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The Bandbox
by Louis Joseph Vance
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"Thought I heard you moving around upstairs. How be you? Hungry? I've got a bite ready."

"I'd like a drink of water, please," said Eleanor—"plain water," she added with a significance that could not have been overlooked by a guilty conscience.

But the woman seemed to sense no ulterior meaning. "I'll fetch it," she said in a good-humoured voice, going to the sink.

While she was manipulating the pump, the girl moved nearer, frankly taking stock of her. The dim impression retained from their meeting in the early morning was merely emphasised by this second inspection; the woman was built on generous lines—big-boned, heavy and apparently immensely strong. A contented and easy-going humour shone from her broad, coarsely featured countenance, oddly contending with a suggestion of implacable obstinacy and tenacious purpose.

"Here you are," she said presently, extending a glass filmed with the breath of the ice-cold liquid it contained.

"Thank you," said Eleanor; and drank thirstily. "Who are you?" she demanded point blank, returning the glass.

"Mrs. Clover," said the woman as bluntly, if with a smiling mouth.

"Where am I?"

"Well"—the woman turned to the stove and busied herself with coffee-pot and frying-pan while she talked—"this was the Wreck Island House oncet upon a time. I calculate it's that now, only it ain't run as a hotel any more. It's been years since there was any summer folks come here—place didn't pay, they said; guess that's why they shet it up and how your pa come to buy it for a song."

"Where is the Wreck Island House, then?" Eleanor put in.

"On Wreck Island, of course."

"And where is that?"

"In Long Island Sound, about a mile off 'n the Connecticut shore. Pennymint Centre's the nearest village."

"That means nothing to me," said the girl. "How far are we from New York?"

"I couldn't rightly say—ain't never been there. But your pa says—I heard him tell Eph once—he can make the run in his autymobile in an hour and a half. That's from Pennymint Centre, of course."

Eleanor pressed her hands to her temples, temporarily dazed by the information. "Island," she repeated—"a mile from shore—New York an hour and a half away ...!"

"Good, comfortable, tight little island," resumed Mrs. Clover, pleased, it seemed, with the sound of her own voice; "you'll like it when you come to get acquainted. Just the very place for a girl with your trouble."

"My trouble? What do you know about that?"

"Your pa told me, of course. Nervous prostration's what he called it—says as you need a rest with quiet and nothing to disturb you—plenty of good food and sea air—"

"Oh stop!" Eleanor begged frantically.

"Land!" said the woman in a kindly tone—"I might 've known I'd get on your poor nerves, talking all the time. But I can't seem to help it, living here all alone like I do with nobody but Eph most of the time.... There!" she added with satisfaction, spearing the last rasher of bacon from the frying-pan and dropping it on a plate—"now your breakfast's ready. Draw up a chair and eat hearty."

She put the plate on the red table-cloth, flanked it with dishes containing soft-boiled eggs, bread and butter and a pot of coffee of delicious savour, and waved one muscular arm over it all with the gesture of a benevolent sorceress. "Set to while it's hot, my dear, and don't you be afraid; good food never hurt nobody."

Momentarily, Eleanor entertained the thought of mutinous refusal to eat, by way of lending emphasis to her indignation; but hunger overcame the attractions of this dubious expedient; and besides, if she were to accomplish anything toward regaining her freedom, if it were no more than to register a violent protest, she would need strength; and already she was weak for want of food.

So she took her place and ate—ate ravenously, enjoying every mouthful—even though her mind was obsessed with doubts and fears and burning anger.

"You are the caretaker here?" she asked as soon as her hunger was a little satisfied.

"Reckon you might call us that, me and Eph; we've lived here for five years now, taking care of the island—ever since your pa bought it."

"Eph is your husband?"

"That's him—Ephraim Clover."

"And—doesn't he do anything else but—caretake?"

"Lord bless you, he don't even do that; I'm the caretakeress. Eph don't do nothing but potter round with the motor-boat and go to town for supplies and fish a little and 'tend to the garden and do the chores and—"

"I should think he must keep pretty busy."

"Busy? Him? Eph? Lord! he's the busiest thing you ever laid your eyes on—poking round doing nothing at all."

"And does nobody ever come here ...?"

"Nobody but the boss."

"Does he often—?"

"That's as may be and the fit's on him. He comes and goes, just as he feels like. Sometimes he's on and off the island half a dozen times a week, and again we don't hear nothing of him for months; sometimes he just stops here for days and mebbe weeks, and again he's here one minute and gone the next. Jumps round like a flea on a griddle, I say; you can't never tell nothing about what he's going to do or where he'll be next.... My land o' mercy, Mr. Searle! What a start you did give me!"

The man had succeeded in startling both women, as a matter of fact. Eleanor, looking suddenly up from her plate on hearing Mrs. Clover's cry of surprise, saw him lounging carelessly in the hall doorway, where he had appeared as noiselessly as a shadow. His sly, satiric smile was twisting his thin lips, and a sardonic humour glittered in the pale eyes that shifted from Eleanor's face to Mrs. Clover's, and back again.

"I wish," he said, nodding to the caretaker, "you'd slip down to the dock and tell Eph to have the boat ready by seven o'clock."

"Yes, sir," assented Mrs. Clover hastily. She crossed at once toward the outer door. From her tone and the alacrity with which she moved to do his bidding, no less than from the half-cringing look with which she met his regard, Eleanor had no difficulty in divining her abject fear of this man whom she could, apparently, have taken in her big hands and broken in two without being annoyed by his struggles.

"And, here!" he called after her—"supper ready?"

"Yes, sir—quite."

"Very well; I'll have mine. Eph can come up as soon as he's finished overhauling the motor. Wait a minute; tell him to be sure to bring the oars up with him."

"Yes, sir, I will, sir."

Mrs. Clover dodged through the door and, running down the pair of steps from the kitchen stoop to the ground, vanished behind the house.

"Enjoying your breakfast, I trust?"

Eleanor pushed back her chair and rose. She feared him, feared him as she might have feared any loathly, venomous thing; but she was not in the least spiritually afraid of him. Contempt and disgust only emphasised the quality of her courage. She confronted him without a tremor.

"Will you take me with you when you leave this island tonight?" she demanded.

He shook his head with his derisive smile. She had discounted that answer.

"How long do you mean to keep me here?"

"That depends on how agreeable you make yourself," he said obscurely.

"What do you mean?"

"Merely that ... well, it's a pleasant, salubrious spot, Wreck Island. You'll find it uncommonly healthful and enjoyable, too, as soon as you get over the loneliness. Not that you'll be so terribly lonely; I shall be here more or less, off and on, much of the time for the next few weeks. I don't mind telling you, in strict confidence, as between father and child, that I'm planning to pull off something pretty big before long; of course it will need a bit of arranging in advance to make everything run smoothly, and this is ideal for a man of my retiring disposition, not overfond of the espionage of his fellow-men. So, if you're docile and affectionate, we may see a great deal of one another for some weeks—as I said."

"And if not—?"

"Well"—he waved his hands expressively—"of course, if you incline to be forward and disobedient, then I shall be obliged to deny you the light of my countenance, by way of punishment."

She shook her head impatiently. "I want to know when you will let me go," she insisted, struggling against the oppression of her sense of helplessness.

"I really can't say." He pretended politely to suppress a yawn, indicating that the subject bored him inordinately. "If I could trust you—"

"Can you expect that, after the way you treated me last night—this morning?"

"Ah, well!" he said, claw-like fingers stroking his lips to conceal his smile of mockery.

"You lied to me, drugged me, robbed me of the necklace, brought me here...."

"Guilty," he said, yawning openly.

"Why? You could have taken the necklace from me at the hotel. Why must you bring me here and keep me prisoner?"

"The pleasure of my only daughter's society...."

"Oh, you're despicable!" she cried, furious.

He nodded thoughtfully, fumbling with his lips.

"Won't you tell me why?" she pleaded.

He shook his head. "You wouldn't understand," he added in a tone of maddening commiseration.

"I shan't stay!" she declared angrily.

"Oh, I think you will," he replied gently.

"I'll get away and inform on you if I have to swim."

"It's a long, wet swim," he mused aloud—"over a mile, I should say. Have you ever swum over a hundred yards in your life?"

She was silent, choking with rage.

"And furthermore," he went on, "there are the Clovers. Excellent people, excellent—for my purposes. I have found them quite invaluable—asking no questions, minding their own business, keen to obey my instructions to the letter. I have already instructed them about you, my child. I trust you will be careful not to provoke them; it'd be a pity ... you're rather good-looking, you know ..."

"What do you mean by that?" she stammered, a little frightened by the secret menace in his tone. "What have my looks to do with ...?"

