WHAT TOOK PLACE AT "THE PIG AND WHISTLE"
It was a night without a moon. Great gray cloud-banks swamped the sky, and there was a heavy mist that blurred the outline of tree and fence and made the broad, flat stretches of the marshes into one impenetrable blot of inky darkness.
Two men, in ill-fitting corduroys and soiled blue jerseys, their swarthy necks girt about by vivid handkerchiefs, and their big-peaked caps pulled well down over their eyes, made their way along the narrow lane that led from Merriton Towers to Saltfleet Bay. At the junction with Saltfleet Road, two other figures slipped by them in the half-mist, and after peering at then from under the screen of dark caps, sang out a husky "Goodnight, mates." They answered in unison, the bigger, broader one whistling as he swung along, his pace slackening a trifle so that the two newcomers might pass him and get on into the shadows ahead.
Once they had done so, he ceased his endless, ear-piercing whistle and turned to his companion, his hand reaching out suddenly and catching the sleeve nearest him.
"That was Borkins!" he said in a muttered undertone, as the two figures in front swung away into the shadows. "Did you see his face, lad?"
"I did," responded Dollops, with asperity. "And a fine specimen of a face it were, too! If I were born wiv that tacked on to me anatomy, I'd drown meself in the nearest pond afore I'd 'ave courage to survive it.... Yus, it was Borkins all right, Guv'nor, and the other chap wiv him, the one wiv the black whiskers and the lanting jor"
"Hush, boy! Not so loud!" Cleek's voice cut into the whispered undertone, a mere thread of sound, but a sound to be obeyed. "I recognized him, too," interrupted Cleek. "My friend of the midnight visit, and the plugged pillow. I'm not likely to forget that face in a day's march, I can promise you. And with Borkins! Well, that was to be expected, of course. The next thing to consider is what the devil has a common sailor or factory-hand to do with a chap like Dacre Wynne? Or Merriton, for that matter. I never heard him say he'd any interest in factories of any kind, and I dare swear he hasn't. And yet, what's this dark stranger as the fortune tellers say doing, poking his nose into the affair, and trying to murder me, just because I happen to be down here to investigate the question of the Frozen Flames?... Bit of a problem, eh, Dollops? Frozen Flames, Country Squires, Dark Strangers who are sailormen, and a butler who has been years in the family service; there you have the ingredients for quite a nice little mix-up. Now, I wonder where those two are bound for?"
"'Pig and Whistle'," conjectured Dollops. "Leastways, tha's where old Black Whiskers is a-makin' for. Got friend Borkins in tow as well ternight, so things ought ter be gittin' interestin'. Gawd! sir, if you don't looka fair cutthroat I an't ever seen one.
"Makes me blood run cold jist ter squint at yer, it does! That there moustache 'ud git yer a fortin' on the stage, I swear. Mr. Narkom'd faint if 'e saw yer, an' I'm not so certing I wouldn't do a bunk meself, if I met yer in a dark lane, so to speak. 'Ow yer does the expression fair beats me."
Cleek laughed good-humouredly. The something theatrical in his make-up was gratified by the admiration of his audience. He linked his arm through the boy's.
"Birthright, Dollops, birthright!" he made answer, speaking in a leisurely tone. "Every man has one, you know. There is the birthright of princes" he sighed. "Your birthright is a willing soul and an unwavering loyalty. Mine? A mere play of feature that can transform me from one man into another. A poor thing at best, Dollops, but.... Hello! Lights ahead! What is it, my pocket guide-book?"
"'Pig and Whistle'," grunted Dollops in a husky voice, glad of an excuse to hide his pleasure at Cleek's appreciation of his character.
"H'm. That's good. The fun commences. Don't forget your part, boy. We're sailoring men back from a cruise to Jamaica and pretty near penniless. Lost our jobs, and looking for others. Told there was a factory somewhere in this part of the world that had to do with shipping, and have walked down from London. Took six days, mind; don't forget that. And a devilish long walk, too, I reckon! But that's by the way. Your name's Sam...Sam Robinson. Mine Bill Jones.... Our friends are ahead of us. Come along."
Whistling, they swung up to the brightly lit little public-house, set there upon the edge of the bay. Here and there over the unruffled surface of the waters to the left of them, a light pricked out, glowing against the gloom. Black against the mouth of the harbour, as though etched upon a smoky background, a steamer swayed uneasily with the swell of the water at her keel, her nose touching the pierhead, a chain of lights outlining her cumbersome hulk. Men's voices made the night noisy, and numerous feet scuttled to and fro over the cobbles of the dockyard to where a handful of fishing boats were drawn up, only their masts showing above the landing, with here and there a ghostly wraith of sail.
Cleek paused a moment, drinking in the scene with his love of beauty, and then assumed his rôle of the evening. And how well he could play any rôle he chose!
He cleared his throat, and addressed his companion in broad cockney.
"Gawd's truf, Sammie!" he said. "If this fair don't look like a bit of 'ome. Ain't spotted the briny for a dog's age. Let's 'ave a drink."
Someone turned at his raucous voice and looked back over the curve of a huge shoulder. Then he went to the doorway of the little pub, and raised a hand, with two fingers extended. Obviously it was some sort of sign, for in an instant the noise of voices dropped, and Cleek and Dollops slouched in and up to the crowded bar. Men made room for them on either side, as they pushed their way in, eyeing them at first with some suspicion, then, as they saw the familiar garments, calling out some hoarse jest or greeting in their own lingo, to which Cleek cheerfully responded.
A little to the right of them stood Borkins, his cap still pulled low over his eyes, and a shabby overcoat buttoned to the neck. Cleek glanced at him out of the tail of his eye, and then, at sight of his companion, his mouth tightened. He'd give something to measure that cur muscle for muscle, strength for strength! The sort to steal into a man's room at night and try to murder him! The detective planted an arm brown and brawny and with a tattooed serpent winding its way round the strong wrist to the elbow (oh, wonderful make-up box!) on the edge of the marble bar, and called loudly for a drink. His very voice was raw and husky with a tang of the sea in it. Dollops's nasal twang took up the story, while the barmaid a redheaded, fat woman with a coarse, hard face, who was continually smiling looked them up and down, and having taken stock of them set two pewter tankards of frothing ale before them, took the money from Cleek, bit it, and then with a nod dropped it into the till and came back for a chat.
"Strangers, ain't you?" she said, pleasantly, leaning on the bar and grinning at them.
"Yus." Cleek's voice was sharp, emphatic.
"Thought so. Sea-faring, I take it?"
"Yus," said Cleek again, and gulped down the rest of his ale, pushing the tankard toward her and nodding at it significantly.
She sniffed, and then laughed.
"Want another, eh? Ain't wastin' many words, are yer, matey? 'Oo's the little 'un?"
"Meaning me?" said Dollops, bridling. "None of yer blarney 'ere, miss! Me an' my mate's been on a walkin' tooer come up from Lunnon, we 'ave."
"You never did!"
Admiration mingled with disbelief in the barmaid's voice. A little stir of interest went round the crowded, smoky room and someone called out:
"Lunnon, 'ave yer? Bin walkin' a bit, matey. Wot brought yer dahn 'ere? An' what're sailor men doin' in Lunnon, any'ow?"
"Wot most folks is doin' nowadays lookin for a job!" replied Cleek, as he gulped down the second tankard and pushed it forward again to be replenished. "Come from Southampton, we 'ave. Got a parss up to Lunnon, 'cause a pal told us there'd be work at the factories. But there weren't no work. Gawd's truf! What're sailormen wantin' wi' clorth-makin' and 'ammering' tin pots? Them's the only jobs we wuz offered in Lunnon. I don't give a curse for the plyce.... No, Sammy an' me we says to each other" he took another drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand "we says this ain't no plyce for us. We'd just come over frum Jamaica "
"Go on! Travellin' in furrin parts was you!" this in admiration from the barmaid.
"....and we ain't seein' oursel's turning inter land-lubbers in no sich spot as that. Pal told us there was a 'arbour down 'ere abahts, wiv a factory wot a sailorman might git work at an' still 'old 'is selfrespec'. So we walked 'ere."
Black Whiskers as Dollops had called him broke in at this juncture, his thin mouth opening in a grin that showed two rows of blackened teeth.
Cleek twitched round sharply in his direction.
"Yus wasn't it? An', funny enough, we've plenty more energy ter come!... But what the 'ell is this factory work 'ere, any'ow? An' any chawnce of a couple of men gittin' a bit er work to keep the blinkin' wolf from the door? Who'll tell us?"
A slight silence followed this, a silence in which man looked at man, and then back again at the ginger-headed lady behind the bar. She raised her eyebrows and nodded, and then went off into little giggles that shook her plump figure.
A big man at Cleek's left gave him the answer.
"Factory makes electric fittin's an' such-like, an' ships 'em abroad," he said, tersely. "Happen you don't unnerstan' the business? Happen the marster won't want you. Happen you'll 'ave ter move on, I'm a-thinkin'."
"Happen I won't!" retorted Cleek, with a loud guffaw.
"S'welp me, you chaps, ain't none uv you a-goin' ter lend a 'and to a mate wot's out uv a job? What's the blooming mystery? An' where's the bloomin' boss?"
"Better see 'im in the mawning," supplemented Black Whiskers, truculently. "He's busy now. Works all night sometimes, 'e does. But there's a vacancy or two, I know, for factory 'ands. Bin a bit of riotin' an' splittin' uv state secrets. But the fellers wot did it are gorn now" he laughed a trifle grimly "won't never come troublin' 'ere again. Pretty strict, marster is. But good work and good pay."
"And yer carnt arsk fer more, that's wot I ses!" threw in Dollops in his shrill voice.
Now Cleek, all this time, had been edging more and more in the direction of Borkins and his sinister companion who were standing a little apart, but nevertheless were interested spectators of all that went on.
Having at last obtained his object, he cast about for a subject of conversation and picked the barmaid whose rallies met with the approval of the entire company, and who was at that moment carrying on a spirited give-and-take conversation with the redoubtable Dollops.
"Bit of a sport, ain't she, guv'nor?" Cleek remarked to Borkins, with a jerk of his head in the woman's direction. The butler whirled round and fixed him with a stare of haughty indignation.
"Here, you keep your fingers off your betters!" he retorted angrily, for Cleek had dug a friendly elbow into his ribs.
"Oh, orl right! No offence meant! Thought perhaps you wuz the boss, by the look of yer. But doubtless you ain't nuffink ter do wiv the factory at all. Private gent, I take it."
"Then you take it wrong!" retorted Borkins, sharply. "And I have something ter do with the factory, if you wants ter know. Like ter show your good manners, I might be able to get you a job an' one for the little 'un as well, though I don't care for Londoners as a rule. There's another of 'em up at the place where I lives. I'm 'ead butler to Sir Nigel Merriton of Merriton Towers, if you're anxious to know who I am." His chest swelled visibly. "In private I dabbles a little in other things. And I've influence. You men can keep your mouths shut?"
"Dumb as a blinkin' dorg!" threw in Dollops, who was close by Cleek's side, and both men nodded vigorously.
"Well, then, I'll see what I can do. Mind you, I don't promise nothink. I'll think it hover. Better come to me to-morrow. Make it in the evening for there's a h'inquest up at the Towers. My master's been copped for murderin' his friend, and I'll 'ave to be about, then. Ow'll tomorrow evening suit?"
Cleek drew a long breath and put out his hand. Then, as if recalling the superior station of the man he addressed, withdrew it again and remarked: "You're a real gent, you are! Any one'd know you was wot they calls well-connected. Ter-morrow it is, then. We'll be 'ere and grateful for yer 'elp.... Wot's this abaht a murder? Fight was it? I'm 'appy at that sort of thing myself."
He squared up a moment and made a mock of boxing Dollops which seemed to please the audience.
"That's the stuff, that's the stuff, matey!" called out a raw-boned man who up to the present had remained silent. "You're the man for us, I ses! An' the little 'un, too."
"Reckon I can give you a taste of fightin' that'll please you," remarked Borkins in a low voice. "Yes, Mainer's right. You're the man for us.... Good-night, all. Time's up. I'm off."
"Good-night," chorused a score of voices, while the fat barmaid blew a kiss off the tips of her stubby fingers, and called out after him: "Come again soon, dearie."
Cleek looked at Dollops, and both realized the importance of getting back to the Towers before the arrival of Borkins, in case that worthy should think (as was far from unlikely) of spying on their movements, and checking up on Cleek's progress in letter writing. It was going to require some quick work.
"Well, Sammy, better be movin' back to our shelterin' roof an' all the comforts of 'ome," began Cleek almost at once, and gulping down the last of his fourth tankard and slouching over to the doorway. A chorus of voices stopped him.
"Where you sleepin'?"
"Under the 'aystack about 'arf a mile from 'ere," replied Cleek glibly and at a venture.
The barmaid's brows knitted into a frown.
"'Aystack?" she repeated. "There ain't no 'aystack along this road from 'ere to Fetchworth. Bit orf the track, ain't yer?"
Cleek retrieved himself at once.
"Ain't there? Well, wot if there ain't? The place wot I calls a 'aystack an' wot Lunnoners calls a 'aystack too is the nearest bit of shelter wot comes your way. Manner of speakin', that's all."
"Oh! Then I reckon you means the barn about a quarter of a mile up the road toward the village?" The barmaid smiled again.
"That's it. Good-night."
"Good night," chorused the hoarse voices.
The night outside was as black as a pocket.
"Better cut along by the fields, Dollops," whispered Cleek as they took to their heels up the rough road. "Got to pass him. This mist will help us. That was a near shave about the haystack. I nearly tripped us up there. Awful creature, that woman!"
"Looks like a jelly-fish come loose," threw in Dollops with a snort. "There's ole Borkins, sir, straight ahead. 'Ere in through this gap in this 'edge and then across the field by the side of 'im.... Weren't such a rough night after all, was it, sir?"
Cleek sighed. One might almost have thought that he regretted the fact.
"No, Dollops," he said, softly, "it was the calmest night of its kind I've ever experienced. But we've gleaned something from it. But what the devil has Borkins got to do with this factory? What ever it is he's in it right up to the neck, and we'll have to dig around him pretty carefully. You'll help me, Dollops, won't you? Can't do without you, you know."
"Orlways, sir orlways," breathed Dollops, in a husky whisper. "Where you goes, I'm a-hikin' along by yer side. You ain't ever going ter get rid of me."
"Good lad!" and they redoubled their pace.
AT THE INQUEST
Thursday dawned in a blaze of sunshine, and after the bleak promise of the day before the sky was a clear, sapphire-blue.
"What a day! And what a mission to waste it on!" sighed Cleek next morning, as he finished breakfast and took a turn to the front door, smoking his cigarette. "Here's murder at the very door of this ill fated place. And we've got to see the thing out!"
He spun upon his heel and went back again into the gloomy hall, as though the sight of the sunshine sickened him. His thoughts were with Merriton, shut away there in the village prison to await this day of reckoning, with, if the word should go against him, a still further day of reckoning ahead. A day when the cleverest brains of the law schools would be arrayed against him, and he would have to go through the awful tragedy of a trial in open court. What was a mere coroner's jury to that possibility?
