Shooting pains in my shoulders caused me to interrupt him.
'One moment,' I said. 'I'm going to put my hands down. I'm getting cramp.'
'I'll blow a hole in you if you do!'
'Just as you please. But I'm not armed.'
'Lefty,' he said to the other man, 'feel around to see if he's carryin' anyt'ing.'
Lefty advanced and began to tap me scientifically in the neighbourhood of my pockets. He grunted morosely the while. I suppose, at this close range, the temptation to 'hand me one' was almost more than he could bear.
'He ain't got no gun,' he announced gloomily.
'Den youse can put 'em down,' said Mr MacGinnis.
'Thanks,' I said.
'Lefty, youse stay here and look after dese kids. Get a move on, Sam.'
We left the room, a little procession of two, myself leading, Buck in my immediate rear administering occasional cautionary prods with the faithful 'canister'.
The first thing that met my eyes as we entered the hall was the body of a man lying by the front door. The light of the lamp fell on his face and I saw that it was White. His hands and feet were tied. As I looked at him, he moved, as if straining against his bonds, and I was conscious of a feeling of relief. That sound that had reached me in the classroom, that thud of a falling body, had become, in the light of what had happened later, very sinister. It was good to know that he was still alive. I gathered—correctly, as I discovered subsequently—that in his case the sand-bag had been utilized. He had been struck down and stunned the instant he opened the door.
There was a masked man leaning against the wall by Glossop's classroom. He was short and sturdy. The Buck MacGinnis gang seemed to have been turned out on a pattern. Externally, they might all have been twins. This man, to give him a semblance of individuality, had a ragged red moustache. He was smoking a cigar with the air of the warrior taking his rest.
'Hello!' he said, as we appeared. He jerked a thumb towards the classroom. 'I've locked dem in. What's doin', Buck?' he asked, indicating me with a languid nod.
'We're going t'roo de joint,' explained Mr MacGinnis. 'De kid ain't in dere. Hump yourself, Sam!'
His colleague's languor disappeared with magic swiftness.
'Sam! Is dat Sam? Here, let me beat de block off'n him!'
Few points in this episode struck me as more remarkable than the similarity of taste which prevailed, as concerned myself, among the members of Mr MacGinnis's gang. Men, doubtless of varying opinions on other subjects, on this one point they were unanimous. They all wanted to assault me.
Buck, however, had other uses for me. For the present, I was necessary as a guide, and my value as such would be impaired were the block to be beaten off me. Though feeling no friendlier towards me than did his assistants, he declined to allow sentiment to interfere with business. He concentrated his attention on the upward journey with all the earnestness of the young gentleman who carried the banner with the strange device in the poem.
Briefly requesting his ally to cheese it—which he did—he urged me on with the nozzle of the pistol. The red-moustached man sank back against the wall again with an air of dejection, sucking his cigar now like one who has had disappointments in life, while we passed on up the stairs and began to draw the rooms on the first floor.
These consisted of Mr Abney's study and two dormitories. The study was empty, and the only occupants of the dormitories were the three boys who had been stricken down with colds on the occasion of Mr MacGinnis's last visit. They squeaked with surprise at the sight of the assistant-master in such questionable company.
Buck eyed them disappointedly. I waited with something of the feelings of a drummer taking a buyer round the sample room.
'Get on,' said Buck.
'Won't one of those do?'
'Hump yourself, Sam.'
'Call me Sammy,' I urged. 'We're old friends now.'
'Don't get fresh,' he said austerely. And we moved on.
The top floor was even more deserted than the first. There was no one in the dormitories. The only other room was Mr Abney's; and, as we came opposite it, a sneeze from within told of the sufferings of its occupant.
The sound stirred Buck to his depths. He 'pointed' at the door like a smell-dog.
'Who's in dere?' he demanded.
'Only Mr Abney. Better not disturb him. He has a bad cold.'
He placed a wrong construction on my solicitude for my employer. His manner became excited.
'Open dat door, you,' he cried.
'It'll give him a nasty shock.'
'G'wan! Open it!'
No one who is digging a Browning pistol into the small of my back will ever find me disobliging. I opened the door—knocking first, as a mild concession to the conventions—and the procession passed in.
My stricken employer was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, and our entrance did not at first cause him to change this position.
'Yes?' he said thickly, and disappeared beneath a huge pocket-handkerchief. Muffled sounds, as of distant explosions of dynamite, together with earthquake shudderings of the bedclothes, told of another sneezing-fit.
'I'm sorry to disturb you,' I began, when Buck, ever the man of action, with a scorn of palaver, strode past me, and, having prodded with the pistol that part of the bedclothes beneath which a rough calculation suggested that Mr Abney's lower ribs were concealed, uttered the one word, 'Sa-a-ay!'
Mr Abney sat up like a Jack-in-the-box. One might almost say that he shot up. And then he saw Buck.
I cannot even faintly imagine what were Mr Abney's emotions at that moment. He was a man who, from boyhood up, had led a quiet and regular life. Things like Buck had appeared to him hitherto, if they appeared at all, only in dreams after injudicious suppers. Even in the ordinary costume of the Bowery gentleman, without such adventitious extras as masks and pistols, Buck was no beauty. With that hideous strip of dingy white linen on his face, he was a walking nightmare.
Mr Abney's eyebrows had risen and his jaw had fallen to their uttermost limits. His hair, disturbed by contact with the pillow, gave the impression of standing on end. His eyes seemed to bulge like a snail's. He stared at Buck, fascinated.
'Say, you, quit rubberin'. Youse ain't in a dime museum. Where's dat Ford kid, huh?'
I have set down all Mr MacGinnis's remarks as if they had been uttered in a bell-like voice with a clear and crisp enunciation; but, in doing so, I have flattered him. In reality, his mode of speech suggested that he had something large and unwieldy permanently stuck in his mouth; and it was not easy for a stranger to follow him. Mr Abney signally failed to do so. He continued to gape helplessly till the tension was broken by a sneeze.
One cannot interrogate a sneezing man with any satisfaction to oneself. Buck stood by the bedside in moody silence, waiting for the paroxysm to spend itself.
I, meanwhile, had remained where I stood, close to the door. And, as I waited for Mr Abney to finish sneezing, for the first time since Buck's colleague Lefty had entered the classroom the idea of action occurred to me. Until this moment, I suppose, the strangeness and unexpectedness of these happenings had numbed my brain. To precede Buck meekly upstairs and to wait with equal meekness while he interviewed Mr Abney had seemed the only course open to me. To one whose life has lain apart from such things, the hypnotic influence of a Browning pistol is irresistible.
But now, freed temporarily from this influence, I began to think; and, my mind making up for its previous inaction by working with unwonted swiftness, I formed a plan of action at once.
It was simple, but I had an idea that it would be effective. My strength lay in my acquaintance with the geography of Sanstead House and Buck's ignorance of it. Let me but get an adequate start, and he might find pursuit vain. It was this start which I saw my way to achieving.
To Buck it had not yet occurred that it was a tactical error to leave me between the door and himself. I supposed he relied too implicitly on the mesmeric pistol. He was not even looking at me.
The next moment my fingers were on the switch of the electric light, and the room was in darkness.
There was a chair by the door. I seized it and swung it into the space between us. Then, springing back, I banged the door and ran.
I did not run without a goal in view. My objective was the study. This, as I have explained, was on the first floor. Its window looked out on to a strip of lawn at the side of the house ending in a shrubbery. The drop would not be pleasant, but I seemed to remember a waterspout that ran up the wall close to the window, and, in any case, I was not in a position to be deterred by the prospect of a bruise or two. I had not failed to realize that my position was one of extreme peril. When Buck, concluding the tour of the house, found that the Little Nugget was not there—as I had reason to know that he would—there was no room for doubt that he would withdraw the protection which he had extended to me up to the present in my capacity of guide. On me the disappointed fury of the raiders would fall. No prudent consideration for their own safety would restrain them. If ever the future was revealed to man, I saw mine. My only chance was to get out into the grounds, where the darkness would make pursuit an impossibility.
It was an affair which must be settled one way or the other in a few seconds, and I calculated that it would take Buck just those few seconds to win his way past the chair and find the door-handle.
I was right. Just as I reached the study, the door of the bedroom flew open, and the house rang with shouts and the noise of feet on the uncarpeted landing. From the hall below came answering shouts, but with an interrogatory note in them. The assistants were willing, but puzzled. They did not like to leave their posts without specific instructions, and Buck, shouting as he clattered over the bare boards, was unintelligible.
I was in the study, the door locked behind me, before they could arrive at an understanding. I sprang to the window.
The handle rattled. Voices shouted. A panel splintered beneath a kick, and the door shook on its hinges.
And then, for the first time, I think, in my life, panic gripped me, the sheer, blind fear which destroys the reason. It swept over me in a wave, that numbing terror which comes to one in dreams. Indeed, the thing had become dream-like. I seemed to be standing outside myself, looking on at myself, watching myself heave and strain with bruised fingers at a window that would not open.
