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In the rectory at Great Bradley, Lady Constance Dex arose from a sleepless night to confront her placid brother at the breakfast table. The Reverend Jeremiah Bangley, a stout and easy man, who spent as much of his time in London as in his rectory, was frankly nonplussed by the apparition. He was one of those men, common enough, who accept the most extraordinary happenings as being part of life's normal round. An earthquake in Little Bradley which swallowed up his church and the major portion of his congregation would not have interested him any more than the budding of the trees, or a sudden arrival of flower life in his big walled garden. Now, however, he was obviously astonished.
"What brings you to breakfast, Constance?" he asked. "I have not seen you at this table for many years."
"I could not sleep," she said, as she helped herself at the sideboard to a crisp morsel of bacon. "I think I will take my writing pad to Moor Cottage."
He pursed his lips, this easy going rector of Little Bradley.
"I have always thought," he said, "that Moor Cottage was not the most desirable gift the late Mr. Farrington could have made to you." He paused, to allow her a rejoinder, but as she made no reply, he went on: "It is isolated, standing on the edge of the moor, away from the ordinary track of people. I am always scared, my dear Constance, that one of these days you will have some wretched tramp, or a person of the criminal classes, causing you a great deal of distress and no little inconvenience."
There was much of truth in what he said. Moor Cottage, a pretty little one-storied dwelling, had been built by the owner of the Secret House at the same time that the house itself had been erected. It was intended, so the builder said, to serve the purpose of a summer house, and certainly it offered seclusion, for it was placed on the edge of the moor, approached by a by-road which was scarcely ever traversed, since Bradley mines had been worked out and abandoned.
Many years ago when the earth beneath the moor had been tunnelled left and right by the seekers after tin and lead, Moor Cottage might have stood in the centre of a hive of industry. The ramshackle remains of the miners' cottage were to be seen on the other side of the hill; the broken and deserted headgear of the pit, and the discoloured chimney of the old power house were still visible a quarter of a mile from the cottage.
It suited the owner of the Secret House, however, to have this little cottage erected, though it was nearly two miles from the Secret House, and he had spared neither expense nor trouble in preparing a handsome interior.
Lady Constance Dex had been the recipient of many gifts from Mr. Farrington and his friends. There had been a period when Farrington could not do enough for her, and had showered upon her every mark of his esteem, and Moor Cottage had perhaps been the most magnificent of these presents. Here she could find seclusion, and in the pretty oak-panelled rooms reconstruct those happy days which Great Bradley had at one time offered to her.
"It is a little lonely," she smiled at her brother.
She had a good-natured contempt for his opinion. He was a large, lethargic man, who had commonplace views on all subjects.
"But really you know, Jerry, I am quite a capable person, and Brown will be near by, in case of necessity."
He nodded, and addressed himself again to the Times, the perusal of which she had interrupted.
"I have nothing more to say," he said from behind his newspaper. By and by he put it down.
"Who is this Mr. Smith?" he asked, suddenly.
"Mr. Smith?" she said, with interest. "Which Mr. Smith are you referring to?"
"I think he is a detective person," said the Reverend Jeremiah Bangley; "he has honoured us with a great number of visits lately."
"I mean Great Bradley," he explained. "Do you think there is anything wrong at the Secret House?"
"What could there be wrong," she asked, "that has not been wrong for the last ten or twenty years?"
He shrugged his massive shoulders.
"I have never quite approved of the Secret House," he said, unnecessarily.
She finished her hurried breakfast and rose.
"You have never approved of anything, Jerry," she said, tapping him on the shoulder as she passed.
She looked through the window; the victoria she had ordered was waiting at the door, with the imperturbable Brown sitting on the box.
"I shall be back to lunch," she said.
Looking through a window he saw her mount into the carriage carrying a portfolio. In that letter case, although he did not know it, were the letters and diaries which Dr. Goldworthy had brought from the Congo. In the seclusion of Moor Cottage she found the atmosphere to understand the words, written now in fire upon her very soul, and to plan her future.
There was no servant at Moor Cottage. She was in the habit of sending one of her own domestic staff after her visit to make it tidy for her future reception.
She let herself in through the little door placed under the green-covered porch.
"You can unharness the horse; I shall be here two hours," she said to the waiting Brown.
The man touched his hat. He was used to these excursions and was possessed of the patience of his class. He backed the victoria on to the moor by the side of the fence which surrounded the house. There was a little stable at the back, but it was never used. He unharnessed the horse, fixed his nosebag, and sat down to read his favourite newspaper; a little journal which dealt familiarly with the erratic conduct of the upper classes. He was not a quick reader, and there was sufficient in the gossipy journal to occupy his attention for three or four hours. At the end of an hour he thought he heard his lady's voice calling him, and jumping up, he walked to the door of the cottage.
He listened, but there was no other sound, and he came back to his previous position, and continued his study of the decadent aristocracy. Four hours he waited, and assailed by a most human hunger, his patience was pardonably exhausted.