Then too, perhaps in spite of evidence, they might let the boy off. There was a chance in that matter of the I.O.U., which he himself had found in the pocket of the dead man, and which was signed in the name of Lester Stark. Stark was due at the inquest to-day, to give his side of the affair. There was a possible loophole of escape. Would Nigel be able to get through it? That was the question.
The inquest was set for two o'clock. From eleven onward the great house began to fill with expectant and curious visitors. Reporters from local papers, and one or two who represented the London press, turned up, their press-cards as tickets of admittance. Petrie was stationed at the door to waylay casual strangers, but any who offered possible light upon the matter, eye-witnesses or otherwise, were allowed to enter. It was astonishing how many people there were who confessed to having "seen things" connected with the whole distressing affair. By one o'clock almost everyone was in place. At a quarter past, 'Toinette Brellier arrived, dressed in black and with a heavy veil shrouding her pallor. She was accompanied by her uncle.
Cleek met them in the hall. Upon sight of him 'Toinette ran up and caught him by the arm.
"You are Mr. Headland, are you not?" she stated rather than asked, her voice full of agitation, her whole figure trembling. "My name is Brellier, Antoinette Brellier. You have heard of me from Nigel, Mr. Headland. I am engaged to be married to him. This is my uncle, with whom I live. Mr. Headland—Mr. Brellier."
She made the introduction in a distrait manner, and the two men bowed.
"I am pleased to meet you, sir," said Brellier, in his stilted English, "but I could wish it were under happier circumstances."
"And I," murmured Cleek, taking in the trim contour and the keen eyes of this man who was to have been Merriton's father-in-law if things had turned out differently. He found he rather liked his looks.
"There is nothing one can do?" Brellier's voice was politely anxious, and he spread out his hands in true French fashion then tugged at his closely clipped iron-gray beard.
"Anything that you know, Mr. Brellier, that would perhaps be of help, you can say in the witness box. We are looking for people who know anything of the whole distressing tragedy. You can help that way, and that way alone. For myself," he shrugged his shoulders, "I don't for an instant believe Sir Nigel to be guilty. I can't, somehow. And yet, if you knew the evidence against him!"
A sob came suddenly from 'Toinette, and Brellier gently led her away. It was a terrible ordeal for her, but she had insisted on coming fearing, hoping that she might be of use to Nigel in the witness box. By the time they reached the great, crowded room, with its table set at the far end, its empty chairs, and the platform upon which the two bodies lay shrouded in their black coverings, she was crying, though plainly struggling for self possession.
Brellier found her a chair at the farther side of the room, and stood beside her, while near by Cleek saw the figure of Borkins, clad in ordinary clothes. He tipped one respectful finger as Brellier passed him, and greeted him with a half-smile, as one of whom he thoroughly approved.
Then there was a little murmur of expectancy, as the group about the doorway parted to admit the prisoner.
He came between two policemen, very pale, very haggard, greatly aged by the few days of his ordeal. There were lines about his mouth and eyes that were not good to see. He was thinner, older. Already the gray showed in the hair about his temples. He walked stiffly, looking neither to right nor left, his head up, his hands handcuffed before him; calm, dignified, a trifle grimly amused at the whole affair though what this attitude cost him to keep up no one ever knew.
'Toinette uttered a cry at sight of him, and then shut her handkerchief against her mouth. His face quivered as he recognized her voice, then, looking across the crowded room, he saw her and smiled....
The jury filed in one after the other, twelve stout, hardy specimens of the country tradesman, with a local doctor and a farmer or two sprinkled among the lump to leaven it. The coroner followed, having driven up in the latest thing in motor cars (for he was going to do the thing properly, as it was at the country's expense). Then the horrible proceedings began.
After the preliminaries, which followed the usual custom (for the coroner seemed singularly devoid of originality) the bodies were uncovered, and a murmur of excited expectancy ran through the crowd. With morbid curiosity they pressed forward. The reporters started to scribble in their note-books, a little pale and perturbed, for all their experience of such affairs. One or two of the crowd gasped, and then shut their eyes. Brellier exclaimed aloud in French, and for a moment covered his face with his hands; but 'Toinette made no murmur. For she had not looked, would not look upon the grim terrors that lay there. There was no need for that.
The coroner spoke, attacking the matter in a business-like fashion, and leaning down from his slightly elevated position upon the platform, pointed a finger at the singed and blackened puncture upon the temple of the thing that was once Dacre Wynne. He pointed also to the wound in the head of Collins.
"It is apparent to all present," he began in his flat voice, "that death has been caused in each case by a shot in the head. That the two men were killed similarly is something in the nature of a coincidence. The revolver that killed them was not the same in both cases. In that of Mr. Wynne we have a bullet wound of an extremely small calibre. We have, indeed, the actual bullet. We also have, so we think, the revolver that fired the shot. In the case of James Collins there has been no proof and no evidence of any one whom we know being concerned. Therefore we will take the case of the man Dacre Wynne first. He was killed by a revolver-shot in the temple, and death was or should have been instantaneous. We will call the prisoner to speak first."
He lifted a revolver from the table and held it in the hollow of his big palm.
"This revolver is yours?" he said, peering up under his shaggy eyebrows into Merriton's face.
"Very good. There has been, as you see, one shot fired from it. Of the six chambers one is empty." He reached down and picked up a small something and held it in the hollow of the other hand, balancing one against the other as he talked. "Sir Nigel, I ask you. This we recognize as a bullet which belongs to this same revolver, the revolver which you have recognized and claimed as your own. It is identical with those that are used in the cartridges of your revolver, is it not?"
Merriton bent his head. His eyes had a dumb, hurt look, but over the crowded room his voice sounded firm and steady.
"Then I take it that, as this bullet was extracted from the head of the dead man, and as this revolver which you gave to the police yourself, and from which you say that you fired a shot that night, that you are guilty of his murder. Is it not so?"
"I am not guilty."
"H'm." For a moment there was silence. Over the room came the sound of scratching pencils and pens, the shuffle of someone's foot, a swift intake of the breath no more. Then the coroner spoke again.
"Tell us, then," he said, "your version of what took place that night."
And Merriton told it, told it with a ring in his voice, his head high, and with eyes that flashed and shone with the cause he was pleading. Told it with fire and spirit; and even as the words fell from his lips, felt the sudden chill of disbelief that seemed to grip the room in its cold hand. Not a sound broke the recital. He had been given a fair hearing, at all events, though in that community of hard-headed, unimaginative men there was not one that believed him save those few who already knew the story to be true.
The coroner stopped fitting his fingers together as the firm voice faltered and was finally silent, and shot a glance at Merriton from under his shaggy brows.
"And you expect us to believe that story, Sir Nigel; knowing what we do about the bad blood between you and the dead man, and having here the evidence of our own eyes in this revolver bullet?"
"I have told the truth. I can do no more."
"No man can," responded the coroner, gravely, "but it is that which I must admit I query. The story is so far-fetched, so utterly impossible for a rationally minded being "
"But you must admit that he was not a rationally minded being that night!" broke in a quick voice from across the room, and everyone turned to look into Doctor Bartholomew's seamed, anxious face. "Under the influence of drink and that devil incarnate, Dacre Wynne, a man couldn't be answerable for "
"Silence in the Court!" rapped out the coroner, and the good doctor was forced to obey.
Then the inquiry went on. The prisoner was told to stand down, amid a chorus of protesting voices, for, though the story was disbelieved, everyone who had come in contact with Merriton had formed an instant liking for him. No one wished to see him condemned as guilty save those few who seemed determined to send him to the gallows.
Three or four possible witnesses were called, but nothing of any importance was gleaned from them; then Borkins was summoned to the table. As he pushed past 'Toinette's chair from the knot of villagers which surrounded him, his face was white, and his lips compressed. He took his stand in front of the jury and prepared to answer the questions which were put to him by the coroner. That man's method seemed to have changed since his questioning of Sir Nigel and he flung out his queries like a rapid-fire gun.
Borkins came through the ordeal fairly well, all things considered. He told his story of what he had said he had seen that night, in a comparatively steady voice, though he was of the type that is addicted to nervousness when appearing before people.
Cleek, at the back of the court, with Mr. Narkom on his right and Dollops on his left, waited for that one weak spot in the evidence, and saw with a smile how the coroner lit upon it. His opinion of that worthy went up considerably.
"You say you heard the man Wynne groaning and moaning on the garden pathway after he was shot, and then practically saw him die?"
"I did, sir."
"And yet, a man killed in that fashion, hit in that particular portion of the temple, always dies instantaneously. Isn't that rather strange?"
Borkins went red.
"I have nothing to say, sir. Simply what I heard."
"H'm. Well, certainly the evidence does dovetail in, and the doctors may have been wrong in this instance. We can look into that evidence later. Stand down."
Borkins stood down with something like a sigh of relief, and pushed his way back into his place, his friends nodding to him and congratulating him upon the way he had given his evidence.
Then Tony West was called, and told all that he had to tell of his knowledge of the night's happenings in a rather irritated manner, as though the whole thing bored him utterly, and he couldn't for the life of him make out why any one even dreamed that old Nigel had murdered a man. He told the coroner something of this before he finished, and as he returned to his place a murmur of approval went up. His manner had taken the public fancy, and they would have liked to hear more of him.
But there was another piece of evidence to be shown, and this took the form of a scrap of creased white paper.
It was waved aloft in the coroner's hand, so that everyone could see it.
"This," said the coroner, "is an I.O.U. found upon the dead man, for two thousand pounds, and signed with the name of Lester Stark. An important piece of evidence, this. Will Mr. Stark kindly come forward?"
There was a rustle at the back of the court, and Stark pushed his way to the front, his face rather red, his eyes a trifle shamefaced. As he came, Merriton was conscious of a quickening of his pulse, of a leap of his heart, though he loathed himself afterward for the sensation. His eyes went toward 'Toinette, and he saw that she was looking at him, with all the love that was in her soul laid bare for him and all to see. It cheered him, as she meant it should.
Then Stark took his place upon the witness stand.
"This I.O.U. belongs to you, I take it?" said the coroner, briskly.
"It does, sir."
"And it was made out two days before the prisoner met his death. The signature is yours?"
Stark bowed. His eyes sought Nigel's and rested upon the pale, lined face with every appearance of concern. Then he looked back at the coroner.
"Dacre Wynne lent me that money two days before he came down to visit Merriton. No one knew of it, except he and I. We had never been good friends in fact, I believe he hated me. My mother had been well, kind to him in the old days, and I suppose he hadn't forgotten it. Anyhow, there was family difficulty. My, my pater left some considerable debts which we found we were obliged to face. There was a woman oh, I needn't go into these family things, in a place like this, need I?... Well, if I must...I must. But it's a loathsome job at best.... There was a woman whom my father kept. When he died he left her two thousand pounds in his will, and he hadn't two thousand pounds to leave when his debts were cleared up. We....we had to face things. Paid everything off, and all that, and then, at the last gasp, that woman came and claimed the money. The lawyer said she was within her rights, we'd have to fork out. And I couldn't lay my hands upon the amount just then, because it had taken pretty nearly all we had to clear the debts off."
"So you borrowed from Mr. Wynne?"
"Yes, I borrowed from Dacre Wynne. I'd sooner have cut my right hand off than have done it, but I knew Merriton was going to be married, and I wouldn't saddle him with my bills. Don't look at me like that, Nigel, old chap, you know I couldn't! Tony West has only enough for himself, and I didn't want to go to loan sharks. So the mater suggested Dacre Wynne. I went to him, in her name, and ate the dust. It was beastly but he promised to stump up. And he did. I'm working now on a paper, to try and pay as much off as I can, and a cousin is keeping the mater until I can look after her myself. We've taken a little place out Chelsea way. That's all."
"H'm. And you can show proof of this, if the jury requires it?" put in the coroner, at this juncture.
"I can here and now." He thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out a sheaf of papers, tossing them in front of the coroner, who, after a glance at their contents, seemed to be satisfied that they gave the answer he sought.
"Thank you.... And you have no revolver, Mr. Stark, even if you had reason for killing Mr. Wynne?"
Stark gave a little start of surprise.
"Reason for killing him? You're not trying to intimate that I killed him, are you? Of all the idiotic things! No, I have no revolver, Mr. Coroner. And I've nothing more to say."
"Then stand down," said the coroner, and Lester Stark threaded his way back to the chair he had occupied during the proceedings, rather red in the face, and with blazing eyes and tightly set lips.
A stream of other witnesses came and gave their stories. Brellier told of how he had been rung up by Merriton to ask if there were any news of Wynne's arrival at the house. Told, in fact, all that he admitted to know of the night's affair, and ended up his evidence with the remark that "nothing on earth or in heaven would make him believe that Sir Nigel Merriton was guilty of murder."
Things were narrowing down. There was a restlessness about the court; time was getting on and everything pointed one way. After some discussion with the jury, the foreman of it, a stout, pretentious fellow, rose to his feet and whispered a few hurried words to the coroner. That gentleman wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief and looked about him. It had been a trying business altogether. He'd be glad of his supper. He got to his feet and turned to the crowded room.
"Gentlemen," he said, "in all this evidence that has been placed before us I find not one loophole of escape for the prisoner, not one opening by which there might be a chance of passing any other verdict than that which I am compelled to pass now; save only in the evidence of Borkins, who tells that the dead man groaned and moaned for a minute or two after being shot. This, I must say, leaves me in some doubt as to the absolute accuracy of his story, but the main facts tally with what evidence we have and point in one direction. There is only one revolver in question, and that revolver of a peculiar make and bore. I have shown you the instrument here, also the bullet which was extracted from the dead man's brain. Is there no other person who would wish to give evidence, before I am compelled to pronounce the prisoner 'Guilty' and leave him to the hands of higher Courts of Justice? If there is, I beg of you to speak, and speak at once. Time is short, gentlemen."
His voice ceased, and for a moment over the room there was silence. You could have heard a pin drop. Then came the scraping of a chair, a swiftly-muttered, "I will! I will! I have something to say!" in a woman's voice shrill with emotion, and 'Toinette Brellier stood up, slim and tall in her black frock, and with the veil thrown back from her pale face. She held something in her hand, something which she waved aloft for all to see.
"I ... I have something to say, Mr. Coroner," she said in a clear, high voice. "Something to show you, also. See!" She pushed her way through the crowd that opened to admit her, gaping at her as she came rapidly to the coroner's table and held out the object. It was a small-sized revolver, identical in every detail to that which lay upon the coroner's table. "That," she said clearly, her voice rising higher and higher, as she looked into Merriton's face for a single instant and smiled wanly, "that, Mr. Coroner, is a revolver identical with the one which you have there. It is the same make, the same bore everything!"
"So it is!" For a moment the coroner lost his calm. He lifted an excited face to meet her eyes, "Where did you get it, Miss Brellier?"
"From the top drawer of the secrétaire in the little boudoir at Withersby Hall," she said calmly, "where it has always lain. You will find a shot missing. Everything the same, Mr. Coroner; everything the same!"
"It belongs to some member of your household, Miss Brellier?"
She took a step backward and drew a sharp breath. Then her eyes were fixed upon Merriton's face.
"It belongs to me," she said.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
A murmur of amazement went round the room, like the sound of rising wind. The coroner held up his hand for silence.
"You say it is yours, Miss Brellier? This is really most remarkable most remarkable! The revolver is of French make, is it not? You bought it abroad?"