The arm-chair critic, reviewing a situation calmly and at his ease, is apt to make too small allowances for the effect of hurry and excitement on the human mind. He is cool and detached. He sees exactly what ought to have been done, and by what simple means catastrophe might have been averted.
He would have made short work of my present difficulty, I feel certain. It was ridiculously simple. But I had lost my head, and had ceased for the moment to be a reasoning creature. In the end, indeed, it was no presence of mind but pure good luck which saved me. Just as the door, which had held out gallantly, gave way beneath the attack from outside, my fingers, slipping, struck against the catch of the window, and I understood why I had failed to raise it.
I snapped the catch back, and flung up the sash. An icy wind swept into the room, bearing particles of snow. I scrambled on to the window-sill, and a crash from behind me told of the falling of the door.
The packed snow on the sill was drenching my knees as I worked my way out and prepared to drop. There was a deafening explosion inside the room, and simultaneously something seared my shoulder like a hot iron. I cried out with the pain of it, and, losing my balance, fell from the sill.
There was, fortunately for me, a laurel bush immediately below the window, or I should have been undone. I fell into it, all arms and legs, in a way which would have meant broken bones if I had struck the hard turf. I was on my feet in an instant, shaken and scratched and, incidentally, in a worse temper than ever in my life before. The idea of flight, which had obsessed me a moment before, to the exclusion of all other mundane affairs, had vanished absolutely. I was full of fight, I might say overflowing with it. I remember standing there, with the snow trickling in chilly rivulets down my face and neck, and shaking my fist at the window. Two of my pursuers were leaning out of it, while a third dodged behind them, like a small man on the outskirts of a crowd. So far from being thankful for my escape, I was conscious only of a feeling of regret that there was no immediate way of getting at them.
They made no move towards travelling the quick but trying route which had commended itself to me. They seemed to be waiting for something to happen. It was not long before I was made aware of what this something was. From the direction of the front door came the sound of one running. A sudden diminution of the noise of his feet told me that he had left the gravel and was on the turf. I drew back a pace or two and waited.
It was pitch dark, and I had no fear that I should be seen. I was standing well outside the light from the window.
The man stopped just in front of me. A short parley followed.
'Can'tja see him?'
The voice was not Buck's. It was Buck who answered. And when I realized that this man in front of me, within easy reach, on whose back I was shortly about to spring, and whose neck I proposed, under Providence, to twist into the shape of a corkscrew, was no mere underling, but Mr MacGinnis himself, I was filled with a joy which I found it hard to contain in silence.
Looking back, I am a little sorry for Mr MacGinnis. He was not a good man. His mode of speech was not pleasant, and his manners were worse than his speech. But, though he undoubtedly deserved all that was coming to him, it was nevertheless bad luck for him to be standing just there at just that moment. The reactions after my panic, added to the pain of my shoulder, the scratches on my face, and the general misery of being wet and cold, had given me a reckless fury and a determination to do somebody, whoever happened to come along, grievous bodily hurt, such as seldom invades the bosoms of the normally peaceful. To put it crisply, I was fighting mad, and I looked on Buck as something sent by Heaven.
He had got as far, in his reply, as 'Naw, I can't—' when I sprang.
I have read of the spring of the jaguar, and I have seen some very creditable flying-tackles made on the football field. My leap combined the outstanding qualities of both. I connected with Mr MacGinnis in the region of the waist, and the howl he gave as we crashed to the ground was music to my ears.
But how true is the old Roman saying, 'Surgit amari aliquid'. Our pleasures are never perfect. There is always something. In the programme which I had hastily mapped out, the upsetting of Mr MacGinnis was but a small item, a mere preliminary. There were a number of things which I had wished to do to him, once upset. But it was not to be. Even as I reached for his throat I perceived that the light of the window was undergoing an eclipse. A compact form had wriggled out on to the sill, as I had done, and I heard the grating of his shoes on the wall as he lowered himself for the drop.
There is a moment when the pleasantest functions must come to an end. I was loath to part from Mr MacGinnis just when I was beginning, as it were, to do myself justice; but it was unavoidable. In another moment his ally would descend upon us, like some Homeric god swooping from a cloud, and I was not prepared to continue the battle against odds.
I disengaged myself—Mr MacGinnis strangely quiescent during the process—and was on my feet in the safety of the darkness just as the reinforcement touched earth. This time I did not wait. My hunger for fight had been appeased to some extent by my brush with Buck, and I was satisfied to have achieved safety with honour.
Making a wide detour I crossed the drive and worked my way through the bushes to within a few yards of where the automobile stood, filling the night with the soft purring of its engines. I was interested to see what would be the enemy's next move. It was improbable that they would attempt to draw the grounds in search of me. I imagined that they would recognize failure and retire whence they had come.
I was right. I had not been watching long, before a little group advanced into the light of the automobile's lamps. There were four of them. Three were walking, the fourth, cursing with the vigour and breadth that marks the expert, lying on their arms, of which they had made something resembling a stretcher.
The driver of the car, who had been sitting woodenly in his seat, turned at the sound.
'Ja get him?' he inquired.
'Get nothing!' replied one of the three moodily. 'De Nugget ain't dere, an' we was chasin' Sam to fix him, an' he laid for us, an' what he did to Buck was plenty.'
They placed their valuable burden in the tonneau, where he lay repeating himself, and two of them climbed in after him. The third seated himself beside the driver.
'Buck's leg's broke,' he announced.
'Hell!' said the chauffeur.
No young actor, receiving his first round of applause, could have felt a keener thrill of gratification than I did at those words. Life may have nobler triumphs than the breaking of a kidnapper's leg, but I did not think so then. It was with an effort that I stopped myself from cheering.
'Let her go,' said the man in the front seat.
The purring rose to a roar. The car turned and began to move with increasing speed down the drive. Its drone grew fainter, and ceased. I brushed the snow from my coat and walked to the front door.
My first act on entering the house, was to release White. He was still lying where I had seen him last. He appeared to have made no headway with the cords on his wrists and ankles. I came to his help with a rather blunt pocket-knife, and he rose stiffly and began to chafe the injured arms in silence.
'They've gone,' I said.
'Did they hit you with a sand-bag?'
He nodded again.
'I broke Buck's leg,' I said, with modest pride.
He looked up incredulously. I related my experiences as briefly as possible, and when I came to the part where I made my flying tackle, the gloom was swept from his face by a joyful smile. Buck's injury may have given its recipient pain, but it was certainly the cause of pleasure to others. White's manner was one of the utmost enthusiasm as I described the scene.
'That'll hold Buck for a while,' was his comment. 'I guess we shan't hear from him for a week or two. That's the best cure for the headache I've ever struck.'
He rubbed the lump that just showed beneath his hair. I did not wonder at his emotion. Whoever had wielded the sand-bag had done his work well, in a manner to cause hard feelings on the part of the victim.
I had been vaguely conscious during this conversation of an intermittent noise like distant thunder. I now perceived that it came from Glossop's classroom, and was caused by the beating of hands on the door-panels. I remembered that the red-moustached man had locked Glossop and his young charges in. It seemed to me that he had done well. There would be plenty of confusion without their assistance.
I was turning towards my own classroom when I saw Audrey on the stairs and went to meet her.
'It's all right,' I said. 'They've gone.'
'Who was it? What did they want?'
'It was a gentleman named MacGinnis and some friends. They came after Ogden Ford, but they didn't get him.'
'Where is he? Where is Ogden?'
Before I could reply, babel broke loose. While we had been talking, White had injudiciously turned the key of Glossop's classroom which now disgorged its occupants, headed by my colleague, in a turbulent stream. At the same moment my own classroom began to empty itself. The hall was packed with boys, and the din became deafening. Every one had something to say, and they all said it at once.
Glossop was at my side, semaphoring violently.
'We must telephone,' he bellowed in my ear, 'for the police.'
Somebody tugged at my arm. It was Audrey. She was saying something which was drowned in the uproar. I drew her towards the stairs, and we found comparative quiet on the first landing.
'What were you saying?' I asked.
'He isn't there.'
'Ogden Ford. Where is he? He is not in his room. They must have taken him.'
Glossop came up at a gallop, springing from stair to stair like the chamois of the Alps.
'We must telephone for the police!' he cried.
'I have telephoned,' said Audrey, 'ten minutes ago. They are sending some men at once. Mr Glossop, was Ogden Ford in your classroom?'
'No, Mrs Sheridan. I thought he was with you, Burns.'
I shook my head.
'Those men came to kidnap him, Mr Glossop,' said Audrey.
'Undoubtedly the gang of scoundrels to which that man the other night belonged! This is preposterous. My nerves will not stand these repeated outrages. We must have police protection. The villains must be brought to justice. I never heard of such a thing! In an English school!'
Glossop's eyes gleamed agitatedly behind their spectacles. Macbeth's deportment when confronted with Banquo's ghost was stolid by comparison. There was no doubt that Buck's visit had upset the smooth peace of our happy little community to quite a considerable extent.
