TILL THE CLOCK STOPS
BY J. J. BELL
AUTHOR OF "WEE MACGREEGOR," ETC.
On a certain brilliant Spring morning in London's City the seed of the Story was lightly sown. Within the directors' room of the Aasvogel Syndicate, Manchester House, New Broad Street, was done and hidden away a deed, simple and commonplace, which in due season was fated to yield a weighty crop of consequences complex and extraordinary.
At the table, pen in hand, sat a young man, slight of build, but of fresh complexion, and attractive, eager countenance, neither definitely fair nor definitely dark. He was silently reading over a document engrossed on bluish hand-made folio; not a lengthy document—nineteen lines, to be precise. And he was reading very slowly and carefully, chiefly to oblige the man standing behind his chair.
This man, whose age might have been anything between forty and fifty, and whose colouring was dark and a trifle florid, would probably have evoked the epithet of "handsome" on the operatic stage, and in any city but London that of "distinguished." In London, however, you could hardly fail to find his like in one or other of the west-end restaurants about 8 p.m.
Francis Bullard, standing erect in the sunshine, a shade over-fed looking, but perfectly groomed in his regulation city garb, an enigmatic smile under his neat black moustache as he watched the reader, suggested nothing ugly or mean, nothing worse, indeed, than worldly prosperity and a frank enjoyment thereof. His well-kept fingers toyed with a little gold nugget depending from his watch chain—his only ornament.
The third man was seated in a capacious leather-covered, easy chair by the hearth. Leaning forward, he held his palms to the fire, though not near enough for them to have derived much warmth. He was extremely tall and thin. The head was long and rather narrow, the oval countenance had singularly refined features. The hair, once reddish, now almost grey, was parted in the middle and very smoothly brushed; the beard was clipped close to the cheeks and trimmed to a point. Bluish-grey eyes, deepset, gave an impression of weariness and sadness; indeed the whole face hinted at melancholy. Its attractive kindliness was marred by a certain furtiveness. He was as stylishly dressed as his co-director, Bullard, but in light grey tweed; and he wore a pearl of price on his tie and a fine diamond on his little finger. His name was Robert Lancaster, and no man ever started life with loftier ideals and cleaner intentions.
At last the young man at the table, with a brisk motion, dipped his pen.
"One moment, Alan," said Bullard, and touched a bell-button.
A couple of clerks entered.
"Rose and Ferguson, you will witness Mr. Alan Craig's signature. All right now, Alan!"
The young man dashed down his name and got up smiling.
Never was last will and testament more eagerly, more cheerfully signed. The clerks performed their parts and retired.
Alan Craig seized Bullard's hand. "I'm more than obliged to you," he said heartily, "and to you, too, Mr. Lancaster." He darted over to the hearth.
The oldish man seemed to rouse himself for the handshake. "Of course, it's merely a matter of form, Alan," he said, and cleared his throat; "merely a matter of form. In ordinary times you would have been welcome to the money without—a—anything of the sort, but at present it so happens—"
"Alan quite understands," Bullard interrupted genially, "that in present circumstances it was not possible for us to advance even a trifle like three thousand without something in the way of security—merely as a matter of form, as you have put it. We might have asked him to sign a bill or bond; but that method would have been repugnant to you, Lancaster, as it was to me. As we have arranged it, Alan can start for the Arctic without feeling a penny in debt—"
"Hardly that," the young man quickly put in. "But I shall go without feeling I must meet grasping creditors the moment I return. Upon my word, you have treated me magnificently. When the chance came, so unexpectedly, of taking over Garnet's share and place in the expedition, and when my Uncle Christopher flatly refused to advance the money, I felt hopelessly knocked out, for such a trip had been the ambition of my life. Why, I had studied for it, on the off-chance, for years! I didn't go into a geographical publisher's business just to deal in maps, you know. And then you both came to the rescue—why I can't think, unless it was just because you knew my poor father in South Africa. Well, I wish he and my mother were alive to add their thanks—"
"Don't say another word, old chap," said Bullard.
"I will say just this much: if I don't come back, I honestly hope that will of mine may some day bring you the fortune I've been told I shall inherit, though, candidly, I don't believe in it."
"But the will is only a matter of—" began Lancaster.
Bullard interposed. "You will repay us from the profits of the big book you are going to write. I must say your publisher mentioned pretty decent terms. However, let's finish the business and go to lunch. Here you are, Alan!—our cheques for L1500 each."
Alan took the slips of tinted paper with a gesture in place of uttered thanks. He was intensely grateful to these two men, who had made possible the desire of years. The expedition was no great national affair; simply the adventure of a few enthusiasts whose main object was to prove or disprove the existence of land which a famous explorer had believed his eyes had seen in the far distance. But the expedition would find much that it did not seek for, and its success would mean reputation for its members, and reputation would, sooner or later, mean money, which this young man was by no means above desiring, especially as the money would mean independence and—well, he was not yet absolutely sure of himself with respect to matrimony.
He regretfully declined Bullard's invitation to lunch. There were so many things to be done, for the expedition was to start only eight days later, and he had promised to take a bite with his friend Teddy France.
"Then you will dine with us to-night," Lancaster said, rising. "You must give us all the time you can possibly spare before you go. My wife and Doris bade me say so."
"I will come with pleasure," he replied, flushing slightly. Of late he had had passages bordering on the tender with Doris Lancaster, and but for the sudden filling of his mind with thoughts of this great adventure in the Arctic he might have slipped into the folly of a declaration. Folly, indeed!—for well he was aware that he was outside any plans which Mrs. Lancaster may have had for her charming and very loveable daughter. And yet the mention of her name, the prospect of seeing her, stirred him at the moment when the great adventure was looming its largest. Well, he was only four-and-twenty, and who can follow to their origins the tangling dreams of youth? One excitement begets another. Romance calls to romance. He was going to the Arctic in spite of all sorts of difficulties, therefore he would surely win through to other desires—however remote, however guarded. As a matter of fact, he wanted to be in love with Doris, if only to suffer all manner of pains for her sake, and gain her in the end.
He shook hands again with his benefactors.
"You'll be going to Scotland to see your uncle before you start, I suppose?" said Lancaster.
"Yes; I'll travel on Sunday night, and spend Monday at Grey House. You must not think that he and I have quarrelled," Alan said, with a smile. "It takes two to make a quarrel, you know, and I owe him far too much to be one of them. I'd have given in to his wishes had it been anything but an Arctic Expedition. But we shall part good friends, you may be sure."
"It's understood," Bullard remarked, "that he is not to be told of this little business of ours. As you know, Lancaster and I are his oldest friends, and he might not regard the business as we should like him to regard it."
"You may count on my discretion," returned the young man, "and I fancy Uncle Christopher will be too proud to ask questions. Well, I must really go."
When the door had closed, Bullard took up the document, folded it, and placed it in a long envelope.
Lancaster did not seem to hear. He had dropped back into the easy-chair, his hands to the fire.
Bullard went over and tapped him on the shoulder, and he started.
"What's the matter, Lancaster?"
"Oh, nothing—nothing!" Lancaster sat up. "I feel a bit fagged to-day. I—I'm rather glad that bit of business is over. I didn't like it, though it was only a matter of—"
"Perhaps nothing; perhaps half a million—"
"'Sh, Bullard! We must not think of such a thing. Christopher may live for many years, and—"
"He won't do that! The attacks are becoming more frequent."
"—And with all my heart I hope the boy will return safely."
"And so say we all of us!" returned Bullard. "Only I like to be prepared for emergencies. After all, we can't be positive that Christopher will do the friendly to us when the time comes, and Alan being the only relative is certain to benefit, more or less. Our own prospects are not so bright as they were. Of course, you've run through a pile—at least, Mrs. Lancaster has done it for you—"
"If you please, Bullard—"
A clerk entered, handed a telegram to Lancaster, and withdrew.
Bullard lounged over to one of the windows, and lit a cigarette. Presently a queer sound caused him to turn sharply. Lancaster was lying back, his face chalky.
"Fainted, good Lord!" muttered Bullard, and took a step towards a cabinet in the corner. He checked himself, came back and picked up the message. He read:
"Just arrived with valuable goods to sell. Shall I give first offer to Christopher or to you and Bullard? Reply c/o P.O., Tilbury. Edwin Marvel."
"Damnation!" said Bullard.
Despite its handsome and costly old furnishings, the room gave one a sense of space and comfort; its agreeable warmth was too equable to have been derived solely from the cheerful blaze in the veritable Adam's fireplace, which seemed to have provided the keynote to the general scheme of decoration. The great bay-window overlooked a long, gently sloping lawn, bounded on either side by shrubbery, trees, and hedges, terminated by shrubbery and hedges alone, the trees originally there having been long since removed to admit of a clear view of the loch, the Argyllshire hills, and the stretch of Firth of Clyde right down to Bute and the Lesser Cumbrae. Even in summer the garden, while scrupulously tidy, would have offered but little colour display; its few flower beds were as stiff in form and conventional in arrangement as a jobbing gardener on contract to an uninterested proprietor could make them. And on this autumn afternoon, when the sun seemed to rejoice coldly over the havoc of yesterday's gale and the passing of things spared to die a natural death, the eye was fain to look beyond to the beauty of the eternal waters and the glory of the everlasting hills.