He rose slowly, harnessed the horse, and drove the victoria ostentatiously before the window of the little sitting-room which Lady Constance Dex used as a study. Another half an hour passed without any response, and he got down from his box and knocked at the door.
There was no answer; he knocked again; still no reply.
In alarm he went to the window and peered in. The floor was strewn with papers scattered in confusion. A chair had been overturned. More to the point, he saw an overturned inkpot, which was eloquent to his ordered mind of an unusual happening.
Increasingly alarmed, he put his shoulder to the door, but it did not yield. He tried the window; it was locked.
It was at that moment that a motor came swiftly over the hill from the direction of the rectory. With a jar it came to a sudden stop before the house, and T. B. Smith leapt out.
Brown had seen the detective before on his visits to the rectory, and now hailed him as veritably god-sent.
"Where is Lady Constance?" asked T. B., quickly.
The man pointed to the house with trembling finger.
"She's in there somewhere," he said, fretfully, "but I can't make her answer ... and the room appears to be very disordered."
He led the way to the window. T. B. looked in and saw that which confirmed his worst fears.
"Stand back," he said.
He raised his ebony stick and sent it smashing through the glass. In a second his hand was inside unlocking the latch of the window; a few seconds later he was in the room itself. He passed swiftly from room to room, but there was no sign of Lady Constance. On the floor of the study was a piece of lace collar, evidently wrenched from her gown.
"Hullo!" said Ela, who had followed him. He pointed to the table. On a sheet of paper was the print of a bloody palm.
"Farrington," said T. B., briefly, "he has been here; but how did he get out?"
He questioned the coachman closely, but the man was emphatic.
"No, sir," he said, "it would have been impossible for anybody to have passed out of here without my seeing them. Not only could I see the cottage from where I sat, but the whole of the hillside."
"Is there any other place where she could be?"
"There is the outhouse," said Brown, after a moment's thought; "we used to put up the victoria there, but we never use it nowadays in fine weather."
The outhouse consisted of a large coachhouse and a small stable. There was no lock to the doors, T. B. noticed, and he pulled them open wide. There was a heap of straw in one corner, kept evidently as a provision against the need of the visiting coachman. T. B. stepped into the outhouse, then suddenly with a cry he leant down, and caught a figure by the collar and swung him to his feet.
"Will you kindly explain what you are doing here?" he asked, and then gave a gasp of astonishment, for the sleepy-eyed prisoner in his hands was Frank Doughton.
"It is a curious story you tell me," said T. B.
"I admit it is curious," said Frank, with a smile, "and I am so sleepy that I do not know how much I have told you, and how much I have imagined."
"You told me," recapitulated T. B., "that you were kidnapped last night in London, that you were carried through London and into the country in an unknown direction, and that you made your escape from the motor-car by springing out in the early hours of this morning, whilst the car was going at a slackened speed."
"That is it," said the other. "I have not the slightest idea where I am; perhaps you can tell me?"
"You are near Great Bradley," said T. B., with a smile. "I wonder you do not recognize your home; for home it is, as I understand."
Frank looked round with astonished eyes.
"What were they bringing me here for?" he demanded.
"That remains to be discovered," replied T. B.; "my own impression is that you----"
"Do you think I was being taken to the Secret House?" interrupted the young man, suddenly.
T. B. shook his head.
"I should think that was unlikely. I suspect our friend Poltavo of having carried out this little coup entirely on his own. I further suspect his having brought the car in this direction with no other object than to throw suspicion upon our worthy friends across the hill--and how did you come to the outhouse?"
"I was dead beat," explained Frank. "I had a sudden spasm of strength which enabled me to out-distance those people who were pursuing me, but after I had shaken them off I felt that I could drop. I came upon this cottage, which seemed the only habitation in view, and after endeavouring to waken the occupants I did the next best thing, I made my way into the coachhouse and fell asleep."
T. B. had no misgivings so far as this story was concerned; he accepted it as adding only another obstacle to the difficulties of his already difficult task.
"You heard no sound whilst you lay there?"
"None whatever," said the young man.
"No sound of a struggle, I mean," said T. B., and then it was that he explained to Frank Doughton the extraordinary disappearance of the owner of Moor Cottage.
"She must be in the house," said Frank.
They went back and resumed their search. Upstairs was a bedroom, and adjoining a bath-room. On the ground floor were two rooms: the study he had quitted and a smaller room beautifully decorated and containing a piano. But the search was fruitless; Lady Constance Dex had disappeared as though the earth had opened and swallowed her up. There was no sign of a trap in the whole of the little building, and T. B. was baffled.
"It is a scientific axiom," he said, addressing Ela with a thoughtful glint in his eye, "that matter must occupy space, therefore Lady Constance Dex must be in existence, she cannot have evaporated into thin air, and I am not going to leave this place until I find her."
Ela was thinking deeply, and frowning at the untidiness of the table.
"Do you remember that locket which you found on one of the dead men in Brakely Square?" he asked suddenly.
T. B. nodded. He put his hand in his waistcoat pocket, for he had carried that locket ever since the night of its discovery.
