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Chapter 17 

Boyhood, like measles, is one of those complaints which a man should catch young and have done with, for when it comes in middle life it is apt to be serious. Dudley Pickering had escaped boyhood at the time when his contemporaries were contracting it. It is true that for a few years after leaving the cradle he had exhibited a certain immatureness, but as soon as he put on knickerbockers and began to go about a little he outgrew all that. He avoided altogether the chaotic period which usually lies between the years of ten and fourteen. At ten he was a thoughtful and sober-minded young man, at fourteen almost an old fogy.

And now--thirty-odd years overdue--boyhood had come upon him. As he examined the revolver in his bedroom, wild and unfamiliar emotions seethed within him. He did not realize it, but they were the emotions which should have come to him thirty years before and driven him out to hunt Indians in the garden. An imagination which might well have become atrophied through disuse had him as thoroughly in its control as ever he had had his Pickering Giant.

He believed almost with devoutness in the plot which he had detected for the spoliation of Lord Wetherby's summer-house, that plot of which he held Lord Dawlish to be the mainspring. And it must be admitted that circumstances had combined to help his belief. If the atmosphere in which he was moving was not sinister then there was no meaning in the word.

Summer homes had been burgled, there was no getting away from that--half a dozen at least in the past two months. He was a stranger in the locality, so had no means of knowing that summer homes were always burgled on Long Island every year, as regularly as the coming of the mosquito and the advent of the jelly-fish. It was one of the local industries. People left summer homes lying about loose in lonely spots, and you just naturally got in through the cellar window. Such was the Long Islander's simple creed.

This created in Mr Pickering's mind an atmosphere of burglary, a receptiveness, as it were, toward burglars as phenomena, and the extremely peculiar behaviour of the person whom in his thoughts he always referred to as The Man crystallized it. He had seen The Man hanging about, peering in at windows. He had shouted 'Hi!' and The Man had run. The Man had got into the house under the pretence of being a friend of Claire's. At the suggestion that he should meet Claire he had dashed away in a panic. And Claire, both then and later, had denied absolutely any knowledge of him.

As for the apparently blameless beekeeping that was going on at the place where he lived, that was easily discounted. Mr Pickering had heard somewhere or read somewhere--he rather thought that it was in those interesting but disturbing chronicles of Raffles--that the first thing an intelligent burglar did was to assume some open and innocent occupation to avert possible inquiry into his real mode of life. Mr Pickering did not put it so to himself, for he was rarely slangy even in thought, but what he felt was that he had caught The Man and his confederate with the goods.

If Mr Pickering had had his boyhood at the proper time and finished with it, he would no doubt have acted otherwise than he did. He would have contented himself with conducting a war of defence. He would have notified the police, and considered that all that remained for him personally to do was to stay in his room at night with his revolver. But boys will be boys. The only course that seemed to him in any way satisfactory in this his hour of rejuvenation was to visit the bee farm, the hotbed of crime, and keep an eye on it. He wanted to go there and prowl.

He did not anticipate any definite outcome of his visit. In his boyish, elemental way he just wanted to take a revolver and a pocketful of cartridges, and prowl.

It was a great night for prowling. A moon so little less than full that the eye could barely detect its slight tendency to become concave, shone serenely, creating a desirable combination of black shadows where the prowler might hide and great stretches of light in which the prowler might reveal his wickedness without disguise. Mr Pickering walked briskly along the road, then less briskly as he drew nearer the farm. An opportune belt of shrubs that ran from the gate adjoining the road to a point not far from the house gave him just the cover he needed. He slipped into this belt of shrubs and began to work his way through them.

Like generals, authors, artists, and others who, after planning broad effects, have to get down to the detail work, he found that this was where his troubles began. He had conceived the journey through the shrubbery in rather an airy mood. He thought he would just go through the shrubbery. He had not taken into account the branches, the thorns, the occasional unexpected holes, and he was both warm and dishevelled when he reached the end of it and found himself out in the open within a short distance of what he recognized as beehives. It was not for some time that he was able to give that selfless attention to exterior objects which is the prowler's chief asset. For quite a while the only thought of which he was conscious was that what he needed most was a cold drink and a cold bath. Then, with a return to clear-headedness, he realized that he was standing out in the open, visible from three sides to anyone who might be in the vicinity, and he withdrew into the shrubbery. He was not fond of the shrubbery, but it was a splendid place to withdraw into. It swallowed you up.

