The End of an Adventure
TOMMY stood and looked down the road for fully ten minutes before he saw anyone on it; and when somebody did appear, it was not Jimmy, but a man, a sturdy, thickly built man, whom the most careless observer could have told as an old soldier from the set of his shoulders and the swing of his walk.
He was shabbily dressed, and Tommy took him at first for a tramp. He watched him approach, and wondered mildly if he would try to get anything from him. When the man, coming nearer, saw him, and hurried on towards him, Tommy had made up his mind that he and twopence must part company. He was feeling in his pocket as the man halted before him.
“Beg pardon, sir.”
Tommy began to draw his hand, with the twopence in it, out of his pocket.
“Do you belong to the school, sir?”
“Yes. Why?” said Tommy.
“Do you ’appen to know a young gentleman of the name of Stewart?”
“What!” he cried. “Stewart?”
“Master Jimmy Stewart.”
“Great Scott, yes. Why——”
“Chum of yours, maybe?”
“Yes, I should rather say so. We share a study. But what——”
The man lowered his voice.
“It’s like this, matey,” he said. “I want to see ’im particular, and there’s reasons why it wouldn’t quite do for me to walk up to the front door and say, ‘Is Master Stewart at ’ome?’ I want to see him private about something as concerns only ’im and me. You couldn’t take me a message to him, could you, matey?”
“He isn’t in.”
“Not in? Where’s he to, then?”
“There was a footer match on this afternoon at Alderton College. Jimmy was playing, and has stopped to tea with one of the chaps.”
Tommy had decided to use this version of the case, if questioned.
“Ah,” said the man. “Well, when he comes back, I’d take it kind if you’d tell him Corporal Sam Burrows called to——”
“Sam Burrows!” gasped Tommy. A chill sensation of impending disaster came over him. If this was Sam Burrows, why had he not met Jimmy? And where was Jimmy?
“That’s me, matey. Know the name?”
“But,” cried Tommy, “what are you doing here? What’s happened to Jimmy? Why didn’t you meet him?”
The soldier flashed a puzzled look at him from under his thick eyebrows.
“What’s all this, matey?” he said sharply. “All this about meeting the colonel’s nipper. What are you driving at?”
“The letter you wrote!” stammered Tommy.
The other’s face became very grave.
“How’s that? A letter? I wrote no letter.”
Tommy stared at him with a growing fear at his heart.
“You didn’t write that letter?” he muttered.
The soldier shook him roughly by the shoulder with a strong, brown hand.
“Pull yourself together, mate,” he said quickly. “Tell me what you mean. This looks bad. Tell me what it is you’re driving at.”
“The letter!” said Tommy. “Jimmy got a letter this morning signed with your name, telling him to meet you at the first milestone from the college gates at five o’clock to-day. That’s where he’s gone.”
Sam Burrows swore a full-bodied oath.
“The devils!” he cried. “They’ve got him. My lord, they’ve got him. See here, which is the way to this college you’re talking about?”
Tommy pointed down the road.
“It’s straight along the road you came down. Look here,” he added, “I’ll come with you. I shall get into a row, but that doesn’t matter. I know all about this business. Jimmy told me. I thought he was ragging at first, but after what he told me last night——”
“What was that?”
Tommy related the story of what had happened in the cottage, as told him by Jimmy, Sam swearing softly at intervals by way of accompaniment.
“Ferris,” he said, when Tommy had finished. “Never ’eard of ’im. So they’ve got a new man in to help, have they? Well, I hope I’ll lay my hands on him one of these days. I’ll stop his games. See here, matey, we must hurry. Lord knows what’s happened out there.”
“They wouldn’t kill him, would they?” faltered Tommy.
“All depends. They’d stick at nothing, they wouldn’t. Kill a man as soon as look at ’im if it suited their book. Come on, sonny. We must run.”
They started off down the road at a jog-trot. Tommy, tired with his efforts in the football match, soon found this too much for him. He stopped.
“You go on,” he panted. “I can’t keep up. I’ll follow.”
But at this moment a cart turned into the main road from a lane just behind them. Sam hailed it.
“Going down the road, matey?”
“Couldn’t give us a lift, could you?”
“That’s a bit of luck,” said Sam to Tommy, as they scrambled in. “Get there in no time now.”
The cart bowled on till they could see the top portions of the college buildings over the brow of the hill.
“Best get off here,” said Sam.