"Everything," he said softly—"everything. Not so far as Ephraim is concerned; I'll be frank with you—you needn't fear Ephraim's hurting you, much, should you attempt to escape. He will simply restrain you, using force only if necessary. But Mrs. Clover ... she's different. You mustn't let her deceive you; she seems kindly disposed enough; she's pleasant spoken but ... well, she's not fond of pretty women. It's an obsession of hers that prettiness and badness go together. And Ephraim is fond of pretty women—very. You see?"

"Well?"

"Well, that's why I have these people in so strong a hold. You see, Ephraim got himself into trouble trying to pull off one of those bungling, amateurish burglaries that his kind go in for so extensively; he wanted the money to buy things for a pretty woman. And he was already a married man. You can see how Mrs. Clover felt about it. She—ah—cut up rather nasty. When she got through with the other woman, no one would have called her pretty any longer. Vitriol's a dreadful thing...."

He paused an instant, seeming to review the case sombrely. "I managed to get them both off, scot free; and that makes them loyal. But it would go hard with anyone who tried to escape to the mainland and tell on them—to say nothing of me.... Mrs. Clover has ever since been quite convinced of the virtue of vitriol. She keeps a supply handy most of the time, in case of emergencies. And she sleeps lightly; don't forget that. I hate to think of what she might do if she thought you meant to run away and tell tales."

Slowly, step by step, guessing the way to the outer door, the girl backed away from him, her face colourless with horror. Very probably he was lying to frighten her; very possibly (she feared desperately) he was not. What she knew of him was hardly reassuring; the innate, callous depravity that had poisoned this man beyond cure might well have caused the death-in-life of other souls. What he was capable of, others might be; and what she knew him to be capable of, she hardly liked to dwell upon. Excusably she conceived her position more than desperate; and now her sole instinct was to get away from him, if only for a little time, out of the foetid atmosphere of his presence, away from the envenomed irony of his voice—away and alone, where she could recollect her faculties and again realise her ego, that inner self that she had tried so hard to keep stainless, unspoiled and unafraid.

He watched her as she crept inch by inch toward the door, his nervous fingers busy about his mouth as if trying to erase that dangerous, evil smile.

"Before you go," he said suddenly, "I should tell you that you will be alone with Mrs. Clover tonight. I'm going to town, and Ephraim's to wait with the boat at Pennymint Point, because I mean to return before morning. But you needn't wait up for me; Mrs. Clover will do that."

Eleanor made no reply. While he was speaking she had gained the door. As she stepped out, Mrs. Clover reappeared, making vigorously round the corner of the house.

Passing Eleanor on the stoop, she gave her a busy, friendly nod, and hurried in.

"Eph'll be up in half an hour," she heard her say. "Shall I serve your supper now?"

"Please," he said quietly.

The girl stumbled down the steps and blindly fled the sound of his voice.



XIV

THE STRONG-BOX

Her initial rush carried Eleanor well round the front of the building. Then, as suddenly as she had started off, she stopped, common-sense reasserting itself to assure her that there was nothing to be gained by running until exhausted; her enemy was not pursuing her. It was evident that she was to be left to her own devices as long as they did not impel her to attempt an escape—as long as she made herself supple to his will.

She stood for a long minute, very erect, head up and shoulders back, eyes closed and lips taut, her hands close-clenched at her sides. Then drawing a long breath, she relaxed and, with a quiet composure admirably self-enforced, moved on, setting herself to explore and consider her surroundings.

The abandoned hotel faced the south, overlooking the greater breadth of Long Island Sound. In its era of prosperity, the land in front of it to the water's edge, and indeed for a considerable space on all sides had been clear—laid out, no doubt, in grassy lawns, croquet grounds and tennis courts; but in the long years of its desuetude these had reverted to the primitive character of the main portion of the island, to a tangle of undergrowth and shrubbery sprinkled with scrub-oak and stunted pines. In one spot only, a meagre kitchen-garden was under cultivation.

Southward, at the shore, a row of weather-beaten and ramshackle bath-houses stood beside the rotting remnants of a long dock whose piles, bereft of their platform of planks, ran out into the water in a dreary double rank.

Westward, a patch of woodland—progenitor by every characteristic of the tangle in the one-time clearing—shut off that extremity of the island where it ran out into a sandy point. Eastward lay an extensive acreage of low, rounded sand dunes, held together by rank beach-grass and bordered by a broad, slowly shelving beach of sand and pebbles. To the north, at the back of the hotel, stretched a waste of low ground finally merging into a small salt-marsh. Across this wandered a thin plank walk on stilts which, over the clear water beyond the marsh, became a rickety landing-stage. At some distance out from the latter a long, slender, slate-coloured motor-boat rode at its moorings, a rowboat swinging from its stern. In the larger craft Eleanor could see the head and shoulders of a man bending over the engine—undoubtedly Mr. Ephraim Clover. While she watched him, he straightened up and, going to the stern of the motor-boat, began to pull the dory in by its painter. Having brought it alongside, he transshipped himself awkwardly, then began to drive the dory in to the dock. Eleanor remarked the fact that he stood up to the task, propelling the boat by means of a single oar, thrusting it into the water until it struck bottom and then putting his weight upon it. The water was evidently quite shallow; even where the motor-boat lay moored, the oar disappeared no more than half its length.

Presently, having gained the landing-stage, the man clambered upon it, threw a couple of half-hitches in the painter round one of the stakes, shouldered the oars and began to shamble toward the hotel: a tall, ungainly figure blackly silhouetted against the steel-blue sky of evening.

Eleanor waited where she was, near the beginning of the plank walk, to get a better look at him. In time he passed her, with a shy nod and sidelong glance. He seemed to be well past middle-age, of no pretensions whatever to physical loveliness and (she would have said) incurably lazy and stupid: his face dull and heavy, his whole carriage eloquent of a nature of sluggish shiftlessness.

He disappeared round the house, and a moment later she heard Mrs. Clover haranguing him in a shrill voice of impatience little resembling the tone she had employed with the girl.

For an instant Eleanor dreamed wildly of running down to the dock, throwing herself into the rowboat and casting it off to drift whither it would. But the folly of this was too readily apparent; even if she might be sure that the tide would carry her away from the island, the water was so shallow that a man could wade out to the motor-boat, climb into it and run her down with discouraging ease. As for the motor-boat—she hadn't the least idea of the art of running a motor; and besides, she would be overhauled before she could get to it; for she made no doubt whatever that she was being very closely watched, and would be until the men had left the island. After that ... a vista of days of grinding loneliness and hopeless despair opened out before her disheartened mental vision.

She resumed her aimless tour of inspection, little caring whither she wandered so long as it was far from the house, as far as possible from ... him.

Sensibly the desolate spirit of the spot saturated her mood. No case that she had ever heard of seemed to her so desperate as that of the lonely, helpless girl marooned upon this wave-bound patch of earth and sand, cut off from all means of communication with her kind, her destiny at the disposal of the maleficent wretch who called himself her father, her sole companions two alleged criminals whose depravity, if what she had heard were true, was subordinate only to his.

She could have wept, but wouldn't; the emotion that oppressed her was not one that tears would soothe, her plight not one that tears could mend.

Her sole comfort resided in the fact that she was apparently to be let alone, free to wander at will within the boundaries of the island.

Sunset found her on a little sandy hillock at the western end of Wreck Island—sitting with her chin in her hands, and gazing seawards with eyes in which rebellion smouldered. She would not give in, would not abandon hope and accept the situation at its face value, as irremediable. Upon this was she firmly determined: the night was not to pass unmarked by some manner of attempt to escape or summon aid. She even found herself willing to consider arson as a last resort: the hotel afire would make a famous torch to bring assistance from the mainland. Only ... she shrank from the attempt, her soul curdling with the sinister menace of vitriol.

The day was dying in soft airs that swept the face of the waters with a touch so light as to be barely perceptible. With sundown fell stark calm; the Sound became a perfect mirror for the sombre conflagration in the west. The slightest sounds reverberated afar through the still, moveless void. She could hear Mrs. Clover stridently counselling her Ephraim at the house, the quarter of a mile away. Later, she heard the hollow tramp of two pair of feet, one heavy and one light, on the plank-walk; the creak of rowlocks with the dip and splash of oars; and, after a little pause, the sudden, sharp, explosive rattle of a motor exhaust, as rapid, loud and staccato as the barking of a Gatling, yet quickly hushed——almost as soon as it shattered the silences, muffled to a thick and steady drumming.

