His words had brought light to me.
'Did you drug the coffee?'
'Did I! I fixed it so that one sip would have an insomnia patient in dreamland before he had time to say "Good night". That stuff Rip Van Winkle drank had nothing on my coffee. And all wasted! Well, well!'
He turned towards the door.
'Shall I leave the light on, or would you prefer it off?'
'On please. I might fall asleep in the dark.'
'Not you! And, if you did, you would dream that I was there, and wake up. There are moments, young man, when you bring me pretty near to quitting and taking to honest work.'
'But not altogether. I have still a shot or two in my locker. We shall see what we shall see. I am not dead yet. Wait!'
'I will, and some day, when I am walking along Piccadilly, a passing automobile will splash me with mud. A heavily furred plutocrat will stare haughtily at me from the tonneau, and with a start of surprise I shall recognize—'
'Stranger things have happened. Be flip while you can, sonny. You win so far, but this hoodoo of mine can't last for ever.'
He passed from the room with a certain sad dignity. A moment later he reappeared.
'A thought strikes me,' he said. 'The fifty-fifty proposition does not impress you. Would it make things easier if I were to offer my cooperation for a mere quarter of the profit?'
'Not in the least.'
'It's a handsome offer.'
'Wonderfully. I'm afraid I'm not dealing on any terms.'
He left the room, only to return once more. His head appeared, staring at me round the door, in a disembodied way, like the Cheshire Cat.
'You won't say later on I didn't give you your chance?' he said anxiously.
He vanished again, permanently this time. I heard his steps passing down the stairs.
We had now arrived at the last week of term, at the last days of the last week. The holiday spirit was abroad in the school. Among the boys it took the form of increased disorderliness. Boys who had hitherto only made Glossop bellow now made him perspire and tear his hair as well. Boys who had merely spilt ink now broke windows. The Little Nugget abandoned cigarettes in favour of an old clay pipe which he had found in the stables.
As for me, I felt like a spent swimmer who sees the shore almost within his reach. Audrey avoided me when she could, and was frigidly polite when we met. But I suffered less now. A few more days, and I should have done with this phase of my life for ever, and Audrey would once more become a memory.
Complete quiescence marked the deportment of Mr Fisher during these days. He did not attempt to repeat his last effort. The coffee came to the study unmixed with alien drugs. Sam, like lightning, did not strike twice in the same place. He had the artist's soul, and disliked patching up bungled work. If he made another move, it would, I knew, be on entirely fresh lines.
Ignoring the fact that I had had all the luck, I was inclined to be self-satisfied when I thought of Sam. I had pitted my wits against his, and I had won. It was a praiseworthy performance for a man who had done hitherto nothing particular in his life.
If all the copybook maxims which had been drilled into me in my childhood and my early disaster with Audrey had not been sufficient, I ought to have been warned by Sam's advice not to take victory for granted till the fight was over. As Sam had said, his luck would turn sooner or later.
One realizes these truths in theory, but the practical application of them seldom fails to come as a shock. I received mine on the last morning but one of the term.
Shortly after breakfast a message was brought to me that Mr Abney would like to see me in his study. I went without any sense of disaster to come. Most of the business of the school was discussed in the study after breakfast, and I imagined that the matter had to do with some detail of the morrow's exodus.
I found Mr Abney pacing the room, a look of annoyance on his face. At the desk, her back to me, Audrey was writing. It was part of her work to take charge of the business correspondence of the establishment. She did not look round when I came in, nor when Mr Abney spoke my name, but went on writing as if I did not exist.
There was a touch of embarrassment in Mr Abney's manner, for which I could not at first account. He was stately, but with the rather defensive stateliness which marked his announcements that he was about to pop up to London and leave me to do his work. He coughed once or twice before proceeding to the business of the moment.
'Ah, Mr Burns,' he said at length, 'might I ask if your plans for the holidays, the—ah—earlier part of the holidays are settled? No? ah—excellent.'
He produced a letter from the heap of papers on the desk.
'Ah—excellent. That simplifies matters considerably. I have no right to ask what I am about to—ah—in fact ask. I have no claim on your time in the holidays. But, in the circumstances, perhaps you may see your way to doing me a considerable service. I have received a letter from Mr Elmer Ford which puts me in a position of some difficulty. It is not my wish—indeed, it is foreign to my policy—to disoblige the parents of the boys who are entrusted to my—ah—care, and I should like, if possible, to do what Mr Ford asks. It appears that certain business matters call him to the north of England for a few days, this rendering it impossible for him to receive little Ogden tomorrow. It is not my custom to criticize parents who have paid me the compliment of placing their sons at the most malleable and important period of their lives, in my—ah—charge, but I must say that a little longer notice would have been a—in fact, a convenience. But Mr Ford, like so many of his countrymen, is what I believe is called a hustler. He does it now, as the expression is. In short, he wishes to leave little Ogden at the school for the first few days of the holidays, and I should be extremely obliged, Mr Burns, if you should find it possible to stay here and—ah—look after him.'
Audrey stopped writing and turned in her chair, the first intimation she had given that she had heard Mr Abney's remarks.
'It really won't be necessary to trouble Mr Burns,' she said, without looking at me. 'I can take care of Ogden very well by myself.'
'In the case of an—ah—ordinary boy, Mrs Sheridan, I should not hesitate to leave you in sole charge as you have very kindly offered to stay and help me in this matter. But we must recollect not only—I speak frankly—not only the peculiar—ah—disposition of this particular lad, but also the fact that those ruffians who visited the house that night may possibly seize the opportunity to make a fresh attack. I should not feel—ah—justified in thrusting so heavy a responsibility upon you.'
There was reason in what he said. Audrey made no reply. I heard her pen tapping on the desk and deduced her feelings. I, myself, felt like a prisoner who, having filed through the bars of his cell, is removed to another on the eve of escape. I had so braced myself up to endure till the end of term and no longer that this postponement of the day of release had a crushing effect.
Mr Abney coughed and lowered his voice confidentially.
'I would stay myself, but the fact is, I am called to London on very urgent business, and shall be unable to return for a day or so. My late pupil, the—ah—the Earl of Buxton, has been—I can rely on your discretion, Mr Burns—has been in trouble with the authorities at Eton, and his guardian, an old college friend of mine—the—in fact, the Duke of Bessborough, who, rightly or wrongly, places—er—considerable reliance on my advice, is anxious to consult me on the matter. I shall return as soon as possible, but you will readily understand that, in the circumstances, my time will not be my own. I must place myself unreservedly at—ah—Bessborough's disposal.'
He pressed the bell.
'In the event of your observing any suspicious characters in the neighbourhood, you have the telephone and can instantly communicate with the police. And you will have the assistance of—'
The door opened and Smooth Sam Fisher entered.
'You rang, sir?'
'Ah! Come in, White, and close the door. I have something to say to you. I have just been informing Mr Burns that Mr Ford has written asking me to allow his son to stay on at the school for the first few days of the vacation.'
He turned to Audrey.
'You will doubtless be surprised, Mrs Sheridan, and possibly—ah— somewhat startled, to learn the peculiar nature of White's position at Sanstead House. You have no objection to my informing Mrs Sheridan, White, in consideration of the fact that you will be working together in this matter? Just so. White is a detective in the employment of Pinkerton's Agency. Mr Ford'—a slight frown appeared on his lofty brow—'Mr Ford obtained his present situation for him in order that he might protect his son in the event of—ah—in fact, any attempt to remove him.'
I saw Audrey start. A quick flush came into her face. She uttered a little exclamation of astonishment.
'Just so,' said Mr Abney, by way of comment on this. 'You are naturally surprised. The whole arrangement is excessively unusual, and, I may say—ah—disturbing. However, you have your duty to fulfil to your employer, White, and you will, of course, remain here with the boy.'
I found myself looking into a bright brown eye that gleamed with genial triumph. The other was closed. In the exuberance of the moment, Smooth Sam had had the bad taste to wink at me.
'You will have Mr Burns to help you, White. He has kindly consented to postpone his departure during the short period in which I shall be compelled to be absent.'
I had no recollection of having given any kind consent, but I was very willing to have it assumed, and I was glad to see that Mr Fisher, though Mr Abney did not observe it, was visibly taken aback by this piece of information. But he made one of his swift recoveries.
'It is very kind of Mr Burns,' he said in his fruitiest voice, 'but I hardly think it will be necessary to put him to the inconvenience of altering his plans. I am sure that Mr Ford would prefer the entire charge of the affair to be in my hands.'
