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THE COMING OF SERGEANT SMITH
Jasper Cole at that moment was trudging through the snow to the little châlet which May Nuttall had taken on the slope of the mountain overlooking Chamonix. The sleigh which had brought him up from the station was at the foot of the rise. May saw him from the veranda, and coo-ooed a welcome. He stamped the snow from his boots and ran up the steps of the veranda to meet her.
"This is a very pleasant surprise," she said, giving him both her hands and looking at him approvingly. He had lost much of his pallor, and his face was tanned and healthy, though a little fine drawn.
"It was rather a mad thing to do, wasn't it?" he confessed ruefully.
"You are such a confirmed bachelor, Jasper, that I believe you hate doing anything outside your regular routine. Why did you come all the way from Holland to the Haute Savoie?"
He had followed her into the warm and cozy sitting room, and was warming his chilled fingers by the big log fire which burned on the hearth.
"Can you ask? I came to see you."
"And how are all the experiments going?"
She turned him to another topic in some hurry.
"There have been no experiments since last month; at least not the kind of experiments you mean. The one in which I have been engaged has been very successful."
"And what was that?" she asked curiously.
"I will tell you one of these days," he said.
He was staying at the Hôtel des Alpes, and hoped to be a week in Chamonix. They chatted about the weather, the early snow which had covered the valley in a mantle of white, about the tantalizing behavior of Mont Blanc, which had not been visible since May had arrived, of the early avalanches, which awakened her with their thunder on the night of her arrival, of the pleasant road to Argentières, of the villages by the Col de Balme, which are buried in snow, of the sparkling, ethereal green of the great glacier--of everything save that which was nearest to their thoughts and to their hearts.
Jasper broke the ice when he referred to Frank's visit to Geneva.
"How did you know?" she asked, suddenly grave.
"Somebody told me," he said casually.
"Jasper, were you ever at Montreux?" she asked, looking him straight in the eye.
"I have been to Montreux, or rather to Caux," he said. "That is the village on the mountain above, and one has to go through Montreux to reach it. Why did you ask?"
A sudden chill had fallen upon her, which she did not shake off that day or the next.
They made the usual excursions together, climbed up the wooded slopes of the Butte, and on the third morning after his arrival stood together in the clear dawn and watched the first pink rays of the sun striking the humped summit of Mont Blanc.
"Isn't it glorious?" she whispered.
The serene beauty of it all, the purity, the majestic aloofness of mountains at once depressed and exalted her, brought her nearer to the sublimity of ancient truths, cleansed her of petty fears. She turned to him unexpectedly and asked:
"Jasper, who killed John Minute?"
He made no reply. His wistful eyes were fixed hungrily upon the glories of light and shade, of space, of inaccessibility, of purity, of coloring, of all that dawn upon Mont Blanc comprehended. When he spoke his voice was lowered to almost a whisper.
"I know that the man who killed John Minute is alive and free," he said.
"Who was he?"
"If you do not know now, you may never know," he said.
There was a silence which lasted for fully five minutes, and the crimson light upon the mountain top had paled to lemon yellow.
Then she asked again:
"Are you directly or indirectly guilty?"
He shook his head.
"Neither directly nor indirectly," he said shortly, and the next minute she was in his arms.
There had been no word of love between them, no tender passage, no letter which the world could not read. It was a love-making which had begun where other love-makings end--in conquest and in surrender. In this strange way, beyond all understanding, May Nuttall became engaged, and announced the fact in the briefest of letters to her friends.
A fortnight later the girl arrived in England, and was met at Charing Cross by Saul Arthur Mann. She was radiantly happy and bubbling over with good spirits, a picture of health and beauty.
All this Mr. Mann observed with a sinking heart. He had a duty to perform, and that duty was not a pleasant one. He knew it was useless to reason with the girl. He could offer her no more than half-formed theories and suspicions, but at least he had one trump card. He debated in his mind whether he should play this, for here, too, his information was of the scantiest description. He carried his account of the girl to Frank Merrill.
