We then stepped into the wagonette which was waiting for us, and drove to Bainbridge's house.
Mrs. Bainbridge came out to meet us, and was full of the tragedy. Two pretty girls also ran to greet their father, and to glance inquisitively at me. I could see that the entire family was in a state of much excitement.
"Lucy Ray has just left, father," said the elder of the girls. "We had much trouble to soothe her; she is in a frantic state."
"You have heard, Mr. Bell, all about this dreadful mystery?" said Mrs. Bainbridge as she led me towards the dining-room.
"Yes," I answered; "your husband has been good enough to give me every particular."
"And you have really come here to help us?"
"I hope I may be able to discover the cause," I answered.
"It certainly seems most extraordinary," continued Mrs. Bainbridge. "My dear," she continued, turning to her husband, "you can easily imagine the state we were all in this morning when the news of the second death was brought to us."
"For my part," said Ella Bainbridge, "I am sure that Felwyn Tunnel is haunted. The villagers have thought so for a long time, and this second death seems to prove it, does it not?" Here she looked anxiously at me.
"I can offer no opinion," I replied, "until I have sifted the matter thoroughly."
"Come, Ella, don't worry Mr. Bell," said her father; "if he is as hungry as I am, he must want his lunch."
We then seated ourselves at the table and commenced the meal. Bainbridge, although he professed to be hungry, was in such a state of excitement that he could scarcely eat. Immediately after lunch he left me to the care of his family and went into the village.
"It is just like him," said Mrs. Bainbridge; "he takes these sort of things to heart dreadfully. He is terribly upset about Lucy Ray, and also about the poor fellow Wynne. It is certainly a fearful tragedy from first to last."
"Well, at any rate," I said, "this fresh death will upset the evidence against Wynne."
"I hope so, and there is some satisfaction in the fact. Well, Mr. Bell, I see you have finished lunch; will you come into the drawing-room?"
I followed her into a pleasant room overlooking the valley of the Lytton.
By-and-by Bainbridge returned, and soon afterwards the dog-cart came to the door. My host and I mounted, Bainbridge took the reins, and we started off at a brisk pace.
"Matters get worse and worse," he said the moment we were alone. "If you don't clear things up to-night, Bell, I say frankly that I cannot imagine what will happen."
We entered the village, and as we rattled down the ill-paved streets I was greeted with curious glances on all sides. The people were standing about in groups, evidently talking about the tragedy and nothing else. Suddenly, as our trap bumped noisily over the paving-stones, a girl darted out of one of the houses and made frantic motions to Bainbridge to stop the horse. He pulled the mare nearly up on her haunches, and the girl came up to the side of the dog-cart.
"You have heard it?" she said, speaking eagerly and in a gasping voice. "The death which occurred this morning will clear Stephen Wynne, won't it, Mr. Bainbridge?—it will, you are sure, are you not?"
"It looks like it, Lucy, my poor girl," he answered. "But there, the whole thing is so terrible that I scarcely know what to think."
She was a pretty girl with dark eyes, and under ordinary circumstances must have had the vivacious expression of face and the brilliant complexion which so many of her countrywomen possess. But now her eyes were swollen with weeping and her complexion more or less disfigured by the agony she had gone through. She looked piteously at Bainbridge, her lips trembling. The next moment she burst into tears.
"Come away, Lucy," said a woman who had followed her out of the cottage; "Fie—for shame! don't trouble the gentlemen; come back and stay quiet."
"I can't, mother, I can't," said the unfortunate girl. "If they hang him, I'll go clean off my head. Oh, Mr. Bainbridge, do say that the second death has cleared him!"
"I have every hope that it will do so, Lucy," said Bainbridge, "but now don't keep us, there's a good girl; go back into the house. This gentleman has come down from London on purpose to look into the whole matter. I may have good news for you in the morning."
The girl raised her eyes to my face with a look of intense pleading. "Oh, I have been cruel and a fool, and I deserve everything," she gasped; "but, sir, for the love of Heaven, try to clear him."
I promised to do my best.
Bainbridge touched up the mare, she bounded forward, and Lucy disappeared into the cottage with her mother.
The next moment we drew up at the inn where the Inspector was waiting, and soon afterwards were bowling along between the high banks of the country lanes to the tunnel. It was a cold, still afternoon; the air was wonderfully keen, for a sharp frost had held the countryside in its grip for the last two days. The sun was just tipping the hills to westward when the trap pulled up at the top of the cutting. We hastily alighted, and the Inspector and I bade Bainbridge good-bye. He said that he only wished that he could stay with us for the night, assured us that little sleep would visit him, and that he would be back at the cutting at an early hour on the following morning; then the noise of his horse's feet was heard fainter and fainter as he drove back over the frost-bound roads. The Inspector and I ran along the little path to the wicket-gate in the fence, stamping our feet on the hard ground to restore circulation after our cold drive. The next moment we were looking down upon the scene of the mysterious deaths, and a weird and lonely place it looked. The tunnel was at one end of the rock cutting, the sides of which ran sheer down to the line for over a hundred and fifty feet. Above the tunnel's mouth the hills rose one upon the other. A more dreary place it would have been difficult to imagine. From a little clump of pines a delicate film of blue smoke rose straight up on the still air. This came from the chimney of the signal-box.
As we started to descend the precipitous path the Inspector sang out a cheery "Hullo!" The man on duty in the box immediately answered. His voice echoed and reverberated down the cutting, and the next moment he appeared at the door of the box. He told us that he would be with us immediately; but we called back to him to stay where he was, and the next instant the Inspector and I entered the box.
"The first thing to do," said Henderson the Inspector, "is to send a message down the line to announce our arrival."
This he did, and in a few moments a crawling goods train came panting up the cutting. After signalling her through we descended the wooden flight of steps which led from the box down to the line and walked along the metals towards the tunnel till we stood on the spot where poor Davidson had been found dead that morning. I examined the ground and all around it most carefully. Everything tallied exactly with the description I had received. There could be no possible way of approaching the spot except by going along the line, as the rocky sides of the cutting were inaccessible.
"It is a most extraordinary thing, sir," said the signalman whom we had come to relieve. "Davidson had neither mark nor sign on him—there he lay stone dead and cold, and not a bruise nowhere; but Pritchard had an awful wound at the back of the head. They said he got it by climbing the rocks—here, you can see the marks for yourself, sir. But now, is it likely that Pritchard would try to climb rocks like these, so steep as they are?"
"Certainly not," I replied.
"Then how do you account for the wound, sir?" asked the man with an anxious face.
"I cannot tell you at present," I answered.
"And you and Inspector Henderson are going to spend the night in the signal-box?"
A horrified expression crept over the signalman's face.
"God preserve you both," he said; "I wouldn't do it—not for fifty pounds. It's not the first time I have heard tell that Felwyn Tunnel is haunted. But, there, I won't say any more about that. It's a black business, and has given trouble enough. There's poor Wynne, the same thing as convicted of the murder of Pritchard; but now they say that Davidson's death will clear him. Davidson was as good a fellow as you would come across this side of the country; but for the matter of that, so was Pritchard. The whole thing is terrible—it upsets one, that it do, sir."
"I don't wonder at your feelings," I answered; "but now, see here, I want to make a most careful examination of everything. One of the theories is that Wynne crept down this rocky side and fractured Pritchard's skull. I believe such a feat to be impossible. On examining these rocks I see that a man might climb up the side of the tunnel as far as from eight to ten feet, utilising the sharp projections of rock for the purpose; but it would be out of the question for any man to come down the cutting. No; the only way Wynne could have approached Pritchard was by the line itself. But, after all, the real thing to discover is this," I continued: "what killed Davidson? Whatever caused his death is, beyond doubt, equally responsible for Pritchard's. I am now going into the tunnel."
Inspector Henderson went in with me. The place struck damp and chill. The walls were covered with green, evil-smelling fungi, and through the brickwork the moisture was oozing and had trickled down in long lines to the ground. Before us was nothing but dense darkness.
When we re-appeared the signalman was lighting the red lamp on the post, which stood about five feet from the ground just above the entrance to the tunnel.
"Is there plenty of oil?" asked the Inspector.
"Yes, sir, plenty," replied the man. "Is there anything more I can do for either of you gentlemen?" he asked, pausing, and evidently dying to be off.
"Nothing," answered Henderson; "I will wish you good-evening."
"Good-evening to you both," said the man. He made his way quickly up the path and was soon lost to sight.
Henderson and I then returned to the signal-box.
By this time it was nearly dark.
"How many trains pass in the night?" I asked of the Inspector.
"There's the 10.20 down express," he said, "it will pass here at about 10.40; then there's the 11.45 up, and then not another train till the 6.30 local to-morrow morning. We shan't have a very lively time," he added.
I approached the fire and bent over it, holding out my hands to try and get some warmth into them.
"It will take a good deal to persuade me to go down to the tunnel, whatever I may see there," said the man. "I don't think, Mr. Bell, I am a coward in any sense of the word, but there's something very uncanny about this place, right away from the rest of the world. I don't wonder one often hears of signalmen going mad in some of these lonely boxes. Have you any theory to account for these deaths, sir?"
"None at present," I replied.
"This second death puts the idea of Pritchard being murdered quite out of court," he continued.
"I am sure of it," I answered.