He had not chosen a happy moment for the introduction of the millionaire's name. Mr Abney was a man of method, who hated any dislocation of the fixed routine of life; and Mr Ford's letter had upset him. The Ford family, father and son, were just then extremely unpopular with him.
He crushed Sam.
'What Mr Ford would or would not prefer is, in this particular matter, beside the point. The responsibility for the boy, while he remains on the school premises, is—ah—mine, and I shall take such precautions as seem fit and adequate to—him—myself, irrespective of those which, in your opinion, might suggest themselves to Mr Ford. As I cannot be here myself, owing to—ah—urgent business in London, I shall certainly take advantage of Mr Burns's kind offer to remain as my deputy.'
He paused and blew his nose, his invariable custom after these occasional outbursts of his. Sam had not wilted beneath the storm. He waited, unmoved, till all was over:
'I am afraid I shall have to be more explicit,' he said: 'I had hoped to avoid scandal and unpleasantness, but I see it is impossible.'
Mr Abney's astonished face emerged slowly from behind his handkerchief.
'I quite agree with you, sir, that somebody should be here to help me look after the boy, but not Mr Burns. I am sorry to have to say it, but I do not trust Mr Burns.'
Mr Abney's look of astonishment deepened. I, too, was surprised. It was so unlike Sam to fling away his chances on a blundering attack like this.
'What do you mean?' demanded Mr Abney.
'Mr Burns is after the boy himself. He came to kidnap him.'
Mr Abney, as he had every excuse for doing, grunted with amazement. I achieved the ringing laugh of amused innocence. It was beyond me to fathom Sam's mind. He could not suppose that any credence would be given to his wild assertion. It seemed to me that disappointment had caused him momentarily to lose his head.
'Are you mad, White?'
'No, sir. I can prove what I say. If I had not gone to London with him that last time, he'd have got away with the boy then, for certain.'
For an instant an uneasy thought came to me that he might have something in reserve, something unknown to me, which had encouraged him to this direct attack. I dismissed the notion. There could be nothing.
Mr Abney had turned to me with a look of hopeless bewilderment. I raised my eyebrows.
'Ridiculous,' I said.
That this was the only comment seemed to be Mr Abney's view. He turned on Sam with the pettish anger of the mild man.
'What do you mean, White, by coming to me with such a preposterous story?'
'I don't say Mr Burns wished to kidnap the boy in the ordinary way,' said Sam imperturbably, 'like those men who came that night. He had a special reason. Mr and Mrs Ford, as of course you know, sir, are divorced. Mr Burns was trying to get the boy away and take him back to his mother.'
I heard Audrey give a little gasp. Mr Abney's anger became modified by a touch of doubt. I could see that these words, by lifting the accusation from the wholly absurd to the somewhat plausible, had impressed him. Once again I was gripped by the uneasy feeling that Sam had an unsuspected card to play. This might be bluff, but it had a sinister ring.
'You might say,' went on Sam smoothly, 'that this was creditable to Mr Burns's heart. But, from my employer's viewpoint and yours, too, it was a chivalrous impulse that needed to be checked. Will you please read this, sir?'
He handed a letter to Mr Abney, who adjusted his glasses and began to read—at first in a detached, judicial way, then with startled eagerness.
'I felt it necessary to search among Mr Burns's papers, sir, in the hope of finding—'
And then I knew what he had found. From the first the blue-grey notepaper had had a familiar look. I recognized it now. It was Cynthia's letter, that damning document which I had been mad enough to read to him in London. His prediction that the luck would change had come amazingly true.
I caught Sam's eye. For the second time he was unfeeling enough to wink. It was a rich, comprehensive wink, as expressive and joyous as a college yell.
Mr Abney had absorbed the letter and was struggling for speech. I could appreciate his emotion. If he had not actually been nurturing a viper in his bosom, he had come, from his point of view, very near it. Of all men, a schoolmaster necessarily looks with the heartiest dislike on the would-be kidnapper.
As for me, my mind was in a whirl. I was entirely without a plan, without the very beginnings of a plan, to help me cope with this appalling situation. I was crushed by a sense of the utter helplessness of my position. To denounce Sam was impossible; to explain my comparative innocence was equally out of the question. The suddenness of the onslaught had deprived me of the power of coherent thought. I was routed.
Mr Abney was speaking.
'Is your name Peter, Mr Burns?'
I nodded. Speech was beyond me.
'This letter is written by—ah—by a lady. It asks you in set terms to—ah—hasten to kidnap Ogden Ford. Do you wish me to read it to you? Or do you confess to knowing its contents?'
He waited for a reply. I had none to make.
'You do not deny that you came to Sanstead House for the deliberate purpose of kidnapping Ogden Ford?'
I had nothing to say. I caught a glimpse of Audrey's face, cold and hard, and shifted my eyes quickly. Mr Abney gulped. His face wore the reproachful expression of a cod-fish when jerked out of the water on the end of a line. He stared at me with pained repulsion. That scoundrelly old buccaneer Sam did the same. He looked like a shocked bishop.
'I—ah—trusted you implicitly,' said Mr Abney.
Sam wagged his head at me reproachfully. With a flicker of spirit I glared at him. He only wagged the more.
It was, I think, the blackest moment of my life. A wild desire for escape on any terms surged over me. That look on Audrey's face was biting into my brain like an acid.
'I will go and pack,' I said.
'This is the end of all things,' I said to myself.
I had suspended my packing in order to sit on my bed and brood. I was utterly depressed. There are crises in a man's life when Reason fails to bring the slightest consolation. In vain I tried to tell myself that what had happened was, in essence, precisely what, twenty-four hours ago, I was so eager to bring about. It amounted to this, that now, at last, Audrey had definitely gone out of my life. From now on I could have no relations with her of any sort. Was not this exactly what, twenty-four hours ago, I had wished? Twenty-four hours ago had I not said to myself that I would go away and never see her again? Undoubtedly. Nevertheless, I sat there and groaned in spirit.
It was the end of all things.
A mild voice interrupted my meditations.
'Can I help?'
Sam was standing in the doorway, beaming on me with invincible good-humour.
'You are handling them wrong. Allow me. A moment more and you would have ruined the crease.'
I became aware of a pair of trousers hanging limply in my grasp. He took them from me, and, folding them neatly, placed them in my trunk.
'Don't get all worked up about it, sonny,' he said. 'It's the fortune of war. Besides, what does it matter to you? Judging by that very snug apartment in London, you have quite enough money for a young man. Losing your job here won't break you. And, if you're worrying about Mrs Ford and her feelings, don't! I guess she's probably forgotten all about the Nugget by this time. So cheer up. You're all right!'
He stretched out a hand to pat me on the shoulder, then thought better of it and drew it back.
'Think of my happiness, if you want something to make you feel good. Believe me, young man, it's some. I could sing! Gee, when I think that it's all plain sailing now and no more troubles, I could dance! You don't know what it means to me, putting through this deal. I wish you knew Mary! That's her name. You must come and visit us, sonny, when we're fixed up in the home. There'll always be a knife and fork for you. We'll make you one of the family! Lord! I can see the place as plain as I can see you. Nice frame house with a good porch.... Me in a rocker in my shirt-sleeves, smoking a cigar and reading the baseball news; Mary in another rocker, mending my socks and nursing the cat! We'll sure have a cat. Two cats. I like cats. And a goat in the front garden. Say, it'll be great!'
And on the word, emotion overcoming prudence, he brought his fat hand down with a resounding smack on my bowed shoulders.
There is a limit. I bounded to my feet.
'Get out!' I yelped. 'Get out of here!'
'Sure,' he replied agreeably. He rose without haste and regarded me compassionately. 'Cheer up, son! Be a sport!'
There are moments when the best of men become melodramatic. I offer this as excuse for my next observation.
Clenching my fists and glaring at him, I cried, 'I'll foil you yet, you hound!'
Some people have no soul for the dramatic. He smiled tolerantly.
'Sure,' he said. 'Anything you like, Desperate Desmond. Enjoy yourself!'
And he left me.
I evacuated Sanstead House unostentatiously, setting off on foot down the long drive. My luggage, I gathered, was to follow me to the station in a cart. I was thankful to Providence for the small mercy that the boys were in their classrooms and consequently unable to ask me questions. Augustus Beckford alone would have handled the subject of my premature exit in a manner calculated to bleach my hair.
It was a wonderful morning. The sky was an unclouded blue, and a fresh breeze was blowing in from the sea. I think that something of the exhilaration of approaching spring must have stirred me, for quite suddenly the dull depression with which I had started my walk left me, and I found myself alert and full of schemes.