The noise in the hall had increased rather than subsided. A belated sense of professional duty returned to Glossop and myself. We descended the stairs and began to do our best, in our respective styles, to produce order. It was not an easy task. Small boys are always prone to make a noise, even without provocation. When they get a genuine excuse like the incursion of men in white masks, who prod assistant-masters in the small of the back with Browning pistols, they tend to eclipse themselves. I doubt whether we should ever have quieted them, had it not been that the hour of Buck's visit had chanced to fall within a short time of that set apart for the boys' tea, and that the kitchen had lain outside the sphere of our visitors' operations. As in many English country houses, the kitchen at Sanstead House was at the end of a long corridor, shut off by doors through which even pistol-shots penetrated but faintly. Our excellent cook had, moreover, the misfortune to be somewhat deaf, with the result that, throughout all the storm and stress in our part of the house, she, like the lady in Goethe's poem, had gone on cutting bread and butter; till now, when it seemed that nothing could quell the uproar, there rose above it the ringing of the bell.
If there is anything exciting enough to keep the Englishman or the English boy from his tea, it has yet to be discovered. The shouting ceased on the instant. The general feeling seemed to be that inquiries could be postponed till a more suitable occasion, but not tea. There was a general movement in the direction of the dining-room.
Glossop had already gone with the crowd, and I was about to follow, when there was another ring at the front-door bell.
I gathered that this must be the police, and waited. In the impending inquiry I was by way of being a star witness. If any one had been in the thick of things from the beginning it was myself.
White opened the door. I caught a glimpse of blue uniforms, and came forward to do the honours.
There were two of them, no more. In response to our urgent appeal for assistance against armed bandits, the Majesty of the Law had materialized itself in the shape of a stout inspector and a long, lean constable. I thought, as I came to meet them, that they were fortunate to have arrived late. I could see Lefty and the red-moustached man, thwarted in their designs on me, making dreadful havoc among the official force, as here represented.
White, the simple butler once more, introduced us.
'This is Mr Burns, one of the masters at the school,' he said, and removed himself from the scene. There never was a man like White for knowing his place when he played the butler.
The inspector looked at me sharply. The constable gazed into space.
'H'm!' said the inspector.
Mentally I had named them Bones and Johnson. I do not know why, except that they seemed to deserve it.
'You telephoned for us,' said Bones accusingly.
'What's the trouble? What—got your notebook?—has been happening?'
Johnson removed his gaze from the middle distance and produced a notebook.
'At about half past five—' I began.
Johnson moistened his pencil.
'At about half past five an automobile drove up to the front door. In it were five masked men with revolvers.'
I interested them. There was no doubt of that. Bones's healthy colour deepened, and his eyes grew round. Johnson's pencil raced over the page, wobbling with emotion.
'Masked men?' echoed Bones.
'With revolvers,' I said. 'Now aren't you glad you didn't go to the circus? They rang the front-door bell; when White opened it, they stunned him with a sand-bag. Then—'
Bones held up a large hand.
'Who is White?'
'I will take his statement. Fetch the butler.'
Johnson trotted off obediently.
Left alone with me, Bones became friendlier and less official.
'This is as queer a start as ever I heard of, Mr Burns,' he said. 'Twenty years I've been in the force, and nothing like this has transpired. It beats cock-fighting. What in the world do you suppose men with masks and revolvers was after? First idea I had was that you were making fun of me.'
I was shocked at the idea. I hastened to give further details.
'They were a gang of American crooks who had come over to kidnap Mr Elmer Ford's son, who is a pupil at the school. You have heard of Mr Ford? He is an American millionaire, and there have been several attempts during the past few years to kidnap Ogden.'
At this point Johnson returned with White. White told his story briefly, exhibited his bruise, showed the marks of the cords on his wrists, and was dismissed. I suggested that further conversation had better take place in the presence of Mr Abney, who, I imagined, would have something to say on the subject of hushing the thing up.
We went upstairs. The broken door of the study delayed us a while and led to a fresh spasm of activity on the part of Johnson's pencil. Having disposed of this, we proceeded to Mr Abney's room.
Bones's authoritative rap upon the door produced an agitated 'Who's that?' from the occupant. I explained the nature of the visitation through the keyhole and there came from within the sound of moving furniture. His one brief interview with Buck had evidently caused my employer to ensure against a second by barricading himself in with everything he could find suitable for the purpose. It was some moments before the way was clear for our entrance.
'Cub id,' said a voice at last.
Mr Abney was sitting up in bed, the blankets wrapped tightly about him. His appearance was still disordered. The furniture of the room was in great confusion, and a poker on the floor by the dressing-table showed that he had been prepared to sell his life dearly.
'I ab glad to see you, Idspector,' he said. 'Bister Burds, what is the expladation of this extraordinary affair?'
It took some time to explain matters to Mr Abney, and more to convince Bones and his colleague that, so far from wanting a hue and cry raised over the countryside and columns about the affair in the papers, publicity was the thing we were anxious to avoid. They were visibly disappointed when they grasped the position of affairs. The thing, properly advertised, would have been the biggest that had ever happened to the neighbourhood, and their eager eyes could see glory within easy reach. Mention of a cold snack and a drop of beer, however, to be found in the kitchen, served to cast a gleam of brightness on their gloom, and they vanished in search of it with something approaching cheeriness, Johnson taking notes to the last.
They had hardly gone when Glossop whirled into the room in a state of effervescing agitation.
'Mr Abney, Ogden Ford is nowhere to be found!'
Mr Abney greeted the information with a prodigious sneeze.
'What do you bead?' he demanded, when the paroxysm was over. He turned to me. 'Bister Burds, I understood you to—ah—say that the scou'drels took their departure without the boy Ford.'
'They certainly did. I watched them go.'
'I have searched the house thoroughly,' said Glossop, 'and there are no signs of him. And not only that, the Boy Beckford cannot be found.'
Mr Abney clasped his head in his hands. Poor man, he was in no condition to bear up with easy fortitude against this succession of shocks. He was like one who, having survived an earthquake, is hit by an automobile. He had partly adjusted his mind to the quiet contemplation of Mr MacGinnis and friends when he was called upon to face this fresh disaster. And he had a cold in the head, which unmans the stoutest. Napoleon would have won Waterloo if Wellington had had a cold in the head.
'Augustus Beckford caddot be fou'd?' he echoed feebly.
'They must have run away together,' said Glossop.
Mr Abney sat up, galvanized.
'Such a thing has never happened id the school before!' he cried. 'It has aldways beed my—ah—codstant endeavour to make my boys look upod Sadstead House as a happy hobe. I have systebatically edcouraged a spirit of cheerful codtedment. I caddot seriously credit the fact that Augustus Beckford, one of the bost charbig boys it has ever beed by good fortude to have id by charge, has deliberately rud away.'
'He must have been persuaded by that boy Ford,' said Glossop, 'who,' he added morosely, 'I believe, is the devil in disguise.'
Mr Abney did not rebuke the strength of his language. Probably the theory struck him as eminently sound. To me there certainly seemed something in it.
'Subbthig bust be done at once!' Mr Abney exclaimed. 'It is—ah—ibperative that we take ibbediate steps. They bust have gone to Londod. Bister Burds, you bust go to Londod by the next traid. I caddot go byself with this cold.'
It was the irony of fate that, on the one occasion when duty really summoned that champion popper-up-to-London to the Metropolis, he should be unable to answer the call.
'Very well,' I said. 'I'll go and look out a train.'
'Bister Glossop, you will be in charge of the school. Perhaps you had better go back to the boys dow.'
White was in the hall when I got there.
'White,' I said, 'do you know anything about the trains to London?'
'Are you going to London?' he asked, in his more conversational manner. I thought he looked at me curiously as he spoke.
'Yes. Ogden Ford and Lord Beckford cannot be found. Mr Abney thinks they must have run away to London.'
'I shouldn't wonder,' said White dryly, it seemed to me. There was something distinctly odd in his manner. 'And you're going after them.'
'Yes. I must look up a train.'
'There is a fast train in an hour. You will have plenty of time.'
'Will you tell Mr Abney that, while I go and pack my bag? And telephone for a cab.'
'Sure,' said White, nodding.
I went up to my room and began to put a few things together in a suit-case. I felt happy, for several reasons. A visit to London, after my arduous weeks at Sanstead, was in the nature of an unexpected treat. My tastes are metropolitan, and the vision of an hour at a music-hall—I should be too late for the theatres—with supper to follow in some restaurant where there was an orchestra, appealed to me.
When I returned to the hall, carrying my bag, I found Audrey there.
'I'm being sent to London,' I announced.
'I know. White told me. Peter, bring him back.'
'That's why I'm being sent.'
'It means everything to me.'
I looked at her in surprise. There was a strained, anxious expression on her face, for which I could not account. I declined to believe that anybody could care what happened to the Little Nugget purely for that amiable youth's own sake. Besides, as he had gone to London willingly, the assumption was that he was enjoying himself.
'I don't understand,' I said. 'What do you mean?'