"My dear Frank, she is simply infatuated," said the little man in despair. "Oh, if that infernal record of mine was only completed I could convince her in a second! There is no single investigation I have ever undertaken which has been so disappointing."
"Can nothing be done?" asked Frank, "I cannot believe that it will happen. Marry Jasper! Great Cæsar! After all--"
His voice was hoarse. The hand he raised in protest shook.
Saul Arthur Mann scratched his chin reflectively.
"Suppose you saw her," he suggested, and added a little grimly: "I will see Mr. Cole at the same time."
"I can understand your reluctance," the little man went on, "but there is too much at stake to allow your finer feelings to stop you. This matter has got to be prevented at all costs. We are fighting for time. In a month, possibly less, we may have the whole of the facts in our hands."
"Have you found out anything about the girl in Camden Town?" asked Frank.
"She has disappeared completely," replied the other. "Every clew we have had has led nowhere."
Frank dressed himself with unusual care that afternoon, and, having previously telephoned and secured the girl's permission to call, he presented himself to the minute. She was, as usual, cordiality itself.
"I was rather hurt at your not calling before, Frank," she said. "You have come to congratulate me?"
She looked at him straight in the eyes as she said this.
"You can hardly expect that, May," he said gently, "knowing how much you are to me and how greatly I wanted you. Honestly, I cannot understand it, and I can only suppose that you, whom I love better than anything in the world--and you mean more to me than any other being--share the suspicion which surrounds me like a poison cloud."
"Yet if I shared that suspicion," she said calmly, "would I let you see me? No, Frank, I was a child when--you know. It was only a few months ago, but I believe--indeed I know--it would have been the greatest mistake I could possibly have made. I should have been a very unhappy woman, for I have loved Jasper all along."
She said this evenly, without any display of emotion or embarrassment. Frank, narrating the interview to Saul Arthur Mann, described the speech as almost mechanical.
"I hope you are going to take it nicely," she went on, "that we are going to be such good friends as we always were, and that even the memory of your poor uncle's death and the ghastly trial which followed and the part that Jasper played will not spoil our friendship."
"But don't you see what it means to me?" he burst forth, and for a second they looked at one another, and Frank divined her thoughts and winced.
"I know what you are thinking," he said huskily; "you are thinking of all the beastly things that were said at the trial, that if I had gained you I should have gained all that I tried to gain."
She went red.
"It was horrid of me, wasn't it?" she confessed. "And yet that idea came to me. One cannot control one's thoughts, Frank, and you must be content to know that I believe in your innocence. There are some thoughts which flourish in one's mind like weeds, and which refuse to be uprooted. Don't blame me if I recalled the lawyer's words; it was an involuntary, hateful thought."
He inclined his head.
"There is another thought which is not involuntary," she went on, "and it is because I want to retain our friendship and I want everything to go on as usual that I am asking you one question. Your twenty-fourth birthday has come and gone; you told me that your uncle's design was to keep you unmarried until that day. You are still unmarried, and your twenty-fourth birthday has passed. What has happened?"
"Many things have happened," he replied quietly. "My uncle is dead. I am a rich man apart from the accident of his legacy. I could meet you on level terms."
"I knew nothing of this," she said quickly.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Didn't Jasper tell you?" he asked.
"No--Jasper told me nothing."
Frank drew a long breath.
"Then I can only say that until the mystery of my uncle's death is solved you cannot know," he said. "I can only repeat what I have already told you."
She offered her hand.
"I believe you, Frank," she said, "and I was wrong even to doubt you in the smallest degree."
He took her hand and held it.
"May," he said, "what is this strange fascination that Jasper has over you?"
For the second time in that interview she flushed and pulled her hand back.
"There is nothing unusual in the fascination which Jasper exercises," she smiled, quickly recovering, almost against her will, from the little twinge of anger she felt. "It is the influence which every woman has felt and which you one day will feel."
He laughed bitterly.
"Then nothing will make you change your mind?" he said.
"Nothing in the world," she answered emphatically.
For a moment she was sorry for him, as he stood, both hands resting on a chair, his eyes on the ground, a picture of despair, and she crossed to him and slipped her arm through his.