Why should I feebly withdraw from the struggle? Why should I give in to Smooth Sam in this tame way? The memory of that wink came back to me with a tonic effect. I would show him that I was still a factor in the game. If the house was closed to me, was there not the 'Feathers'? I could lie in hiding there, and observe his movements unseen.
I stopped on reaching the inn, and was on the point of entering and taking up my position at once, when it occurred to me that this would be a false move. It was possible that Sam would not take my departure for granted so readily as I assumed. It was Sam's way to do a thing thoroughly, and the probability was that, if he did not actually come to see me off, he would at least make inquiries at the station to find out if I had gone. I walked on.
He was not at the station. Nor did he arrive in the cart with my trunk. But I was resolved to risk nothing. I bought a ticket for London, and boarded the London train. It had been my intention to leave it at Guildford and catch an afternoon train back to Stanstead; but it seemed to me, on reflection, that this was unnecessary. There was no likelihood of Sam making any move in the matter of the Nugget until the following day. I could take my time about returning.
I spent the night in London, and arrived at Sanstead by an early morning train with a suit-case containing, among other things, a Browning pistol. I was a little ashamed of this purchase. To the Buck MacGinnis type of man, I suppose, a pistol is as commonplace a possession as a pair of shoes, but I blushed as I entered the gun-shop. If it had been Buck with whom I was about to deal, I should have felt less self-conscious. But there was something about Sam which made pistols ridiculous.
My first act, after engaging a room at the inn and leaving my suit-case, was to walk to the school. Before doing anything else, I felt I must see Audrey and tell her the facts in the case of Smooth Sam. If she were on her guard, my assistance might not be needed. But her present state of trust in him was fatal.
A school, when the boys are away, is a lonely place. The deserted air of the grounds, as I slipped cautiously through the trees, was almost eerie. A stillness brooded over everything, as if the place had been laid under a spell. Never before had I been so impressed with the isolation of Sanstead House. Anything might happen in this lonely spot, and the world would go on its way in ignorance. It was with quite distinct relief that, as I drew nearer the house, I caught sight of the wire of the telephone among the trees above my head. It had a practical, comforting look.
A tradesman's cart rattled up the drive and disappeared round the side of the house. This reminder, also, of the outside world was pleasant. But I could not rid myself of the feeling that the atmosphere of the place was sinister. I attributed it to the fact that I was a spy in an enemy's country. I had to see without being seen. I did not imagine that Johnson, grocer, who had just passed in his cart, found anything wrong with the atmosphere. It was created for me by my own furtive attitude.
Of Audrey and Ogden there were no signs. That they were out somewhere in the grounds this mellow spring morning I took for granted; but I could not make an extended search. Already I had come nearer to the house than was prudent.
My eye caught the telephone wire again and an idea came to me. I would call her up from the inn and ask her to meet me. There was the risk that the call would be answered by Smooth Sam, but it was not great. Sam, unless he had thrown off his role of butler completely—which would be unlike the artist that he was—would be in the housekeeper's room, and the ringing of the telephone, which was in the study, would not penetrate to him.
I chose a moment when dinner was likely to be over and Audrey might be expected to be in the drawing-room.
I had deduced her movements correctly. It was her voice that answered the call.
'This is Peter Burns speaking.'
There was a perceptible pause before she replied. When she did, her voice was cold.
'I want to speak to you on a matter of urgent importance.'
'I can't do it through the telephone. Will you meet me in half an hour's time at the gate?'
'Where are you speaking from?'
'The "Feathers". I am staying there.'
'I thought you were in London.'
'I came back. Will you meet me?'
'Because I have something important to say to you—important to you.'
There was another pause.
'In half an hour, then. Is Ogden Ford in bed?'
'Is his door locked?'
'Then lock it and bring the key with you.'
'I will tell you when we meet.'
'I will bring it.'
'Thank you. Good-bye.'
I hung up the receiver and set out at once for the school.
She was waiting in the road, a small, indistinct figure in the darkness.
'Is that you—Peter?'
Her voice had hesitated at the name, as if at some obstacle. It was a trivial thing, but, in my present mood, it stung me.
'I'm afraid I'm late. I won't keep you long. Shall we walk down the road? You may not have been followed, but it is as well to be on the safe side.'
'Followed? I don't understand.'
We walked a few paces and halted.
'Who would follow me?'
'A very eminent person of the name of Smooth Sam Fisher.'
'Smooth Sam Fisher?'
'Better known to you as White.'
'I don't understand.'
'I should be surprised if you did. I asked you to meet me here so that I could make you understand. The man who poses as a Pinkerton's detective, and is staying in the house to help you take care of Ogden Ford, is Smooth Sam Fisher, a professional kidnapper.'
'But what proof have I? Was that what you were going to say? None. But I had the information from the man himself. He told me in the train that night going to London.'
She spoke quickly. I knew from her tone that she thought she had detected a flaw in my story.
'Why did he tell you?'
'Because he needed me as an accomplice. He wanted my help. It was I who got Ogden away that day. Sam overheard me giving money and directions to him, telling him how to get away from the school and where to go, and he gathered—correctly—that I was in the same line of business as himself. He suggested a partnership which I was unable to accept.'
'Our objects were different. My motive in kidnapping Ogden was not to extract a ransom.'
She blazed out at me in an absolutely unexpected manner. Till now she had listened so calmly and asked her questions with such a notable absence of emotion that the outburst overwhelmed me.
'Oh, I know what your motive was. There is no need to explain that. Isn't there any depth to which a man who thinks himself in love won't stoop? I suppose you told yourself you were doing something noble and chivalrous? A woman of her sort can trick a man into whatever meanness she pleases, and, just because she asks him, he thinks himself a kind of knight-errant. I suppose she told you that he had ill-treated her and didn't appreciate her higher self, and all that sort of thing? She looked at you with those big brown eyes of hers—I can see her—and drooped, and cried, till you were ready to do anything she asked you.'
'Whom do you mean?'
'Mrs Ford, of course. The woman who sent you here to steal Ogden. The woman who wrote you that letter.'
'She did not write that letter. But never mind that. The reason why I wanted you to come here was to warn you against Sam Fisher. That was all. If there is any way in which I can help you, send for me. If you like, I will come and stay at the house till Mr Abney returns.'
Before the words were out of my mouth, I saw that I had made a mistake. The balance of her mind was poised between suspicion and belief, and my offer turned the scale.
'No, thank you,' she said curtly.
'You don't trust me?'
'Why should I? White may or may not be Sam Fisher. I shall be on my guard, and I thank you for telling me. But why should I trust you? It all hangs together. You told me you were engaged to be married. You come here on an errand which no man would undertake except for a woman, and a woman with whom he was very much in love. There is that letter, imploring you to steal the boy. I know what a man will do for a woman he is fond of. Why should I trust you?'
'There is this. You forget that I had the opportunity to steal Ogden if I had wanted to. I had got him away to London. But I brought him back. I did it because you had told me what it meant to you.'
She hesitated, but only for an instant. Suspicion was too strong for her.
'I don't believe you. You brought him back because this man whom you call Fisher got to know of your plans. Why should you have done it because of me? Why should you have put my interests before Mrs Ford's? I am nothing to you.'
For a moment a mad impulse seized me to cast away all restraint, to pour out the unspoken words that danced like imps in my brain, to make her understand, whatever the cost, my feelings towards her. But the thought of my letter to Cynthia checked me. That letter had been the irrevocable step. If I was to preserve a shred of self-respect I must be silent.
'Very well,' I said, 'good night.' And I turned to go.
There was something in her voice which whirled me round, thrilling, despite my resolution.
'Are you going?'
Weakness would now be my undoing. I steadied myself and answered abruptly.
'I have said all I came to say. Good night.'
I turned once more and walked quickly off towards the village. I came near to running. I was in the mood when flight alone can save a man. She did not speak again, and soon I was out of danger, hurrying on through the friendly darkness, beyond the reach of her voice.
The bright light from the doorway of the 'Feathers', was the only illumination that relieved the blackness of the Market Square. As I approached, a man came out and stopped in the entrance to light a cigar. His back was turned towards me as he crouched to protect the match from the breeze, but something in his appearance seemed familiar.
I had only a glimpse of him as he straightened himself and walked out of the pool of light into the Square, but it was enough.
It was my much-enduring acquaintance, Mr Buck MacGinnis.
At the receipt of custom behind the bar sat Miss Benjafield, stately as ever, relaxing her massive mind over a penny novelette.
'Who was the man who just left, Miss Benjafield?' I asked.