'I'll tell you. Mr Ford sent me here to be near Ogden, to guard him. He knew that there was always a danger of attempts being made to kidnap him, even though he was brought over to England very quietly. That is how I come to be here. I go wherever Ogden goes. I am responsible for him. And I have failed. If Ogden is not brought back, Mr Ford will have nothing more to do with me. He never forgives failures. It will mean going back to the old work again—the dressmaking, or the waiting, or whatever I can manage to find.' She gave a little shiver. 'Peter, I can't. All the pluck has gone out of me. I'm afraid. I couldn't face all that again. Bring him back. You must. You will. Say you will.'
I did not answer. I could find nothing to say; for it was I who was responsible for all her trouble. I had planned everything. I had given Ogden Ford the money that had taken him to London. And soon, unless I could reach London before it happened, and prevent him, he, with my valet Smith, would be in the Dover boat-train on his way to Monaco.
It was only after many hours of thought that it had flashed upon me that the simplest and safest way of removing the Little Nugget was to induce him to remove himself. Once the idea had come, the rest was simple. The negotiations which had taken place that morning in the stable-yard had been brief. I suppose a boy in Ogden's position, with his record of narrow escapes from the kidnapper, comes to take things as a matter of course which would startle the ordinary boy. He assumed, I imagine, that I was the accredited agent of his mother, and that the money which I gave him for travelling expenses came from her. Perhaps he had been expecting something of the sort. At any rate, he grasped the essential points of the scheme with amazing promptitude. His little hand was extended to receive the cash almost before I had finished speaking.
The main outline of my plan was that he should slip away to London, during the afternoon, go to my rooms, where he would find Smith, and with Smith travel to his mother at Monaco. I had written to Smith, bidding him be in readiness for the expedition. There was no flaw in the scheme as I had mapped it out, and though Ogden had complicated it a little by gratuitously luring away Augustus Beckford to bear him company, he had not endangered its success.
But now an utterly unforeseen complication had arisen. My one desire now was to undo everything for which I had been plotting.
I stood there, looking at her dumbly, hating myself for being the cause of the anxiety in her eyes. If I had struck her, I could not have felt more despicable. In my misery I cursed Cynthia for leading me into this tangle.
I heard my name spoken, and turned to find White at my elbow.
'Mr Abney would like to see you, sir.'
I went upstairs, glad to escape. The tension of the situation had begun to tear at my nerves.
'Cub id, Bister Burds,' said my employer, swallowing a lozenge. His aspect was more dazed than ever. 'White has just bade an—ah—extraordinary cobbudicatiod to me. It seebs he is in reality a detective, an employee of Pidkertod's Agedcy, of which you have, of course—ah—heard.'
So White had revealed himself. On the whole, I was not surprised. Certainly his motive for concealment, the fear of making Mr Abney nervous, was removed. An inrush of Red Indians with tomahawks could hardly have added greatly to Mr Abney's nervousness at the present juncture.
'Sent here by Mr Ford, I suppose?' I said. I had to say something.
'Exactly. Ah—precisely.' He sneezed. 'Bister Ford, without codsulting me—I do not cobbedt on the good taste or wisdob of his actiod—dispatched White to apply for the post of butler at this—ah—house, his predecessor having left at a bobedt's dotice, bribed to do so, I strodgly suspect, by Bister Ford himself. I bay be wrodging Bister Ford, but do dot thig so.'
I thought the reasoning sound.
'All thad, however,' resumed Mr Abney, removing his face from a jug of menthol at which he had been sniffing with the tense concentration of a dog at a rabbit-hole, 'is beside the poidt. I berely bedtiod it to explaid why White will accompady you to London.'
The exclamation was forced from me by my dismay. This was appalling. If this infernal detective was to accompany me, my chance of bringing Ogden back was gone. It had been my intention to go straight to my rooms, in the hope of finding him not yet departed. But how was I to explain his presence there to White?
'I don't think it's necessary, Mr Abney,' I protested. 'I am sure I can manage this affair by myself.'
'Two heads are better thad wud,' said the invalid sententiously, burying his features in the jug once more.
'Too many cooks spoil the broth,' I replied. If the conversation was to consist of copybook maxims, I could match him as long as he pleased.
He did not keep up the intellectual level of the discussion.
'Dodseds!' he snapped, with the irritation of a man whose proverb has been capped by another. I had seldom heard him speak so sharply. White's revelation had evidently impressed him. He had all the ordinary peaceful man's reverence for the professional detective.
'White will accompany you, Bister Burds,' he said doggedly.
'Very well,' I said.
After all, it might be that I should get an opportunity of giving him the slip. London is a large city.
A few minutes later the cab arrived, and White and I set forth on our mission.
We did not talk much in the cab. I was too busy with my thoughts to volunteer remarks, and White, apparently, had meditations of his own to occupy him.
It was when we had settled ourselves in an empty compartment and the train had started that he found speech. I had provided myself with a book as a barrier against conversation, and began at once to make a pretence of reading, but he broke through my defences.
'Interesting book, Mr Burns?'
'Very,' I said.
'Life's more interesting than books.'
I made no comment on this profound observation. He was not discouraged.
'Mr Burns,' he said, after the silence had lasted a few moments.
'Let's talk for a spell. These train-journeys are pretty slow.'
Again I seemed to detect that curious undercurrent of meaning in his voice which I had noticed in the course of our brief exchange of remarks in the hall. I glanced up and met his eye. He was looking at me in a way that struck me as curious. There was something in those bright brown eyes of his which had the effect of making me vaguely uneasy. Something seemed to tell me that he had a definite motive in forcing his conversation on me.
'I guess I can interest you a heap more than that book, even if it's the darndest best seller that was ever hatched.'
He lit a cigarette.
'You didn't want me around on this trip, did you?'
'It seemed rather unnecessary for both of us to go,' I said indifferently. 'Still, perhaps two heads are better than one, as Mr Abney remarked. What do you propose to do when you get to London?'
He bent forward and tapped me on the knee.
'I propose to stick to you like a label on a bottle, sonny,' he said. 'That's what I propose to do.'
'What do you mean?'
I was finding it difficult, such is the effect of a guilty conscience, to meet his eye, and the fact irritated me.
'I want to find out that address you gave the Ford kid this morning out in the stable-yard.'
It is strange how really literal figurative expressions are. I had read stories in which some astonished character's heart leaped into his mouth. For an instant I could have supposed that mine had actually done so. The illusion of some solid object blocking up my throat was extraordinarily vivid, and there certainly seemed to be a vacuum in the spot where my heart should have been. Not for a substantial reward could I have uttered a word at that moment. I could not even breathe. The horrible unexpectedness of the blow had paralysed me.
White, however, was apparently prepared to continue the chat without my assistance.
'I guess you didn't know I was around, or you wouldn't have talked that way. Well, I was, and I heard every word you said. Here was the money, you said, and he was to take it and break for London, and go to the address on this card, and your pal Smith would look after him. I guess there had been some talk before that, but I didn't arrive in time to hear it. But I heard all I wanted, except that address. And that's what I'm going to find out when we get to London.'
He gave out this appalling information in a rich and soothing voice, as if it were some ordinary commonplace. To me it seemed to end everything. I imagined I was already as good as under arrest. What a fool I had been to discuss such a matter in a place like a stable yard, however apparently empty. I might have known that at a school there are no empty places.
'I must say it jarred me when I heard you pulling that stuff,' continued White. 'I haven't what you might call a childlike faith in my fellow-man as a rule, but it had never occurred to me for a moment that you could be playing that game. It only shows,' he added philosophically, 'that you've got to suspect everybody when it comes to a gilt-edged proposition like the Little Nugget.'
The train rattled on. I tried to reduce my mind to working order, to formulate some plan, but could not.
Beyond the realization that I was in the tightest corner of my life, I seemed to have lost the power of thought.
White resumed his monologue.
'You had me guessing,' he admitted. 'I couldn't figure you out. First thing, of course, I thought you must be working in with Buck MacGinnis and his crowd. Then all that happened tonight, and I saw that, whoever you might be working in with, it wasn't Buck. And now I've placed you. You're not in with any one. You're just playing it by yourself. I shouldn't mind betting this was your first job, and that you saw your chance of making a pile by holding up old man Ford, and thought it was better than schoolmastering, and grabbed it.'
He leaned forward and tapped me on the knee again. There was something indescribably irritating in the action. As one who has had experience, I can state that, while to be arrested at all is bad, to be arrested by a detective with a fatherly manner is maddening.
'See here,' he said, 'we must get together over this business.'
I suppose it was the recollection of the same words in the mouth of Buck MacGinnis that made me sit up with a jerk and stare at him.
'We'll make a great team,' he said, still in that same cosy voice. 'If ever there was a case of fifty-fifty, this is it. You've got the kid, and I've got you. I can't get away with him without your help, and you can't get away with him unless you square me. It's a stand-off. The only thing is to sit in at the game together and share out. Does it go?'
He beamed kindly on my bewilderment during the space of time it takes to select a cigarette and light a match. Then, blowing a contented puff of smoke, he crossed his legs and leaned back.
