THE BITTERMEADS MYSTERY
By E. R. Punshon
I THE LONE PASSENGER
II THE FIGHT IN THE WOODS
III A COINCIDENCE
IV A WOMAN WEEPS
V A WOMAN AND A MAN
VI A DISCOVERY
VII QUESTION AND ANSWER
VIII CAPTIVITY CAPTURE
IX THE ATTIC OF MYSTERY
X THE NEW GARDENER
XI THE PROBLEM
XII AN AVOWAL
XIII INVISIBLE WRITING
XIV LOVE-MAKING AT NIGHT
XV THE SOUND OF A SHOT
XVI IN THE WOOD
XVII A DECLARATION
XVIII ROBERT DUNN'S ENEMY
XIX THE VISIT TO WRESTE ABBEY
XX ELLA'S WARNING
XXI DOUBTS AND FEARS
XXII PLOTS AND PLANS
XXIII COUNTER PLANS
XXIV AN APHORISM
XXV THE UNEXPECTED
XXVI A RACE AGAINST TIME
XXVII FLIGHT AND PURSUIT
XXVIII BACK AT BITTERMEADS
XXIX THE ATTIC
XXX SOME EXPLANATIONS
CHAPTER I. THE LONE PASSENGER
That evening the down train from London deposited at the little country station of Ramsdon but a single passenger, a man of middle height, shabbily dressed, with broad shoulders and long arms and a most unusual breadth and depth of chest.
Of his face one could see little, for it was covered by a thick growth of dark curly hair, beard, moustache and whiskers, all overgrown and ill-tended, and as he came with a somewhat slow and ungainly walk along the platform, the lad stationed at the gate to collect tickets grinned amusedly and called to one of the porters near:
"Look at this, Bill; here's the monkey-man escaped and come back along of us."
It was a reference to a travelling circus that had lately visited the place and exhibited a young chimpanzee advertised as "the monkey-man," and Bill guffawed appreciatively.
The stranger was quite close and heard plainly, for indeed the youth at the gate had made no special attempt to speak softly.
The boy was still laughing as he held out his hand for the ticket, and the stranger gave it to him with one hand and at the same time shot out a long arm, caught the boy—a well-grown lad of sixteen—by the middle and, with as little apparent effort as though lifting a baby, swung him into the air to the top of the gate-post, where he left him clinging with arms and legs six feet from the ground.
"Hi, what are you a-doing of?" shouted the porter, running up, as the amazed and frightened youth, clinging to his gate-post, emitted a dismal howl.
"Teaching a cheeky boy manners," retorted the stranger with an angry look and in a very gruff and harsh voice. "Do you want to go on top of the other post to make a pair?"
The porter drew back hurriedly.
"You be off," he ordered as he retreated. "We don't want none of your sort about here."
"I certainly have no intention of staying," retorted the other as gruffly as before. "But I think you'll remember Bobbie Dunn next time I come this way."
"Let me down; please let me down," wailed the boy, clinging desperately to the gate-post on whose top he had been so unceremoniously deposited, and Dunn laughed and walked away, leaving the porter to rescue his youthful colleague and to cuff his ears soundly as soon as he had done so, by way of a relief to his feelings.
"That will learn you to be a bit civil to folk, I hope," said the porter severely. "But that there chap must have an amazing strong arm," he added thoughtfully. "Lifting you up there all the same as you was a bunch of radishes."
For some distance after leaving the station, Dunn walked on slowly.
He seemed to know the way well or else to be careless of the direction he took, for he walked along deep in thought with his eyes fixed on the ground and not looking in the least where he was going.
Abruptly, a small child appeared out of the darkness and spoke to him, and he started violently and in a very nervous manner.
"What was that? What did you say, kiddy?" he asked, recovering himself instantly and speaking this time not in the gruff and harsh tones he had used before but in a singularly winning and pleasant voice, cultivated and gentle, that was in odd contrast with his rough and battered appearance. "The time, was that what you wanted to know?"
"Yes, sir; please, sir," answered the child, who had shrunk back in alarm at the violent start Dunn had given, but now seemed reassured by his gentle and pleasant voice. "The right time," the little one added almost instantly and with much emphasis on the "right."
Dunn gravely gave the required information with the assurance that to the best of his belief it was "right," and the child thanked him and scampered off.
Resuming his way, Dunn shook his head with an air of grave dissatisfaction.
"Nerves all to pieces," he muttered. "That won't do. Hang it all, the job's no worse than following a wounded tiger into the jungle, and I've done that before now. Only then, of course, one knew what to expect, whereas now—And I was a silly ass to lose my temper with that boy at the station. You aren't making a very brilliant start, Bobby, my boy."
By this time he had left the little town behind him and he was walking along a very lonely and dark road.
On one side was a plantation of young trees, on the other there was the open ground, covered with furze bush, of the village common.
Where the plantation ended stood a low, two-storied house of medium size, with a veranda stretching its full length in front. It stood back from the road some distance and appeared to be surrounded by a large garden.
At the gate Dunn halted and struck a match as if to light a pipe, and by the flickering flame of this match the name "Bittermeads," painted on the gate became visible.
"Here it is, then," he muttered. "I wonder—"
Without completing the sentence he slipped through the gate, which was not quite closed, and entered the garden, where he crouched down in the shadow of some bushes that grew by the side of the gravel path leading to the house, and seemed to compose himself for a long vigil.
An hour passed, and another. Nothing had happened—he had seen nothing, heard nothing, save for the passing of an occasional vehicle or pedestrian on the road, and he himself had never stirred or moved, so that he seemed one with the night and one with the shadows where he crouched, and a pair of field-mice that had come from the common opposite went to and fro about their busy occupations at his feet without paying him the least attention.
Another hour passed, and at last there began to be signs of life about the house.
A light shone in one window and in another, and vanished, and soon the door opened and there appeared two people on the threshold, clearly visible in the light of a strong incandescent gas-burner just within the hall.
The watcher in the garden moved a little to get a clearer view.
In the paroxysm of terror at this sudden coming to life of what they had believed to be a part of the bushes, the two little field-mice scampered away, and Dunn bit his lip with annoyance, for he knew well that some of those he had had traffic with in the past would have been very sure, on hearing that scurrying-off of the frightened mice, that some one was lurking near at hand.
But the two in the lighted doorway opening on the veranda heard and suspected nothing.
One was a man, one a woman, both were young, both were extraordinarily good-looking, and as they stood in the blaze of the gas they made a strikingly handsome and attractive picture on which, however, Dunn seemed to look from his hiding-place with hostility and watchful suspicion.
"How dark it is, there's not a star showing," the girl was saying. "Shall you be able to find your way, even with the lantern? You'll keep to the road, won't you?"
Her voice was low and pleasant and so clear Dunn heard every word distinctly. She seemed quite young, not more than twenty or twenty-one, and she was slim and graceful in build and tall for a woman. Her face, on which the light shone directly, was oval in shape with a broad, low forehead on which clustered the small, unruly curls of her dark brown hair, and she had clear and very bright brown eyes. The mouth and chin were perhaps a little large to be in absolute harmony with the rest of her features, and she was of a dark complexion, with a soft and delicate bloom that would by itself have given her a right to claim her possession of a full share of good looks. She was dressed quite simply in a white frock with a touch of colour at the waist and she had a very flimsy lace shawl thrown over her shoulders, presumably intended as a protection against the night air.
Her companion was a very tall and big man, well over six feet in height, with handsome, strongly-marked features that often bore an expression a little too haughty, but that showed now a very tender and gentle look, so that it was not difficult to guess the state of his feelings towards the girl at his side. His shoulders were broad, his chest deep, and his whole build powerful in the extreme, and Dunn, looking him up and down with the quick glance of one accustomed to judge men, thought that he had seldom seen one more capable of holding his own.
Answering his companion's remark, he said lightly:
"Oh, no, I shall cut across the wood, it's ever so much shorter, you know."
"But it's so dark and lonely," the girl protested. "And then, after last week—"
He interrupted her with a laugh, and he lifted his head with a certain not unpleasing swagger.
"I don't think they'll trouble me for all their threats," he said. "For that matter, I rather hope they will try something of the sort on. They need a lesson."
"Oh, I do hope you'll be careful," the girl exclaimed.
He laughed again and made another lightly-confident, almost-boastful remark, to the effect that he did not think any one was likely to interfere with him.
For a minute or two longer they lingered, chatting together as they stood in the gas-light on the veranda and from his hiding-place Dunn watched them intently. It seemed that it was the girl in whom he was chiefly interested, for his eyes hardly moved from her and in them there showed a very grim and hard expression.
