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Julian, notwithstanding his deliberate intention of abandoning himself to an hour's complete repose, became, after the first few minutes of solitude, conscious of a peculiar and increasing sense of restlessness. With the help of a rubber-shod stick which leaned against his chair, he rose presently to his feet and moved about the room, revealing a lameness which had the appearance of permanency. In the small, white-ceilinged apartment his height became more than ever noticeable, also the squareness of his shoulders and the lean vigour of his frame. He handled his gun for a moment and laid it down; glanced at the card stuck in the cheap looking glass, which announced that David Grice let lodgings and conducted shooting parties; turned with a shiver from the contemplation of two atrocious oleographs, a church calendar pinned upon the wall, and a battered map of the neighbourhood, back to the table at which he had been seated. He selected a cigarette and lit it. Presently he began to talk to himself, a habit which had grown upon him during the latter years of a life whose secret had entailed a certain amount of solitude.
"Perhaps," he murmured, "I am psychic. Nevertheless, I am convinced that something is happening, something not far away."
He stood for a while, listening intently, the cigarette burning away between his fingers. Then, stooping a little, he passed out into the narrow passage and opened the door into the kitchen behind, from which the woman who came to minister to their wants had some time ago departed. Everything was in order here and spotlessly neat. He climbed the narrow staircase, looked in at Furley's room and his own, and at the third apartment, in which had been rigged up a temporary bath. The result was unilluminating. He turned and descended the stairs.
"Either," he went on, with a very slight frown, "I am not psychic, or whatever may be happening is happening out of doors."
He raised the latch of the door, under which a little pool of water was now standing, and leaned out. There seemed to be a curious cessation of immediate sounds. From somewhere straight ahead of him, on the other side of that black velvet curtain of darkness, came the dull booming of the wind, tearing across the face of the marshes; and beyond it, beating time in a rhythmical sullen roar, the rise and fall of the sea upon the shingle. But near at hand, for some reason, there was almost silence. The rain had ceased, the gale for a moment had spent itself. The strong, salty moisture was doubly refreshing after the closeness of the small, lamplit room. Julian lingered there for several moments.
"Nothing like fresh air," he muttered, "for driving away fancies."
Then he suddenly stiffened. He leaned forward into the dark, listening. This time there was no mistake. A cry, faint and pitiful though it was, reached his ears distinctly.
"Coming, old chap," he shouted. "Wait until I get a torch."
He stepped quickly back into the sitting room, drew an electric torch from the drawer of the homely little chiffonier and, regardless of regulations, stepped once more out into the darkness, now pierced for him by that single brilliant ray. The door opened on to a country road filled with gleaming puddles. On the other side of the way was a strip of grass, sloping downwards; then a broad dyke, across which hung the remains of a footbridge. The voice came from the water, fainter now but still eager. Julian hurried forward, fell on his knees by the side of the dyke and, passing his hands under his friend's shoulders, dragged him out of the black, sluggish water.
"My God!" he exclaimed. "What happened, Miles? Did you slip?"
"The bridge-gave way when I was half across," was the muttered response. "I think my leg's broken. I fell in and couldn't get clear - just managed to raise my head out of the water and cling to the rail."
"Hold tight," Julian enjoined. "I'm going to drag you across the road. It's the best I can do."
They reached the threshold of the sitting room.
"Sorry, old chap," faltered Furley - and fainted.
He came to himself in front of the sitting-room fire, to find his lips wet with brandy and his rescuer leaning over him. His first action was to feel his leg.
"That's all right," Julian assured him. "It isn't broken. I've been over it carefully. If, you're quite comfortable, I'll step down to the village and fetch the medico. It isn't a mile away."
"Don't bother about the doctor for a moment," Furley begged. "Listen to me. Take your torch - go out and examine that bridge. Come back and tell me what's wrong with it."
"What the dickens does that matter?" Julian objected. "It's the doctor we want. The dyke's flooded, and I expect the supports gave way."
"Do as I ask," Furley insisted. "I have a reason."