'When I told you I was a Pinkerton's man, sonny,' he said, 'I missed the cold truth by about a mile. But you caught me shooting off guns in the grounds, and it was up to me to say something.'
He blew a smoke-ring and watched it dreamily till it melted in the draught from the ventilator.
'I'm Smooth Sam Fisher,' he said.
When two emotions clash, the weaker goes to the wall. Any surprise I might have felt was swallowed up in my relief. If I had been at liberty to be astonished, my companion's information would no doubt have astonished me. But I was not. I was so relieved that he was not a Pinkerton's man that I did not really care what else he might be.
'It's always been a habit of mine, in these little matters,' he went on, 'to let other folks do the rough work, and chip in myself when they've cleared the way. It saves trouble and expense. I don't travel with a gang, like that bone-headed Buck. What's the use of a gang? They only get tumbling over each other and spoiling everything. Look at Buck! Where is he? Down and out. While I—'
He smiled complacently. His manner annoyed me. I objected to being looked upon as a humble cat's paw by this bland scoundrel.
'While you—what?' I said.
He looked at me in mild surprise.
'Why, I come in with you, sonny, and take my share like a gentleman.'
'Well, don't I?'
He looked at me in the half-reproachful half-affectionate manner of the kind old uncle who reasons with a headstrong nephew.
'Young man,' he said, 'you surely aren't thinking you can put one over on me in this business? Tell me, you don't take me for that sort of ivory-skulled boob? Do you imagine for one instant, sonny, that I'm not next to every move in this game? Are you deluding yourself with the idea that this thing isn't a perfect cinch for me? Let's hear what's troubling you. You seem to have gotten some foolish ideas in your head. Let's talk it over quietly.'
'If you have no objection,' I said, 'no. I don't want to talk to you, Mr Fisher. I don't like you, and I don't like your way of earning your living. Buck MacGinnis was bad enough, but at least he was a straightforward tough. There's no excuse for you.'
'Surely we are unusually righteous this p.m., are we not?' said Sam suavely.
I did not answer.
'Is this not mere professional jealousy?'
This was too much for me.
'Do you imagine for a moment that I'm doing this for money?'
'I did have that impression. Was I wrong? Do you kidnap the sons of millionaires for your health?'
'I promised that I would get this boy back to his mother. That is why I gave him the money to go to London. And that is why my valet was to have taken him to—to where Mrs Ford is.'
He did not reply in words, but if ever eyebrows spoke, his said, 'My dear sir, really!' I could not remain silent under their patent disbelief.
'That's the simple truth,' I said.
He shrugged his shoulders, as who would say, 'Have it your own way. Let us change the subject.'
'You say "was to have taken". Have you changed your plans?'
'Yes, I'm going to take the boy back to the school.'
He laughed—a rich, rolling laugh. His double chin shook comfortably.
'It won't do,' he said, shaking his head with humorous reproach. 'It won't do.'
'You don't believe me?'
'Frankly, I do not.'
'Very well,' I said, and began to read my book.
'If you want to give me the slip,' he chuckled, 'you must do better than that. I can see you bringing the Nugget back to the school.'
'You will, if you wait,' I said.
'I wonder what that address was that you gave him,' he mused. 'Well, I shall soon know.'
He lapsed into silence. The train rolled on. I looked at my watch. London was not far off now.
'The present arrangement of equal division,' said Sam, breaking a long silence, 'holds good, of course, only in the event of your quitting this fool game and doing the square thing by me. Let me put it plainly. We are either partners or competitors. It is for you to decide. If you will be sensible and tell me that address, I will pledge my word—'
'Your word!' I said scornfully.
'Honour among thieves!' replied Sam, with unruffled geniality. 'I wouldn't double-cross you for worlds. If, however, you think you can manage without my assistance, it will then be my melancholy duty to beat you to the kid, and collect him and the money entirely on my own account. Am I to take it,' he said, as I was silent, 'that you prefer war to an alliance?'
I turned a page of my book and went on reading.
'If Youth but knew!' he sighed. 'Young man, I am nearly twice your age, and I have, at a modest estimate, about ten times as much sense. Yet, in your overweening self-confidence, with your ungovernable gall, you fancy you can hand me a lemon. Me! I should smile!'
'Do,' I said. 'Do, while you can.'
He shook his head reprovingly.
'You will not be so fresh, sonny, in a few hours. You will be biting pieces out of yourself, I fear. And later on, when my automobile splashes you with mud in Piccadilly, you will taste the full bitterness of remorse. Well, Youth must buy its experience, I suppose!'
I looked across at him as he sat, plump and rosy and complacent, puffing at his cigarette, and my heart warmed to the old ruffian. It was impossible to maintain an attitude of righteous iciness with him. I might loathe his mode of life, and hate him as a representative—and a leading representative—of one of the most contemptible trades on earth, but there was a sunny charm about the man himself which made it hard to feel hostile to him as an individual.
I closed my book with a bang and burst out laughing.
'You're a wonder!' I said.
He beamed at what he took to be evidence that I was coming round to the friendly and sensible view of the matter.
'Then you think, on consideration—' he said. 'Excellent! Now, my dear young man, all joking aside, you will take me with you to that address, will you not? You observe that I do not ask you to give it to me. Let there be not so much as the faintest odour of the double-cross about this business. All I ask is that you allow me to accompany you to where the Nugget is hidden, and then rely on my wider experience of this sort of game to get him safely away and open negotiations with the dad.'
'I suppose your experience has been wide?' I said.
'Quite tolerably—quite tolerably.'
'Doesn't it ever worry you the anxiety and misery you cause?'
'Purely temporary, both. And then, look at it in another way. Think of the joy and relief of the bereaved parents when sonny comes toddling home again! Surely it is worth some temporary distress to taste that supreme happiness? In a sense, you might call me a human benefactor. I teach parents to appreciate their children. You know what parents are. Father gets caught short in steel rails one morning. When he reaches home, what does he do? He eases his mind by snapping at little Willie. Mrs Van First-Family forgets to invite mother to her freak-dinner. What happens? Mother takes it out of William. They love him, maybe, but they are too used to him. They do not realize all he is to them. And then, one afternoon, he disappears. The agony! The remorse! "How could I ever have told our lost angel to stop his darned noise!" moans father. "I struck him!" sobs mother. "With this jewelled hand I spanked our vanished darling!" "We were not worthy to have him," they wail together. "But oh, if we could but get him back!" Well they do. They get him back as soon as ever they care to come across in unmarked hundred-dollar bills. And after that they think twice before working off their grouches on the poor kid. So I bring universal happiness into the home. I don't say father doesn't get a twinge every now and then when he catches sight of the hole in his bank balance, but, darn it, what's money for if it's not to spend?'
He snorted with altruistic fervour.
'What makes you so set on kidnapping Ogden Ford?' I asked. 'I know he is valuable, but you must have made your pile by this time. I gather that you have been practising your particular brand of philanthropy for a good many years. Why don't you retire?'
'It is the dream of my life to retire, young man. You may not believe me, but my instincts are thoroughly domestic. When I have the leisure to weave day-dreams, they centre around a cosy little home with a nice porch and stationary washtubs.'
He regarded me closely, as if to decide whether I was worthy of these confidences. There was something wistful in his brown eyes. I suppose the inspection must have been favourable, or he was in a mood when a man must unbosom himself to someone, for he proceeded to open his heart to me. A man in his particular line of business, I imagine, finds few confidants, and the strain probably becomes intolerable at times.
'Have you ever experienced the love of a good woman, sonny? It's a wonderful thing.' He brooded sentimentally for a moment, then continued, and—to my mind—somewhat spoiled the impressiveness of his opening words. 'The love of a good woman,' he said, 'is about the darnedest wonderful lay-out that ever came down the pike. I know. I've had some.'
A spark from his cigarette fell on his hand. He swore a startled oath.
'We came from the same old town,' he resumed, having recovered from this interlude. 'Used to be kids at the same school ... Walked to school together ... me carrying her luncheon-basket and helping her over the fences ... Ah! ... Just the same when we grew up. Still pals. And that was twenty years ago ... The arrangement was that I should go out and make the money to buy the home, and then come back and marry her.'
'Then why the devil haven't you done it?' I said severely.
He shook his head.
'If you know anything about crooks, young man,' he said, 'you'll know that outside of their own line they are the easiest marks that ever happened. They fall for anything. At least, it's always been that way with me. No sooner did I get together a sort of pile and start out for the old town, when some smooth stranger would come along and steer me up against some skin-game, and back I'd have to go to work. That happened a few times, and when I did manage at last to get home with the dough I found she had married another guy. It's hard on women, you see,' he explained chivalrously. 'They get lonesome and Roving Rupert doesn't show up, so they have to marry Stay-at-Home Henry just to keep from getting the horrors.'
'So she's Mrs Stay-at-Home Henry now?' I said sympathetically.
'She was till a year ago. She's a widow now. Deceased had a misunderstanding with a hydrophobia skunk, so I'm informed. I believe he was a good man. Outside of licking him at school I didn't know him well. I saw her just before I left to come here. She's as fond of me as ever. It's all settled, if only I can connect with the mazuma. And she don't want much, either. Just enough to keep the home together.'