She marked the place with a shapely thumb and looked up.
'The man? Oh, him! He's—why, weren't you in here, Mr Burns, one evening in January when—'
'That's him. What he's doing here I don't know. He disappeared quite a while back, and I haven't seen him since. Nor want. Tonight up he turns again like a bad ha'penny. I'd like to know what he's after. No good, if you ask me.'
Miss Benjafield's prejudices did not easily dissolve. She prided herself, as she frequently observed, on knowing her own mind.
'Is he staying here?'
'Not at the "Feathers". We're particular who we have here.'
I thanked her for the implied compliment, ordered beer for the good of the house, and, lighting a pipe, sat down to meditate on this new development.
The vultures were gathered together with a vengeance. Sam within, Buck without, it was quite like old times, with the difference that now, I, too, was on the wrong side of the school door.
It was not hard to account for Buck's reappearance. He would, of course, have made it his business to get early information of Mr Ford's movements. It would be easy for him to discover that the millionaire had been called away to the north and that the Nugget was still an inmate of Sanstead House. And here he was preparing for the grand attack.
I had been premature in removing Buck's name from the list of active combatants. Broken legs mend. I ought to have remembered that.
His presence on the scene made, I perceived, a vast difference to my plan of campaign. It was at this point that my purchase of the Browning pistol lost its absurdity and appeared in the light of an acute strategic move. With Sam the only menace, I had been prepared to play a purely waiting game, watching proceedings from afar, ready to give my help if necessary. To check Buck, more strenuous methods were called for.
My mind was made up. With Buck, that stout disciple of the frontal attack, in the field, there was only one place for me. I must get into Sanstead House and stay there on guard.
Did he intend to make an offensive movement tonight? That was the question which occupied my mind. From the point of view of an opponent, there was this merit about Mr MacGinnis, that he was not subtle. He could be counted on with fair certainty to do the direct thing. Sooner or later he would make another of his vigorous frontal attacks upon the stronghold. The only point to be decided was whether he would make it that night. Would professional zeal cause him to omit his beauty sleep?
I did not relish the idea of spending the night patrolling the grounds, but it was imperative that the house be protected. Then it occurred to me that the man for the vigil was Smooth Sam. If the arrival of Mr MacGinnis had complicated matters in one way, it had simplified them in another, for there was no more need for the secrecy which had been, till now, the basis of my plan of action. Buck's arrival made it possible for me to come out and fight in the open, instead of brooding over Sanstead House from afar like a Providence. Tomorrow I proposed to turn Sam out. Tonight I would use him. The thing had resolved itself into a triangular tournament, and Sam and Buck should play the first game.
Once more I called up the house on the telephone. There was a long delay before a reply came. It was Mr Fisher's voice that spoke. Audrey, apparently, had not returned to the house immediately after leaving me.
'Hullo!' said Sam.
'Good evening, Mr Fisher.'
'Gee! Is that you, young fellow-me-lad? Are you speaking from London?'
'No. I am at the "Feathers".'
He chuckled richly.
'Can't tear yourself away? Hat still in the ring? Say, what's the use? Why not turn it up, sonny? You're only wasting your time.'
'Do you sleep lightly, Mr Fisher?'
'I don't get you.'
'You had better do so tonight. Buck MacGinnis is back again.'
There was silence at the other end of the wire. Then I heard him swear softly. The significance of the information had not been lost on Mr Fisher.
'Is that straight?'
'You're not stringing me?'
'You're sure it was Buck?'
'Is Buck's the sort of face one forgets?'
He swore again.
'You seem disturbed,' I said.
'Where did you see him?' asked Sam.
'Coming out of the "Feathers", looking very fierce and determined. The Berserk blood of the MacGinnises is up. He's going to do or die. I'm afraid this means an all-night sitting for you, Mr Fisher.'
'I thought you had put him out of business!'
There was a somewhat querulous note in his voice.
'Only temporarily. I did my best, but he wasn't even limping when I saw him.'
He did not speak for a moment. I gathered that he was pondering over the new development.
'Thanks for tipping me off, sonny. It's a thing worth knowing. Why did you do it?'
'Because I love you, Samuel. Good night.'
I rose late and breakfasted at my leisure. The peace of the English country inn enveloped me as I tilted back my chair and smoked the first pipe of the morning. It was a day to hearten a man for great deeds, one of those days of premature summer which comes sometimes to help us bear the chill winds of early spring. The sun streamed in through the open window. In the yard below fowls made their soothing music. The thought of violence seemed very alien to such a morning.
I strolled out into the Square. I was in no hurry to end this interlude of peace and embark on what, for all practical purposes, would be a siege.
After lunch, I decided, would be time enough to begin active campaigning.
The clock on the church tower was striking two as I set forth, carrying my suit-case, on my way to the school. The light-heartedness of the morning still lingered with me. I was amused at the thought of the surprise I was about to give Mr Fisher. That wink still rankled.
As I made my way through the grounds I saw Audrey in the distance, walking with the Nugget. I avoided them and went on into the house.
About the house there was the same air of enchanted quiet which pervaded the grounds. Perhaps the stillness indoors was even more insistent. I had grown so accustomed to the never-ending noise and bustle of the boys' quarters that, as I crossed the silent hall, I had an almost guilty sense of intrusion. I felt like a burglar.
Sam, the object of my visit, would, I imagined, if he were in the house at all, be in the housekeeper's room, a cosy little apartment off the passage leading to the kitchen. I decided to draw that first, and was rewarded, on pushing open the half-closed door, by the sight of a pair of black-trousered legs stretched out before me from the depths of a wicker-work armchair. His portly middle section, rising beyond like a small hill, heaved rhythmically. His face was covered with a silk handkerchief, from beneath which came, in even succession, faint and comfortable snores. It was a peaceful picture—the good man taking his rest; and for me it had an added attractiveness in that it suggested that Sam was doing by day what my information had prevented him from doing in the night. It had been some small consolation to me, as I lay trying to compose my anxious mind for sleep on the previous night, that Mr Fisher also was keeping his vigil.
Pleasing as Sam was as a study in still life, pressure of business compelled me to stir him into activity. I prodded him gently in the centre of the rising territory beyond the black trousers. He grunted discontentedly and sat up. The handkerchief fell from his face, and he blinked at me, first with the dazed glassiness of the newly awakened, then with a 'Soul's Awakening' expression, which spread over his face until it melted into a friendly smile.
'Hello, young man!'
'Good afternoon. You seem tired.'
He yawned cavernously.
'Lord! What a night!'
'Did Buck drop in?'
'No, but I thought he had every time I heard a board creak. I didn't dare close my eyes for a minute. Have you ever stayed awake all night, waiting for the goblins that get you if you don't watch out? Well, take it from me it's no picnic.'
His face split in another mammoth yawn. He threw his heart into it, as if life held no other tasks for him. Only in alligators have I ever seen its equal.
I waited till the seismic upheaval had spent itself. Then I came to business.
'I'm sorry you had a disturbed night, Mr Fisher. You must make up for it this afternoon. You will find the beds very comfortable.'
'At the "Feathers". I should go there, if I were you. The charges are quite reasonable, and the food is good. You will like the "Feathers".'
'I don't get you, sonny.'
'I was trying to break it gently to you that you are about to move from this house. Now. At once. Take your last glimpse of the old home, Sam, and out into the hard world.'
He looked at me inquiringly.
'You seem to be talking, young man; words appear to be fluttering from you; but your meaning, if any, escapes me.'
'My meaning is that I am about to turn you out. I am coming back here, and there is not room for both of us. So, if you do not see your way to going quietly, I shall take you by the back of the neck and run you out. Do I make myself fairly clear now?'
He permitted himself a rich chuckle.
'You have gall, young man. Well, I hate to seem unfriendly. I like you, sonny. You amuse me—but there are moments when one wants to be alone. I have a whole heap of arrears of sleep to make up. Trot along, kiddo, and quit disturbing uncle. Tie a string to yourself and disappear. Bye-bye.'
The wicker-work creaked as he settled his stout body. He picked up the handkerchief.
'Mr Fisher,' I said, 'I have no wish to propel your grey hairs at a rapid run down the drive, so I will explain further. I am physically stronger than you. I mean to turn you out. How can you prevent it? Mr Abney is away. You can't appeal to him. The police are at the end of the telephone, but you can't appeal to them. So what can you do, except go? Do you get me now?'
He regarded the situation in thoughtful silence. He allowed no emotion to find expression in his face, but I knew that the significance of my remarks had sunk in. I could almost follow his mind as he tested my position point by point and found it impregnable.