Turning from the window, one noticed that the brown walls harboured but four pictures, a couple of Bone etchings and a couple by Laguilermie after Orchardson. There were three doors, that in the left wall being the entrance; the other two, in the right and back walls, near the angle, suggested presses, being without handles. In the middle of the back wall, a yard's distance from the floor, was a niche, four feet in height by one in breadth by the latter in depth, a plain oblong, at present unoccupied. Close inspection would have revealed signs of its recent construction.
Near the centre of the room a writing-table stood at such an angle that the man seated at it, in the invalid's wheeled chair, could look from the window to the fire with the least possible movement of the head. You would have called him an old man, though his age was barely sixty. Hair and short beard were white. He was thin to fragility, yet his hand, fingering some documents, was steady, and his eyes, while sunken, were astonishingly bright. His mobile pale lips hinted at a nature kindly, if not positively tender, yet they could smile grimly, bitterly, in secret. Such was Christopher Craig, a person of no importance publicly or socially, yet the man who, to the knowledge of those two individuals now sitting at his hearth, had left the Cape, five years ago, with a moderate fortune in cash and shares, and half a million pounds in diamonds. And he had just told those two, his favoured friends and trusted associates of the old South African days, that he was about to die.
Robert Lancaster and Francis Bullard, summoned by telegraph from London the previous afternoon, had not been unprepared for such an announcement. As a matter of fact, they had been anticipating the end itself for months—long, weary months, one may venture to say. Yet Lancaster, who had been unfortunate in getting the easy-chair which compelled its occupant to face the strong, clear light, suffered an emotion that constricted his throat and brought tears to his eyes. But Lancaster had ever been half-hearted, whether for good or evil. He looked less unhealthy than on that spring morning, eighteen months ago, but the furtiveness had increased so much that a stranger would have pitied him as a man with nerves. To his host's calmly delivered intimation he had no response ready.
Bullard, on the other hand, was at no loss for words, though he allowed a few seconds—a decent interval, as they say—to elapse ere he uttered them. He was not the sort of fool who tosses a light protest in the face of a grave statement. If his dark face showed no more feeling than usual, his voice was kind, sympathetic, sincere.
"My dear Christopher," he said, "you have hit us hard, for you never were a man to make idle assertions, and we know you have suffered much these last few years. Nevertheless, for our own sakes as well as your own, we must take leave to hope that your medical man is mistaken. For one thing, your eyes are not those of a man who is done with life."
Christopher Craig smiled faintly. "Unfortunately, Bullard, life is done—or nearly done—with me."
Said Lancaster, as if forced—"Have you seen a specialist?"
The host's hand made a slightly impatient movement. "Let us not discuss the point further. I did not bring you both from London to listen to medical details. By the way, I must thank you for coming so promptly."
"We could not have done otherwise," said Bullard, fingering his cigar. "It is nearly two years since we saw you—but, as you know, that has been hardly our fault."
"Indeed no," Lancaster murmured.
"Go on smoking," said the host. "Yes; I'm afraid I became a bit of a recluse latterly. I had to take such confounded care of myself. Well, I didn't want to go out of the world before I could help it, and I was enjoying the quiet here after the strenuous years in Africa—Africa South, East, West. What years they were!" He sighed. "Only the luck came too late to save my brother." He was gazing at the loch, and could hardly have noticed Lancaster's wince which called up Bullard's frown.
Bullard threw his cold cigar into the fire and lit a fresh one with care. With smoke coming from his lips he said softly, "Your brother was devilishly badly treated in that land deal, Christopher. Lancaster and I would have helped him out, had it been possible—wouldn't we, Lancaster?"
Lancaster cleared his throat. "Oh, surely!"
"Thanks," said Christopher. "Of course we've gone over all that before, and I'd thought I had spoken of it for the last time. Only now I feel I'd die a bit happier if I could bring to book the man or men who ruined him. But that cannot be, so let us change the subject with these words, 'They shall have their reward.'"
"Amen!" said Bullard, in clear tones.
Lancaster took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
Still gazing at the loch, Christopher continued—
"I will speak of the living—my nephew, Alan." He lifted his hand as though to check a contradiction. "I am well aware that you believe him dead, and I cannot get away from the fact that the wretched twopence-ha'penny expedition came home without him. But no member could assert that he was dead—only that he was lost, missing; and though I shall not live to see it, I will die in the firm belief of his return within a year."
For once Bullard seemed to have nothing to say, and doubtless he was surprised to hear his colleague's voice stammer—
"If you could give me any grounds for your belief, Christopher—"
"Men have been lost in the Arctic before now, and have not died."
"But Alan, poor fellow, was alone."
"He had his gun and some food. As you know, he was hunting with a man named Flitch when they got separated in a sudden fog."
"And all search proved vain," said Bullard.
"True. But there was an Eskimo encampment within a day's march," retorted Christopher, mildly.
"It had been broken up—"
"Yes; by the time the search party reached it. I may tell you that I have seen and questioned every member of the expedition excepting the man Flitch, who seems to have disappeared, and several admitted the possibility which is my belief." The pale cheeks had flushed, the calm voice had risen.
Bullard gave Lancaster a warning glance, and there was a pause.
"I must not excite myself," resumed Christopher, his pallor back again. "But the boy grew dear to me when, like other happenings in my life, it was too late. I was angry when he went, though I had done little enough to attach him to myself, and I cursed whomever it was that supplied him with the necessary funds. He had friends, I suppose, whom I did not know of. Served me right! But once he was gone my feelings changed. He had a right to make his own life. He had as much right to his ambitions as I"—a faint smile—"to my diamonds. Well, I'm always thankful for the few hours he spent here before his departure. The Arctic was not mentioned, but we parted in peace."
The speaker halted to measure five drops from a tiny phial into a wine-glass of water ready on his desk.
"You're overtaxing yourself," said Bullard compassionately.
"I'll rest presently."
With a grimace at the bitterness of the draught, Christopher Craig proceeded: "The day after he went I signed a deed of gift by which Alan became possessed of this house and all I possess"—he paused, turning towards his visitors—"in the way of cash and securities, less a small sum reserved for my own use. I wanted the boy to know my feeling towards him in a way that a mere will could not show them. However, it is no great fortune—a matter of fifty thousand pounds."
"Much may be done with fifty thousand pounds," remarked Bullard, as if rousing himself. "It is a generous gift, Christopher," he went on. "With the house, I presume you include all it contains." Bullard knew that his voice was growing eager in spite of him. "Naturally," he said, with a frank laugh, "we are curious to know what is going to become of the diamonds—eh, Lancaster?"
The man addressed smiled in sickly fashion.
"In what, I still trust, is the distant future," Bullard quickly added.
"Ah, the diamonds!" said Christopher tenderly. "I shall be sorry to leave them. A man who is not a brute must worship beauty in some form, and I have worshipped diamonds." He leaned over to the right, opened a deep drawer, and brought up an oval steel box enamelled olive green. It was fifteen inches long, twelve across, and nine deep. He laid it before him and opened it with an odd-looking key. It contained shallow trays, divided into compartments, each a blaze of light.
Bullard half rose and sat down again; Lancaster shivered slightly.
"In times of pain and depression I have found distraction in these vain things," said Christopher. "Give me a few sheets of wax and a handful of these, and time ceases while I evolve my jewel schemes. You may say the recreation costs me a good income. Well, I have preferred the recreation. At the same time, diamonds have risen in price since I collected mine." He shut the lid softly, locked it, and added impressively, "Six hundred thousand pounds would not purchase them to-day."
"Great Heavens!" escaped Lancaster; Bullard ran his tongue over dry lips.
"With one exception, you are the first to see them, to hear me mention them, since they left South Africa," said Christopher. "No, not even my nephew knows of their existence. My servant, Caw, is the exception, but he is ignorant of their value."
"Very handsome of you to trust us, I'm sure," Bullard said with well-feigned lightness. "I, for one, had never guessed the greatness of your fortune."
"I have trusted you with much in the past; why not now? And I grant that your interest in the ultimate destination of my diamonds is the most natural thing in the world. Incidentally, your friendship shall not go unrewarded." He waved aside Bullard's quick protest. "But I have grown whimsical in my old age, and you must bear with me." He smiled gently and became grave. "Ultimately my diamonds will be divided into three portions. But—and I emphasise this—nothing shall be done, nor will the diamonds be available for division, till the clock stops—in, I pray God, the presence of my nephew, Alan."
"Till the clock stops?" exclaimed Lancaster stupidly.
"The saying shall be made clear to you before long, Lancaster. And now I must make an end or I shall be giving my doctor more trouble."
With a sigh he pressed one of three white buttons under the ledge of the table. "You will forgive my handing you over to a servant. Caw will see you to your car. Farewell, Lancaster; my regards to your wife, my love to Doris. Farewell, Bullard; yet there are better things even than diamonds."
The door was opened. A middle-aged man in black, with clean shaven ascetic face, and hair the colour of rust, and of remarkably wiry bodily appearance stood at attention.
There was something in Christopher's sad smile that forbade further words, and the visitors departed. Lancaster's countenance working, Bullard's a mask.
The door was shut noiselessly. Christopher's hand fell clenched on the green box. His pallid lips moved.