'I wish you happiness,' I said.
'You can do better than that. You can take me with you to that address.'
I avoided the subject.
'What does she say to your way of making money?' I asked.
'She doesn't know, and she ain't going to know. I don't see why a man has got to tell his wife every little thing in his past. She thinks I'm a drummer, travelling in England for a dry-goods firm. She wouldn't stand for the other thing, not for a minute. She's very particular. Always was. That's why I'm going to quit after I've won out over this thing of the Little Nugget.' He looked at me hopefully. 'So you will take me along, sonny, won't you?'
I shook my head.
'I'm sorry to spoil a romance, but I can't. You must look around for some other home into which to bring happiness. The Fords' is barred.'
'You are very obstinate, young man,' he said, sadly, but without any apparent ill-feeling. 'I can't persuade you?'
'Ah, well! So we are to be rivals, not allies. You will regret this, sonny. I may say you will regret it very bitterly. When you see me in my automo—'
'You mentioned your automobile before.'
'Ah! So I did.'
The train had stopped, as trains always do on English railways before entering a terminus. Presently it began to move forward hesitatingly, as if saying to itself, 'Now, am I really wanted here? Shall I be welcome?' Eventually, after a second halt, it glided slowly alongside the platform.
I sprang out and ran to the cab-rank. I was aboard a taxi, bowling out of the station before the train had stopped.
Peeping out of the window at the back, I was unable to see Sam. My adroit move, I took it, had baffled him. I had left him standing.
It was a quarter of an hour's drive to my rooms, but to me, in my anxiety, it seemed more. This was going to be a close thing, and success or failure a matter of minutes. If he followed my instructions Smith would be starting for the Continental boat-train tonight with his companion; and, working out the distances, I saw that, by the time I could arrive, he might already have left my rooms. Sam's supervision at Sanstead Station had made it impossible for me to send a telegram. I had had to trust to chance. Fortunately my train, by a miracle, had been up to time, and at my present rate of progress I ought to catch Smith a few minutes before he left the building.
The cab pulled up. I ran up the stairs and opened the door of my apartment.
'Smith!' I called.
A chair scraped along the floor and a door opened at the end of the passage. Smith came out.
'Thank goodness you have not started. I thought I should miss you. Where is the boy?'
'The boy, sir?'
'The boy I wrote to you about.'
'He has not arrived, sir.'
I stared at him blankly.
'How long have you been here?'
'All day, sir.'
'You have not been out?'
'Not since the hour of two, sir.'
'I can't understand it,' I said.
'Perhaps the young gentleman changed his mind and never started, sir?'
'I know he started.'
Smith had no further suggestion to offer.
'Pending the young gentleman's arrival, sir, I remain in London?'
A fruity voice spoke at the door behind me.
'What! Hasn't he arrived?'
I turned. There, beaming and benevolent, stood Mr Fisher.
'It occurred to me to look your name out in the telephone directory,' he explained. 'I might have thought of that before.'
'Come in here,' I said, opening the door of the sitting-room. I did not want to discuss the thing with him before Smith.
He looked about the room admiringly.
'So these are your quarters,' he said. 'You do yourself pretty well, young man. So I understand that the Nugget has gone wrong in transit. He has altered his plans on the way?'
'I can't understand it.'
'I can! You gave him a certain amount of money?'
'Yes. Enough to get him to—where he was going.'
'Then, knowing the boy, I should say that he has found other uses for it. He's whooping it up in London, and, I should fancy, having the time of his young life.'
He got up.
'This of course,' he said, 'alters considerably any understanding we may have come to, sonny. All idea of a partnership is now out of the question. I wish you well, but I have no further use for you. Somewhere in this great city the Little Nugget is hiding, and I mean to find him—entirely on my own account. This is where our paths divide, Mr Burns. Good night.'
When Sam had left, which he did rather in the manner of a heavy father in melodrama, shaking the dust of an erring son's threshold off his feet, I mixed myself a high-ball, and sat down to consider the position of affairs. It did not take me long to see that the infernal boy had double-crossed me with a smooth effectiveness which Mr Fisher himself might have envied. Somewhere in this great city, as Sam had observed, he was hiding. But where? London is a vague address.
I wondered what steps Sam was taking. Was there some underground secret service bureau to which persons of his profession had access? I doubted it. I imagined that he, as I proposed to do, was drawing the city at a venture in the hope of flushing the quarry by accident. Yet such was the impression he had made upon me as a man of resource and sagacity, that I did not relish the idea of his getting a start on me, even in a venture so uncertain as this. My imagination began to picture him miraculously inspired in the search, and such was the vividness of the vision that I jumped up from my chair, resolved to get on the trail at once. It was hopelessly late, however, and I did not anticipate that I should meet with any success.
Nor did I. For two hours and a half I tramped the streets, my spirits sinking more and more under the influence of failure and a blend of snow and sleet which had begun to fall; and then, tired out, I went back to my rooms, and climbed sorrowfully into bed.
It was odd to wake up and realize that I was in London. Years seemed to have passed since I had left it. Time is a thing of emotions, not of hours and minutes, and I had certainly packed a considerable number of emotional moments into my stay at Sanstead House. I lay in bed, reviewing the past, while Smith, with a cheerful clatter of crockery, prepared my breakfast in the next room.
A curious lethargy had succeeded the feverish energy of the previous night. More than ever the impossibility of finding the needle in this human bundle of hay oppressed me. No one is optimistic before breakfast, and I regarded the future with dull resignation, turning my thoughts from it after a while to the past. But the past meant Audrey, and to think of Audrey hurt.
It seemed curious to me that in a life of thirty years I should have been able to find, among the hundreds of women I had met, only one capable of creating in me that disquieting welter of emotions which is called love, and hard that that one should reciprocate my feeling only to the extent of the mild liking which Audrey entertained for me.
I tried to analyse her qualifications for the place she held in my heart. I had known women who had attracted me more physically, and women who had attracted me more mentally. I had known wiser women, handsomer women, more amiable women, but none of them had affected me like Audrey. The problem was inexplicable. Any idea that we might be affinities, soul-mates destined for each other from the beginning of time, was disposed of by the fact that my attraction for her was apparently in inverse ratio to hers for me. For possibly the millionth time in the past five years I tried to picture in my mind the man Sheridan, that shadowy wooer to whom she had yielded so readily. What quality had he possessed that I did not? Wherein lay the magnetism that had brought about his triumph?
These were unprofitable speculations. I laid them aside until the next occasion when I should feel disposed for self-torture, and got out of bed. A bath and breakfast braced me up, and I left the house in a reasonably cheerful frame of mind.
To search at random for an individual unit among London's millions lends an undeniable attraction to a day in town. In a desultory way I pursued my investigations through the morning and afternoon, but neither of Ogden nor of his young friend Lord Beckford was I vouchsafed a glimpse. My consolation was that Smooth Sam was probably being equally unsuccessful.
Towards the evening there arose the question of return to Sanstead. I had not gathered whether Mr Abney had intended to set any time-limit on my wanderings, or whether I was not supposed to come back except with the deserters. I decided that I had better remain in London, at any rate for another night, and went to the nearest post office to send Mr Abney a telegram to that effect.
As I was writing it, the problem which had baffled me for twenty-four hours, solved itself in under a minute. Whether my powers of inductive reasoning had been under a cloud since I left Sanstead, or whether they were normally beneath contempt, I do not know. But the fact remains, that I had completely overlooked the obvious solution of my difficulty. I think I must have been thinking so exclusively of the Little Nugget that I had entirely forgotten the existence of Augustus Beckford. It occurred to me now that, by making inquiries at the latter's house, I should learn something to my advantage. A boy of the Augustus type does not run away from school without a reason. Probably some party was taking place tonight at the ancestral home, at which, tempted by the lawless Nugget, he had decided that his presence was necessary.
I knew the house well. There had been a time, when Lord Mountry and I were at Oxford, when I had spent frequent week-ends there. Since then, owing to being abroad, I had seen little of the family. Now was the moment to reintroduce myself. I hailed a cab.
Inductive reasoning had not played me false. There was a red carpet outside the house, and from within came the sounds of music.
Lady Wroxham, the mother of Mountry and the vanishing Augustus, was one of those women who take things as they come. She did not seem surprised at seeing me.
'How nice of you to come and see us,' she said. 'Somebody told me you were abroad. Ted is in the south of France in the yacht. Augustus is here. Mr Abney, his schoolmaster, let him come up for the night.'
I perceived that Augustus had been playing a bold game. I saw the coaching of Ogden behind these dashing falsehoods.
'You will hardly remember Sybil. She was quite a baby when you were here last. She is having her birthday-party this evening.'
'May I go in and help?' I said.
'I wish you would. They would love it.'
I doubted it, but went in. A dance had just finished. Strolling towards me in his tightest Eton suit, his face shining with honest joy, was the errant Augustus, and close behind him, wearing the blase' air of one for whom custom has staled the pleasures of life, was the Little Nugget.
