Lady Wetherby was feeling battered. She had not realized how seriously Roscoe Sherriff took the art of publicity, nor what would be the result of the half-hour he had spent at the telephone on the night of the departure of Eustace.
Roscoe Sherriff's eloquence had fired the imagination of editors. There had been a notable lack of interesting happenings this summer. Nobody seemed to be striking or murdering or having violent accidents. The universe was torpid. In these circumstances, the escape of Eustace seemed to present possibilities. Reporters had been sent down. There were three of them living in the house now, and Wrench's air of disapproval was deepening every hour.
It was their strenuousness which had given Lady Wetherby that battered feeling. There was strenuousness in the air, and she resented it on her vacation. She had come to Long Island to vegetate, and with all this going on round her vegetation was impossible. She was not long alone. Wrench entered.
'A gentleman to see you, m'lady.'
In the good old days, when she had been plain Polly Davis, of the personnel of the chorus of various musical comedies, Lady Wetherby would have suggested a short way of disposing of this untimely visitor; but she had a position to keep up now.
'From some darned paper?' she asked, wearily.
'No, m'lady. I fancy he is not connected with the Press.'
There was something in Wrench's manner that perplexed Lady Wetherby, something almost human, as if Wrench were on the point of coming alive. She did not guess it, but the explanation was that Bill, quite unwittingly, had impressed Wrench. There was that about Bill that reminded the butler of London and dignified receptions at the house of the Dowager Duchess of Waveney. It was deep calling unto deep.
'Where is he?'
'I have shown him into the drawing-room, m'lady.'
Lady Wetherby went downstairs and found a large young man awaiting her, looking nervous.
Bill was feeling nervous. A sense of the ridiculousness of his mission had come upon him. After all, he asked himself, what on earth had he got to say? A presentiment had come upon him that he was about to look a perfect ass. At the sight of Lady Wetherby his nervousness began to diminish. Lady Wetherby was not a formidable person. In spite of her momentary peevishness, she brought with her an atmosphere of geniality and camaraderie.
'It's about your monkey,' he said, coming to the point at once.
Lady Wetherby brightened.
'Oh! Have you seen it?'
He was glad that she put it like that.
'Yes. It came round our way last night.'
'Where is that?'
'I am staying at a farm near here, a place they call Flack's. The monkey got into one of the rooms.'
'And then--er--then it got out again, don't you know.'
Lady Wetherby looked disappointed.
'So it may be anywhere now?' she said.
In the interests of truth, Bill thought it best to leave this question unanswered.
'Well, it's very good of you to have bothered to come out and tell me,' said Lady Wetherby. 'It gives us a clue, at any rate. Thank you. At least, we know now in which direction it went.'
There was a pause. Bill gathered that the other was looking on the interview as terminated, and that she was expecting him to go, and he had not begun to say what he wanted to say. He tried to think of a way of introducing the subject of Claire that should not seem too abrupt.
'Er--' he said.
'Well?' said Lady Wetherby, simultaneously.
'I beg your pardon.'
'You have the floor,' said Lady Wetherby. 'Shoot!'
It was not what she had intended to say. For months she had been trying to get out of the habit of saying that sort of thing, but she still suffered relapses. Only the other day she had told Wrench to check some domestic problem or other with his hat, and he had nearly given notice. But if she had been intending to put Bill at his ease she could not have said anything better.
'You have a Miss Fenwick staying with you, haven't you?' he said.
Lady Wetherby beamed.
'Do you know Claire?'
'She's my best friend. We used to be in the same company when I was in England.'
'So she has told me.'
'She was my bridesmaid when I married Lord Wetherby.'
Lady Wetherby was feeling perfectly happy now, and when Lady Wetherby felt happy she always became garrulous. She was one of those people who are incapable of looking on anybody as a stranger after five minutes' acquaintance. Already she had begun to regard Bill as an old friend.
'Those were great days,' she said, cheerfully. 'None of us had a bean, and Algie was the hardest up of the whole bunch. After we were married we went to the Savoy for the wedding-breakfast, and when it was over and the waiter came with the check, Algie said he was sorry, but he had had a bad week at Lincoln and hadn't the price on him. He tried to touch me, but I passed. Then he had a go at the best man, but the best man had nothing in the world but one suit of clothes and a spare collar. Claire was broke, too, so the end of it was that the best man had to sneak out and pawn my watch and the wedding-ring.'
The room rang with her reminiscent laughter, Bill supplying a bass accompaniment. Bill was delighted. He had never hoped that it would be granted to him to become so rapidly intimate with Claire's hostess. Why, he had only to keep the conversation in this chummy vein for a little while longer and she would give him the run of the house.
'Miss Fenwick isn't in now, I suppose?' he asked.
'No, Claire's out with Dudley Pickering. You don't know him, do you?'
'She's engaged to him.'
