kindly, troubled eyes.
"Don't like it, Nigel, my boy; don't like it at all!" he ejaculated, suddenly, in his close-clipped fashion. "These detectives are the very devil to pay. Get 'em in one's house and they're like doctors including, of course, my humble self difficult to get out. Part of the profession, my boy. But a beastly nuisance. Seems to me I'd rather have the mystery than the men. Simpler, anyway. And fees, you know, are heavy."
Merriton swung round upon his heel suddenly, his brows like a thunder cloud.
"I don't care a damn about that," he broke out angrily. "Let 'em take every penny I've got, so long as they solve the thing! But I can't get away from it—I just can't. Hangs over me night and day like the sword of Damocles! Until the mystery of Wynne's disappearance is cleared up, I tell you 'Toinette and I can't marry. She feels the same. And we've the house all ready, you know, everything fixed and in order, except this. When poor old Collins disappeared, too, I found I'd reached my limit. So here these detectives are, and, on the whole, jolly decent chaps I find 'em."
Doctor Bartholomew shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Have it your own way, my boy." But what he really did say was:
"What are their names?"
"Young chap's Headland George or John Headland, I don't remember quite which. Other one's Lake Gregory Lake."
"H'm. Good name that, Nigel. Ought to be some brains behind it. But I never did pin my faith on policemen, you know, boy. Scotland Yard's made so many mistakes that if it hadn't been for that chap Cleek, they'd have ruined themselves altogether. Now, he's a man, if you like! Pity you couldn't get him while you're about it."
The impulse to tell who "George Headland" really was to this firm friend who had been more than a father to him, even in the old days, and who had made a point of dropping down upon him, informally, ever since the trouble over Dacre Wynne's disappearance, took hold of Nigel. But he shook it off. He had given his word. And if he could not tell 'Toinette, then no other soul in the universe should know. So he simply tossed his shoulders, and, going back to the window, looked out of it, to hide the something of triumph which had stolen into his face.
Truth to tell, he was obsessed with a feeling that something was going to happen, and happen soon. The premonition, to one who was not used to such things, carried all the more conviction. With Cleek on the track—anything might happen. Cleek was a man for whom things never stood still, and his amazing brain was concentrated upon this problem as it had been concentrated, successfully, upon others. Merriton had a feeling that it was only a matter of time.
Then, just as he was standing there, humming something softly beneath his breath, the cavalcade, headed by Cleek and Mr. Narkom, rather grim and silent, reached the gateway. Behind them Merriton gave a sudden cry which brought the doctor to his side behind them three men were carrying something something bulky and large and wrapped in a black oilskin tarpaulin. And one of the men was Headland's servant, Dollops! He recognized that, even as his inner consciousness told him that his "something" was about to happen now.
"Gad! they've found the body," he exclaimed, in a hoarse, excited voice, fairly running to the front door and throwing it open with a crash that rang through the old house from floor to rafters, and brought Borkins scuttling up the kitchen stairs at a pace that was ill befitting his age and dignity. Merriton gave him a curt order.
"Have the morning-room door thrown open and the sofa pulled out from against the wall. My friends have been for a walk across the Fens, and have found something. You can see them coming up the drive. What d'you make of it?"
"Gawd! a haccident, Sir Nigel," said Borkins, in a shaky voice. "'Adn't I better tell Mrs. Mummery to put the blue bedroom in order and 'ave plenty of 'ot water?..."
"No." Merriton was running down the front steps and flung the answer back over his shoulder. "Can't you use your eyes? It's a body, you fool a body!"
Borkins gasped a moment, and then stood still, his thin lips sucked in, his face unpleasant to see. He was alone in the hallway, for Doctor Bartholomew's fat figure was waddling in Merriton's wake.
He put up his fist and shook it in their direction.
"Pity it ain't your body, young upstart that you are!" he muttered beneath his breath, and turned toward the morning room.
Meanwhile Merriton had reached the solemn little party and was walking back beside Cleek, his face chalky, the pupils of his eyes a trifle dilated with excitement.
"Found 'em? Found 'em both, you say, Mr. Headland?" he kept on repeating over and over again, as they mounted the steps together. "Good God! What a strange what a peculiar thing! I'll swear there was no sight nor sign of them when I've tramped over the Fens dozens of times. I don't know what to make of it, I don't indeed!"
"Oh, we'll make something of it all right," returned Cleek, with a sharp look at him, for there was one thing he wanted to find out, and he meant to do that as soon as possible. "Two and two, you know, put together properly, always make four. It's only the fools of the world that add wrong. If you'd had as much practice as I've had in dealing with humanity, you'd find it was an ever-increasing astonishment to see the way things dovetail in.... Who's this, by the way?"
He jerked his head in the direction of the doctor, who had stopped at the foot of the steps and waited for them to come up to him.
"Oh, a very old friend of mine, Mr. Headland. Doctor Bartholomew. Has a very big practice in town, but a trifle eccentric, as you can see at first glance."
Cleek sent his keen eyes over the odd-looking figure in the worn tweeds.
"I see. Then can you tell me how he finds time to run down here at leisure and visit you? Seems to me a man with a big practice never has enough time to work it in. At least, that has been my experience of doctors."
Merriton flushed angrily at the tone. He whipped his head round and met Cleek's cool gaze hotly.
"I know you're down here to investigate the case, but I don't think there's any reason for you to start suspecting my friends," he retorted, his eyes flashing. "Doctor Bartholomew has a partner, if you want to know. And also he's supposed to be retired. But he carries on for the love of the thing. Best man ever breathed remember that!"
Cleek smiled to himself at the sudden onslaught. The young pepper-pot! Yet he liked him for the loyal defence of his friend, nevertheless. There were all too few creatures in the world who found it impossible to suspect those whom they cared for, and who cared for them.
"Sorry to have given any offence, I'm sure," he said, smoothly. "None was meant, right enough, Sir Nigel. But a policeman has an unpleasant duty, you know. He's got to keep his eyes and his ears open. So if you find mine open too far, any time, just tip me the wink and I'll shut 'em up again."
"Oh, that's all right," said Merriton, mollified, and a trifle shamefaced at the outburst. Then, with an effort to turn the conversation: "But think of findin' 'em both, Mr. er...Headland! Were they very awful?"
"Pretty awful," returned Cleek, quietly; "eh, Mr. Lake?"