"Let us have a look at the inscription again," said Ela.
They drew up chairs to the table and examined the little circular label which they had found in the battered interior.
God sav the Keng."
Ela shook his head helplessly.
"I am perfectly sure there is a solution here," he said. "Do you see those words on the top? 'Mor: Cot.'--that stands for Moor Cottage."
"By Jove, so it does," said T. B., picking up the locket; "that never struck me before. It was the secret of Moor Cottage which this man discovered, and with which he was trying to blackmail our friend. So far as the patriotic postscript is concerned that is beyond my understanding."
"There is a meaning to it," said Ela, "and it is not a cryptogram either. You see how he has forgotten to put the 'e' in 'save'? And he has spelt 'king' 'keng.'"
They waited before the house whilst Brown drove to the rectory, and then on to the town. Jeremiah Bangley arrived in a state of calm anticipation. That his sister had disappeared did not seem to strike him as a matter for surprise, though he permitted himself to say that it was a very remarkable occurrence.
"I have always warned Constance not to be here alone, and I should never have forgiven myself if Brown had not been on the spot," he said.
"Can you offer any explanation?"
The rector shook his head. He was totally ignorant of the arrangements of the house, had never, so he said, put foot in it in his life. This was perfectly true, for he was an incurious man who did not greatly bother himself about the affairs of other people. The local police arrived in half an hour, headed by the chief inspector, who happened to be in the station when the report was brought in.
"I suppose I had better take this young man to the station?" he said, indicating Frank.
"Why?" asked T. B. calmly; "what do you gain by arresting him? As a matter of fact there is no evidence whatever which would implicate Mr. Doughton, and I am quite prepared to give you my own guarantee to produce him whenever you may require him.
"The best thing you can do is to get back to town," he said kindly to that young man; "you need a little sleep. It is not a pleasant prelude to your marriage. By the way, that is to-morrow, is it not?" he asked, suddenly.
"I wonder if that has anything to do with your kidnapping," said T. B. thoughtfully. "Is there any person who is anxious that this marriage should not come about?"
"I hardly like to accuse a man," he said, "but Poltavo----"
"Poltavo?" repeated T. B. quickly.
"Yes," said Frank; "he has some views on the question of Miss Gray."
He spoke reluctantly, for he was loath to introduce Doris' name into the argument.
"Poltavo would have a good reason," mused T. B. Smith. "Tell me what happened in the car."
Briefly Frank related the circumstances which had led up to his capture.
"When I found myself in their hands," he said, "I decided to play 'possum for a while. The car was moving at incredible speed, remembering your stringent traffic regulations,"--he smiled,--"and I knew that any attempt to escape on my part would result in serious injury to myself. They made no bones about their intentions. Before we were clear of London they had pulled the blinds, and one of them had switched on the electric lamp. They were both masked, and were, I think, foreigners. One sat opposite to me, all through the night, a revolver on his knees, and he did not make any disguise of his intention of employing his weapon if I gave the slightest trouble.
"I could not tell, because of the lowered blinds, which direction we were taking, but presently we struck the country and they let down one of the windows without raising the blind and I could smell the sweet scent of the fields, and knew we were miles away from London.
"I think I must have dozed a little, for very suddenly, it seemed, daylight came, and I had the good sense in waking to make as little stir as possible. I found the man sitting opposite was also in a mild doze, and the other at my side was nodding.
"I took a very careful survey of the situation. The car was moving very slowly, and evidently the driver had orders to move at no particular pace through the night, in order to economize the petrol. There was an inside handle to each of the doors, and I had to make up my mind by which I was to make my escape. I decided upon the near side. Gathering up my energies for one supreme effort, I suddenly leapt up, flung open the door, and jumped out. I had enough experience of the London traffic to clear the car without stumbling.
"I found myself upon a heath, innocent of any cover, save for a belt of trees about half a mile ahead of me as I ran. Fortunately the down, which was apparently flat, was, in fact, of a rolling character, and in two minutes I must have been out of sight of the car--long before they had brought the driver, himself half asleep probably, to an understanding that I had made my escape. They caught sight of me as I came up from the hollow, and one of them must have fired at me, for I heard the whistle of a bullet pass my head. That is all the story I have to tell. It was rather a tame conclusion to what promised to be a most sensational adventure."
At the invitation of the Reverend Jeremiah he drove back to the rectory, and left T. B. to continue his search for the missing Lady Constance. No better result attended the second scrutiny of the rooms than had resulted from the first.
"The only suggestion I can make now," said T. B., helplessly, "is that whilst our friend the coachman was reading, his lady slipped out without attracting his attention and strolled away; she will in all probability be awaiting us at the rectory."
Yet in his heart he knew that this view was absolutely wrong. The locked doors, the evidence of a struggle in the room, the bloody hand print, all pointed conclusively to foul play.
"At any rate Lady Constance Dex is somewhere within the radius of four miles," he said, grimly, "and I will find her if I have to pull down the Secret House stone by stone."
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