THERE WAS a silence of a minute. Dick looked at the man, hardly believing his ears.
"Trying to open a dead man's tomb?" he repeated. "Now sit down and tell me all about it, Lew."
"I can't - yet. I'm scared," said the other doggedly. "This man is hell, and I'd as soon face the devil as go through another night like I had on Tuesday."
"Who is the man?"
"I won't tell you that," said the other sullenly. "I might at the end, but I won't tell you now. If I can find a quiet place I'm going to write it all out, and have it on paper in case - anything happens to me."
He was obviously labouring under a sense of unusual excitement, and Dick, who had known him for many years, both in England and in Canada, was amazed to see this usually phlegmatic man in such a condition of nerves.
He refused to take the dinner that the old housekeeper served, contenting himself with a whisky and soda, and Dick Martin thought it wise not to attempt to question him any further.
"Why don't you stay here tonight and write your story? I won't ask you for it, but you'll be as safe here as anywhere."
That idea seemed already to have occurred to the man, for he obeyed instantly, and Dick gathered that he had such scheme in his mind. Diner was nearly through when the detective was called away to the phone. "Is that Mr Martin?" The voice was that of a stranger. "Yes," replied Dick.
"I am Mr Havelock. The Commissioner sent me a message this evening, and I was expecting you to call at my office. I wonder if you could see me tonight?" There was anxiety and urgency in the tone.
"Why, surely," said Dick. "Where are you living?"
"907, Acada Road, St John's Wood. I am very near to you; a taxi would get you here in five minutes. Have you dined? I was afraid you had. Will you come up to coffee in about a quarter of an hour?"
Dick Martin had agreed before he realized that his guest and his strange story had to be considered.
The startling announcement of Lew Pheeney had changed his plans. Yet it might be advisable to leave the man to write his story. He called his housekeeper aside and dismissed her for the night. Pheeney, alone in the flat, might write his story without interruption.
The man readily agreed to his suggestion, seemed, in fact, relieved at the prospect of being alone, and a quarter of an hour later Mr Martin was ringing the bell of an imposing house that stood in its acre of garden in the best part of St Johns Wood. An elderly butler took his suck and hat and conducted him into a long dining - room, furnished with quiet taste. Evidently Mr Havelock was something of a connoisseur, for of the four pictures that hung on the wall, Dick accurately placed one as being by Corot, and the big portrait over the carved mantelpiece was undoubtedly a Rembrandt.
The lawyer was dining in solitary state at the end of a long, polished table. A glass of red wine stood at his elbow, a long, thin cigar was between his teeth. He was a man between fifty and sixty, tall and rather thin. He had the brow and jaw of a fighter, and his iron - grey side - whiskers gave him a certain ferocious appearance. Dick liked him, for the eyes behind his horn - rimmed spectacles were very attractive.
"Mr Martin, eh?" He half rose and offered his firm, thin hand. "Sit down. What will you drink? I have a port here that was laid down for princes. Walters, give Mr Martin a glass."
He leaned back in his chair, his lips pursed, and regarded die young man fixedly.
"So you're a detective, eh?" It sounded reminiscent of an experience he had had that morning, and Dick grinned. "The commissioner says you're leaving the police force tomorrow, and that you want a hobby. By heavens, I'll furnish you a hobby that'll save me a lot of sleepless nights! Walters, serve Mr Martin and clear out. And I am not to be interrupted. Switch off the phone; I'm not at home to anybody, however important." When the door had closed behind the butler, Mr Havelock rose and began a restless pacing of the room. He had a quick, abrupt, almost offensively brusque manner, jerking out his sentences accusatively. "I'm a lawyer - you probably know my name, though I've never been in a police court in my life. I'm very seldom in any court of law. I deal with companies and estates, and I'm trustee for half a dozen, or maybe a dozen, various charities. I'm the trustee of the Selford estate." He said this with a certain emphasis, as though he thought that Dick would understand the peculiar significance of this. "I'm the trustee of the Selford estate," he said again, "and I wish to heaven I wasn't. Old - Lord Selford - not that he was old, except in sin and iniquity, but the late Lord Selford, let me say - left me the sole executor of his property and guardian of his wretched child. The late Lord Selford was a very unpleasant, bad - tempered man, half mad, as most of the Selfords have been for generations. Do you know Selford Manor?"
Dick smiled. "Curiously enough, I was on the edge of it today. I didn't know there was such a place until this afternoon, and I had no such idea there was a Lord Selford - does he live there?"
"He doesn't." Havelock snapped the words, his eyes gleaming fiercely from behind his glasses. "I wish to God he did. He lives nowhere. That is to say, he lives nowhere longer than two or three days together. He is a nomad of nomads; his father in his youth was something of the same nature. Pierce - that is his family name, by the way, and he has always been called Pierce - has spent the last ten years wandering from town to town, from country to country, drawing heavily upon his revenue, as he can well afford to do because it is a large one, and returning to England only at the rarest intervals. I haven't seen him for four years." He said this slowly.