"God bless my soul yes!" threw in that gentleman, with a shudder. "Now then, boys, if you don't mind" He took the attitude of a casual acquaintance with his two assistants who helped to bear the burden. "Come along inside. This way that's it. Where did you say, Merriton? Into the morning room? All right. Ah, Borkins has been getting things ready, I see. That couch is a broad one. Good thing, as there are two of 'em."
"Two of 'em, sir?" exclaimed Borkins, suddenly throwing up his hands, his eyes wide with horror. Mr. Narkom nodded with something of professional triumph in his look.
"Two of 'em, Borkins. And the second one, if I don't make any mistake, answers to the description of James Collins eh, Headland?"
Cleek gave him a sudden look that spoke volumes. It came over him in a flash that Narkom had said too much; that it wasn't the casual visitor's place to know what a servant who was not there at the time of his visit looked like.
"At least that's as far as I can make out from what Sir Nigel told me of him the other day," he supplemented, in an effort to make amends. "Now then, boys, put 'em there on the couch. Poor things! I warn you, Sir Nigel, this isn't going to be a pleasant sight, but you've got to go through with it, I'm afraid. The police'll want identification made, of course. Hadn't you better 'phone the local branch? Someone ought to be here in charge, you know."
Merriton nodded. He was so stunned at the actuality of these two men's deaths, at the knowledge that their bodies lifeless, extinct were here in his morning room, that he had stood like an image, making no move, no sound.
"Yes....yes," he said, rapidly, waving a hand in Borkins's direction. "See that it's done at once, please. Tell Constable Roberts to come along with a couple of his men. Very decent of these chaps to give you a hand, Mr. Lake. That's your man, Dollops, isn't it, Headland? Well, hadn't he better take 'em downstairs and give 'em a stiff whisky-and-soda? I expect the poor beggars have need of it."
Cleek held up a silencing hand.
"No," he said, firmly. "Not just yet, I think. They may be needed for evidence when the constable comes. Now...." He crossed over to where the bodies lay, and gently removed the covering. Merriton went suddenly white, while the doctor, more used to such sights, bit his lips and laid a steadying hand upon the younger man's arm.
"My God!" cried Sir Nigel, despairingly. "How did they meet their death?"
Cleek reached down a finger and gently touched a blackened spot upon Wynne's temple.
"Shot through the head, and the bullet penetrated the brain," he said, quietly. "Small-calibre revolver, too. There's your Frozen Flame for you, my friend!"
But he was hardly prepared for the event that followed. For at this statement, Merriton threw a hand out suddenly, as though warding off a blow, took a step forward and peered at that which had once been his friend and enemy and then gave out a strangled cry.
"Shot through the head!" he fairly shrieked, as Borkins came quietly into the room, and stopped short at the sound of his master's voice. "I tell you it's impossible impossible! It wasn't my shot, Mr. Headland it couldn't have been!"
A STARTLING DISCLOSURE
Cleek took a sudden step forward.
"What's that? What's that?" he rapped out, sharply. "Your shot, Sir Nigel? This is something I haven't heard of before, and it's likely to cause trouble. Explain, please!"
But Merriton was past explaining anything just then. For he had bowed his head in his hands and was sobbing in great, heart-wrung sobs with Doctor Bartholomew's arms about him, sobs that told of the nerve-strain which gave them birth, that told of the tenseness under which he had lived these last weeks. And now the thread had snapped, and all the broken, jangling nerves of the man had been loosed and torn his control to atoms.
The doctor shook him gently, but with firm fingers.
"Don't be a fool, boy don't be a fool!" he said over and over again, as he waved the other away, and, taking out a little phial from his waistcoat pocket, dropped a dose from it into a wine-glass and forced it between the man's lips. "Don't make an ass of yourself, Nigel. The shot you fired was nothing the mere whim of a man, whose brain had been fired by champagne and who wasn't therefore altogether responsible for his actions."
He whipped round suddenly upon Cleek, his faded eyes, with their fringe of almost white lashes, flashing like points of light from the seamed and wrinkled frame of his face.
"If you want to hear that foolish part of the story, I can give it to you," he said, sharply. "Because I happened to be there."
"Yes, I, Mr....er...Headland, isn't it? Ah, thanks. But the boy's unstrung, nerve-racked. He's been through too much. The whole beastly thing has made a mess of him, and he was a fool to meddle with it. Nigel Merriton fired a shot that night when Dacre Wynne disappeared, Mr. Headland; fired it after he had gone up to his room, a little over-excited with too much champagne, a little over-wrought by the scene through which he had just passed with the man who had always exercised such a sinister influence over his life."
"So Sir Nigel was no good friend of this man Wynne's, then?" remarked Cleek, quietly, as if he did not already know the fact.
The doctor looked up as though he were ready to spring upon him and tear him limb from limb.
"No!" he said, furiously, "and neither would you have been, if you'd known him. Great hulking bully that he was! I tell you, I've seen the man use his influence upon this boy here, until fine, upstanding chap that he is (and I've known him and his people ever since he was a baby) he succeeded in making him as weak as a hysterical girl and gloated over it, too!"
Cleek drew in a quiet breath, and gave his shoulders the very slightest of twitches, to show that he was listening.
"Very interesting, Doctor, as psychological studies of the kind go," he said, smoothly, stroking his chin and looking down at the bowed shoulders of the man in the arm chair, with something almost like sorrow in his eyes. "But we've got to get down to brass tacks, you know. This thing's serious. It's got to be proved. If it can't be well, it's going to be mighty awkward for Sir Nigel. Now, let's hear the thing straight out from the person most interested, please. I don't like to appear thoughtless in any way, but this is a serious admission you've just made. Sir Nigel, I beg of you, tell us the story before the constable comes. It might make things easier for you in the long run."
Merriton, thus addressed, threw up his head suddenly and showed a face marked with mental anguish, dry-eyed, deathly white. He got slowly to his feet and went over to the table, leaning his hand upon it as though for support.
"Oh, well," he said, listlessly, "you might as well hear it first as last. Doctor Bartholomew's right, Mr. Headland. I did fire a shot upon the night of Dacre Wynne's disappearance, and I fired it from my bedroom window. It was like this:
"Wynne had gone, and after waiting for him to come back away past the given time, we all made up our minds to go to bed, and Tony West a pal of mine who was one of the guests and the Doctor here accompanied me to my room door. Dr. Bartholomew had a room next to mine. In that part of the house the walls are thin, and although my revolver (which I always carry with me, Mr. Headland, since I lived in India) is one of those almost soundless little things, still, the sound of it reached him."