When he spoke it was to accept defeat jauntily.
'You are my jinx, young man. I said it all along. You're really set on my going? Say no more. I'll go. After all, it's quiet at the inn, and what more does a man want at my time of life?'
I went out into the garden to interview Audrey.
She was walking up and down on the tennis-lawn. The Nugget, lounging in a deck-chair, appeared to be asleep.
She caught sight of me as I came out from the belt of trees, and stopped. I had the trying experience of walking across open country under hostile observation.
The routing of Sam had left me alert and self-confident. I felt no embarrassment. I greeted her briskly.
'Good afternoon. I have been talking to Sam Fisher. If you wait, you will see him passing away down the drive. He is leaving the house. I am coming back.'
She spoke incredulously, or, rather, as if my words had conveyed no meaning. It was so that Sam had spoken. Her mind, like his, took time to adjust itself to the unexpected.
She seemed to awake to my meaning with a start.
'Coming back?' Her eyes widened. The flush deepened on her cheeks. 'But I told you—'
'I know what you told me. You said you did not trust me. It doesn't matter. I am coming back whether you trust me or not. This house is under martial law, and I am in command. The situation has changed since I spoke to you last night. Last night I was ready to let you have your way. I intended to keep an eye on things from the inn. But it's different now. It is not a case of Sam Fisher any longer. You could have managed Sam. It's Buck MacGinnis now, the man who came that night in the automobile. I saw him in the village after I left you. He's dangerous.'
She looked away, past me, in the direction of the drive. I followed her gaze. A stout figure, carrying a suit-case, was moving slowly down it.
I smiled. Her eyes met mine, and I saw the anger that had been lying at the back of them flash out. Her chin went up with the old defiant tilt. I was sorry I had smiled. It was my old fault, the complacency that would not be hidden.
'I don't believe you!' she cried. 'I don't trust you!'
It is curious how one's motive for embarking on a course of conduct changes or disappears altogether as the action develops. Once started on an enterprise it is as if one proceeded with it automatically, irrespective of one's original motives. I had begun what I might call the second phase of this matter of the Little Nugget, the abandoning of Cynthia's cause in favour of Audrey's, with a clear idea of why I was doing it. I had set myself to resist the various forces which were trying to take Ogden from Audrey, for one simple reason, because I loved Audrey and wished to help her. That motive, if it still existed at all, did so only in the form of abstract chivalry. My personal feelings towards her seemed to have undergone a complete change, dating from our parting in the road the night before. I found myself now meeting hostility with hostility. I looked at her critically and told myself that her spell was broken at last, that, if she disliked me, I was at least indifferent to her.
And yet, despite my altered feelings, my determination to help her never wavered. The guarding of Ogden might be—primarily—no business of mine, but I had adopted it as my business.
'I don't ask you to trust me,' I said. 'We have settled all that. There's no need to go over old ground. Think what you please about this. I've made up my mind.'
'If you mean to stay, I suppose I can't prevent you.'
Sam appeared again in a gap in the trees, walking slowly and pensively, as one retreating from his Moscow. Her eyes followed him till he was out of sight.
'If you like,' I said bitterly, 'you may put what I am doing down to professional rivalry. If I am in love with Mrs Ford and am here to steal Ogden for her, it is natural for me to do all I can to prevent Buck MacGinnis getting him. There is no need for you to look on me as an ally because we are working together.'
'We are not working together.'
'We shall be in a very short time. Buck will not let another night go by without doing something.'
'I don't believe that you saw him.'
'Just as you please,' I said, and walked away. What did it matter to me what she believed?
The day dragged on. Towards evening the weather broke suddenly, after the fashion of spring in England. Showers of rain drove me to the study.
It must have been nearly ten o'clock when the telephone rang.
It was Mr Fisher.
'Hello, is that you, sonny?'
'It is. Do you want anything?'
'I want a talk with you. Business. Can I come up?'
'If you wish it.'
'I'll start right away.'
It was some fifteen minutes later that I heard in the distance the engines of an automobile. The headlights gleamed through the trees, and presently the car swept round the bend of the drive and drew up at the front door. A portly figure got down and rang the bell. I observed these things from a window on the first floor, overlooking the front steps; and it was from this window that I spoke.
'Is that you, Mr Fisher?'
He backed away from the door.
'Where are you?'
'Is that your car?'
'It belongs to a friend of mine.'
'I didn't know you meant to bring a party.'
'There's only three of us. Me, the chauffeur, and my friend—MacGinnis.'
The possibility, indeed the probability, of Sam seeking out Buck and forming an alliance had occurred to me, and I was prepared for it. I shifted my grip on the automatic pistol in my hand.
'Ask your friend MacGinnis to be good enough to step into the light of that lamp and drop his gun.'
There was a muttered conversation. I heard Buck's voice rumbling like a train going under a bridge. The request did not appear to find favour with him. Then came an interlude of soothing speech from Mr Fisher. I could not distinguish the words, but I gathered that he was pointing out to him that, on this occasion only, the visit being for the purposes of parley and not of attack, pistols might be looked on as non-essentials. Whatever his arguments, they were successful, for, finally, humped as to the back and muttering, Buck moved into the light.
'Good evening, Mr MacGinnis,' I said. 'I'm glad to see your leg is all right again. I won't detain you a moment. Just feel in your pockets and shed a few of your guns, and then you can come in out of the rain. To prevent any misunderstanding, I may say I have a gun of my own. It is trained on you now.'
'I ain't got no gun.'
'Come along. This is no time for airy persiflage. Out with them.'
A moment's hesitation, and a small black pistol fell to the ground.
'Think I'm a regiment?'
'I don't know what you are. Well, I'll take your word for it. You will come in one by one, with your hands up.'
I went down and opened the door, holding my pistol in readiness against the unexpected.
Sam came first. His raised hands gave him a vaguely pontifical air (Bishop Blessing Pilgrims), and the kindly smile he wore heightened the illusion. Mr MacGinnis, who followed, suggested no such idea. He was muttering moodily to himself, and he eyed me askance.
I showed them into the classroom and switched on the light. The air was full of many odours. Disuse seems to bring out the inky-chalky, appley-deal-boardy bouquet of a classroom as the night brings out the scent of flowers. During the term I had never known this classroom smell so exactly like a classroom. I made use of my free hand to secure and light a cigarette.
Sam rose to a point of order.
'Young man,' he said. I should like to remind you that we are here, as it were, under a flag of truce. To pull a gun on us and keep us holding our hands up this way is raw work. I feel sure I speak for my friend Mr MacGinnis.'
He cocked an eye at his friend Mr MacGinnis, who seconded the motion by expectorating into the fireplace. I had observed at a previous interview his peculiar gift for laying bare his soul by this means of mode of expression. A man of silent habit, judged by the more conventional standard of words, he was almost an orator in expectoration.
'Mr MacGinnis agrees with me,' said Sam cheerfully. 'Do we take them down? Have we your permission to assume Position Two of these Swedish exercises? All we came for was a little friendly chat among gentlemen, and we can talk just as well—speaking for myself, better—in a less strained attitude. A little rest, Mr Burns! A little folding of the hands? Thank you.'
He did not wait for permission, nor was it necessary. Sam and the melodramatic atmosphere was as oil and water. It was impossible to blend them. I laid the pistol on the table and sat down. Buck, after one wistful glance at the weapon, did the same. Sam was already seated, and was looking so cosy and at home that I almost felt it remiss of me not to have provided sherry and cake for this pleasant gathering.
'Well,' I said, 'what can I do for you?'
'Let me explain,' said Sam. 'As you have, no doubt, gathered, Mr MacGinnis and I have gone into partnership. The Little Nugget Combine!'
'I gathered that—well?'
'Judicious partnerships are the soul of business. Mr MacGinnis and I have been rivals in the past, but we both saw that the moment had come for the genial smile, the hearty handshake, in fact, for an alliance. We form a strong team, sonny. My partner's speciality is action. I supply the strategy. Say, can't you see you're up against it? Why be foolish?'
'You think you're certain to win?'
'It's a cinch.'
'Then why trouble to come here and see me?'
I appeared to have put into words the smouldering thought which was vexing Mr MacGinnis. He burst into speech.
'Ahr chee! Sure! What's de use? Didn't I tell youse? What's de use of wastin' time? What are we spielin' away here for? Let's get busy.'
Sam waved a hand towards him with the air of a lecturer making a point.