"Pretty enough," he mused. "More than pretty. No wonder poor Charles raved about her, if it's the same girl—if it is, she ought to know what's become of him. But then, where does this big chap come in?"
The "big chap" seemed really going now, though reluctantly, and it was not difficult to see that he would have been very willing to stay longer had she given him the least encouragement.
But that he did not get, and indeed it seemed as if she were a little bored and a little anxious for him to say good night and go.
At last he did so, and she retired within the house, while he came swinging down the garden path, passing close to where Dunn lay hidden, but without any suspicion of his presence, and out into the high road.
CHAPTER II. THE FIGHT IN THE WOOD
From his hiding-place in the bushes Dunn slipped out, as the big man vanished into the darkness down the road, and for the fraction of a second he seemed to hesitate.
The lights in the house were coming and going after a fashion that suggested that the inmates were preparing for bed, and almost at once Dunn turned his back to the building and hurried very quickly and softly down the road in the direction the big man had just taken.
"After all," he thought, "the house can't run away, that will be still there when I come back, and I ought to find out who this big chap is and where he comes from."
In spite of the apparent clumsiness of his build and the ungainliness of his movements it was extraordinary how swiftly and how quietly he moved, a shadow could scarcely have made less sound than this man did as he melted through the darkness and a swift runner would have difficulty in keeping pace with him.
An old labourer going home late bade the big man a friendly good night and passed on without seeing or hearing Dunn following close behind, and a solitary woman, watching at her cottage door, saw plainly the big man's tall form and heard his firm and heavy steps and would have been ready to swear no other passed that way at that time, though Dunn was not five yards behind, slipping silently and swiftly by in the shelter of the trees lining the road.
A little further beyond this cottage a path, reached by climbing a stile, led from the high road first across an open field and then through the heart of a wood that seemed to be of considerable extent.
The man Dunn was following crossed this stile and when he had gone a yard or two along the path he halted abruptly, as though all at once grown uneasy, and looked behind.
From where he stood any one following him across the stile must have shown plainly visible against the sky line, but though he lingered for a moment or two, and even, when he walked on, still looked back very frequently, he saw nothing.
Yet Dunn, when his quarry paused and looked back like this, was only a little distance behind, and when the other moved on Dunn was still very near.
But he had not crossed the stile, for when he came to it he realised that in climbing it his form would be plainly visible in outline for some distance, and so instead, he had found and crawled through a gap in the hedge not far away.
They came, Dunn so close and so noiseless behind his quarry he might well have seemed the other's shadow, to the outskirts of the wood, and as they entered it Dunn made his first fault, his first failure in an exhibition of woodcraft that a North American Indian or an Australian "black-fellow" might have equalled, but could not have surpassed.
For he trod heavily on a dry twig that snapped with a very loud, sharp retort, clearly audible for some distance in the quiet night, and, as dry twigs only snap like that under the pressure of considerable weight, the presence of some living creature in the wood other than the small things that run to and fro beneath the trees, stood revealed to all ears that could hear.
Dunn stood instantly perfectly still, rigid as a statue, listening intently, and he noted with satisfaction and keen relief that the regular heavy tread of the man in front did not alter or change.
"Good," he thought to himself. "What luck, he hasn't heard it."
He moved on again, as silently as before, perhaps a little inclined to be contemptuous of any one who could fail to notice so plain a warning, and he supposed that the man he was following must be some townsman who knew nothing at all of the life of the country and was, like so many of the dwellers in cities, blind and deaf outside the range of the noises of the streets and the clamour of passing traffic.
This thought was still in his mind when all at once the steady sound of footsteps he had been following ceased suddenly and abruptly, cut off on the instant as you turn off water from a tap.
Dunn paused, too, supposing that for some reason the other had stopped for a moment and would soon walk on again.
But a minute passed and then another and there was still no sound of the footsteps beginning again. A little puzzled, Dunn moved cautiously forward.
He saw nothing, he found nothing, there was no sign at all of the man he had been following.
It was as though he had vanished bodily from the face of the earth, and yet how this had happened, or why, or what had become of him, Dunn could not imagine, for this spot was, it seemed, in the very heart of the wood, there was no shelter of any sort or kind anywhere near, and though there were trees all round just the ground was fairly open.
"Well, that's jolly queer," he muttered, for indeed it had a strange and daunting effect, this sudden disappearance in the midst of the wood of the man he had followed so far, and the silence around seemed all the more intense now that those regular and heavy footsteps had ceased.
"Jolly queer, as queer a thing as ever I came across," he muttered again.
He listened and heard a faint sound from his right. He listened again and thought he heard a rustling on his left, but was not sure and all at once a great figure loomed up gigantic before him and the light of lantern gleamed in his face.
"Now, my man," a voice said, "you've been following me ever since I left Bittermeads, and I'm going to give you a lesson you won't forget in a hurry."
Dunn stood quite still. At the moment his chief feeling was one of intense discomfiture at the way in which he had been outwitted, and he experienced, too, a very keen and genuine admiration for the woodcraft the other had shown.
Evidently, all the time he had known, or at any rate, suspected, that he was being followed, and choosing this as a favourable spot he had quietly doubled on his tracks, come up behind his pursuer, and taken him unawares.
Dunn had not supposed there was a man in England who could have played such a trick on him, but his admiration was roughly disturbed before he could express it, for the grasp upon his collar tightened and upon his shoulders there alighted a tremendous, stinging blow, as with all his very considerable strength, the big man brought down his walking-stick with a resounding thwack.
The sheer surprise of it, the sudden sharp pain, jerked a quick cry from Dunn, who had not been in the least prepared for such an attack, and in the darkness had not seen the stick rise, and the other laughed grimly.
"Yes, you scoundrel," he said. "I know very well who you are and what you want, and I'm going to thrash you within an inch of your life."
Again the stick rose in the air, but did not fall, for round about his body Dunn laid such a grip as he had never felt before and as would for certain have crushed in the ribs of a weaker man. The lantern crashed to the ground, they were in darkness.
"Ha! Would you?" the man exclaimed, taken by surprise in his turn, and, giant as he was, he felt himself plucked up from the ground as you pluck a weed from a lawn and held for a moment in mid-air and then dashed down again.
Perhaps not another man alive could have kept his footing under such treatment, but, somehow, he managed to, though it needed all his great strength to resist the shock.
He flung away his walking-stick, for he realized very clearly now that this was not going to be, as he had anticipated, a mere case of the administration of a deserved punishment, but rather the starkest, fiercest fight that ever he had known.
He grappled with his enemy, trying to make the most of his superior height and weight, but the long arms twined about him, seemed to press the very breath from his body and for all the huge efforts he put forth with every ounce of his tremendous strength behind them, he could not break loose from the no less tremendous grip wherein he was taken.
Breast to breast they fought, straining, swaying a little this way or that, but neither yielding an inch. Their muscles stood out like bars of steel, their breath came heavily, neither man was conscious any more of anything save his need to conquer and win and overthrow his enemy.
The quick passion of hot rage that had come upon Dunn when he felt the other's unexpected blow still burned and flamed intensely, so that he no longer remembered even the strange and high purpose which had brought him here.
His adversary, too, had lost all consciousness of all other things in the lust of this fierce physical battle, and when he gave presently a loud, half-strangled shout, it was not fear that he uttered or a cry for aid, but solely for joy in such wild struggle and efforts as he had never known before.
And Dunn spake no word and uttered no sound, but strove all the more with all the strength of every nerve and muscle he possessed once again to pluck the other up that he might dash him down a second time.
In quick and heavy gasps came their breaths as they still swayed and struggled together, and though each exerted to the utmost a strength few could have withstood, each found that in the other he seemed to have met his match.
In vain Dunn tried again to lift his adversary up so that he might hurl him to the ground. It was an effort, a grip that seemed as though it might have torn up an oak by the roots, but the other neither budged nor flinched beneath it.
And in vain, in his turn, did he try to bend Dunn backwards to crush him to the earth, it was an effort before which one might have thought that iron and stone must have given away, but Dunn still sustained it.
Thus dreadfully they fought, there in the darkness, there in the silence of the night.
Dreadfully they wrestled, implacable, fierce, determined, every primeval passion awake and strong again, and slowly, very slowly, that awful grip laid upon the big man's body began to tell.
His breathing grew more difficult, his efforts seemed aimed more to release himself than to overcome his adversary, he gave way an inch or two, no more, but still an inch or two of ground.
There was a sharp sound, like a thin, dry twig snapping beneath a careless foot.