Julian rose to his feet, walked cautiously to the edge of the dyke, turned on his light, and looked downwards. One part of the bridge remained; the other was caught in the weeds, a few yards down, and the single plank which formed its foundation was sawn through, clean and straight. He gazed at it for a moment in astonishment. Then he turned back towards the cottage, to receive another shock. About forty yards up the lane, drawn in close to a straggling hedge, was a small motor-car, revealed to him by a careless swing of his torch. He turned sharply towards it, keeping his torch as much concealed as possible. It was empty - a small coupe of pearl-grey - a powerful two-seater, with deep, cushioned seats and luxuriously fitted body. He flashed his torch on to the maker's name and returned thoughtfully to his friend.
"Miles," he confessed, as he entered the sitting room, "there are some things I will never make fun of again. Have you a personal enemy here?"
"Not one," replied Furley. "The soldiers, who are all decent fellows, the old farmer at the back, and your father and mother are the only people with whom I have the slightest acquaintance in these parts."
"The bridge has been deliberately sawn through," Julian announced gravely.
Furley nodded. He seemed prepared for the news.
"There is something doing in this section, then," he muttered. "Julian, will you take my job on?"
"Like a bird," was the prompt response. "Tell me exactly what to do?"
Furley sat up, still nursing his leg.
"Put on your sea boots, and your oilskins over your clothes," he directed. "You will want your own stick, so take that revolver and an electric torch. You can't get across the remains of the bridge, but about fifty yards down to the left, as you leave the door, the water's only about a foot deep. Walk through it, scramble up the other side, and come back again along the edge of the dyke until you come to the place where one lands from the broken bridge. Is that clear?"
"After that, you go perfectly straight along a sort of cart track until you come to a gate. When you have passed through it, you must climb a bank on your lefthand side and walk along the top. It's a beastly path, and there are dykes on either side of you."
"Pooh!" Julian exclaimed. "You forget that I am a native of this part of the world."
"You come to a sort of stile at the end of about three hundred yards," Furley continued. "You get over that, and the bank breaks up into two. You keep to the left, and it leads you right down into the marsh. Turn seaward. It will be a nasty scramble, but there will only be about fifty yards of it. Then you get to a bit of rough ground - a bank of grass-grown sand. Below that there is the shingle and the sea. That is where you take up your post."
"Can I use my torch," Julian enquired, "and what am I to look out for?"
"Heaven knows," replied Furley, "except that there's a general suggestion of communications between some person on land and some person approaching from the sea. I don't mind confessing that I've done this job, on and off, whenever I've been down here, for a couple of years, and I've never seen or heard a suspicious thing yet. We are never told a word in our instructions, either, or given any advice. However, what I should do would be to lie flat down on the top of that bank and listen. If you hear anything peculiar, then you must use your discretion about the torch. It's a nasty job to make over to a pal, Julian, but I know you're keen on anything that looks like an adventure."
"All over it," was the ready reply. "What about leaving you alone, though, Miles?"
"You put the whisky and soda where I can get at it," Furley directed, "and I shall be all right. I'm feeling stronger every moment. I expect your sea boots are in the scullery. And hurry up, there's a good fellow. We're twenty minutes behind time, as it is."
Julian started on his adventure without any particular enthusiasm. He found the crossing, returned along the side of the bank, trudged along the cart track until he arrived at the gate, and climbed up on the dyke without misadventure. From here he made his way more cautiously, using his stick with his right hand, his torch, with his thumb upon the knob, in his left. The lull in the storm seemed to be at an end. Black, low-hanging clouds were closing in upon him. Away to the right, where the line of marshes was unbroken, the boom of the wind grew louder. A gust very nearly blew him down the bank. He was compelled to shelter for a moment on its lee side, whilst a scud of snow and sleet passed like an icy whirlwind. The roar of the sea was full in his ears now, and though he must still have been fully two hundred yards away from it, little ghostly specks of white spray were dashed, every now and then, into his face. From here he made his way with great care, almost crawling, until he came to the stile. In the marshes he was twice in salt water over his knees, but he scrambled out until he reached the grass-grown sand bank which Furley had indicated. Obeying orders, he lay down and listened intently for any fainter sounds mingled with the tumult of nature. After a few minutes, it was astonishing how his eyes found themselves able to penetrate the darkness which at first had seemed like a black wall. Some distance to the right he could make out the outline of a deserted barn, once used as a coast-guard station and now only a depository for the storing of life belts. In front of him he could trace the bank of shingle and the line of the sea, and presently the outline of some dark object, lying just out of reach of the breaking waves, attracted his attention. He watched it steadily. For some time it was as motionless as the log he presumed it to be. Then, without any warning, it hunched itself up and drew a little farther back. There was no longer any doubt. It was a human being, lying on its stomach with its head turned to the sea.