'You see! The man of action! He likes trouble. He asks for it. He eats it alive. Now I prefer peace. Why have a fuss when you can get what you want quietly? That's my motto. That's why we've come. It's the old proposition. We're here to buy you out. Yes, I know you have turned the offer down before, but things have changed. Your stock has fallen. In fact, instead of letting you in on sharing terms, we only feel justified now in offering a commission. For the moment you may seem to hold a strong position. You are in the house, and you've got the boy. But there's nothing to it really. We could get him in five minutes if we cared to risk having a fuss. But it seems to me there's no need of any fuss. We should win dead easy all right, if it came to trouble; but, on the other hand, you've a gun, and there's a chance some of us might get hurt, so what's the good when we can settle it quietly? How about it, sonny?'
Mr MacGinnis began to rumble, preparatory to making further remarks on the situation, but Sam waved him down and turned his brown eyes inquiringly on me.
'Fifteen per cent is our offer,' he said.
'And to think it was once fifty-fifty!'
'Business? It's sweating!'
'It's our limit. And it wasn't easy to make Buck here agree to that. He kicked like a mule.'
Buck shuffled his feet and eyed me disagreeably. I suppose it is hard to think kindly of a man who has broken your leg. It was plain that, with Mr MacGinnis, bygones were by no means bygones.
'Well, I'm sorry you should have had the trouble of coming here for nothing. Let me see you out. Single file, please.'
Sam looked aggrieved.
'You turn it down?'
'One moment. Let's have this thing clear. Do you realize what you're up against? Don't think it's only Buck and me you've got to tackle. All the boys are here, waiting round the corner, the same gang that came the other night. Be sensible, sonny. You don't stand a dog's chance. I shouldn't like to see you get hurt. And you never know what may not happen. The boys are pretty sore at you because of what you did that night. I shouldn't act like a bonehead, sonny—honest.'
There was a kindly ring in his voice which rather touched me. Between him and me there had sprung up an odd sort of friendship. He meant business; but he would, I knew, be genuinely sorry if I came to harm. And I could see that he was quite sincere in his belief that I was in a tight corner and that my chances against the Combine were infinitesimal. I imagine that, with victory so apparently certain, he had had difficulty in persuading his allies to allow him to make his offer.
But he had overlooked one thing—the telephone. That he should have made this mistake surprised me. If it had been Buck, I could have understood it. Buck's was a mind which lent itself to such blunders. From Sam I had expected better things, especially as the telephone had been so much in evidence of late. He had used it himself only half an hour ago.
I clung to the thought of the telephone. It gave me the quiet satisfaction of the gambler who holds the unforeseen ace. The situation was in my hands. The police, I knew, had been profoundly stirred by Mr MacGinnis's previous raid. When I called them up, as I proposed to do directly the door had closed on the ambassadors, there would be no lack of response. It would not again be a case of Inspector Bones and Constable Johnson to the rescue. A great cloud of willing helpers would swoop to our help.
With these thoughts in my mind, I answered Sam pleasantly but firmly.
'I'm sorry I'm unpopular, but all the same—'
I indicated the door.
Emotion that could only be expressed in words and not through his usual medium welled up in Mr MacGinnis. He sprang forward with a snarl, falling back as my faithful automatic caught his eye.
'Say, you! Listen here! You'll—'
Sam, the peaceable, plucked at his elbow.
'Nothing doing, Buck. Step lively.'
Buck wavered, then allowed himself to be drawn away. We passed out of the classroom in our order of entry.
An exclamation from the stairs made me look up. Audrey was leaning over the banisters. Her face was in the shadow, but I gathered from her voice that the sight of our little procession had startled her. I was not surprised. Buck was a distinctly startling spectacle, and his habit of growling to himself, as he walked, highly disturbing to strangers.
'Good evening, Mrs Sheridan,' said Sam suavely.
Audrey did not speak. She seemed fascinated by Buck.
I opened the front door and they passed out. The automobile was still purring on the drive. Buck's pistol had disappeared. I supposed the chauffeur had picked it up, a surmise which was proved correct a few moments later, when, just as the car was moving off, there was a sharp crack and a bullet struck the wall to the right of the door. It was a random shot, and I did not return it. Its effect on me was to send me into the hall with a leap that was almost a back-somersault. Somehow, though I was keyed up for violence and the shooting of pistols, I had not expected it at just that moment, and I was disagreeably surprised at the shock it had given me. I slammed the door and bolted it. I was intensely irritated to find that my fingers were trembling.
Audrey had left the stairs and was standing beside me.
'They shot at me,' I said.
By the light of the hall lamp I could see that she was very pale.
'It missed by a mile.' My nerves had not recovered and I spoke abruptly. 'Don't be frightened.'
'I—I was not frightened,' she said, without conviction.
'I was,' I said, with conviction. 'It was too sudden for me. It's the sort of thing one wants to get used to gradually. I shall be ready for it another time.'
I made for the stairs.
'Where are you going?'
'I'm going to call up the police-station.'
'Was—was that man the one you spoke of?'
'Yes, that was Buck MacGinnis. He and Sam have gone into partnership.'
'I'm sorry,' she said.
I was half-way up the stairs by this time. I stopped and looked over the banisters.
'I didn't believe you this afternoon.'
'Oh, that's all right,' I said. I tried to make my voice indifferent, for I was on guard against insidious friendliness. I had bludgeoned my mind into an attitude of safe hostility towards her, and I saw the old chaos ahead if I allowed myself to abandon it.
I went to the telephone and unhooked the receiver.
There is apt to be a certain leisureliness about the methods of country telephone-operators, and the fact that a voice did not immediately ask me what number I wanted did not at first disturb me. Suspicion of the truth came to me, I think, after my third shout into the receiver had remained unanswered. I had suffered from delay before, but never such delay as this.
I must have remained there fully two minutes, shouting at intervals, before I realized the truth. Then I dropped the receiver and leaned limply against the wall. For the moment I was as stunned as if I had received a blow. I could not even think. It was only by degrees that I recovered sufficiently to understand that Audrey was speaking to me.
'What is it? Don't they answer?'
It is curious how the mind responds to the need for making an effort for the sake of somebody else. If I had had only myself to think of, it would, I believe, have been a considerable time before I could have adjusted my thoughts to grapple with this disaster. But the necessity of conveying the truth quietly to Audrey and of helping her to bear up under it steadied me at once. I found myself thinking quite coolly how best I might break to her what had happened.
'I'm afraid,' I said, 'I have something to tell you which may—'
She interrupted me quickly.
'What is it? Can't you make them answer?'
I shook my head. We looked at each other in silence.
Her mind leaped to the truth more quickly than mine had done.
'They have cut the wire!'
I took up the receiver again and gave another call. There was no reply.
'I'm afraid so,' I said.
'What shall we do?' said Audrey.
She looked at me hopefully, as if I were a mine of ideas. Her voice was level, without a suggestion of fear in it. Women have the gift of being courageous at times when they might legitimately give way. It is part of their unexpectedness.
This was certainly such an occasion. Daylight would bring us relief, for I did not suppose that even Buck MacGinnis would care to conduct a siege which might be interrupted by the arrival of tradesmen's carts; but while the darkness lasted we were completely cut off from the world. With the destruction of the telephone wire our only link with civilization had been snapped. Even had the night been less stormy than it was, there was no chance of the noise of our warfare reaching the ears of anyone who might come to the rescue. It was as Sam had said, Buck's energy united to his strategy formed a strong combination.
Broadly speaking, there are only two courses open to a beleaguered garrison. It can stay where it is, or it can make a sortie. I considered the second of these courses.
It was possible that Sam and his allies had departed in the automobile to get reinforcements, leaving the coast temporarily clear; in which case, by escaping from the house at once, we might be able to slip unobserved through the grounds and reach the village in safety. To support this theory there was the fact that the car, on its late visit, had contained only the chauffeur and the two ambassadors, while Sam had spoken of the remainder of Buck's gang as being in readiness to attack in the event of my not coming to terms. That might mean that they were waiting at Buck's headquarters, wherever those might be—at one of the cottages down the road, I imagined; and, in the interval before the attack began, it might be possible for us to make our sortie with success.
'Is Ogden in bed?' I asked.
'Will you go and get him up as quickly as you can?'
I strained my eyes at the window, but it was impossible to see anything. The rain was still falling heavily. If the drive had been full of men they would have been invisible to me.
Presently Audrey returned, followed by Ogden. The Little Nugget was yawning the aggrieved yawns of one roused from his beauty sleep.
'What's all this?' he demanded.
'Listen,' I said. 'Buck MacGinnis and Smooth Sam Fisher have come after you. They are outside now. Don't be frightened.'