It was one of his ribs breaking beneath the dreadful and intolerable pressure of Dunn's enormous grip. But neither of the combatants heard or knew, and with one last effort the big man put forth all his vast strength in a final attempt to bear his enemy down.
Dunn resisted still, resisted, though the veins stood out like cords on his brow, though a little trickle of blood crept from the corner of his mouth and though his heart swelled almost to bursting.
There was a sound of many waters in his ears, the darkness all around grew shot with little flames, he could hear some one breathing very noisily and he was not sure whether this were himself or his adversary till he realized that it was both of them. With one sudden, almost superhuman effort, he heaved his great adversary up, but had not strength enough left to do more than let him slip from his grasp to fall on the ground, and with the effort he himself dropped forward on his hands and knees, just as a lantern shone at a distance and a voice cried:
"This way, Tom. Master John, Master John, where are you?"
CHAPTER III. A COINCIDENCE
Another voice answered from near by and Dunn scrambled hurriedly to his feet.
He had but a moment in which to decide what to do, for these new arrivals were coming at a run and would be upon him almost instantly if he stayed where he was.
That they were friends of the man he had just overthrown and whose huge bulk lay motionless in the darkness at his feet, seemed plain, and it also seemed plain to him that the moment was not an opportune one for offering explanations.
Swiftly he decided to slip away into the darkness. What had happened might be cleared up later when he knew more and was more sure of his ground; at present he must think first, he told himself, of the success of his mission.
Physically, he was greatly exhausted and his gait was not so steady nor his progress so silent and skillful as it had been before, as now he hurried away from the scene of the combat.
But the two new-comers made no attempt to pursue him and indeed did not seem to give his possible presence in the vicinity even a thought, as with many muttered exclamations of dismay and anger, they stooped over the body of his prostrate enemy.
It was evident they recognized him at once, and that he was the "Mr. John" whose name they had called, for so they spoke of him to each other as they busied themselves about him.
"I expect I've been a fool again," Dunn thought to himself ruefully, as from a little distance, well-sheltered in the darkness, he crouched upon the ground and listened and watched. "I may have ruined everything. Any one but a fool would have asked him what he meant when he hit out like that instead of flying into a rage and hitting back the way I did. Most likely it was some mistake when he said he knew who I was and what I wanted—at least if it wasn't—I hope I haven't killed him, anyhow."
Secure in the protection the dark night afforded him, he remained sufficiently near at hand to be able to assure himself soon that his overthrown adversary was certainly not killed, for now he began to express himself somewhat emphatically concerning the manner in which the two new-comers were ministering to him.
Presently he got to his feet and, with one of them supporting him on each side, began to limp away, and Dunn followed them, though cautiously and at a distance, for he was still greatly exhausted and in neither the mood nor the condition for running unnecessary risks.
The big man, Mr. John, as the others called him, seemed little inclined for speech, but the others talked a good deal, subsiding sometimes when he told them gruffly to be quiet but invariably soon beginning again their expressions of sympathy and vows of vengeance against his unknown assailant.
"How many of them do you think there were, Mr. John, sir?" one asked presently. "I'll lay you marked a fair sight of the villains."
"There was only one man," Mr. John answered briefly.
"Only one?" the other repeated in great surprise. "For the Lord's sake, Mr. John—only one? Why, there ain't any one man between here and Lunnon town could stand up to you, sir, in a fair tussle."
"Well, he did," Mr. John answered. "He had the advantage, he took me by surprise, but I never felt such a grip in my life."
"Lor', now, think of that," said the other in tones in which surprise seemed mingled with a certain incredulity. "It don't seem possible, but for sure, then, he don't come from these here parts, that I'll stand to."
"I knew that much before," retorted Mr. John. "I said all the time they were outsiders, a London gang very likely. You'll have to get Dr. Rawson, Bates. I don't know what's up, but I've a beast of a pain in my side. I can hardly breathe."
Bates murmured respectful sympathy as they came out of the shelter of the trees, and crossing some open ground, reached a road along the further side of which ran a high brick wall.
In this, nearly opposite the spot where they emerged on the road, was a small door which one of the men opened and through which they passed and locked it behind them, leaving Dunn without.
He hesitated for a moment, half-minded to scale the wall and continue on the other side of it to follow them.
Calculating the direction in which the village of Ramsdon must lie, he turned that way and had gone only a short distance when he was overtaken by a pedestrian with whom he began conversation by asking for a light for his pipe.
The man seemed inclined to be conversational, and after a few casual remarks, Dunn made an observation on the length of the wall they were passing and to the end of which they had just come.
"Must be a goodish-sized place in there," he said. "Whose is it?"
"Oh, that there's Ramsdon Place," the other answered. "Mr. John Clive lives there now his father's dead."
Dunn stood still in the middle of the road.
"Who? What?" he stammered. "Who—who did you say?"
"Mr. John Clive," the other repeated. "Why—what's wrong about that?"
"Nothing, nothing," Dunn answered, but his voice shook a little with what seemed almost fear, and behind the darkness of the friendly night his face had become very pale. "Clive—John Clive, you say? Oh, that's impossible."
"Needn't believe it if you don't want to," grumbled the other. "Only what do you want asking questions for if you thinks folks tells lies when they answers them?"
"I didn't mean that, of course not," exclaimed Dunn hurriedly, by no means anxious to offend the other. "I'm very sorry, I only meant it was impossible it should be the same Mr. John Clive I knew once, though I think he came from about here somewhere. A little, middle-aged man, I mean, quite bald and wears glasses?"
"Oh, that ain't this 'un," answered the other, his good humour quite restored. "This is a young man and tremendous big. I ain't so small myself, but he tops me by a head and shoulders and so he does most hereabouts. Strong, too, with it, there ain't so many would care to stand up against him, I can tell you. Why, they do say he caught two poachers in the wood there last month and brought 'em out one under each arm like a pair of squealing babes."
"Did he, though?" said Dunn. "Take some doing, that, and I daresay the rest of the gang will try to get even with him for it."
"Well, they do say as there's been threats," the other agreed. "But what I says is as Mr. John can look after hisself all right. There was a tale as a man had been dodging after him at night, but all he said when they told him, was as if he caught any one after him he would thrash them within an inch of their lives."
"Serve them right, too," exclaimed Dunn warmly.
Evidently this explained, in part at least, what had recently happened. Mr. Clive, finding himself being followed, had supposed it was one of his poaching enemies and had at once attempted to carry out his threat he had made.
Dunn told himself, at any rate, the error would have the result of turning all suspicion away from him, and yet he still seemed very disturbed and ill at ease.
"Has Mr. Clive been here long?" he asked.
"It must be four or five years since his father bought the place," answered his new acquaintance. "Then, when the old man was killed a year ago, Mr. John inherited everything."
"Old Mr. Clive was killed, was he?" asked Dunn, and his voice sounded very strange in the darkness. "How was that?"
"Accident to his motor-car," the other replied. "I don't hold with them things myself—give me a good horse, I say. People didn't like the old man much, and some say Mr. John's too fond of taking the high hand. But don't cross him and he won't cross you, that's his motto and there's worse."
Dunn agreed and asked one or two more questions about the details of the accident to old Mr. Clive, in which he seemed very interested.
But he did not get much more information about that concerning which his new friend evidently knew very little. However, he gave Dunn a few more facts concerning Mr. John Clive, as that he was unmarried, was said to be very wealthy, and had the reputation of being something of a ladies' man.
A little further on they parted, and Dunn took a side road which he calculated should lead him back to Bittermeads.
"It may be pure coincidence," he mused as he walked slowly in a very troubled and doubtful mood. "But if so, it's a very queer one, and if it isn't, it seems to me Mr. John Clive might as well put his head in a lion's jaws as pay visits at Bittermeads. But of course he can't have the least suspicion of the truth—if it is the truth. If I hadn't lost my temper like a fool when he whacked out at me like that I might have been able to warn him, or find out something useful perhaps. And his father killed recently in an accident—is that a coincidence, too, I wonder?"
He passed his hand across his forehead on which a light sweat stood, though he was not a man easily affected, for he had seen and endured many things.
His mind was very full of strange and troubled thoughts as at last he came back to Bittermeads, where, leaning with his elbows on the garden gate, he stood for a long time, watching the dark and silent house and thinking of that scene of which he had been a spectator when John Clive and the girl had stood together on the veranda in the light of the gas from the hall and had bidden each other good night.