"I'll give you his history, Mr Martin, so that you will understand it better," he went on. "When Selford died, Pierce was six. He had no mother, and, curiously enough, no near relations. Selford was an only child, and his wife was also in that position, so that there were no uncles and aunts to whom I could have handed over my responsibility. The boy was delicate, as I found when I sent him to a preparatory school at the age of eight, expecting to be rid of the poor little beggar, but not a day passed that he didn't send me a note asking to be taken away. Eventually I found a private tutor for him, and he got some sort of education. It was not good enough to enable him to pass the Little Go - that is the entrance examination to Cambridge - and I sent him abroad with his tutor to travel. I wish to heaven I hadn't! For the travel bug bit deep into his soul, and he's been moving ever since. Four years ago he came to me in London. He was then on his way to America, where he was studying economic conditions. He had a wild idea of writing a book - one of the delusions from which most people suffer is that other people are interested in their recollections."
Dick flushed guiltily, but the lawyer went on, without apparently noticing his embarrassment.
"Now I'm worried about this boy. From time to time demands come through to me for money, and from time to time I cable him very respectable sums - which, of course, he is entitled to receive, for he is now twenty - four."
"His financial position - - " began Dick. "Perfectly sound, perfectly sound," said Mr Havelock impressively. "That isn't the question at all. What is worrying me is, the boy being so long out of my sight. Anything may happen to him; he may have fallen into the worst possible hands." He hesitated, and added: "And I feel that I should get in touch with him - not directly, but through a third person. In other words, I want you to go to America next week, and, without saying that you came from me, or that I sent you, get acquainted with Lord Selford - he travels, by the way, as Mr John Pierce. He is a very quick mover, and you'll have to make careful inquiries as to where he has gone, because I cannot promise that I can keep you as well informed of his movements as I should like. If, in your absence, I have a cable from him, I will, of course, transmit it to you. I want you to find Pierce, but in no circumstances are you to acquaint the police of America that you are following him, or that there is anything suspicious in his movements. All that I want to know is. Has he contracted any undesirable alliance, is he a free agent, is the money I send to him being employed for his own benefit? He tells me, by the way, that he has bought a number of shares in industrial concerns in various parts of the world, and some of these shares are in my possession. A great number, however, I cannot account for, and he has replied to my inquiries by telling me that they are safely deposited with a South African banking corporation. The reason I ask you to keep this matter entirely to yourself is because, you will understand, I can't have him embarrassed by the attentions of the local authorities. And most earnestly I am desirous that he should not know I sent you. Now, Mr Martin, how does the idea appeal to you?"
Dick smiled. "It looks to me like a very pleasant sort of holiday. How long will this chase last?"
"I don't know - a few months, a few weeks: it all depends upon the report I receive from you, which, by the way, must be cabled to me direct. I have a very free hand and I can allow you the limit of expenses; in addition to which I will pay you a handsome fee." He named a sum which was surprisingly munificent.
"When would you want me to go?" The lawyer took out a little pocketbook and evidently consulted a calendar.
"Today is Wednesday; suppose you leave next Wednesday by the Cunarder? At present he is in Boston, but he tells me that he is going to New York, where he will be staying at the Commodore. Boston is a favourite hunting ground of his." His lips twitched. "I believe he intends sparing a chapter to the American War of Independence," he said dryly; "and, naturally, Boston will afford him an excellent centre for that study."
"One question," said Dick, as he rose to go. "Have you any reason to suppose that he has contracted, as you say, an undesirable alliance - in other words, has married somebody that he shouldn't have married?"
"No reason at all, except my suspicious mind," smiled Mr Havelock. "If you become friendly with him, as I am perfectly sure with an effort you can succeed in doing, there are certain things I would like you to urge upon him. The first of these is that he come back to England and takes his seat in the House of Peers. That is very essential. Then I should like him to have a London season, because it's high time he was married and off my mind. Selford Manor is going to ruin for want of an occupant. It is disgraceful that a fine old house like that should be left to the charge of a caretaker - anyway, he ought to come back to be buried there," he added, with a certain grim humour, and Dick did not quite understand the point of his remark until eight months later.
The task was, in Dr Stalletti's words, extraordinary and bizarre, but it was not wholly unusual. Indeed, the first thought he had was its extreme simplicity. The commission was really a holiday on a grand scale, and something of his regret at leaving Scotland Yard was expunged by the pleasant prospect.
It was nine o'clock on this wet October night when he came into Acacia Road. There was not a cab in sight, and he had to walk half a mile before he reached a rank. Letting himself into his flat, he found it in darkness, and to his surprise Pheeney had gone. The remains of the dinner were on the table - he had told the housekeeper that he would clear the board, but one corner of the tablecloth had been turned up, and there on the cleared space half a dozen sheets of paper and a fountain pen. Evidently Lew intended returning, but though Dick Martin waited up until two o'clock, there was no sign of the grave - robber. For some reason Pheeney had changed his mind.
At half past ten the next morning he called at the library with his book. The girl looked up with a little laugh as he came in.