"And so am I, and that's one comfort," continued Henderson. "That poor girl, Lucy Ray, although she was to be blamed for her conduct, is much to be pitied now; and as to poor Wynne himself, he protests his innocence through thick and thin. He was a wild fellow, but not the sort to take the life of a fellow-creature. I saw the doctor this afternoon while I was waiting for you at the inn, Mr. Bell, and also the police sergeant. They both say they do not know what Davidson died of. There was not the least sign of violence on the body."
"Well, I am as puzzled as the rest of you," I said. "I have one or two theories in my mind, but none of them will quite fit the situation."
The night was piercingly cold, and, although there was not a breath of wind, the keen and frosty air penetrated into the lonely signal-box. We spoke little, and both of us were doubtless absorbed by our own thoughts and speculations. As to Henderson, he looked distinctly uncomfortable, and I cannot say that my own feelings were too pleasant. Never had I been given a tougher problem to solve, and never had I been so utterly at my wits' end for a solution.
Now and then the Inspector got up and went to the telegraph instrument, which intermittently clicked away in its box. As he did so he made some casual remark and then sat down again. After the 10.40 had gone through, there followed a period of silence which seemed almost oppressive. All at once the stillness was broken by the whirr of the electric bell, which sounded so sharply in our ears that we both started. Henderson rose.
"That's the 11.45 coming," he said, and, going over to the three long levers, he pulled two of them down with a loud clang. The next moment, with a rush and a scream, the express tore down the cutting, the carriage lights streamed past in a rapid flash, the ground trembled, a few sparks from the engine whirled up into the darkness, and the train plunged into the tunnel.
"And now," said Henderson, as he pushed back the levers, "not another train till daylight. My word, it is cold!"
It was intensely so. I piled some more wood on the fire and, turning up the collar of my heavy ulster, sat down at one end of the bench and leant my back against the wall. Henderson did likewise; we were neither of us inclined to speak. As a rule, whenever I have any night work to do, I am never troubled with sleepiness, but on this occasion I felt unaccountably drowsy. I soon perceived that Henderson was in the same condition.
"Are you sleepy?" I asked of him.
"Dead with it, sir," was his answer; "but there's no fear, I won't drop off."
I got up and went to the window of the box. I felt certain that if I sat still any longer I should be in a sound sleep. This would never do. Already it was becoming a matter of torture to keep my eyes open. I began to pace up and down; I opened the door of the box and went out on the little platform.
"What's the matter, sir?" inquired Henderson, jumping up with a start.
"I cannot keep awake," I said.
"Nor can I," he answered, "and yet I have spent nights and nights of my life in signal-boxes and never was the least bit drowsy; perhaps it's the cold."
"Perhaps it is," I said; "but I have been out on as freezing nights before, and——"
The man did not reply; he had sat down again; his head was nodding.
I was just about to go up to him and shake him, when it suddenly occurred to me that I might as well let him have his sleep out. I soon heard him snoring, and he presently fell forward in a heap on the floor. By dint of walking up and down, I managed to keep from dropping off myself, and in torture which I shall never be able to describe, the night wore itself away. At last, towards morning, I awoke Henderson.
"You have had a good nap," I said; "but never mind, I have been on guard and nothing has occurred."
"Good God! have I been asleep?" cried the man.
"Sound," I answered.
"Well, I never felt anything like it," he replied. "Don't you find the air very close, sir?"
"No," I said; "it is as fresh as possible; it must be the cold."
"I'll just go and have a look at the light at the tunnel," said the man; "it will rouse me."
He went on to the little platform, whilst I bent over the fire and began to build it up. Presently he returned with a scared look on his face. I could see by the light of the oil lamp which hung on the wall that he was trembling.
"Mr. Bell," he said, "I believe there is somebody or something down at the mouth of the tunnel now." As he spoke he clutched me by the arm. "Go and look," he said; "whoever it is, it has put out the light."
"Put out the light?" I cried. "Why, what's the time?"
Henderson pulled out his watch.
"Thank goodness, most of the night is gone," he said; "I didn't know it was so late, it is half-past five."
"Then the local is not due for an hour yet?" I said.
"No; but who should put out the light?" cried Henderson.
I went to the door, flung it open, and looked out. The dim outline of the tunnel was just visible looming through the darkness, but the red light was out.
"What the dickens does it mean, sir?" gasped the Inspector. "I know the lamp had plenty of oil in it. Can there be any one standing in front of it, do you think?"
We waited and watched for a few moments, but nothing stirred.
"Come along," I said, "let us go down together and see what it is."
"I don't believe I can do it, sir; I really don't!"
"Nonsense," I cried. "I shall go down alone if you won't accompany me. Just hand me my stick, will you?"
"For God's sake, be careful, Mr. Bell. Don't go down, whatever you do. I expect this is what happened before, and the poor fellows went down to see what it was and died there. There's some devilry at work, that's my belief."
"That is as it may be," I answered shortly; "but we certainly shall not find out by stopping here. My business is to get to the bottom of this, and I am going to do it. That there is danger of some sort, I have very little doubt; but danger or not, I am going down."
"If you'll be warned by me, sir, you'll just stay quietly here."
"I must go down and see the matter out," was my answer. "Now listen to me, Henderson. I see that you are alarmed, and I don't wonder. Just stay quietly where you are and watch, but if I call come at once. Don't delay a single instant. Remember I am putting my life into your hands. If I call 'Come,' just come to me as quick as you can, for I may want help. Give me that lantern."
He unhitched it from the wall, and taking it from him, I walked cautiously down the steps on to the line. I still felt curiously, unaccountably drowsy and heavy. I wondered at this, for the moment was such a critical one as to make almost any man wide awake. Holding the lamp high above my head, I walked rapidly along the line. I hardly knew what I expected to find. Cautiously along the metals I made my way, peering right and left until I was close to the fatal spot where the bodies had been found. An uncontrollable shudder passed over me. The next moment, to my horror, without the slightest warning, the light I was carrying went out, leaving me in total darkness. I started back, and stumbling against one of the loose boulders reeled against the wall and nearly fell. What was the matter with me? I could hardly stand. I felt giddy and faint, and a horrible sensation of great tightness seized me across the chest. A loud ringing noise sounded in my ears. Struggling madly for breath, and with the fear of impending death upon me, I turned and tried to run from a danger I could neither understand nor grapple with. But before I had taken two steps my legs gave way from under me, and uttering a loud cry I fell insensible to the ground.
* * * * *
Out of an oblivion which, for all I knew, might have lasted for moments or centuries, a dawning consciousness came to me. I knew that I was lying on hard ground; that I was absolutely incapable of realising, nor had I the slightest inclination to discover, where I was. All I wanted was to lie quite still and undisturbed. Presently I opened my eyes.
Some one was bending over me and looking into my face.
"Thank God, he is not dead," I heard in whispered tones. Then, with a flash, memory returned to me.
"What has happened?" I asked.
"You may well ask that, sir," said the Inspector gravely. "It has been touch and go with you for the last quarter of an hour; and a near thing for me too."
I sat up and looked around me. Daylight was just beginning to break, and I saw that we were at the bottom of the steps that led up to the signal-box. My teeth were chattering with the cold and I was shivering like a man with ague.
"I am better now," I said; "just give me your hand."
I took his arm, and holding the rail with the other hand staggered up into the box and sat down on the bench.
"Yes, it has been a near shave," I said; "and a big price to pay for solving a mystery."
"Do you mean to say you know what it is?" asked Henderson eagerly.
"Yes," I answered, "I think I know now; but first tell me how long was I unconscious?"
"A good bit over half an hour, sir, I should think. As soon as I heard you call out I ran down as you told me, but before I got to you I nearly fainted. I never had such a horrible sensation in my life. I felt as weak as a baby, but I just managed to seize you by the arms and drag you along the line to the steps, and that was about all I could do."
"Well, I owe you my life," I said; "just hand me that brandy flask, I shall be the better for some of its contents."
I took a long pull. Just as I was laying the flask down Henderson started from my side.
"There," he cried, "the 6.30 is coming." The electric bell at the instrument suddenly began to ring. "Ought I to let her go through, sir?" he inquired.
"Certainly," I answered. "That is exactly what we want. Oh, she will be all right."
"No danger to her, sir?"
"None, none; let her go through."
He pulled the lever and the next moment the train tore through the cutting.
"Now I think it will be safe to go down again," I said. "I believe I shall be able to get to the bottom of this business."
Henderson stared at me aghast.
"Do you mean that you are going down again to the tunnel?" he gasped.
"Yes," I said; "give me those matches. You had better come too. I don't think there will be much danger now; and there is daylight, so we can see what we are about."
The man was very loth to obey me, but at last I managed to persuade him. We went down the line, walking slowly, and at this moment we both felt our courage revived by a broad and cheerful ray of sunshine.
"We must advance cautiously," I said, "and be ready to run back at a moment's notice."
"God knows, sir, I think we are running a great risk," panted poor Henderson; "and if that devil or whatever else it is should happen to be about—why, daylight or no daylight——"
"Nonsense! man," I interrupted; "if we are careful, no harm will happen to us now. Ah! and here we are!" We had reached the spot where I had fallen. "Just give me a match, Henderson."
He did so, and I immediately lit the lamp. Opening the glass of the lamp, I held it close to the ground and passed it to and fro. Suddenly the flame went out.
"Don't you understand now?" I said, looking up at the Inspector.
"No, I don't, sir," he replied with a bewildered expression.