"Is it of small calibre?" asked Cleek, at this juncture.
Merriton nodded gravely.
"As you say, of small calibre. You can see it for yourself. Borkins" he turned toward the man, who was standing by the doorway, his hands hanging at his sides, his manner a trifle obsequious; "will you bring it from the left-hand drawer of my dressing table. Here is the key." He tossed over a bunch of keys and they fell with a jangling sound upon the floor at Borkins's feet.
"Very good, Sir Nigel," said the man and withdrew, leaving the door open behind him, however, as though he were afraid to lose any of the story that was being told in the quiet morning room.
When he had gone, Merriton resumed:
"I'm not a superstitious man, Mr. Headland, but that old wives' tale of the Frozen Flames, and the new one coming out every time they claimed another victim, seemed to have burnt its way into my brain. That and the champagne together, and then close upon it Dacre Wynne's foolish bet to find out what the things were. When I went up to my room, and after saying good-night to the doctor here, closed the door and locked it, I then crossed to the window and looked out at the flames. And as I looked believe it or not, as you will another flame suddenly sprang up at the left of the others, a flame that seemed brighter, bigger than any of the rest, a flame that bore with it the message: 'I am Dacre Wynne'."
Cleek smiled, crookedly, and went on stroking his chin.
"Rather a fanciful story that, Sir Nigel," he said, "but go on. What happened?"
"Why, I fired at the thing. I picked up my revolver and, in a sort of blind rage, fired at it through the open window; and I believe I said something like this: 'Damn it, why won't you go? I'll make you go, you maddening little devil!' though I know those weren't the identical words I spoke. As soon as the shot was fired my brain cleared. I began to feel ashamed of myself, thought what a fool I'd look in front of the boys if they heard the story; and just at that moment Doctor Bartholomew knocked at the door."
Here the doctor nodded vigorously as though to corroborate these statements, and made as if to speak.
Cleek silenced him with a gesture.
"And then, what next, Sir Nigel?"
Merriton cleared his throat before proceeding. There was a drawn look upon his face.
"The doctor said he thought he had heard a shot, and asked me what it was, and I replied: 'Nothing. Only I was potting at the flames.' This seemed to amaze him, as it would any sane man, I should think, and as no doubt it is amazing you, Mr. Headland. Amazing you and making you think, 'What a fool the fellow is, after all!' Well, I showed the doctor the revolver in my hand, and he laughingly said that he'd take it to bed with him, in case I should start potting at him by mistake. Then I got into bed, after making him promise he wouldn't breathe a word to anybody of what had occurred, as the others would be sure to laugh at me; and that's all."
"H'm. And quite enough, too, I should say," broke in Cleek, as the man finished. "It sounds true enough, believe me, from your lips, and I know you for an honourable man; but what sort of a credence do you think an average jury is going to place upon it? D'you think they'd believe you?" He shook his head. "Never. They'd simply laugh at the whole thing, and say you were either drunk or dreaming. People in the twentieth century don't indulge in superstition to that extent, Sir Nigel; or, at least, if they do, they let their reason govern their actions as far as possible. It's a tall story at best, if you'll forgive me for saying so."
Merriton's face went a dull, sultry red. His eyes flamed.
"Then you don't believe me?" he said, impatiently.
Cleek raised a hand.
"I don't say that for one moment," he replied. "What I say is: 'Would a judge and jury believe you?' That is the question. And my answer to it is, 'No.' You've had every provocation to take Dacre Wynne's life, so far as I can learn, every provocation, that is, that a man of unsound mentality who would stoop to murder could have to justify himself in his own eyes. Things look exceedingly black against you, Sir Nigel. You can swear to this statement as far as your part in it is concerned, Doctor Bartholomew?"
"Absolutely," said the doctor, though plainly showing that he felt it was no business of the supposed Mr. Headland's.
"Well, that's good. But if only there had been another witness, someone who actually saw this thing done, or who had heard the pistol-shot not that I'm doubting your word at all, Doctor it might help to elucidate matters. There is no one you know of who could have heard and not spoken?"
At this juncture Borkins came quietly into the room, holding the little revolver in his right hand, and handed it to Cleek.
"If you please, sir," he said, impassively, and with a quick look into Merriton's grave face, "I heard. And I can speak, if the jury wants me to, I don't doubt but what my tale would be worth listenin' to, if only to add my hevidence to the rest. That man there" he pointed one shaking forefinger at his master's face, and glowered into it for a moment "was the murderer of poor Mr. Wynne!"
"You damned, skulking liar!"
Merriton leapt forward suddenly, and it was with difficulty that Cleek could restrain him from seizing the butler round the throat.
"Gently, gently, my friend," interposed Cleek, as he neatly caught Merriton's upthrown arm. "It won't help you, you know, to attack a possible witness. We've got to hear what this man says, to know whether he's speaking the truth or not and we've got to go into his evidence as clearly as we go into yours.... You're perfectly right, Doctor, I am a policeman, and I'm down here for the express purpose of investigating this appalling affair. The expression of your face so plainly said, 'What right has he to go meddling in another man's affairs like this?' that I was obliged to confess the fact, for the sake of my self-respect. My friend here, Mr. Lake, is working with me." At this he gave Borkins a keen, searching look, and saw in the man's impassive countenance that this was no news to him. "Now then, my man, speak out. You tell us you heard that revolver-shot when your master fired it from his bedroom. Where are your quarters?"
"On the other side of the 'ouse, sir," returned Borkins, flushing a trifle. "But I was up in me dressing gown, as I'd some'ow thought that something was amiss. I'd 'eard the quarrel that 'ad taken place between Sir Nigel and poor Mr. Wynne, and I'd 'eard 'im go out and slam the door be'ind 'im. So I was keeping me ears peeled, as you might say."
"I see. Doing a bit of eavesdropping, eh?" asked Cleek, and was rewarded by an angry look from under the man's dark brows and a sudden tightening of the lines about his mouth. "And what then?"