"It seems," he mused, "as though the last that was seen of poor Charley must have been just like that. It was just such a dark night as this when Simpson saw him. He was standing on that veranda when Simpson recognized him by the light of the gas behind, and a girl was bidding him good night—a very pretty girl, too, Simpson said."
Silent and immobile he stood there a long time, not so much now as one who watched, but rather as if deep in thought, for his head was bent and supported on his hands and his eyes were fixed on the ground.
"As for this John Clive," he muttered presently, rousing himself. "I suppose that must be a coincidence, but it's queer, and queer the father should have died—like that."
He broke off, shuddering slightly, as though at thoughts too awful to be endured, and pushing open the gate, he walked slowly up the gravel path towards the house, round which he began to walk, going very slowly and cautiously and often pausing as if he wished to make as close examination of the place as the darkness would permit.
More by habit than because he thought there was any need of it, he moved always with that extreme and wonderful dexterity of quietness he could assume at will, and as he turned the corner of the building and came behind it, his quick ear, trained by many an emergency to pick out the least unusual sound, caught a faint, continued scratching noise, so faint and low it might well have passed unnoticed.
All at once he understood and realized that some one quite close at hand was stealthily cutting out the glass from one of the panes of a ground-floor window.
CHAPTER IV. A WOMAN WEEPS
Cautiously he glided nearer, moving as noiselessly as any shadow, seeming indeed but one shadow the more in the heavy surrounding darkness.
The persistent scratching noise continued, and Dunn was now so close he could have put out his hand and touched the shoulder of the man who was causing it and who still, intent and busy, had not the least idea of the other's proximity.
A faint smile touched Dunn's lips. The situation seemed not to be without a grim humour, for if one-half of what he suspected were true, one might as sensibly and safely attempt to break into the condemned cell at Pentonville Gaol as into this quiet house.
But then, was it perhaps possible that this fellow, working away so unconcernedly, within arm's-length of him, was in reality one of them, seeking to obtain admittance in this way for some reason of his own, some private treachery, it might be, or some dispute? To Dunn that did not seem likely. More probably the fellow was merely an ordinary burglar—some local practitioner of the housebreaking art, perhaps—whose ill-fortune it was to have hit upon this house to rob without his having the least idea of the nature of the place he was trying to enter.
"He might prove a useful recruit for them, though," Dunn thought, and a sudden idea flashed into his mind, vivid and startling.
For one moment he thought intently, weighing in his mind this idea that had come to him so suddenly. He was not blind to the risks it involved, but his eager temperament always inclined him to the most direct and often to the most dangerous course. His mind was made up, his plan of action decided.
The scratching of the burglar's tool upon the glass ceased. Already he had smeared treacle over the square of glass he intended to remove and had covered it with paper so as to be able to take it out easily and in one piece without the risk of falling fragments betraying him.
Through the gap thus made he thrust his arm and made sure there were no alarms fitted and no obstacles in the way of his easy entrance.
Cautiously he unfastened the window and cautiously and silently lifted the sash, and when he had done so he paused and listened for a space to make sure no one was stirring and that no alarm had been caused within the house.
Still very cautiously and with the utmost precaution to avoid making even the least noise, he put one knee upon the window-sill, preparatory to climbing in, and as he did so Dunn touched him lightly on the shoulder.
"Well, my man, what are you up to?" he said softly. And without a word, without giving the least warning, the burglar, a man evidently of determination and resource, swung round and aimed at Dunn's head a tremendous blow with the heavy iron jemmy he held in his right hand.
But Dunn was not unprepared for an attack and those bright, keen eyes of his seemed able to see as well in the dark as in the light. He threw up his left hand and caught the other's wrist before that deadly blow he aimed could descend and at the same instant he dashed his own clenched fist full into the burglar's face.
As it happened, more by good luck than intended aim, the blow took him on the point of the chin. He dropped instantly, collapsing in on himself as falls a pole-axed bullock, and lay, unconscious, in a crumpled heap on the ground.
For a little Dunn waited, crouching above him and listening for the least sound to show that their brief scuffle had been heard.
But it had all passed nearly as silently as quickly. Within the house everything remained silent, there was no sound audible, no gleam of light to show that any of the inmates had been disturbed.
Taking from his pocket a small electric flash-lamp Dunn turned its light on his victim.
He seemed a man of middle age with a brutal, heavy-jawed face and a low, receding forehead. His lips, a little apart, showed yellow, irregular teeth, of which two at the front of the lower jaw had been broken, and the scar of an old wound, running from the corner of his left eye down to the centre of his cheek, added to the sinister and forbidding aspect he bore.
His build was heavy and powerful and near by, where he had dropped it when he fell, lay the jemmy with which he had struck at Dunn. It was a heavy, ugly-looking thing, about two feet in length and with one end nearly as sharp as that of a chisel.
Dunn picked it up and felt it thoughtfully.
"Just as well I got my blow in first," he mused. "If he had landed that fairly on my skull I don't think anything else in this world would ever have interested me any more."
Stooping over the unconscious man, he felt in his pockets and found an ugly-looking revolver, fully loaded, a handful of cartridges, a coil of thin rope, an electric torch, a tiny dark lantern no bigger than a match-box, and so arranged that the single drop of light it permitted to escape fell on one spot only, a bunch of curiously-shaped wires Dunn rightly guessed to be skeleton keys used for opening locks quietly, together with some tobacco, a pipe, a little money, and a few other personal belongings of no special interest or significance.
These Dunn replaced where he had found them, but the revolver, the rope, the torch, the dark lantern, and the bunch of wires he took possession of.
He noticed also that the man was wearing rubber-soled boots and rubber gloves, and these last he also kept. Stooping, he lifted the unconscious man on to his shoulder and carried him with perfect ease and at a quick pace out of the garden and across the road to the common opposite, where, in a convenient spot, behind some furze bushes, he laid him down.
"When he comes round," Dunn muttered. "He won't know where he is or what's happened, and probably his one idea will be to clear off as quickly as possible. I don't suppose he'll interfere with me at all."
Then a new idea seemed to strike him, and he hurriedly removed his own coat and trousers and boots and exchanged them for those the burglar was wearing.
They were not a good fit, but he could get them on and the idea in his mind was that if the police of the district began searching, as very likely they would, for Mr. John Clive's assailant, and if they had discovered any clues in the shape of footprints or torn bits of clothing or buttons—and Dunn knew his attire had suffered considerably during the struggle—then it would be as well that such clues should lead not to him, but to this other man, who, if he were innocent on that score, had at any rate been guilty of attempting to carry out a much worse offence.
"I'm afraid your luck's out, old chap," Dunn muttered, apostrophizing the unconscious man. "But you did your best to brain me, and that gives me a sort of right to make you useful. Besides, if the police do run you in, it won't mean anything worse than a few questions it'll be your own fault if you can't answer. Anyhow, I can't afford to run the risk of some blundering fool of a policeman trying to arrest me for assaulting the local magnate."
Much relieved in mind, for he had been greatly worried by a fear that this encounter with John Clive might lead to highly inconvenient legal proceedings, he left the unlucky burglar lying in the shelter of the furze bushes and returned to the house.
All was as he had left it, the open window gaped widely, almost inviting entrance, and he climbed silently within. The apartment in which he found himself was apparently the drawing-room and he felt his way cautiously and slowly across it, moving with infinite care so as to avoid making even the least noise.
Reaching the door, he opened it and went out into the hall. All was dark and silent. He permitted himself here to flash on his electric torch for a moment, and he saw that the hall was spacious and used as a lounge, for there were several chairs clustered in its centre, opposite the fireplace. There were two or three doors opening from it, and almost opposite where he stood were the stairs, a broad flight leading to a wide landing above.
Still with the same extreme silence and care, he began to ascend these stairs and when he was about half-way up he became aware of a faint and strange sound that came trembling through the silence and stillness of the night.
What it was he could not imagine. He listened for a time and then resumed his silent progress with even more care than previously, and only when he reached the landing did he understand that this faint and low sound he heard was caused by a woman weeping very softly in one of the rooms near by.
Silently he crossed the landing in the direction whence the sound seemed to come. Now, too, he saw a thread of light showing beneath a door at a little distance, and when he crept up to it and listened he could hear for certain that it was from within this room that there came the sound of muffled, passionate weeping.
The door was closed, but he turned the handle so carefully that he made not the least sound and very cautiously he began to push the door back, the tiniest fraction of an inch at a time, so that even one watching closely could never have said that it moved.
When, after a long time, during which the muffled weeping never ceased, he had it open an inch or two, he leaned forward and peeped within.