Suddenly, before I could make an explanation, we both heard shouts from the top of the cutting, and looking up I saw Bainbridge hurrying down the path. He had come in the dog-cart to fetch us.
"Here's the mystery," I cried as he rushed up to us, "and a deadlier scheme of Dame Nature's to frighten and murder poor humanity I have never seen."
As I spoke I lit the lamp again and held it just above a tiny fissure in the rock. It was at once extinguished.
"What is it?" said Bainbridge, panting with excitement.
"Something that nearly finished me," I replied. "Why, this is a natural escape of choke damp. Carbonic acid gas—the deadliest gas imaginable, because it gives no warning of its presence, and it has no smell. It must have collected here during the hours of the night when no train was passing, and gradually rising put out the signal light. The constant rushing of the trains through the cutting all day would temporarily disperse it."
As I made this explanation Bainbridge stood like one electrified, while a curious expression of mingled relief and horror swept over Henderson's face.
"An escape of carbonic acid gas is not an uncommon phenomenon in volcanic districts," I continued, "as I take this to be; but it is odd what should have started it. It has sometimes been known to follow earthquake shocks, when there is a profound disturbance of the deep strata."
"It is strange that you should have said that," said Bainbridge, when he could find his voice.
"What do you mean?"
"Why, that about the earthquake. Don't you remember, Henderson," he added, turning to the Inspector, "we had felt a slight shock all over South Wales about three weeks back?"
"Then that, I think, explains it," I said. "It is evident that Pritchard really did climb the rocks in a frantic attempt to escape from the gas and fell back on to these boulders. The other man was cut down at once, before he had time to fly."
"But what is to happen now?" asked Bainbridge. "Will it go on for ever? How are we to stop it?"
"The fissure ought to be drenched with lime water, and then filled up; but all really depends on what is the size of the supply and also the depth. It is an extremely heavy gas, and would lie at the bottom of a cutting like water. I think there is more here just now than is good for us," I added.
"But how," continued Bainbridge, as we moved a few steps from the fatal spot, "do you account for the interval between the first death and the second?"
"The escape must have been intermittent. If wind blew down the cutting, as probably was the case before this frost set in, it would keep the gas so diluted that its effects would not be noticed. There was enough down here this morning, before that train came through, to poison an army. Indeed, if it had not been for Henderson's promptitude, there would have been another inquest—on myself."
I then related my own experience.
"Well, this clears Wynne, without doubt," said Bainbridge; "but alas! for the two poor fellows who were victims. Bell, the Lytton Vale Railway Company owe you unlimited thanks; you have doubtless saved many lives, and also the Company, for the line must have been closed if you had not made your valuable discovery. But now come home with me to breakfast. We can discuss all those matters later on."
THE EIGHT-MILE LOCK
It was in the August of 1889, when I was just arranging my annual holiday, that I received the following letter. I tore it open and read:—
"Theodora House-boat, Goring.
"Dear Mr. Bell,—
"Can you come down on Wednesday and stay with us for a week? The weather is glorious and the river looking its best. We are a gay party, and there will be plenty of fun going on.
"Yours very truly, "Helena Ridsdale."
This was exactly what I wanted. I was fond of the river, and scarcely a summer passed that I did not spend at least a fortnight on the Thames. I could go for a week to the Ridsdales, and then start off on my own quiet holiday afterwards. I had known Lady Ridsdale since she was a girl, and I had no doubt my visit would prove a most enjoyable one. I replied immediately, accepting the invitation, and three days later arrived at Goring.
As the well-cushioned little punt, which had been sent to bring me across the river, drew up alongside the Theodora, the Countess came down from the deck to welcome me.
"I am so glad you could come, Mr. Bell," she said. "I was afraid you might be away on some of your extraordinary campaigns against the supernatural. This is Mr. Ralph Vyner; he is also, like yourself, devoted to science. I am sure you will find many interests in common."
A short, thickset, wiry little man, dressed in white flannels, who had been lolling in a deck chair, now came forward and shook hands with me.
"I know of you by reputation, Mr. Bell," he said, "and I have often hoped to have the pleasure of meeting you. I am sure we shall all be anxious to hear of some of your experiences. We are such an excessively frivolous party that we can easily afford to be leavened with a little serious element."
"But I don't mean to be serious in the least," I answered, laughing; "I have come here to enjoy myself, and intend to be as frivolous as the rest of you."
"You will have an opportunity this evening," said the Countess; "we are going to have a special band from town, and intend to have a moonlight dance on deck. Ah! here comes Charlie with the others," she added, shading her eyes and looking down the stream.
In a few moments a perfectly appointed little electric launch shot up, and my host with the rest of the party came on board. We shortly afterwards sat down to lunch, and a gayer and pleasanter set of people I have seldom met. In the afternoon we broke up into detachments, and Vyner and I went for a long pull up stream. I found him a pleasant fellow, ready to talk at any length not only about his own hobbies, but about the world at large. I discovered presently that he was a naval engineer of no small attainments.
When we returned to the house-boat, it was nearly time to prepare for dinner. Most of the ladies had already retired to their cabins. Lady Ridsdale was standing alone on deck. When she saw us both, she called to us to come to her side.
"This quite dazzles me," she said in a low, somewhat mysterious tone, "and I must show it to you. I know you at least, Mr. Vyner, will appreciate it."
As she spoke she took a small leather case out of her pocket—it was ornamented with a monogram, and opened with a catch. She pressed the lid, it flew up, and I saw, resting on a velvet bed, a glittering circlet of enormous diamonds. The Countess lifted them out, and slipped them over her slender wrist.
"They are some of the family diamonds," she said with excitement, "and of great value. Charlie is having all the jewels reset for me, but the rest are not ready yet. He has just brought this down from town. Is it not superb? Did you ever see such beauties?"
The diamonds flashed on her white wrist; she looked up at me with eyes almost as bright.
"I love beautiful stones," she said, "and I feel as if these were alive. Oh, do look at the rays of colour in them, as many as in the rainbow."
I congratulated Lady Ridsdale on possessing such a splendid ornament, and then glanced at Vyner, expecting him to say something.
The expression on his face startled me, and I was destined to remember it by-and-by. The ruddy look had completely left it, his eyes were half starting from his head. He peered close, and suddenly, without the slightest warning, stretched out his hand, and touched the diamonds as they glittered round Lady Ridsdale's wrist. She started back haughtily, then, recovering herself, took the bracelet off and put it into his hand.
"Charlie tells me," she said, "that this bracelet is worth from fifteen to twenty thousand pounds."
"You must take care of it," remarked Vyner; "don't let your maid see it, for instance."
"Oh, nonsense!" laughed Lady Ridsdale. "I would trust Louise as I would trust myself."
Soon afterwards we separated, and I went down to my little cabin to prepare for dinner. When we met in the dining saloon I noticed that Lady Ridsdale was wearing the diamond bracelet. Almost immediately after dinner the band came on board and the dancing began.
We kept up our festivities until two o'clock, and more than once, as she flashed past me, I could not help noticing the glittering circlet round her wrist. I considered myself a fair judge of precious stones, but had never seen any diamonds for size and brilliancy to equal these.
As Vyner and I happened to stand apart from the others he remarked upon them.
"It was imprudent of Ridsdale to bring those diamonds here," he said. "Suppose they are stolen?"
"Scarcely likely," I answered; "there are no thieves on board."
He gave an impatient movement.
"As far as we know there are not," he said slowly, "but one can never tell. The diamonds are of exceptional value, and it is not safe to expose ordinary folk to temptation. That small circlet means a fortune."
He sighed deeply, and when I spoke to him next did not answer me. Not long afterwards our gay party dispersed, and we retired to our respective cabins.
I went to mine and was quickly in bed. As a newly-arrived guest I was given a cabin on board, but several other members of the party were sleeping in tents on the shore. Vyner and Lord Ridsdale were amongst the latter number. Whether it was the narrowness of my bunk or the heat of the night, I cannot tell, but sleep I could not. Suddenly through my open window I heard voices from the shore near by. I could identify the speakers by their tones—one was my host, Lord Ridsdale, the other Ralph Vyner. Whatever formed the subject of discourse it was evidently far from amicable. However much averse I might feel to the situation, I was compelled to be an unwilling eavesdropper, for the voices rose, and I caught the following words from Vyner:
"Can you lend me five thousand pounds till the winter?"
"No, Vyner, I have told you so before, and the reason too. It is your own fault, and you must take the consequences."
"Do you mean that to be final?" asked Vyner.
"Very well, then I shall look after myself. Thank God, I have got brains if I have not money, and I shall not let the means interfere with the end."
"You can go to the devil for all I care," was the angry answer, "and, after what I know, I won't raise a finger to help you."
The speakers had evidently moved further off, for the last words I could not catch. But what little I heard by no means conduced to slumber. So Vyner, for all his jovial and easy manner, was in a fix for money, and Ridsdale knew something about him scarcely to his credit!
I kept thinking over this, and also recalling his words when he spoke of Lady Ridsdale's diamonds as representing a fortune. What did he mean by saying that he would not let the means interfere with the end? That brief sentence sounded very much like the outburst of a desperate man. I could not help heartily wishing that Lady Ridsdale's diamond circlet was back in London, and, just before I dropped to sleep, I made up my mind to speak to Ridsdale on the subject.
Towards morning I did doze off, but I was awakened by hearing my name called, and, starting up, I saw Ridsdale standing by my side. His face looked queer and excited.
