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SERGEANT SMITH CALLS
The big library of Weald Lodge was brilliantly lighted and nobody had pulled down the blinds. So that it was possible for any man who troubled to jump the low stone wall which ran by the road and push a way through the damp shrubbery to see all that was happening in the room.
Weald Lodge stands between Eastbourne and Wilmington, and in the winter months the curious, represented by youthful holiday makers, are few and far between. Constable Wiseman, of the Eastbourne constabulary, certainly was not curious. He paced his slow, moist way and merely noted, in passing, the fact that the flood of light reflected on the little patch of lawn at the side of the house.
The hour was nine o'clock on a June evening, and officially it was only the hour of sunset, though lowering rain clouds had so darkened the world that night had closed down upon the weald, had blotted out its pleasant villages and had hidden the green downs.
He continued to the end of his beat and met his impatient superior.
"Everything's all right, sergeant," he reported; "only old Minute's lights are blazing away and his windows are open."
"Better go and warn him," said the sergeant, pulling his bicycle into position for mounting.
He had his foot on the treadle, but hesitated.
"I'd warn him myself, but I don't think he'd be glad to see me."
He grinned to himself, then remarked: "Something queer about Minute--eh?"
"There is, indeed," agreed Constable Wiseman heartily. His beat was a lonely one, and he was a very bored man. If by agreement with his officer he could induce that loquacious gentleman to talk for a quarter of an hour, so much dull time might be passed. The fact that Sergeant Smith was loquacious indicated, too, that he had been drinking and was ready to quarrel with anybody.
"Come under the shelter of that wall," said the sergeant, and pushed his machine to the protection afforded by the side wall of a house.
It is possible that the sergeant was anxious to impress upon his subordinate's mind a point of view which might be useful to himself one day.
"Minute is a dangerous old man," he said.
"Don't I know it?" said Constable Wiseman, with the recollection of sundry "reportings" and inquiries.
"You've got to remember that, Wiseman," the sergeant went on; "and by 'dangerous' I mean that he's the sort of old fellow that would ask a constable to come in to have a drink and then report him."
"Good Lord!" said the shocked Mr. Wiseman at this revelation of the blackest treachery.
Sergeant Smith nodded.
"That's the sort of man he is," he said. "I knew him years ago--at least, I've seen him. I was in Matabeleland with him, and I tell you there's nothing too mean for 'Ready-Money Minute'--curse him!"
"I'll bet you have had a terrible life, sergeant," encouraged Constable Wiseman.
The other laughed bitterly.
"I have," he said.
Sergeant Smith's acquaintance with Eastbourne was a short one. He had only been four years in the town, and had, so rumor ran, owed his promotion to influence. What that influence was none could say. It had been suggested that John Minute himself had secured him his sergeant's stripes, but that was a theory which was pooh-poohed by people who knew that the sergeant had little that was good to say of his supposed patron.
Constable Wiseman, a profound thinker and a secret reader of sensational detective stories, had at one time made a report against John Minute for some technical offense, and had made it in fear and trembling, expecting his sergeant promptly to squash this attempt to persecute his patron; but, to his surprise and delight, Sergeant Smith had furthered his efforts and had helped to secure the conviction which involved a fine.
"You go on and finish your beat, Constable," said the sergeant suddenly, "and I'll ride up to the old devil's house and see what's doing."
He mounted his bicycle and trundled up the hill, dismounting before Weald Lodge, and propped his bicycle against the wall. He looked for a long time toward the open French windows, and then, jumping the wall, made his way slowly across the lawn, avoiding the gravel path which would betray his presence. He got to a point opposite the window which commanded a full view of the room.
Though the window was open, there was a fire in the grate. To the sergeant's satisfaction, John Minute was alone. He sat in a deep armchair in his favorite attitude, his hands pushed into his pockets, his head upon his chest. He heard the sergeant's foot upon the gravel and stood up as the rain-drenched figure appeared at the open window.
"Oh, it is you, is it?" growled John Minute. "What do you want?"
"Alone?" said the sergeant, and he spoke as one to his equal.
Mr. Minute's library had been furnished by the Artistic Furniture Company, of Eastbourne, which had branches at Hastings, Bexhill, Brighton, and--it was claimed--at London. The furniture was of dark oak, busily carved. There was a large bookcase which half covered one wall. This was the "library," and it was filled with books of uniform binding which occupied the shelves. The books had been supplied by a great bookseller of London, and included--at Mr. Minute's suggestion--"The Hundred Best Books," "Books That Have Helped Me," "The Encyclopedia Brillonica," and twenty bound volumes of a certain weekly periodical of international reputation. John Minute had no literary leanings.
The sergeant hesitated, wiped his heavy boots on the sodden mat outside the window, and walked into the room.
"You are pretty cozy, John," he said.
"What do you want?" asked Minute, without enthusiasm.