It was a bed-chamber, and, crouching on the floor near the fireplace, in front of a low arm-chair, her head hidden on her arms and resting on the seat of the chair, was the figure of a girl. She had made no preparations for retiring, and by the frock she wore Dunn recognized her as the girl he had seen on the veranda bidding good-bye to John Clive.
The sound of her weeping was very pitiful, her attitude was full of an utter and poignant despair, there was something touching in the extreme in the utter abandonment to grief shown by this young and lovely creature who seemed framed only for joy and laughter.
The stern features and hard eyes of the unseen watcher softened, then all at once they grew like tempered steel again.
For on the mantlepiece, just above where the weeping girl crouched, stood a photograph—the photograph of a young and good-looking, gaily-smiling man. Across it, in a boyish and somewhat unformed hand, was written,
"Devotedly yours, Charley Wright."
It was this photograph that had caught Dunn's eyes. Both it and the writing and the signature he recognized, and his look was very stern, his eyes as cold as death itself, as slowly, slowly he pushed back the door of the room another inch or so.
CHAPTER V. A WOMAN AND A MAN
The girl stirred. It was as though some knowledge of the slow opening of the door had penetrated to her consciousness before as yet she actually saw or heard anything.
She rose to her feet, drying her eyes with her handkerchief, and as she was moving to a drawer near to get a clean one her glance fell on the partially-open door.
"I thought I shut it," she said aloud in a puzzled manner.
She crossed the floor to the door and closed it with a push from her hand and in the passage outside Dunn stood still, not certain what to do next.
But for that photograph he might have gone quietly away, giving up the reckless plan that had formed itself so suddenly in his mind while he watched the burglar at work.
That photograph, however, with its suggestion that he stood indeed on the brink of the solution of the mystery, seemed a summons to him to go on. It was as though a voice from the dead called him to continue on his task to punish and to save, and slowly, very slowly, with an infinite caution, he turned again the handle of the door and still very slowly, still with the same infinite caution, he pushed back the door the merest fraction of an inch at a time so that not even one watching could have said that it moved.
When he had it once more so far open that he could see within, he bent forward to look. The girl was beginning her preparations for the night now. She had assumed a long, comfortable-looking dressing-gown and, standing in front of the mirror, she had just finished brushing her hair and was beginning to fasten it up in a long plait. He could see her face in the mirror; her deep, sad eyes, swollen with crying, her cheeks still tear-stained, her mouth yet quivering with barely-repressed emotion.
He was still watching her when, as if growing uneasy, she turned her head and glanced over her shoulder, and though he moved back so quickly that she did not catch sight of him, she saw that the door was open once more.
"What can be the matter with the door?" she exclaimed aloud, and she crossed the room towards it with a quick and somewhat impatient movement.
But this time, instead of closing it, she pulled it open and found herself face to face with Dunn.
He did not speak or move, and she stood staring at him blankly. Slowly her mouth opened as though to utter a cry that, however, could not rise above her fluttering throat. Her face had taken on the pallor of death, her great eyes showed the awful fear she felt.
Still without speaking, Dunn stepped forward into the room and, closing the door, stood with his back to it.
She shrank away and put her hand upon a chair, but for the support of which she must certainly have fallen, for her limbs were trembling so violently they gave her little support.
"Don't hurt me," she panted.
In truth he presented a strange and terrifying appearance. The unkempt hair that covered his face and through which his keen eyes glowed like fire, gave him an unusual and formidable aspect. In one hand he held the ugly-looking jemmy he had taken from the burglar, and the new clothes he had donned, ill-fitting and soiled, served to accentuate the ungainliness of his form.
The frightened girl was not even sure that he was human, and she shrank yet further away from him till she sank down upon the bed, dizzy with fear and almost swooning.
As yet he had not spoken, for his eyes had gone to the mantlepiece on which he saw that the photograph signed with the name "Charley Wright," did not now stand upright, but had fallen forward on its face so that one could no longer see what it represented.
It must have fallen just as he entered the room and this seemed to him an omen, though whether of good or ill, he did not know.
"Who are you?" the girl stammered. "What do you want?"
He looked at her moodily and still without answering, though in his bright and keen eyes a strange light burned.
She was lovely, he thought, of that there could be no question. But her beauty made to him small appeal, for he was wondering what kind of soul lay behind those perfect features, that smooth and delicate skin, those luminous eyes. Yet his eyes were still hard and it was in his roughest, gruffest tones that he said:
"You needn't be afraid, I won't hurt you."
"I'll give you everything I have," she panted, "if only you'll go away."
"Not so fast as all that," he answered, coolly, for indeed he had not taken so mad a risk in order to go away again if he could help it. "Who is there in the house besides you?"
"Only mother," she answered, looking up at him very pleadingly as if in hopes that he must relent when he saw her in distress. "Please, won't you take what you want and go away? Please don't disturb mother, it would nearly kill her."
"I'm not going to hurt either you or your mother if you'll be sensible," he said irritably, for, unreasonably enough, the extreme fear she showed and her pleading tones annoyed him. He had a feeling that he would like to shake her, it was so absurd of her to look at him as though she expected him to gobble her up in a mouthful.
She seemed a little reassured.
"Mother will be so dreadfully frightened," she repeated, "I'll give you everything there is in the house if only you'll go at once."
"I can take everything I want without your giving it me," he retorted. "How do I know you're telling the truth when you say there's no one else in the house? How many servants have you?"
"None," she answered. "There's a woman comes every day, but she doesn't sleep here."
"Do you live all alone here with your mother?" he asked, watching her keenly.
"There's my stepfather," she answered. "But he's not here tonight."
"Oh, is he away?" Dunn asked, his expression almost one of disappointment.
The girl, whose first extreme fear had passed and who was watching him as keenly as he watched her, noticed this manner of disappointment, and could not help wondering what sort of burglar it was who was not pleased to hear that the man of the house was away, and that he had only two women to deal with.
And it appeared to her that he seemed not only disappointed, but rather at a loss what to do next.
As in truth he was, for that the stepfather should be away, and this girl and her mother all alone, was, perhaps, the one possibility that he had never considered.
She noticed, too, that he did not pay any attention to her jewellery, which was lying close to his hand on the toilet-table, and though in point of actual fact this jewellery was not of any great value, it was exceedingly precious in her eyes, and she did not understand a burglar who showed no eagerness to seize on it.
"Did you want to see Mr. Dawson?" she asked, her voice more confident now and even with a questioning note in it.
"Mr. Dawson! Who's he?" Dunn asked, disconcerted by the question, but not wishing to seem so.
"My stepfather, Mr. Deede Dawson," she answered. "I think you knew that. If you want him, he went to London early today, but I think it's quite likely he may come back tonight."
"What should I want him for?" growled Dunn, more and more, disconcerted, as he saw that he was not playing his part too well.
"I don't know," she answered. "I suppose you do."
"You suppose a lot," he retorted roughly. "Now you listen to me. I don't want to hurt you, but I don't mean to be interfered with. I'm going over the house to see what I can find that's worth taking. Understand?"
"Oh, perfectly," she said.
She was watching him closely, and she noticed that he still made no attempt to take possession of her jewellery, though it lay at his hand, and that puzzled her very much, indeed, for she supposed the very first thing a burglar did was always to seize such treasures as these of hers. But this man paid them no attention whatever, and did not even notice them.
He was feeling in his pockets now and he took out the revolver and the coil of thin rope he had secured from the burglar.
"Now, do you know what I'm going to do?" he asked, with an air of roughness and brutality that was a little overdone. He put the revolver and the rope down on the bed, the revolver quite close to her.
"I'm going," he continued, "to tie you up to one of those chairs. I can't risk your playing any tricks or giving an alarm, perhaps, while I'm searching the house. I shall take what's worth having, and then I shall clear off, and if your stepfather's coming home tonight you won't have to wait long till he releases you, and if he don't come I can't help it."
He turned his back to her as he spoke and took hold of one of the chairs in the room, and then of another and looked at them as though carefully considering which would be the best to use for the carrying out of his threat.
He appeared to find it difficult to decide, for he kept his back turned to her for two or three minutes, during all of which time the revolver lay on the bed quite close to her hand.
He listened intently for he fully expected her to snatch it up, and he wished to be ready to turn before she could actually fire. But, indeed, nothing was further from her thoughts, for she did not know in the least how to use the weapon or even how to fire it off, and the very thought of employing it to kill any one would have terrified her far more even than had done her experiences of this night.
So the pistol lay untouched by her side, while, very pale and trembling a little, she waited what he would do, and on his side he felt as much puzzled by her failure to use the opportunity he had put in her way as she was puzzled by his neglect to seize her jewellery lying ready to his hand.