Eleanor rose and turned to look northward. The wood-lot hid from her sight both dock and mooring—and all but the gables of the hotel, as well—but she soon espied the motor-boat standing away on a straight course for the mainland: driven at a speed that seemed to her nearly incredible, a smother of foam at its stern, long purple ripples widening away from the jet of white water at the stem, a smooth, high swell of dark water pursuing as if it meant to catch up and overwhelm the boat and its occupants. These latter occupied the extremes of the little vessel: Ephraim astern, beside the motor; the slighter figure at the wheel in the bows.

Slowly the girl took her path back to the hotel, watching the boat draw away, straight and swift of flight as an arrow, momentarily dwindling and losing definite form against the deepening blue-black surface of the Sound....

Weary and despondent, she ascended the pair of steps to the kitchen porch. Mrs. Clover was busy within, washing the supper dishes. She called out a cheery greeting, to which Eleanor responded briefly but with as pleasant a tone as she could muster. She could not but distrust her companion and gaoler, could not but fear that something vile and terrible lurked beneath that good-natured semblance: else why need the woman have become his creature?

"You ain't hungry again?"

"No," said Eleanor, lingering on the porch, reluctant to enter.

"Lonely?"

"No...."

"You needn't be; your pa'll be home by three o'clock, he says."

Eleanor said nothing. Abruptly a thought had entered her mind, bringing hope; something she had almost forgotten had recurred with tremendous significance.

"Tired? I'll go fix up your room soon 's I'm done here, if you want to lay down again."

"No; I'm in no hurry. I—I think I'll go for another little walk round the island."

"Help yourself," the woman called after her heartily; "I'll be busy for about half an hour, and then we can take our chairs out on the porch and watch the moon come up and have a real good, old-fashioned gossip...."

Eleanor lost the sound of her voice as she turned swiftly back round the house. Then she stopped, catching her breath with delight. It was true—splendidly true! The rowboat had been left behind.

It rode about twenty yards out from the end of the dock, made fast to the motor-boat mooring. The oars were in it; Ephraim had left them carelessly disposed, their blades projecting a little beyond the stern. And the water was so shallow at the mooring that the man had been able to pole in with a single oar, immersing it but half its length! An oar, she surmised, was six feet long; that argued an extreme depth of water of three feet—say at the worst three and a half. Surely she might dare to wade out, unmoor the boat and climb in—if but opportunity were granted her!

But her heart sank as she considered the odds against any such attempt. If only the night were to be dark; if only Mrs. Clover were not to wait up for her husband and her employer; if only the woman were not her superior physically, so strong that Eleanor would be like a child in her hands; if only there were not that awful threat of vitriol ...!

Nevertheless, in the face of these frightful deterrents, she steeled her resolution. Whatever the consequences, she owed it to herself to be vigilant for her chance. She promised herself to be wakeful and watchful: possibly Mrs. Clover might nap while sitting up; and the girl had two avenues by which to leave the house: either through the kitchen, or by the front door to the disused portion of the hotel. She need only steal noiselessly along the corridor from her bedroom door and down the broad main staircase and—the front door was not even locked. She remembered distinctly that he had simply pulled it to. Still, it would be well to make certain he had not gone back later to lock it.

Strolling idly, with a casual air of utter ennui—assumed for the benefit of her gaoler in event she should become inquisitive—Eleanor went round the eastern end of the building to the front. Here a broad veranda ran from wing to wing; its rotting weather-eaten floor fenced in by a dilapidated railing save where steps led up to the front door; its roof caved in at one spot, wearing a sorry look of baldness in others where whole tiers of shingles had fallen away.

Cautiously Eleanor mounted the rickety steps and crossed to the doors. To her delight, they opened readily to a turn of the knob. She stood for a trifle, hesitant, peering into the hallway now dark with evening shadow; then curiosity overbore her reluctance. There was nothing to fear; the voice of Mrs. Clover singing over her dishpan in the kitchen came clearly through the ground-floor corridor, advertising plainly her preoccupation. And Eleanor wanted desperately to know what it was that the man had hidden in the socket of the newel-post.

Shutting the door she felt her way step by step to the foot of the staircase. Happily the floor was sound: no creaking betrayed her progress—there would be none when in the dead of night she would break for freedom.

Mrs. Clover continued to sing contentedly.

Eleanor removed the knob of the post and looked down into the socket. It was dark in there; she could see nothing; so she inserted her hand and groped until her fingers closed upon a thick rough bar of metal. Removing this, she found she held a cumbersome old-fashioned iron key of curious design.

It puzzled her a little until she recalled the clang of metal that had prefaced the man's appearance in the hall that afternoon. This then, she inferred, would be the key to his private cache—the secret spot where he hid his loot between forays.

Mrs. Clover stopped singing suddenly, and the girl in panic returned the key to its hiding place, the knob to its socket.

But it had been a false alarm. In another moment the woman's voice was again upraised.

Eleanor considered, staring about her. He had come into sight from beneath the staircase. She reconnoitred stealthily in that direction, and discovered a portion of the hall fenced off by a railing and counter: evidently the erstwhile hotel office. A door stood open behind the counter. With some slight qualms she passed into the enclosure and then through the door.

She found herself in a small, stuffy, dark room. Its single window, looking northwards, was closely shuttered on the outside; only a feeble twilight filtered through the slanted slats. But there was light enough for Eleanor to recognise the contours and masses of a flat-topped desk with two pedestals of drawers, a revolving chair with cane seat and back, a brown paper-pulp cuspidor of generous proportions and—a huge, solid, antiquated iron safe: a "strong-box" of the last century's middle decades, substantial as a rock, tremendously heavy, contemptuously innocent of any such innovations as combination-dials, time-locks and the like. A single keyhole, almost large enough to admit a child's hand, and certainly calculated to admit the key in the newel-post, demonstrated that this safe depended for the security of its contents upon nothing more than its massive construction and unwieldy lock. It demonstrated something more: that its owner based his confidence upon its isolation and the loyalty of his employees, or else had satisfied himself through practical experiment that one safe was as good as another, ancient or modern, when subjected to the test of modern methods of burglary.

And (Eleanor was sure) the Cadogan collar was there; unless, of course, the man had taken it away with him; which didn't seem likely, all things considered. A great part of the immense value of the necklace resided in its perfection, in its integrity; as a whole it would be an exceedingly difficult thing to dispose of until long after the furore aroused by its disappearance had died down; broken up, its marvellously matched pearls separated and sold one by one, it would not realise a third of its worth.

And the girl would have known the truth in five minutes more (she was, in fact, already moving back toward the newel-post) had not Mrs. Clover chosen that moment to leave the kitchen and tramp noisily down the corridor.

What her business might be in that part of the house Eleanor could not imagine—unless it were connected with herself, unless she had heard some sound and was coming to investigate.

In panic terror, Eleanor turned back into the little room and crouched down behind the safe, making herself as small as possible, actually holding her breath for fear it would betray her.

Nearer came that steady, unhurried tread, and nearer. The girl thought her heart would burst with its burden of suspense. She was obliged to gasp for breath, and the noise of it rang as loudly and hoarsely in her hearing as the exhaust of a steam-engine. She pressed a handkerchief against her trembling lips.

Directly to the counter came the footsteps, and paused. There was the thump of something being placed upon the shelf. Then deliberately the woman turned and marched back to her quarters.

In time the girl managed to regain enough control of her nerves to enable her to rise and creep out through the office enclosure to the hall. Mrs. Clover had resumed her chanting in the kitchen; but Eleanor was in no mood to run further chances just then. She needed to get away, to find time to compose herself thoroughly. Pausing only long enough to see for herself what the woman had deposited on the counter (it was a common oil lamp, newly filled and trimmed, with a box of matches beside it: preparations, presumably, against the home-coming of the master with a fresh consignment of booty) she flitted swiftly to and through the door, closed it and ran down the steps to the honest, kindly earth.

Here she was safe. None suspected her adventure or her discovery. She quieted from her excitement, and for a long time paced slowly to and fro, pondering ways and means.

The fire ebbed from the heart of the western sky; twilight merged imperceptibly into a night extraordinarily clear and luminous with the gentle radiance of a wonderful pageant of stars. The calm held unbroken. The barking of a dog on the mainland carried, thin but sharp, across the waters. On the Sound, lights moved sedately east and west: red lights and green and white lancing the waters with long quivering blades. At times the girl heard voices of men talking at a great distance. Once a passenger steamer crept out of the west, seeming to quicken its pace as it drew abreast the island, then swept on and away like a floating palace of fairy lamps. As it passed, the strains of its string orchestra sounded softly clear through the night. Other steamers followed—half a dozen in a widely spaced procession. But no boat came near Wreck Island. If one had, Eleanor could almost have found courage to call for help....

In due time Mrs. Clover hunted her up, bringing a lantern to guide her heavy footsteps.

"Lands sakes!" she cried, catching sight of the girl. "Wherever have you been all this time?"