Julian, who had entered upon his adventure with the supercilious incredulity of a staunch unbeliever invited to a spiritualist's seance, was conscious for a moment of an absolutely new sensation. A person of acute psychological instincts, he found himself analysing that sensation almost as soon as it was conceived.
"There is no doubt," he confessed under his breath, "that I am afraid!"
His heart was beating with unaccustomed vigour; he was conscious of an acute tingling in all his senses. Then, still lying on his stomach, almost holding his breath, he saw the thin line of light from an electric torch steal out along the surface of the sea, obviously from the hand of his fellow watcher. Almost at that same moment the undefined agitation which had assailed him passed. He set his teeth and watched that line of light. It moved slowly sideways along the surface of the sea, as though searching for something. Julian drew himself cautiously, inch by inch, to the extremity of the sand hummock. His brain was working with a new clearness. An inspiration flashed in upon him during those few seconds. He knew the geography of the place well, - the corner of the barn, the steeple beyond, and the watcher lying in a direct line. His cipher was explained!
Perfectly cool now, Julian thought with some regret of the revolver which he had scorned to bring. He occupied himself, during these seconds of watching, by considering with care what his next action was to be. If he even set his foot upon the shingle, the watcher below would take alarm, and if he once ran away, pursuit was hopeless. The figure, so far as he could distinguish it, was more like that of a boy than a man. Julian began to calculate coolly the chances of an immediate intervention. Then things happened, and for a moment he held his breath.
The line of light had shot out once more, and this time it seemed to reveal something, something which rose out of the water and which looked like nothing so much as a long strip of zinc piping. The watcher at the edge of the sea threw down his torch and gripped the end of it, and Julian, carried away with excitement, yielded to an instant and overpowering temptation. He flashed on his own torch and watched while the eager figure seemed by some means to unscrew the top of the coil and drew from it a dark, rolled-up packet. Even at that supreme moment, the slim figure upon the beach seemed to become conscious of the illumination of which he was the centre. He swung round, - and that was just as far as Julian Orden got in his adventure. After a lapse of time, during which he seemed to live in a whirl of blackness, where a thousand men were beating at a thousand anvils, filling the world with sparks, with the sound of every one of their blows reverberating in his ears, he opened his eyes to find himself lying on his back, with one leg in a pool of salt water, which was being dashed industriously into his face by an unseen hand. By his side he was conscious of the presence of a thick-set man in a fisherman's costume of brown oilskins and a southwester pulled down as though to hide his features, obviously the man who had dealt him the blow. Then he heard a very soft, quiet voice behind him.
"He will do now. Come."
The man by his side grunted.
"I am going to make sure of him," he said thickly. Again he heard that clear voice from behind, this time a little raised. The words failed to reach his brain, but the tone was one of cold and angry dissent, followed by an imperative order. Then once more his senses seemed to be leaving him. He passed into the world which seemed to consist only of himself and a youth in fisherman's oilskins, who was sometimes Furley, sometimes his own sister, sometimes the figure of a person who for the last twenty-four hours had been continually in his thoughts, who seemed at one moment to be sympathising with him and at another to be playing upon his face with a garden hose. Then it all faded away, and a sort of numbness crept over him. He made a desperate struggle for consciousness. There was something cold resting against his cheek. His fingers stole towards it. It was the flask, drawn from his own pocket and placed there by some unseen hand, the top already unscrewed, and the reviving odour stealing into his nostrils. He guided it to his lips with trembling fingers. A pleasant sense of warmth crept over him. His head fell back.