They thanked the driver, and dropped off. The cart rumbled on.
It was quite dark now, a fact which caused Sam to look gloomy.
“Don’t give a man no chance,” he said, “this bloomin’ darkness. I can do a bit of tracking by daylight, but blow me if I can manage it now. We shall have to trust to luck.”
“Shall we shout?” said Tommy.
“It won’t do no ’arm.”
Tommy let out a yell of the sort with which he was accustomed to crack the plaster on the ceiling of the dayroom at the school. They waited.
“No good,” said Sam. “We’ll——”
“Listen!” said Tommy, clutching him by the arm.
They stopped, and strained their ears.
“I don’t hear nothing,” said Sam.
“I’ll try again.” He uttered another shout. “Now!”
This time there was certainly an answer, very faint and seeming to come from far away.
“He’s in the fields somewhere,” said Sam. “If it’s him. It sounded a precious long way away.”
“Come on,” said Tommy.
They left the road, and plunged into the fields at the side. Every now and then Tommy stopped to shout, and gradually the answering cries grew more distinct.
Presently, on the left, a building could be seen dimly in the darkness. Tommy shouted once more, and this time the answer came from quite close at hand. Followed closely by Sam, Tommy made a dash for the building.
“He’s in there,” he cried. “Jimmy!”
The building, they could see now, was a ruined cottage of the usual one-storey type. The door was open. They rushed in.
“Who’s that?” said a faint voice. “Is that you, Tommy? Here I am. Against this wall.”
Tommy felt his way along the walls till his hand touched a shoulder.
“I’m tied up,” said Jimmy. “Get a knife.”
Sam struck a match. The light, burning up, fell on Jimmy’s face. He looked tired and worn.
Tommy was hacking with his knife at the cords. It was difficult work, for they were thick and the knife blunt; but he managed it at last. Jimmy staggered to his feet, then fell in a heap with a cry of pain.
“Cramp,” said Sam briefly, dropping the match and beginning to rub Jimmy’s legs. After a while Jimmy got to his feet again. He could stand now, but he was evidently weak. Sam lit another match, and produced a flask. Jimmy drank from it, and the effects were immediate.
“It’s all right,” he said, “I’m better now. Thanks, Sam.”
“Look here, Jimmy,” cried Tommy, “can you walk? How are you feeling? Don’t try to talk about it yet. Wait a bit.”
“My bike’s somewhere about,” said Jimmy. “They brought it in here. There it is.”
“How are we to get out into the road again? I don’t know how we got here.”
“It’s quite simple. There’s only one field to cross. This is the same cottage they found me in before.”
“Let’s make a move,” said Tommy. “Jimmy, that letter wasn’t from Sam at all. It was a trick. Come on, though. Don’t talk.”
They reached the road.
“I’m all right now,” said Jimmy. “I’ll tell you what happened. By Jove, I’m glad you came. I thought I should never get out of that beastly place. I had almost given up hope. Let’s sit down here for a bit. I want to rest, if I’m going to get back to the school.”
“If they come back,” said Sam grimly, “I’ll be ready for them.” He pulled something out of his pocket, and kept it in his hand while he listened. “Well, matey, what happened?”
“I got away from Bowdon’s study at about ten to five, and hiked to the milestone. It was just five by my watch when I reached it. I couldn’t see Sam anywhere about, so I propped my bike up against the hedge, and sat down on the milestone to wait for him. I was a bit fagged after the game, and I must have gone half to sleep, for I suddenly woke up with a start, feeling there was someone just behind me. You know. That queer feeling you get in a darkish room sometimes. I was just going to turn round, when a hand slid over my mouth, and somebody jerked me back and knelt on my chest. I was too surprised to resist. I just lay there, and they tied me up and carried me across the field to the cottage, Marshall and Ferris. It was the first time I’ve seen Ferris close to. He’s a fat chap. An awful brute.” Jimmy shuddered.
“Well?” said Tommy eagerly.