I think they both saw me at the same moment. The effect of my appearance on them was illustrative of their respective characters. Augustus turned a deep shade of purple and fixed me with a horrified stare. The Nugget winked. Augustus halted and shuffled his feet. The Nugget strolled up and accosted me like an old friend.
'Hello!' he said. 'How did you get here? Say, I was going to try and get you on the phone some old time and explain things. I've been pretty much on the jump since I hit London.'
'You little brute!'
My gleaming eye, travelling past him, met that of the Hon. Augustus Beckford, causing that youth to jump guiltily. The Nugget looked over his shoulder.
'I guess we don't want him around if we're to talk business,' he said. 'I'll go and tell him to beat it.'
'You'll do nothing of the kind. I don't propose to lose sight of either of you.'
'Oh, he's all right. You don't have to worry about him. He was going back to the school anyway tomorrow. He only ran away to go to this party. Why not let him enjoy himself while he's here? I'll go and make a date for you to meet at the end of the show.'
He approached his friend, and a short colloquy ensued, which ended in the latter shuffling off in the direction of the other revellers. Such is the buoyancy of youth that a moment later he was dancing a two-step with every appearance of careless enjoyment. The future, with its storms, seemed to have slipped from his mind.
'That's all right,' said the Nugget, returning to me. 'He's promised he won't duck away. You'll find him somewhere around whenever you care to look for him. Now we can talk.'
'I hardly like to trespass on your valuable time,' I said. The airy way in which this demon boy handled what should have been—to him—an embarrassing situation irritated me. For all the authority I seemed to have over him I might have been the potted palm against which he was leaning.
'That's all right.' Everything appeared to be all right with him. 'This sort of thing does not appeal to me. Don't be afraid of spoiling my evening. I only came because Becky was so set on it. Dancing bores me pallid, so let's get somewhere where we can sit down and talk.'
I was beginning to feel that a children's party was the right place for me. Sam Fisher had treated me as a child, and so did the Little Nugget. That I was a responsible person, well on in my thirty-first year, with a narrow escape from death and a hopeless love-affair on my record, seemed to strike neither of them. I followed my companion to a secluded recess with the utmost meekness.
He leaned back and crossed his legs.
'Got a cigarette?'
'I have not got a cigarette, and, if I had, I wouldn't give it to you.'
He regarded me tolerantly.
'Got a grouch tonight, haven't you? You seem all flittered up about something. What's the trouble? Sore about my not showing up at your apartment? I'll explain that all right.'
'I shall be glad to listen.'
'It's like this. It suddenly occurred to me that a day or two one way or the other wasn't going to affect our deal and that, while I was about it, I might just as well see a bit of London before I left. I suggested it to Becky, and the idea made the biggest kind of a hit with him. I found he had only been in an automobile once in his life. Can you beat it? I've had one of my own ever since I was a kid. Well, naturally, it was up to me to blow him to a joy-ride, and that's where the money went.'
'Where the money went?'
'Sure. I've got two dollars left, and that's all. It wasn't altogether the automobiling. It was the meals that got away with my roll. Say, that kid Beckford is one swell feeder. He's wrapping himself around the eats all the time. I guess it's not smoking that does it. I haven't the appetite I used to have. Well, that's how it was, you see. But I'm through now. Cough up the fare and I'll make the trip tomorrow. Mother'll be tickled to death to see me.'
'She won't see you. We're going back to the school tomorrow.'
He looked at me incredulously.
'What's that? Going back to school?'
'I've altered my plans.'
'I'm not going back to any old school. You daren't take me. Where'll you be if I tell the hot-air merchant about our deal and you slipping me the money and all that?'
'Tell him what you like. He won't believe it.'
He thought this over, and its truth came home to him. The complacent expression left his face.
'What's the matter with you? Are you dippy, or what? You get me away up to London, and the first thing that happens when I'm here is that you want to take me back. You make me tired.'
It was borne in upon me that there was something in his point of view. My sudden change of mind must have seemed inexplicable to him. And, having by a miracle succeeded in finding him, I was in a mood to be generous. I unbent.
'Ogden, old sport,' I said cordially, T think we've both had all we want of this children's party. You're bored and if I stop on another half hour I may be called on to entertain these infants with comic songs. We men of the world are above this sort of thing. Get your hat and coat and I'll take you to a show. We can discuss business later over a bit of supper.'
The gloom of his countenance melted into a pleased smile.
'You said something that time!' he observed joyfully; and we slunk away to get our hats, the best of friends. A note for Augustus Beckford, requesting his presence at Waterloo Station at ten minutes past twelve on the following morning, I left with the butler. There was a certain informality about my methods which I doubt if Mr Abney would have approved, but I felt that I could rely on Augustus.
Much may be done by kindness. By the time the curtain fell on the musical comedy which we had attended all was peace between the Nugget and myself. Supper cemented our friendship, and we drove back to my rooms on excellent terms with one another. Half an hour later he was snoring in the spare room, while I smoked contentedly before the fire in the sitting-room.
I had not been there five minutes when the bell rang. Smith was in bed, so I went to the door myself and found Mr Fisher on the mat.
My feeling of benevolence towards all created things, the result of my successful handling of the Little Nugget, embraced Sam. I invited him in.
'Well,' I said, when I had given him a cigar and filled his glass, 'and how have you been getting on, Mr Fisher? Any luck?'
He shook his head at me reproachfully.
'Young man, you're deep. I've got to hand it to you. I underestimated you. You're very deep.'
'Approbation from Smooth Sam Fisher is praise indeed. But why these stately compliments?'
'You took me in, young man. I don't mind owning it. When you told me the Nugget had gone astray, I lapped it up like a babe. And all the time you were putting one over on me. Well, well!'
'But he had gone astray, Mr Fisher.'
He knocked the ash off his cigar. He wore a pained look.
'You needn't keep it up, sonny. I happened to be standing within three yards of you when you got into a cab with him in Shaftesbury Avenue.'
'Well, if that's the case, let there be no secrets between us. He's asleep in the next room.'
Sam leaned forward earnestly and tapped me on the knee.
'Young man, this is a critical moment. This is where, if you aren't careful, you may undo all the good work you have done by getting chesty and thinking that, because you've won out so far, you're the whole show. Believe me, the difficult part is to come, and it's right here that you need an experienced man to work in with you. Let me in on this and leave the negotiations with old man Ford to me. You would only make a mess of them. I've handled this kind of thing a dozen times, and I know just how to act. You won't regret taking me on as a partner. You won't lose a cent by it. I can work him for just double what you would get, even supposing you didn't make a mess of the deal and get nothing.'
'It's very good of you, but there won't be any negotiations with Mr Ford. I am taking the boy back to Sanstead, as I told you.' I caught his pained eye. 'I'm afraid you don't believe me.'
He drew at his cigar without replying.
It is a human weakness to wish to convince those who doubt us, even if their opinion is not intrinsically valuable. I remembered that I had Cynthia's letter in my pocket. I produced it as exhibit A in my evidence and read it to him.
Sam listened carefully.
'I see,' he said. 'Who wrote that?'
'Never mind. A friend of mine.'
I returned the letter to my pocket.
'I was going to have sent him over to Monaco, but I altered my plans. Something interfered.'
'I might call it coincidence, if you know what that means.'
'And you are really going to take him back to the school?'
'We shall travel back together,' he said. 'I had hoped I had seen the last of the place. The English countryside may be delightful in the summer, but for winter give me London. However,' he sighed resignedly, and rose from his chair, 'I will say good-bye till tomorrow. What train do you catch?'
'Do you mean to say,' I demanded, 'that you have the nerve to come back to Sanstead after what you have told me about yourself?'
'You entertain some idea of exposing me to Mr Abney? Forget it, young man. We are both in glass houses. Don't let us throw stones. Besides, would he believe it? What proof have you?'
I had thought this argument tolerably sound when I had used it on the Nugget. Now that it was used on myself I realized its soundness even more thoroughly. My hands were tied.
'Yes,' said Sam, 'tomorrow, after our little jaunt to London, we shall all resume the quiet, rural life once more.'
He beamed expansively upon me from the doorway.
'However, even the quiet, rural life has its interest. I guess we shan't be dull!' he said.
I believed him.
Considering the various handicaps under which he laboured notably a cold in the head, a fear of the Little Nugget, and a reverence for the aristocracy—Mr Abney's handling of the situation, when the runaways returned to school, bordered on the masterly. Any sort of physical punishment being out of the question—especially in the case of the Nugget, who would certainly have retaliated with a bout of window-breaking—he had to fall back on oratory, and he did this to such effect that, when he had finished, Augustus wept openly and was so subdued that he did not ask a single question for nearly three days.
One result of the adventure was that Ogden's bed was moved to a sort of cubby-hole adjoining my room. In the house, as originally planned, this had evidently been a dressing-room. Under Mr Abney's rule it had come to be used as a general repository for lumber. My boxes were there, and a portmanteau of Glossop's. It was an excellent place in which to bestow a boy in quest of whom kidnappers might break in by night. The window was too small to allow a man to pass through, and the only means of entrance was by way of my room. By night, at any rate, the Nugget's safety seemed to be assured.