"Wake up, Bell," he cried; "a terrible thing has happened."
"What is it?" I asked.
"My wife's bracelet is stolen."
Like a flash I thought of Vyner, and then as quickly I knew that I must be careful to give no voice to hastily-formed suspicions.
"I won't be a moment dressing, and then I'll join you," I said.
Ridsdale nodded and left my cabin.
In five minutes I was with him on deck. He then told me briefly what had happened.
"Helena most imprudently left the case on her dressing-table last night," he said, "and owing to the heat she kept the window open. Some one must have waded into the water in the dark and stolen it. Perhaps one of the bandsmen may have noticed the flashing of the diamonds on her wrist and returned to secure the bracelet—there's no saying. The only too palpable fact is that it is gone—it was valued at twenty thousand pounds!"
"Have you sent for the police?" I asked.
"Yes, and have also wired to Scotland Yard for one of their best detectives. Vyner took the telegram for me, and was to call at the police station on his way back. He is nearly as much upset as I am. This is a terrible loss. I feel fit to kill myself for my folly in bringing that valuable bracelet on board a house-boat."
"It was a little imprudent," I answered, "but you are sure to get it back."
"I hope so," he replied moodily.
Just then the punt with Vyner and a couple of policemen on board was seen rapidly approaching. Ridsdale went to meet them, and was soon in earnest conversation with the superintendent of police. The moment Vyner leapt on board he came to the part of the deck where I was standing.
"Ah, Bell," he cried, "what about my prognostications of last night?"
"They have been verified too soon," I answered. I gave him a quick glance. His eyes looked straight into mine.
"Have you any theory to account for the theft?" I asked.
"Yes, a very simple one. Owing to the heat of the evening the Countess slept with her window open. It was an easy matter to wade through the water, introduce a hand through the open window and purloin the diamonds."
"Without being seen by any occupants of the tents?" I queried.
"Certainly," he answered, speaking slowly and with thought.
"Then you believe the thief came from without?"
"What about your warning to Lady Ridsdale yesterday evening not to trust her maid?"
I saw his eyes flash. It was the briefest of summer lightning that played in their depths. I knew that he longed to adopt the suggestion that I had on purpose thrown out, but dared not. That one look was enough for me. I had guessed his secret.
Before he could reply to my last remark Lord Ridsdale came up.
"What is to be done?" he said; "the police superintendent insists on our all, without respect of persons, being searched."
"There is nothing in that," I said; "it is the usual thing. I will be the first to submit to the examination."
The police went through their work thoroughly, and, of course, came across neither clue nor diamonds. We presently sat down to breakfast, but I don't think we any of us had much appetite. Lady Ridsdale's eyes were red with crying, and I could see that the loss had shaken both her nerve and fortitude. It was more or less of a relief when the post came in. Amongst the letters I found a telegram for myself. I knew what it meant before I opened it. It was from a man in a distant part of the country whom I had promised to assist in a matter of grave importance. I saw that it was necessary for me to return to town without delay. I was very loth to leave my host and hostess in their present dilemma, but there was no help for it, and soon after breakfast I took my leave. Ridsdale promised to write me if there was any news of the diamonds, and soon the circumstance passed more or less into the background of my brain, owing to the intense interest of the other matter which I had taken up. My work in the north was over, and I had returned to town, when I received a letter from Ridsdale.
"We are in a state of despair," he wrote; "we have had two detectives on board, and the police have moved heaven and earth to try and discover the bracelet—all in vain; not the slightest clue has been forthcoming. No one has worked harder for us than Vyner. He has a small place of his own further down the river, and comes up to see us almost daily. He has made all sorts of suggestions for the recovery of the diamonds, but hitherto they have led to nothing. In short, our one hope now turns upon you, Bell; you have done as difficult things as this before. Will you come and see us, and give us the benefit of your advice? If any man can solve this mystery, you are the person."
I wrote immediately to say that I would return to the Theodora on the following evening, and for the remainder of that day tried to the best of my ability to think out this most difficult problem. I felt morally certain that I could put my hand on the thief, but I had no real clue to work upon—nothing beyond a nameless suspicion. Strange as it may seem, I was moved by sentiment. I had spent some pleasant hours in Vyner's society—I had enjoyed his conversation; I had liked the man for himself. He had abilities above the average, of that I was certain—if he were proved guilty, I did not want to be the one to bring his crime home to him. So uncomfortable were my feelings that at last I made up my mind to take a somewhat bold step. This was neither more nor less than to go to see Vyner himself before visiting the house-boat. What I was to do and say when I got to him I was obliged to leave altogether to chance; but I had a feeling almost amounting to a certainty that by means of this visit I should ultimately return the bracelet to my friends the Ridsdales.
The next afternoon I found myself rowing slowly down the river, thinking what the issue of my visit to Vyner would be. It happened to be a perfect evening. The sun had just set. The long reach of river stretched away to the distant bend, where, through the gathering twilight, I could just see the white gates of the Eight-Mile Lock. Raising my voice, I sang out in a long-drawn, sonorous monotone the familiar cry of "Lock! lock! lock!" and, bending to the sculls, sent my little skiff flying down stream. The sturdy figure of old James Pegg, the lock-keeper, whom I had known for many years, instantly appeared on the bridge. One of the great gates slowly swung open, and, shipping my sculls, I shot in, and called out a cheery good-evening to my old friend.
"Mr. Bell!" exclaimed the old fellow, hurrying along the edge of the lock. "Well, I never! I did not see it was you at first, and yet I ought to have known that long, swinging stroke of yours. You are the last person I expected to see. I was half afraid it might be some one else, although I don't know that I was expecting any one in particular. Excuse me, sir, but was it you called out 'Lock' just now?"
"Of course it was," I answered, laughing. "I'm in the deuce of a hurry to-night, Jimmy, as I want to get on to Wotton before dark. Look sharp, will you, and let me down."
"All right, sir—but you did frighten me just now. I wish you hadn't called out like that!"
As I glanced up at him, I was surprised to see that his usually ruddy, round face was as white as a sheet, and he was breathing quickly.
"Why, what on earth is the matter, Jimmy?" I cried; "how can I have frightened you?"
"Oh, it's nothing, sir; I suppose I'm an old fool," he faltered, smiling. "I don't know what's the matter with me, sir—I'm all of a tremble. The fact is, something happened here last night, and I don't seem to have got over it. You know, I am all by myself here now, sir, and a lonely place it is."
"Something happened?" I said; "not an accident, I hope?"
"No, sir, no accident that I know of, and yet I have been half expecting one to occur all day, and I have been that weak I could hardly wind up the sluices. I am getting old now, and I'm not the man I was; but I'm right glad to see you, Mr. Bell, that I am."
He kept pausing as he spoke, and now and then glanced up the river, as if expecting to see a boat coming round the bend every moment. I was much puzzled by his extraordinary manner. I knew him to be a steady man, and one whose services were much valued by the Conservancy; but it needed only a glance now to show that there was something very much amiss with him.
The darkness was increasing every moment, and, being anxious to get on as soon as possible, I was just going to tell him again to hurry up with the sluices, when he bent down close to me, and said,—
"Would you mind stepping out for a moment, sir, if you can spare the time? I wish to speak to you, sir. I'd be most grateful if you would wait a minute or two."
"Certainly, Jimmy," I answered, hauling myself to the side with the boat-hook, and getting out. "Is there anything I can do for you? I am afraid you are not well. I never saw you like this before."
"No, sir; and I never felt like it before, that I can remember. Something happened here last night that has taken all the nerve out of me, and I want to tell you what it was. I know you are so clever, Mr. Bell, and I have heard about your doings up at Wallinghurst last autumn, when you cleared up the Manor House ghost, and got old Monkford six months."
"Well, fire away," I said, filling my pipe, and wondering what was coming.
"It is this way, sir," he began. "Last night after I had had my supper I thought I'd like a stroll and a quiet smoke along the towing path before turning in. I did not expect any more boats, as it was getting on for ten o'clock. I walked about three-quarters of a mile, and was just going to turn round, when I saw a light down on the surface of the water in mid-stream. It was pretty dark, for the moon was not up yet, and there was a thick white mist rising from the water. I thought it must be some one in a canoe at first, so I waited a bit and watched. Then it suddenly disappeared, and the next instant I saw it again about a hundred yards or so higher up the stream, but only for a second, and then it went out. It fairly puzzled me to know what it could be, as I had never seen anything like it before. I felt sure it wasn't any sort of craft, but I had heard of strange lights being seen at times on the water—what they call jack-o'-lanterns, I believe, sir. I reckoned it might be one of them, but I thought I'd get back to the lock, so that, if it was a canoe, I could let it through. However, nothing came of it, and I waited and watched, and worried all the evening about it, but couldn't come to any sort of idea, so I went to bed. Well, about one o'clock this morning I suddenly woke up and thought I could hear some one a long way off calling exactly as you did just now, 'Lock! lock! lock!' but it sounded ever so far away.
"'It's some of those theatre people coming back to the Will-o'-the-Wisp house-boat,' I said to myself, 'and I'm not going to turn out for them.' The lock was full at the time, so I thought I would just let them work it for themselves. I waited a bit, expecting to hear them every minute come up, singing and swearing as they do, but they never came, and I was just dropping off when I heard the call again. It was not an ordinary sort of voice, but a long, wailing cry, just as if some one was in trouble or drowning. 'Hi! hi! Lock! lo-oock!' it went.