“They got me in there, and then they started to search me. I think they were a bit rattled at not finding the stone on me. At any rate, Ferris was. You see, he knew it was not in my play-box, so he thought I must carry it about on me. Well, when they couldn’t find it, they began cursing and threatening me. I swore I hadn’t got the stone. I said I’d lost it soon after I got back to school after the holidays. They wouldn’t believe me, and Ferris—he’s the worst of the lot, an awful brute—got hold of me and tied me up to a beam, so that only my toes were on the ground. It was a frightful strain on my wrists. I nearly yelled—it hurt so. Ferris said he’d keep me like that till I told them where the stone was. I kept on saying I hadn’t got it. They wouldn’t believe me, and at last the strain got so bad I suppose I must have fainted. At any rate, I heard them jawing to one another in a rum sort of language I didn’t understand, and then the words began to run into one another, and everything got all dark, and the next thing I remember was finding myself on the floor, propped up against the wall, still tied up and feeling awfully sick. Then, after what seemed hours, I heard you shouting.”
Sam looked thoughtful.
“You didn’t say as how it was Mr. Spinder what had really got the blue ruin, did you, Master Stewart?”
“No. I simply said I hadn’t got it.”
“They’ll guess,” he said. “Trust them. That Marshall, as you call him, knows it was me he found burglaring Mr. Spinder’s study, and he knows only one thing what would take me out a-committing of burglary. Yes, they’ll be on the track precious soon. It’s your Mr. Spinder what’s got the hornets’ nest on to him now. You and me, Master Jimmy, we’re put on one side. It’s a what you might call a triangular tournament like what didn’t ’appen between England, Australia, and South Africa at cricket. It’s a all-against-all game, this is. And it’ll be us as’ll win, or I’ll know the reason why. I’ll pay them, the whole bloomin’ crew of ’em, if I can get to arm’s length of ’em. And now we’re all a-gettin’ ready for the bloomin’ last match of the tournament, what’ll be played on Mr. Spinder’s ground. And I don’t envy him, neither. Are you ready, Master Jimmy? We’d best be moving on.”
“It’s rather rummy, when you come to think of it,” he said, “that to-night’s business will simply end in your getting a hundred lines from Spinder for being late for lock-up.”
Jimmy Acts Rashly
MORNING school at Marleigh was over by half-past twelve, and afternoon school did not begin till two o’clock. Mr. Spinder had just entered his study at half-past one on the following day, when the servant appeared to say that a gentleman wished to see him.
“Gentleman? What name?” asked Mr. Spinder.
“He wouldn’t give no name, sir.”
“Well, show him in,” said Mr. Spinder. He spoke irritably, for he had been looking forward to a rest before afternoon school began.
The servant left the room, returning shortly with the visitor. He was a sleek, stout man, with a curious, fixed half-smile always on his face. He looked almost like a man wearing some sort of mask. Only a very poor student of character would have set him down as the amiable, easy-going person he looked at a first glance.
“Good afternoon,” said Mr. Spinder. “Will you take a seat?”
“Thanks. I hope to take more than a seat before I go,” was the reply, in a smooth voice which matched the smooth face. “I believe I am addressing Mr. Spinder?”
“You are,” said Mr. Spinder shortly. “Well?”
The servant had left the room and shut the door. The visitor moved softly to it, and flung it open. He looked up and down the passage, then returned to his seat.
“Servants,” he said blandly, “are worthy creatures, but they sometimes stay much too near keyholes. Yours, however, does not seem to suffer from the sad vice of inquisitiveness.”
Mr. Spinder tapped the floor with his foot.
“I should be glad if you would kindly——”
“Just so. Just so. I can put the thing in a nutshell. It is much better to be brief. I want that little blue stone, Mr. Spinder.”
Mr. Spinder tried to restrain a start, but he could not wholly succeed. The other noted it with a slight broadening of his placid smile.
“What do you mean?” said the master. “What is this nonsense about blue stones? I must remind you that I am a busy man, and that if this is a joke——”
The visitor waved his hand deprecatingly.
“Just so, just so,” he said. “But couldn’t we skip all that, Mr. Spinder? It would save such a lot of time, and, as you say, you are a busy man. So am I. So don’t let us waste time. You know you have that stone. I know you have. You know I know you have. So why not let us be open and frank about it, and talk it over quietly and comfortably?”
Mr. Spinder made a sudden dash for one of the drawers in the writing-table, and pulled out a revolver.
“This is loaded,” he said shortly, pointing it at his visitor.
The latter’s smile almost became a grin. He raised his eyebrows.
“My dear sir,” he said, “really! How very crude you are! Quite like poor dear old Marshall. Do you really think that I should attempt violence, when I have been admitted at your front door and am in the middle of a crowd of servants and boys and I don’t know what? I can assure you I have far more respect for my neck than to risk it like that. I am here in the perfectly peaceful capacity of ambassador. I am anxious to know on what terms you would part with the stone. We are prepared to pay anything reasonable, for, to be frank with you, time is a consideration, and, while we shall undoubtedly get the stone in the end, whether you sell it or not, the process might be rather a long one.”