"Just walking up and down," said Eleanor quietly.

"Thank goodness I found you," the woman panted. "Give me quite a turn, you did. I didn't know but what you might be trying some foolish idea about leaving us, like your pa said you might. One never knows when to trust you nervous prostrationists, or what you'll be up to next."

Eleanor glanced at her sharply, wondering if by any chance the woman's mind could be as guileless as her words or the bland and childish simplicity of her eyes in the lantern-light.

"Wish you'd come up on the stoop and keep me company," continued Mrs. Clover; "I'm plumb tired of sitting round all alone. Moon'll be up before long; it's a purty sight, shining on the water."

"Thank you," said Eleanor; "I'm afraid I'm too tired. It must be later than I thought. If you don't mind I'll go to my room."

"Oh, please yourself," said the woman, disappointment lending her tone an unpleasant edge. "You'll find it hot and stuffy up there, though. If you can't get comfortable, come down-stairs; I'll be up till the boss gets home."

"Very well," said Eleanor.

She said good night to Mrs. Clover on the kitchen porch and going to her room, threw herself upon the bed, dressed as she was.

For some time the woman down-stairs rocked slowly on the porch, humming sonorously. The sound was infinitely soothing. Eleanor had some difficulty in keeping awake, and only managed to do so by dint of continually exciting her imagination with thoughts of the Cadogan collar in the safe, the key in the newel-post, the dory swinging at its moorings in water little more than waist deep....

In spite of all this, she did as the slow hours lagged drift into a half-waking nap. How long it lasted she couldn't guess when she wakened; but it had not been too long; a glance at the dial of her wrist-watch in a slant of moonlight through the window reassured her as to the flight of time. It was nearly midnight; she had three hours left, three hours leeway before the return of her persecutor.

She lay without moving, listening attentively. The house was anything but still; ghosts of forgotten footsteps haunted all its stairs and corridors; but the girl could hear no sound ascribable to human agency. Mrs. Clover no longer sang, her rocking-chair no longer creaked.

With infinite precautions she got up and slipped out of the room. Once in the hallway she did hear a noise of which she easily guessed the source; and the choiring of angels could have been no more sweet in her hearing: Mrs. Clover was snoring.

Kneeling at the head of the staircase and bending over, with an arm round the banister for support, she could see a portion of the kitchen. And what she saw only confirmed the testimony of the snores. The woman had moved indoors to read; an oil lamp stood by her shoulder, on the table; her chair was well tilted, her head resting against its back; an old magazine lay open on her lap; her chin had fallen; from her mouth issued dissonant chords of contentment.

Eleanor drew back, rose and felt her way to the long corridor. Down this she stole as silently as any ghost, wholly indifferent to the eerie influences of the desolate place, spectrally illuminated as it was with faded chequers of moonlight falling through dingy windows, alive as it was with the groans and complaints of uneasy planks and timbers and the frou-frou, like that of silken skirts, of rats and mice scuttling between its flimsy walls. These counted for nothing to her; but all her soul hung on the continuance of that noise of snoring in the kitchen; and time and again she paused and listened, breathless, until sure it was holding on without interruption.

Gaining at length the head of the stairs, she picked her way down very gently, her heart thumping madly as the burden of her weight wrung from each individual step its personal protest, loud enough (she felt) to wake the dead in their graves; but not loud enough, it seemed, to disturb the slumbers of the excellent, if untrustworthy, Mrs. Clover.

At length she had gained the newel-post and abstracted the key. The foretaste of success was sweet. Pausing only long enough to unlatch the front door, for escape in emergency, she darted through the hall, behind the counter, into the little room.

And still Mrs. Clover slept aloud.

Kneeling, Eleanor fitted the key to the lock. Happily, it was well oiled and in excellent working order. The tumblers gave to the insistence of the wards with the softest of dull clicks. She grasped the handle, and the heavy door swung wide without a murmur.

And then she paused, at a loss. It was densely dark in the little room, and she required to be able to see what she was about, if she were to pick out the Cadogan collar.

It was risky, a hazardous chance, but she determined to run it. The lamp that Mrs. Clover had left for her employer was too convenient to be rejected. Eleanor brought it into the room, carefully shut the door to prevent the light being visible from the hall, should Mrs. Clover wake and miss her, placed the lamp on the floor before the safe and lighted it.

As its soft illumination disclosed the interior of the antiquated strong-box, the girl uttered a low cry of dismay. To pick out what she sought from that accumulation (even if it were really there) would be the work of hours—barring a most happy and unlikely stroke of fortune.

The interior of the safe was divided into some twelve pigeon-holes, all closely packed with parcels of various sizes—brown-paper parcels, neatly wrapped and tied with cord, each as neatly labelled in ink with an indecipherable hieroglyphic: presumably a means of identification to one intimate with the code.



But Eleanor possessed no means of telling one package from another; they were all so similar to one another in everything save size, in which they differed only slightly, hardly materially.

None the less, having dared so much, she wasn't of the stuff to give up the attempt without at least a little effort to find what she sought. And impulsively she selected the first package that fell under her hand, with nervous fingers unwrapped it and—found herself admiring an extremely handsome diamond brooch.

As if it had been a handful of pebbles, she cast it from her to blaze despised upon the mean plank flooring, and selected another package.

It contained rings—three gold rings set with solitaire diamonds. They shared the fate of the brooch.

The next packet held a watch. This, too, she dropped contemptuously, hurrying on.

She had no method, other than to take the uppermost packets from each pigeonhole, on the theory that the necklace had been one of the last articles entrusted to the safe. And that there was some sense in this method was demonstrated when she opened the ninth package—or possibly the twelfth: she was too busy and excited to keep any sort of count.

This last packet, however, revealed the Cadogan collar.

With a little, thankful sigh the girl secreted the thing in the bosom of her dress and prepared to rise.

Behind her a board creaked and the doorlatch clicked. Still sitting—heart in her mouth, breath at a standstill, blood chilling with fright—she turned in time to see the door open and the face and figure of her father as he stood looking down at her, his eyes blinking in the glare of light that painted a gleam along the polished barrel of the weapon in his hand.



XV

THE ENEMY'S HAND

In spite of the somewhat abrupt and cavalier fashion in which Staff had parted from Alison at the St. Simon, he was obliged to meet her again that afternoon at the offices of Jules Max, to discuss and select the cast for A Single Woman. The memory which each retained of their earlier meeting naturally rankled, and the amenities suffered proportionately. In justice to Staff it must be set down that he wasn't the aggressor; his contract with Max stipulated that he should have the deciding word in the selection of the cast—aside from the leading role, of course—and when Alison chose, as she invariably did, to try to usurp that function, the author merely stood calmly and with imperturbable courtesy upon his rights. In consequence, it was Alison who made the conference so stormy a one that Max more than once threatened to tear his hair, and as a matter of fact did make futile grabs at the meagre fringe surrounding his bald spot. So the meeting inevitably ended in an armed truce, with no business accomplished: Staff offering to release Max from his contract to produce, the manager frantically begging him to do nothing of the sort, and Alison making vague but disquieting remarks about her inclination to "rest." ...

Staff dined alone, with disgust of his trade for a sauce to his food. And, being a man—which is as much as to say, a creature without much real understanding of his own private emotional existence—he wagged his head in solemn amazement because he had once thought he could love a woman like that.

Now Eleanor Searle was a different sort of a girl altogether....

Not that he had any right to think of her in that light; only, Alison had chosen to seem jealous of the girl. Heaven alone (he called it honestly to witness) knew why....

Not that he cared whether Alison were jealous or not....

But he was surprised at his solicitude for Miss Searle—now that Alison had made him think of her. He was really more anxious about her than he had suspected. She had seemed to like him, the few times they'd met; and he had liked her very well indeed; it's refreshing to meet a woman in whom beauty and sensibility are combined; the combination's piquant, when you come to consider how uncommon it is....

He didn't believe for an instant that she had meant to run away with the Cadogan collar; and he hoped fervently that she hadn't been involved in any serious trouble by the qualified thing. Furthermore, he candidly wished he might be permitted to help extricate her, if she were really tangled up in any unpleasantness.

Such, at all events, was the general tone of his meditations throughout dinner and his homeward stroll down Fifth Avenue from Forty-fourth Street, a stroll in which he cast himself for the part of the misprized hero; and made himself look it to the life by sticking his hands in his pockets, carrying his cane at a despondent angle beneath one arm, resting his chin on his chest—or as nearly there as was practicable, if he cared to escape being strangled by his collar—and permitting a cigarette to dangle dejectedly from his lips....

He arrived in front of his lodgings at nine o'clock or something later. And as he started up the brownstone stoop he became aware of a disconsolate little figure hunched up on the topmost step; which was Mr. Iff.