"I kept about, first in the bathroom, and then in the 'all, keeping my ears open, for I'd an idea that one day things would come to a 'ead between 'em. Sir Nigel had taken Mr. Wynne's girl and"
"Close your lying mouth, you vile beast!" spat out Merriton, vehemently, "and don't you dare to mention her name, or I'll stop you for ever from speaking, whether I hang or not!"
Borkins looked at Cleek, and his look quite plainly conveyed the meaning that he wished the detective to notice how violent Sir Nigel could be on occasions, but if Cleek saw this he paid not the slightest heed.
"Speak as briefly as you can, please, and give as little offence," he cut in, in a sharp tone, and Borkins resumed:
"At last I saw Sir Nigel and the Doctor and Mr. West come up the corridor together. I 'eard 'em bid each other good-night, saw the Doctor go into 'is room, and Mr. West return to the smoking-room, and 'eard Sir Nigel's key turn in 'is lock. After that there was silence for a bit, and all I 'ears was 'is moving about and muttering to 'imself, as though 'e was angry about something. Then, just as I was a-goin' back to me own room, I 'eard the pistol-shot, and nips back again. I 'eard 'im say, 'Got you....you devil!' and then without waitin' for anything else, I runs down to the servants' 'all, which is directly below the smoking room where the other gentlemen were talking and smoking. I peers out of the window, upward for it's a half-basement, as perhaps you've noticed, sir and there, in the light of the moon, I see Mr. Wynne's figure, crouched down against the gravel of the front path, and makin' funny sorts of noises. And then, all of a sudden, 'e went still as a dead man and 'e was a dead man. With that I flies to me own room, frightened half out of me wits for I'm a peace-lovin' person, and easily scared, I'm afraid and then I locks meself in, sayin' over and over to meself the words, 'He's done it! He's done it at last! He's murdered Mr. Wynne, he has!' And that's all I 'ave to say, sir."
"And a damned sight too much, too, you liar!" threw in Merriton, furiously, his face convulsed with passion, the veins on his temple standing out like whipcords. "Why, the whole story's a fake. And if it were true, tell me how I could get Wynne's body out of the way so quickly, and without any one hearing me, when every man in that smoking room, from their own words, and from those of the doctor here, was at that moment straining his ears for any possible sound? The smoking room flanks straight on the drive, Mr. er Headland " He caught himself up just in time as he saw Cleek's almost imperceptible signal, and then went on, his voice gaining in strength and fury with every word: "I'm not a giant, am I? I couldn't have lifted Wynne alive and with his own assistance, much less lift him dead when he'd be a good sight heavier. Why, the thing's a tissue of lies, I tell you a beastly, underhanded, backbiting tissue of lies, and if ever I get out of this thing alive, I'll show Borkins exactly what I think of him. And why you should give credence to the story of a lying servant, rather than to mine, I cannot see at all. Would I have brought you here, you, a man whose name " And even in the excitement which had him in its grip Nigel felt Cleek's will, powerful, compelling, preventing his giving away the secret of his identity, preventing his telling that it was the master mind among the criminal investigators of Europe which was working on this horrible affair.
He went on, still in a fury of indignation, but with the knowledge of Mr. Headland's true name still locked in his breast. "Did I bring you here as a friend and give you every opportunity to work on this strange business, to have you arraign me as a murderer? Do not treat me as a suspect, Mr. Detective. I am not on trial. I want this thing cleared up, yes; but I am not here to be accused of the murder of a man who was a guest in my own house, by the very man I brought in to find the true murderer."
"You haven't given me time to say whether I accuse you or not, Sir Nigel," replied Cleek, patiently. "Now, if you'll permit me to speak, we'll take up this man's evidence. There are gaps in it that rather badly want filling up, and there are thin places which I hardly think would hold water before a judge and jury. But he swears himself a witness, and there you are. And as for believing his word before yours who fired the shot, Sir Nigel? Did he, or did you? I am a representative of the Law and as such I entered your house."
Merriton made no reply, simply held his head a little higher and clasped the edge of the table more firmly.
"Now," said Cleek, turning to the butler and fixing him with his keen eyes. "You are ready to swear that this is true, upon your oath, and knowing that perjury is punishable by law?"
"Yes, sir." Borkins's voice was very low and rather indistinct.
"Very well. Then may I ask why you did not immediately report this matter to the rest of the party, or to the police?"
Something flashed across Borkins's face, and was gone again. He cleared his throat nervously before replying:
"I felt on me honour to Sir Nigel, sir," he returned at length. "A man stands by his master, you know if 'e's a good one; and though we'd 'ad words before, I didn't bear 'im no malice. And I didn't want the old 'ouse to come to disgrace."
"So you waited until things looked a little blacker for him, and then decided to cast your creditable scruples to the wind?" said Cleek, the queer little one-sided smile travelling up his cheek. "I take it that you had had what you term 'words' since that fatal date?"
Borkins nodded. He did not like this cross-examination, and his nervousness was apparent in voice and look and action.
"H'm. And if we put that to one side altogether can you give me any reason why I should believe this unlikely story in place of the equally unlikely one that your master has told me knowing what I do?"
Borkins twitched up his head suddenly, his eyes fear-filled, his face turned suddenly gray.
"I...What can you know about me, but that I 'ave been in the employment of this family nearly all my life?" he returned, taken off his guard by Cleek's remark. "I'm only a poor, honest workin' man, sir, been in the same place nigh on to twenty years and"
"And hoping you can hang on another twenty, I dare say!" threw in Cleek, sarcastically. "Oh, I know more about you, my man, than I care to tell. But at the moment that doesn't enter into the matter. We'll take that up later. Now then, there's the revolver. Doctor, you should be useful here; if you will use your professional skill in the service of the law that seems trying to embroil your friend. I want you to examine the head wound, please the head wound of the man called Dacre Wynne, and, if you can, remove the bullet that is lodged in the brain. Then we shall have a chance to compare it with those remaining in Sir Nigel's revolver."
"I can't do it, Mr. Headland," returned Doctor Bartholomew, firmly. "I won't lend myself to a plot to inveigle this poor boy, to ruin his life"
"And I demand it....in the name of the Law." He motioned to Petrie and Hammond, who through the whole length of the inquiry had stood with Dollops, beside the doorway. They came forward swiftly. "Arrest Doctor Bartholomew for treating the Law with contempt"
"But, I say, Mr. Headland, this is a damned outrage!"
Cleek held up a hand.