"I did. Just before I first came to England. I had been travelling through Tunis before that, and well, one doesn't like to be without these things. Sir Nigel's revolver came from India, I believe, through the agents of a French firm, the makers."
"But...." The coroner's voice was low-pitched, incredulous, "are you trying to tell us you fired a shot that night, Miss Brellier?"
She shook her head, smiling.
"No, that would be impossible. But my revolver has always lain in that little secrétaire, and I have never had cause to use it since I have been on this side of the Channel. I was in bed early that night, with a headache. My uncle will tell you that. He took me to my room and spent the rest of the evening in his study, as you have already heard from him. No, I cannot say I murdered Dacre Wynne. Though I would say that or anything to save Nigel. But I didn't discover that this little revolver of mine had ever been fired until yesterday, when I happened to go to my secrétaire for a letter which I had locked away in that particular drawer. Then I took it up and chanced to examine it I don't know why. Perhaps because it was the same as Nigel's, I" she choked suddenly, and bit at her lips for control. "Is there not a loophole here, sir, by which Sir Nigel might be saved? Surely it must be traced who used this revolver, who fired the shot from it?"
Her voice had risen to a piteous note that brought the tears to many eyes in that crowded room. The coroner coughed. Then he glanced enquiringly over at Brellier, who had risen from his seat.
"You have something to say about this, Mr. Brellier?"
Brellier made a clicking sound with his tongue.
"I'm afraid my niece has been wasting your time, sir," he said quietly, "because I happen to have used that little instrument myself five months ago. We had a dog who was hurt you remember Franco, 'Toinette? And if you carry your mind back you will also recollect that he had eventually to be shot, and that I was forced to perform that unpleasant operation myself. He was dear to me, that dog; he was how do you call it? a true 'pal'. It hurt me to do this thing, but I did it. And with that revolver also. It was light. 'Toinette must have forgotten that I mentioned the matter to her.
"I am afraid this can have no bearing upon the case though the dear God knows that I would do all I could to bring this terrible thing to an end, if it lay in my power. That's is all, I think."
He bowed, and sat down again, beckoning his niece back to her seat with a little frown. She cast a piteous look up into the coroner's face.
"I'm sorry," she said brokenly; "I had forgotten about that. Of course, it is true, as my uncle said. But I was so anxious so anxious! And there seemed just a chance. You understand?"
"I do, Miss Brellier. And I am sorry that the evidence in this case is of no use to us. Constable, take the prisoner away to await higher justice. I must say that I think no other verdict upon the evidence brought forward could possibly be passed upon the prisoner than I have passed to-day. I'm sorry, Sir Nigel, but one must do one's duty, you know.... We'll be getting back to the office, Mr. Murkford." He beckoned to his clerk, who rose instantly and followed him. "Good afternoon, gentlemen."
... And so the whole wearisome proceedings were at an end, and Cleek had spoken no word of that would-be assassin who had come upon him in the dark watches of the night and sought his life. He noted that Borkins looked at him in some surprise, but held his counsel. Borkins knew more than he had said upon his oath this day; of that Cleek was certain. Well, he would bide his time. There were other ways to work besides the open-handed fashion of the coroner's court and the policeman's uniform. He was due to meet Borkins that night and discuss the possibilities of being taken on to work at the electrical factory. Something might come out of that something must come of that. It was impossible that the thing should be left as it was, and an innocent boy he was certain of Merriton's innocence, in spite of the evidence against him should be hanged.
As he stepped out into the growing twilight Cleek touched Mr. Narkom on the arm and then ran over to the van into which the prisoner was stepping, his guardians of the law upon either side of him, his face white, his shoulders bowed. 'Toinette stood a few steps distant, the tears chasing themselves down her face and the sobs drowning her broken words of comfort to him. He seemed barely to notice her, but at sight of Cleek he flung himself round, and gave a harsh laugh.
"And a damn lot of good you've done me, for all your fine reputation!" he said sneeringly, his face reddening. "God! that there should be such fools allowed to hold the law in their hands! You've made a mistake this time, Mr. Cl "
"One moment!" Cleek held up a silencing hand as the name almost escaped Merriton's lips. "Officer, I'm from Scotland Yard. I'd like a word with the prisoner alone, if you don't mind, before you take him away. I'll answer for his safety, I promise.... Keep your heart up, boy; I've not done yet!" This in a low-pitched voice, as the two men dropped away from either side. "I've not done by a long shot. But evidence has been so confoundly against you. I'd hopes of that I.O.U., but the whole thing was so simply explained and there were the proofs, you know. Still, there was no telling how the story would come out. But it was so obviously true.... Only, keep up your heart, lad; that's what I wanted to tell you. I'd swear on my oath you weren't guilty. And I'll prove it yet!"
Something like a sob broke in Merriton's voice. He held out an impetuous hand.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said jerkily, "but it's a devilish ordeal. What a life I've led this past week! If you only knew could only realize! It tears a man's nerves to atoms. I've almost given up hope "
Cleek took the hand and held it.
"Never do that, Merriton, never do that," he said softly. "I've been through the mill myself once years ago now, but the scar still stays and it'll be a bit more red hell for the present. But if there's any saving you, any proving this thing right up to the hilt, I'll do it. That's all I wanted to say. Good-bye, and buck up. I'm going to speak to the little girl now, and cheer her up, too. You'll hear everything as it comes along."
He squeezed the hand, manacled so grimly to the other, and smiled a smile brimming over with hope and promise.
"God bless you, Mr. Headland," Merriton replied, and as Cleek beckoned to the two policemen, took his stand between them and entered the closed vehicle. The door shut, the engine purred, and the car shot away up the road toward the local police-station, leaving the man and the girl staring after it, the same mute sorrow and sympathy shining in both pairs of eyes.
As it disappeared round a corner, 'Toinette turned to Cleek, her whole agonized heart in her eyes.
"Mr. Headland!" she broke out with a gush of tears. "Oh, m'sieur, if you did but know could but understand all that my poor heart suffers for that innocent boy! It is breaking every minute, every hour. Is there nothing, nothing that can be done to save him? I'd stake my very life on his innocence!"
Cleek let his hand rest for a moment upon the fragile shoulder, and looked down into the pallid face.
"I know you would," he said softly, "for even I know and understand what the love of a good woman may do to a man. But, tell me. That story of the revolver your revolver. You can vouch for it? Your uncle did kill the dog Franco with it? You can remember? Forgive me for asking, or questioning for a moment the evidence which Mr. Brellier has given, but I am anxious to save that boy from the hands of the law, and for that reason no stone must be left unturned, no secret kept silent. Carry your mind back to that time, and tell me if that is true."
She puckered her brows together as if in perplexity and tapped one slim, perfectly-manicured finger against her white teeth.
"Yes," she said at last; "yes, it was every bit of it true every bit, Mr. Headland. For the moment, in that room of terror, I had forgotten poor Franco's death. But now yes, I can remember it all fully. My uncle spoke the truth, Mr. Headland I can promise you that."
Cleek sighed. Then:
"But it was your revolver he used, Miss Brellier? Try to remember. He said that he told you of it at the time. Can you recollect your uncle telling you that he used your revolver to shoot the dog with, or not? That is what I want to know."
She shrugged her shoulders and spread out her hands.
"It is so difficile. I am trying to remember, and the matter seemed then so trivial! But there is no reason to doubt my uncle, Mr. Headland, for he loves Nigel dearly, and if there was any way in which he could help to unravel this so terrible plot against him Oh! I am sure he must have told me so, sure! There would be no point in his telling an untruth over that."
"And yet you can not recall the actual remark that your uncle made, Miss Brellier?"
"No. But I am sure, sure that what he said was true."
Cleek shrugged his shoulders.
"Then, of course, you must know best. Well, we must try and find some other loophole. I promised Merriton I'd speak a few words to you, Miss Brellier, just to tell you to keep up heart, though it's a difficult task. But everything that can be done, will be done. And if you should happen to hear that I have thrown up the case, and gone back to London, don't be a bit surprised. There are other ways, other means of helping than the average person dreams of. Don't mention anything I have said to you to anybody. Keep you own counsel, please, and as a token of my regard for that I will give you my word that everything that can be done for Merriton will be. Good-bye."
He put out his hand and she laid her slim one in it. For a moment her eyes measured him, scanning his face as though to trace therein anything of treachery to the cause which she held so dear. Then her face broke into a wintry smile.
"I have a feeling, Mr. Headland," she said softly, "that you are going to be a good friend to us, Nigel and me. It is a woman's intuition that tells me, and it helps me to bear the too dreadful suspense under which we are all now labouring. You have my word of honour never to speak of this talk together, and to keep a guard on my tongue for the future, if it is to help Nigel. You will let me know how things go on, Mr. Headland?"
"That I cannot for the present tell. It will depend entirely upon how events shape themselves, Miss Brellier. You may hear soon you may not hear at all. But I believe in his innocence as deeply as you do. Therefore you must be content that I shall do my best, whatever happens. Good-bye."
He gave her fingers a soft squeeze, held them a moment and then, dropping them, bowed and swung upon his heel to join Mr. Narkom, who was standing near by, the last of the group of interested spectators of that afternoon's ghastly business. Dollops stood a little back from them, awaiting his orders.
"We'll have some supper at the village 'pub,' my dear Lake," said Cleek in a loud, clear voice that carried to every corner of the deserted garden, "and then come back to the Towers long enough to pack up our traps and clear out of this haunted house altogether. The case is one too many for me, and I'm chucking it." Mr. Narkom opened his mouth to speak, but his colleague gave him no opportunity. "It's a bit too fishy for my liking," he went on, "when the only clues a man's got to go on are a dancing flame and a patch of charred grass which, by the way, never struck me as particularly interesting at the best of times and when evidence points so strongly toward young Merriton's guilt. All I can say is, let's go. That's the ticket for me."
"And for me also, old man!" agreed Mr. Narkom, emphatically, following Cleek's lead though rather in the dark. "It's back to London for me, whenever you're ready."
"And that'll be as soon as Dollops can pack my things and get 'em off to the station."
A NEW DEPARTURE
The question of packing was a very small matter altogether, and it was barely seven o'clock when, this finished, Cleek and Mr. Narkom had collected their coats and hats from the hat-stand, given Borkins the benefit of their very original ideas as to closing up the house and clearing out of it as soon as possible, each of them slipped a sovereign into his hand, and were standing talking a short while at the open front door. The chill of the evening crept into the house in cold breaths, turning the gloomy hall into a good representation of a family vault.
"All I can say," said Cleek, chewing a cigar, his hands in his trousers' pockets, and his feet rocking from toe to heel, "is get out of it, Borkins, as soon as you can. I don't mind tellin' you, I'm jolly glad to be clearin' out myself. It's been a devilish uncanny business from first to last, and not much to my taste. Now, I like a decent robbery or a nice, quick-fingered forger that wants a bit of huntin' up. You know, even detectives have their particular favourites in the matter of crime, Borkins, and a beastly murder isn't exactly in my line."
Borkins laughed respectfully, rubbing his hands together.
"Nor mine, sir," he made answer. "Though I must say you gentlemen 'aven't been a bit what I imagined detectives to be. When you first come down, you know, I spotted something different about you, and"
"Ought to be on the Force yourself!" supplemented Cleek.
"And not such a bad callin' neither!" returned Borkins with a grin. "But I knew you wasn't what you said you was, in a manner of speakin'. And if it 'adn't been for all this unpleasantness, it would 'ave bin a nice little change for yer, wouldn't it? Sorry to see the last of you, sirs, I am that. And that young gentleman of your'n. But I must say I'm glad to be done of the business."
Cleek blew a cloud of smoke into the air.
"Oh, you'll have another dose of it before you're entirely finished!" he responded. "When the case comes on in London. That's the ticklish part of the business. We'll meet there again, I expect, as Mr. Lake and I will be bound to give our evidence which is a thankless task at the best of times.... Hello! Dollops, got the golf-clubs and walking-sticks? That's a good lad. Now we'll be off to old London again eh, Lake? Good-bye, Borkins. Best of luck."
The two men got into the taxi Dollops had procured for them, while that worthy hopped on to the seat beside the driver and gave him the order to "Nip it for the eight o'clock train for Lunnon, as farst as you kin slide it, cabby!" To which the chauffeur made some equally pointed remark, and they were off.
But Borkins either did not realize that the eight-o'clock train for London was a slow one, or thought that it was the most convenient for the two gentlemen most interested, because he did not give a thought to the matter that that particular train stopped at the next station, some three miles away from Fetchworth. And even if he had and could have seen the two tough-looking sailormen who descended from the first-class compartment there and stepped on to the tiny platform among one or two others, he would never have dreamed of associating them with the Mr. Headland and his man Dollops who had such a short time ago left the Towers for London.
Which is just as well, as it happened, for it was with Borkins that Cleek and Dollops were most concerned. Upon the probability of their friendship with the butler hung the chance of their getting work. They had left Mr. Narkom to go up to London and keep his eyes open for any clues in the bank robberies case, and had promised to report to him as soon as possible, if there were anything to be gleaned at the factory. Mr. Narkom had expressed his doubts about it, had told Cleek that he really did not see how any human agency could possibly get Nigel Merriton off, with such appalling evidence to damn him. And what an electrical factory could have to do with it...!
"You forget the good Borkins's connection with the affair," returned Cleek, a trifle sharply, "and you forget another thing. And that is, that I have found the man who attempted my life, and mean eventually to come to grips with him. That is the only reason why I did not speak at the inquest this afternoon. I am going to bide my time, but I'll have the beggar in the end. If working for a time at an electrical factory is going to help on matters, then work there I'm going to, and Dollops with me....
"If there should be need of me, don't forget that I am Bill Jones, sailorman, once of Jamaica, now of the Factory, Saltfleet. And stick to the code. A wire will fetch me." He hopped out upon the platform just here, in his "cut-throat" make-up a little hastily done, for the time between the stations had been short but excellent, nevertheless; then as Mr. Narkom gripped his hand, he put his head into the carriage again.
"My love to Ailsa if you see her, and tell her all goes well with me, like a good friend!" whispered Cleek, softly.
Mr. Narkom nodded, waved his hand, and then the two navvies swung away from the train, gave up their tickets to the porter having procured third-class as well as first for just this very arrangement and after enquiring just how far it was to Saltfleet Bay, and learning that it was a matter of "two mile and a 'arf by road, and a couple o' mile by the fields," strode off through the little gate and on to the highroad. Just how adventurous their quest was going to turn out to be even they did not fully realize.
They reached the outskirts of the bay, just as a clock in the church tower half a mile away struck out nine, in deep-throated, sonorous tones.
To the right of them the "Pig and Whistle" flaunted its lights and its noise, its hilarious laughter and its coarse-thrown jests. Cleek sighed as he turned toward it.
"Now for it, boy," he said softly, and then started to whistle and to laugh alternately, making his way across the cobbles to the brightly-lit little pub. Someone ran to the doorway and peered out at sound of his voice, trying to penetrate the darkness and discover who the stranger might be thus gaily employed.
Cleek sang out a greeting.
"Good evenin' to yer, matey! This 'ers's Bill Jones and 'is pal. 'Ow, I'll tyke the 'ighroad, and you'll tyke the laow road! and I'll be in Scotland afore yer'.... 'Ere, Sammie, me lad, come along o' me an' warm yer witals. I could drink the sea strite I could!"