The little man had his chin in his hands and his hat pulled down over his eyes. He rose as Staff came up the steps and gave him good evening in a spiritless tone which he promptly remedied by the acid observation:

"It's a pity you wouldn't try to be home when I call. Here you've kept me waiting the best part of an hour."

"Sorry," said Staff gravely; "but why stand on ceremony at this late day? My bedroom windows are still open; I left 'em so, fancying you might prefer to come in that way."

"It's a pity," commented Iff, following him upstairs, "you can't do something for that oratorical weakness of yours. Ever try choking it down? Or would that make you ill?"

With which he seemed content to abandon persiflage, satisfied that his average for acerbity was still high. "Besides," he said peaceably, "I'm all dressed up pretty now, and it doesn't look right for a respectable member of society to be pulling off second-story man stunts."

Staff led him into the study, turned on the lights, then looked his guest over.

So far as his person was involved, it was evident that Iff had employed Staff's American money to advantage. He wore, with the look of one fresh from thorough grooming at a Turkish bath, a new suit of dark clothes. But when he had thrown aside his soft felt hat, his face showed drawn, pinched and haggard, the face of a man whose sufferings are of the spirit rather than of the body. Loss of sleep might have accounted in part for that expression, but not for all of it.

"What's the matter?" demanded Staff, deeply concerned.

"You ask me that!" said Iff impatiently. He threw himself at length upon the divan. "Haven't you been to the St. Simon? Don't you know what has happened? Well, so have I, and so do I."

"Well ...?"

Iff raised himself on his elbow to stare at Staff as if questioning his sanity.

"You know she's gone—that she's in his hands—and you have the face to stand there and say 'Wel-l?' to me!" he snapped.

"But—good Lord, man!—what is Miss Searle to you that you should get so excited about her disappearance, even assuming what we're not sure of—that she decamped with Ismay?"

"She's only everything to me," said Iff quietly: "she's my daughter."

Staff slumped suddenly into a chair.

"You're serious about that?" he gasped.

"It's not a matter I care to joke about," said the little man gloomily.

"But why didn't you tell a fellow ...!"

"Why should I—until now? You mustn't forget that you sat in this room not twenty-four hours ago and listened to me retail what I admit sounded like the damnedest farrago of lies that was ever invented since the world began; and because you were a good fellow and a gentleman, you stood for it—gave me the benefit of the doubt. And at that I hadn't told you half. Why? Why, because I felt I had put sufficient strain upon your credulity for one session at least."

"Yes—I know," Staff agreed, bewildered; "but—but Miss Searle—your daughter—!"

"That's a hard one for you to swallow——what? I don't blame you. But it's true. And that's why I'm all worked up—half crazed by my knowledge that that infamous blackguard has managed to deceive her and make her believe he is me—myself—her father."

"But what makes you think that?"

"Oh, I've his word for it. Read!"

Iff whipped an envelope from his pocket and flipped it over to Staff. "He knew, of course, where I get my letters when in town, and took a chance of that catching me there and poisoning the sunlight for me."

Staff turned the envelope over in his hands, remarking the name, address, postmark and special delivery stamp. "Mailed at Hartford, Connecticut, at nine this morning," he commented.

"Read it," insisted Iff irritably.

Staff withdrew the enclosure: a single sheet of note-paper with a few words scrawled on one side.

"'I've got her,'" he read aloud. "'She thinks I'm you. Is this sufficient warning to you to keep out of this game? If not—you know what to expect.'"

He looked from the note back to Iff. "What does he mean by that?"

"How can I tell? It's a threat, and that's enough for me; he's capable of anything fiendish enough to amuse him." He shook his clenched fists impotently above his head. "Oh, if ever again I get within arm's length of the hound ...!"

"Look here," said Staff; "I'm a good deal in the dark about this business. You've got to calm yourself and help me out. Now you say Miss Searle's your daughter; yet you were on the ship together and didn't recognise one another—at least, so far as I could see."

"You don't see everything," said Iff; "but at that, you're right—she didn't recognise me. She hasn't for years—seven years, to be exact. It was seven years ago that she ran away from me and changed her name. And it was all his doing! I've told you that Ismay has, in his jocular way, made a practice of casting suspicion on me. Well, the thing got so bad that he made her believe I was the criminal in the family. So, being the right sort of a girl, she couldn't live with me any longer and she just naturally shook me—went to Paris to study singing and fit herself to earn a living. I followed her, pleaded with her, but she couldn't be made to understand; so I had to give it up. And that was when I registered my oath to follow this cur to the four corners of the earth, if need be, and wait my chance to trip him up, expose him and clear myself. And now he's finding the going a bit rough, thanks to my public-spirited endeavours, and he takes this means of tying my hands!"

"I should think," said Staff, "you'd have shot him long before this."

"Precisely," agreed Iff mockingly. "That's just where the bone-headedness comes in that so endears you to your friends. If I killed him, where would be my chance to prove I hadn't been guilty of the crimes he's laid at my door? He's realised that, all along.... I passed him on deck one night, coming over; it was midnight and we were alone; the temptation to lay hands on him and drop him overboard was almost irresistible—and he knew it and laughed in my face!... And that's the true reason why I didn't accuse him when I was charged with the theft of the necklace—because I couldn't prove anything and a trumped-up accusation that fell through would only make my case the worse in Nelly's sight.... But I'll get him yet!"

"Have you thought of going to Hartford?"

"I'm no such fool. If that letter was posted in Hartford this morning, it means that Ismay's in Philadelphia."

"But isn't he wise enough to know you'd think just that?"

Iff sat up with a flush of excitement. "By George!" he cried—"there's something in that!"

"It's a chance," said Staff thoughtfully.

The little man jumped up and began to pace the floor. To and fro, from the hall-door to the windows, he strode. At perhaps the seventh turn at the windows he paused, looking out, then moved quickly back to Staff's side.

"Taxicab stopping outside," he said in a low voice: "woman getting out—Miss Landis, I think. If you don't mind, I'll dodge into your bedroom."

"By all means," assented his host, rising.

Iff swung out of sight into the back room as Staff went to and opened the hall-door.

Alison had just gained the head of the stairs. She came to the study door, moving with her indolent grace, acknowledging his greeting with an insolent, cool nod.

"Not too late, I trust?" she said enigmatically.

"For what?" asked Staff, puzzled.

"For this appointment," she said, extending a folded bit of paper.

"Appointment?" he repeated with the rising inflection, taking the paper.

"It was delivered at my hotel half an hour ago," she told him. "I presumed you ..."

"No," said Staff. "Half a minute...."

He shut the door and unfolded the note. The paper and the chirography, he noticed, were identical with those of the note received by Iff from Hartford. With this settled to his satisfaction, he read the contents aloud, raising his voice a trifle for the benefit of the listener in the back room.

"'If Miss Landis wishes to arrange for the return of the Cadogan collar, will she be kind enough to call at Mr. Staff's rooms in Thirtieth Street at a quarter to ten tonight.

"'N. B.—Any attempt to bring the police or private detectives or other outsiders into the negotiations will be instantly known to the writer and—there won't be any party.'"

"Unsigned," said Staff reflectively.

"Well?" demanded Alison, seating herself.

"Curious," remarked Staff, still thinking.

"Well?" she iterated less patiently. "Is it a practical joke?"

"No," he said, smiling; "to me it looks like business."

"You mean that the thief intends to come here—to bargain with me?"

"I should fancy so, from what he says.... And," Staff added, crossing to his desk, "forewarned is forearmed."

He bent over and pulled out the drawer containing his revolver. At the same moment he heard Alison catch her breath sharply, and a man's voice replied to his platitude.

"Not always," it said crisply. "Be good enough to leave that gun lay—just hold up your hands, where I can see them, and come away from that desk."

Staff laughed shortly and swung smartly round, exposing empty hands. In the brief instant in which his back had been turned a man had let himself into the study from the hall. He stood now with his back to the door, covering Staff with an automatic pistol.

"Come away," he said in a peremptory tone, emphasising his meaning with a flourish of the weapon. "Over here—by Miss Landis, if you please."

Quietly Staff obeyed. He had knocked about the world long enough to recognise the tone of a man talking business with a gun. He placed himself beside Alison's chair and waited, wondering.

Indeed, he was very much perplexed and disturbed. For the first time since Iff had won his confidence against his better judgment, his faith in the little man was being shaken. This high-handed intruder was so close a counterpart of Mr. Iff that one had to look twice to distinguish the difference, and then found the points of variance negligible—so much so that the fellow might well be Iff in different clothing and another manner. And Iff could easily have slipped out of the bedroom by its hall door. Only, to shift his clothes so quickly he would have to be a lightning-change artist of exceptional ability.