It is an ironical fact that Lady Wetherby was by nature one of the firmest believers in existence in the policy of breaking things gently to people. She had a big, soft heart, and she hated hurting her fellows. As a rule, when she had bad news to impart to any one she administered the blow so gradually and with such mystery as to the actual facts that the victim, having passed through the various stages of imagined horrors, was genuinely relieved, when she actually came to the point, to find that all that had happened was that he had lost all his money. But now in perfect innocence, thinking only to pass along an interesting bit of information, she had crushed Bill as effectively as if she had used a club for that purpose.
'I'm tickled to death about it,' she went on, as it were over her hearer's prostrate body. It was I who brought them together, you know. I wrote telling Claire to come out here on the Atlantic, knowing that Dudley was sailing on that boat. I had an idea they would hit it off together. Dudley fell for her right away, and she must have fallen for him, for they had only known each other for a few weeks when they came and told me they were engaged. It happened last Sunday.'
It had seemed to Bill a moment before that he would never again be capable of speech, but this statement dragged the words out of him. Last Sunday! Why, it was last Sunday that Claire had broken off her engagement with him!
'Last Sunday at nine o'clock in the evening, with a full moon shining and soft music going on off-stage. Real third-act stuff.'
Bill felt positively dizzy. He groped back in his memory for facts. He had gone out for his walk after dinner. They had dined at eight. He had been walking some time. Why, in Heaven's name, this was the quickest thing in the amatory annals of civilization! His brain was too numbed to work out a perfectly accurate schedule, but it looked as if she must have got engaged to this Pickering person before she met him, Bill, in the road that night.
'It's a wonderful match for dear old Claire,' resumed Lady Wetherby, twisting the knife in the wound with a happy unconsciousness.
'Dudley's not only a corking good fellow, but he has thirty million dollars stuffed away in the stocking and a business that brings him in a perfectly awful mess of money every year. He's the Pickering of the Pickering automobiles, you know.'
Bill got up. He stood for a moment holding to the back of his chair before speaking. It was almost exactly thus that he had felt in the days when he had gone in for boxing and had stopped forceful swings with the more sensitive portions of his person.
'That--that's splendid!' he said. 'I--I think I'll be going.'
'I heard the car outside just now,' said Lady Wetherby. 'I think it's probably Claire and Dudley come back. Won't you wait and see her?'
Bill shook his head.
'Well, good-bye for the present, then. You must come round again. Any friend of Claire's--and it was bully of you to bother about looking in to tell of Eustace.'
Bill had reached the door. He was about to turn the handle when someone turned it on the other side.
'Why, here is Dudley,' said Lady Wetherby. 'Dudley, this is a friend of Claire's.'
Dudley Pickering was one of those men who take the ceremony of introduction with a measured solemnity. It was his practice to grasp the party of the second part firmly by the hand, hold it, look into his eyes in a reverent manner, and get off some little speech of appreciation, short but full of feeling. The opening part of this ceremony he performed now. He grasped Bill's hand firmly, held it, and looked into his eyes. And then, having performed his business, he fell down on his lines. Not a word proceeded from him. He dropped the hand and stared at Bill amazedly and--more than that--with fear.
Bill, too, uttered no word. It was not one of those chatty meetings.
But if they were short on words, both Bill and Mr Pickering were long on looks. Bill stared at Mr Pickering. Mr Pickering stared at Bill.
Bill was drinking in Mr Pickering. The stoutness of Mr Pickering--the orderliness of Mr Pickering--the dullness of Mr Pickering--all these things he perceived. And illumination broke upon him.
Mr Pickering was drinking in Bill. The largeness of Bill--the embarrassment of Bill--the obvious villainy of Bill--none of these things escaped his notice. And illumination broke upon him also.
For Dudley Pickering, in the first moment of their meeting, had recognized Bill as the man who had been lurking in the grounds and peering in at the window, the man at whom on the night when he had become engaged to Claire he had shouted 'Hi!'
'Where's Claire, Dudley?' asked Lady Wetherby.
Mr Pickering withdrew his gaze reluctantly from Bill.
I'll go and tell her that you're here, Mr--You never told me your name.'
Bill came to life with an almost acrobatic abruptness. There were many things of which at that moment he felt absolutely incapable, and meeting Claire was one of them.
'No; I must be going,' he said, hurriedly. 'Good-bye.'
He came very near running out of the room. Lady Wetherby regarded the practically slammed door with wide eyes.
'Quick exit of Nut Comedian!' she said. 'Whatever was the matter with the man? He's scorched a trail in the carpet.'
Mr Pickering was trembling violently.
'Do you know who that was? He was the man!' said Mr Pickering.
'The man I caught looking in at the window that night!'
'What nonsense! You must be mistaken. He said he knew Claire quite well.'
'But when you suggested that he should meet her he ran.'
This aspect of the matter had not occurred to Lady Wetherby.
'So he did!'