He heard the man in the doorway laugh, and then he beckoned to him to come along. And so they entered the "Pig and Whistle," and were greeted enthusiastically by the red-headed barmaid, while many voices went up to greet them, showing that already they had got on the right side of the men who were to be their fellow-workers.
"Gen'leman 'ere yet?" queried Cleek, jerking his thumb in the direction where Borkins had stood the night before. "I've what you calls an appointment wiv 'im, yer know. And.... 'Ere the blighter is! Good evenin', sir. Pleased ter see yer again, though lookin' a bit pale abaht the gills, if yer don't mind my sayin' so."
"And so would you be, if you'd been through the ordeal I 'ave this afternoon," snapped out Borkins in reply. "It's a beastly job a-tellin' people what yer seen and 'eard. It is indeed!"
"'Arder ter tell 'em wot you 'aven't seen an' 'eard, all the syme, matey," threw in Cleek. "Done that meself, I 'as bit of sleight-o'-'and what they'd pulled me up for out Whitechapel way when I was a kid. Seein' the master ternight, ain't we, sir?"
Borkins slopped down his tankard of beer and wiped his mouth before replying.
"Seen him already," he answered with a touch of asperity, "and told 'im about you both, I 'ave. 'E says you're ter go up to the foreman termorrow, say I sent you. Say the master 'as passed you, that'll be all right. Couple o' quid a week, and the chance of a rise if you're circumspect and keeps yer mouth closed."
"That's my gyme all right, guv'nor!" struck in Dollops shrilly, clapping his tankard down upon the bar with a loud bang. "Close as 'ouses we are, guv'nor. An' me mate's like a hoyster."
"Well, mind you remember it!" retorted Borkins sharply. "Or it'll go badly with the pair of you. That's fixed, then, ain't it? What's yer names again? I've forgotten."
"Bill Jones, an' 'im's Sammie Robinson," replied Cleek quickly. "I'm much obliged to yer, sir. Any one know where we kin get a shake-down for the night? Time enough ter look for lodgin's termorrer."
It was the barmaid's turn to speak, and she rested her rather heavy person against the bar and touched Cleek's shoulder.
"Mother, she 'as lodgers, dearie," she said in a coaxing voice. "You kin come along to us, and stay right along, if you're comfortable. Nice beds we 'ave, and a good 'ot dinner in the middle uv the day. You kin take yer breakfast with us. Better come along to 'er ternight."
"Thanks, I will," grunted Cleek in reply, and dug Dollops in the ribs, just to show him how pleased he was with the arrangement.
And so the evening passed. The lodgings were taken, the charge being moderate for the kind of living that men in their walk of life were used to, and the next morning found them both ensconced at their new work.
The overseer proved to be a big, burly man, who, having received the message from "the gentleman at the inn," immediately set them to work on the machinery. The task was simple; they had merely to feed the machine with so much raw material, and the other men and machines did the rest. But what pleased them more, they were put to work side by side. This gave Cleek a good opportunity of passing remarks now and then to Dollops and telling him to take note of things.
The factory was a smallish place, with not too large a payroll, and Cleek gleaned from that first morning's work that it was run solely for the purpose of making electrical fittings.
"Where do they ship 'em to, matey?" he asked his next door neighbour, a pleasant-faced chap about twenty-three or four.
"Over ter Belgium. Big firm there what buys from the master."
"Oh?" So they were trading with Belgium, were they? That was interesting. "Well, then, 'ow the dickens do they send 'em out?"
"Boats, idiot!" The man's voice was full of contempt for the nincompoop who couldn't use his head. Above the clang of the machinery Cleek's voice rose a trifle higher.
"Well, any fellow would know that!" he said with a laugh. "But what I means is, what sort er boats? Big uns, I should sy, fer stuff like this."
The man looked about him and bent his head. His voice dropped a note or two.
"Fishin' boats," he said softly, and could be made to say no more, in spite of the scornful laugh with which Cleek greeted this news.
Fishing boats?... H'm. That was devilish peculiar. Sending out electrical fittings to Belgium in fishing boats! Funny sort of a way to do trade, though no doubt it was quite permissible up to a point. Well, he must glean something more out of this good fellow before the day was over.
A glass of beer at the "Pig and Whistle" after dinner worked wonders with the man's tongue. He was not a favourite, so free drinks did not often come his way. After the second glass he seemed almost ready to sell his soul to this amicable newcomer, but Cleek was wise, and bided his time. He didn't mean to fleece his man of the information in sight and sound of his fellows. So he simply talked of the topics of the day, discussed the labour question from a new view-point and then, as they strolled back together to the factory, just as the whistle began to blow that told the hands the dinner-hour was over, Cleek fired his first shot.
"See 'ere, matey," he began confidentially, "you're a decent sort of bloke, you are! Tell us a bit more about them there fishin' boats wot you spoke uv. I'm that interested, I've been fair eaten up with curiosity. Yer didn't mean the master of this plyce goes and ships electrical fittin's and such like out to Belgium in fishin' boats strite, eh?"
"Yus." Jenkins nodded. "That's exactly what I do mean. Seems sort er funny, don't it? And I reckon there's somethin' a bit fishy about the whole thing. But I keep me mouth shut. That overseer's the very devil 'imself. Happen you'll larn ter do likewise. Two chaps who were 'ere larst thought they'd be a bit smarty like, and told 'im they were goin' ter tell all they knew though God knows what it was! I ain't been able to learn much, and haven't tried neither. But they went zip! like that! Never saw 'em no more, and nothin' come of it.... Best to keep your mouth shut, mate. In this 'ere place, any'ow."
"Oh," said Cleek off-handedly, "I'm not one to blab. You needn't be afraid o' that. By the way, who's the chap with the black mustache a stragglin' all over 'is fyce? An' the narsty eye? Saw 'im with Borkins, the man wot engaged me night before last."
"That wasn't Borkins, me beauty," returned Jenkins with a laugh. "That ain't his name. 'Ow did you come ter think of it? That fellow's name's Piggott. And the other man? We calls 'im Dirty Jim, because 'e does all the dirty work for the boss; but 'is real name's Dobbs. And if you takes my word for anything, pal, you won't go rubbin' 'im up the wrong way. 'E's a fair devil!"
H'm! "Dirty Jim," otherwise Jim Dobbs. And he was in the employment of this very extraordinary firm for the purpose of doing its "dirty work." Well, there seemed a good deal of employment for him, if that was the case. And Borkins was not Borkins in this part of the world.
Cleek stepped back to his work a little thoughtful, a little absent-minded, until the frown upon his forehead caused Dollops to lean over and whisper anxiously, "Nothin' the matter, is there, sir?"
He shook his head rapidly.
"No, boy, no. Simply thinking, and smelling a rat somewhere."
"Been smellin' of it meself this parst two hours," returned Dollops in a sibilant whisper. His eye shone for a moment with the light of battle. "Got summink ter tell you," he whispered under cover of the noise. "Summink wot ought ter interest yer, I don't fink. 'Ave ter keep till evenin'. Eh, Bill?"
"Right you are, matey." Cleek's voice rose loudly as the overseer passed, pausing a moment to watch them at work. "Nice job this, I must sy. Arfter me own 'eart, strite it is. Soon catch on to it, don't yer?"
"Ra-ther!" returned Dollops significantly.
The overseer, with a shrug of the shoulders, moved on.
It was not until the evening was fairly far advanced that the opportunity of speaking to Dollops alone was afforded Cleek. He took it when the "Pig and Whistle" was filled to overflowing, and hardly a man who worked at the factory was not inside it or standing outside near the little quay, holding the usual evening's confab on the affairs of the day. Cleek caught hold of Dollops as he was making his way into the little bar.
"Come fer a turn up the road, matey," he said loudly. "It's a fine evenin' wot mykes yer 'omesick fer a sight uf yer own fireside. 'Ave another drink later, mebbe. Come on."
Dollops linked arms with him, and, smoking and talking, the two men went off up the dark lane which led from the quayside, and of a night-time was as black as a pocket. Cleek's torch showed them the pathway, and as they walked they talked in rapid whispers.
"Now, lad, let's hear all you've got to say!" he rapped out at length, as the distance grew between themselves and the crowded little pub, and they were safely out of earshot.
Dollops gulped with pent-up excitement.
"Lor! sir, there's summink wrong, any'ow; I've discovered that much!" he broke out enthusiastically. "Chummed up with ole Black Whiskers I did, and promised 'im a 'and ternight at twelve o'clock ter do some loadin' on ter the fishin' boats wot's on their way ter Belgium. 'You're a nice-seemin' sort er lad,' he tole me after we'd bin chattin' fer ten minutes or so. 'Want ter make a bit of extra money by 'oldin' of your tongue?' I was on it like a knife. 'Ra-ther!' I ses. 'Orl right,' ses 'e. 'Come along ter the quayside ternight at twelve o'clock. There's a bit uf loadin' up ter be done, an' only a few uv the men are required. I don't choose none wot I don't cotton to.' 'You'll cotton ter me all right, matey,' I ses, with a sort uv a larf that seemed ter tickle 'im. 'I'm as close as the devil 'imself. Anythink yer doesn't want me ter see, just tip me the wink.' 'I will that,' ses 'e, and then went off. An' so 'ere I am, sir, fixed up for a busy evenin' along uv ole Black Whiskers. An' if I don't learn summink this night, well, my name ain't Dollops!"
"Good lad!" said Cleek, giving the boy's arm a squeeze. "That's the way to do it! And is that all you've got to tell me? I've done a bit myself, and chummed up with a chap called Jenkins, the tall, thin man who works on the left of me, and he's let me into the secret of the fishing boat business. But he's a close-mouthed devil. Either doesn't know anything, or won't tell. I'm not quite sure which. But he wasted a good deal of valuable breath endeavouring to teach me to keep my mouth shut. Gad! I'd give something to have a few moments alone with your friend Black Whiskers! There's a ripped pillow-case in my portmanteau which ought to interest him. And what else did you learn, Dollops?"
"Only that what they ships is electric tubin's ter perfect flexible electric wirin's wot is used for installations, sir," returned Dollops. "That's what most of the things were wot I set eyes on after workin'-hours, stacked up all ready ter be loaded on ter the boats. Long, thin things they were, an' ought ter be easy work, judgin' from their contents. But why they make all this mystery about it fair beats me!"
"And me into the bargain, Dollops," interposed Cleek, with a little sigh. "But there's an old saying, that there's no smoke without fire, and ordinary people don't make such a devilish fuss about others knowing their business if they're on the straight. What all this has got to do with the 'Frozen Flame' business I must confess somewhat puzzles me to discover. But that it has something to do with it is proved by that fishy character Borkins, and the amiable attempt of his friend to murder so humble a person as myself. Now it's up to me to find the missing link in the chain.... Hello! here's a gap in the hedge here. Looks like it had been made on purpose. Let's go and investigate."
He whipped his little torch round and the circle of light flashing over the ground revealed to their searching eyes something vastly unexpected in such a place and yet which, after all, seemed to fit into a place where so much mystery and secretiveness was in the air. They themselves, disguised as such rough characters, fitted into the strange picture, which struck Cleek, even in spite of his many peculiar cases, as very much out of the ordinary.
A gap in the hedge there was, right enough. And through the gap someone must have been working here a very short time before a square of turf, cut carefully out and laid upon one side, revealed to their astonished eyes a wooden trap-door, exactly suggestive of the pirates' den of a child's imagination, and with a huge iron ring fastened to the centre of it.
Cleek whistled inaudibly, and turning round upon Dollops a happy light in his eyes and a smile, almost of amusement on his lips.
"Gad!" he exclaimed softly. "Game to try this, Dollops. I am going to have a shot at it myself."
"But you ain't got no firearms on yer, sir, in case o' h'accidents," returned the literal minded Dollops, "and no man in 'is senses would attempt to go down that thing without 'em."
"Well, I've been called a lunatic before this, lad. And going down it I am, this minute. And if you've the least qualms at following me, you can just watch up here and warn me with the old signal if you hear any one coming. But I'm going down, to find out where this thing leads to, and a dollar to a ducat it'll lead to a good deal that means the unravelling of a riddle. The fellow who tangled the threads in the first place has a head any one might admire. But what I want to know is what he's taking all this trouble for. Coming, Dollops?"
Dollops sent a reproachful look into Cleek's face and sniffed audibly.
"Of course I'm comin', guv'nor," he made answer. "D'yer think I'd be such a dirty blighter as ter let you go dahn there p'raps ter your very death alone? Not me, sir. Dollops is a follerin' wherever you lead, and if you chooses 'ell itself, well, 'e's ready ter be roasted and fried in the devil's saucepan, so long as 'e keeps yer company."
Without waiting for the end of this gallant, if rather prolonged speech Cleek knelt down, set his two hands upon the iron ring and pulled for all he was worth. But the ease with which the door lifted came as something of a surprise. It came up silently, almost sending Cleek over backward, as indeed it would have done a man with less poise, but he easily recovered himself. He and Dollops cautiously approached the edge, and in the half-light which the moon shed upon it (they did not use Cleek's torch) saw that a flight of roughly-made clay steps led down into darkness below. They sat back upon their heels and listened. Not a sound.
"Coming?" whispered Cleek in a low, tense whisper.
"Yes sir." Dollops was beside him in an instant. Cleek took the first step carefully, and very slowly descended into the darkness, with Dollops close behind him. Down and down they went, and on reaching the bottom, found the place opened out into a sort of roughly-made tunnel, just as high as a man's head, which ran on straight into the darkness in front of them.
"Gawd! gives yer the fair creeps, don't it?" muttered Dollops as they stood in the gloom and tried to take their bearings. "What yer goin' ter do, sir?"
"Find out where it leads to if there's time," whispered Cleek rapidly. "We've got to find out what these human moles are burrowing in the earth like this for. I'd give a good deal to know. Hear anything?"
"Not a blinkin' sound, sir."
"All right. We'll try the torch, and if any one turns up we'll have to run for it. Now." He touched the electric button, and a blob of light danced out upon the rough clay floor, revealing as it swung in Cleek's swift fingers the whole circumference of the place from ground to ceiling.
"Cleverly made," muttered that gentleman in an admiring whisper. "It reminds me of the old 'Twisted Arm' days, Dollops, and the tunnels that ran to the sewers. Remember?"
"I should just jolly well think I do, guv'nor! Them were days, if yer like it! Never knew next minute if yer were goin' ter see daylight again."
"And this little adventure of ours seems a fair imitation of them!" returned Cleek, with a noiseless laugh. "Let's move a bit farther on and get our bearings. Hello! here's a little sort of cupboard without a door. And ... look at those sacks standing there against that other side in that little cut-out place, Dollops. Now I wonder what the devil they contain. Talk about the Catacombs! They aren't in it with this affair."
Dollops crept up noiselessly and laid a hand upon one of the great sacks that stood one upon the other in three double rows, and tried to feel the contents with his fingers. It gave an absolutely unyielding surface, as though it might be stuffed with concrete.
"'Ard as a ship's biscuit, sir," he ejaculated. "Now I wonder what the dickens?..."