"Yes," he said, "I agree with you. But a very necessary one. Besides" he smiled suddenly into the seamed, anxious face of the man"who knows but that bullet may prove Sir Nigel's innocence? Who knows but that it is not the same kind as lie now in this deadly little thing here in my hand? It lies with you, Doctor. Must I arrest him now, and take him off to the public jail to await trial, or will you give him a sporting chance?"
The doctor looked up into the keen eyes bent upon him, his own equally keen. He did not know whether he liked this man of the law or not. Something of the man's personality, unfortunate as had been its revelation during this past trying hour, had caught him in its thrall. He measured him, eye for eye, but Cleek's never wavered.
"I've no instruments," he said at last, hedging for time.
"I have plenty upstairs. I have dabbled a little in surgery myself, when occasion has arisen. I'll fetch them in a minute. You will?"
The doctor stood up between the two tall policemen who had a hand upon either shoulder. His face was set like a mask.
"It's a damned outrage, but I will," he said.
Dollops was gone like a flash. In the meantime Cleek cleared the room. He sent Merriton off to the smoking room in charge of Petrie and Hammond, and Borkins with them though Borkins was to be kept in the hallway, away from his master's touch and voice.
Cleek, Mr. Narkom, and the doctor remained alone in the room of death, where the doctor set to his gruesome task. Outside, Constable Roberts's burly voice could be heard holding forth in the hall upon the fact that he'd been after a poacher on Mr. Jimmeson's estate over to Saltfleet, and wasn't in when they came for him.
And the operation went quietly on....
... In the smoking room, with Hammond and Petrie seated like deaf mutes upon either side of him, Merriton reviewed the whole awful affair from start to finish, and felt his heart sink like lead in his breast. Oh, what a fool he had been to have these men down here! What a fool! To see them wilfully trumping up a charge of murder against himself was well, it was enough to make any sane man lose hold on his reason. And 'Toinette! His little 'Toinette! If he should be convicted and sent to prison, what would become of her? It would break her heart. And he might never see her again! A sudden moisture pricked at the corners of his eyes. God! never to call her wife!... How long were those beasts going to brood in there over the dead? And was there not a chance that the bullet might be different? After all, wasn't it almost impossible that the bullet should be the same? His was an unusual little revolver made by a firm in French Africa, having a different sort of cartridge. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry didn't have one couldn't afford it, in the first place.... There was a chance, yes, certainly there was a chance.
... His blood began to hammer in his veins again, and his heart beat rapidly. Hope went through him like wine, drowning all the fears and terrors that had stalked before him like demons from another world. He heard, with throbbing pulses, approaching footsteps in the hall. His head was swimming, his feet seemed loaded with lead so that he could not rise. Then, across the space from where Cleek stood, the revolver in one hand and the tiny black object that had nested in a dead man's brain in the other, came the sound of his voice, speaking in clear, concise sentences. He could see the doctor's grave face over the curve of Mr. Narkom's fat shoulder. For a moment the world swam. Then he caught the import of what Cleek was saying.
"The bullet is the same as those in your revolver, Sir Nigel," he said, concisely. "I am sorry, but I must do my duty. Constable Roberts, here is your prisoner. I arrest this man for the murder of Dacre Wynne!"
IN THE CELL
What followed was like a sort of nightmare to Merriton. That he should be arrested for the murder of Dacre Wynne reeled drunkenly in his brain. Murderer! They were calling him a murderer! The liars! The fools! Calling him a murderer, were they? And taking the word of a crawling worm like Borkins, a man without honour and utterly devoid of decency, who could stand up before them and tell them a story that was a tissue of lies. It was appalling! What a fiend incarnate this man Cleek was! Coming here at Nigel's own bidding, and then suddenly manipulating the evidence, until it caught him up in its writhing coils like a well-thrown lasso. Oh, if he had only let well enough alone and not brought a detective to the house. Yet how was he to know that the man would try to fix a murder on him, himself? Useless for him to speak, to deny. The revolver-shot and the cruel little bullet (which showed there were others who possessed that sort of fire-arm besides himself) proved too easily, upon the circumstantial evidence theory at all events, that his word was naught.
He went through the next hour or two like a man who has been tortured. Silent, but bearing the mark of it upon his white face and in his haggard eyes. And indeed his situation was a terrible and strange one. He had set the wheels of the law in motion; he himself had brought the relentless Hamilton Cleek into the affair and now he was called a murderer!
In the little cell where they placed him, away from the gaping, murmuring, gesticulating knot of villagers that had marked his progress to the police-station for news flies fast in the country, especially when there is a viper-tongue like Borkins's to wing it on its way he was thankful for the momentary peace and quiet that the place afforded. At least he could think, think and pace up and down the narrow room with its tiny barred window too high for a man to reach, and its hard camp bedstead with the straw mattress, and go through the whole miserable fabrication that had landed him there.
The second day of confinement brought him a visitor. It was 'Toinette. His jailer a rough-haired villagehand who had taken up with the "Force" and wore the uniform as though it belonged to someone else (which indeed it had) brought him news of her arrival. It cut him like a lash to see her thus, and yet the longing for her was so great that it superseded all else. So he faced the man with a grim smile.
"I suppose, Bennett, that I shall be allowed to see Miss Brellier? You have made enquiries?"
"Yes, sir." Bennett was crestfallen and rather ashamed of his duty.
"Well if you please Sir Nigel that is"
"What the devil are they, then?"
"Constable Roberts give orders that I was to stay 'ere with you but I can turn me back," returned Bennett, with flushing countenance. "Shall I show the lady in?"
She came. Her frock was of some clinging gray material that made her look more fairy-like than ever. A drooping veil of gray gauze fell like a mist before her face, screening from him the anguished mirrors of her eyes.
"Nigel! My poor, poor Nigel!"
"Oh, Nigel it seems impossible utterly! That you should be thought to have killed Dacre. You of all people! Poor, peace-loving Nigel! Something must be done, dearest; something shall be done! You shall not suffer so, for someone else's sin you shall not!"
He smiled at her wanly, and told her how beautiful she was. It was useless to explain to her the utter futility of it all. There was the revolver and there the bullet. The weapon was his of the bullet he could say nothing. He had only told the truth and they had not believed him.