"I thought I'd look you up. My constable reported your windows were open, and I felt it my duty to come along and warn you--there are thieves about, John."
"I know of one," said John Minute, looking at the other steadily. "Your constable, as you call him, is, I presume, that thick-headed jackass, Wiseman!"
"Got him first time," said the sergeant, removing his waterproof cape. "I don't often trouble you, but somehow I had a feeling I'd like to see you to-night. My constable revived old memories, John."
"Unpleasant for you, I hope," said John Minute ungraciously.
"There's a nice little gold farm four hundred miles north of Gwelo," said Sergeant Smith meditatively.
"And a nice little breakwater half a mile south of Cape Town," said John Minute, "where the Cape government keeps highwaymen who hold up the Salisbury coach and rob the mails."
Sergeant Smith smiled.
"You will have your little joke," he said; "but I might remind you that they have plenty of accommodation on the breakwater, John. They even take care of men who have stolen land and murdered natives."
"What do you want?" asked John Minute again.
The other grinned.
"Just a pleasant little friendly visit," he explained. "I haven't looked you up for twelve months. It is a hard life, this police work, even when you have got two or three pounds a week from a private source to add to your pay. It is nothing like the work we have in the Matabele mounted police, eh, John? But, Lord," he said, looking into the fire thoughtfully, "when I think how I stood up in the attorney's office at Salisbury and took my solemn oath that old John Gedding had transferred his Saibach gold claims to you on his death bed; when I think of the amount of perjury--me a uniformed servant of the British South African Company, and, so to speak, an official of the law--I blush for myself."
"Do you ever blush for yourself when you think of how you and your pals held up Hoffman's store, shot Hoffman, and took his swag?" asked John Minute. "I'd give a lot of money to see you blush, Crawley; and now, for about the fourteenth time, what do you want? If it is money, you can't have it. If it is more promotion, you are not fit to have it. If it is a word of advice--"
The other stopped him with a motion of his hand.
"I can't afford to have your advice, John," he said. "All I know is that you promised me my fair share over those Saibach claims. It is a paying mine now. They tell me that its capital is two millions."
"You were well paid," said John Minute shortly.
"Five hundred pounds isn't much for the surrender of your soul's salvation," said Sergeant Smith.
He slowly replaced his cape on his broad shoulders and walked to the window.
"Listen here, John Minute!" All the good nature had gone out of his voice, and it was Trooper Henry Crawley, the lawbreaker, who spoke. "You are not going to satisfy me much longer with a few pounds a week. You have got to do the right thing by me, or I am going to blow."
"Let me know when your blowing starts," said John Minute, "and I'll send you a bowl of soup to cool."
"You're funny, but you don't amuse me," were the last words of the sergeant as he walked into the rain.
As before, he avoided the drive and jumped over the low wall on to the road, and was glad that he had done so, for a motor car swung into the drive and pulled up before the dark doorway of the house. He was over the wall again in an instant, and crossing with swift, noiseless steps in the direction of the car. He got as close as he could and listened.
Two of the voices he recognized. The third, that of a man, was a stranger. He heard this third person called "inspector," and wondered who was the guest. His curiosity was not to be satisfied, for by the time he had reached the view place on the lawn which overlooked the library John Minute had closed the windows and pulled down the blinds.
The visitors to Weald Lodge were three--Jasper Cole, May Nuttall, and a stout, middle-aged man of slow speech but of authoritative tone. This was Inspector Nash, of Scotland Yard, who was in charge of the investigations into the forgeries. Minute received them in the library. He knew the inspector of old.
Jasper had brought May down in response to the telegraphed instructions which John Minute had sent him.
"What's the news?" he asked.
"Well, I think I have found your Mr. Holland," said the inspector.
He took a fat case from his inside pocket, opened it, and extracted a snapshot photograph. It represented a big motor car, and, standing by its bonnet, a little man in chauffeur's uniform.
"This is the fellow who called himself 'Rex Holland' and who sent the commissionaire on his errand. The photograph came into my possession as the result of an accident. It was discovered in the flat and had evidently fallen out of the man's pocket. I made inquiries and found that it was taken by a small photographer in Putney, and that the man had called for the photographs about ten o'clock in the morning of the same day that he sent the commissionaire on his errand. He was probably examining them during the period of his waiting in the flat, and one of them slipped to the ground. At any rate, the commissionaire has no doubt that this was the man."
"Do you seriously suggest that this fellow is Rex Holland?"
The inspector shook his head.
"I think he is merely one of the gang," he said. "I don't believe you will ever find Rex Holland, for each of the gang took the name in turn to take the part, according to the circumstances in which they found themselves. I have been unable to identify him, except that he went by the name of Feltham and was an Australian. That was the name he gave to the photographer with whom he talked. You see, the photograph was taken in High Street, Putney. The only clew we have is that he has been seen several times on the Portsmouth Road, driving one or two cars in which was a man who is probably the nearest approach to Rex Holland we shall get.