'What did he tell you that showed he knew Claire?'
'Well, now that I come to think of it, he didn't tell me anything. I did the talking. He just sat there.'
Mr Pickering quivered with combined fear and excitement and inductive reasoning.
'It was a trick!' he cried. 'Remember what Sherriff said that night when I told you about finding the man looking in at the window? He said that the fellow was spying round as a preliminary move. To-day he trumps up an obviously false excuse for getting into the house. Was he left alone in the rooms at all?'
'Yes. Wrench loosed him in here and then came up to tell me.'
'For several minutes, then, he was alone in the house. Why, he had time to do all he wanted to do!'
'I am perfectly calm. But--'
'You've been seeing too many crook plays, Dudley. A man isn't necessarily a burglar because he wears a decent suit of clothes.'
'Why was he lurking in the grounds that night?'
'You're just imagining that it was the same man.'
'I am absolutely positive it was the same man.'
'Well, we can easily settle one thing about him, at any rate. Here comes Claire. Claire, old girl,' she said, as the door opened, 'do you know a man named--Darn it! I never got his name, but he's--'
Claire stood in the doorway, looking from one to the other.
'What's the matter, Dudley?' she said.
'Dudley's gone clean up in the air,' explained Lady Wetherby, tolerantly. 'A friend of yours called to tell me he had seen Eustace--'
'So that was his excuse, was it?' said Dudley Pickering. 'Did he say where Eustace was?'
'No; he said he had seen him; that was all'
'An obviously trumped-up story. He had heard of Eustace's escape and he knew that any story connected with him would be a passport into the house.'
Lady Wetherby turned to Claire.
'You haven't told us yet if you know the man. He was a big, tall, broad gazook,' said Lady Wetherby. 'Very English'
'He faked the English,' said Dudley Pickering. 'That man was no more an Englishman than I am.'
'Be patient with him, Claire,' urged Lady Wetherby. 'He's been going to the movies too much, and thinks every man who has had his trousers pressed is a social gangster. This man was the most English thing I've ever seen--talked like this.'
She gave a passable reproduction of Bill's speech. Claire started.
'I don't know him!' she cried.
Her mind was in a whirl of agitation. Why had Bill come to the house? What had he said? Had he told Dudley anything?
'I don't recognize the description,' she said, quickly. 'I don't know anything about him.'
'There!' said Dudley Pickering, triumphantly.
'It's queer,' said Lady Wetherby. 'You're sure you don't know him, Claire?'
'He said he was living at a place near here, called Flack's.'
'I know the place,' said Dudley Pickering. 'A sinister, tumbledown sort of place. Just where a bunch of crooks would be living.'
'I thought it was a bee-farm,' said Lady Wetherby. 'One of the tradesmen told me about it. I saw a most corkingly pretty girl bicycling down to the village one morning, and they told me she was named Boyd and kept a bee-farm at Flack's.'
'A blind!' said Mr Pickering, stoutly. 'The girl's the man's accomplice. It's quite easy to see the way they work. The girl comes and settles in the place so that everybody knows her. That's to lull suspicion. Then the man comes down for a visit and goes about cleaning up the neighbouring houses. You can't get away from the fact that this summer there have been half a dozen burglaries down here, and nobody has found out who did them.'
Lady Wetherby looked at him indulgently.
'And now,' she said, 'having got us scared stiff, what are you going to do about it?'
'I am going,' he said, with determination, 'to take steps.'
He went out quickly, the keen, tense man of affairs.
'Bless him!' said Lady Wetherby. 'I'd no idea your Dudley had so much imagination, Claire. He's a perfect bomb-shell.'
Claire laughed shakily.
'It is odd, though,' said Lady Wetherby, meditatively, 'that this man should have said that he knew you, when you don't--'
Claire turned impulsively.
'Polly, I want to tell you something. Promise you won't tell Dudley. I wasn't telling the truth just now. I do know this man. I was engaged to him once.'
'For goodness' sake don't tell Dudley!'
'It's all over now; but I used to be engaged to him.'
'Not when I was in England?'
'No, after that.'
'Then he didn't know you are engaged to Dudley now?'
'N-no. I--I haven't seen him for a long time.'
Lady Wetherby looked remorseful.
'Poor man! I must have given him a jolt! But why didn't you tell me about him before?'
'Oh, I don't know.'
'Oh, well, I'm not inquisitive. There's no rubber in my composition. It's your affair.'
'You won't tell Dudley?'
'Of course not. But why not? You've nothing to be ashamed of.'
'Well, I won't tell him, anyway. But I'm glad you told me about him. Dudley was so eloquent about burglars that he almost had me going. I wonder where he rushed off to?'
Dudley Pickering had rushed off to his bedroom, and was examining a revolver there. He examined it carefully, keenly. Preparedness was Dudley Pickering's slogan. He looked rather like a stout sheriff in a film drama.Next