"Yes see, dear," he said, patiently, "they do not believe me. They say I killed him, and Borkins lying devil that he is has told them a story of how the thing was done; sworn, in fact, that he saw it all from the kitchen window, saw Wynne lying in the garden path, dying, after I fired at him. Of course the thing's an outrageous lie, but they're acting upon it."
"Nigel! How dared he?"
"Who? Borkins? That kind of a devil dares anything.... How's your uncle, dear? He has heard, of course?"
Her face brightened, her eyes were suddenly moist. She put her hands upon his shoulders and tilted her chin so that she could see his eyes.
"Uncle Gustave told me to tell you that he does not believe a word of it, dearest!" she said, softly. "And he is going to make investigations himself. He is so unhappy, so terribly unhappy over it all. Such a tangled web as it is, such a wicked, wicked plot they have woven about you! Oh, Nigel dearest why did you not tell me that they were detectives, these friends of yours who were coming to visit? If you had only said"
He held her a moment, and then, leaning forward, kissed her gently upon the forehead.
"What then, p'tite?"
"I would have made you send them away I would! I would!" she cried, vehemently. "They should not have come not if I had wired to them myself! Something told me that day, after you were gone, that a dreadful thing would happen. I was frightened for you frightened! And I could not tell why! I kept laughing at myself, trying to tease myself out of it, as though it were simply what you call it? the 'blues'. And now....this!"
"And now this," he said, grimly, and laughed.
Bennett, hand upon watch, turned apologetically at this juncture.
"Sorry, Sir Nigel," he said, "but time's up. Ten minutes is the time allowed a prisoner, and and I'm afeared the young leddy must go. It 'urts me to tell you, sir, but you'll understand. Dooty is dooty."
"Yes, doubtless, Bennett, though some people's idea of it is different from others'," returned Merriton, with a bleak smile. "Have no fear, 'Toinette. There is still plenty of time, and I shall engage the finest counsel in the land to stand for me. This knot shall be broken somehow, this tissue of lies must have a flaw somewhere. And nowadays circumstantial evidence, you know, doesn't hold too much water in a court of law. God bless you, little 'Toinette."
She clung to him a moment, her face suddenly lightening at the tenor of his words so bravely spoken, with so little conviction behind them. But they had helped her, and for that he was glad.
When she had gone, he sat down on the edge of his narrow bed and dropped his face in the cup of his hands. How hopeless it seemed. What chance had he of a future now with Cleek against him? Cleek the unraveller of a thousand riddles that had puzzled the cleverest brains in the universe! Cleek would never admit to having made a blunder this time though there was a sort of grim satisfaction in the knowledge that he had blundered, though he himself was the victim.
... He sat there for a long time, thinking, his brain wearied, his heart like lead. Bennett's heavily-booted feet upon the stone floor brought him back again to realities.
"There's another visitor, sir," said he. "A gentleman. Seen 'im up at the Towers, I 'ave. Name of West, sir. Constable Roberts says as 'ow you may see him."
How kind of the constable, thought Nigel bitterly. His mouth twisted into a wry smile. Then his eyes lightened suddenly. Tony West, eh? So all the rats hadn't deserted the sinking ship, after all. There were still the old doctor, who came, cheering him up with kind words, bringing him books that he thought he could read—as though a man could read books, under such circumstances and now Tony West good old West!
West strode in, his five-feet-three of manhood looking as though it were ready to throw the jailer's six-feet-one out of the window upon request, and seized Nigel's hand, wringing it furiously.
"Good old Nigel! Gad! but it's fine to see you. And what fool put you in this idiotic predicament? Wring his damned neck, I would. How are you, old sport?"
Under such light badinage did West try to conceal his real feeling but there was a tremour of the lips that spoke so banteringly.
Good old West! A friend in a thousand.
"Nice sort of place for the Squire of the Manor to be disporting himself, isn't it?" returned Merriton, fighting his hardest to keep his composure and reply in the same light tone. "I damn it, Tony, you don't believe it, do you?"
West went red to the rim of his collar. He choked with the vehemence of his response.
"Believe it, man? D'you think I'm crazy? What sort of a fool would I be to believe it? Wasn't I there, that night, with you? Wait until I give my evidence in court. Bullet or no bullet, you're no, no murderer, Nigel; I'd swear my life away on that. There were others on worse terms with Wynne than you, old chap. There was Stark, for one. Stark used to borrow money from him in the old days, you know, until they had a devil of a shindy over an I.O.U. and the friendship bust. You'd no more reason to kill him than Lester Stark, I swear. Or me, for that matter."
"No, I'd no reason to kill him, Tony. But they'll take that quarrel we had over the Frozen Flame that night, and bring it up against me in court. They'll bring everything against me; everything that can be twisted or turned or bullied into blackening my name. If ever I get scot-free, I'll kill that man Borkins."
West put up his hand suddenly.
"Don't," he said, quietly; "or they'll be putting that against you, too. Believe me, Nigel, old boy, the Law's the greatest duffer on earth. By the way, here's a piece of news for you! Heard it as I stopped in at the Towers this morning. Saw that man Headland, the detective. He told me to tell you, and I clean forgot. But they found an I.O.U. on Wynne's body, an I.O.U. for two thou' in Lester Stark's name. Dated two nights before the party. Looks a bit funny, that, doesn't it?"
Funny? Merriton felt his heart suddenly bound upward, and as suddenly drop back in his breast like lead. Glad that there was a chance for another pal to come under the same brutal sway as he had? What sort of a friend was he, anyway? But an I.O.U.!... And in Lester Stark's name! He remembered the black looks that passed between the two of them that night, remembered them as though they had been but yesterday. He jerked his chin up.
"What're they going to do about it?"
"Headland told me to tell you that he was going to investigate the matter further. That you were to keep up your heart.... Seemed a decent sort of a chap, I must say."
Keep up his heart!... And there was a chance of someone else taking his share of the damnable thing, after all!... But Lester Stark wouldn't kill. Perhaps not and yet, some months ago he had told him to his face that he'd like to send Wynne's body to burn in hell!... H'm. Well, he would have to keep his mouth shut upon that conversation, at all events, or they'd have poor Stark by the heels the next minute.... But somehow his heart had lightened. Cleek didn't seem such a bad chap, after all. And they couldn't hang him yet, anyhow.