His voice trailed off suddenly, and he stood a moment absolutely still, every nerve in his slim young body taut as wire, every muscle rigid. For along the passage, not so very far in front of them, from where it seemed to terminate, came the thud of men's feet upon the soft clayey ground. The torch went out in an instant. In another, Cleek had caught Dollops's arm and drawn him into the narrow aperture, where, with faces to the wall, they stood tense and rigid, listening while the steps came nearer and nearer. They waited in the darkness, as men in the Bonnet Rouge days must have waited for the stroke of Madame Guillotine.
... The footsteps came forward leisurely. The intruders could hear the sound of muffled voices. One, brief, concise, clipping its words short, and with a note of cool authority in the low tones; the other Dollops huddled his shoulders closer and contrived to whisper "Black Whiskers" before the two men came abreast of them. Strange to be walking thus comfortably in the dark! Either they were sure of their way that it didn't matter about having a light, or else they were afraid to use a torch.
"You will see that it is done, Dobbs, and done properly tonight?" sounded the brisk tones of "Black Whiskers'" companion. And then the reply: "Yes, it'll be done all right. We're sending 'em off at one o'clock sharp. Loadin' at twelve. No need to worry about that, sir."
"And these two newcomers? You can vouch for their reliability to keep their mouths shut, Dobbs? We wouldn't have chanced taking them on if we hadn't been so short-handed, but ... you're sure of them, eh?"
They could hear "Dirty Jim's" ugly little chuckle. It seemed laden with sinister purpose.
"They're sound enough, master, I promise yer!" he made reply. "Ugliest-lookin' pair er cut-throats yer ever laid yer peepers on. Seen dirtier business than this, I dare swear. And Piggott's on to the right kind, all right. Good man, Piggott."
The two came opposite them, and stopped a moment, as though they might be wishing to investigate the contents of the sacks that stood nearby, hidden by the enveloping darkness. The tension under which Cleek and the youthful Dollops laboured was tremendous. Not daring to breathe they stood there hugging the wall, their every muscle aching with the strain, and then the two strangers walked on again, still talking in low, casual voices, until they had reached the end of the passage where the steps started abruptly upward. Then a patch of light showed suddenly.
"Steps here; be careful. They're none too easy," came the cautious voice of Black Whiskers. "I'll go up first, so's you kin follow in my steps. What's this? The door been left open, eh? I'll 'ave a few words with that chap Jenkins afore I'm many days older. I'll larn 'im to disobey 'is orders! Any one might come along 'ere and drop in casual-like!... The unreliable swine!"
The light grew less and less as the bearer of it climbed the rude stairs, and finally vanished altogether. And as it disappeared Dollops clutched Cleek's arm, his breath coming in little gasps.
"The door, sir" he gasped. "If they close that, we're" And even as he spoke there came a sound of sliding bolts and a thump which told the truth only too well.
"Did you 'ear, sir?" he almost moaned.
The trap door had been closed.
IN THE DARK
Better men than they might have quailed in such a predicament. Here they were, at ten o'clock at night, shut in an underground passage that led heaven only knew where, and with, to say the least of it, small chance of escape. They might stay there all night, but the morning would probably bring release and discovery. It was a combination which brought to them very mixed emotions.
Black Whiskers, should he be their rescuer might at once assume an entirely different rôle would most likely do so, in fact. There was a grim element in this game of chance which they would just as soon had been absent.
Well, here they were, and the next thing would be to try their hands at escape on their own account. Perhaps the trap-door hadn't been tightly fastened down. It was a chance, of course.
"We'll try the trap-door end first, lad," said Cleek. "If that doesn't work we'll have a go at the other, but somehow you must get to the docks by midnight. You may learn the whole secret there, and it would be the worst luck in the world if you missed the chance; you mustn't. Come on."
"I seconds that motion," threw in Dollops, though in a somewhat forlorn voice. "I kin just imagine what it must be like to be a ghost tied up in a fambly vault, an' it fills me with a feelin' of sympathy for them creeturs wot I never felt before. Like a blooming messlinoleum this is!"
"Mausoleum, you grammatical wonder!" responded Cleek, and even in his anxiety he could not refrain from a laugh.
"Well, mausoleum or muskiloleum makes no difference to me, sir. What I wants ter know is'ow do we get out of this charmin' little country seat? Try the trap-door, you ses. Right you are!"
He was up the rough steps like a shot, forgetful of the fact that, though the door might be closed, there might also be others strolling along in that secluded spot. Cleek came up now, behind him, and with a caution of silence steadied himself upon the step below, and pressed his shoulder up against the heavy door. He pushed and shoved with all his might, while Dollops aided with every ounce of strength in his young body.
The door responded not one whit. Black Whiskers had done his work well and thoroughly, possibly as an object-lesson to the absent Jenkins. And Jenkins, by the way, was the name of Cleek's new-found friend of the factory. H'm. That was cause for thought. Then Jenkins was more "in the know" than he had given him credit for. Possibly Black Whiskers knew already of their conversation at dinner-time. He'd have to close down on that source of information, at any rate if they ever got out of this business alive.
These thoughts passed through Cleek's brain even while his shoulders and his strength were at work upon the unresponsive door. Only failure marked their efforts. At last, breathless and exhausted from the strain, Cleek descended the steps again. He listened, and, hearing nothing, signalled Dollops to follow him.
"They must have got in somewhere, and here's hoping it wasn't through this trap-door," he said evenly. "We'll see about it anyway. Unless they were as careful with the door at the other end. It's a sporting chance, Dollops my lad, and we've got to take it. I'll use my torch unless we hear anything. Then we'll have to trust to luck. Heaven alone knows how far this blessed affair runs on. We'll reach London soon, if we go on like this!"
"Yus, and find ourselves in Mr. Narkom's office, a-burrowin' under 'is 'Ighness' desk!" finished Dollops, with a little giggle of amusement. "And 'e wouldn't 'arf be astonished, would 'e, sir?... Crumbs! but the chaps wot made this bloomin' tube did their job fair, didn't they? It goes on forever.... Whew! I'm winded already."
"Then what you'll be by the end of this affair, goodness knows, my lad!" responded Cleek, over his shoulder. He was pressing on, hugging the wall, his eyes peering into the gloom ahead. "It seems to be continuing for some time. Hello! here's a turning, and the question is, shall we go straight on, or turn?"
"Seems as if them two blighters came round a turnin', judging from the nearness of their voices, sir," said Dollops, with entire sense.
"You're right.... More sacks. If I wasn't so anxious to get out of this place so that you shouldn't be late for your 'appointment' with our friend Black Whiskers, I'd chance my luck and have a look what was in 'em. But there's no time now. We don't know how long this peculiar journey of ours is going to last."
They pressed on steadily along the rough, rudely made floor, on and on and on, the little torch showing always the few feet in front of them, to safeguard them against any pitfalls that might be laid for the unwary traveller. It seemed hours that they walked thus, and their wonder at the elaborateness of this extraordinary tunnel system grew. There were turnings every now and again, passageways branching off from the main one into other patches of unbroken gloom. And it was a ticklish job at best. At any moment someone might round the next corner and come upon them, and then—the game would be up with a vengeance. At Dollops's suggestion they followed always the turnings upon the right.
"Always keep to the right, sir, and you'll never go far wrong that's what they teaches you in Lunnon. An' that's what I always follows. It's no use gittin' lost. So best make a set rule and foller it."
"Well, at any rate there's no harm in doing so," responded Cleek a little glumly. "We don't know the way out and we might as well try one plan as another. Seems pretty well closed up for the night, doesn't it? It certainly is a passage and if the door at the other end is impassable after all this wandering, I'll, I'll....I don't know."
"Carn't do no good by worritin', sir. Just 'ave to carry on that's all we kin do," responded Dollops, with some effort at comfort. "There's summink in front of us now. Looks like the end of the blinkin' cage, don't it? Better investigate afore we 'it it too hard, sir."
"You're right, Dollops."
Cleek stepped cautiously forward into the gloom, lighting it up as he progressed, the rays of his tiny torch always some five feet ahead of him. And the end it proved to be, in every sense of the word. For here, leading upward as the other had done, was a similar little flight of clay-hewn steps, while at the top of them Cleek gave a long sigh of relief showed a square of indigo, a couple of stars and escape at last.
"Thank God!" murmured Cleek, as they mounted the rough steps and came out into the open air, with the free sky above them and a fine wind blowing that soon dispelled the effects of their underground journey. "Gad! it's good to smell the fresh air again eh, Dollops? Where on earth are we? I say look over there, will you?"
Dollops looked; then gasped in wonder, astonishment, and considerable awe.
"The Flames, guv'nor the blinkin' Frozen Flames!"
"Yes. The Flames all right, Dollops. And nearer than we've seen 'em, too! We must be right in the middle of the Fens, from the appearance of those lights, so, all told, we've done a mile or more underground, which isn't so bad, my lad, when you come to look at the time." He brought out his watch and surveyed it in the moonlight. "H'm. Ten past eleven. You'll have to look sharp, boy, if you're to get to the docks by twelve. We've a good four miles' walk ahead of us, and what was that?"
"That" was the sound of a man's feet coming swiftly toward them; they had one second to act, and flight over this marshy ground, filled with pit holes as it was, was impossible. No; the best plan was to stay where they were and chance it.
"Talk, boy talk," whispered Cleek, and began a hasty conversation in a high-pitched, cockney voice, to which Dollops bravely made answer in the best tone he could muster under the circumstances.
Then a voice snapped out at them across the small distance that separated them from the unseen stranger, and they stiffened instinctively.
"What the hell are you doing here?" it called. "Don't you know that it's not safe to be in this district after nightfall? And if you don't well, a pocketful of lead will perhaps convince you!"
From the darkness ahead of them a figure followed the voice. Cleek could dimly discern a tall, slouchy-shouldered man, clad in overalls, with a cap pulled down close over his eyes, and in the grasp of his right hand a very businesslike-looking revolver.
Cleek thought for a moment, then plunged bravely in.
"Come up from the passage, sir," he responded curtly. "Loadin' up ternight, and some fool locked t'other end before me and my mate 'ere 'ad finished our work. 'Ad to come along this w'y, or else spend the rest of the night dahn there, and we're due for loadin' the stuff at the docks at midnight. Master'll be devilish mad if 'e finds us missin'."
It was a chance shot, but somehow chance often favours the brave. It told. The man lowered his revolver, gave them a quick glance from head to toe, and then swung upon his heel.
"Well, better clear out while there's no danger," he returned sharply. "Two other men are on the watch-out for strangers. Take that short cut there"he pointed to the left"and skirt round to the road. Quarter of a mile'll bring you. Chaps at your end ought to see to it that none of the special hands stray up this way. It's not safe. Good-night."
"Good-night," responded Cleek cheerily. "Thank you, sir;" and, taking Dollops's arm, swung off in the direction indicated, just as quick as his feet could carry him.
They walked in silence for a time, their feet making no sound in the marshy ground, when they were well out of earshot Cleek spoke in a low tone.
"Narrow shave, Dollops!"
"It was that, sir. I could fair feel the razor aclippin' a bit off me chin, so ter speak. 'Avin' some nice adventures this night, ain't we, guv'nor?"
"We certainly are." Cleek's voice was absent-minded, for his thoughts were working, and already he was beginning to tie the broken threads of the skein that he had gathered into a rough cord, with here and there a gap that must and should be filled. It was strange enough, in all conscience. Here were these underground tunnels leading, "if you kept to the right," from a field out Saltfleet way, to the very heart of the Fens themselves. And what went on here in these uninhabited reaches of the marshland? Nothing that could be seen by daylight, for he had traversed every step of them, and gained no information for his pains. Therefore there could be no machinery, or anything of that sort. H'm. It was a bit of a facer, true; but of one thing he was certain. Somehow, in some way, the Frozen Flames played their part. That factory at Saltfleet and the fishing boats and the Fens were all linked up in one inexplicable chain, if one could only find the key that unlocked it. And what was a man doing out there at night, with a revolver? What business was he up to? And he had said there were two others on the look-out, as well.
Cleek pulled out a little blackened clay pipe, which was part of his make-up as Bill Jones, and, plugging it with tobacco, began to smoke steadily. Dollops, casting a sideways glance at his master, knew what this sign meant, and spoke never a word, until they had left the Fens far behind them and were well on their way toward the docks, and the "appointment" with Black Whiskers at twelve o'clock. Then:
"Notice anything, Dollops?" Cleek asked, slewing round and looking at the boy quizzically.
"How do you mean, sir?"
"Why, when you got to the top of those little steps and came out into the Fens."
"Only the Frozen Flames, sir. Why?"
"Oh, nothing. It'll keep. Just a little thing I saw that led me a long way upon the road I'm trying to travel. You'll hear about it later. Time's getting on, Dollops, my lad. You're due with your friend Black Whiskers in another ten minutes and we're about that from the dockyard. Wonder if there'd be any chance of me lending a hand?"
Dollops thought a moment.
"You might try, sir 'twould do no 'arm, anyway," he said after a pause. "Pertickler as you're my mate, so ter speak. Ought ter be able to work it, I should think.... Look. Who's a comin' now? If it ain't ole Black Whiskers 'imself!"
And Black Whiskers it was, to be sure. He lounged up to them, hands in pockets, hat pulled well down over his eyes, a sinister, ugly figure. He had an "air"—and it was by no means a pleasant one.
"Hullo, youngster!" he called out in a harsh voice. "Been seein' the country eh? Better fer you and yer mate if yer keeps yer eyes well on the ground in this part uv the world. Never meddle in someone else's business. It don't pay." His voice lowered suddenly, and he jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. "Mate on the square with you, I s'pose? Comin' along now?"
"Bet yer life I am!" responded Dollops heartily, giving him a significant wink. "'Course I ain't said nuffin' ter ole Bill abaht what you tole me, but I know 'e's a cute un. No flies on ole Bill, guv'nor, give yer me oath on that. What abaht it, now? Shall us bring him along too? Just as you ses, guv'nor, seein' as you're the boss, but 'e's a strong fellow is my mate and 'is mouth's like a trap."
Black Whiskers switched round in his slouchy walk, where he had fallen in step beside Dollops, leaving Cleek on the boy's right hand, and gave the "mate" a searching look under black brows. In the darkness, with just a thread of moonlight to make patterns upon the black waters and etch out the outline of mast and funnel and hull against the indigo, Cleek recognized that look, and set his mouth grimly. He'd seen it once before, upon that night when this man had stolen into his room and tried to knife him.
"Where're you off to, matey? With all your fine secrets? I'd like to know!" he said jokingly, digging Dollops in the ribs, and giving a loud guffaw. "Some girl, I suppose."
"Somethin' uv more account than women, I kin tell ye!" threw in Black Whiskers roughly. "'E's going ter help me with a little work overtime is what 'e'll get fer it. If yer willin' ter lend a 'and, overtime you'll get, too. But you'll keep yer mouth shut, or clear. One or t'other. It's up ter you ter choose."
"Call me a fool, matey but not a damned fool!" he said pleasantly. "Bill Jones knows what side 'is bread's buttered on, I kin tell yer! Soft job like this one wot we've nicked on ter ain't goin' ter slip through 'is fingers fer a little tongue-waggin'. I'm on, mate."
"What's the job?"
"Loadin' up boats fer cargo."
"Oh!... Contraband, eh, matey?"
"That's none uv yer business, my man, and as long as you remembers that, you'll 'old yer job; no more, no less."