"I got up then and went out. The moon was up now and quite bright, and the mist had cleared off, so I went to the bridge on the upper gates and looked up stream. This is where I was standing, sir, just as we are standing now. I could see right up to the bend, and there was not the sign of a boat. I stood straining my eyes, expecting to see a boat come round every moment, when I heard the cry again, and this time it sounded not fifty yards up stream. I could not make it out at all, so I shouted out as loud as I could, 'Who are you? What's the matter?' but there was no answer; and then suddenly, the next instant, close below me, from inside the lock this time, just here, came a shout, piercing, shrill, and loud, 'Open the lock, quick, quick! Open the lock!'
"I tell you, sir, my heart seemed to stand dead still, and I nearly fell back over the bridge. I wheeled round sharp, but there was nothing in the lock, that I'll swear to my dying day—for I could see all over it, and nothing could have got in there without passing me. The moon was quite bright, and I could see all round it. Without knowing what I was doing, I rushed down like mad to the lower gates, and began to wind up one of the sluices, and then I stood there and waited, but nothing came. As the lock emptied I looked down, but there was no sign of anything anywhere, so I let down the sluice without opening the gates, and then filled up the lock again. I stood by the post, hardly daring to move, when, about half-past five, thank God, I heard the whistle of a tug, and, after seeing her through, it was broad daylight.
"That's the whole story, sir, and how I'm going to live through the night again I don't know. It was a spirit if ever there was one in the world. It's a warning to me, sir; and what's going to happen I don't know."
"Well, Jimmy," I answered, "it certainly is a most extraordinary story, and if I didn't know you as well as I do, I should say you had taken something more than a smoke before you turned in last night."
"I never touch a drop, sir, except when I go into Farley and have a glass of beer, but I have not been there for more than a week now."
I confess that Jimmy's story had left a most unpleasant impression on me. I had little doubt that the whole thing was some strange subjective hallucination, but for a weird and ghostly experience it certainly beat most of the tales I had ever heard. I thought for a moment—it was now quite dark, and I felt little inclined to go on to Wotton. My keenest interests were awakened.
"Look here," I said, "what do you say if I stay here to-night? Can you give me a shake-down of any sort?"
"That I will, sir, and right gladly, and thank God if you will but stay with me. If I was alone here again, and heard that voice, I believe it would kill me. I'll tie up your boat outside, and bring your things in, and then we'll have supper. I'll feel a new man with you staying here, sir."
In a few minutes we were both inside old Jimmy's cosy quarters. His whole bearing seemed to have changed suddenly, and he ran about with alacrity, getting supper ready, and seeming quite like himself again. During the whole evening he kept harping at intervals on the subject of the mysterious voice, but we heard no sound whatever, and I felt more and more certain that the whole thing was due to hallucination on the part of the old man. At eleven o'clock a skiff came up through the lock, and almost immediately afterwards I bade Jimmy good-night and went into the little room he had prepared for me.
I went quickly to bed, and, tired after my long pull, despite the originality of the situation, fell fast asleep. Suddenly I awoke—some one was bending over me and calling me by my name. I leapt up, and, not realising where I was for the moment, but with a sort of dim idea that I was engaged in some exposure, instinctively seized the man roughly by the throat. In a moment I remembered everything, and quickly released my grip of poor old Jimmy, who was gurgling and gasping with horror. I burst out laughing at my mistake, and begged his pardon for treating him so roughly.
"It is all right, sir," he panted. "I hope I didn't frighten you, but I have heard it again, not five minutes ago."
"The deuce you have," I said, striking a match and looking at my watch.
It was nearly two o'clock, and before the minute was up I heard distinctly a cry, as if from some great distance, of "Lock, lock, lock!" and then all was silence again.
"Did you hear it, sir?" whispered the old man, clutching me by the arm with a trembling hand.
"Yes, I heard it," I said. "Don't you be frightened, Jimmy; just wait till I get my clothes on; I am going to see this thing through."
"Be careful, sir; for God's sake, be careful," he whispered.
"All right," I said, slipping on some things. "Just get me a good strong boat-hook, and don't make too much noise. If this mystery is flesh and blood I'll get to the bottom of it somehow. You stay here; and if I call, come out."
I took the thick, short boat-hook which he had brought me and, softly unlatching the door, went out.
The moon was now riding high overhead and casting black fantastic shadows across the little white cottage. All my senses were on the keenest alert, my ears were pricked up for the slightest sound. I crept softly to the bridge on the upper gate which was open. I looked up stream and thought I could see some little ripples on the surface of the water as if a swift boat had just passed down, but there was no sign of any craft whatever to be seen. It was intensely still, and no sound broke the silence save the intermittent croaking of some bull-frogs in the dark shadows of the pollards on the further bank. Behind me could also be heard the gurgling twinkle of the overflow through the chinks of the lower gate.
I stood quite still, gripping the boat-hook in my hand, and looking right and left, straining my eyes for the slightest movement of anything around, when suddenly, close below me from the water, inside the lock, came a loud cry—
"Open the lock, for God's sake, open the lock!"
I started back, feeling my hair rise and stiffen. The sound echoed and reverberated through the silent night, and then died away; but before it had done so I had sprung to the great beam and closed the upper gate. As I did so I caught sight of the old man trembling and shaking at the door of the cottage. I called to him to go and watch the upper gate, and, racing down to the lower ones, wound up one of the sluices with a few pulls, so as to let out the water with as little escape room as possible. I knew by this means if there were any creature of tangible form in the water we must find it when the lock was emptied, as its escape was cut off.
Each of the following minutes seemed stretched into a lifetime as, with eyes riveted on the dark water in the lock, I watched its gradual descent. I hardly dared to think of what I expected to see rise to the surface any moment. Would the lock never empty? Down, down sank the level, and still I saw nothing. A long, misshapen arm of black cloud was slowly stretching itself across the moon.
Hark! there was something moving about down in the well of darkness below me, and as I stood and watched I saw that the water was uncovering a long, black mass and that something ran slowly out of the water and began to clamber up the slimy, slippery beams. What in the name of heaven could it be? By the uncertain light I could only see its dim outline; it seemed to have an enormous bulbous head and dripping, glistening body. The sound of a rapid patter up the tow-path told me that the old man had seen it and was running for his life.
I rushed down to where the thing was, and as its great head appeared above the edge, with all my force struck it a terrific blow with the boat-hook. The weapon flew into splinters in my hand, and the next moment the creature had leapt up beside me and dashed me to the ground with almost superhuman force. I was up and on to it again in a second, and as I caught and closed with it saw that I had at least to deal with a human being, and that what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in strength. The struggle that ensued was desperate and furious. The covering to his head that had splintered the boat-hook was, I saw, a sort of helmet, completely protecting the head from any blow, and the body was cased in a slippery, closely fitting garment that kept eluding my grasp. To and fro we swayed and wrestled, and for a moment I thought I had met my match till, suddenly freeing my right arm, I got in a smashing blow in the region of the heart. The creature uttered a cry of pain and fell headlong to the ground.
Old Jimmy Pegg had hurried back as soon as he heard our struggles and knew that he was not dealing with a being of another world. He ran up eagerly to me.
"Here's your ghost, you old coward!" I panted; "he has got the hardest bone and muscle I ever felt in a ghost yet. I am not used to fighting men in helmets, and he is as slippery as an eel, but I hope to goodness I have not done more than knock the wind out of him. He is a specimen I should rather like to take alive. Catch hold of his feet and we'll get him inside and see who he is."
Between us we carried the prostrate figure inside the cottage and laid him down like a log on the floor. He never moved nor uttered a sound, and I was afraid at first that I had finished him for good and all. I next knelt down and proceeded to unfasten the helmet, which, from its appearance, was something like the kind used by divers, while the old man brought the lantern close to his face. At the first glance I knew in an instant that I had seen the face before, and the next second recognised, to my utter astonishment and horror, that it belonged to Ralph Vyner.
For the moment I was completely dumbfounded, and gazed at the man without speaking. It was obvious that he had only fainted from the blow, for I could see that he was breathing, and in a few minutes he opened his eyes and fixed them on me with a dull and vacant stare. Then he seemed to recall the situation, though he evidently did not recognise me.
"Let me go," he cried, making an effort to rise. "My God! you have killed me." He pressed his hand to his side and fell back again: his face was contorted as if in great pain.
There was obviously only one thing to be done, and that was to send for medical assistance at once. It was clear that the man was badly injured, but to what extent I could not determine. It was impossible to extract the slightest further communication from him—he lay quite still, groaning from time to time.
I told Jimmy to go off at once to Farley and bring the doctor. I scribbled a few directions on a piece of paper.
The old man hurried out of the cottage, but in less than a minute he was back again in great excitement.
"Look here, sir, what I have just picked up," he said; "it's something he has dropped, I reckon."
As Jimmy spoke he held out a square leather case: there was a monogram on it. I took it in my hand and pressed the lid; it flew open, and inside, resting on its velvet bed, lay the glittering circlet of diamonds. I held Lady Ridsdale's lost bracelet in my hand. All my suspicions were confirmed: Vyner was the thief.
Without saying a word I shut the box and despatched the old man at once for the doctor, bidding him go as fast as he could. Then I sat down by the prostrate man and waited. I knew that Jimmy could not be back for at least two hours. The grey dawn was beginning to steal in through the little latticed window when Vyner moved, opened his eyes and looked at me. He started as his eyes fell on the case.