On the whole, Staff decided, this couldn't be Iff. And yet ... and yet ...

"You may put up that pistol," he said coolly. "I'm not going to jump you, so it's unnecessary. Besides, it's bad form with a lady present. And finally, if you should happen to let it off the racket would bring the police down on you more quickly than you'd like, I fancy."

The man grinned and shoved the weapon into a pocket from which its grip projected handily.

"Something in what you say," he assented. "Besides, I'm quick, surprisingly quick with my hands."

"Part of your professional equipment, no doubt," commented Staff indifferently.

"Admit it," said the other easily. He turned his attention to Alison. "Well, Miss Landis ...?"

"Well, Mr. Iff?" she returned in the same tone.

"No," he corrected; "not Iff—Ismay."

"So you've changed identities again!"

"Surely you don't mind?" he said, grinning over the evasion.

"But you denied being Ismay aboard the Autocratic."

"My dear lady, you couldn't reasonably expect me to plead guilty to a crime which I had not yet committed."

"Oh, get down to business!" Staff interrupted impatiently. "You're wasting time—yours as well as ours."

"Peevish person, your young friend," Ismay commented confidentially to Alison. "Still, there's something in what he says. Shall we—ah—begin to negotiate?"

"I think you may as well," she agreed coldly.

"Very well, then. The case is simple enough. I'm here to offer to secure the return of the Cadogan collar for an appropriate reward."

"Ten thousand dollars has been offered," she began.

"Not half enough, my dear lady," he interposed. "You insult the necklace by naming such a meagre sum—to say nothing of undervaluing my intelligence."

"So that's it!" she said reflectively.

"That is it, precisely. I am in communication with the person who stole your necklace; she's willing to return it for a reward of reasonable size."

"She? You mean Miss Searle?"

The man made a deprecating gesture. "Please don't ask me to name the lady...."

"I knew it!" Alison cried triumphantly.

"You puppy!" Staff exclaimed. "Haven't you the common manhood to shoulder the responsibility for your crimes yourself?"

"Tush," said the man gently—"tush! Not a pretty way to talk at all—calling names! I'm surprised. Besides, I ought to know better than you, acting as I do as agent for the lady in question."

"That's a flat lie," said Staff. "If you repeat it—I warn you—I'll jump you as sure 's my name's Staff, pistol or no pistol!"

"Aren't you rather excited in your defence of this woman?" Alison turned on him with a curling lip.

"I've a right to my emotions," he retorted—"to betray them as I see fit."

"And I," Ismay put it, "to my freedom of speech—"

"Not in my rooms," Staff interrupted hotly. "I've warned you. Drop this nonsense about Miss Searle if you want to stop here another minute without a fight. Drop it! Say what you want to say to Miss Landis——and get out!"

He was thoroughly enraged, and his manner of expressing himself seemed to convince the thief. With a slight shrug of his shoulders he again addressed himself directly to Alison.

"In the matter of the reward," he said, "we're of the opinion that you've offered too little by half. Twenty thousand at the least—"

"You forget I have the duty to pay."

"My dear lady, if you had not been anxious to evade payment of the duty you would be enjoying the ownership of your necklace today."

As he spoke the telephone-bell rang. Staff turned away to his desk, Ismay's voice pursuing him with the caution.

"Don't forget about that open drawer—keep your hands away from it."

"Oh, be quiet," returned Staff contemptuously. Standing with his back to them, he took up the instrument and lifted off the receiver.

"Hello?" he said irritably.

He was glad that his face was not visible to his guests; he could restrain a start of surprise, but was afraid his expression would have betrayed him when he recognised the voice at the other end of the line as Iff's.

"Don't repeat my name," it said quickly in a tone low but clear. "That is Iff. Ismay still there?"

"Yes," said Staff instantly: "it's I, Harry. How are you?"

"Get rid of him as quick 's you can," Iff continued, "and join me here at the Park Avenue. I dodged down the fire-escape and caught his motor-car; his chauffeur thinks I'm him. I'll wait in the street—Thirty-third Street side, with the car. Now talk."

"All right," said Staff heartily; "glad to. I'll be there."

"Chauffeur knows where Nelly is, I think; but he's too big for me to handle alone, in case my foot slips and he gets suspicious. That's why I need you. Bring your gun."

"Right," Staff agreed promptly. "The club in half an hour. Yes, I'll come. Good-bye."

He turned back toward Ismay and Alison, his doubts resolved, all his vague misgivings as to this case of double identity settled finally and forever.

"Alison," he said, breaking in roughly upon something Ismay was saying to the girl, "you've a cab waiting outside, haven't you?"

Alison stared in surprise. "Yes," she said in a tone of wonder.

Staff paused beside the divan, one hand resting upon the topmost of a little heap of silken cushions. "Mind if I borrow it?" he asked, ignoring the man.

"No, but—"

"It's business—important," said Staff. "I'll have to leave you here at once. Only"—he watched Ismay closely out of the corners of his eyes—"if I were you I wouldn't waste any more time on this fellow. He's bluffing—can't carry out anything he promises."

Ismay turned toward him, expostulant.

"What d' you mean by that?" he demanded.

"Miss Searle has escaped," said Staff deliberately.

"No!" cried Ismay, startled and thrown off his guard by the fear it might be so. "Impossible!"

"Think so?" As he spoke Staff dextrously snatched up the uppermost pillow and with a twist of his hand sent it whirling into the thief's face.

It took him utterly unawares. His arms flew up too late to ward it off, and he staggered back a pace.

"Lots of impossible things keep happening all the time," chuckled Staff as he closed in.

There was hardly a struggle. Staff's left arm clipped the man about the waist at the same time that his right hand deftly abstracted the pistol from its convenient pocket. Then, dropping the weapon into his own pocket, he transferred his hold to Ismay's collar and spun him round with a snap that fairly jarred his teeth.

"There, confound you!" he said, exploring his pockets for other lethal weapons and finding nothing but three loaded clips ready to be inserted in the hollow butt of the pistol already confiscated. "Now what 'm I going to do with you, you blame' little pest?"

The question was more to himself than to Ismay, but the latter, recovering with astonishing quickness, answered Staff by suddenly squirming out of his coat and leaving it in his assailant's hands as he ducked to the door and flung himself out.

Staff broke into a laugh as the patter of the little man's feet was heard on the stairs.

"Resourceful beggar," he commented, going to the window and rolling up the coat as he went. He reached it just in time to see the thief dodge out.

The coat, opening as it descended, fell like a blanket round Ismay's head. He stumbled, tripped and fell headlong down the steps, sprawling and cursing.

"Thought you might need it," Staff apologised as the man picked himself up and darted away.

He turned to confront an infuriated edition of Alison.

"Why did you do that?" she demanded with a stamp of her foot. "What right had you to interfere? I was beating him down; in another minute we'd have come to terms—"

"Oh, don't be silly, my dear," said Staff, taking his revolver from the desk-drawer and placing it in the hip-pocket of tradition. "To begin with, I don't mind telling you I don't give much of a whoop whether you ever get that necklace back or not." He grabbed his hat and started for the door. "What I'm interested in is the rescue of Miss Searle, if you must know; and that's going to happen before long, or I miss my guess." He paused at the open door. "If we get her, we get the necklace, of course—and the Lord knows you'll be welcome to that. Would you mind turning out the lights before you go?"

"Staff!"

Her tone was so peremptory that he hesitated an unwelcome moment longer.

"Well?" he asked civilly, wondering what on earth she had found to fly into such a beastly rage about.

"You know what this means?"

"You tell me," he smiled.

"It means the break; I won't play A Single Woman!" she snapped.

"That's the best guess you've made yet," he laughed. "You win. Good night and—good-bye."



XVI

NINETY MINUTES

Commandeering Alison's taxicab with the promise of an extra tip, Staff jumped in and shut the door. As they swung into Fourth Avenue, he caught a glimpse of Ismay's slight figure standing on the corner, his pose expressive of indecision and uncertainty; and Staff smiled to himself, surmising that it was there that the thief had left his motor-car to be confiscated by Iff.

Three blocks north on Fourth Avenue, and they swung west into Thirty-third Street: a short course quickly covered, but yet not swiftly enough to outpace Staff's impatience. He had the door open, his foot on the step, before the taxicab had begun to slow down preparatory to stopping beside the car waiting in the shadow of the big hotel.

Iff was in the tonneau, gesticulating impatiently; the chauffeur had already cranked up and was sliding into his seat. As the taxicab rolled alongside, Staff jumped, thrust double the amount registered by the meter into the driver's hand, and sprang into the body of Ismay's car. Iff snapped the door shut; as though set in motion by that sharp sound, the machine began to move smoothly and smartly, gathering momentum with every revolution of its wheels. They were crossing Madison almost before Staff had settled into his seat. A moment later they were snoring up Fifth Avenue.