"Don't take it so badly, Frank," she said softly. "I am a capricious, foolish girl, I know, and I am really not worth a moment's suffering."
He shook himself together, gathered up his hat, his stick, and his overcoat and offered his hand.
"Good-by," he said, "and good luck!"
In the meantime another interview of a widely different character was taking place in the little house which Jasper Cole occupied on the Portsmouth Road. Jasper and Saul Arthur Mann had met before, but this was the first visit that the investigator had paid to the home of John Minute's heir.
Jasper was waiting at the door to greet the little man when he arrived, and had offered him a quiet but warm welcome and led the way to the beautiful study which was half laboratory, which he had built for himself since John Minute's death.
"I am coming straight to the point without any beating about the bush, Mr. Cole," said the little man, depositing his bag on the side of his chair and opening it with a jerk. "I will tell you frankly that I am acting on Mr. Merrill's behalf and that I am also acting, as I believe, in the interests of justice."
"Your motives, at any rate, are admirable," said Jasper, pushing back the papers which littered his big library table, and seating himself on the edge.
"You are probably aware that you are to some extent under suspicion, Mr. Cole."
"Under your suspicion or the suspicion of the authorities?" asked the other coolly.
"Under mine," said Saul Arthur Mann emphatically. "I cannot speak for the authorities."
"In what direction does this suspicion run?"
He thrust his hands deep in his trousers pockets, and eyed the other keenly.
"My first suspicion is that you are well aware as to who murdered John Minute."
Jasper Cole nodded.
"I am perfectly aware that he was murdered by your friend, Mr. Merrill," he said.
"I suggest," said Saul Arthur Mann calmly, "that you know the murderer, and you know the murderer was not Frank Merrill."
Jasper made no reply, and a faint smile flickered for a second at the corner of his mouth, but he gave no other sign of his inward feelings.
"And the other point you wish to raise?" he asked.
"The other is a more delicate subject, since it involves a lady," said the little man. "You are about to be married to Miss Nuttall."
Jasper Cole nodded.
"You have obtained an extraordinary influence over the lady in this past few months."
"I hope so," said the other cheerfully.
"It is an influence which might have been brought about by normal methods, but it is also one," Saul Arthur leaned over and tapped the table emphatically with each word, "which might be secured by a very clever chemist who had found a way of sapping the will of his victim."
"By the administration of drugs?" asked Jasper.
"By the administration of drugs," repeated Saul Arthur Mann.
Jasper Cole smiled.
"I should like to know the drug," he said. "One would make a fortune, to say nothing of benefiting humanity to an extraordinary degree by its employment. For example, I might give you a dose and you would tell me all that you know; I am told that your knowledge is fairly extensive," he bantered. "Surely you, Mr. Mann, with your remarkable collection of information on all subjects under the sun, do not suggest that such a drug exists?"
"On the contrary," said "The Man Who Knew" in triumph, "it is known and is employed. It was known as long ago as the days of the Borgias. It was employed in France in the days of Louis XVI. It has been, to some extent, rediscovered and used in lunatic asylums to quiet dangerous patients."
He saw the interest deepen in the other's eyes.
"I have never heard of that," said Jasper slowly; "the only drug that is employed for that purpose is, as far as I know, bromide of potassium."
Mr. Mann produced a slip of paper, and read off a list of names, mostly of mental institutions in the United States of America and in Germany.
"Oh, that drug!" said Jasper Cole contemptuously. "I know the use to which that is put. There was an article on the subject in the British Medical Journal three months ago. It is a modified kind of 'twilight sleep'--hyocine and morphia. I'm afraid, Mr. Mann," he went on, "you have come on a fruitless errand, and, speaking as a humble student of science, I may suggest without offense that your theories are wholly fantastic."
"Then I will put another suggestion to you, Mr. Cole," said the little man without resentment, "and to me this constitutes the chief reason why you should not marry the lady whose confidence I enjoy and who, I feel sure, will be influenced by my advice."
"And what is that?" asked Jasper.