"Traitors, hypocrites, money maniacs! Verily, they shall have their reward!" He reopened the box, took out all the five trays, and gazed awhile at the massed brilliance. And his smile was exceeding grim.
Within a few minutes the servant returned.
"The gentlemen have gone, sir, and Monsoor Guidet is ready," he said, then looked hard at his master.
The master appeared to rouse himself. "Tell Guidet to go ahead. He'll require your assistance, I expect. Stay!" He pointed to the diamonds. "Put them in the box, Caw."
The man restored the glittering trays to their places with as much emotion as if they had contained samples of bird-seed. When he had let down the lid—
"Your pardon, Mr. Craig, but won't you allow me to ring for Dr. Handyside now?"
"Confound you, Caw, do what you're told!"
"Very good, sir," said Caw sadly, moving off.
"And look here, Caw; if I'm crusty, you know why. And I shan't be bullying you for long. That's all."
Caw bowed his head and went out. On the landing he threw up his hands. "My God!" he said under his breath, "can nothing be done to save him?" For here was a man who loved his master better than himself. One wonders if Caw had ever forgot for an hour in all those twenty years that Christopher Craig had lifted him from the gutter and given him the chance which the world seemed to have denied him.
Shortly afterwards he entered the room with Monsieur Guidet. The two moved slowly, cautiously, for between them they carried a heavy and seemingly fragile object.
"Go ahead," said Christopher, "and let me know when it is finished." He closed his eyes.
Nearly an hour passed before he opened them in response to his servant's voice.
"Monsieur has now finished, sir."
He sat up at once. From a drawer he took a large stout envelope already addressed and sealed with wax.
"Caw, get on your cycle and take this to the post. Have it registered. And put a chair for Monsieur Guidet—there—no, nearer—that's right. Order a cab to take Monsieur to the steamer. He and I will have a chat till you return.... Monsieur, come and sit down."
As Caw left the room the Frenchman turned from his completed handiwork to accept his patron's invitation. He was a dapper, stout little man, merry of eye, despite the fact that a couple of months ago he and his family had been in bitter poverty. He smiled very happily as he took the chair beside the writing table. He was about to receive the balance of his account, amounting, according to agreement, to two hundred pounds.
The work done was embodied in the clock and case which now filled, fitting to a nicety, the niche in the back wall. Outwardly there was nothing very unusual about the clock itself. A gilt box enclosing the mechanism and carrying the plain white face, the hands at twelve, occupied the topmost third of the case, which was of thick plate-glass bound and backed with gilt metal. There was no apparent means of opening the case. From what one could see, however, the workmanship was perfect, exquisite. The compensating pendulum alone was ornamented—with a conventional sun in diamonds, and one could imagine the effect when it swung in brilliant light. At present it was at rest, held up to the right wall of the case by a loop of fine silk passed through a minute hole in the glass, brought round to the front, and secured to a tiny nail at the edge of the niche; a snip—the thread withdrawn—and the clock would start on the work it had been designed to perform. The only really odd things about the whole affair were that the lowest third of the case was filled with a liquid, thickish and emerald green and possessing a curious iridescence, and that just beneath the niche was fixed a strip of ebony tilted upwards and bearing in distinct opal lettering the word:
"Well, monsieur," said Christopher Craig, opening cheque-book, "I suppose I can trust your clock to perform all that we bargained for. You will give me your word for that?"
"Mr. Craik, I give you my word of honour that the clock will go for one year and one day; that he will stop on the day appointed, within two hours, on the one side or the other, of the hour he was to start at; that he will make alarum forty-eight precise hours before he stop; that he will strike only at noon and at midnight; and that, when the end arrive, he will—"
"Thank you, monsieur."
"But more! I give you more than my word; the credit of the work is so much to me. I beg to take only one-half of the money now—the other half when you have seen with your own eyes—"
"Enough. I am in your hands, Monsieur Guidet, for the clock shall not be started until I am gone."
"Gone?" The little man looked blank.
"Your clock is there to carry out the wishes of a dead man."
"Ah!" Guidet understood at last. All the happiness vanished from his face. He regarded this man, who had chosen him from a number of applicants responding to an advertisement, as his benefactor, his saviour. "But not soon, not soon!" he cried with emotion.
Christopher was touched. The little man seemed to care, though their acquaintance was not three months old. Still, they had met almost daily in the room assigned to Guidet for his work, and the patron had taken an interest in the man as well as his genius.
"I cannot tell how soon, my friend," he said, "but we need not talk of it. Now tell me, Guidet, how much do I owe you?"
Guidet wiped his eyes. "One hundred and thirty pounds," he murmured, "and I give you a thousand thanks, Mr. Craik."
"A hundred and thirty—that is the balance due on the clock itself?" inquired Christopher, filling in the date.
The other looked puzzled. "On everything, Mr. Craik."
"Don't you charge for your time?"
Guidet smiled and spread his hands. "Ah, you are not so unwell when you can make the jokes! Two hundred pounds was the price, and I have received seventy of it and the grandest, best holiday—"
"Your wife and children have had no holiday," said Christopher, continuing his writing.
"They have been happy that I am no longer a failure. They shall have a little holiday now, my best of friends, and then I take the small share in the business I told you about. Oh, it is all well with us, all rosy as a—a rose! But you!" His voice trailed off in a sigh.
"I am only sorry I shall not be your first customer, Guidet." Christopher blotted the cheque and handed it across the table. "So you must oblige me by accepting instead what I have written there."
The little man read the words—the figures—and gulped. Then his arms went out as if to embrace the man who sat smiling so very wearily. "It is too much—too much!" he cried, almost weeping. "You are rich, but why—why do you give me five hundred pounds?"
"Perhaps," said Christopher sadly, "that you may remember me kindly." His hand, now shaky, went up to check the other's flow of gratitude. "I'm afraid I must ask you to go now. I must rest—you understand?"
Guidet rose. "So long as we live," he said solemnly, "my family and I will not forget. And if it would give you longer life, Mr. Craik, I swear I would put this"—he held up the cheque—"into the fire."
"I thank you," said Christopher gravely, and just then Caw came in. "And now farewell."
It was dusky in the room when Caw brought tea to his master. Fitful gleams from the fire touched the latter's face, which had grown haggard. The Green Box was open again.
"Never mind the lights for the present," he said, as the servant's hand went to the switch. "Give me a cup of tea—nothing more—and sit down." He pointed to the chair recently occupied by the Frenchman. "I have something to say to you, Caw."
As he placed the tea on the table Caw winced slightly. "Mr. Craig," he said imploringly, "won't you have the doctor now?"
"Sit down," said Christopher a trifle irritably, "and pay attention to what I am about to say. Dr. Handyside," he proceeded, "cannot help me, and you can. In the first place, you have already given me your word to remain in my service for a year and a day after I am gone from here—in other words, until the clock stops."
"Yes, sir," said Caw in a low voice.
"And it is perfectly clear to you how and when you are to set the clock going?"
"By carefully cutting and removing the thread at the first hour of twelve following your—oh, sir, need you talk about it now?"
Christopher took a sip and set the cup down with a little clatter. "And in the event of my nephew, Mr. Alan Craig, returning within the year, you will serve him also as you would me, giving him all assistance and information in your power."
"I have recommended you to him in a letter left with Mr. Harvie, the lawyer in Glasgow, to whom you registered the packet this afternoon. Mr. Harvie is acquainted with certain of my affairs, but not by any means all. It is not necessary that he should know all that you know or will know. I am leaving much to your discretion, Caw. You will find your instructions in this envelope.... Among other things, it is not my wish that you should live alone in this house, and until my nephew returns I have arranged that you shall have quarters in Dr. Handyside's house, and I do not doubt that you will make yourself useful there, helping him with his car and so on. If expedient, you may trust the doctor, but do not trouble him without grave cause. The passage will remain available, and you will make inspections of this house at intervals."
He paused for a moment, took another sip, and resumed. "Things may happen in this house, Caw; but you are not to think of that as more than a mere possibility, nor are you to consider yourself tied to the place. As a matter of fact, I would as soon have certain things happen as not, and, short of murder itself, I count on your avoiding or preventing any police interference. By the way, your own future is provided for."
Caw made an attempt to speak, but his master proceeded—
"There are two men whom it seems necessary to warn you against—the two who were here to-day."
"Sir," said Caw with sudden strength and warmth of voice, "I have long wished I might warn you against Mr. Bullard. Only a sort of instinct, sir, on my part, but I never could trust that man. As for Lancaster—"
"Your instinct was right. Lancaster is chiefly a fool, but Bullard is utterly rotten. You remember my younger brother, Caw?"
"Yes, sir"—rather awkwardly.
"Those two, particularly Bullard, brought him to ruin. They cheated him—legitimately of course! Mr. Alan is ignorant of the tragedy surrounding the end of his father—his mother, too—and I hope he may remain so."
Surprise as well as indignation was in the servant's expression. "But, sir, you were quite friendly—"
"You shall see! You remember Marvel coming here three months ago?"
"Yes, I do—and I wondered at his impudence, the dirty—"
"He brought me the truth, anyway. I suspect his silence had already been bought by Bullard, but that would be nothing to Marvel's conscience. Well, he sold himself and certain papers to me. They proved that Bullard deliberately ruined my brother for his own profit, and Lancaster assisted, probably in ignorance."