Staff looked at his watch. "Ten," he told Iff.

"We'll make time once we get clear of this island," said the little man anxiously; "we've got to."

"Why?"

"To beat Ismay—"

Staff checked him with a hand on his arm and a warning glance at the back of the chauffeur's head.

"Oh, that's all right now," Iff told him placidly. "I thought we might 's well understand one another first as last; so, while we were waiting for you, I slipped him fifty, gave him to understand that my affectionate cousin had about come to the end of his rope and—won his heart and confidence. It's a way I have with people; they do seem to fall for me," he asserted with insufferable self-complacence.

He continued to impart his purchased information to Staff by snatches all the way from Thirty-fourth Street to the Harlem River.

"He's a decent sort," he said, indicating the operator with a nod; "apparently, that is; name, Spelvin. Employed by a garage upon the West Side, in the Seventies. Says Ismay rang 'em up about half-past two last night, chartered this car and driver, to be kept waiting for him whenever he called for it.... Coarse work that, for Cousin Arbuthnot—very, very crude....

"Still, he'd just got home and hadn't had time to make very polished arrangements.... Seems he told this chap he was to see nothing but the road, hear nothing but the motor, say nothing whatever to nobody. Gave him a fifty, too. That habit seems to run in the family....

"He called for the car around five o'clock, with Nelly. Spelvin says she seemed worn out, hardly conscious of what was going on. They lit out for—where we're bound: place on the Connecticut shore called Pennymint Point. On the way Ismay told him to stop at a roadhouse, got out and brought Nelly a drink. Spelvin says he wouldn't be surprised if it was doped; she slept all the rest of the way and hardly woke up even when they helped her aboard the boat."

"Boat!"

"Motor-boat. I infer that Cousin Arbuthnot has established headquarters on a little two-by-four island in the Sound—Wreck Island. Used to be run as a one-horse summer resort—hotel and all that. Went under several years ago, if mem'ry serveth me aright. Anyhow, they loaded Nelly aboard this motor-boat and took her across....

"Spelvin was told to wait. He did. In about an hour—boat back; native running it hands Spelvin a note, tells him to run up to Hartford and post it and be back at seven P.M. Spelvin back at seven; Ismay comes across by boat, is driven to town....

"That's all, to date. Spelvin had begun to suspect there was something crooked going on, which made him easy meat for my insidious advances. Says he was wondering if he hadn't better tell his troubles to a cop. All of which goes to show that Cousin Artie's fast going to seed. Very crude operating—man of his reputation, too. Makes me almost ashamed of the relationship."

"How are we going to get to Wreck Island from Pennymint Point?"

"Same boat," said Iff confidently. "Spelvin heard Ismay tell his engineer to wait for him—would be back between midnight and three."

"He can't beat us there, can he, by any chance?"

"He can if he humps himself. This is a pretty good car, and Spelvin says there isn't going to be any car on the road tonight that'll pass us; but I can't forget that dear old New York, New Haven & Hartford. They run some fast trains by night, and while of course none of them stops at Pennymint Centre—station for the Point—still, a man with plenty of money to fling around can get a whole lot of courtesy out of a railroad."

"Then the question is: can he catch a train which passes through Pennymint Centre before we can reasonably expect to get there?"

"That's the intelligent query. I don't know. Do you?"

"No—"

"Spelvin doesn't, and we haven't got any time to waste trying to find out. Probabilities are, there is. The only thing to do is to run for it and trust to luck. Spelvin says it took him an hour and thirty-five minutes to run in, this evening; and he's going to better that if nothing happens. Did you remember to bring a gun?"

"Two." Staff produced the pistol he had taken from Ismay, with the extra clips, and gave them to the little man with an account of how he had become possessed of them—a narrative which Iff seemed to enjoy immensely.

"Oh, we can't lose," he chuckled; "not when Cousin Artie plays his hand as poorly as he has this deal. I've got a perfectly sound hunch that we'll win."

Staff hardly shared his confidence; still, as far as he could judge, the odds were even. Ismay might beat them to Pennymint Centre by train, and might not. If he did, however, it could not be by more than a slight margin; to balance which fact, Staff had to remind himself that two minutes' margin was all that would be required to get the boat away from land, beyond their reach.

"Look here," he put it to Iff: "suppose he does beat us to that boat?"

"Then we'll have to find another."

"There'll be another handy, all ready for us, I presume?"

"Spare me your sarcasm," pleaded Iff; "it is, if you don't mind my mentioning the fact, not your forte. Silence, on the other hand, suits your style cunningly. So shut up and lemme think."

He relapsed into profound meditations, while the car hummed onwards through the moon-drenched spaces of the night.

Presently he roused and, without warning, clambered over the back of the seat into the place beside the chauffeur. For a time the two conferred, heads together, their words indistinguishable in the sweep of air. Then, in the same spry fashion, the little man returned.

"Spelvin's a treasure," he announced, settling into his place.

"Why?"

"Knows the country—knows a man in Barmouth who runs a shipyard, owns and hires out motorboats, and all that sort of thing."

"Where's Barmouth?"

"Four miles this side of Pennymint Point. Now we've got to decide whether to hold on and run our chances of picking up Ismay's boat, or turn off to Barmouth and run our chances of finding chauffeur's friend with boat disengaged. What do you think?"

"Barmouth," Staff decided after some deliberation but not without misgivings.

"That's what I told Spelvin," observed Iff. "It's a gamble either way."

The city was now well behind them, the car pounding steadily on through Westchester. For a long time neither spoke. The time for talk, indeed, was past—and in the future; for the present they must tune themselves up to action—such action as the furious onrush of the powerful car in some measure typified, easing the impatience in their hearts.

For a time the road held them near railroad tracks. A train hurtled past them, running eastwards: a roaring streak of orange light crashing through the world of cool night blues and purple-blacks.

The chauffeur swore audibly and let out another notch of speed.

Staff sat spellbound by the amazing romance of it all.... A bare eight days since that afternoon when a whim, born of a love now lifeless, had stirred him out of his solitary, work-a-day life in London, had lifted him out of the ordered security of the centre of the world's civilisation and sent him whirling dizzily across three thousand miles and more to become a partner in this wild, weird ride to the rescue of a damsel in distress and durance vile! Incredible!...

Eight days: and the sun of Alison, that once he had thought to be the light of all the world, had set; while in the evening sky the star of Eleanor was rising and blazing ever more brightly....

Now when a man begins to think about himself and his heart in such poetic imagery, the need for human intercourse grows imperative on his understanding; he must talk or—suffer severely.

Staff turned upon his defenseless companion.

"Iff," said he, "when a man's the sort of a man who can fall out of love and in again—with another woman, of course—inside a week—what do you call him?"

"Human," announced Iff after mature consideration of the problem.

This was unsatisfactory; Staff yearned to be called fickle.

"Human? How's that?" he insisted.

"I mean that the human man hasn't got much to say about falling in or out of love. The women take care of all that for him. Look at your Miss Landis—yours as was.... You don't mind my buttin' in?"

"Go on," said Staff grimly.

"Anybody with half an eye, always excepting you, could see she'd made up her mind to hook that Arkroyd pinhead on account of his money. She was just waiting for a fair chance to give you the office—preferably, of course, after she'd nailed that play of yours."

"Well," said Staff, "she's lost that, too."

"Serves you both right."

There was a pause wherein Staff sought to fathom the meaning of this last utterance of Mr. Iff's.

"I take it," resumed the latter with a sidelong look—"pardon a father's feelings of delicacy—I take it, you're meaning Nelly?"

"How did you guess that?" demanded Staff, startled.

"Right, eh?"

"Yes—no—I don't know—"

"Well, if you don't know the answer any better 'n that, take a word of advice from an old bird: you get her to tell you. She's known it ever since she laid eyes on you."

"You mean she—I—" Staff stammered eagerly.

"I mean nobody knows anything about a woman's heart but herself; but she knows it backwards and all the time."

"Then you don't think I've got any show?"

"Oh, Lord!" complained Iff. "Honest, you gimme a pain. Go on and do your own thinking."

Staff subsided, imagining a vain thing: that the mantle of dignity in which he wrapped himself successfully cloaked his sense of injury. Iff smiled a meaningless smile up at the inscrutable skies. And the moonlit miles slipped beneath the wheels like a torrent of moulten silver.