When he opened his eyes again, he first turned around for the tea by his bedside, then stared in front of him, wondering if these things which he saw were indeed displayed through an upraised blind. There was the marsh - a picture of still life - winding belts of sea creeping, serpent-like, away from him towards the land, with broad pools, in whose bosom, here and there, were flashes of a feeble sunlight.. There were the clumps of wild lavender he had so often admired, the patches of deep meadow green, and, beating the air with their wings as they passed, came a flight of duck over his head. Very stiff and dazed, he staggered to his feet. There was the village to his right, red-tiled, familiar; the snug farmhouses, with their brown fields and belts of trees; the curve of the white road.
And then, with a single flash of memory, it all came back to him. He felt the top of his head, still sore; looked down at the stretch of shingle, empty now of any reminiscences; and finally, leaning heavily on his stick, he plodded back to the cottage, noticing, as he drew near, the absence of the motor-car from its place of shelter. Miles Furley was seated in his armchair, with a cup of tea in his hand and Mrs. West fussing over him, as Julian raised the latch and dragged himself into the sitting room. They both turned around at his entrance. Furley dropped his teaspoon and Mrs. West raised her hands above her head and shrieked. Julian sank into the nearest chair.
"Melodrama has come to me at last," he murmured. "Give me some tea - a whole teapotful, Mrs. West - and get a hot bath ready."
He waited until their temporary housekeeper had bustled out of the room. Then he concluded his sentence.
"I have been sandbagged," he announced impressively, and proceeded to relate the night's adventure to his host.
"This," declared Julian, about a couple of hours later, as he helped himself for the second time to bacon and eggs, "is a wonderful tribute to the soundness of our constitutions. Miles, it is evident that you and I have led righteous lives."
"Being sandbagged seems to have given you an appetite," Furley observed.
"And a game leg seems to have done the same for you," Julian rejoined. "Did the doctor ask you how you did it?"
"I just said that I slipped on the marshes. One doesn't talk of such little adventures as you and I experienced last night."
"By the bye, what does one do about them?" Julian enquired. "I feel a little dazed about it all, even now living in an unreal atmosphere and that sort of thing, you know. It seems to me that we ought to have out the bloodhounds and search for an engaging youth and a particularly disagreeable bully of a man, both dressed in brown oilskins and - "
"Oh, chuck it!" Furley intervened. "The intelligence department in charge of this bit of coast doesn't do things like that. What you want to remember, Julian, is to keep your mouth shut. I shall have a chap over to see me this afternoon, and I shall make a report to him."
"All the same," persisted Julian, "we - or rather I - was without a doubt a witness to an act of treason. By some subtle means connected with what seemed to be a piece of gas pipe, I have seen communication with the enemy established."
"You don't know that it was the enemy at all," Furley grunted.
"For us others," Julian replied, "there exists the post office, the telegraph office and the telephone. I decline to believe that any reasonable person would put out upon the sea in weather like last night's for the sake of delivering a letter to any harmless inhabitant of these regions. I will have my sensation, you see, Furley. I have suffered - thank heavens mine is a thick skull! - and I will not be cheated of my compensations."
"Well, keep your mouth shut, there's a good fellow, until after I have made my report to the Intelligence Officer," Furley begged. "He'll he here about four. You don't mind being about?"
"Not in the least," Julian promised. "So long as I am home for dinner, my people will be satisfied."
"I don't know how you'll amuse yourself this morning," Furley observed, "and I'm afraid I shan't be able to get out for the flighting this evening."
"Don't worry about me," Julian begged. "Remember that I am practically at home it's only three miles to the Hall from here so you mustn't look upon me as an ordinary guest. I am going for a tramp in a few minutes."
"Lucky chap!" Furley declared enviously. "Sunshine like this makes one feel as though one were on the Riviera instead of in Norfolk. Shall you visit the scene of your adventure?"