“That,” said Mr. Spinder, “is quite true.”
“But why consider such a possibility?” went on the visitor. “You are a sensible man, and will not cause us this inconvenience, I am sure. To come to bedrock, Mr. Spinder, how much?”
“I am sorry, but it is not for sale.”
“No, no, no, Mr. Spinder, really. Think again.”
“It is not for sale.”
“A thousand pounds. You could do a great deal with a thousand pounds, a man with your intellect.”
“It is not for sale.”
“Five thousand pounds. You could do even more with five thousand pounds, could you not?”
“You have had my answer.”
“Not your final answer, I hope. Shall we say ten thousand pounds?”
Mr. Spinder rose and moved to the bell.
“I need not detain you,” he said.
“One moment, one moment. No need to ring in any case. I can find my way out. Would twenty thousand pounds be more to your taste? Think of it, Mr. Spinder! Twenty thousand pounds! A fortune!”
Mr. Spinder took up a book, and began to turn the leaves.
“You will forgive me if I read,” he said. “This conversation is beginning to tire me. Pray, continue, however, if it amuses you.”
The visitor’s eyes gleamed viciously, but his voice was as smooth as ever when he spoke.
“I am sorry to interrupt your reading,” he said. “You are holding the book upside down, by the way. May I ask, apologising if the question is impertinent, why you persist in this refusal? You do not propose to give the stone to Colonel Stewart?”
“Colonel Stewart? I have never heard of him.”
“Then why refuse twenty thousand pounds?”
Mr. Spinder shut his book with a bang.
“Suppose you had a gold mine, Mr——”
“Never mind my name. You were saying——”
“Suppose you had a gold mine, would you part with it to a man who offered you sixpence for it?”
“I fail to see the connection very clearly, Mr. Spinder. You mean——”
“You are offering me sixpence for my gold mine. Do you suppose I intend to let you have this stone for a mere twenty thousand pounds? I might just as well give it to you.”
“You don’t think twenty thousand pounds a very large sum, then? Well, well, opinions differ. I should be glad enough of it. Would thirty thousand suit you better?”
“Not in the least.”
“You are a man of large ideas, Mr. Spinder!”
“Exactly. I happen to be one of the few men in England who know what this stone is, and what is its real worth. I intend to see that I am paid full value for it. I don’t know whom you are representing, though I suspect. At least, I know that there are people who want this stone very much indeed, and can afford to pay more than thirty thousand pounds for it.”
“When your employers, whoever they are, offer me two hundred and fifty thousand pounds, I may begin to consider it.”
“You certainly are a man of large ideas. Have you reflected, though, that you will find it a little difficult to dispose of this stone? We are the only buyers in the market. The other party would merely take the stone, if you approached them with it, and probably put you in prison for a lengthy period for having it in your possession? Have you considered that?”
“I have. You say you are the only buyers in the market. Quite so. But, you see, you cannot afford not to buy, whereas I can afford to wait. Perhaps you will tell your employers that, and add that delay in buying may very possibly mean that my price will go up. I think that now we may end this little discussion, may we not?”
The visitor rose, his suave manner laid aside.
“You fool,” he hissed. “You sit there talking simply of buying and selling. Have you thought that there is another way? We are not men whom it is well to thwart, Mr. Spinder. You are treading a dangerous path. You will be watched every hour of the day. Sooner or later you must fall into our hands. And then—well, I think you will wish you had accepted my offer.”
“I will risk it,” said Mr. Spinder curtly. “Good afternoon.”
The visitor recovered himself. He picked up his hat.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Spinder. I may take it, then, that our offer is definitely refused?”
“Quite so, quite so. We shall have to think of another way. I am sorry for you, Mr. Spinder.”
Mr. Spinder motioned towards the door. With a nod and a smile the visitor passed out.
Scarcely had he gone, when Mr. Spinder, locking the door, darted to the bookshelf, and took out the seventh book. He thrust his hand into the cavity. Then he uttered a cry like that of an animal. With wild haste he tore book after book from their places, and hurled them on to the floor. The whole shelf was bare now. He ran his hand from end to end of it, but his fingers found nothing.
The blue stone was gone.
(Another splendid instalment next week.)