The curiosity of the small boy, fortunately, is not lasting. His active mind lives mainly in the present. It was not many days, therefore, before the excitement caused by Buck's raid and the Nugget's disappearance began to subside. Within a week both episodes had been shelved as subjects of conversation, and the school had settled down to its normal humdrum life.
To me, however, there had come a period of mental unrest more acute than I had ever experienced. My life, for the past five years, had run in so smooth a stream that, now that I found myself tossed about in the rapids, I was bewildered. It was a peculiar aggravation of the difficulty of my position that in my world, the little world of Sanstead House, there should be but one woman, and she the very one whom, if I wished to recover my peace of mind, it was necessary for me to avoid.
My feelings towards Cynthia at this time defied my powers of analysis. There were moments when I clung to the memory of her, when she seemed the only thing solid and safe in a world of chaos, and moments, again, when she was a burden crushing me. There were days when I would give up the struggle and let myself drift, and days when I would fight myself inch by inch. But every day found my position more hopeless than the last.
At night sometimes, as I lay awake, I would tell myself that if only I could see her or even hear from her the struggle would be easier. It was her total disappearance from my life that made it so hard for me. I had nothing to help me to fight.
And then, one morning, as if in answer to my thoughts her letter came.
The letter startled me. It was as if there had been some telepathic communion between us.
It was very short, almost formal:
'MY DEAR PETER—I want to ask you a question. I can put it quite shortly. It is this. Are your feelings towards me still the same? I don't tell you why I ask this. I simply ask it. Whatever your answer is, it cannot affect our friendship, so be quite candid. CYNTHIA.'
I sat down there and then to write my reply. The letter, coming when it did and saying what it said, had affected me profoundly. It was like an unexpected reinforcement in a losing battle. It filled me with a glow of self-confidence. I felt strong again, able to fight and win. My mood bore me away, and I poured out my whole heart to her. I told her that my feelings had not altered, that I loved her and nobody but her. It was a letter, I can see, looking back, born of fretted nerves; but at the time I had no such criticism to make. It seemed to me a true expression of my real feelings.
That the fight was not over because in my moment of exaltation I had imagined that I had conquered myself was made uncomfortably plain to me by the thrill that ran through me when, returning from posting my letter, I met Audrey. The sight of her reminded me that a reinforcement is only a reinforcement, a help towards victory, not victory itself.
For the first time I found myself feeling resentful towards her. There was no reason in my resentment. It would not have borne examination. But it was there, and its presence gave me support. I found myself combating the thrill the sight of her had caused, and looking at her with a critical and hostile eye. Who was she that she should enslave a man against his will? Fascination exists only in the imagination of the fascinated. If he have the strength to deny the fascination and convince himself that it does not exist, he is saved. It is purely a matter of willpower and calm reasonableness. There must have been sturdy, level-headed Egyptian citizens who could not understand what people saw to admire in Cleopatra.
Thus reasoning, I raised my hat, uttered a crisp 'Good morning', and passed on, the very picture of the brisk man of affairs.
Even the brisk man of affairs must stop when spoken to. Otherwise, apart from any question of politeness, it looks as if he were running away.
Her face was still wearing the faint look of surprise which my manner had called forth.
'You're in a great hurry.'
I had no answer. She did not appear to expect one.
We moved towards the house in silence, to me oppressive silence. The force of her personality was beginning to beat against my defences, concerning the stability of which, under pressure, a certain uneasiness troubled my mind.
'Are you worried about anything, Peter?' she said at last.
'No,' I said. 'Why?'
'I was afraid you might be.'
I felt angry with myself. I was mismanaging this thing in the most idiotic way. Instead of this bovine silence, gay small-talk, the easy eloquence, in fact, of the brisk man of affairs should have been my policy. No wonder Smooth Sam Fisher treated me as a child. My whole bearing was that of a sulky school-boy.
The silence became more oppressive.
We reached the house. In the hall we parted, she to upper regions, I to my classroom. She did not look at me. Her face was cold and offended.
One is curiously inconsistent. Having created what in the circumstances was a most desirable coldness between Audrey and myself, I ought to have been satisfied. Reason told me that this was the best thing that could have happened. Yet joy was one of the few emotions which I did not feel during the days which followed. My brief moment of clear-headedness had passed, and with it the exhilaration that had produced the letter to Cynthia and the resentment which had helped me to reason calmly with myself on the intrinsic nature of fascination in woman. Once more Audrey became the centre of my world. But our friendship, that elusive thing which had contrived to exist side by side with my love, had vanished. There was a breach between us which widened daily. Soon we hardly spoke.
Nothing, in short, could have been more eminently satisfactory, and the fact that I regretted it is only a proof of the essential weakness of my character.
In those grey days there was one thought, of the many that occupied my mind, which brought with it a certain measure of consolation. It was the reflection that this state of affairs could not last for ever. The school term was drawing to a close. Soon I should be free from the propinquity which paralysed my efforts to fight. I was resolved that the last day of term should end for ever my connection with Sanstead House and all that was in it. Mrs Ford must find some other minion. If her happiness depended on the recovery of the Little Nugget, she must learn to do without happiness, like the rest of the inhabitants of this horrible world.
Meanwhile, however, I held myself to be still on duty. By what tortuous processes of thought I had arrived at the conclusion I do not know, but I considered myself responsible to Audrey for the safeguarding of the Little Nugget, and no altered relations between us could affect my position. Perhaps mixed up with this attitude of mind, was the less altruistic wish to foil Smooth Sam. His continued presence at the school was a challenge to me.
Sam's behaviour puzzled me. I do not know exactly what I expected him to do, but I certainly did not expect him to do nothing. Yet day followed day, and still he made no move. He was the very model of a butler. But our dealings with one another in London had left me vigilant, and his inaction did not disarm me. It sprang from patience, not from any weakening of purpose or despair of success. Sooner or later I knew he would act, swiftly and suddenly, with a plan perfected in every detail.
But when he made his attack it was the very simplicity of his methods that tricked me, and only pure chance defeated him.
I have said that it was the custom of the staff of masters at Sanstead House School—in other words, of every male adult in the house except Mr Fisher himself—to assemble in Mr Abney's study after dinner of an evening to drink coffee. It was a ceremony, like most of the ceremonies at an establishment such as a school, where things are run on a schedule, which knew of no variation. Sometimes Mr Abney would leave us immediately after the ceremony, but he never omitted to take his part in it first.
On this particular evening, for the first time since the beginning of the term, I was seized with a prejudice against coffee. I had been sleeping badly for several nights, and I decided that abstention from coffee might remedy this.
I waited, for form's sake, till Glossop and Mr Abney had filled their cups, then went to my room, where I lay down in the dark to wrestle with a more than usually pronounced fit of depression which had descended upon me. Solitude and darkness struck me as the suitable setting for my thoughts.
At this moment Smooth Sam Fisher had no place in my meditations. My mind was not occupied with him at all. When, therefore, the door, which had been ajar, began to open slowly, I did not become instantly on the alert. Perhaps it was some sound, barely audible, that aroused me from my torpor and set my blood tingling with anticipation. Perhaps it was the way the door was opening. An honest draught does not move a door furtively, in jerks.
I sat up noiseless, tense, and alert. And then, very quietly, somebody entered the room.
There was only one person in Sanstead House who would enter a room like that. I was amused. The impudence of the thing tickled me. It seemed so foreign to Mr Fisher's usual cautious methods. This strolling in and helping oneself was certainly kidnapping de luxe. In the small hours I could have understood it; but at nine o'clock at night, with Glossop, Mr Abney and myself awake and liable to be met at any moment on the stairs, it was absurd. I marvelled at Smooth Sam's effrontery.
I lay still. I imagined that, being in, he would switch on the electric light. He did, and I greeted him pleasantly.
'And what can I do for you, Mr Fisher?'
For a man who had learned to control himself in difficult situations he took the shock badly. He uttered a startled exclamation and spun round, open-mouthed.
I could not help admiring the quickness with which he recovered himself. Almost immediately he was the suave, chatty Sam Fisher who had unbosomed his theories and dreams to me in the train to London.
'I quit,' he said pleasantly. 'The episode is closed. I am a man of peace, and I take it that you would not keep on lying quietly on that bed while I went into the other room and abstracted our young friend? Unless you have changed your mind again, would a fifty-fifty offer tempt you?'
'Not an inch.'
'Just so. I merely asked.'
'And how about Mr Abney, in any case? Suppose we met him on the stairs?'
'We should not meet him on the stairs,' said Sam confidently. 'You did not take coffee tonight, I gather?'
'I didn't—no. Why?'
He jerked his head resignedly.
'Can you beat it! I ask you, young man, could I have foreseen that, after drinking coffee every night regularly for two months, you would pass it up tonight of all nights? You certainly are my jinx, sonny. You have hung the Indian sign on me all right.'