"It affects your own character, and it is in consequence a very embarrassing matter for me to discuss," said the little man.
Again the other favored him with that inscrutable smile of his.
"My moral character, I presume, is now being assailed," he said flippantly. "Please go on; you promise to be interesting."
"You were in Holland a short time ago. Does Miss Nuttall know this?"
"She is well aware of the fact."
"You were in Holland with a lady," accused Mr. Mann slowly. "Is Miss Nuttall well aware of this fact, too?"
Jasper slipped from the table and stood upright. Through his narrow lids he looked down upon his accuser.
"Is that all you know?" he asked softly.
"Not all, but one of the things I know," retorted the other. "You were seen in her company. She was staying in the same hotel with you as 'Mrs. Cole.'"
"You will excuse me if I decline to discuss the matter," he said.
"Suppose I ask Miss Nuttall to discuss it?" challenged the little man.
"You are the master of your own actions," said Jasper Cole quickly, "and I dare say, if you regard it as expedient, you will tell her, but I can promise you that whether you tell her or not I shall marry Miss Nuttall."
With this he ushered his visitor to the door, and hardly waited for the car to drive off before he had shut that door behind him.
Late that night the two friends forgathered and exchanged their experiences.
"I am sure there is something very wrong indeed," said Frank emphatically. "She was not herself. She spoke mechanically, almost as though she were reciting a lesson. You had the feeling that she was connected by wires with somebody who was dictating her every word and action. It is damnable, Mann. What can we do?"
"We must prevent the marriage," said the little man quietly, "and employ every means that opportunity suggests to that purpose. Make no mistake," he said emphatically; "Cole will stop at nothing. His attitude was one big bluff. He knows that I have beaten him. It was only by luck that I found out about the woman in Holland. I got my agent to examine the hotel register, and there it was, without any attempt at disguise: 'Mr. and Mrs. Cole, of London.'"
"The thing to do is to see May at once," said Frank, "and put all the facts before her, though I hate the idea; it seems like sneaking."
"Sneaking!" exploded Saul Arthur Mann. "What nonsense you talk! You are too full of scruples, my friend, for this work. I will see her to-morrow."
"I will go with you," said Frank, after a moment's thought. "I have no wish to escape my responsibility in the matter. She will probably hate me for my interference, but I have reached beyond the point where I care--so long as she can be saved."
It was agreed that they should meet one another at the office in the morning and make their way together.
"Remember this," said Mann, seriously, before they parted, "that if Cole finds the game is up he will stop at nothing."
"Do you think we ought to take precautions?" asked Frank.
"Honestly I do," confessed the other, "I don't think we can get the men from the Yard, but there is a very excellent agency which sometimes works for me, and they can provide a guard for the girl."
"I wish you would get in touch with them," said Frank earnestly. "I am worried sick over this business. She ought never to be left out of their sight. I will see if I can have a talk to her maid, so that we may know whenever she is going out. There ought to be a man on a motor cycle always waiting about the Savoy to follow her wherever she goes."
They parted at the entrance of the bureau, Saul Arthur Mann returning to telephone the necessary instructions. How necessary they were was proved that very night.
At nine o'clock May was sitting down to a solitary dinner when a telegram was delivered to her. It was from the chief of the little mission in which she had been interested, and ran:
Very urgent. Have something of the greatest importance to tell you.
It was signed with the name of the matron of the mission, and, leaving her dinner untouched, May only delayed long enough to change her dress before she was speeding in a taxi eastward.
She arrived at the "hall," which was the headquarters of the mission, to find it in darkness. A man who was evidently a new helper was waiting in the doorway and addressed her.
"You are Miss Nuttall, aren't you? I thought so. The matron has gone down to Silvers Rents, and she asked me to go along with you."
The girl dismissed the taxi, and in company with her guide threaded the narrow tangle of streets between the mission and Silvers Rents. She was halfway along one of the ill-lighted thoroughfares when she noticed that drawn up by the side of the road was a big, handsome motor car, and she wondered what had brought this evidence of luxurious living to the mean streets of Canning Town. She was not left in doubt very long, for as she came up to the lights and was shielding her eyes from their glare her arms were tightly grasped, a shawl was thrown over her head, and she was lifted and thrust into the car's interior. A hand gripped her throat.