He was still hesitating, still appearing unable to decide which chair to employ in carrying out his proclaimed purpose of fastening her up when she asked a question that made him swing round upon her very quickly and with a very startled look.
"Are you a real burglar?" she said.
CHAPTER VI. A DISCOVERY
"What do you mean?" Dunn asked quickly. The matted growth of hair on his face served well to hide any change of expression, but his eyes betrayed him with their look of surprise and discomfiture, and in her own clear and steady glance appeared now a kind of puzzled mockery as if she understood well that all he did was done for some purpose, though what that purpose was still perplexed her.
"I mean," she said slowly, "well—what do I mean? I am only asking a question. Are you a burglar—or have you come here for some other reason?"
"I don't know what you're getting at," he grumbled. "Think I'm here for fun? Not me. Come and sit on this chair and put your hands behind you and don't make a noise, or scream, or anything, not if you value your life."
"I don't know that I do very much," she answered with a manner of extreme bitterness, but more as if speaking to herself than to him.
She did as he ordered, and he proceeded to tie her wrists together and to fasten them to the back of the chair on which she had seated herself. He was careful not to draw the cords too tight, but at the same time he made the fastening secure.
"You won't disturb mother, will you?" she asked quietly when he had finished. "Her room's the one at the end of the passage."
"I don't want to disturb any one," he answered. "I only want to get off quietly. I won't gag you, but don't you try to make any noise, if you do I'll come back. Understand?"
"Oh, perfectly," she answered. "May I ask one question? Do you feel very proud of yourself just now?"
He did not answer, but went out of the room quickly, and he had an impression that she smiled as she watched him go, and that her smile was bitter and a little contemptuous.
"What a girl," he muttered. "She scored every time. I didn't find out a thing, she didn't do anything I expected or wanted her to. She seemed as if she spotted me right off—I wonder if she did? I wonder if she could be trusted?"
But then he thought of that photograph on the mantelpiece and his look grew stern and hard again. He was careful to avoid the room the girl had indicated as occupied by her mother, but of all the others on that floor he made a hasty search without discovering anything to interest him or anything of the least importance or at all unusual.
From the wide landing in the centre of the house a narrow stairway, hidden away behind an angle of the wall so that one did not notice it at first, led above to three large attics with steeply-sloping roofs and evidently designed more for storage purposes than for habitation.
The doors of two of these were open and within was merely a collection of such lumber as soon accumulates in any house.
The door of the third attic was locked, but by aid of the jemmy he still carried, he forced it open without difficulty.
Within was nothing but a square packing-case, standing in the middle of the floor. Otherwise the light of the electric torch he flashed around showed only the bare boarding of the floor and the bare plastered walls.
Near the packing-case a hammer and some nails lay on the floor and the lid was in position but was not fastened, as though some interruption had occurred before the task of nailing it down could be completed.
Dunn noted that one nail had been driven home, and he was on the point of leaving the attic, for he knew he had not much time and hoped that downstairs he would be able to make some discoveries of importance, when it occurred to him that it might be wise to see what was in this case, the nailing down the lid of which had not been completed.
He crossed the room to it, and without drawing the one nail, pushed back the lid which pivoted on it quite easily.
Within appeared a covering of coarse sacking. He pulled this away with a careless hand, and beneath the beam of his electric torch showed the pale and dreadful features of a dead man—of a man, the center of whose forehead showed the small round hole where a bullet had entered in; of a man whose still-recognizable features were those of the photograph on the mantel-piece of the room downstairs, the photograph that was signed:
"Devotedly yours, Charley Wright."
For a long time Robert Dunn stood, looking down in silence at that dead face which was hardly more still, more rigid than his own.
He shivered, for he felt very cold. It was as though the coldness of the death in whose presence he stood had laid its chilly hand on him also.
At last he stirred and looked about him with a bewildered air, then carefully and with a reverent hand, he put back the sackcloth covering.
"So I've found you, Charley," he whispered. "Found you at last."
He replaced the lid, leaving everything as it had been when he entered the attic, and stood for a time, trying to collect his thoughts which the shock of this dreadful discovery had so disordered, and to decide what to do next.
"But, then, that's simple," he thought. "I must go straight to the police and bring them here. They said they wanted proof; they said I had nothing to go on but bare suspicion. But that's evidence enough to hang Deede Dawson—the girl, too, perhaps."
Then he wondered whether it could be that she knew nothing and was innocent of all part or share in this dreadful deed. But how could that be possible? How could it be that such a crime committed in the house in which she lived could remain unknown to her?
On the other hand, when he thought of her clear, candid eyes; when he remembered her gentle beauty, it did not seem conceivable that behind them could lie hidden the tigerish soul of a murderess.
"That's only sentiment, though," he muttered. "Nothing more. Beautiful women have been rotten bad through and through before today. There's nothing for me to do but to go and inform the police, and get them here as soon as possible. If she's innocent, I suppose she'll be able to prove it."
He hesitated a moment, as he thought of how he had left her, bound and a prisoner.
It seemed brutal to leave her like that while he was away, for he would probably be some time absent. But with a hard look, he told himself that whatever pain she suffered she must endure it.
His first and sole thought must be to bring to justice the murderers of his unfortunate friend; and to secure, too, thereby, the success almost certainly of his own mission.
To release her and leave her at liberty might endanger the attainment of both those ends, and so she must remain a prisoner.
"Only," he muttered, "if she knew the attic almost over her head held such a secret, why, didn't she take the chance I gave her of getting hold of my revolver? That she didn't, looks as if she knew nothing."
But then he thought again of the photograph in her room and remembered that agony of grief to which she had been surrendering herself when he first saw her. Now those passionate tears of hers seemed to him like remorse.
"I'll leave her where she is," he decided again. "I can't help it; I mustn't run any risks. My first duty is to get the police here and have Deede Dawson arrested."
He went down the stairs still deep in thought, and when he reached the landing below he would not even go to make sure that his captive was still secure.
An obscure feeling that he did not wish to see her, and still more that he did not wish her to see him, prevented him.
He descended the second flight of steps to the hall, taking fewer precautions to avoid making a noise and still very deep in thought.
For some time he had had but little hope that young Charley Wright still lived.
Nevertheless, the dreadful discovery he had made in the attic above had affected him profoundly, and left his mind in a chaos of emotions so that he was for the time much less acutely watchful than usual.
They had spent their boyhood together, and he remembered a thousand incidents of their childhood. They had been at school and college together. And how brilliantly Charley had always done at work and play, surmounting every difficulty with a laugh, as if it were merely some new and specially amusing jest!
Every one had thought well of him, every one had believed that his future career would be brilliant. Now it had ended in this obscure and dreadful fashion, as ends the life of a trapped rat.
Dunn found himself hardly able to realize that it was really so, and through all the confused medley of his thoughts there danced and flickered his memory of a young and lovely face, now tear-stained, now smiling, now pale with terror, now calmly disdainful.
"Can she have known?" he muttered. "She must have known—she can't have known—it's not possible either way."
He shuddered and as he put his foot on the lowest stair he raised his hands to cover his face as though to shut out the visions that passed before him.
Another step forward he took in the darkness, and all at once there flashed upon him the light of a strong electric torch, suddenly switched on.
"Put up your hands," said a voice sharply. "Or you're a dead man."
He looked bewilderedly, taken altogether by surprise, and saw he was faced by a fat little man with a smooth, chubby, smiling face and eyes that were cold and grey and deadly, and who held in one hand a revolver levelled at his heart.
"Put up your hands," this newcomer said again, his voice level and calm, his eyes intent and deadly. "Put up your hands or I fire."
CHAPTER VII. QUESTION AND ANSWER
Dunn obeyed promptly.
There was that about this little fat, smiling man and his unsmiling eyes which proclaimed very plainly that he was quite ready to put his threat into execution.
For a moment or two they stood thus, each regarding the other very intently. Dunn, his hands in the air, the steady barrel of the other's pistol levelled at his heart, knew that never in all his adventurous life had he been in such deadly peril as now, and the grotesque thought came into his mind to wonder if there were room for two in that packing-case in the attic.
Or perhaps no attempt would be made to hide his death since, after all, it is always permissible to shoot an armed burglar.
The clock on the stairs began to strike the hour, and he wondered if he would still be alive when the last stroke sounded.
He did not much think so for he thought he could read a very deadly purpose in the other's cold grey eyes, nor did he suppose that a man with such a secret as that of the attic upstairs to hide was likely to stand on any scruple.
