MRS LANSDOWN and her daughter were people who lived as naturally in three rooms as they would have lived in a town house with twenty. A frail woman of remarkable beauty, Sybil's mother had had both experiences. There was a time of affluence when Gregory Lansdown had his thousand acres in Berkshire, a shoot in Norfolk, and a salmon river in Scotland, to say nothing of his handsome little house in Chelsea. But those possessions, with his racing stable, his steam yacht and the yearly trip to Algeria, had gone in a night. He was a director of a company that went into liquidation, following the hurried departure of a managing director who went eventually to prison. The directors were called upon to make good the best part of a million and a half, and Gregory Lansdown was the only one of them whose property was in his own name. He paid to the last farthing and died before the last payment was completed.
The Lansdowns retained one asset - the house in which they were now living, and which had been divided up into three self - contained flats before the blow fell. Into one of these, the smallest, Mrs Lansdown carried such of her personal belongings as she could salvage from the wreck of fortune. They were sitting together on the night after Sybil's return, the mother reading, Sybil writing at the little escritoire in the corner of the sitting - room. Presently Mrs Lansdown put down her book
"The trip was foolish - it was stupid of me to sanction it. I am worried a little about the consequence, dear. It is all so frantically unreal and fantastic that if it were anybody but you who had told me I should dismiss the story as a piece of romantic imagination."
"Who was Silva, mother?"
"The Portuguese? He was quite a poor man; a landscape gardener. Your father discovered him in Madeira and brought him to the notice of his cousin. I have always known that he was grateful to your dear father, who helped him in many ways. He became head gardener to our cousin - who was not the nicest man to work for; he had an unpleasant habit of thrashing servants who displeased him, and I believe he once struck Silva. Do you remember him, Sybil?"
"A big, red - faced man with a tremendous voice - he used to drive in a carriage drawn by four horses. I hated him!" Mrs Lansdown took up her book again, read a line or two, and then put it down. "What is this man, Sybil?"
Sybil laughed. "Mother, that is the fourth time you've asked me! I don't know. He was very nice and had wonderful blue eyes."
"Yes," quictdy. "Not a perfectly mannered man, I should think; very alert, very capable, a most trustable man."
Mrs Lansdown turned a page of her book without reading. "What is he - his profession, I mean?"
Sybil hesitated. "I don't know - now. He used to be a detective - inspector, but he has left the police force. Didn't I tell you?" And then, a little defiantly: "What is the social position of a detective?"
Her mother smiled to herself. "About the same as a librarian, my dear," she said quietly. "In the matter of professions he is on the same plane as my little girl. It wasn't wise to ask you that."
The girl got up from the table, and, putting her arms about the elder woman, bugged her.
"You are thinking because I poured out my young heart to him, as they say in sentimental stories, that I'm in love with him. Well, I'm not! He amuses me awfully - he says the quaintest things. And I like him in spite of the strong language I heard him use to a man on the quay when I was waiting to get my baggage examined. He's very straight and clean. I feel that. I'm glad the wretched key was lost - I could have swooned on his neck for joy when he hit that horrible thief. But I'm no more in love with him than - - - He's probably married and has a large and rosy family."
There was a knock at the door. Sybil went to open it and gazed, open - eyed and in some embarrassment, at the subject of their conversation.
"Won't you come in, Mr Martin?" she said, a little awkwardly.
He walked past her into the tiny square hall, and presently followed her into the sitting - room. One shrewd glance the older woman gave him, and was satisfied.
"You're Mr Martin?" she smiled, as she took his band in hers. "I wanted to thank you personally for your care of my daughter."
"I'm rather glad you mentioned that, because I didn't know exactly how I was going to start my interesting conversation," said Dick, choosing, to the girl's consternation, the least stable and most fragile of all the chairs in the room. "Safety first is a mighty hackneyed expression, but, like all these old slogans you're tired of hearing, it is concentrated truth. Your key, by the way. Miss Lansdown, is in my bank, and if anybody pushes you very hard you can tell them so." She stared at him open - mouthed. "But I thought the key was lost?"
"The bag was lost," he corrected. "When I handed you back that box on the train, I took the liberty of extracting the key; you heard it rattle, and it was heavy enough for a key, for I put a half - crown piece in the box."
"But it was never out of my sight," gasped the girl.
Dick smiled sweetly.
"The art of ringing changes is to keep everything in sight."
"But it is impossible," said Sybil.
He had an exasperating habit of passing to the next subject without apology.
"Miss Lansdown, I'm going to shock you pretty badly. You bad an idea, when you met me, that I was a respectable member of society. I was - I'm not today. I'm the nearest approach to a private detective you have ever met - and private detectives are nearly mean. You don't change colour, so I guess you're too numb to feel."
"My daughter had an idea you were in that profession," said Mrs Lansdown, her eyes dancing with amusement. She was beginning to understand the attraction this drawling man had for her daughter.
"I'm glad," said Dick soberly. "Now, when I start to ask questions, you won't be thinking that I'm consumed with idle curiosity. You told me about your cousin," he said, addressing Sybil; "I'm anxious to know what other cousins Lord Selford has."
"None," said the girl. "Mother and I are his only living relatives - unless he is married."
She saw the change that came instantly to his face. The eyes narrowed, the mouth grew harder; something of his levity fell away from him.
"I was afraid of that," he said quietly. "I guessed it, and I was afraid of it. I knew that you were in this scheme somewhere, but I couldn't quite see how. Have you any friends in the country, ma'am?" he asked Mrs Lansdown.