At length—it seemed as if many hours must have swung crashing into eternity since they had left New York—Staff was conscious of a perceptible diminution of speed; he was able to get his breath with less effort, had no longer to snatch it by main strength from the greedy clutches of the whirlwind. The reeling chiaroscuro of the countryside seemed suddenly to become calm, settling into an intelligible, more or less orderly arrangement of shining hills and shadowed hollows, spreading pastures and sombre woodlands. The chauffeur flung a few inarticulate words over his shoulder—readily interpreted as announcing the nearness of their destination; and of a sudden the car swung from the main highway into a narrow by-road that ran off to the right. A little later they darted through a cut beneath railroad tracks, and a village sprang out of the night and rattled past them, serenely slumbrous. From this centre a thin trickle of dwellings straggled along their way. Across fields to the left, Staff caught glimpses of a spreading sheet of water, still and silvery-grey....

On a long slant, the road drew nearer and more near to the shores of this arm of the Sound. Presently a group of small buildings near the head of a long landing-stage swam into view. Before them the car drew up with a sigh. The chauffeur jumped down and ran across the road to a house in whose lower story a lighted window was visible. While he hammered at the door, Staff and Iff alighted. A man in his shirt-sleeves came to the door of the cottage and stood there, pipe in mouth, hands in pockets, languidly interjecting dispassionate responses into the chauffeur's animated exposition of their case. As Staff and Iff came up, Spelvin turned to them, excitedly waving his gauntlets.

"He's got a boat, all right, and a good one he says, but he won't move a foot for less 'n twenty dollars."

"Give you twenty-five if you get away from the dock within five minutes," Iff told the boatbuilder directly.

The man started as if stung. "Jemima!" he breathed, incredulous. Then caution prompted him to extend a calloused and work-warped hand. "Cross my palm," he said.

"You give it to him, Staff," said Iff magnificently. "I'm short of cash."

Obediently, Staff disbursed the required sum. The native thumbed it, pocketed it, lifted his coat from a nail behind the door and started across the road in a single movement.

"You come 'long, Spelvin," he said in passing, "'nd help with the boat. If you gents'll get out on the dock I'll have her alongside in three minutes, 'r my name ain't Bascom."

Pursued by the chauffeur, he disappeared into the huddle of boat-houses and beached and careened boats. A moment later, Iff and Staff, picking their way through the tangle, heard the scrape of a flat-bottomed boat on the beach and, subsequently, splashing oars.

By the time they had reached the end of the dock, the boatbuilder and his companion were scrambling aboard a twenty-five-foot boat at anchor in the midst of a small fleet of sail and gasoline craft. The rumble of a motor followed almost instantly, was silenced momentarily while the skiff was being made fast to the mooring, broke out again as the larger boat selected a serpentine path through the circumjacent vessels and slipped up to the dock.

Before it had lost way, Iff and Staff were aboard. Instantly, Bascom snapped the switch shut and the motor started again on the spark.

"Straight out," he instructed Spelvin at the wheel, "till you round that white moorin'-dolphin. Then I'll take her." ...

Not long afterward he gave up pottering round the engine and went forward, relieving Spelvin. "You go back and keep your eye on that engyne," he ordered; "she's workin' like a sewin'-machine, but she wants watchin'. I'll tell you when to give her the spark. Meanwhile you might 's well dig them lights out of the port locker and set 'em out."

"No," Iff put in. "We want no lights."

"Gov'mint regulations," said Bascom stubbornly. "Must carry lights."

"Five dollars?" Iff argued persuasively.

"Agin the law," growled Bascom. "But—I dunno—they ain't anybody likely to be out this time o' night. Cross my palm."

And Staff again disbursed.

The white mooring-buoy swam past and the little vessel heeled as Bascom swung her sharply to the southwards.

"Now," he told Spelvin, "advance that spark all you've a mind to."

There was a click from the engine-pit and the steady rumble of the exhaust ran suddenly into a prolonged whining drone. The boat jumped as if jerked forward by some gigantic, invisible hand. Beneath the bows the water parted with a crisp sound like tearing paper. Long ripples widened away from the sides, like ribs of a huge fan. A glassy hillock of water sprang up mysteriously astern, pursuing them like an avenging Nemesis, yet never quite catching up.

The sense of irresistible speed was tremendous, as stimulating as electricity; this in spite of the fact that the boat was at best making about half the speed at which the motor-car had plunged along the country roads: an effect in part due to the spacious illusion of moonlit distances upon the water.

Staff held his cap with one hand, drinking in the keen salt air with a feeling of strange exultation. Iff crept forward and tarried for a time talking to the boatbuilder.

The boat shaved a nun-buoy outside Barmouth Point so closely that Staff could almost have touched it by stretching out his arm. Then she straightened out like a greyhound on a long course across the placid silver reaches to a goal as yet invisible.

Iff returned to the younger man's side.

"Twenty miles an hour, Bascom claims," he shouted. "At that rate we ought to be there in about fifteen minutes now."

Staff nodded, wondering what they would find on Wreck Island, bitterly repenting the oversight which had resulted in Ismay's escape from his grasp. If only he had not been so sure of his conquest of the little criminal ...! Now his mind crawled with apprehensions bred of his knowledge of the man's amazing fund of resource. He who outwitted Ismay would have earned the right to plume himself upon his cunning....

When he looked up from his abstraction, the loom of the mainland was seemingly very distant. The motor-boat was nearing the centre of a deep indentation in the littoral. And suddenly it was as though they did not move at all, as if all this noise and labour went for nothing, as if the boat were chained to the centre of a spreading disk of silver, world-wide, illimitable, and made no progress for all its thrashing and its fury.

Only the unending sweep of wind across his face denied that effect....

Iff touched his arm.

"There...." he said, pointing.

Over the bows a dark mass seemed to have separated itself from the shadowed mainland, with which it had till then been merged. A strip of silver lay between the two, and while they watched it widened, swiftly winning breadth and bulk as the motor-boat swung to the north of the long, sandy spit at the western end of Wreck Island.

"See anything of another boat?" Iff asked. "You look—your eyes are younger than mine."

Staff stood up, steadying himself with feet wide apart, and stared beneath his hand.

"No," he said; "I see no boat."

"We've beaten him, then!" Iff declared joyfully.

But they hadn't, nor were they long in finding it out. For presently the little island lay black, a ragged shadow against the blue-grey sky, upon the starboard beam; and Bascom passed the word aft to shut off the motor. As its voice ceased, the boat shot in toward the land, and the long thin moonlit line of the landing-stage detached itself from the general obscurity and ran out to meet them. And so closely had Bascom calculated that the "shoot" of the boat brought them to a standstill at the end of the structure without a jar. Bascom jumped out with the headwarp, Staff and Iff at his heels.

From the other side of the dock a shadow uplifted itself, swiftly and silently as a wraith, and stood swaying as it saluted them with profound courtesy.

"Gennelmen," it said thickly, "I bidsh you welcome t' Wrecksh Island."

With this it slumped incontinently back into a motor-boat which lay moored in the shadow of the dock; and a wild, ecstatic snore rang out upon the calm night air.

"Thet's Eph Clover," said Bascom; "him 'nd his wife's caretakers here. He's drunker 'n a b'iled owl," added the boatbuilder lest they misconstrue.

"Cousin Artie seems unfortunate in his choice of minions, what?" commented Iff. "Come along, Staff.... Take care of that souse, will you, Spelvin? See that he doesn't try to mix in."

They began to run along the narrow, yielding and swaying bridge of planks.

"He hasn't beaten us out yet," Iff threw over his shoulder. "You keep back now—like a good child—please. I've got a hunch this is my hour."

The hotel loomed before them, gables grey with moonshine, its long walls dark save where, toward the middle of the main structure, chinks of light filtered through a shuttered window, and where at one end an open door let out a shaft of lamplight upon the shadows....



XVII

HOLOCAUST

For a period of perhaps twenty seconds the man and the girl remained moveless, eyeing one another; she on the floor, pale, stunned and pitiful, for the instant bereft of every sense save that of terror; he in the doorway, alert, fully the master of his concentrated faculties, swayed by two emotions only—a malignant temper bred of the night's succession of reverses capped by the drunkenness of his caretaker, and an equally malignant sense of triumph that he had returned in time to crush the girl's attempt to escape.

He threw the door wide open and took a step into the room, putting away his pistol.

"So—" he began in a cutting voice.

But his movement had acted as the shock needed to rouse the girl out of her stupor of despair. With a cry she gathered herself together and jumped to her feet. He put forth a hand as if to catch her, and she leaped back. Her skirts swept the lamp on the floor and overturned it with a splintering crash. Instinctively she sprang away—in the nick of time.

She caught a look of surprise and fright in the eyes of the man as they glared past her in the ghastly glow of the flickering wick, and took advantage of this momentary distraction to leap past him. As she did so there was a slight explosion. A sheet of flaming kerosene spread over the floor and licked the chairboarding.

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