And he thought that if he still lived when the clock finished striking he would take it for an omen of good hope.
The last stroke sounded and died away into the silence of the night.
The revolver was still levelled at his heart, the grim purpose in the other's eyes had not changed, and yet Dunn drew a breath of deep relief as though the worst of the danger was past.
Through his mind, that had been a little dulled by the sudden consciousness of so extreme a peril, thought began again to race with more than normal rapidity and clearness.
It occurred to him, with a sense of the irony of the position, that when he entered this house it had been with the deliberate intention of getting himself discovered by the inmates, believing that to show himself to them in the character of a burglar might gain him their confidence.
It had seemed to him that so he might come to be accepted as one of them and perhaps learn in time the secret of their plans.
The danger that they might adopt the other course of handing him over to the police had not seemed to him very great, for he had his reasons for believing that there would be no great desire to draw the attention of the authorities to Bittermeads for any reason whatever.
But the discovery he had made in the attic changed all that. It changed his plans, for now he could go to the police immediately. And it changed also his conception of how these people were likely to act.
Before, it had not entered his mind to suppose that he ran any special risk of being shot at sight, but now he understood that the only thing standing between him and instant death was the faint doubt in his captor's mind as to how much he knew.
It seemed to him his only hope was to carry out his original plan and try to pass himself off as the sort of person who might be likely to be useful to the master of Bittermeads.
"Don't shoot, sir," he said, in a kind of high whine. "I ain't done no harm, and it's a fair cop—and me not a month out of Dartmoor Gaol. I shall get a hot 'un for this, I know."
The little fat man did not answer; his eyes were as deadly, the muzzle of his pistol as steady as before.
Dunn wondered if it were from that pistol had issued the bullet that had drilled so neat and round a hole in his friend's forehead. He supposed so.
He said again
"Don't shoot, Mr. Deede Dawson, sir; I ain't done no harm."
"Oh, you know my name, do you, you scoundrel?" Deede Dawson said, a little surprised.
"Yes, sir," Dunn answered. "We always find out as much as we can about a crib before we get to work."
"I see," said Mr. Dawson. "Very praiseworthy. Attention to business and all that. Pray, what did you find out about me?"
"Only as you was to be away tonight, sir," answered Dunn. "And that there didn't seem to be any other man in the house, and, of course, how the house lay and the garden, and so. But I didn't know as you was coming home so soon."
"No, I don't suppose you did," said Deede Dawson.
"I ain't done no harm," Dunn urged, making his voice as whining and pleading as he could. "I've only just been looking round the two top floors—I ain't touched a thing. Give a cove a chance, sir."
"You've been looking round, have you?" said Deede Dawson slowly. "Did you find anything to interest you?"
"I've only been in the bedrooms and the attics," answered Dunn, changing not a muscle of his countenance and thinking boldness his safest course, for he knew well the slightest sign or hint of knowledge that he gave would mean his death. "I'd only just come downstairs when you copped me, sir; I ain't touched a thing in one of these rooms down here."
"Haven't you?" said Deede Dawson slowly, and his face was paler, his eyes more deadly, the muzzle of his pistol yet more inflexibly steady than before.
More clearly still did Dunn realize that the faintest breath of suspicion stirring in the other's mind that he knew of what was hidden in the attic would mean certain death and just such another neat little hole bored through heart or brain as that he had seen showing in the forehead of his dead friend.
"Haven't you, though?" Deede Dawson repeated. "The bedrooms—the attics—that's all?"
"Yes, sir, that's all, take my oath that's all," Dunn repeated earnestly, as if he wished very much to impress on his captor that he had searched bedrooms and attics thoroughly, but not these downstairs rooms.
Deede Dawson was plainly puzzled, and for the first time a little doubt seemed to show in his hard grey eyes.
Dunn perceived that a need was on him to know for certain whether his dreadful secret had been discovered or not.
Until he had assured himself on that point Dunn felt comparatively safe, but he still knew also that to allow the faintest suspicion to dawn in Deede Dawson's mind would mean for him instant death.
He saw, too, watching very warily and ready to take advantage of any momentary slip or forgetfulness, how steady was Deede Dawson's hand, how firm and watchful his eyes.
With many men, with most men indeed, Dunn would have seized or made some opportunity to dash in and attack, taking the chance of being shot down first, since there are few indeed really skilled in the use of a revolver, the most tricky if the most deadly of weapons.
But he realized he had small hope of taking unawares this fat little smiling man with the unsmiling eyes and steady hand, and he was well convinced that the first doubtful movement he made would bring a bullet crashing through his brain.
His only hope was in delay and in diverting suspicion, and Deede Dawson's voice was very soft and deadly as he said:
"So you've been looking in the bedrooms, have you? What did you find there?"
"Nothing, sir, not a thing," protested Dunn. "I didn't touch a thing, I only wanted to look round before coming down here to see about the silver."
"And the attics?" asked Deede Dawson. "What did you find there?"
"There wasn't no one in them," Dunn answered. "I only wanted to make sure the young lady was telling the truth about there being no servants in the house to sleep."
"Did you look in all the attics, then?" asked Deede Dawson.
"Yes," answered Dunn. "'There was one as was locked, but I tooked the liberty of forcing it just to make sure. I ain't done no harm to speak of."
"You found one locked, eh?" said Deede Dawson, and his smile grew still more pleasant and more friendly. "That must have surprised you a good deal, didn't it?"
"I thought as perhaps there was some one waiting already to give the alarm," answered Dunn. "I didn't mind the old lady, but I couldn't risk there being some one hiding there, so I had to look, but I ain't done no damage to speak of, I could put it right for you myself in half-an-hour, sir, if you'll let me."
"Could you, indeed?" said Deede Dawson. "Well, and did you find any one sleeping there?"
But for that hairy disguise upon his cheeks and chin, Dunn would almost certainly have betrayed himself, so dreadful did the question seem to him, so poignant the double meaning that it bore, so clear his memory of his friend he had found there, sleeping indeed.
But there was nothing to show his inner agitation, as he said, shaking his head.
"There wasn't no one there, any more than in the other attics, nothing but an old packing-case."
"And what?" said Deede Dawson, his voice so soft it was like a caress, his smile so sweet it was a veritable benediction. "What was in that packing-case?"
"Didn't look," answered Dunn, and then, with a sudden change of manner, as though all at once understanding what previously had puzzled him. "Lum-me," he cried, "is that where you keep the silver? Lor', and to think I never even troubled to look."
"You never looked?" repeated Deede Dawson.
Dunn shook his head with an air of baffled regret. "Never thought of it," he said. "I thought it was just lumber like in the other attics, and I might have got clear away with it if I had known, as easy as not."
His chagrin was so apparent, his whole manner so innocent, that Deede Dawson began to believe he really did know nothing.
"Didn't you wonder why the door was locked?" he asked.
"Lor'," answered Dunn, "if you stopped to wonder about everything you find rummy in a crib you're cracking, when would you ever get your business done?"
"So you didn't look—in that packing-case?" Deede Dawson repeated.
"If I had," answered Dunn ruefully, "I shouldn't be here, copped like this. I should have shoved with the stuff and not waited for nothing more. But I never had no luck."
"I'm not so sure of that," said Deede Dawson grimly, and as he spoke a soft voice called down from upstairs.
"Is there any one there?" it said. "Oh, please, is any one there?"
"Is that you, Ella?" Deede Dawson called back. "Come down here."
"I can't," she answered. "I'm fastened to a chair."
"I didn't hurt the young lady," Dunn interposed quickly. "I only tied her up as gentle as I could to a chair so as to stop her from interfering."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" said Deede Dawson, and seemed a little amused, as though the thought of his stepdaughter's plight pleased him rather than not. "Well, if she can't come down here, we'll go up there. Turn round, my man, and go up the stairs and keep your hands over your head all the time. I shan't hesitate to shoot if you don't, and I never miss."
Dunn was not inclined to value his life at a very high price as he turned and went awkwardly up the stairs, still holding his hands above his head.
But he meant to save it if he could, for many things depended on it, among them due punishment to be exacted for the crime he had discovered this night; and also, perhaps, for the humiliation he was now enduring.
CHAPTER VIII. CAPTIVITY CAPTIVE
Up the stairs, across the landing, and down the passage opposite Dunn went in silence, shepherded by the little man behind whose pistol was still levelled and still steady.
His hands held high in the air, he pushed open with his knee the door of the girl's room and entered, and she looked up as he did so with an expression of pure astonishment at his attitude of upheld hands that changed to one of comprehension and of faint amusement as Deede Dawson followed, revolver in hand.