"You are Mr. Bell," he said slowly. "Ridsdale told me that you were coming to the Theodora on purpose to discover the mystery of the lost diamonds. You didn't know that I should give you an opportunity of discovering the truth even before you arrived at the house-boat. Bend down close to me—you have injured me; I may not recover; hear what I have to say."
I bent over him, prepared to listen to his words, which came out slowly.
"I am a forger and a desperate man. Three weeks ago I forged one of Ridsdale's cheques and lessened my friend's balance to the tune of five thousand pounds. He and his wife were old friends of mine, but I wanted the money desperately, and was impervious to sentiment or anything else. On that first day when you met me, although I seemed cheery enough, I was fit to kill myself. I had hoped to be able to restore the stolen money long before Ridsdale was likely to miss it. But this hope had failed. I saw no loophole of escape, and the day of reckoning could not be far off. What devil prompted Ridsdale to bring those diamonds on board, Heaven only knows. The moment I saw them they fascinated me and I knew I should have a try for them. All during that evening's festivity I could think of nothing else. I made up my mind to secure them by hook or by crook. Before we retired for the night, however, I thought I would give Ridsdale a chance. I asked him if he would lend me the exact sum I had already stolen from him, five thousand pounds, but he had heard rumours to my discredit and refused point-blank. I hated him for it. I went into my tent under the pretence of lying down, but in reality to concoct and, if possible, carry out my plot. I waited until the quietest hour before dawn, then I slipped out of my tent, waded into the water, approached the open window of the Countess's cabin, thrust in my hand, took out the case, and, going down the river about a quarter of a mile, threw the diamonds into the middle of the stream. I marked well the place where they sank; I then returned to my tent and went to bed.
"You know what occurred the following morning. I neither feared Ridsdale nor his wife, but you, Bell, gave me a considerable amount of uneasiness. I felt certain that in an evil moment on the night before I had given you a clue. To a man of your ability the slightest clue was all-sufficient. I felt that I must take the bull by the horns and find out whether you suspected me or not. I talked to you, and guessed by the tone of your remarks that you had your suspicions. My relief was immense when that telegram arrived which hurried you away from the Theodora. On the following day I returned to my own little place on the banks of the river four miles below this lock. I knew it was necessary for me to remain quiet for a time, but all the same my plans were clearly made, and I only waited until the first excitement of the loss had subsided and the police and detectives were off their guard. In the meantime I went to see Ridsdale almost daily, and suggested many expedients for securing the thief and getting hold of the right clue. If he ever suspected me, which I don't for a moment suppose, I certainly put him off the scent. My intention was to take the diamonds out of the country, sell them for all that I could get, then return the five thousand pounds which I had stolen from his bank, and leave England for ever. As a forger I should be followed to the world's end, but as the possessor of stolen diamonds I felt myself practically safe. My scheme was too cleverly worked out to give the ordinary detective a chance of discovering me.
"Two days ago I had a letter from Ridsdale in which he told me that he intended to put the matter into your hands. Now this was by no means to my mind, for you, Bell, happened to be the one man in the world whom I really dreaded. I saw that I must no longer lose time. Under my little boat-house I had a small submarine boat which I had lately finished, more as a hobby than anything else. I had begun it years ago in my odd moments on a model I had seen of a torpedo used in the American War. My boat is now in the lock outside, and you will see for yourself what ingenuity was needed to construct such a thing. On the night before the one which has just passed, I got it ready, and, as soon as it was dark, started off in it to recover the diamonds. I got through the lock easily by going in under the water with a barge, but when I reached the spot where I had sunk the diamonds, found to my dismay that my electric light would not work. There was no help for it—I could not find the bracelet without the aid of the light, and was bound to return home to repair the lamp. This delay was fraught with danger, but there was no help for it. My difficulty now was to get back through the lock; for though I waited for quite three hours no boats came along. I saw the upper gates were open, but how to get through the lower ones I could not conceive. I felt sure that my only chance was to frighten the lock-keeper, and get him to open the sluices, for I knew I could pass through them unobserved if they were open, as I had done once before.
"In my diver's helmet was a thick glass face-piece. This had an opening, closed by a cap, which could be unscrewed, and through which I could breathe when above water, and also through which my voice would come, causing a peculiar hollowness which I guessed would have a very startling effect, especially as I myself would be quite invisible. I got into the lock, and shouted to Pegg. I succeeded in frightening him; he hurried to do what I ordered. He wound up the lower sluice, I shot through under water, and so got back unseen. All yesterday I hesitated about trying the experiment again, the risk was so great; but I knew that Ridsdale was certain to see his bank-book soon, that my forgery was in imminent danger of being discovered, also that you, Bell, were coming upon the scene.
"Yes, at any risk, I must now go on.
"I repaired my light, and again last night passed through the lock on my way up, by simply waiting for another boat. As a matter of fact, I passed up through this lock under a skiff about eleven o'clock. My light was now all right, I found the diamond case easily, and turned to pass down the stream by the same method as before. If you had not been here I should have succeeded, and should have been safe, but now it is all up."
He paused, and his breath came quickly.
"I doubt if I shall recover," he said in a feeble voice.
"I hope you will," I replied; "and hark! I think I hear the doctor's steps."
I was right, for a moment or two later old Jimmy Pegg and Dr. Simmons entered the cottage. While the doctor was examining the patient and talking to him, I went out with Jimmy to have a look at the submarine boat. By fixing a rope round it we managed to haul it up, and then proceeded to examine it. It certainly was the most wonderful piece of ingenious engineering I had ever seen. The boat was in the shape of an enormous cigar, and was made of aluminium. It was seven feet long, and had a circular beam of sixteen inches. At the pointed end, close to where the occupant's feet would be, was an air chamber capable of being filled or emptied at will by means of a compressed air cylinder, enabling the man to rise or sink whenever he wished to. Inside, the boat was lined with flat chambers of compressed air for breathing purposes, which were governed by a valve. It was also provided with a small accumulator and electric motor which drove the tiny propeller astern. The helmet which the man wore fitted around the opening at the head end.
After examining the boat it was easy to see how Vyner had escaped through the lock the night before I arrived, as this submarine wonder of ingenuity would be able to shoot through the sluice gate under water, when the sluice was raised to empty the lock.
After exchanging a few remarks with Jimmy, I returned to the cottage to learn the doctor's verdict.
It was grave, but not despairing. The patient could not be moved for a day or two. He was, in Dr. Simmons's opinion, suffering more from shock than anything else. If he remained perfectly quiet, he would in all probability recover; if he were disturbed, the consequences might be serious.
An hour afterwards I found myself on my way up stream sculling as fast as I could in the direction of the Theodora. I arrived there at an early hour, and put the case which contained the diamonds into Lady Ridsdale's hands.
I shall never forget the astonishment of Ridsdale and his wife when I told my strange tale. The Countess burst into tears, and Ridsdale was terribly agitated.
"I have known Vyner from a boy, and so has my wife," he exclaimed. "Of course, this proves him to be an unmitigated scoundrel, but I cannot be the one to bring him to justice."
"Oh, no, Charlie, whatever happens we must forgive him," said Lady Ridsdale, looking up with a white face.
I had nothing to say to this, it was not my affair. Unwittingly I had been the means of restoring to the Ridsdales their lost bracelet; they must act as they thought well with regard to the thief.
As a matter of fact, Vyner did escape the full penalty of his crime. Having got back the diamonds Lord Ridsdale would not prosecute. On the contrary, he helped the broken-down man to leave the country. From the view of pure justice he was, of course, wrong, but I could not help being glad.
As an example of what a desperate man will do, I think it would be difficult to beat Vyner's story. The originality and magnitude of the conception, the daring which enabled the man, single-handed, to do his own dredging in a submarine boat in one of the reaches of the Thames have seldom been equalled.
As I thought over the whole scheme, my only regret was that such ability should not have been devoted to nobler ends.
HOW SIVA SPOKE
During the summer of the past year a medical friend of mine sent me an invitation to dine with him and two of his fellow-craftsmen at the Welcome Club at the Earl's Court Exhibition. One of our party was a certain Dr. Laurier, a young man of considerable ability, whose special attention had been directed to mental diseases. He was, indeed, a noted authority on this subject, and had just completed an appointment at one of the large London asylums. During dinner he entertained us with a few of his late experiences—
"I assure you, Mr. Bell," he said, "there is absolutely no limit to the vagaries of the human mind. At the present moment a most grotesque and painful form of mental disease has come under my notice. The patient is not a pauper, but a gentleman of good standing and means. He is unmarried, and owns a lovely place in the country. He spent the early years of his life in India, and when there the craze began which now assumes the magnitude of a monomania."
"Pray let me hear about him, if your professional etiquette allows you to talk on the subject," I answered.
"I will certainly tell you what I can," he replied. "I have known the man for years, having met him in town on several occasions. Last week his nephew came to see me, and spoke seriously with regard to his uncle's state of mind. His great craze for years has been spiritualism, theosophy, and mahatmas, with all their attendant hocus-pocus. He firmly believes in his power to call up spirits from the vasty deep, and holds many extraordinary seances."
"But surely such a craze is not sufficient to prove insanity!" I said. "Hundreds of people believe in such manifestations at the present day."