"Beg pardon, I'm sure. But I bin in the same sort uv thing meself out in Jamaica. Used ter smuggle things through the customs. Nifty business it were, too, and I almost got caught twice. But I slipped it somehow. Just loadin' is our game, then?"
"Jist loadin'," responded Black Whiskers significantly. "'Ere we are. Now then, get ter work. See them tubings over there? Well, they've got to be carried over to that fishin'-smack drawn up against the dock. There's six of 'em goin' ternight, and we've got ter be quick. Ain't as easy as it looks, mate, but that's not your business neither. Get ter work!"
They got to work forthwith, and turned to the pile of electrical tubings which was built up against the side of the dock wall, twice as high as a man's head. A pale lantern swung from the edge of the same wall, above them, hanging suspended from a nail; another hung on the opposite side from a post. By the light of these two lamps they could see a knot of men assembled in the centre of the dockyard, talking together in low whispers, while down below, at the water's edge, rocked a fleet of fishing boats awaiting their mysterious cargo. One could hear the men stirring restlessly and shifting sail as they waited for the task to begin.
Then the word was given in a low, vibrant voice, and they went to work.
"Easy job this, matey," whispered Dollops as he and Cleek advanced upon the stack of tubings and each started to lift one down. "I ... Gawd's truf! ain't it 'eavy! Lorlumme! Now, what in blazes ?"
Cleek put up a warning finger, and shouldered the thing. Heavy it certainly was, though of such fine metal that its weight seemed incredible. And when one knew that these things carried electric wiring.... Or did they?... Never was made an electric wire that was as heavy as that.
Cleek carried one of these tubings to the dock's edge, with the aid of Dollops handed it over into the hands that were outstretched to receive it, and went back for another one. Back and forth and back and forth they went, lifting, carrying, delivering, until one boat was loaded, and another one hove into sight in its place. He watched the first one's slow progress out across the murky waters for a moment, making a pretence of mopping his forehead with his handkerchief meanwhile. It was loaded below the water-mark! It hung so low in the water that it looked a mere smudge upon the face of it, a ribbon of sail flapping from its slender mast.
Electrical tubings, eh? Faugh! a pretty story that....
Two boats were filled, three, four.... A fifth came riding up under the very nose of the last, and settled itself with a rattle of chains and bumping of sides against the quay. That, too, was loaded to its very edge, and took its way slowly out beneath their eyes. The sixth took its place after its fellows.
For a moment or two the sweating men ceased in their work, and stood wiping their faces or leaning against the dock wall, talking in low whispers.
Cleek and Dollops stood at the quayside, listening to the water lapping against the iron girders, and straining their eyes to catch a last glimpse of the fleet of fishing boats. Of a sudden from out the blackness others appeared. Old Black Whiskers gave a muttered order, and like a well drilled army the men were ready again, this time flocking to the side of the quay as the boats rode up, and waiting for them, empty-handed. Cleek turned to the nearest one, and spoke in a low-toned voice.
"What now, matey? I'm new at this gyme."
"Oh unloadin'. Usual thing. Faulty gauge. Don't never seem as though the factory kin get the proper gauge fer those tubin's. All the time I bin 'ere nigh on to two years it's bin the same. Every lot goes out, some comes back again with a complaint. Funny thing, ain't it?"
"Yus," responded Cleek shortly. "Damn funny." It certainly was. Unless ... he sucked in his breath and his lips pursed themselves up to whistle. But no sound came.
And the work of unloading began.
THE WEB OF CIRCUMSTANCE
For a few days there was no more overtime to be earned by Cleek or Dollops, so that they were free to spend their evening as they wished, and though the "Pig and Whistle" got its fair share of their time for the sake of appearances there were long hours afterward, between the last tattered remnants of the night and the day's dawning, when they did a vast amount of exploration.
That they made good use of this time was proved by the little note-book that rested in Cleek's pocket, and in which a rough chart of the country and the docks was drawn though there were still some blanks to be filled in while opposite it was a rude outline of the secret passage into which they had blundered three nights before.
"Got to explore that hole from end to end, Dollops," said Cleek on the fourth evening, as they struck off together toward that gap in the hedge, soon after the clock in the village had chimed out ten, and the little bar of the "Pig and Whistle" was slowly emptying itself of its habitués. "I've the main route fairly correct, I think, and a rough idea of where those sacks stood, and where we took to cover when Black Whiskers was showing the master of this underworld domain through it. Happen to have learnt the chap's name yet?"
"Yessir. Brent it is, Jonathan Brent, or so one of the men tells me. Says he's never seed 'im, though; nobody 'ardly ever does, from all accounts 'e give me. Ole Black Whiskers and our silent-footed friend Borkins is the main ones wot does 'is work for 'im."
"H'm. Well, that's something gleaned, anyway. Of course we may be able to find out who he really is, but the chances are small. Men like this chap don't go giving away anything more than they can help. They lie low and let their paid underlings stand the racket if it happens to come along. I know the type. I've come cross it before. Well, here we are. Now for it but this time I happen to have brought along a revolver."
He crept through the hedge and crouching behind it ran to the spot where they had found the open trap-door upon that memorable occasion three nights before. There was nothing to be seen. The ground presented an absolutely unbroken appearance, so far as they could make out in the moon's rays.
"Clever devils!" snapped out Cleek, in angry tribute. "We'll have to use artificial light after all; but keep your torch light on the ground. It won't do for any one to spot us just now."
For perhaps a moment or two they explored the ground inch by inch, crawling round in the long grass upon their hands and knees, until a little tuft of brown earth sticking up through a piece of turf, like the upturned corner of a rug, showed them what they were looking for. With infinite care Cleek lifted up the square of turf and set it upon one side. The sight of the flat dark surface of the trap-door rewarded them. He ran his fingers along the two sides of it, and discovered a bolt, shot this, and then catching the iron ring once more in his hands, swung the top upward and laid it back upon the grass.
A minute more found them once more in the cavernous, breathless depths. Cleek handed the torch to Dollops.
"You hold that while I do a bit of sketching," he said, fidgeting in his coat-pocket for his fountain-pen. He then snapped open the flap of the note-book and began to sketch rapidly as they moved forward. Cleek was an adept in drawing to scale. The thing took shape as they continued their progress, keeping this time to the left instead of to the right. Cleek paced off the distance and stopped every now and then to check up results.
The place was as silent as the grave. Obviously no one was about here upon these nights when there was no loading and unloading going on. In that, at least, chance had been a good friend to them. They were going to make the most of it. Through little runways, narrower than the main route, and so low that they had to bend their necks to get along in safety, they went, measuring and examining. Every few yards or so they would come upon another little niche, stacked high with sacks of a similar hardness to those others back there at the beginning of their journey. Cleek prodded one with his finger, hesitated, then slipping out a penknife, slit a fragment of the coarse sacking and inserted his thumb....
He pulled it out with a look of astonishment upon his face.
"Hello, hello!" he exclaimed. "So that's it, is it? Gad! This is the approved hiding-place! Then those tubings Dollops, just a little more of this wearisome search, just a few telephone calls to be made, and I believe I shall have untied at least one part of this strange riddle. And when that knot is unfastened, it will surely lead me to the rest.... Go on, boy."
They went on, stepping carefully, and hesitating now and again to listen for any sound of alien footsteps. But the place might have been the grave for any sign of human habitation that there was. They had it to themselves that night, and made the most of it.
For some time they walked on, taking the road that most appealed to them, and in the maze must surely have retraced their own footsteps. Of a sudden, however, they broke into a sort of rough stone passage, with concrete floor that ran on for a few yards and ended at a flight of well-made stone steps, above which was a square of polished oak, worm-eaten, heavily-carved, and surely not of this generation's make or structure.
"Now, what the dickens...?" began Cleek, and stopped.
Dollops surveyed it with his head on one side.
"Seems ter me, sir," he began, after a pause, "that this yere's the genuyne article. One of them old passages what people like King Charles and Bloody Mary an' a few other of them celebrities you sees at Madame Tussord's any day in the week, used to 'ide in when things were a-gettin' too 'ot fer 'em. That's what this is."
"Your history's a bit rocky, but your ideas are all right," returned Cleek with a little smile, as he stood looking up at the square of black oak above them. "I believe you're right, Dollops. It must have given the later arrivals a big start in that tunnelling business, or else they've been at it, or both. There must be years' work in this system of passageways. It is marvellous. But if it's a genuine old secret passage, those stairs will probably lead up into a house, and let's try 'em. If the house they lead into is the one I think it is.... Well, we'll be unravelling the rest of this riddle before the night is out!"
So saying, he fairly leapt up the little flight of stone stairs, and then let his fingers glide over the smooth polished face of the oak door, pushing, probing, pressing it, a frown puckering his brows.
"If this is a genuine old secret hiding-place," he remarked, "then according to all the rules of the game there ought to be some sort of a spring this side to open it, so that the hidden man might be able to get out again when he wanted to. But where? Faugh! My fingers must be losing their cunning, and Ah, here it is! Bit of wood gives way here, Dollops. Just a gentle pressure, and—here we are!"
And here they were, indeed, for as he spoke, the door slid back into the flooring out of sight, and they found themselves looking up into a room which was lighted by a single gas-jet, which barely illumined it, but which, when Cleek poked his head up above the flooring and took a casual survey of the place proved to be no less a place than the back kitchen of Merriton Towers!
He brought his head down again with a jerk, touched the spring in the edge of oak-panelling at the left of him, and let the door swing back across the opening once more; and not till it had slipped into place with a little click did he turn upon Dollops.
"Merriton Towers!" he ejaculated finally. "Merriton Towers! Now, if young Merriton really is a party to this thing that is going on down here in the bowels of the earth, why Dash it, it's going to prove an even worse case against him than we knew! A chap who plays an underhanded game like this doesn't mind what he walks over to attain his ends. But ... Merriton Towers...!"
He stopped speaking suddenly, sucked in his breath, his face turned very grim. Dollops broke the silence that fell, a tremour of excitement in his low-pitched voice.
"Yus, but it's the back-kitchen, sir," he threw out eagerly, like all the rest of them anxious if possible to shield the man who seemed to have won so many hearts. "And the back-kitchen don't spell Sir Nigel, sir. It's Borkins wot's at the bottom of that, and"
"Maybe, maybe," interposed Cleek, a trifle hastily, but the grim look did not leave his face. "But if anything as curious as all this affair turns up in the evidence it won't help the boy any, that is a certainty.... Merriton Towers!"
He swung upon his heel and quickly retraced his steps, until the little stone passageway was left behind them, and a few feet ahead loomed up another of those queer turnings, which led who knew where?
"We'll take it on chance," said Cleek as they paused, while he marked it in his chart, "and follow our noses. But I confess I've had a shock. I never thought never even dreamt of Merriton Towers being connected with this smuggling or, whatever it is, Dollops! And if I hadn't been down in that very kitchen upon a voyage of discovery the other day, I'd have had more reason to disbelieve the evidence of my own eyes. The light was on, too. Lucky for us we didn't pop our heads up at the moment when someone was there. But then the servants are all gone. Borkins is keeping the house open until after the trial. So it was Borkins who was using that light, that's pretty obvious; and our necks have been spared by an inch or two less than I had imagined. We must hurry; time's short, and there's a good deal to be got through this night, I can tell you!"
"Yessir," said Dollops, not knowing what else to say, for Cleek was keeping up a sort of running monologue of his ideas of the case. "Don't think much uv this 'ere passage, anyway, do you?"
"No, narrower than the rest. But it may end just where we want to go. 'Journeys end in lovers' meetings' the poet sings, but not this kind of a journey no, not exactly. We'll find the hangman's rope at the end of this riddle, Dollops, or I'm very much mistaken; and I've an uncomfortable idea as to who will swing in the noose."
For some time after that they pressed on in silence. Here and there along the passage the walls opened out suddenly into little cut-out places filled as ever with their built-up sacks. Each time Cleek passed them he chuckled aloud, and then once more his face would become grim. For some moments they groped along in the gloom, their heads bent, to prevent them bumping the low mud ceiling, their lips silent, but in the hearts of each a sort of dull dread. Merriton Towers! Borkins, perhaps. But what if Borkins and Merriton had been working hand-in-glove, and then, somehow or other, had had a split? That would account for a good deal, and in particular the man's attitude toward his master.... Cleek's brain ran on ahead of his feet, his brows drew themselves into a knot, his mouth was like a thin line of crimson in the granite-like mask of his face.
Of a sudden he stopped and pointed ahead of him. Still another flight of stairs met their eyes, but they were of newer, more recent make, and composed of common deal, unvarnished and mudstained with the marks of many feet up and down their surface.
Cleek drew a deep breath, and his face relaxed.
"The end of the journey, Dollops," he said softly.
Then, without more ado, he mounted the stairs, and laid his shoulder to the heavy door.
JUSTICE AND JUSTIFICATION
The court room was crowded on every side. There was barely space for another person to enter in comfort, and when the news went round in the street that Sir Nigel Merriton, late of the army, was being tried for his life, and that things were going pretty black against him, all London seemed to turn out with a morbid curiosity to hear the sentence of death passed.
Petrie, stationed at the door, spent most of his time waving a white-gloved hand, and shaking his head until he felt that it would shortly tumble off his neck and roll away upon the pavement. Mr. Narkom had given him instructions that if any one of "any importance in the affair in question" should turn up, he was to admit him, but to be adamant in every other case. And so the queue of morbid-minded women and idle men grew long and longer, and the clamour louder and louder, until the tempers of the police on guard grew very short, and the crowd was handled more and more firmly.
The effect of this began to tell. Slowly it thinned out and the people turned once more into the Strand, sauntering along with their heads half the time over their shoulders, while Petrie stood and mopped his face and wondered what had become of Mr. Cleek, or if he had turned up in one of his many aliases, and he hadn't recognized him.
"Like as not that's what's happened," he told himself, stuffing his thumbs into his policeman's belt and setting his feet apart. "But what gets over me is, not a sight 'ave I seen of young Dollops. And where Mr. Cleek is.... Well, that there young feller is bound to be, too. Case is drawin' to a close, I reckon, by this time. I wouldn't be in that young lord's shoes!"
He shook his head at the thought, and fell to considering the matter and in a most sympathetic frame of mind if the truth be told.
Half-an-hour passed, another sped by. The crowd now worried him very little, and judging from one or two folk that drifted out of the court room, with rather pale faces and set mouths, as though they had heard something that sickened them, and were going to be out of it before the end came, Petrie began to think that that end was approaching very near.
And he hadn't seen Mr. Cleek go into the place, or Dollops either! Funny thing that. In his phone message that morning, Mr. Cleek had said he would be at the court sharp at one, and it was half past two now. Well, he was sorry the guv'nor hadn't turned up in time. He'd be disappointed, no doubt, and after all the telephoning and hunting up of directories that he himself had done personally that very morning, Mr. Cleek would be feeling rather "off it" if he turned up too late.
Petrie took a few steps up and down, and his eyes roamed the Strand leisurely. He came to a sudden halt, as a red limousine the red limousine he knew so well whirled up to the pavement's edge, stopped in front of him with a grinding of brakes, a door flashed open, and he heard the sound of a sharp order given in that one unmistakable voice. Mr. Cleek was there, followed by Dollops, close at his heels, and looking as though they had torn through hell itself to get there in time.
Petrie took a hurried step forward and swung back the big iron gate still farther.