"And—those two don't know that you know!" cried Caw. "Your pardon, sir, but it's a bit—exciting."
"They do not know. They do not suspect. While they were here to-day they could think of nothing but those diamonds. They are still thinking of diamonds—of that I am sure; and for the next year they will think of nothing else. And they were my trusted friends!"
"Do you mean the diamonds—there, in that box, sir?"
"They are of great value, no doubt."
"My diamonds are worth over half a million sterling."
Caw drew a long breath. "That box would be safer in the bank, sir," he said respectfully, at last.
"I daresay. But it is going to remain in this drawer." Christopher reached out, closed the lid, locked it, and handed the key to Caw. "Listen! Immediately you have set the clock going, you will go down to the shore and throw that key far into the loch. A duplicate key will be available when the clock stops. Now place the box in the drawer and shut the drawer, and then sit down again."
With a resigned expression Caw obeyed.
"Burglars," he muttered, as if to himself, resuming his seat.
"Yes; they may try it—after I am gone. But mark this, Caw, you are not responsible in this particular matter, and even should you be aware that the persons whom I have named are attempting burglary, you must not violently interfere in any way."
"Not interfere! Good God, sir, half a million and not interfere!" Caw peered at his master in the firelight "Why, Mr. Craig, you could not trust me to obey that order!"
"If I can trust you with the diamonds—and I tell you that no one knows of their existence here excepting those two men and yourself—I can surely trust you to obey—not a master's order, but a dying man's request. Later on you will understand everything. Give me your word that you will do nothing violent to secure what you may consider the safety of that Green Box. ... Come, Caw."
"Will the diamonds—excuse the question—belong to Mr. Alan?"
"That is a question that shall be answered when the clock stops. Your word?"
"I am bound to trust to your wisdom, sir," said Caw, slowly. "I promise, sir. But if Mr. Bullard gives me a chance apart from diamonds, I hope—"
"I hope nothing may happen to Mr. Bullard before the clock stops," said Christopher firmly. "And now I think that is all. Other details you will find in your written instructions. Give me some of that medicine—five drops—quickly!"
Caw sprang up, ran to the door and switched on the shaded light over the table, ran back and administered the dose. Then with something like a sob he cried: "Mr. Craig, oh, my dear master, I can't stand it any longer," and pressed one of the white buttons.
"All right, Caw, all right," said Christopher kindly—and the glass fell from his fingers. He did not appear to notice the mishap. "I'm afraid Handyside will be annoyed, but I had to get the whole business finished."
"Don't exhaust yourself, sir. Just try to think that everything will be done as you wish."
"One thing more—failing the doctor, you may trust Miss Marjorie Handyside in an emergency. And, Caw, don't forget—"
The door in the back wall opened noiselessly; and a tall bearded man in tweeds, with the complexion of an outdoor worker, entered. Closing the door he came quickly to the table.
"Sorry to trouble you, Handyside," said Christopher with a faltering smile, "but the interfering Caw insisted."
The newcomer glanced a question at the servant.
"No, sir," said Caw. "No attack, but—"
"Have his bed made ready," interrupted the doctor, softly, and Caw left the room.
"I've been overdoing it a little," the invalid said, apologetically, "but it was in doing things that had to be done. I'll be all right presently, my friend.... I say, Handyside, I want you and your daughter to come along and take supper with me to-night. I haven't seen Marjorie for more than a week."
"She has been away at her sister's for a few days. Only came home an hour ago." Handyside let go his patient's wrist and moved over to the hearth.
As he stared into the fire his face betrayed disappointment and grave concern, but when he turned it was cheerful enough.
"Yes, Craig, you've overdone it to-day. However, I'll try to forgive you. Only I'd like you to see Carslaw again—to-morrow."
"He can't do anything more for me—anything you can't do."
"Possibly not. Still, we must remember that I've been out of harness for five years."
"I remember only that you have virtually kept me alive for the last two."
"Your constitution did that," the doctor replied untruthfully. "And you've been a good patient, you know, except once in a while."
"You've been a good friend, Handyside, though we met for the first time only five years ago. Yes; I'll see Carslaw to please you. Now there are several things I want to say to you—"
"They must keep," Handyside said firmly. "You are going to bed now."
"But I've asked you to fetch Marjorie—"
"That pleasure for her must keep also."
"Bed?" muttered Christopher. Then he looked straight at his friend, a question at his lips.
At that moment Caw reappeared.
"I'm ready," said his master. "I say, Handyside, what do you think of my new clock?" he asked as he was being wheeled to the door.
"I'll have a look at it later, Craig. It's not going yet."
"No"—gently—"not yet. Stop, Caw! Take me over to the window and put out the lights."
Caw looked towards the doctor, who nodded as one who should say, "What after all, can it matter now?"
At the window, for the space of five minutes, Christopher sat silent. A full moon shone clear on the still waters and calm hills. From across the loch twinkled little yellow homely lights. The evening steamer exhibited what seemed a string of pale gems and a solitary emerald.
"Almost as beautiful," he murmured at last, "as diamonds." He chuckled softly, then sighed. "Bed, Caw."
Within the hour he had a bad heart attack, and it was the forerunner of worse.
Precisely at midnight Caw stole into the sitting-room and released the pendulum. Thereafter he went down to the shore.
"Hard orders, dear master," he sighed, "but I'll carry them out to the letter."
In his home at Earl's Gate, Kensington, Mr. Lancaster had made an indifferent meal of an excellently cooked and temptingly served breakfast. He was feeling dejected, limp, and generally "seedy" after the two nights in the train. He and Bullard had occupied a double sleeping berth, and Bullard had persisted in discussing many things, and thereafter slumber had proved no match against a host of assaulting thoughts. Perhaps he might have made a better meal had he been left to himself, but ever since the moment of his arrival—save in the brief seclusion of his bath—Mrs. Lancaster had harried his wearied mind with questions.
Mrs. Lancaster had learned several important things since wealth began to come to her husband, about ten years ago. She had learned to dress well, no less so than expensively; she had acquired the art of entertaining with an amount of display that just escaped vulgarity; and she had even learned to hold her tongue in company. (Possibly that was why Mr. Lancaster got so much of it.) She was a big, handsome creature, with a clear, dusky complexion and brown eyes that either shone with a hard eagerness or smouldered sullenly. And it may be well to state at once that she had no "past" worth mentioning, and no relatives, as far as one knows, to mention it. Lancaster had wooed her in a boarding-house in Durban, Natal. Always ambitious, though never so keenly so as when money began to become more abundant, she had never yet attained to the satisfaction of having as much money as she desired, or imagined she needed. As for social prominence, she spent recklessly on its purchase. But she was an unreasoning woman in other ways. She was proud of her daughter one day, jealous of her the next; it seemed as though she could not forgive Doris for growing up, and yet when Doris was barely eighteen she displayed the girl on all occasions and strove hard to force her into the arms of a horrible little middle-aged baronet. She still craved a title for Doris, no matter what moral and physical blemishes that title might decorate. More than once she had hinted to Bullard that he might purchase a "handle." And glancing sidelong at Doris, Bullard had more than once reflected that she would be worth the money—if only he had it to spare. For Bullard's wealth was not quite so unlimited as many supposed.
Mrs. Lancaster's eyes were now smouldering.
"Once more," she was saying, "you seem to have made a pretty mess of it."
With a slight gesture of weariness her husband replied: "Bullard was in charge, and I suppose he did his best."
"I am beginning to lose faith in Mr. Bullard. You and he had a great opportunity yesterday of learning definitely Christopher Craig's intentions regarding his diamonds, and now you come home with a rambling story about a crazy clock that's going to stop goodness knows when."
"Get Bullard to explain it to you, Carlotta. I'm dead beat. Two nights running in the train—"
Cutting him short, she continued—"You tell me that old Christopher is in a weak state physically and, you suspect, mentally. In these circumstances you ought surely to have been able to do two things—convince him of his nephew's death and—"
"He is wholly convinced that Alan will yet turn up. I can't understand—"
"Alan Craig will never turn up! Can't you take Mr. Bullard's word for that?"
"Bullard was not with the Expedition—"
She made a movement of impatience. "Well you ought to have gained Christopher's confidence as to the other matter. Why on earth didn't you find out what your share is going to be?"
"As I have already told you, Carlotta, he mentioned that the diamonds would be divided into three portions."
"I assumed so. And he said Bullard and I would not be forgotten—'Reward' was the word he used."
"He may leave you a diamond to make a pin of! Aren't you sure of anything, Robert?"
"I felt sure at the time, but during the journey I began to have doubts. So had Bullard. I tell you I simply could not tackle the dying man about his affairs."
"He may live for a long time yet." She drew a breath of exasperation. "But the moment he dies you and Mr. Bullard must act on Alan's will. It simplifies matters, I should imagine, that the old man made a gift of that property instead of willing it. Unfortunately it may mean only L25,000 for us."
Lancaster sat up stiffly and looked at his wife.
"It means not a penny for us. That debt to the Syndicate must be paid with the first large sum I can lay hold of. You must clearly understand that, Carlotta. I have said the same thing before."