"I know that well, and perfectly harmless such crazes are so long as the victims confine their beliefs to spirit-rapping, table-turning, and humbug of that sort; but when their convictions lead them to commit actions which compromise serious interests, and when, as in this case, there is a possibility of life itself being in danger, it is time they should be looked after."
"What is the particular nature of your friend's delusion?" I asked.
"This. He is practically a Brahmin, having been deeply imbued with the peculiar doctrines of Brahminism when in India. Amongst his friends in the East was a Brahmin of high degree in whose house were three idols, representing the Hindu Trinity—Vishnu, Brahma, and Siva. By some means which have never been explained to me, my friend managed to get possession of Siva, and brought the idol home. He placed it in a gallery which he has in his house, believing from the first that it possessed mystical properties which it was his duty to fathom. The nephew now tells me that he has brought his craze to such a pass that he firmly believes that Siva speaks to him in Hindustanee. The unhappy man kneels nightly at the altar in front of the idol, receiving, as he imagines, directions from him. The consequence is that he does all sorts of mad and extraordinary things, spending his large fortune lavishly in the decoration of this hideous monster, buying pearls, rubies, and even diamonds for the purpose, and really being, as he imagines, guided by it in the disposition of his life and property. He has a young niece residing with him, to whom he has always been very much attached; but of late he has been cruel to her, banishing her from his presence, refusing her his sympathy, and has even gone to the length of threatening to take her life, saying quite openly that Siva informs him night after night of her treachery towards him. Now the nephew is engaged to this girl, and is naturally anxious about her; but, say what he will, nothing will induce her to turn against her uncle, to whom she is deeply attached. She denies that he threatens her life, although the nephew declares that he did so in his own presence. Under such circumstances, her friends are, naturally, most anxious about her, and feel it their duty to get a medical opinion with regard to the uncle. I am going down to his place to-morrow, and shall there meet his regular medical attendant in consultation."
"And then, I suppose, certify as to his insanity?" I answered.
"Doubtless; that is, if we come to the conclusion that the man is really insane."
"What an awful responsibility is reposed in you doctors!" I said. "Think what it means to condemn a man to a lunatic asylum. In the hands of the unscrupulous such a power is terrible."
Dr. Laurier knitted his brows, and looked keenly at me.
"What do you mean?" he said in a curious tone. "Of course mistakes are made now and then, but not, I believe, often. To act in good faith and exercise reasonable care are the two requisites of the law."
"Of course," I replied, "there are great difficulties on both sides of this momentous question; but if I belonged to the profession, I can frankly say that nothing would induce me to sign a certificate of lunacy."
A few moments afterwards we all rose and strolled about the grounds. As we were parting at the exit gates I called Dr. Laurier aside.
"The love of mystery is to me a ruling passion," I said. "Will you excuse the great liberty I take when I ask you to let me know the result of your visit of to-morrow? I am immensely interested in your spiritualist patient."
As I spoke I scribbled my address on a card and handed it to him, half expecting that he would resent my intrusiveness. A smile flitted across his clever face, and he stood looking at me for a moment under the glare of the great arc lights.
"I will certainly give you the result of my visit, as you are so much interested," he replied. "Good-night."
We got into our respective hansoms, and drove off in different directions.
I had much to do, and soon forgot both Dr. Laurier and his patient; therefore, on the following Monday, when he was ushered into my presence, my surprise was great.
"I have come to fulfil my promise," he began. "I am here not only to satisfy your curiosity about my patient, but also to ask your advice. The fact is the matter has, I think, now merged more into your domain than mine."
"Pray tell me what has happened," I asked.
"That is what I am about to do; but first I must ensure your absolute confidence and secrecy, for my professional reputation may be seriously compromised if it is known that I consulted you."
I gave him the assurance, and he proceeded:—
"My patient's name is Edward Thesiger; he lives in a place called The Hynde, in Somersetshire. I went down as I had arranged, and was met at the station by his nephew, Jasper Bagwell. Bagwell is a thin, anxious-looking man of about five-and-thirty. He drove me over to The Hynde, and I was there met by Thesiger's own physician, Dr. Dalton. Dalton and I each made a separate examination of the patient, and came to the conclusion that he was undoubtedly queer.
"In the course of the afternoon we were all wandering round the grounds, when we were joined by the young girl to whom Bagwell is engaged. When she saw me she gave me a very eager glance, and soon attached herself to my side.
"'I want to speak to you, Dr. Laurier,' she said in a low voice.
"I managed to drop behind in order to give her an opportunity.
"'I know what you have come about,' she said. 'What do you think of my uncle's case?'
"'I am not prepared to hazard an opinion,' I replied.
"'Well, please listen to something I have got to say. Jasper Bagwell has his own reasons for what he tells you. You do very wrong to listen to him. Uncle Edward is queer, I grant, with regard to the idol Siva, that is because he is in reality a Brahmin; but if you sign a certificate to the effect that he is mad, you will be making a very terrible mistake.'
"As she spoke her lips trembled, and tears filled her eyes.
"'I am terribly unhappy about it all,' she continued.
"I looked at her earnestly, then I said in a low voice:
"'Forgive me if I reply to you as plainly as you have just spoken to me. You arouse my surprise when you speak as you do of Mr. Bagwell. Is it not the case that you are engaged to marry him?'
"She gave a visible start.
"'It is the case,' she answered slowly. Then she continued, speaking with great emphasis, 'I only marry my cousin because it is the one—the one chance of saving Uncle Edward.'
"'What do you mean?' I asked in astonishment.
"'I wish I could tell you, but I dare not. I am a very miserable girl. There is foul play somewhere, of that I am convinced. Oh, believe me! won't you believe me?'
"To these extraordinary words I made a somewhat dubious reply, and she soon left me, to walk by her uncle's side.
"Late that evening I was alone with the patient, and he then confided to me much which he had withheld at first. He spoke about the years he had spent in India, and in especial alluded to the Brahmin religion. He told me also that he now possesses the idol Siva, and has set it up in a marble gallery where he can hold his spiritualistic seances. Bending forward as he spoke, and fixing me with his intelligent and yet strange glance, he said solemnly, and with an appearance of perfect truth on his face, that by certain incenses and secret incantations he could make the idol speak to him in Hindustanee. He said further that he felt himself completely dominated by it, and was bound to obey all its dictates. As he said the latter words his face grew white to the lips.
"'Siva is exigent in his demands,' he said slowly—'exigent and terrible. But come, I will take you into the gallery, and you shall see him for yourself.'
"I went gladly. We had to go through a long conservatory which opened out of the dining-room; from there we entered an oval-shaped room. Thesiger brought me straight up to the idol. It was placed upon a pedestal. It is a hideous monster made of wood, and has five heads; in its hand it holds a trident. I could hardly refrain from smiling when I first saw it. It was difficult to believe that any man, sane or insane, could hold faith in such a monstrosity. My object, however, was to draw the poor mad fellow out, and I begged of him to take what steps he considered necessary in order to induce the creature to speak. He willingly obeyed my desire, and with great solemnity went through elaborate operations; then, turning the lamp very low, knelt at the altar in front of the idol and began to address it. He waited for its replies, which were, of course, inaudible, and then continued speaking again. After some moments spent in this way he declared solemnly that it had replied to him, and practically called me a liar when I said I had not heard it.
"When he turned up the lamp at the end of this strange scene, I noticed for the first time that the idol was decorated with precious stones of extraordinary value. To leave such valuables in a room with an unlocked door was in itself a symptom of insanity, and when I parted with Thesiger for the night I had not the least doubt that my unfortunate host was really insane. All the same, I had a curious unwillingness with regard to signing the certificate. Bagwell eagerly asked me if I did not intend to sign. To his astonishment, I replied in the negative. I said that the case was a very peculiar one, and that it would be necessary for me to pay a second visit to the patient before I could take this extreme step. He was, I could see, intensely annoyed, but I remained firm."
Laurier stopped speaking and looked me full in the face.
"Well?" I asked.
"I have come to consult with you over the matter. You remember what you said about the responsibility of signing such certificates! It is on account of those words I have come to you."
"Well, Dr. Laurier," I answered, "I shall of course be happy to do anything I can to help you, but I must frankly confess that I fail to see exactly on what point I can be of service. I know little about disease in general, and nothing about mental diseases in particular. Miss Thesiger seems to think that there is foul play; but have you any suspicions on your own account?"
"I have no proofs, but, all the same, I do suspect foul play, although, perhaps, I have no right to say so."
"Then what do you want me to do?" I asked.
"This," he answered. "Will you come down with me to Somersetshire as my friend, and in the role of a great spiritualist? Thesiger will be only too delighted to meet some one of his own way of thinking. Will you come?"
I thought for a moment—it was not a role I cared to assume, but the case was peculiar, and might possibly lie within my province. I eventually agreed to accompany Laurier into Somersetshire, and, as a matter of fact, went down with him the next day. He had telegraphed our arrival to The Hynde, and a hearty invitation was accorded to me.
As we were driving through the grounds late the following afternoon we were met by a tall girl, who was accompanied by two thoroughbred retrievers.
"Here is Miss Thesiger," said Laurier. He called to the driver to stop, and jumping down, went to her side. I accompanied him.
"Miss Thesiger," said Laurier, "let me introduce my friend, Mr. John Bell."
She looked me full in the face, then her grey eyes seemed to lighten with momentary pleasure, and she held out her hand.