"I may," Julian answered thoughtfully. "The instinct of the sleuthhound is beginning to stir in me. There is no telling how far it may lead."
Julian started on his tramp about half an hour later. He paused first at a bend in the road, about fifty yards down, and stepped up close to the hedge.
"The instinct of the sleuthhound," he said to himself, "is all very well, but why on earth haven't I told Furley about the car?"
He paused to consider the matter, conscious only of the fact that each time he had opened his lips to mention it, he had felt a marked but purposeless disinclination to do so. He consoled himself now with the reflection that the information would be more or less valueless until the afternoon, and he forthwith proceeded upon the investigation which he had planned out.
The road was still muddy, and the track of the tyres, which were of somewhat peculiar pattern, clearly visible. He followed it along the road for a matter of a mile and a half. Then he came to a standstill before a plain oak gate and was conscious of a distinct shock. On the top bar of the gate was painted in white letters
and it needed only the most cursory examination to establish the fact that the car whose track he had been following had turned in here. He held up his hand and stopped a luggage trolley which had just turned the bend in the avenue. The man pulled up and touched his hat.
"Where are you off to, Fellowes?" Julian enquired.
"I am going to Holt station, sir," the man replied, "after some luggage."
"Are there any guests at the Hall who motored here, do you know?" Julian asked.
"Only the young lady, sir," the man replied, "Miss Abbeway. She came in a little coupe Panhard."
Julian frowned thoughtfully.
"Has she been out in it this morning?" he asked.
The man shook his head.
"She broke down in it yesterday afternoon, sir," he answered, "about halfway up to the Hall here."
"Broke down?" Julian repeated. "Anything serious? Couldn't you put it right for her?"
"She wouldn't let me touch it, sir," the man explained. "She said she had two cracked sparking plugs, and she wanted to replace them herself. She has had some lessons, and I think she wanted a bit of practice."
"I see. Then the car is in the avenue now?"
"About half a mile up, on the left-hand side, sir, just by the big elm. Miss Abbeway said she was coming down this afternoon to put new plugs in."
"Then it's been there all the time since yesterday afternoon?" Julian persisted.
"The young lady wished it left there, sir. I could have put a couple of plugs in, in five minutes, and brought her up to the house, but she wouldn't hear of it."
"I see, Fellowes."
"Any luck with the geese last night, sir?" the man asked. "I heard there was a pack of them on Stiffkey Marshes."
"I got one. They came badly for us," Julian replied.
He made his way up the avenue. At exactly the spot indicated by the chauffeur a little coupe car was standing, drawn on to the turf. He glanced at the name of the maker and looked once more at the tracks upon the drive. Finally, he decided that his investigations were leading him in a most undesirable direction.
He turned back, walked across the marshes, where he found nothing to disturb him, and lunched with Purley, whose leg was now so much better that he was able to put it to the ground.
"What about this visitor of yours?" Julian asked, as they sat smoking afterwards. "I must be back at the Hall in time to dine to-night, you know. My people made rather a point of it."
"You'll be all right," he replied. "As a matter of fact, he isn't coming."
"Not coming?" Julian repeated. "Jove, I should have thought you'd have had intelligence officers by the dozen down here!"
"For some reason or other," Furley confided, "the affair has been handed over to the military authorities. I have had a man down to see me this morning, and he has taken full particulars. I don't know that they'll even worry you at all - until later on, at any rate."
"Jove, that seems queer!"
"Last night's happening was queer, for that matter," Furley continued. "Their only chance, I suppose, of getting to the bottom of it is to lie doggo as far as possible. It isn't like a police affair, you see. They don't want witnesses and a court of justice. One man's word and a rifle barrel does the trick."
"I suppose," he observed, "that if I do my duty as a loyal subject, I shall drop the curtain on last night. Seems a pity to have had an adventure like that and not be able to open one's mouth about it."
"You don't want to join the noble army of gas bags," he said. "Much better make up your mind that it was a dream."
"There are times," Julian confided, "when I am not quite sure that it wasn't."
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