He snorted derisively.
'Who's frightened? I guess they won't hurt me. How do you know it's them?'
'They have just been here. The man who called himself White, the butler, was really Sam Fisher. He has been waiting an opportunity to get you all the term.'
'White! Was he Sam Fisher?' He chuckled admiringly. 'Say, he's a wonder!'
'They have gone to fetch the rest of the gang.'
'Why don't you call the cops?'
'They have cut the wire.'
His only emotions at the news seemed to be amusement and a renewed admiration for Smooth Sam. He smiled broadly, the little brute.
'He's a wonder!' he repeated. 'I guess he's smooth, all right. He's the limit! He'll get me all right this trip. I bet you a nickel he wins out.'
I found his attitude trying. That he, the cause of all the trouble, should be so obviously regarding it as a sporting contest got up for his entertainment, was hard to bear. And the fact that, whatever might happen to myself, he was in no danger, comforted me not at all. If I could have felt that we were in any way companions in peril, I might have looked on the bulbous boy with quite a friendly eye. As it was, I nearly kicked him.
'We had better waste no time,' suggested Audrey, 'if we are going.'
'I think we ought to try it,' I said.
'What's that?' asked the Nugget. 'Go where?'
'We are going to steal out through the back way and try to slip through to the village.'
The Nugget's comment on the scheme was brief and to the point. He did not embarrass me with fulsome praise of my strategic genius.
'Of all the fool games!' he said simply. 'In this rain? No, sir!'
This new complication was too much for me. In planning out my manoeuvres I had taken his cooperation for granted. I had looked on him as so much baggage—the impedimenta of the retreating army. And, behold, a mutineer!
I took him by the scruff of the neck and shook him. It was a relief to my feelings and a sound move. The argument was one which he understood.
'Oh, all right,' he said. 'Anything you like. Come on. But it sounds to me like darned foolishness!'
If nothing else had happened to spoil the success of that sortie, the Nugget's depressing attitude would have done so. Of all things, it seems to me, a forlorn hope should be undertaken with a certain enthusiasm and optimism if it is to have a chance of being successful. Ogden threw a gloom over the proceedings from the start. He was cross and sleepy, and he condemned the expedition unequivocally. As we moved towards the back door he kept up a running stream of abusive comment. I silenced him before cautiously unbolting the door, but he had said enough to damp my spirits. I do not know what effect it would have had on Napoleon's tactics if his army—say, before Austerlitz—had spoken of his manoeuvres as a 'fool game' and of himself as a 'big chump', but I doubt if it would have stimulated him.
The back door of Sanstead House opened on to a narrow yard, paved with flagstones and shut in on all sides but one by walls. To the left was the outhouse where the coal was stored, a squat barnlike building: to the right a wall that appeared to have been erected by the architect in an outburst of pure whimsicality. It just stood there. It served no purpose that I had ever been able to discover, except to act as a cats' club-house.
Tonight, however, I was thankful for this wall. It formed an important piece of cover. By keeping in its shelter it was possible to work round the angle of the coal-shed, enter the stable-yard, and, by making a detour across the football field, avoid the drive altogether. And it was the drive, in my opinion, that might be looked on as the danger zone.
The Nugget's complaints, which I had momentarily succeeded in checking, burst out afresh as the rain swept in at the open door and lashed our faces. Certainly it was not an ideal night for a ramble. The wind was blowing through the opening at the end of the yard with a compressed violence due to the confined space. There was a suggestion in our position of the Cave of the Winds under Niagara Falls, the verisimilitude of which was increased by the stream of water that poured down from the gutter above our heads. The Nugget found it unpleasant, and said so shrilly.
I pushed him out into the storm, still protesting, and we began to creep across the yard. Half-way to the first point of importance of our journey, the corner of the coal-shed, I halted the expedition. There was a sudden lull in the wind, and I took advantage of it to listen.
From somewhere beyond the wall, apparently near the house, sounded the muffled note of the automobile. The siege-party had returned.
There was no time to be lost. Apparently the possibility of a sortie had not yet occurred to Sam, or he would hardly have left the back door unguarded; but a general of his astuteness was certain to remedy the mistake soon, and our freedom of action might be a thing of moments. It behoved us to reach the stable-yard as quickly as possible. Once there, we should be practically through the enemy's lines.
Administering a kick to the Nugget, who showed a disposition to linger and talk about the weather, I moved on, and we reached the corner of the coal-shed in safety.
We had now arrived at the really perilous stage in our journey. Having built his wall to a point level with the end of the coal-shed, the architect had apparently wearied of the thing and given it up; for it ceased abruptly, leaving us with a matter of half a dozen yards of open ground to cross, with nothing to screen us from the watchers on the drive. The flagstones, moreover, stopped at this point. On the open space was loose gravel. Even if the darkness allowed us to make the crossing unseen, there was the risk that we might be heard.
It was a moment for a flash of inspiration, and I was waiting for one, when that happened which took the problem out of my hands. From the interior of the shed on our left there came a sudden scrabbling of feet over loose coal, and through the square opening in the wall, designed for the peaceful purpose of taking in sacks, climbed two men. A pistol cracked. From the drive came an answering shout. We had been ambushed.
I had misjudged Sam. He had not overlooked the possibility of a sortie.
It is the accidents of life that turn the scale in a crisis. The opening through which the men had leaped was scarcely a couple of yards behind the spot where we were standing. If they had leaped fairly and kept their feet, they would have been on us before we could have moved. But Fortune ordered it that, zeal outrunning discretion, the first of the two should catch his foot in the woodwork and fall on all fours, while the second, unable to check his spring, alighted on top of him, and, judging from the stifled yell which followed, must have kicked him in the face.
In the moment of their downfall I was able to form a plan and execute it.
I shouted the words to Audrey in the act of snatching up the Nugget and starting to run. She understood. She did not hesitate in the direction of the house for even the instant which might have undone us, but was with me at once; and we were across the open space and in the stable-yard before the first of the men in the drive loomed up through the darkness. Half of the wooden double-gate of the yard was open, and the other half served us as a shield. They fired as they ran—at random, I think, for it was too dark for them to have seen us clearly—and two bullets slapped against the gate. A third struck the wall above our heads and ricocheted off into the night. But before they could fire again we were in the stables, the door slammed behind us, and I had dumped the Nugget on the floor, and was shooting the heavy bolts into their places. Footsteps clattered over the flagstones and stopped outside. Some weighty body plunged against the door. Then there was silence. The first round was over.
The stables, as is the case in most English country-houses, had been, in its palmy days, the glory of Sanstead House. In whatever other respect the British architect of that period may have fallen short, he never scamped his work on the stables. He built them strong and solid, with walls fitted to repel the assaults of the weather, and possibly those of men as well, for the Boones in their day had been mighty owners of race-horses at a time when men with money at stake did not stick at trifles, and it was prudent to see to it that the spot where the favourite was housed had something of the nature of a fortress. The walls were thick, the door solid, the windows barred with iron. We could scarcely have found a better haven of refuge.
Under Mr Abney's rule, the stables had lost their original character. They had been divided into three compartments, each separated by a stout wall. One compartment became a gymnasium, another the carpenter's shop, the third, in which we were, remained a stable, though in these degenerate days no horse ever set foot inside it, its only use being to provide a place for the odd-job man to clean shoes. The mangers which had once held fodder were given over now to brushes and pots of polish. In term-time, bicycles were stored in the loose-box which had once echoed to the tramping of Derby favourites.
I groped about among the pots and brushes, and found a candle-end, which I lit. I was running a risk, but it was necessary to inspect our ground. I had never troubled really to examine this stable before, and I wished to put myself in touch with its geography.
I blew out the candle, well content with what I had seen. The only two windows were small, high up, and excellently barred. Even if the enemy fired through them there were half a dozen spots where we should be perfectly safe. Best of all, in the event of the door being carried by assault, we had a second line of defence in a loft. A ladder against the back wall led to it, by way of a trap-door. Circumstances had certainly been kind to us in driving us to this apparently impregnable shelter.
On concluding my inspection, I became aware that the Nugget was still occupied with his grievances. I think the shots must have stimulated his nerve centres, for he had abandoned the languid drawl with which, in happier moments, he was wont to comment on life's happenings, and was dealing with the situation with a staccato briskness.
'Of all the darned fool lay-outs I ever struck, this is the limit. What do those idiots think they're doing, shooting us up that way? It went within an inch of my head. It might have killed me. Gee, and I'm all wet. I'm catching cold. It's all through your blamed foolishness, bringing us out here. Why couldn't we stay in the house?'