"What have you come back for?" she asked the next moment, turning to Laurier.
"To see your uncle."
"Are you to meet Dr. Dalton?" her lips trembled.
"I believe so. I assure you, Miss Thesiger, I have come with no sinister design." Laurier smiled as he spoke. "On the contrary, I am here to-day in order, if possible, to get at the truth. There is no one who can help me better than this gentleman."
"Then you do suspect foul play?" she said, her eyes lighting up with sudden hope.
"I have no reason to do so," he answered.
"It exists," she replied. "I know what I am saying; will you not believe me?" As she spoke she glanced hurriedly behind her—footsteps were heard rapidly approaching.
"There is my cousin," she said; "he follows me like a shadow. Dr. Laurier and Mr. Bell, I must see you both, or one of you, in private. I have something of great importance which you ought to know."
Before either of us could answer her, Jasper Bagwell came up. He gave us a polite welcome, and glanced keenly at his cousin, who took no notice of him, but continued her walk.
"Poor girl!" he said with a deep sigh, as we three walked slowly to the house.
"Why do you pity her?" I could not help asking.
"Because she is nearly as much under a delusion as my uncle himself. The fact is she is in the utmost danger, and yet refuses absolutely to believe it. The more eccentric my unfortunate uncle grows, the more she clings to him; she scarcely leaves his side, although it is most unsafe for her to be with him. I think it my absolute duty to watch her day and night, and am really almost worn out with anxiety. The whole of last night I spent in the corridor which divides her room from Mr. Thesiger's. Three times in the course of the night I saw the unfortunate madman gliding down this corridor, and but for my timely appearance on the scene I have not the slightest doubt that he would have entered Helen's room with the most fell design. I see the madness in his eye when he even glances at her. He told me solemnly not later than yesterday that Siva had laid it upon him to take her life, as she was opposed heart and soul to the doctrines of Brahminism, and was a serious obstacle in the way of the great work which my uncle was meant by the idol to undertake. I told Helen exactly what he said, but she goes on as if nothing were wrong. The fact is this, Laurier, if you don't sign that certificate I must get another doctor who will."
Bagwell's communications were certainly alarming, but we had scarcely time to reply to them before we reached the house. When we entered the hall the frown departed from his face like magic, he assumed a thoroughly pleasant manner, and conducted us quickly into the presence of the owner of the house.
Edward Thesiger was a handsome old man, tall and dignified in appearance. He possessed a particularly lofty and intelligent cast of face, aquiline features, and silver hair which flowed down over his shoulders. His face was clean shaven, which allowed the handsome curves of his mobile mouth to be plainly seen. His conversation betokened the man of learning, his words were well chosen, his manner was extremely calm and quiet. At a first glance no one could look more thoroughly sane.
During dinner that night I happened to be seated opposite Miss Thesiger. She was very silent, and seemed terribly depressed. I noticed that she often glanced at her uncle, and further observed that he carefully avoided meeting her eyes. When she came into the room he manifested distinct uneasiness, and when she retired to the drawing-room after dinner a look of relief filled his fine face. He drew up his chair near mine and began to talk.
"I am glad you were able to come," he said. "It is not often one has the privilege of meeting a thoroughly kindred spirit. Now, tell me, have you carefully studied Brahminism?"
"I have done so cursorily," I replied, "and have had from time to time curious dealings with the supernatural." I then added abruptly, "I am much interested to hear from Laurier that you, Mr. Thesiger, possess the idol Siva in this house."
"Hush!" he said, starting and turning very pale. "Do not say the name in such a loud and reckless tone." As he spoke he bent towards me, and his voice dropped. "Mr. Bell, I have extraordinary confidences which I can make to you by-and-by."
"I shall be happy to hear them," I answered.
"Have you had wine enough? Shall we go into the gallery now?"
I rose immediately. My host led me into a conservatory, and from there straight into a marble gallery. It was a curious-looking place, being a large oval chamber forty feet long, the walls were faced with marble, and a dado painted in Egyptian style ran round the room. Half way between the middle of the room and the end stood a fountain of curious design. It consisted of the bronze figure of a swan with wings outspread. From its bill the water issued and fell into a circular basin. Facing this fountain, twenty feet away, stood the idol, with its little altar in front of it. I went up and examined it with intense interest. The pedestal on which it rested was about three feet high—the idol itself was the same height, so that its five heads were almost on a level with my face. Round the neck, and decorating each of the heads, were jewels of extraordinary magnificence; the hand which held the trident was loaded with diamond rings. It is almost impossible to describe the sinister effect of this grotesque and horrible monster; and when I saw Mr. Thesiger gazing at it with a peculiar expression of reverence not unmixed with fear, I felt certain that Bagwell was right, and that the man was dangerously insane.
As I was thinking these thoughts my host groaned quite audibly, and then looked steadily at me.
"I am living through a very terrible time," he said in a low voice. "I am the victim of a strange and awful power." Here his words dropped to an intense whisper. "Years ago, when I became a Brahmin," he continued, "voluntarily giving up the faith in which I was born, I little knew to what such a step would lead. I stole Siva from the house of my Indian friend and brought the idol home. From the first it began to exercise a marvellous power over me. I had made a large fortune in India; and when I came to England, bought this place, and finding this curious gallery already in existence, had it lined with marble, and set up Siva in its midst. The study of the faith which I had adopted, the holding of spiritualistic seances and matters of that sort, occupied my time, and I became more and more imbued with the strange mysticism of my belief. As the years flew by I was more and more firmly convinced that what looks like mere wood is in reality imbued with strange and awful qualities. I shall never forget that terrible evening when Siva first spoke to me."
"How long ago was that?" I interrupted.
"Some months ago now. I was kneeling by the altar, and was speaking to him as usual, when I heard words uttered in Hindustanee. At first I could scarcely credit my own ears, but soon I grew accustomed to the fact that Siva wished to hold communication with me, and listened to him nightly. At the beginning of our remarkable intercourse he laid certain mandates upon me which resulted, as you see, in my decorating him with these precious stones. I felt bound to obey him, whatever he dictated; but of late he has told me—he has told me——" The old man began to shudder and tremble.
While he had been speaking to me he had been gazing at the idol; now he walked a few steps away and turned his back on it.
"Sooner or later I must obey him," he said in a feeble voice; "but the thing is driving me crazed—crazed."
"What is it?" I asked; "tell me, I beseech you."
"I cannot; it is too awful—it relates to the one I love best in the world. The sacrifice is too horrible, and yet I am drawn to it—I am drawn to the performing of an awful deed by a terrific power. Ask me no more, Mr. Bell; I see by your face that I have your pity."
"You have, truly," I answered.
I had scarcely said the last words before the door of the gallery was opened, and Miss Thesiger, Bagwell, and Laurier appeared. Miss Thesiger went straight to her uncle's side, and laid her hand on his shoulder.
"Must you stay up any longer?" she asked in a gentle voice. "I heard you walking about last night; you were restless and did not sleep. Do go to bed now; you seem so tired. I know these gentlemen will excuse you," she added, glancing from Laurier to me.
"Certainly," said Laurier. "I should recommend Mr. Thesiger to retire at once; he looks quite worn out."
"I shall go presently—presently," said Thesiger, in a somewhat curt voice. "Leave us, Helen; there's a good child; go, my dear."
"Go, Helen; don't irritate him," I heard Bagwell say.
She gave a quick, despairing glance from one man to the other; then, turning, left the room.
"And now, Mr. Thesiger," I said, "will you not grant me the favour of a seance?"
Mr. Thesiger remained gravely silent for a moment; then he said:
"By virtue of your power as a medium, you may be able to hear the voice, and so convince Dr. Laurier of its reality."
He then proceeded to go through some elaborate operations, and finally kneeling at the altar, began to speak Hindustanee.
It was about the strangest scene I had ever witnessed; and though I stood almost at his elbow, I could hear no sound whatever but his own voice.
"Siva will not speak to-night," he said, rising; "there must be some one here whose influence is adverse. I cannot hear him. It is strange!"
He looked puzzled, and more relieved than otherwise.
"You will go to bed now, sir," said Bagwell; "you look very tired."
"I am," he replied. "I will leave my friends with you, Jasper. You will see that they have all they want." He bade Laurier and me a courteous good-night, nodded to his nephew, and left the room.
"This is the most extraordinary phase of mental delusion I ever heard of," I said. "If you will permit me, Mr. Bagwell, I will examine this idol more particularly."
"You can do so if you please," he said, but he did not speak in a cordial tone.
"Examine it to your heart's content," he continued a moment later; "only pray don't disarrange it—he seems to know by instinct if it is touched. Bah! it is sickening. Shall we go into another room, gentlemen?"
Watching his face carefully, I resolved to make my examination in private, and now followed him into the smoking-room. We stayed there for a short time, talking in a desultory manner, and soon afterwards retired for the night.
On my dressing-table a note awaited me. I opened it hastily, and saw to my surprise that it was from Miss Thesiger.
"I could not get the opportunity I needed to-night," she wrote, "but will you meet me in the Laurel Walk to-morrow morning at five o'clock?"
I tore up the letter after reading it, and soon afterwards got into bed. I must confess that I slept badly that night; I felt worried and anxious. There was not the least doubt that Thesiger was mad; it was all too apparent that his madness was daily and hourly assuming a more and more dangerous form. The affectionate girl who clung to him ought undoubtedly to be removed from his neighbourhood.