"Yes, I have several," she answered in surprise. "Why?"
"You're on the telephone, are you not?" He glanced at the instrument that stood on the top of the escritoire. "Will you be prepared, at a minute's notice, to leave London? My first inclination was to ask you to leave tonight, but I don't think that will be necessary."
Mrs Lansdown eyed him steadily.
"Wil1 you please tell me what this is all about?" she asked quietly.
He shook his head.
"I can't tell you now. I'm sort of coming out of a mist, and I'm not sure of the objects that are looming up. I honestly believe you are both safe from danger, and that nobody is going to give you any trouble - yet a while."
"Is all this about the key?" asked Sybil, listening in amazement.
"It is all about the key," he repeated, and she had never seen him so grave. "What sort of a man was the late Lord Selford?" He directed his question to the mother, and she made a little grimace.
"He was not a nice man," she said. "He drank, and there were one or two unsavoury incidents in his past that one doesn't like to talk about, even if one knew the true facts. But then, all the Selfords were a little queer. The founder of the house behaved so badly in the fifteenth century that he was excommunicated by the Pope. You have heard of the Selford tombs?"
He shook his head. To all appearances the words had no significance to him. Tombs! His mind flashed back to Lew Pheeney - the man who had died because he had seen too much - the robber of graves. He had to set his teeth and school the muscles of his face to impassivity.
"You are probably not interested in English antiquities," Mrs Lansdown was saying, "but if you are, I can give you some particulars. Strangely enough, I was reading them only this afternoon."
She got up and went to a bookshelf which stood in one corner, and took out a volume the vellum cover of which was yellow with age.
"This is one of the few treasures I possess," she said. "It is the original 'Baxter's Chronicle', printed in 1584, one of the first books that came from the Caxton Press."
She turned the stiff leaves and presently stopped.
"Here is the passage. You need not read about the offence which Sir Hugh committed - it is hardly creditable to our family."
He took the book and read where her finger pointed.
Sir Hugh being under banne of church for hys synnes, and beinge denyed burialle such as is ryte for Christianne knyghtes, caused there to be dugge in the earthe a great burialle playce for hymme and ye sonnes of hys housse, the wyche was call'd the Sellfords Toomes, and this sayme was blessd in proper fashione by F' Marcus, a holy manne of y' time, butte in secrette because of y' sayed banne. And theyse toomes to the number of a score he caused to be made yn stonne curiously cutte wyth mannie angyles and saynts, wych ws wonderfull to see.
"For hundreds of years," said Mrs Lansdown, "the burial ground of the Selfords was unconsecrated, though that has been remedied since 1720."
"Where is the place?" asked the fascinated Dick.
"It is in a corner of Selford Park; a strange, eerie spot on the top of a small hill, and surrounded by old trees. They call it the Birdless Copse, because birds are never seen there, but I think that is because there is no open water for many miles."
He had to frame every word he spoke lest he betrayed the wild sense of exultation he felt.
"Who is occupying the Manor House? I suppose there is a manor house attached to the park?"
"It is in the hands of a caretaker during Lord Selford's absence. Mr Havelock told me that our kinsman hates the place, and would sell it but for the fact that it is entailed."
He covered his face with his hand, trying to concentrate his thoughts.
"Have you ever seen this wandering Selford?"
"Only once, when he was a boy, whilst he was at school. He has written to me; in fact, I had a letter quite recently. I will get you the letter, if it would interest you? Are you very much interested in Lord Selford?"
"Very much," he said emphatically.
She went out of the room and came back with a small wooden box, which she opened. She sorted out a number of letters and presently placed one before him. It was from Berlin, and had been written in April of 1914:
It is so many years since I have written to you, or you have heard from me, that I am almost ashamed to write. But knowing how interested you are in queer china, I am sending you by registered post an old German beer mug of the fifteenth century.
Yours affectionately, PIERCE.'
The handwriting was the same as he had seen in Mr Havelock's office.
"Of course, I'm not his aunt," said Mrs Lansdown, still searching amongst the letters. "I am in reality his cousin twice removed. Here is another letter."
This, Dick saw, was sent from an hotel in Colombo, and was only a year old:
'I am making great progress with my book, though it is rather absurd to call a collection of disjointed notes (as it is at present) by such an important title. I cannot tell you how sorry I was to hear of your great trouble. Is there anything I can do? You have only to command me. Please see Mr Havelock and show him this letter. I have already written to him, authorizing him to pay you any money you may require.'
Dick did not ask what the trouble had been. He guessed, from the black which Mrs Lansdown still wore, that her loss was a recent one.
"I did not see Mr Havelock, of course, though he very kindly wrote to me on receipt of Pierce's letter, offering his help. And now that I've satisfied your curiosity, Mr Martin, perhaps you will satisfy mine. What are these alarming instructions you give us, and why should we be prepared to leave town at any hour of the day or night?"
Sybil had been a silent but interested audience, but now she asserted her views.
"I'm sure Mr Martin wouldn't ask us to do anything that was absurd, mother," she said; "and if he wishes us to be ready to leave at a second's notice, I think we should do as he asks. It is in connection with the key?" She turned her grave eyes on Dick.
"Yes," he said, "and something else. As I say, I'm only groping for the moment. Certain facts are definitely established in my mind beyond question. But there are others which have got to be worked out."
He asked Mrs Lansdown if she had heard of Stalletti, but she shook her head.
"Do you know Mr Cody?" he asked, and she thought hard for a long rime.
"No, I don't think I do," she replied.