"Oh," she murmured. "Captivity captive, it seems."
At the fireplace Dunn turned and found her looking at him very intently, while from the doorway Deede Dawson surveyed them both, for once his eyes appearing to share in the smile that played about his lips as though he found much satisfaction in what he saw.
"Well, Ella," he said. "You've been having adventures, it seems, but you don't look too comfortable like that."
"Nor do I feel it," she retorted. "So please set me free."
"Yes, so I will," he answered, but he still hesitated, and Dunn had the idea that he was pleased to see the girl like this, and would leave her so if he could, and that he was wondering now if he could turn her predicament to his own advantage in any way.
"Yes, I will," he said again. "Your mother—?"
"She hasn't wakened," Ella answered. "I don't think she has heard anything. I don't suppose she will, for she took two of those pills last night that Dr. Rawson gave her for when she couldn't sleep."
"It's just as well she did," said Deede Dawson.
"Yes, but please undo my hands," she asked him. "The cords are cutting my wrists dreadfully."
As she spoke she glanced at Dunn, standing by the fireplace and listening gravely to what they said, and Deede Dawson exclaimed with an air of great indignation:—
"The fellow deserves to be well thrashed for treating you like that. I've a good mind to do it, too, before handing him over to the police."
"But you haven't released me yet," she remarked.
"Oh, yes, yes," he said, starting as if this were quite a new idea. "I'll release you at once—but I must watch this scoundrel. He must have frightened you dreadfully."
"Indeed he did not," she answered quickly, again looking at Dunn. "No, he didn't," she said again with a touch of defiance in her manner and a certain slightly lifting her small, round chin. "At least not much after just at first," she added.
"I'll loose you," Deede Dawson said once more, and coming up to her, he began to fumble in a feeble, ineffectual way at the cords that secured her wrists.
"Jove, he's tied you up pretty tight, Ella!" he said.
"He believes in doing his work thoroughly, I suppose," she remarked, lifting her eyes to Dunn's with a look in them that was partly questioning and partly puzzled and wholly elusive. "I daresay he always likes to do everything thoroughly."
"Seems so," said Deede Dawson, giving up his fumbling and ineffectual efforts to release her.
He stepped back and stood behind her chair, looking from her to Dunn and back again, and once more Dunn was conscious of an impression that he wished to make use for his own purposes of the girl's position, but that he did not know how to do so.
"You are a nice scoundrel," said Deede Dawson suddenly, with an indignation that seemed to Dunn largely assumed. "Treating a girl like this. Ella, what would you like done to him? He deserves shooting. Shall I put a bullet through him for you?"
"He might have treated me worse, I suppose," said Ella quietly. "And if you would be less indignant with him, you might be more help to me. There are scissors on the table somewhere."
"I'll get them," Deede Dawson said. "I'll get them," he repeated, as though now at last finally making up his mind.
He took the scissors from the toilet-table where they lay before the looking-glass and cut the cords by which Ella was secured.
With a sigh of relief she straightened herself from the confined position in which she had been held and began to rub her wrists, which were slightly inflamed where the cords had bruised her soft skin.
"Like to tie him up that way now?" asked Deede Dawson. "You shall if you like."
She turned and looked full at Dunn and he looked back at her with eyes as steady and as calm as her own.
Again she showed that faint doubt and wonder which had flickered through her level gaze before as though she felt that there was more in all this than was apparent, and did not wish to condemn him utterly without a hearing.
But it was plain also that she did not wish to say too much before her stepfather and she answered carelessly:
"I don't think I could tie him tight enough, besides, he looks ridiculous enough like that with his hands up in the air."
It was her revenge for what he had made her suffer. He felt himself flush and he knew that she knew that her little barbed shaft had struck home.
"Well, go and look through his pockets," Deede Dawson said. "And see if he's got a revolver. Don't be frightened; if he lowers his hands he'll be a dead man before he knows it."
"He has a pistol," she said. "He showed it me, it's in his coat pocket."
"Better get it then," Deede Dawson told her. She obeyed and brought him the weapon, and he nodded with satisfaction as he put it in his own pocket.
"I think we might let you put your hands down now," he remarked, and Dunn gladly availed himself of the permission, for every muscle in his arms was aching badly.
He remained standing by the wall while Deede Dawson, seating himself on the chair to which Ella had been bound, rested his chin on his left hand and, with the pistol still ready in his right, regarded Dunn with a steady questioning gaze.
Ella was standing near the bed. She had poured a few drops of eau-de-Cologne on her wrists and was rubbing them softly, and for ever after the poignant pleasant odour of the scent has remained associated in Robert Dunn's mind with the strange events of that night so that always even the merest whiff of it conjures up before his mind a picture of that room with himself silent by the fireplace and Ella silent by the bed and Deede Dawson, pistol in hand, seated between them, as silent also as they, and very watchful.
Ella appeared fully taken up with her occupation and might almost have forgotten the presence of the two men. She did not look at either of them, but continued to rub and chafe her wrists softly.
Deede Dawson had forgotten for once to smile, his brow was slightly wrinkled, his cold grey eyes intent and watchful, and Dunn felt very sure that he was thinking out some plan or scheme.
The hope came to him that Deede Dawson was thinking he might prove of use, and that was the thought which, above all others, he wished the other to have. It was, indeed, that thought which all his recent actions had been aimed to implant in Deede Dawson's mind till his dreadful discovery in the attic had seemed to make at last direct action possible. How, in his present plight that thought, if Deede Dawson should come to entertain it, might yet prove his salvation. Now and again Deede Dawson gave him quick, searching glances, but when at last he spoke it was Ella he addressed.
"Wrists hurt you much?" he asked.
"Not so much now," she answered. "They were beginning to hurt a great deal, though."
"Were they, though?" said Deede Dawson. "And to think you might have been like that for hours if I hadn't chanced to come home. Too bad, what a brute this fellow is."
"Men mostly are, I think," she observed indifferently.
"And women mostly like to get their own back again," he remarked with a chuckle, and then turned sharply to Dunn. "Well, my man," he asked, "what have you got to say for yourself?"
"Nothing," Dunn answered. "It was a fair cop."
"You've had a taste of penal servitude before, I suppose?" Deede Dawson asked.
"Maybe," Dunn answered, as if not wishing to betray himself. "Maybe not."
"Well, I think I remember you said something about not being long out of Dartmoor," remarked Deede Dawson. "How do you relish the prospect of going back there?"
"I wonder," interposed Ella thoughtfully. "I wonder what it is in you that makes you so love to be cruel, father?"
"Eh what?" he exclaimed, quite surprised. "Who's being cruel?"
"You," she answered. "You enjoy keeping him wondering what you are going to do with him, just as you enjoyed seeing me tied to that chair and would have liked to leave me there."
"My dear Ella!" he protested. "My dear child!"
"Oh, I know," she said wearily. "Why don't you hand the man over to the police if you're going to, or let him go at once if you mean to do that?"
"Let him go, indeed!" exclaimed Deede Dawson. "What an idea! What should I do that for?"
"If you'll give me another chance," said Dunn quickly, "I'll do anything—I should get it pretty stiff for this lot, and that wouldn't be any use to you, sir, would it? I can do almost anything—garden, drive a motor, do what I'm told, It's only because I've never had a chance I've had to take to this line."
"If you could do what you're told you certainly might be useful," said Deede Dawson slowly. "And I don't know that it would do me any good to send you off to prison—you deserve it, of course. Still—you talk sometimes like an educated man?"
"I had a bit of education," Dunn answered.
"I see," said Deede Dawson. "Well, I won't ask you any more questions, you'd probably only lie. What's your name?"
With that sudden recklessness which was a part of his impulsive and passionate nature, Dunn answered:
The effect was instantaneous and apparent on both his auditors.
Ella gave a little cry and started so violently that she dropped the bottle of eau-de-Cologne she had in her hands.
Deede Dawson jumped to his feet with a fearful oath. His face went livid, his fat cheeks seemed suddenly to sag, of his perpetual smile every trace vanished.
He swung his revolver up, and Dunn saw the crooked forefinger quiver as though in the very act of pressing the trigger.
The pressure of a hair decided, indeed, whether the weapon was to fire or not, as in a high-pitched, stammering voice, Deede Dawson gasped:
"What—what do you mean? What do you mean by that?"
"I only told you my name," Dunn answered. "What's wrong with it?"
Doubtful and afraid, Deede Dawson stood hesitant. His forehead had become very damp, and he wiped it with a nervous gesture.