"You have! May I ask whether the Syndicate has asked you to pay the debt?"
He looked away, then downwards. "The Syndicate," he said slowly, "has not asked me to pay the debt, for the simple reason that the Syndicate does not know of it—yet." His breath caught, and he added huskily, "I have wanted to tell you this for some time, Carlotta."
"You mean—?" But she knew what he meant, had suspected it for months. Also, she knew why he had borrowed, or made free, with the money. Simply to give her what she asked for in cars, furs, and jewels. The thing had been done at a time when a certain mine was promising brilliantly. The mine was still promising, but not so brilliantly.
The incident, along with Lancaster's mental suffering and futile efforts to right himself, would make a story by itself.
"You are shocked, Carlotta?" he murmured shamefacedly, appealingly.
"Naturally!" But anger was the emotion she strove to suppress.
"I have paid bitterly in worry," he said, and there was a pause.
"You can hold on yet awhile?" she asked at last.
"Oh, yes, I think so. The danger is always there, but I'm not greatly pressed for money otherwise." Not "greatly" pressed, poor soul! "It's a case of conscience, you know," he stammered. "The thought of discovery is always with me, too."
"No thought, I presume, of your wife and daughter!"
"Oh, Robert, what a blind fool you are! Why not have asked Christopher for the money, even if it had involved a confession? He would not see us ruined—Doris, at all events."
"No; I don't think he would. He sent his love to Doris. But Bullard was there yesterday, all the time, and I would not have him guess—"
"You may be sure Mr. Bullard has guessed long ago."
"My God! do you think so?"
"Well, it doesn't much matter, does it? But I am certain if you had told Christopher and made the debt a hundred thousand you would have got the money."
"I don't know," he sighed, shaking his head. "Christopher was different yesterday, kind enough but different from the man I used to know—"
"Of course he was different. He's dying, isn't he?"
"Don't be so heartless."
"Don't be silly, my dear man!" Mrs. Lancaster said sharply. "Now, look here, Robert," she went on, "there is only one thing to be done. Say nothing to Mr. Bullard, but take the Scotch express to-night and go and see Christopher privately. I don't care what you tell him, but a public scandal—public disgrace—I will not have! Get the horrid thing settled, and let us go on as if nothing had happened until some of your shares go up and put you safely on your feet again."
He sat up as if trying to shake off the horror. "Carlotta," he said, "can't we contrive to—to live on less?" It was no new question.
"No, we can't," she answered in a tone of finality. "You will go to-night? Fortunately the people coming to dinner are a set of crocks. No bridge, and leave early. You can easily catch the midnight train."
"I will go," he said at last, "for your sake and Doris's."
"Good man!" she returned with sudden good humour, her eyes bright. "It will all come right—you'll see! Tell old Christopher that his little sweetheart of the old days—Doris, I mean; he never loved me!—is in danger of the workhouse and so forth, and ask for fifty thousand at least."
"It will end any chance we have of a share in the di—"
Doris came in. She was a tall girl with something of her mother's darkness, but she had the blue-grey eyes of her father and his finely-cut features. Of late a sadness foreign to youth had dwelt in her eyes, and her smile had seemed dutiful rather than voluntary. Otherwise she had not betrayed her sorry heart and uneasy mind. She carried herself splendidly, and she had good right to be called lovely.
"Mother," she exclaimed, and kissed her father, "why didn't you tell me he was to be home for breakfast?"
"Because I did not know, my dear"—which was untrue—"and, besides, you were very late last night. Better to have your rest out." Mrs. Lancaster rose. "Persuade your father to have a fresh cup of coffee while you take your own breakfast, I must 'phone Wilders about the flowers for to-night." She left the room.
Doris poured the coffee and milk and placed the cup at his hand, saying—
"You must be tired, dear, after two nights in the train."
"A little, Doris," he answered, endeavouring to make his voice sound cheerful.
"And worried, I'm afraid," she added tenderly.
"A little that way, too, perhaps. But one must hope that there's a good time coming, my dear."
The girl hesitated before she returned: "I want to say something, and it's difficult. I've wanted to say it for a long time." She paused.
"Say on," he said. "A horrid bill—eh?" He knew it was not. Doris had never asked him for money beyond her big allowance.
"Don't! It's just this: Is there anything in the world I could do, father, just to make it a little easier for you?"
It was unexpected, and yet it was like Doris. Tears came into his eyes.
"Forgive me," she went on quickly, "but sometimes I can't bear to see you suffering. I'd give up anything—"
Mrs. Lancaster entered quickly.
"Robert, Mr. Bullard is in the library—"
"He must see you at once. He has been to the office, and there was a wire—"
Lancaster, who had risen, caught at the back of his chair. "Alan Craig—safe?" he said in a husky whisper.
Neither noticed the girl's sudden pallor, the light in her eyes.
"Nonsense!" the woman rapped out. "Christopher Craig—died last night!"
Mrs. Lancaster would have accompanied her husband to the library, but for once, and despite the shock he had just suffered, he showed some firmness.
"I will see Bullard alone," he said, and left her in the hall.
He entered the library, closed and locked the door, and drew the heavy curtain across it. But there his spirit failed him, and he seemed to grope his way to his familiar chair.
Without a word Bullard put the telegram into his hands. It had been sent off at 8 a.m., the hour of opening for the local post office. It was addressed to both men, and was brief:
Mr. Craig died nine last night. Funeral private.—Caw.
"Caw must have had instructions," remarked Bullard presently. "One wonders how much Caw knows about his master's affairs."
Possibly Lancaster did not hear. He kept on staring at the message that had closed the door on his last hope. Carlotta's suggestion, or rather command, had been far from grateful to his inclinations, yet it had forced him towards the less of two evils, and for a few minutes he had imagined himself with Christopher's cheque in his pocket, immediate salvation and peace assured whatever it might cost him eventually. And now this telegram!
Impatiently Bullard touched him on the arm.
"Look here, Lancaster!—there is a train from St. Pancras at eleven, and it's now past ten. Pull yourself together."
"St. Pancras—eleven? To-night?" Lancaster checked himself.
"No, this morning! We shall be in Glasgow at eight, and a good car will run us down under a couple of hours.... Lancaster, for Heaven's sake, wake up! Can't you take in the situation? Listen! Point one: We saw the diamonds yesterday. Point two: Christopher died suddenly, sooner than even he expected, and the diamonds, in all probability, have not left the house—if he ever intended to send them elsewhere. They may even be still on the table or in the drawer! Point three: The sooner we discover their whereabouts the better, for if they are in the house we must act on Alan's will at once, though I'd have avoided that if possible. Alan knew nothing about the diamonds. Christopher distinctly stated that no one knows about them excepting ourselves and his servant. Well, if necessary, we must manage Caw, somehow. Now—"
"Oh, damn the clock—mere tomfoolery! As for Alan's return, if you persist in doubting what I have already told you"—Bullard lowered his voice—"I shall be forced to introduce to you the man who—who saw Alan Craig die."
"Don't get hysterical. At this moment the one thing that matters is that we locate or lay hands on that green box."
"But I—I can't think to go prowling into Christopher's house, and he—"
"Don't think; I'll do all that's necessary in that way, and we shall have plenty of time for talk in the train. Now I want your cheque—open—for five hundred pounds. I'm going to draw the same amount on my own. We may have to buy things—Caw, for instance. Don't argue. We've got to catch that train, and I've got to go to the bank first."
Lancaster sat up. "Bullard," he said hoarsely, "I won't have anything to do with this beastly business."
Bullard smiled. "Very well, Lancaster," he said pleasantly; "I'll take your cheque for twenty-four thousand and seventy-five pounds."
"My God!" It was the sum he owed the Syndicate.
Moments passed, and then with a white face he got up and went feebly to the writing table.
* * * * *
In the last hour of the journey they dined. Bullard ordered champagne, and saw to it that his companion's glass was kept charged. He was not a little afraid of a general collapse on Lancaster's part, but if such were imminent, the wine averted it. The physician, however, took little of his prescribed medicine.
A car, ordered by telegraph, awaited them at the Glasgow terminus. Bullard, who was known to the hirers, dismissed the chauffeur and took the driving seat. He glanced up at the big clock, and remarked to Lancaster, clambering in beside him, that they ought to reach their destination by ten.
The car rolled out of the station down the declivity into the Square, thence into Glasgow's longest street, then swarming with pedestrians and traffic.
"Damn it!" exclaimed Bullard, "the air's frosty. We'll meet with fog presently."
He was right. They met it before they were clear of the city, and over the twenty miles that followed it lay thick, blanketing the river and countryside. Bullard was a seasoned but not a reckless driver; besides he was no more than acquainted with the road. He drove cautiously, his impatience escaping now and then in curses. They were nearing Helensburgh when they came almost abruptly into clear weather. The sky was cloudless, starry.
"This is better," said Bullard, "but I'm afraid it'll be a case of routing the estimable Caw from his virtuous couch."
Lancaster struggled out of his stupor of weariness. "Are we nearly there?"
"Hardly, but we can let her go now. I say, don't sleep; or you'll be too stiff for anything. Think over what I told you in the train; don't talk."
Five minutes later they were speeding up the Gareloch; still later, down the west side; then through the village of Roseneath, over the hill into Kilcreggan; then round the point and up Loch Long side....