For the rest of the long, dreary day the memory of that I.O.U. with Lester Stark's name sprawled across the bottom of it, in the dashing caligraphy that he knew, danced before his mind's eye like a fleeting hope, making the day less long.
Meanwhile, Cleek, Mr. Narkom, and Dollops stayed on at the Towers for such time as it would take to have the coroner's inquest arranged, and Merriton brought up before the local magistrate.
Mr. Narkom was frankly uneasy over the whole affair.
"There's something fishy in it, Cleek," he kept saying. "I don't like the looks of it. Taking that innocent boy up for a murder which I feel certain he never committed. Of course, circumstantial evidence points strongly against him, but"
"He's better out of the way, at all events," interposed Cleek. "Mind you, I don't say the chap is innocent. Men of Wynne's calibre have the knack of raising the very devil in a person who is under their influence for long. And there's Borkins's story." The queer little one-sided smile looped up his cheek for a moment and was gone again in a twinkling. He crossed to where Mr. Narkom stood, and put a hand on his arm. "Tell me," he said, quietly, "did you ever hear of a chap squirming and moaning and doing the rest of the things that the man said Wynne was doing in the garden pathway, when a bullet had got him clean through the brain? Something 'fishy' there, if you like."
"I should think so," replied Mr. Narkom. "Why, the chap would have died instantly. Then you think Borkins himself is guilty?"
"On the contrary, I do not," returned Cleek, emphatically. "If my theory's correct, Borkins is not the murderer of Dacre Wynne. Much more likely to be Nigel Merriton, for that matter. Then there's the question of this I.O.U. that I found on the body. Signed 'Lester Stark', and the doctor Gad! what a loyal friend to have! told me that Lester Stark, Merriton, and a little man called West were bosom friends and club-mates."
"Then perhaps the man Stark killed him, after all?" threw in Mr. Narkom at this juncture, and there was a tinge of eagerness in his excited tones, which made Cleek whirl round upon him and say, accusingly, "Old friend, Merriton has won your heart as he has won others'. You're dead nuts on the youngster, and I must say he does seem such a clean, honest, upstanding young fellow. But you're ready to convict any one of the murder of Dacre Wynne but Merriton himself. Own up now; you've a sneaking regard for the fellow!"
Mr. Narkom reddened.
"Well, if you want the truth of it I have!" he said, finally, in an "I-don't-care-what-the-devil-you-think" sort of voice. "He's exactly the kind of chap I'd like for a son of my own, and dash it! I don't like seeing him in the lock-up; and that's the long and short of it!"
"So long as it's only the long and short, and not the end of it, it doesn't greatly matter," returned Cleek. "Hello! Is that you, Dollops?"
"Any news for me? Found that chap with the straggling black moustache that tried to do me in the other night? I've not a doubt that you've discovered the answer to the whole riddle, by the look upon your face."
Dollops cautiously approached, looking over his shoulder as though he expected any minute that the cadaverous face of Borkins would peer in at him, or that perhaps Dacre Wynne himself would rise from the dead and shake an accusing finger in his face. He reached Cleek and laid a timid hand upon the detective's arm. Then he bent his face close to Cleek's ear.
"Well, I've an inklin' that I'm well on to the untyin' of it, s'help me if I ain't!" he whispered in highly melodramatic tones.
Cleek laughed, but looked interested at once, while Mr. Narkom prepared to give his best attention to what the lad had to say.
"Traced the blighter wiv the straggling whiskers on 'is lip, anyway!" he said, triumphantly, casting still another glance over his shoulder in the direction of the door, and lowering his tones still further. "Caught a glimpse of 'im 'long by the Saltfleet Road this afternoon, Guv'nor, and thinks I to myself, 'You're the blinkin' blighter wot tried to do the Guv'nor in, are you? Well, you wait, my lad! There's a little taste of 'ell-sauce a-comin' your way wot'll make you sit up and bawl for yer muvver.' He'd got on sailorin' togs, Mr. Cleek, an' a black 'at pulled down low over one eye. Mate wiv 'im looked like a real bad 'un. Gold rings in 'is ears 'e'd got like a bloomin' lydy, an' a blue sweater, and sailor's breeches. Chin whiskers, too, wot were somethin like rotten seaweed. Oh, a 'eavenly specimen of a chap 'e were, I kin tell you!"
"On the Saltfleet Road, eh?" interposed Cleek, rapidly, as the boy paused a moment for breath. "So? My midnight friend is doubtless sailing for foreign parts, as the safest place when coroner's evidence begins to get too hot for him. And what then, Dollops?"
"Couldn't find out much else, Mr. Cleek, 'cept to trace the place where the beggar 'angs out, and that's a bit of a shanty just off Saltfleet Bay, an' a stone's throw from what looks ter me very like a boat-factory of some kind. Reckon the chap's employed there, as, from a casual chat wiv a sailorin' Johnny in the bar parlour of the 'Pig and Whistle', where I wuz a-linin' of me empty stummick (detectin' is that 'ungry work, sir!) wiv a sossage an' a pint o' four-and-er-'arf, this feller tells me that pretty near everyone around here works there. I arsked 'im wot they did, an' 'e says, 'Make boats an' fings, with now an' agin a little flurry in shippin' ter break the monotony.'... Anyway, I traced the devil wot nearly got you, Guv'nor, and that's somefing. And if I don't give 'im a taste of the 'appy 'ereafter, well, my name's not Dollops."
Cleek laughed and laid a hand upon the lad's shoulder.
"You've done a lot toward unravelling the mystery, Dollops, my lad," he said. "A regular right-hand man you are, eh, Mr. Narkom? This evening we'll hie us to the Saltfleet Road and see what further the 'Pig and Whistle' can reveal to us. It'll be like the old times of the 'Twisted-Arm' days, boy, where every second held its own unknown and certain danger. Give us an appetite for our breakfast, eh?"
He laughed again, a happy, schoolboyish laugh which brought a positively shocked expression to Mr. Narkom's round face.
"My dear Cleek!" he expostulated. "Really, one might think that you actually enjoyed this sort of thing! One of these fine days, if you're not careful, you'll be caught napping, and it'll take all Dollops's and my ingenuity to get you out of the clutches. I do beg of you to be careful for Ailsa's sake, if not for mine."
At mention of the name, for a second the whole look upon Cleek's face altered. Something came into his eyes that softened their keenness, something settled down over his countenance, wiping away the mirth and the grim lines together. He sighed.