'We could not have kept them out of the house for five minutes,' I explained. 'We can hold this place.'
'Who wants to hold it? I don't. What does it matter if they do get me? I don't care. I've a good mind to walk straight out through that door and let them rope me in. It would serve Dad right. It would teach him not to send me away from home to any darned school again. What did he want to do it for? I was all right where I was. I—'
A loud hammering on the door cut off his eloquence. The intermission was over, and the second round had begun.
It was pitch dark in the stable now that I had blown out the candle, and there is something about a combination of noise and darkness which tries the nerves. If mine had remained steady, I should have ignored the hammering. From the sound, it appeared to be made by some wooden instrument—a mallet from the carpenter's shop I discovered later—and the door could be relied on to hold its own without my intervention. For a novice to violence, however, to maintain a state of calm inaction is the most difficult feat of all. I was irritated and worried by the noise, and exaggerated its importance. It seemed to me that it must be stopped at once.
A moment before, I had bruised my shins against an empty packing-case, which had found its way with other lumber into the stable. I groped for this, swung it noiselessly into position beneath the window, and, standing on it, looked out. I found the catch of the window, and opened it. There was nothing to be seen, but the sound of the hammering became more distinct; and pushing an arm through the bars, I emptied my pistol at a venture.
As a practical move, the action had flaws. The shots cannot have gone anywhere near their vague target. But as a demonstration, it was a wonderful success. The yard became suddenly full of dancing bullets. They struck the flagstones, bounded off, chipped the bricks of the far wall, ricocheted from those, buzzed in all directions, and generally behaved in a manner calculated to unman the stoutest hearted.
The siege-party did not stop to argue. They stampeded as one man. I could hear them clattering across the flagstones to every point of the compass. In a few seconds silence prevailed, broken only by the swish of the rain. Round two had been brief, hardly worthy to be called a round at all, and, like round one, it had ended wholly in our favour.
I jumped down from my packing-case, swelling with pride. I had had no previous experience of this sort of thing, yet here I was handling the affair like a veteran. I considered that I had a right to feel triumphant. I lit the candle again, and beamed protectively upon the garrison.
The Nugget was sitting on the floor, gaping feebly, and awed for the moment into silence. Audrey, in the far corner, looked pale but composed. Her behaviour was perfect. There was nothing for her to do, and she was doing it with a quiet self-control which won my admiration. Her manner seemed to me exactly suited to the exigencies of the situation. With a super-competent dare-devil like myself in charge of affairs, all she had to do was to wait and not get in the way.
'I didn't hit anybody,' I announced, 'but they ran like rabbits. They are all over Hampshire.'
I laughed indulgently. I could afford an attitude of tolerant amusement towards the enemy.
'Will they come back?'
'Possibly. And in that case'—I felt in my left-hand coat-pocket—'I had better be getting ready.' I felt in my right-hand coat-pocket. 'Ready,' I repeated blankly. A clammy coldness took possession of me. My voice trailed off into nothingness. For in neither pocket was There a single one of the shells with which I had fancied that I was abundantly provided. In moments of excitement man is apt to make mistakes. I had made mine when, starting out on the sortie, I had left all my ammunition in the house.
I should like to think that it was an unselfish desire to spare my companions anxiety that made me keep my discovery to myself. But I am afraid that my reticence was due far more to the fact that I shrank from letting the Nugget discover my imbecile carelessness. Even in times of peril one retains one's human weaknesses; and I felt that I could not face his comments. If he had permitted a certain note of querulousness to creep into his conversation already, the imagination recoiled from the thought of the caustic depths he would reach now should I reveal the truth.
I tried to make things better with cheery optimism.
'They won't come back!' I said stoutly, and tried to believe it.
The Nugget as usual struck the jarring note.
'Well, then, let's beat it,' he said. 'I don't want to spend the night in this darned icehouse. I tell you I'm catching cold. My chest's weak. If you're so dead certain you've scared them away, let's quit.'
I was not prepared to go as far as this.
'They may be somewhere near, hiding.'
'Well, what if they are? I don't mind being kidnapped. Let's go.'
'I think we ought to wait,' said Audrey.
'Of course,' I said. 'It would be madness to go out now.'
'Oh, pshaw!' said the Little Nugget; and from this point onwards punctuated the proceedings with a hacking cough.
I had never really believed that my demonstration had brought the siege to a definite end. I anticipated that there would be some delay before the renewal of hostilities, but I was too well acquainted with Buck MacGinnis's tenacity to imagine that he would abandon his task because a few random shots had spread momentary panic in his ranks. He had all the night before him, and sooner or later he would return.
I had judged him correctly. Many minutes dragged wearily by without a sign from the enemy, then, listening at the window, I heard footsteps crossing the yard and voices talking in cautious undertones. The fight was on once more.
A bright light streamed through the window, flooding the opening and spreading in a wide circle on the ceiling. It was not difficult to understand what had happened. They had gone to the automobile and come back with one of the head-lamps, an astute move in which I seemed to see the finger of Sam. The danger-spot thus rendered harmless, they renewed their attack on the door with a reckless vigour. The mallet had been superseded by some heavier instrument—of iron this time. I think it must have been the jack from the automobile. It was a more formidable weapon altogether than the mallet, and even our good oak door quivered under it.
A splintering of wood decided me that the time had come to retreat to our second line of entrenchments. How long the door would hold it was impossible to say, but I doubted if it was more than a matter of minutes.
Relighting my candle, which I had extinguished from motives of economy, I caught Audrey's eye and jerked my head towards the ladder.
'You go first,' I whispered.
The Nugget watched her disappear through the trap-door, then turned to me with an air of resolution.
'If you think you're going to get me up there, you've another guess coming. I'm going to wait here till they get in, and let them take me. I'm about tired of this foolishness.'
It was no time for verbal argument. I collected him, a kicking handful, bore him to the ladder, and pushed him through the opening. He uttered one of his devastating squeals. The sound seemed to encourage the workers outside like a trumpet-blast. The blows on the door redoubled.
I climbed the ladder and shut the trap-door behind me.
The air of the loft was close and musty and smelt of mildewed hay. It was not the sort of spot which one would have selected of one's own free will to sit in for any length of time. There was a rustling noise, and a rat scurried across the rickety floor, drawing a startled gasp from Audrey and a disgusted 'Oh, piffle!' from the Nugget. Whatever merits this final refuge might have as a stronghold, it was beyond question a noisome place.
The beating on the stable-door was working up to a crescendo. Presently there came a crash that shook the floor on which we sat and sent our neighbours, the rats, scuttling to and fro in a perfect frenzy of perturbation. The light of the automobile lamp poured in through the numerous holes and chinks which the passage of time had made in the old boards. There was one large hole near the centre which produced a sort of searchlight effect, and allowed us for the first time to see what manner of place it was in which we had entrenched ourselves. The loft was high and spacious. The roof must have been some seven feet above our heads. I could stand upright without difficulty.
In the proceedings beneath us there had come a lull. The mystery of our disappearance had not baffled the enemy for long, for almost immediately the rays of the lamp had shifted and begun to play on the trap-door. I heard somebody climb the ladder, and the trap-door creaked gently as a hand tested it. I had taken up a position beside it, ready, if the bolt gave way, to do what I could with the butt of my pistol, my only weapon. But the bolt, though rusty, was strong, and the man dropped to the ground again. Since then, except for occasional snatches of whispered conversation, I had heard nothing.
Suddenly Sam's voice spoke.
I saw no advantage in remaining silent.
'Haven't you had enough of this? You've given us a mighty good run for our money, but you can see for yourself that you're through now. I'd hate like anything for you to get hurt. Pass the kid down, and we'll call it off.'
'Well?' he said. 'Why don't you answer?'
'Did you? I didn't hear you.'
'You mean to stick it out? Don't be foolish, sonny. The boys here are mad enough at you already. What's the use of getting yourself in bad for nothing? We've got you in a pocket. I know all about that gun of yours, young fellow. I had a suspicion what had happened, and I've been into the house and found the shells you forgot to take with you. So, if you were thinking of making a bluff in that direction forget it!'
The exposure had the effect I had anticipated.
'Of all the chumps!' exclaimed the Nugget caustically. 'You ought to be in a home. Well, I guess you'll agree to end this foolishness now? Let's go down and get it over and have some peace. I'm getting pneumonia.'
'You're quite right, Mr Fisher,' I said. 'But don't forget I still have the pistol, even if I haven't the shells. The first man who tries to come up here will have a headache tomorrow.'