At the last, as it seemed, of the houses Bullard slowed down.
"Aren't we going too far?" Lancaster inquired in a voice unnecessarily low.
"You are no observer," the other returned pleasantly, "or you would have remembered that there are here first a small wood and then a biggish field, alter which we come to a couple of solitary houses, the further and larger being Christopher's. The other belongs to a doctor—retired, though I believe he has attended our old friend. As it may not be advisable to advertise our call more than we can help, we are going to run the car into the wood—there's a sort of track—and make our approach on foot. We can do with the exercise."
Within five minutes they started briskly along the deserted road.
"No need to walk on tiptoe," said Bullard with a laugh. "Hardly any one living here at this time of year. Don't let your nerves get the upper hand. We're not going to do anything sensational, you know. Cold, isn't it? We shall begin by requesting the amiable Caw to serve drinks."
"Don't jest, Bullard. I'm honestly hoping that the Green Box was somehow put away into safety."
"If not, we must rectify the error."
Lancaster sighed. "If the box is there, do you mean to—to—"
"'Pinch' is possibly the word you are hunting for. Expressive if not pretty. Well, it will all depend on circumstances."
"Bullard, I wish to say that I refuse to take more of the diamonds than will just pay my debts."
"A thousand thanks, old chap, but I really cannot accept such generosity." Bullard threw out his hand. "Yonder are the houses, and you will perceive that the doctor has not yet retired—to bed. Christopher's, however, looks less hospitable. Never mind! We can take turns at pushing the button."
"Bullard, for Heaven's sake, let us respect the—the dead."
"And let us refrain from hypocrisies. Come along, man!"
In silence they came to the gates, where Bullard spoke—
"Now remember, all you've got to do is to follow my lead, and not take fright at anything. Caw may not be alone in the house. It is even possible that he may have the company of some wretched lawyer fellow who has been nosing around all day. Come, buck up! You'll feel fitter after a drink. Allons!"
Taking Lancaster by the elbow, he led him up the gravel path, leaves rustling about their feet. They mounted the three broad steps to the closed outer door, and, with a muttered "Here's luck!" Bullard rung the electric bell.
"Good!" he exclaimed a few seconds later, as a flood of light poured from the fan-light.
They heard the inner door being opened; then with the minimum of noise, a large key was turned, and half of the outer door swung inwards. The late Mr. Craig's servant, in his customary black lounge suit, stood there regarding them quite calmly.
Bullard had expected at least a word of astonishment, so that there was a little pause until his own words arrived.
"Good evening, Caw," he said gravely. "We very much regret to disturb you at this hour, and at this tragic time, but our business is of the utmost importance. May we have a word with you?"
Still silent, the servant stood aside, and they entered.
Said Bullard—"I need not say that we were both greatly shocked by your wire this morning. I trust our old friend did not suffer much."
"Too much, sir," answered Caw quietly, turning from closing the door. His countenance had a bleak look; his eyes were heavy. He stepped past them and opened a door on the right, switching on the lights inside. "This way, if you please, gentlemen."
Lancaster showed a momentary hesitation, or confusion, but Bullard touched his arm and he accepted the invitation.
Caw followed them a couple of paces into the room and stood at attention. The two visitors remained standing, their hats in their hands.
Bullard had foreseen a hundred difficulties, but strangely enough, he had never thought of not being admitted to the right room. Nevertheless, his chagrin was not apparent.
"A few words will explain our unseasonable call," he said pleasantly. "Our visit yesterday afternoon was partly of a business nature, and we brought for Mr. Craig's inspection a number of documents which, after perusal, he returned to us—as it seemed at the time. But in the train, late at night, we discovered we were one short. And that document is of such vital importance that we left London again this morning, and have regretfully disturbed you now. As a matter of fact, it was a pale green share certificate in our joint names—Mr. Lancaster's and mine—and as we have sold the shares and have to deliver them two days hence, you will probably understand the necessity of recovering it immediately. Possibly you have come across such a document in the room upstairs?"
"Ah! I suppose Mr. Craig's legal man was here today?"
"Then nothing has been disturbed?"
"You will, I hope, excuse these questions, Caw? We are considerably harassed about the matter. Will you tell us whether there were many loose papers on Mr. Craig's table last night?"
"Then he must have tidied up after we left?"
Bullard gave a tiny cough and glanced at Lancaster, who immediately said in a somewhat recitative fashion:
"I stick to my theory, Bullard, that Mr. Craig, in placing some of his own papers in a green metal box, placed ours along with them."
Bullard turned to the servant with a frank look of appeal. "A green metal box. Can you help us, Caw?"
It was on Caw's tongue to reply "No, sir." But in that moment, as it does with most of us at times, vanity pushed aside discretion. "Yes, sir," he answered. "I was the last to see inside that box, closing it at Mr. Craig's request, and I can assure you there were no papers in it."
"Wrong again, Lancaster!" Bullard lightly remarked. Then gravely—"The matter is so serious, Caw, that I must ask you who has charge of the papers and so on upstairs?"
"And to whom are you responsible?"
"My master and Mr. Alan Craig—till the clock stops, sir."
After a moment's pause Bullard said—"Yes, of course, we are aware that all here was gifted to Mr. Alan; also Mr. Craig mentioned the clock. But now, would you have any objections to taking us upstairs, on the chance that our document is lying about where we were sitting?"
Caw considered quickly. To his mind, their story had been damned by the mention of the Green Box; at the same time, he was quite aware that they had only to persist in their story to obtain legal authority to search the room upstairs, and his master had commanded "no police interference." He felt pretty confident, too, that they would hardly attempt to play the burglar game in his presence, but he was curious to see how far they would go, and he was not unarmed.
"Be so good as to follow me, gentlemen," he said in his stiff way, and led them in the desired direction.
The master's room, though fireless, was warm. In silence they entered, their footfalls soundless on the heavy carpet.
Bullard halted in front of the clock with its flashing pendulum. "Is this what he spoke of," he enquired softly, "and when does it stop?"
The servant cleared his throat. "A year to-night, sir."
"Ah! ... And why this—and this?" He pointed first to the ebony slip, then to the green fluid.
"To prevent its being interfered with; also, no doubt to protect the jewels in the pendulum."
"Is it the liquid that is dangerous?"
"So I understand, sir."
"I could not say, sir."
Bullard turned to Lancaster, who had sunk into a chair, then back to the servant.
"I say, Caw," he said, "could you possibly get Mr. Lancaster something to drink? He's knocked up with the travelling, and it's a bitter night outside. I could do with something myself."
"Very good, sir," came the reply, without hesitation, and Caw went out, closing the door behind him.
"Now," whispered Bullard, and made straight for the writing table, taking from his pocket an instrument of shining steel.
But it was not needed. The deep drawer opened obediently, sweetly.
"Lancaster, we've got it first time!" He lifted out and placed the Green Box on the table. "The diamonds!" Lancaster got up with a jerk and shudder. "Quick! Look in the other drawers for the keys."
All the other drawers were locked.
"Then we must take the whole thing."
"Good Heavens! We can't do that! How can—"
Bullard darted to the door and listened. After a moment he turned the handle gingerly. Then he grinned.
"I'm hanged," said he, "but the artful Caw has locked us in!"
"He suspects us!"
"Can't help it." Bullard sped to the bay window and drew aside one of the heavy curtains.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed.
Christopher Craig had had a craze for things that worked silently and easily. Bullard lifted the heavy sash with scarce a sound.
"Switch off the lights and come here!" he ordered. "Don't fall over things and make a row."
When Lancaster joined him Bullard was leaning half out of the window, directing the ray from an electric torch on the ground below. An incessant murmuring came from the loch, filling their ears.
"Lancaster, could you drop that height?"
"Oh, God, no!"
"There's a great heap of gathered leaves there—see! Think! Six hundred thousand pounds!"
"No, no! If one of us got hurt—"
"Perhaps you're right. There's nothing for it but to drop the box and collect it when we get out. 'Sh! did you hear something just now?"
Lancaster started and caught his head a stunning blow on the sash. At the same time he inadvertently knocked the torch from the fingers of Bullard, who was going to flash it into the darkness behind them.
"Idiot!" muttered Bullard. "Don't move till I fetch the box." He stole across the floor, feeling his way.
Lancaster, nursing his head, waited—waited until a gasped expletive reached his ears—
"Damnation!" Then—"Quick! Close the window, draw the curtain!" The speaker blundered to the electric switch.
Fumblingly, Lancaster obeyed, then turned to face a blaze of light, Bullard, white with fury and dismay, and the writing table with nothing on it.
Next moment, his wits in action again, Bullard made for the table, closed the deep drawer, and threw himself on an easy chair, hissing at the gaping Lancaster, "Sit down, you fool!"
Lancaster collapsed on the couch as Caw, bearing a salver with decanters, a syphon, and glasses, entered the room.
"Your doors open quietly enough," remarked Bullard.
"Yes, sir. Mr. Craig disliked unnecessary noise." He presented the salver to Lancaster, who mixed himself a brandy and soda with considerable splutter.
While he was doing so, Bullard produced from his breast pocket a pale-green folded paper—a hotel bill, as a matter of fact—and gaily waved it, crying—"You see, we have found it, Caw, without much trouble!"