"In time, Petrie?" Cleek asked breathlessly.
"Just about, sir. Near shave, though, from what I see of the people a-comin' out. 'Eard the case 'ad gone against Sir Nigel, sir, poor chap. 'Ere, you, Dollops"
But Dollops was gone in his master's wake, in his arms a huge, ungainly bundle that looked like a stove-pipe wrapped up in brown paper, gone through the court room door, without so much as passing the time of day with an old pal. Petrie felt distinctly hurt about it, and sauntered back to his place with his smile gone, while Cleek, hurrying through the crowded court room and passing, by the sheer power of his name, the various court officials who would have stopped him, stopped only as he reached the space before the judge's bench. Already the jury were filing in, one by one, and taking their seats. The black cap lay beside Mr. Justice Grainger's spectacles, a sinister emblem, having its response in the white-faced man who stood in the dock, awaiting the verdict upon his life.
Cleek saw it all in one glance, and then spoke.
"Your Lordship," he said, addressing the judge, who looked at him with raised eyebrows, "may I address the court?" The barristers arose, scandalized at the interruption, knowing not whether advantage for prosecution or defence lay in what this man had to say. The clerk of the court stood aghast ready to order the court officers to eject the interloper who dared interrupt the course of the majestic law. All stood poised for a breathless moment, held in check by the power of the man Cleek, or by uncertainty as to the action of the judge.
A tense pause, and then the court broke the silence, "You may speak."
"Your Lordship, may it please the court," said Cleek, "I have evidence here which will save this man's life. I demand to show it to the court."
The barristers, held in check by the stern practice of the English law, which, unlike American practice does not allow counsel to becloud the issue with objection and technical argument, remained motionless. They knew Cleek, and knew that here was the crisis of the case they had presented so learnedly.
"This is an unusual occurrence, sir," at last spoke the judge, "and you are distinctly late. The jury has returned and the foreman is about to pronounce the verdict. What is it you have to say, sir?"
"Your Lordship, it is simply this." Cleek threw back his head. "The prisoner at bar " He pointed to Merriton, who at the first sound of Cleek's voice had spun round, a sudden hope finding birth in his dull eyes, "is innocent! I have absolute proof. Also " He switched round upon his heel and surveyed the court room, "I beg of your Lordship that you will immediately give orders for no person to leave this court. The instigator of the crime is before my eyes. Perhaps you do not know me, but I have been at work upon this case for some time, and am a colleague of Mr. Narkom of Scotland Yard. My name is - Cleek Hamilton Cleek. I have your permission to continue?"
A murmur went up round the crowded court room. The judge nodded. He needed no introduction to Cleek.
"The gentlemen of the jury will be seated," declared the court, "the clerk will call Hamilton Cleek as a witness."
This formality accomplished, the judge indicated that he, himself, would question this crucial eleventh-hour witness.
"Mr. Cleek," he began, "you say this man is innocent. We will hear your story."
Cleek motioned to Dollops, who stood at the back of the court, and instantly the lad pushed his way through the crowd to his master's side, carrying the long, ungainly burden in his arms. Meanwhile, at the back of the room a commotion had occurred. The magic name of that most magical of men Hamilton Cleek, detective had wrought what Cleek had known it would. Someone was pushing for the door with all the strength that was in him, but already the key had turned, and Hammond, as guardian, held up his hand.
Cleek knew but for the time said nothing and the crowd had hidden whoever it was from the common view. He simply motioned Dollops to lay his burden upon the table, and then spoke once more.
"M' Lud," he said clearly, "may I ask a favour of the court? I should be obliged if you would call every witness in this matter here simultaneously. Set them out in a row, if you will, but call them now.... Thanks."
The judge motioned to the clerk, and through the hushed silence of the court the dull voice droned out: "Anthony West, William Borkins, Lester Stark, Gustave Brellier, Miss Antoinette Brellier, Doctor Bartholomew...." And so on through the whole list. As each name was called the owner of it came forward and stood in front of the judge's high desk.
"A most unusual proceeding, sir," said that worthy, again settling the spectacles upon his nose and frowning down at Cleek; "but, knowing who you are "
"I appreciate your Lordship's kindness. Now then, all there?" Cleek whirled suddenly, and surveyed the strange line. "That's good. And at least every one of them is here. No chance of slipping away now. Now for it."
He turned back to the table with something of suppressed eagerness in his movements, and a low murmur of excitement went up round the crowded court room. Rapidly he tore off the wrappings from the long, snake-like bundle, and held one of the objects up to view.
"Allow me to draw your attention to this," he said, in a loud, clear voice, every note of which carried to the back of the long room. "This, as you possibly know, sir, is a piece of electric tubing made for the express purpose of conveying safely delicate electric wirings that are used for installations, so that they may not be damaged in transit from the factory to—the agent who sells them. You would like to see the wirings, I know" For answer he whipped open the joints of one of the tubes, set it upon end, and—from inside the narrow casing came a perfect shower of golden sovereigns clattering to the floor and across the table in front of the astonished clerk's eyes.
The judge sat up suddenly and rubbed his eyes.
"God bless my soul!" he began, and then subsided into silence. The eyes of young Sir Nigel Merriton nearly leapt from their sockets with astonishment; and every man in the crowd was gaping.
"Rather of a surprise, I must admit; isn't it?" he said, with a slight shrug of the shoulders. "And no doubt you're wondering what all this has to do with the case in hand. Well, that'll come along all in good time. Golden sovereigns, you see, carefully stacked up to fill the little tubing to its capacity and thousands of 'em done the same, too! There's a perfect fortune down there in that factory at Saltfleet! Mr. Narkom," he turned round and surveyed the Superintendent with mirthful eyes, "what about these bank robberies now, eh? I told you something would crop up. You see it has. We've discovered the hiding-place of the gold—and the prime leader in the whole distressing affair. The rest ought to be easy." He whipped round suddenly toward the line of witnesses, letting his eyes travel over each face in turn; past Tony West's reddened countenance, past Dr. Bartholomew's pale intensity, past Borkins, standing very straight and white and frightened-looking. Then, of a sudden he leapt forward, his hand clamped down upon someone's shoulder, and his voice exclaimed triumphantly:
"And here the beauty is!"
Then, before the astonished eyes of the crowd of spectators stood Mr. Gustave Brellier, writhing and twisting in the clutch of the firm fingers and spitting forth fury in a Flemish patois that would have struck Cleek dead on the spot if words could kill.
A sudden din arose. People pressed forward, the better to see and hear, exclaiming loudly, condemning, criticising. The judge's frail old hand brought silence at last, and Antoinette Brellier came forward from her place and clutched Cleek by the arm.
"It cannot be, Mr. Cleek!" she said piteously. "I tell you my uncle is the best of men, truly! He could never have done this thing that you accuse him of and"
"And the worst of devils! That I can thoroughly endorse, my dear young lady," returned Cleek with a grim laugh. "I am sorry for you very. But at least you will have consolation in your future husband's release. That should compensate you. Here, officer, take hold of this man. We'll get down to brass tacks now. Take hold of him, and hold him fast, for a more slippery snake never was created. All right, Sir Nigel; it is all right, lad. Sit down. This is going to be a long story, but it's got to be told. Fetch chairs for the witnesses, constable. And don't let any of 'em go yet. I want 'em to hear this thing through."
In his quick, easy manner he seemed suddenly to have taken command of the court. And, knowing that he was Hamilton Cleek, and that Cleek would use his own methods, or none, Mr. Justice Grainger took the wisest course, and let him alone.
When all was in readiness, Cleek settled down to the story. He was the only man left standing, a straight slim figure, full of that controlled power and energy that is so often possessed by a small but perfect machine. He bowed to the judge with something of the theatrical in his manner, and then rested one hand upon the clerk's table.
"Now, naturally, you are wanting to hear the story," he said briskly, "and I'll make it as brief as possible. But I warn you there's a good deal to be told, and afterward there'll be work for Scotland Yard, more work than perhaps they'll care about; but that is another story. To begin with, the jury, my lord, was undoubtedly, from all signs, about to convict the prisoner upon a charge of murder a murder of which he was entirely innocent. You have heard Merriton's story. Believe me, every word of it is true circumstantial evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
"In the first place, Dacre Wynne was shot through the temple at the instigation of that man there," he pointed to Brellier, standing pale and still between two constables, "foully shot, as many others had been similarly done to death, because they had ventured forth across the Fens at night, and were likely to investigate this man's charming little midnight movements, further than he cared about. To creatures of his like human life is nothing compared to what it can produce. Men and women are a means to an end, and that end, the furtherance of his own wealth, his own future. The epitome of prehistoric selfishness, is it not? Club the next man that comes along, and steal from his dead body all that he has worked for. Oh, a pretty sort of a tale this is, I promise you!
"What's that, my lord? What has the Frozen Flame to do with all this? Why, the answer to that is as simple as A.B.C. The Frozen Flames, or that most natural of phenomena, marsh-gas of which I won't weary you with an explanation arose from that part of the Fens where the rotting vegetation was at its worst. What more natural, then, than that this human fiend should endeavour to shape even this thing to his own ends? The villagers had always been superstitious of these lights, but their notice had never been particularly called to them before the story of the Frozen Flames had been carefully spread from mouth to mouth by Brellier's tools.
"Then one man, braver than the rest, ventured forth and never came back. The story gained credence, even with the more educated few. Another, unwilling to conform to public opinion, did likewise. And he, too, went into the great unknown. The list of Brellier's victims supposed, of course, to be burnt up by the Frozen Flames—grew fairly lengthy in the four years that he has been using them as a screen for his underhanded work. A guard and I've seen one of the men myself during a little midnight encounter that I had with him went wandering over that part of the district armed with a revolver. The first sight of a stranger caused him to use his weapon. Meanwhile, behind the screen of the lights the bank robbers were bringing in their gold by motor and hiding the sacks down in a network of underground passageways that I also discovered and traversed. They ran, by devious ways, both to a field in Saltfleet conveniently near the factory, and by another route up to the back kitchen of Merriton Towers.
"You'll admit that, when I discovered this to be the case, I felt pretty uneasy about Sir Nigel's innocence. But a still further search brought to light another passage, which ran straight into the study of Withersby Hall, occupied by the Brelliers, and was hidden under the square rug in front of the fireplace. A nice convenient little spot for our friend here to carry on his good work. Just a few words to say that he didn't want to be disturbed in his study, a locked door, a rug moved, and there you are! He was free from all prying eyes to investigate the way things were going, and to personally supervise the hiding of the gold. While outside upon the Fens men were being killed like rats, because one or two of them chose to use their intelligence, and wanted to find out what the flames really were. They found out all right, poor devils, and their widows waited for them in vain.
"And what does he do with all this gold, you ask? Why, ship it, by using an electrical factory where he makes tubings and fittings—and a good deal of mischief, to boot. The sovereigns are hidden as you have seen, and are shipped out at night in fishing boats, loaded below the water mark—I've helped with the loading myself, so I know en route for Belgium, where his equally creditable brother, Adolph, receives the tubes and invariably ships them back as being of the wrong gauge. Look here" He stopped speaking for a moment and, stepping forward, lifted up another tubing from the table, and unfastened it at one of the joints. Then he held it up for all to see.
"See that stuff in there? That's tungsten. Perhaps you don't all know what tungsten is. Well, it's a valuable commodity that is mined from the earth, and which is used expressly in the making of electric lamps. Our good friend Adolph, like his brother, has the same twist of brain. Instead of keeping the tubes, he returns them with the rather thin excuse that they are of the wrong gauge, and fills them with this tungsten, from the famous tungsten mines for which Belgium holds first place in the world. And so the stuff is shipped in absolutely free of duty, while our friend here unloads it, supplies the raw material to one or two firms in town, trading under the name of Jonathan Brent (you see I've got the whole facts, Brellier), and uses some himself for this factory, which is the 'blind' for his other trading ideas. Very clever, isn't it?"
The judge nodded.
"I thought you would agree so, my Lord. Even crime can have its clever side, and more often than not the criminal brain is the cleverest which the world produces.
"Where was I? Ah, yes! The shipping of the stuff to Belgium. You see, Brellier's clever there. He knows that the sudden appearance of all this gold at his own bank would arouse suspicions, especially as the robberies have been so frequent, so he determines that it is safer out of the country, and as the exchange of British gold is high, he makes money that way. Turns his hand to everything, in fact." He laughed. "But now we're turning our hands to him, and the Law will have its toll, penny for penny, life for life. You've come to the end of your resources, Brellier, when you engaged those two strange workmen. Or, better still, your accomplice did it for you. You didn't know they were Cleek and his man, did you? You didn't know that on that second night after we'd worked there at the factory for you, we investigated that secret passage in the field outside Saltfleet Road? You didn't know that while you walked down that passage in the darkness with your man Jim Dobbs or 'Dirty Jim,' to give him the sobriquet by which he is known among your employees that we were hidden against the wall opposite to that first little niche where the bags of sovereigns stood, and that though I hadn't seen you something in your voice struck a note of familiarity in my memory? You didn't know that, then? Well, perhaps it's just as well, because I might not be here now to tell this story, and to hand you over to justice."
THE SOLVING OF THE RIDDLE
"For the sake of le bon dieu, man, cease your cruel mockery!" said Brellier, suddenly, in a husky voice, as the clerk rose to quell the interrupted flow of oratory, and the court banged his mace for quiet.
"You didn't think of the cruel mockery of God's good world, which you were helping so successfully to ruin!" continued the detective, speaking to the court but at Brellier, each word pointed as a barb, each pause more pregnant with scorn than the spoken words had been. "You didn't think of that, did you? Oh, no! You gave no thought to the ruined home and the weeping wife, the broken-hearted mother and the fatherless child. That was outside your reckoning altogether. And, if hearsay be true (and in this case I believe it is) you even went so far as to kill a defenceless woman who had been brave enough to wander out across that particular part of the Fens just to see what those flames really were. And yet, your lordship, this man howls for mercy."
He paused a moment and passed a hand wearily over his forehead. The telling of the tale was not easy, and the expression of 'Toinette Brellier's tear-misted eyes added to the difficulty of it. But he knew he must spare no detail; in fairness to the man who stood in the dock, in fairness to the Law he served, and in whose service he had unravelled this riddle which at first had seemed so inexplicable.
Then the judge spoke.
"The court must congratulate you, Mr. Cleek," he said in his fine, metallic voice, "upon the very excellent and intricate work you have done on this case. Believe me, the Law appreciates it, and I, as one of its humble exponents, must add my admiration to the rest. Permit me, however, to ask one or two questions. In the first place, before we proceed further with the case, I should like you to give me any explanation that you can relative to the matter of what the prisoner here has told us with regard to the story of the Frozen Flame. This gentleman has said that the story goes that whenever a new victim had been claimed by the flames, that he completely vanishes, and that another flame appears in amongst its fellows. The prisoner has declared this to be true; in fact, has actually sworn upon oath, that he has seen this thing with his own eyes the night that Dacre Wynne was killed. I confess that upon hearing this, I had my strong suspicions of his veracity. Can you explain it any clearer?"
Cleek smiled a trifle whimsically, then he nodded.