This was the last move of the first part of Mr Pickering's active campaign. He stayed where he was, in the middle of a bush, and waited for the enemy to do something. What he expected him to do he did not know. The subconscious thought that animated him was that on a night like this something was bound to happen sooner or later. Just such a thought on similarly stimulating nights had animated men of his acquaintance thirty years ago, men who were as elderly and stolid and unadventurous now as Mr Pickering had been then. He would have resented the suggestion profoundly, but the truth of the matter was that Dudley Pickering, after a late start, had begun to play Indians.

Nothing had happened for a long time--for such a long time that, in spite of the ferment within him, Mr Pickering almost began to believe that nothing would happen. The moon shone with unutterable calm. The crickets and the tree frogs performed their interminable duet, apparently unconscious that they were attacking it in different keys--a fact that, after a while, began to infuriate Mr Pickering. Mosquitoes added their reedy tenor to the concert. A twig on which he was standing snapped with a report like a pistol. The moon went on shining.

Away in the distance a dog began to howl. An automobile passed in the road. For a few moments Mr Pickering was able to occupy himself pleasantly with speculations as to its make; and then he became aware that something was walking down the back of his neck just beyond the point where his fingers could reach it. Discomfort enveloped Mr Pickering. At various times by day he had seen long-winged black creatures with slim waists and unpleasant faces. Could it be one of these? Or a caterpillar? Or--and the maddening thing was that he did not dare to slap at it, for who knew what desperate characters the sound might not attract?

Well, it wasn't stinging him; that was something.

A second howling dog joined the first one. A wave of sadness was apparently afflicting the canine population of the district to-night.

Mr Pickering's vitality began to ebb. He was ageing, and imagination slackened its grip. And then, just as he had begun to contemplate the possibility of abandoning the whole adventure and returning home, he was jerked back to boyhood again by the sound of voices.

He shrank farther back into the bushes. A man--The Man--was approaching, accompanied by his female associate. They passed so close to him that he could have stretched out a hand and touched them.

The female associate was speaking, and her first words set all Mr Pickering's suspicions dancing a dance of triumph. The girl gave herself away with her opening sentence.

'You can't think how nervous I was this afternoon,' he heard her say. She had a soft pleasant voice; but soft, pleasant voices may be the vehicles for conveying criminal thoughts. 'I thought every moment one of those newspaper men would look in here.'

Where was here? Ah, that outhouse! Mr Pickering had had his suspicions of that outhouse already. It was one of those structures that look at you furtively as if something were hiding in them.

'James! James! I thought I heard James in those bushes.'

The girl was looking straight at the spot occupied by Mr Pickering, and it had been the start caused by her first words and the resultant rustle of branches that had directed her attention to him. He froze. The danger passed. She went on speaking. Mr Pickering pondered on James. Who was James? Another of the gang, of course. How many of them were there?

'Once I thought it was all up. One of them was about a yard from the window, just going to look in.'

Mr Pickering thrilled. There was something hidden in the outhouse, then! Swag?

'Thank goodness, a bee stung him at the psychological moment, and--oh!'

She stopped, and The Man spoke:

'What's the matter?'

It interested Mr Pickering that The Man retained his English accent even when talking privately with his associates. For practice, no doubt.

'Come and get a banana,' said the girl. And they went off together in the direction of the house, leaving Mr Pickering bewildered. Why a banana? Was it a slang term of the underworld for a pistol? It must be that.

But he had no time for speculation. Now was his chance, the only chance he would ever get of looking into that outhouse and finding out its mysterious contents. He had seen the girl unlock the door. A few steps would take him there. All it needed was nerve. With a strong effort Mr Pickering succeeded in obtaining the nerve. He burst from his bush and trotted to the outhouse door, opened it, and looked in. And at that moment something touched his leg.

At the right time and in the right frame of mind man is capable of stoic endurances that excite wonder and admiration. Mr Pickering was no weakling. He had once upset his automobile in a ditch, and had waited for twenty minutes until help came to relieve a broken arm, and he had done it without a murmur. But on the present occasion there was a difference. His mind was not adjusted for the occurrence. There are times when it is unseasonable to touch a man on the leg. This was a moment when it was unseasonable in the case of Mr Pickering. He bounded silently into the air, his whole being rent asunder as by a cataclysm.

He had been holding his revolver in his hand as a protection against nameless terrors, and as he leaped he pulled the trigger. Then with the automatic instinct for self-preservation, he sprang back into the bushes, and began to push his way through them until he had reached a safe distance from the danger zone.

James, the cat, meanwhile, hurt at the manner in which his friendly move had been received, had taken refuge on the outhouse roof. He mewed complainingly, a puzzled note in his voice. Mr Pickering's behaviour had been one of those things that no fellow can understand. The whole thing seemed inexplicable to James.

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