"In your pocket, sir?"
"On this chair, which I was sitting on yesterday."
"Indeed, sir! Then you are quite satisfied, sir?"
"Perfectly. By the way, Caw—no, I'll take whiskey—are you aware that the stones in that pendulum over there are worth a couple of thousand pounds?"
"If you say so, sir."
"Are you interested in diamonds, Caw?"
"Very much, sir—from an artistic point of view, sir."
"Their value does not interest you?"
"It does not excite me, sir."
"A capital answer! You have seen Mr. Craig's collection?"
Bullard took a bundle of notes from his pocket. "I offer you ten pounds to guess correctly the value of the collection."
"Six hundred thousand pounds, sir.... Thank you, sir." With supreme stolidity Caw presented the salver as a waiter might do for his tip.
Though taken aback, the loser laughed. He took a long drink, and laughed again.
"Excuse me, sir," said Caw, "but my master is still in the house."
Lancaster started, and took a hasty gulp, spilling a little.
"I beg your pardon—and his," said Bullard gravely. "But I am not often 'had.' Now, look here, Caw; I have still nine hundred and ninety pounds here. They are yours, if you can tell me where the collection is at the present moment."
The topmost thought in Caw's mind then was that the brutes might have had the decency to have waited until his master was laid in the grave. He felt helpless, powerless. He could not doubt that Bullard was playing with him. And in view of the promise to his master he could do nothing to prevent the crime, the desecration as he felt it to be. He could do nothing but look on in silence while they searched, until they found—But stay! he might as well despoil the spoilers when he had the chance.
"I will take your money, sir," he said, in an odd voice. "Look in the bottom right-hand drawer in the writing table."
Bullard's eyebrows rose. Then he got up and, with his eyes on the servant, opened the empty drawer.
Caw was within an ace of dropping the salver. After a moment he carried it to a side table and set it down with a small crash. Turning, he looked searchingly round the room. His gaze stopped at the curtain; he thought he understood. They had had an accomplice outside! ... He seemed to glide across to Bullard, and Bullard found himself looking into the barrel of a stout revolver.
"Out o' the house, the pair o' ye," he ordered hoarsely, "or, by God, I'll forget the holy dead!"
"But look here—"
"Not a word! Take your hats and go! You've got what you came for—"
"Listen, you madman!" Bullard held up a hand, the one with the notes in it.
"Thanks!" With a flash-like movement Caw nipped away the notes. "You've got to pay something!"
Springing round behind Bullard, he shoved the cold steel into the nape of his neck. "March! and you, too, Mr. Lancaster. Take your friend's hat!"
Ignoring his colleague's gaze, which had moved suggestively from himself to the fire-irons, Lancaster obeyed and made for the door.
"You'll be devilish sorry," began Bullard, beside himself—
"Another word, and you'll lose one ear—to begin with. March!"
Sullenly Bullard moved forward. Not until he was in the garden did he attempt speech, and then his voice was thick, though fairly under control.
"Well, my man," he said, "you've got yourself into a nasty hole. Robbery, with a revolver in your hand, is rather seriously regarded by the law. But as you have acted on impulse and misapprehension, I am disposed to give you a chance. Restore those notes—"
"Looks like being a wet night," said Caw, and shut the outer door.
When he had made it fast he switched off the lights in the hall and went upstairs. In his master's room he wavered, and his eyes rested longingly on the decanters, for he was feeling the reaction. But he was a good servant still, and it would be "hardly the thing" to take a dram there and then. Yet he forgot the conventions of service when, a moment later, he sank upon a chair and bowed his head on his master's table, sick at heart, sore in pride. He had been so easily tricked! And yet what difference would it have made if they had walked out of the room with the Green Box in their possession? But he was very sure they would not have dared so greatly, unless, perhaps, with force of arms—in which case, despite all promises, he knew he would have resisted. It never occurred to Caw to doubt his master's sanity, but now he began to wonder what had possessed Mr. Craig in regard to the Green Box. Six hundred thousand pounds! He seemed to see his master seated at the table, calmly naming the stupendous sum—and in the same instant he realised that he himself was sitting in his master's place. He sprang up, and almost fell over the open drawer. He stooped to close it, straightened up with an exclamation, only to drop to his knees, staring, staring at—the Green Box! Suddenly he gave a short chuckle, rose, and made for the door in the back wall.
Ere he reached it, it opened. A girl came in.
He was taken aback, and she was first to speak.
"Would you mind shaking hands?" said she.
"Miss Handyside, was it you?" he cried, taking her hand with diffidence.
She nodded. "At least, I suppose so, for it all happened so quickly that I'm still in a state of wonder."
"It was splendid, miss! I shall never be able to thank you."
"I couldn't help doing it, though I'm not used to adventures. It was all done on an impulse."
"Woman's wit, miss, if you'll excuse my saying so."
"Well, I was in the dark in more senses than one, but the proceedings of those two gentlemen were so peculiar, to say the least of it, that I felt justified in playing the spy."
"When did you arrive on the scene, miss?" Caw enquired, removing his admiring glance. For several years he had adored the doctor's daughter—from a strictly artistic point of view, as he would have explained it—and undoubtedly Marjorie had her attractions, though it would be difficult to analyse and tabulate them. A Scot with more perception than descriptive powers would have called her bonny. To go into brief detail, she had nut-brown hair, eyes of unqualified grey, a complexion suggesting sea-air, splendid teeth in a humorously inclined mouth, and a nicely rounded chin. Very few people have beautiful noses; on the other hand, not the most beautiful nose will redeem an otherwise unattractive countenance, whereas an ordinary nondescript nose in a charming face simply becomes part of it. Marjorie's was nondescript, but did not turn up or droop excessively. Without being guilty of stoutness, she lacked the poorly nourished look of so many young women of the day.
"I must explain why I arrived at all," she said, in answer to Caw's question. "I came with a message from the doctor—he twisted his ankle in the dark—not seriously, but quite badly enough to prevent his coming along himself. Well, when I reached the door I noticed from a thread of light that it was not absolutely shut—"
"My fault, miss. I was just about to come along for the night when the ring came."
"Then I heard voices—faintly—but clearly enough for me to judge they were those of strangers, and I was going to go back when I heard a voice say 'Lancaster, we've got it first time!' I'm ashamed to say my curiosity was too much for me—"
"Thank God for female curiosity, miss, if you'll excuse my saying so."
She checked a laugh. "You know how quietly the door works, I switched off the light behind me and opened it slightly—all trembles, I assure you—and looked in. The younger man was lifting a greenish box from a drawer to the writing-table, and the other man seemed half-paralysed with nervousness." She proceeded to relate what the reader already knows up to the episode of the window. "Then, with my heart in my mouth, I opened the door wide and stole in. The faint light from the water guided me to the table, but I almost lost my way going back with the box. I think they did hear something, but I was in safety by the time they could have turned their light into the room. But now I had closed the door tight, and could hear no more except indistinct voices, among which I fancied I heard yours. You were talking angrily, I think. And after a while there was a silence, and I waited and waited until I could wait no longer. Is it true," she asked abruptly, "that there are sixty thousand pounds' worth—"
"Six hundred thousand pounds, miss."
"Oh! ... But why was it not in a safe place? And who were those men? And what—"
"It will be necessary," said Caw, as one coming to a decision, "to tell you all about it, Miss Handyside. My master said I might trust you. It's too much," he added, "for me to carry alone. And if you think the doctor—"
"Goodness!" she exclaimed; "he'll be wondering what has come over me—and I've forgotten to give you his message! It was just to tell that he thought it was time you were leaving here for your new quarters."
"Very good, miss. I'll come now."
"But are you going to leave the box there?"
"Got to—master's orders."
"Extraordinary! It's locked, I suppose?"
"Yes, miss; and last night, or, rather, this morning, at 12:15 by the clock, I threw the key into the loch—master's orders."
"You are sure the diamonds are in it now?"
"I was the last to see them and shut them in—master's orders."
"Oh, I can't take in any more! Let us consult the doctor at once."
Presently they passed out by the way the girl had entered, closing the door behind them. They were at the top of a narrow and rather steep staircase of many steps covered with rubber. Descending they were in a tunnel seven feet high and four in width, so long that in the distance the sides seemed to come together. Roof and walls were white; light was supplied from bulbs overhead. The atmosphere was fresh, though the means of ventilation were not visible. Here again they trod on rubber. Christopher Craig had caused the tunnel to be constructed as soon as he realised the truth about his malady; but it was primarily the outcome of a joking remark by Handyside after a midnight summons in mid-winter. It should be said here that at first Handyside had demurred becoming his neighbour's physician, but growing friendship with the lonely man had gradually eliminated his scruples. The tunnel had been a costly undertaking, the more so owing to the hurrying of its construction, but Christopher would have told you that its existence had saved his life on more than one occasion. The secret of the doors, by the way, was known only to himself and Caw, Dr. Handyside and Marjorie.
A week later Doris Lancaster was sitting alone by the drawing-room fire, a book on her lap. It was not so often that she had an evening to spend in quietness; one of her mother's great aims in life was to have "something on" at least six nights out of the seven. At the present moment Mrs. Lancaster was in her boudoir, accepting and sending out invitations for comparatively distant dates.