"I can. Shortly after I made my discovery of the secret passage that led out upon the Fens the entrance to it, by the way, was marked by a patch of charred grass about the size of a small round table (you remember, Dollops, I asked you if you noticed anything then?), that lifted up, if one had keen enough eyes to discover it, and revealed the trap-door beneath Dollops and I set out on another tour of investigation. We were determined to take a sporting chance on being winged by the watchful guards and have a look round behind those flames for ourselves. We did this. It happened that we slipped the guard unobserved, having knowledge, you see, of at least part of the whole diabolical scheme, and getting within range of the flames without discovery, or, for that matter, seeing any one about, we got down on our hands and knees and dug into the earth with our penknives."
"What suggested this plan to you?"
Cleek smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"Why, I had a theory, you see. And, like you, I wanted to find out if Merriton were telling the truth about that other light he had seen or not. This was the only way. Marsh-gas was there in plenty, though there is no heat from the tiny flames, as you know, from which fact, no doubt, our friend Brellier derived the very theatrical name for them, but the light of which Merriton spoke I took to be something bigger than that. And I had noticed, too, that here and there among the flames danced brilliant patches that seemed, well more than natural. So our penknives did the trick. Dollops was digging, when something suddenly exploded, and shot up into our faces with a volume of gassy smoke. We sprang back, throwing our arms up to shield our eyes, and after the fumes had subsided returned to our task. The penknife had struck a bladder filled with gas, which, sunk into the ground, produced the larger lights, one of which Sir Nigel had seen upon the night that Wynne disappeared. Even more clever, isn't it? I wonder whose idea it originally was."
He spun round slowly upon his heel and faced the line of seated witnesses. His eyes once more travelled over the group, face to face, eye to eye, until he paused suddenly and pointed at Borkins's chalk-white countenance.
"That's the man who probably did the job," he said casually. "Brellier's right-hand man, that. With a brain that might have been used for other and better things."
The judge leaned forward upon his folded elbows, pointing his pen in Borkins's direction.
"Then you say this man is part and parcel of the scheme, Mr. Cleek?" he queried.
"I do. And a very big part, too. But, let me qualify that statement by saying that if it hadn't been for Borkins's desire for revenge upon the man he served, this whole ghastly affair would probably never have been revealed. Wynne would have vanished in the ordinary way, as Collins vanished afterward, and the superstitious horror would have gone on until there was not one person left in the village of Fetchworth who would have dared to venture an investigation of the flames. Then the work at the factory would have continued, with a possibly curtailed payroll. No need for high-handed pirates armed with revolvers then. That was the end the arch-fiend was working for. The end that never came."
"H'm. And may I ask how you discovered all this, before going into the case of Borkins?" put in the judge.
"Certainly," he returned. "That is the legal right. But I can vouch for my evidence, my lord. I received it, you see, at first-hand. This man Borkins engaged both the lad Dollops and myself as new hands for the factory. We therefore had every opportunity of looking into the matter personally."
"Gawdamercy! I never did!" ejaculated Borkins, at this juncture, his face the colour of newly-baked bread. "You're a liar—that's what you are! A drorin' an innocent man into the beastly affair. I never engaged the likes of you!"
"Didn't you?" Cleek laughed soundlessly. "Look here. Remember the man Bill Jones, and his little pal Sammie Robinson, from Jamaica?" He writhed his features for a moment, slipped his hand into his pocket, and producing the black moustache that had been Dollops's envy and admiration, stuck it upon his upper lip, pulled out a check cap from the other pocket, drew that upon his head, and peered at Borkins under the peak of it. "What-o, matey!" he remarked in a harsh cockney voice.
"Merciful 'Eavens!" gasped out that worthy, covering his eyes with his hands, one more incredulous witness of Cleek's greatest gift. "Bill Jones it is! Gawd! are you a devil?"
"No, just an ordinary man, my dear friend. But you remember now, eh? Well, that does away with the need of the moustache, then." The clerk of the court, only too familiar with Cleek's disregard of legal formality, frowned at this violation of dignity and raised his mace to rap for order and possibly to reprimand Cleek for his theatrical conduct but at that moment the detective pulled off the cap and moustache as though well pleased with his performance. Cleek turned once more to the judge.
"My lord," he said serenely, "you have seen the man Bill Jones, and the impersonator of Sammie Robinson is there," he pointed to Dollops. "Well, this man Borkins—or Piggott, as he calls himself when doing his 'private work'—engaged Dollops and me, in place of two hands in the factory who had been given to too much tongue-wagging, and in consequence had met with prompt punishment, God alone knows what it was! We worked there for something just under a fortnight. Dollops, with his usual knack for making friends in the right direction, chummed up to one of the men whom I have already named Jim Dobbs. He finally asked him to come and help with the loading up of the boats, and gave him the chance of making a little overtime by simply keeping his mouth shut as to what went on. I managed to get on the job too, and we did it three times in that fortnight and a jolly difficult task we found it, I don't mind saying. But I felt that evidence was necessary, and while in the employ of 'the master' we carried on many investigations. And still in his service I made this rough map of the varied turnings of the secret passage, and the places to which they led. You can get a better idea of the ground if you glance at it." He handed it up to the high desk, and paused a moment as the judge surveyed it through his spectacles. "The passage at Merriton Towers, and also at Withersby Hall so conveniently placed near that particular part of the Fens, and therefore chosen by Brellier for his work are both of ancient origin, dating back, I should say, to the time of the civil war.
"Whose idea it was to connect the two passages up I could not say, or when Borkins got into the pay of Brellier and played false to a family that he had served for twenty years. But the fact remains. The two passages are linked up, and then continued at great labour in another direction to that field which lies off the Saltfleet Road and just at the back of the factory. And thus was made a convenient little subway for the carrying on of nefarious transactions of the kind which we have discovered."
"And how did you discover that Brellier was the 'Master' in question?" put in the judge at this juncture.
"He happened to come to the factory one day while we were at work upon our machines. Someone said, 'Crickey! 'Ere's the Master! Funny for 'im to be prowlin' round at this hour of the day - night's more to 'is likin'.' I could hardly contain myself when I saw who it was even though I had already discovered the passage to Withersby Hall. I had not yet realized that 'Jonathan Brent' and Brellier were one and the same, though I discovered that the former had a perfectly legitimate office in London in Leadenhall Street. But when I saw him I knew. After that I wasted no time. Since then we've been having a pretty scramble to get safely away without giving any clues to the other men, and to put Scotland Yard upon their track. They're down there now, and have got every man of 'em I dare swear (and I hope they are keeping my friend Black Whiskers for me to deal with). That is the cause of my lateness at the hearing of the case. You can fully understand how impossible it was to be here any earlier."
The judge nodded. "Your statement against this man Borkins?"
"Is as strong a one as ever was made," said Cleek. "It was Borkins who in a fit of malicious rage, no doubt conceived the idea of interfering with his master's work to the extent of inventing the means to have Sir Nigel Merriton wrongly convicted of the murder of Dacre Wynne. You have seen the revolver, the peculiar make of which caused it to be the chief evidence in this gruesome tragedy. Here is the genuine one."
He drew the little thing from his pocket, and reaching up placed it in the judge's outstretched hand. That gentleman gave a gasp as he laid eyes upon it.
"Identical with this one, which belongs to the prisoner!" he said almost excitedly.
"Exactly. The same colonial French make, you see. This particular one belongs, by the way, to Miss Brellier."
Something like a thrill ran through the crowded court room. In the silence that followed you could have heard a pin drop.
"That is correct. She will tell you that she always kept it in an unused drawer in her secrétaire locked away with some papers. She had not looked at it for months, until the other day when she happened to examine one of those papers, and therefore went to the drawer and unlocked it. The revolver lying there drew her attention. Knowing that it was the same as the one owned by her fiance, Sir Nigel Merriton, and figuring so largely in this case, she took it out and idly examined it. One of the bullets was missing! This rather aroused her curiosity, and when I questioned her afterward about it, when the inquest was over, and she had brought it forward and shown it to the coroner, who—quite naturally—after the explanation given by Mr. Brellier, gave it back to her as having no dealings with the case, she told me that she could not absolutely recollect her uncle telling her that he had killed the dog with it. A small thing but rather important."
"And you say that this man Borkins arranged this revolver so as to point to the prisoner's guilt, Mr. Cleek?" asked the judge.
"I say that the man Dacre Wynne was actually killed with that identical revolver which you hold in your hand, my lord. And the construction I put upon it is this: Borkins hated his master, but the long story of that does not concern us here, and upon the night of the quarrel he was listening at the door, and, hearing how things were shaping themselves, began, as he himself has told you in his evidence, to think that there would soon be trouble between Sir Nigel and Mr. Wynne, if things went on as they had been going. Therefore, when he was told that Mr. Wynne had gone out across the Fens in a drunken rage, to investigate the meaning of the Frozen Flames, the idea entered Borkins's mind. He knew his master's revolver, had seen it slipped under his pillow more often than not of an evening when Sir Nigel went to bed. Here Borkins saw his life's opportunity of getting even. He knew, too, of Miss Brellier's revolver must have known, else why should this particular instrument be used upon this particular night, in place of the usual type of revolver which Brellier's guards carried, and by which poor Collins undoubtedly met his death? So we will take it that he knew of this little instrument here, and upon hearing of Wynne's proposed investigations, he dashed to the back kitchen of the Towers which, was rarely used by the other servants, as being, so one of them told me, 'so dark and damp that it fair gave 'em the creeps.' Therefore Borkins had his way unmolested, and it did not take him long, knowing the turnings of the underground passage as he did from constant use to communicate with Withersby Hall. To which guard he told his tale I do not know, but, since we have taken the whole crowd we'll find out later. Anyway, he must have told someone else of his desire for private vengeance. And the thing worked. When poor Wynne met his death, it was at the point of a pistol which had lain unused in the secrétaire at Withersby Hall for some little time. I have not been able to find the actual spot where the body of Wynne and, later on, that of Collins was first concealed, but I have no doubt that they were brought from that spot to be discovered by us. It was very necessary for the body of Wynne to be discovered, since the bullet in his brain was fired from Miss Brellier's revolver. It was all part of the plot against Sir Nigel. How bitter was that plot is evidenced by the removal of the bodies to the place they were discovered on the Fens no very pleasant job for any man."
Cleek whirled suddenly upon Borkins, who stood with bent head and pallid face, biting his lips and twisting his hands together, while Cleek's voice broke the perfect silence of the court. But thus taken by surprise, he lifted his head, and his mouth opened.
The judge raised his hand.
"Is this true, my man?" he demanded.
Borkins's face went an ugly purplish-red. For a moment it looked as though he were going to have an apoplectic fit.
"Yes damn you all yes!" he replied venomously. "That's how I did it though Gawd alone knows how he come to find it out! But the game's up now, and it's no more use a lyin'."
"Never a truer word spoken," returned Cleek, with a little triumphant smile. "I must admit, your Lordship, that upon that one point I was a little shaky. Borkins has irrefutably proved that my theory was correct. I must say I am indebted to him." Again the little smile looped up one corner of his face. "And I have but just a little bit more of the tale to tell, and then I must leave the rest of it in your infinitely more capable hands.
"... The reason why I mistrusted the story of the revolver? Why, upon examination, that instrument belonging to Miss Brellier was a little too clean and well-oiled to have been out of use for a matter of five months or so. The worthy user of it had cleaned and polished it up, so as to be sure of its action, and re-oiled it. So the 'dog story' was exploded almost at its birth. The rest was easy to follow up, and knowing the position of things between Borkins and his master (from both sides, so to speak), I began to put two and two together. Borkins has, this moment, most agreeably told me that my answer to the sum is correct. But things worked in well for him, I must say. That Sir Nigel should actually fire a shot upon that very night was a stroke of pure luck for the servant who hated him. And it made his chance of fabricating the whole plot against Sir Nigel a good deal easier. Whether he would have stolen the revolver had that shot at the Frozen Flames for which Sir Nigel has been so sorely tried never been fired, I cannot say, but that doubtless would have been the course he would have taken. Luck favoured him upon that dreadful night but now that luck has changed. His own action has been his undoing. If he had not given vent to this feeling of hatred that he cherished in his heart for a master who was of such different stuff of which he himself was made, the whole infernal plot might never have been revealed. And yet who can tell?
"My lord and gentlemen of the jury, the tale is told. Justice has been done an innocent man, and the rest of its doing lies in your capable hands. I ask your permission to be seated."
His voice trailed off into silence, and across the court a murmur arose, like the hum of some giant airplane growing gradually nearer and nearer. A sort of strangled sob came from the back of Cleek's chair, and he turned his head to smile into 'Toinette's wet eyes. In their depths gratitude and sorrow were inexplicably mingled. His hand went out to her; she ran toward him from her place, and in spite of judge and jury, in spite of the order of the law, knelt down there at his side and pressed her warm lips against his hand.
The flower in Cleek's buttonhole was jauntily erect, his immaculately garbed figure fitted in perfectly with every detail of the whole scene of which he was a part. He looked and was the exquisitely turned out man-about-town. Only his eyes told of other things, and they, as the organs welled to the sounds of the wedding march lighted up with something that spoke of the man within rather than the man without. He turned from his position at the altar (where he was fulfilling his duties as best man to Sir Nigel Merriton) and glanced back over the curve of his shoulder to where a girl sat, bending forward in the empty pew, her face alight, her eyes, beneath the curving hat-brim, swimming with tears.... She nodded as he saw her, and smiled, the promise of their future together curving the sweet lips into gracious, womanly lines. Behind her, on guard as usual, and gay in a gorgeous garment of black-and-white checks, white waistcoat and flaming scarlet buttonhole, sat Dollops, faithfully watching while Cleek assisted at the ceremony that was uniting two souls in one, and casting aside forever the smirch of a name that must rankle in the heart of her who had owned it in common with the man who had so nearly wrought her soul's desolation.
... Then it was all over. The organ swelled once more with its tidings of joy; upon her husband's arm 'Toinette passed down the tiny aisle, tears running down her cheeks unchecked, and mingling with the smiles that chased each other like sunbeams across her happy face. Cleek was at the porch waiting for them as they came out. He reached forth a hand to each.
"Good luck and God bless you both," he said. "This is a fitting end, Merriton, and a new and glorious beginning."
"And every moment of it, every second of it we owe to you, Mr. Cleek," returned Sir Nigel, in a deep, happy voice. "Time alone can show our gratitude I can't."
Cleek bowed, and his hand went out suddenly to Ailsa Lorne, who had stolen up beside him, went out and caught her hand and held it in a grip that hurt. "I know, boy. And one day in the glad future I shall call upon you who knows? to attend a similar ceremony on my behalf, and in which Mr. Narkom here has promised to act as best man with Dollops to bolster him up if he should be attacked with nerves. Now be off with you and be happy. We'll see you later at the Towers, Merriton. Good-bye to you both."
The door closed, the engine started, Dollops sprang back and they were off. The boy turned suddenly, looked at Cleek and Ailsa standing there in the sunshine of the little porch, at Mr. Narkom chuckling quietly behind them, and remarked:
"Gawd! Dunno which is the best weddings or funerals! Strite I don't. Yer snivels at bofe like a blinkin' fool wiv a cold in 'is 'ead. And when it comes to your time, Guv'nor! well, if yer don't let me myke a third at the funnymoon, I'll commit hurry-skurry on yer wery doorstep!... An' jolly good riddance ter bad rubbish, too!"