"I put my men on to make further investigations, and the Haslemere police told them that it is believed that the car was the property of a gentleman who lived in a lockup cottage some distance from Haslemere--evidently rather a swagger affair, because its owner had an electric cable and telephone wires laid in, and the cottage was altered and renovated twelve months ago at a very considerable cost. I shall be able to tell you more about that to-morrow."
They spent the rest of the evening discussing the crime, and the girl was a silent listener. It was not until very late that John Minute was able to give her his undivided attention.
"I asked you to come down," he said, "because I am getting a little worried about you."
"Worried about me, uncle?" she said, in surprise.
The two men had gone off to Jasper's study, and she was alone with her uncle.
"When I lunched with you the other day at the Savoy," he said, "I spoke to you about your marriage, and I asked you to defer any action for a fortnight."
"I was coming down to see you on that very matter," she said. "Uncle, won't you tell me why you want me to delay my marriage for a fortnight, and why you think I am going to get married at all?"
He did not answer immediately, but paced up and down the room.
"May," he said, "you have heard a great deal about me which is not very flattering. I lived a very rough life in South Africa, and I only had one friend in the world in whom I had the slightest confidence. That friend was your father. He stood by me in my bad times. He never worried me when I was flush of money, never denied me when I was broke. Whenever he helped me, he was content with what reward I offered him. There was no 'fifty-fifty' with Bill Nuttall. He was a man who had no ambition, no avarice--the whitest man I have ever met. What I have not told you about him is this: He and I were equal partners in a mine, the Gwelo Deep. He had great faith in the mine, and I had none at all. I knew it to be one of those properties you sometimes get in Rhodesia, all pocket and outcrop. Anyway, we floated a company."
He stopped and chuckled as at an amusing memory.
"The pound shares were worth a little less than sixpence until a fortnight ago."
He looked at her with one of those swift, penetrating glances, as though he were anxious to discover her thoughts.
"A fortnight ago," he said, "I learned from my agent in Bulawayo that a reef had been struck on an adjoining mine, and that the reef runs through our property. If that is true, you will be a rich woman in your own right, apart from the money you get from me. I cannot tell whether it is true until I have heard from the engineers, who are now examining the property, and I cannot know that for a fortnight. May, you are a dear girl," he said, and laid his hand on her arm, "and I have looked after you as though you were my own daughter. It is a happiness to me to know that you will be a very rich woman, because your father's shares was the only property you inherited from him. There is, however, one curious thing about it that I cannot understand."
He walked over to the bureau, unlocked a drawer, and took out a letter.
"My agent says that he advised me two years ago that this reef existed, and wondered why I had never given him authority to bore. I have no recollection of his ever having told me anything of the sort. Now you know the position," he said, putting back the letter and closing the drawer with a bang.
"You want me to wait for a better match," said the girl.
He inclined his head.
"I don't want you to get married for a fortnight," he repeated.
May Nuttall went to bed that night full of doubt and more than a little unhappy. The story that John Minute told about her father--was it true? Was it a story invented on the spur of the moment to counter Frank's plan? She thought of Frank and his almost solemn entreaty. There had been no mistaking his earnestness or his sincerity. If he would only take her into his confidence--and yet she recognized and was surprised at the revelation that she did not want that confidence. She wanted to help Frank very badly, and it was not the romance of the situation which appealed to her. There was a large sense of duty, something of that mother sense which every woman possesses, which tempted her to the sacrifice. Yet was it a sacrifice?
She debated that question half the night, tossing from side to side. She could not sleep, and, rising before the dawn, slipped into her dressing gown and went to the window. The rain had ceased, the clouds had broken and stood in black bars against the silver light of dawn. She felt unaccountably hungry, and after a second's hesitation she opened the door and went down the broad stairs to the hall.
To reach the kitchen she had to pass her uncle's door, and she noticed that it was ajar. She thought possibly he had gone to bed and left the light on, and her hand was on the knob to investigate when she heard a voice and drew back hurriedly. It was the voice of Jasper Cole.
"I have been into the books very carefully with Mackensen, the accountant, and there seems no doubt," he said.
"You think--" demanded her uncle.
"I am certain," answered Jasper, in his even, passionless tone. "The fraud has been worked by Frank. He had access to the books. He was the only person who saw Rex Holland; he was the only official at the bank who could possibly falsify the entries and at the same time hide his trail."
The girl turned cold and for a moment swayed as though she would faint. She clutched the jamb of the door for support and waited.
"I am half inclined to your belief," said John Minute slowly. "It is awful to believe that Frank is a forger, as his father was--awful!"
"It is pretty ghastly," said Jasper's voice, "but it is true."
The girl flung open the door and stood in the doorway.
"It is a lie!" she cried wrathfully. "A horrible lie--and you know it is a lie, Jasper!"
Without another word, she turned, slamming the door behind her.
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