Sweetly the clock on the mantel struck nine, and Doris told herself that now no one was likely to call. She lay back in the chair, a graceful figure in pale green, stretched her pretty ankles to the glow, and sought to escape certain gnawing thoughts in the pages of a novel which had won from the reviewers such adjectives as "entrancing," "compelling," "intensely interesting."
And just then a servant announced "Mr. France."
Well, after all, she was not sorry to see Mr. France—or Teddy, as she had called him for a good many years. He was a frequent visitor, despite the fact that Mrs. Lancaster suffered him only because everybody else seemed to like him. He was fair, tall, and lanky, and so pleasant of countenance that it would not be worth while enumerating his defective features.
Mrs. Lancaster disapproved of him for three reasons: first, he had only two hundred a year plus a pittance from the insurance company that put up, as he expressed it, with his services; second, he had been Alan Craig's close friend; third, she suspected that he saw through her affectations. That he had been openly in love with Doris since the days of pigtails and short frocks troubled her not at all: he was too hopelessly ineligible. And it had not troubled Doris for a long time—not since Alan Craig had gone away. Since then Teddy had seemed to become more of a friend and less of an admirer than ever.
"This is great luck," he remarked, seating himself in the opposite easy chair with an enforced extension of immaculate pumps and silken sox. (People often wondered how Teddy "did it" on the money.) "It's so seldom one can find you alone nowadays. Well, how's things generally?"
"Pretty much the same, Teddy," she answered, with the smile that hurt him. "Mother's busy as usual—"
"No; writing, I think."
"How's your father? I haven't seen him for an age."
"I wish he were fitter. He has had to stay in bed for a few days—he came down for dinner to-night for the first time. Last week he had three nights and a day in the train—with Mr. Bullard."
"Oh, I say! Bad enough without Bullard, but—"
"Oh, I'm so glad," she cried softly. "You don't like Mr. Bullard, Teddy. I'm beginning to abhor the man."
"Keep on abhorring!"
Swiftly she looked at him. "You know something?"
He shook his head. "Not a thing, Doris. Merely my instinctive dislike. I'm a sort of bow-wow, you know. Still, your mother approves of him, and he is your father's friend."
"I sometimes feel it has been an unlucky friendship for father," she said in a low voice, "and yet I have nothing to go on. I suppose I'm horribly unjust, but I'd give anything to learn something positive against the man."
"And yet," said the young man slowly and heavily, "sooner or later Mr. Francis Bullard will ask you to marry him."
Doris threw up her head. "I'd sooner marry—" She paused.
"Me, for instance?"
"Don't be absurd, Teddy." She flushed slightly.
"Absurd, but serious," he quietly returned. "Doris, I came to-night to ask you. It wouldn't keep any longer. One moment, please. Two things happened yesterday. My father won the big law suit that has been our nightmare for years; and I got a move-up in the office. Never was more shocked in all my life. Mighty little to offer you, Doris—"
"Oh, don't speak about it."
"Well, I'll cut that bit out; but please let me finish. You know I've been in love with you for ages, though I did my best to get it under when a better man appeared; and I think you'll admit I haven't worried you much since. And I'm perfectly aware that you can't give me what you gave him.... Still, Doris, I'm not a bad fellow, and you could make me a finer one, and—well, I'd hope not to bore you with my devotion and all that, but, of course, you'd have to take that risk as well as your parents' disapproval. Perhaps I ought to have waited longer, dear, but I didn't imagine my chances would be any greater a year hence, and it has seemed to me lately that—that you needed some one who would care for you before and above everything else.... Doris, remembering how long I've loved you, can't you trust me and take me for—for want of a better?"
His words had moved her, and moments passed before she could answer. "Dear Teddy, it is true that I want to be cared for—no need to deny it to you—but it wouldn't be right to take all you could give and give nothing."
"You would give much without knowing it," he pleaded. "And you were not made to be sorry all your life."
"I'm not going to make you sorry, Teddy."
"You're doing it as hard as you can!"
She smiled in spite of herself. "No," she said presently, "I've no intention of shunning all joys and abandoning all hopes, but I can't do what you ask, Teddy. I will tell you just one thing that you may not know. Almost at the last moment before Alan went away I promised him I would wait."
Teddy cleared his throat. "I didn't know, though I may have guessed.... But I do know, Doris—I felt it on my way here to-night—that Alan, if he could look into my heart now, would give me his blessing. I'm not asking to fill his place, you know."
"Oh, you make it very hard for me! You—you've been such a faithful friend."
"Give in, Doris, give in to me!" He rose and stood looking down on her bowed head. "Dear, I'd bring Alan back to you if I could. Don't you believe that?"
"With all your heart?"
"With all my heart, Teddy."
"Then—" He stopped and took her hand. "Doris!" ...
He straightened up sharply. The door was opening. The servant announced—
It was an awkward enough situation, but neither the girl nor the young man was heavy-witted. Doris rose slowly, languidly, it seemed, and though aware that her eyes must betray her, turned and greeted Bullard in cool, even tones. The two men exchanged perfunctory nods.
"Thanks, but I won't sit down," said Bullard. "I called to enquire for your father, and to see him, if at all possible. Is he feeling better to-night?"
"I think he is in the library at present," she replied, "but he has not yet got over his fatigue."
"Yes," he replied sympathetically, "he and I had too much trailing last week, but business must not be shirked, Miss Doris."
She was a little startled by hearing her name from his lips; until now he had addressed her with full formality. She was not to know that the sight of her eyes when she had turned to meet him had informed him of something unlooked for, and had put a period to his long-lived irresolution regarding her. Francis Bullard, in fact, had suddenly realised that if he wished to secure a wife in the only woman of whom he had ever thought twice in that respect, he would have to act promptly, not to say firmly. Accordingly, as though forgetting the stated purpose of his visit, he dropped into a chair and chatted entertainingly enough until Mrs. Lancaster made her appearance.
She offered to conduct him to her husband, and he allowed her to do so as far as the hall. There he halted and said—
"You will do me a great favour by getting rid of Mr. France and remaining with Miss Doris in the drawing-room until I return." In response to her look of enquiry he added—"Then you will do me a further favour by retiring."
"Really, Mr. Bullard, I must ask you to explain!"
"Your daughter is not going to marry a title—to begin with, at any rate." He smiled and passed on.
She overtook him. "Have you something unpleasant to say to my husband?" she demanded.
"I am going to return him some money he thought lost."
"Five hundred pounds."
"Is that all?"
"Patience!" he answered, and made his escape.
Lancaster, pencil in hand, was seated at his writing-table. On his retiral from his business in South Africa he had indulged dreams of a quiet room at home and the peaceful companionship of books, and he had got the length of providing the nucleus of a library. But his income, though large, had never been equal to the varied demands upon it, and the room had become simply a chamber wherein he escaped the irritations of society only to suffer the torments of secret anxieties, building up futile schemes for his salvation, striving to extract hope from vain calculations.
At the entrance of Bullard he lifted his head with a start, and into his eyes came the question—"What new terror are you going to spring upon me now?"
"Glad to see you are better," Bullard remarked, drawing a chair to the table and seating himself. "I didn't intend to trouble you to-night, but something arrived by the late afternoon delivery which I thought would interest you. No need to be nervy. It's nothing to upset you." He threw a bundle of notes and a registered envelope on the table. "Your five hundred comes back to you, after all."
Lancaster eyed the notes, then took up the envelope and drew out a sheet of paper of poor quality, bearing a few lines in a school-boyish hand.
"GREY HOUSE, LOCH LONG.
"Sir,—Herewith the sum of L990 which I accepted from you the other night owing to a misunderstanding. Without apologies for doubting your honesty—Yours truly,
Lancaster drew a long breath. "So he was fooling us, Bullard."
"Not at all! Some one was fooling him!—only he has managed—I'm convinced of that—to regain possession of the green box. As I impressed on you just after the fiasco, there was some one in one of the presses, and now it is evident that Caw captured that person after we had left. Unfortunately, it means that a fourth person has knowledge of the diamonds. Still, my friend, we have another chance."
"What? You don't mean to say—"
"Certainly, we shall try again,—we must! And the sooner the better! That is, unless we find we can settle amicably with the invaluable Caw. His note suggests that possibility, doesn't it? His impertinence gives me encouragement."
"It is the letter," said Lancaster heavily, "of an honest man—"
"Up to the tune of a thousand pounds. A wise man, if you like, who foresaw the possibility of the notes being stopped."
"You would not have dared do that."
"I had already written off my share as a bad debt," said Bullard, with a smile, "but Caw was not to know that."
The older man rested his head upon his hand. "You cannot be certain," he said slowly, "that the green box is still in the house."
"True. Otherwise I'd be tempted to produce Alan Craig's will and finish the business. All the nonsense about the clock and the postponed division could not prevent our taking possession of the house and everything in it. Why, even that absurdly costly clock would be ours.... And yet there's always the risk of—"
"Bullard, let us produce the will and dare the risk of losing the diamonds. From the bottom of my heart I tell you, I will be content with L25,000."
"So you think at the moment. But apart from your own feelings—not to mention mine—what about Mrs. Lancaster's?"