"You scream and I will kill you!" hissed a voice in her ear.
At that moment the car started, and the girl, with a scream which was strangled in her throat, fell swooning back on the seat.
May recovered consciousness to find the car still rushing forward in the dark and the hand of her captor still resting at her throat.
"You be a sensible girl," said a muffled voice, "and do as you're told and no harm will come to you."
It was too dark to see his face, and it was evident that even if there were light the face was so well concealed that she could not recognize the speaker. Then she remembered that this man, who had acted as her guide, had been careful to keep in the shadow of whatever light there was while he was conducting her, as he said, to the matron.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked.
"You'll know in time," was the noncommittal answer.
It was a wild night; rain splashed against the windows of the car, and she could hear the wind howling above the noise of the engines. They were evidently going into the country, for now and again, by the light of the headlamps, she glimpsed hedges and trees which flashed past. Her captor suddenly let down one of the windows and leaned out, giving some instructions to the driver. What they were she guessed, for the lights were suddenly switched off and the car ran in darkness.
The girl was in a panic for all her bold showing. She knew that this desperate man was fearless of consequence, and that, if her death would achieve his ends and the ends of his partners, her life was in imminent peril. What were those ends, she wondered. Were these the same men who had done to death John Minute?
"Who are you?" she asked.
There was a little, chuckling laugh.
"You'll know soon enough."
The words were hardly out of his mouth when there was a terrific crash. The car stopped suddenly and canted over, and the girl was jerked forward to her knees. Every pane of glass in the car was smashed, and it was clear, from the angle at which it lay, that irremediable damage had been done. The man scrambled up, kicked open the door, and jumped out.
"Level-crossing gate, sir," said the voice of the chauffeur. "I've broken my wrist."
With the disappearance of her captor, the girl had felt for the fastening of the opposite door, and had turned it. To her delight it opened smoothly, and had evidently been unaffected by the jam. She stepped out to the road, trembling in every limb.
She felt, rather than saw, the level-crossing gate, and knew that at one side was a swing gate for passengers. She reached this when her abductor discovered her flight.
"Come back!" he cried hoarsely.
She heard a roar and saw a flashing of lights and fled across the line just as an express train came flying northward. It missed her by inches, and the force of the wind threw her to the ground. She scrambled up, stumbled across the remaining rails, and, reaching the gate opposite, fled down the dark road She had gained just that much time which the train took in passing. She ran blindly along the dark road, slipping and stumbling in the mud, and she heard her pursuer squelching through the mud in the rear.
The wind flew her hair awry, the rain beat down upon her face, but she stumbled on. Suddenly she slipped and fell, and as she struggled to her feet the heavy hand of her pursuer fell upon her shoulder, and she screamed aloud.
"None of that," said the voice, and his hand covered her mouth.
At that moment a bright light enveloped the two, a light so intensely, dazzlingly white, so unexpected that it hit the girl almost like a blow. It came from somewhere not two yards away, and the man released his hold upon the girl and stared at the light.
"Hello!" said a voice from the darkness. "What's the game?"
She was behind the man, and could not see his face. All that she knew was that here was help, unexpected, Heaven sent, and she strove to recover her breath and her speech.
"It's all right," growled the man. "She's a lunatic and I'm taking her to the asylum."
Suddenly the light was pushed forward to the man's face, and a heavy hand was laid upon his shoulder.
"You are, are you?" said the other. "Well, I am going to take you to a lunatic asylum, Sergeant Smith or Crawley or whatever your name is. You know me; my name's Wiseman."
For a moment the man stood as though petrified, and then, with a sudden jerk, he wrenched his hand free and sprang at the policeman with a wild yell of rage, and in a second both men were rolling over in the darkness. Constable Wiseman was no child, but he had lost his initial advantage, and by the time he got to his feet and had found his electric torch Crawley had vanished.
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