"Heigho!" he said, softly, spinning round upon his heel and surveying Mr. Narkom with a half-smile upon his lips. "I will be careful, dear friend. I promise. And I have given my word to her as well. And that the life of Hamilton Cleek should be so precious to any such angel as that—well, it 'fair beats me', as Dollops would say.... I'll be careful, all right. You may depend upon it. But Dollops and I are going to have a little outing on our own. We'll ransack the 'make-up' box after lunch and see what it can produce. And if we don't bring back something worth hearing to you on our return to-night, then I'll retire from Scotland Yard altogether and take a kindergarten class.... Gad! I feel sorry for young Merriton. But there's no other course open to us at present but to keep him where he is. Coroner's inquest takes place to-morrow afternoon, and a lot may happen in the meantime."
Mr. Narkom gravely shook his head.
"Don't like the thing at all, Headland," he supplemented slowly, lighting a fresh cigarette from the stump of the other one, and blowing a cloud of smoke into the air. "There's something here that we haven't got at. Something big. I feel it."
"Well, you'll have that feeling further augmented before many more days are over, my friend," returned Cleek, meaningly. "What did the letter from Headquarters say? I noticed you got one this morning, and recognized it by the way the stamp was set on the envelope—though I must say your secretary is more than discreet. It looked for all the world like a love-letter, which no doubt your curious friend Borkins thought it was."
But if Cleek appeared in fine fettle at the prospect of a possible exciting evening with Dollops, Mr. Narkom's barometer did not register the same comforting high altitude. He did not smile.
"Oh, it had to do with these continual bank robberies," he replied with a sigh. "They're enough to wear a man right out. Seem so simple, and all that, and yet never a trace left. Fellowes reports that another one took place, at Ealing. As usual, only gold stolen. Not a bank-note touched. They'll be holding us up in the main road, like Dick Turpin, if the robbers are allowed to continue on their way like this. It's damnable, to say the least! The beggars seem to get off scot-free every time. If this case here wasn't so difficult and important, I'd be off up to London to have a look into things again. Frankly, it worries me."
Cleek lifted a restraining hand.
"Don't let it do anything so foolish as that to you, old man," he interposed. "Give 'em rope to hang themselves, lots of rope. This is just the opportunity they want. Give orders for nothing to be done. Let 'em have a good run for their money, and by-and-by you'll have 'em so they'll eat out of your hand. There's nothing like patience in this sort of a job. They're bound to get careless soon, and then will be your chance."
"I wish I could feel as confident about it as you do," returned Mr. Narkom, with a shake of the head. "But you've solved so many unsolvable riddles in your time, man, so I suppose I'll just have to trust your judgment, and let your opinion cheer me up. Still.... Ah, Borkins! lunch ready? I must say I don't like eating the food of a man I've just placed in prison, but I suppose one must eat. And there are a few very necessary enquiries to be gone into before the coroner's inquest to-morrow. The men have been up from the local morgue, haven't they?"
Borkins, who had tapped discreetly upon the door and then put in a sleek head to announce lunch, came a little farther into the room and replied in the affirmative. Save for a slight light of triumph which seemed to flicker in his close-set eyes, and play occasionally about his narrow lips, there was nothing to show in his demeanour that such an extremely large pebble as his master's conviction for murder had caused the ripples to break on the smooth surface of his life's tenor.
Cleek blew a cloud of smoke into the air and swung one leg across the other with a sort of devil-may-care air that was part of his Headland make-up in this piece.
"Well," said he, off-handedly, "all I can say is, I wouldn't like to be in your master's shoes, Borkins. He's guilty not a doubt of it; and he'll certainly be called to justice."
"You think so?" An undercurrent of eagerness ran in Borkins's tone.
"Most assuredly I do. Not a chance for him poor beggar. He'll possibly swing for it, too! Pleasant conjecture before lunch, I must say. And we'll have it all cold if we don't look sharp about it, Lake, old chap. Come along."
... They spent the afternoon in discussing the case bit by bit, probing into it, tearing it to ribbons, analysing, comparing, rehearsing once more the scene of that fateful night when Dacre Wynne had crossed the Fens, and, according to everyone's but Borkins's evidence, had never returned. By evening Mr. Narkom, note-book in hand, was suffering with writer's cramp, and complained of a headache.
As Cleek rose from this private investigation and stretched his hands over his head, he gave a sudden little laugh.
"Well, you'll be able to rest yourself as much as you like this evening, Mr. Lake," he said, lightly, trying the muscles of his right arm with his left hand, and nodding as he felt them ride up, smooth and firm as ivory, under his coat-sleeve. "I'm not in such bad fettle for an amateur, if anything in the nature of a scrap comes along, after all. Though I'm not anticipating any fighting, I can assure you. There's the morning's papers, and the local rag with various lurid and inaccurate accounts of the whole ghastly affair. Merriton seems to have a good many friends in these parts, and the local press is strong in his favour. But that's as far as it goes. At any rate, they'll keep you interested until we come home again. By the way, you might drop a hint to Borkins that I shall be writing some letters in my room to-night, and don't want to be disturbed, and that if he wants to go out, Dollops will post them for me and see to my wants; will you? I don't want him to 'suspicion' anything."
Mr. Narkom nodded. He snapped his note-book to, and bound the elastic round it, as Cleek crossed to the door and threw it open.
"I'll be going up to my room now, Lake," he said, in clear, high tones that carried down the empty hallway to whatever listener might be there to hear them. "I've some letters to write. One to my fiancée, you know, and naturally I don't want to be disturbed."
"All right," said Mr. Narkom, equally clearly. "So long."
Then the door closed sharply, and Cleek mounted the stairs to his room, whistling softly to himself meanwhile, just as Borkins rounded the corner of the dining-room door and acknowledged his friendly nod with one equally friendly.
A smile played about the corners of the man's mouth, and his eyes narrowed, as he watched Cleek disappear up the stairs.
"Faugh!" he said to the shadows. "So much for yer Lunnon policeman, eh? Writin' love-letters on a night like this! Young sap'ead!"
Then he swung upon his heel, and retraced his steps to the kitchen. Upstairs in the dark passageway, Cleek stood and laughed noiselessly, his shoulders shaking with the mirth that swayed him. Borkins's idea of a 'Lunnon policeman' had pleased him mightily.