"I admit I'm a good joke," he said ruefully. "Here is your book. It was taken by an ignorant foreigner, who believed that loaning libraries are run on rather haphazard lines."
She stared at the book. "Really, you are most impressive, Mr Martin. Please tell me how you did it."
"Sheer deduction," he said gaily. "I knew the man who took it was a foreigner, because you told me so. I guessed his address because you gave it me; and I recovered the book by the intricate process of asking for it!"
"Wonderful!" she breathed, and they laughed together. There was small excuse for his lingering, yet he contrived, as she hinted rather plainly, to hinder her for the greater part of an hour. Happily, the patrons of the Bellingham Library were not early risers, and she had the best part of the morning to herself.
"I am going abroad next week for a few months," he said carelessly. "I don't know why I tell you, but I thought possibly you would be interested in foreign travel."
She smiled to herself.
"You are certainly the naivest detective I have ever met! In fact, the only detective I have ever met!" she added. Then, seeing his obvious discomfiture, she became almost kind. "You see. Air. Martin, I have been very well brought up" - even in her kindness, her irony made him wince - "which means that I am fearfully conventional. I wonder if you can guess how many men one meets in the course of a week who try to interest you in their family affairs? I'm not being unkind really," she smiled, as he protested.
"I've been rather a brute - I'm awfully sorry," said Dick frankly, "and I deserve all the roasting you give me. But it's very natural that even a humble detective officer should wish to improve an acquaintance with one who, if I may say so without bringing a blush to your maiden cheeks, has a singularly attractive mind." >
"And now let us all be complimentary," she said, though the colour in her face was heightened and her eyes were a little brighter. "You are the world's best detective, and if ever I lose anything, I am sending immediately for you."
"Then you'll draw a blank," said Dick triumphantly. "I'm leaving the force and becoming a respectable member of society tomorrow. Miss - -?"
She did not attempt to help him.
Then suddenly he saw a look of understanding come to her face.
"You're not the man that Mr Havelock is sending to look for my relative, are you?"
"Your relative?" he asked in amazement. "Is Lord Selford a relative of yours?"
She nodded. "He's a forty - second cousin, heaven knows how many times removed. Father was his second cousin. Mother and I were dining with Mr Havelock the other night, and he said that he was trying to get a man to run Selford to earth."
"Have you ever met him?" asked Dick.
She shook her head.
"No, but my mother knew him when he was a small boy. I think she saw him once. His father was a horror. I suppose Mr Havelock has told you that - I am assuming that my guess is right: you are going in search of him?"
"That was the sad news I was trying to break to you," he said.
At that moment their tete - a - tete was interrupted by the arrival of an elderly gentleman with a vinegary voice, who, Dick guessed, was the secretary.
He went back to Scotland Yard to find Captain Sneed, who had been absent when he had called on the phone that morning. Sneed listened without comment to the extraordinary story of Lew Pheeney's midnight occupation.
"It certainly sounds like a lie, and anything that sounds like a lie generally is a lie," he said. "Why didn't Pheeney stay, if he'd got this thing on his conscience? And who was chasing him? Did you see anybody?"
"Nobody," said Dick. "But the man was afraid, and genuinely so."
"Humph!" said Sneed, and pressed a bell.
To the clerk who answered: "Send a man to pick up Pheeney and bring him here. I want to ask him a few questions," he said. And then, calling the man back: "You know his address, Dick. Go along and see if you can unearth him."
"My term of service expires at twelve today."
"Midnight," said Sneed laconically. "Get busy!"
Lew Pheeney lived in Great Queen Street, at a lodging he had occupied for years; but his landlady could give no information. Pheeney had left the previous afternoon somewhere about five and had not returned. A haunt of the burglar was a small club, extensively patronized by the queer class which hovers eternally on the rim of the law. Pheeney had not been there - he usually came in to breakfast and to collect his letters.
Dick saw a man who said he had had an engagement with Pheeney on the previous night, and that he had waited until twelve.
"Where am I likely to find him?"
Here, however, no information was forthcoming. Dick Martin's profession was as well known as Mr Pheeney's.
He reported the result of his visits to Sneed, who for some reason took a more serious view of the whole matter than Dick had expected.
"I'm believing it now, that grave - robbing story," said Sneed, "and certainly it's remarkable if Lew was upset, because nothing short of an earthquake would raise a squeal with him. Maybe he's at your flat?"
When Dick got home the flat was empty. His housekeeper had neither seen nor heard from the visitor. The detective strolled into his bedroom, pulled off his coat, intending to put on the old shooting jacket he wore when he was writing - for he had a number of reports to finish before he made his final exit from the Yard. The coat was not hanging up where it was usually kept, and he remembered that his housekeeper had told him that she had put it in the bureau: a tall piece of mahogany furniture where his four suits were invariably hung on hangers.
Without a thought he turned the handle of the bureau door and pulled it open. As he did so, the body of a man fell against him, almost knocking him over, and dropped to the floor with an inanimate thud. It was Lew Pheeney, and he was dead.