The Stone is Lost Again
JIMMY was reading a book when the summons came, with the comfortable feeling that his troubles were over, and that he had now nothing to worry about.
“What on earth does he want me for? I wonder,” he grumbled, getting up.
“Better go and see,” suggested Tommy, who was binding a cricket bat. “And don’t forget to give him my love. Tell him that I’m always thinking of him.”
Jimmy went, and found the house-master waiting in the hall, holding the bicycle.
His first thought was that Mr. Spinder, suspecting the presence of the stone in the bicycle, had been exploring with a pickaxe. The machine certainly looked a pretty bad wreck.
“Oh, Stewart,” said Mr. Spinder, “this is your bicycle, I think?”
“I am afraid there has been an accident. Herr Steingruber was in a hurry to catch the post, and took the first bicycle which came to hand. It, unfortunately, happened to be yours. He ran into the gate, and has, I am afraid, damaged the machine a good deal. He will, of course, pay for the repairs. Will you take it down into the basement, please?”
Jimmy’s first glance, when the machine was in his hands, was for the handle-bar. It was badly smashed. He noticed the paper peeping out at one of the cracks. A near shave, he thought. Spinder might have seen it, and wondered what it was.
It was not till he was down in the basement, and had time to look more closely, that he discovered his loss. The paper was there, but the stone had disappeared.
He rushed up to the study, where Tommy was still sitting binding his bat.
“Well,” said Tommy, without looking up, “what did he want you for?”
“Tommy,” cried Jimmy, “it’s gone. The stone’s gone.”
“What! How could it have gone? Who would think of looking there? What do you mean?”
Jimmy related what had happened. Tommy whistled softly.
“What frightful luck!” he said.
“What are we to do?”
“That’s rather a problem. You’re certain the stone really isn’t there? Hasn’t got shoved up into the handlebar?”
“Absolutely. The paper you wrapped it in is still there. Spinder must have seen it, and suspected something, and put back the paper after he’d got the stone. What shall we do?”
“We must think this out.”
“We’re exactly where we were before you got the thing from the bookshelf.”
Tommy shook his head.
“We aren’t,” he said, “by a long way. Not by a very long way, indeed. Don’t you see that, before this happened, Spinder had no notion that we knew anything about the bookcase? He was simply watching out for Ferris and his gang. He didn’t think that we were in the hunt at all, especially me. Now he’s on his guard. He won’t trust to the bookcase again. He’ll shove the bally stone somewhere else. Probably he’ll keep it on him, and sleep with it under his pillow. My word, this is a pretty tough nut. What a fool old Steingruber was to go charging into the gate like that. And what rotten luck. I’m blowed if I know what we’re going to do now.”
The game certainly seemed very much in Mr. Spinder’s hands. They could hardly hope to discover the next hiding-place in which he might place the stone, even if he did not make it absolutely secure from them by keeping it always on his person.
“The only thing is, though,” said Tommy, “he might be afraid to carry it about with him, in case Ferris or Marshall got hold of him. Not that that helps us much. If you ask me, I think we’re done. We’ve shot our bolt. All we can do is to tell your pater who’s got the stone, and let him have a try at getting it.”
The next day passed, and the next, but still they were as far from hitting on any solution of the difficulty.
Herr Steingruber met Jimmy, and was full of apologies.
“More zorry dan I gan eggsbress, my liddle Sdewart,” he said, “am I dot dis should have oggurred. I do myself did zay: ‘I must der bost vor do zend my ledder do Germany gatch, und der is no dime to zee der liddle vellows, und vor der loan of der bicygle ask. Bot dey would, I am sure, wit gladness und readiness der bicygle lend, zo I will dake.’ Bot, alas! Garelessly und wit’ der absend mind did I dowards der gade ride, und grash! Dere vos I, moch shagen, on der ground, und der bicygle, he vos moch injured. Bot do not rebine, my liddle vellow, vor I vill myself all der exbenses of der mending upon myself dake, und in a vew days, a very vew days, back gom der bicygle as goot as new, and you are once again wit id habby. Zo!”
Jimmy thanked him, and said politely that the smash-up did not matter a bit; but that was far from being what he really thought. He had had another letter from his father, written from the Grand Hotel in London, in which the colonel said that he was motoring down on the following Wednesday, and would put up for the night at the Crown Hotel in the village. It was there that the colonel always stayed when he visited Jimmy at Marleigh. The Crown was a comfortable inn of the old-fashioned country sort, and Jimmy had had some very pleasant meals there with his father in the days before his life became complicated by the stone and the responsibilities it brought with it.
The colonel added that he would be breakfasting on the Thursday morning at eight o’clock, as he had to return to London on some business which, though not extremely important, might as well be attended to and disposed of. He hoped to see Jimmy at that meal, and had not forgotten that Jimmy had a preference for scrambled eggs on toast.
It was on the afternoon of this day that Jimmy met Sam again. Sam had been waiting near the school gates for him to come out.
Jimmy put him in possession of the facts of the case as shortly as he could, and Sam, like Tommy, was of the opinion that the position was a difficult one.
“And father’s coming down to-morrow,” said Jimmy.
“What, the colonel! That’s good news. Maybe he’ll see a way out of this.”
Sam’s confidence in the ability of his old officer to cope with any situation, however difficult, was immense. He had been with Colonel Stewart in some very tight corners indeed, and had that faith in him which the officers of our Indian army inspire in their men.
“But before he comes,” said Sam, “I think as how you might have another try for the stone. Couldn’t you get into the room again, and look about?”
“It’s no good trying that game now, Sam, or I’d do it like a shot. Spinder always locks his door at night now. We tried to get in the other night, just before Tommy got hold of the stone, and we found we couldn’t.”
Sam fumbled in his pocket.
“We’ll soon get over that,” he said. “See here, this is one of those skeleton keys.”
“By Jove! The one you were opening the drawers of his desk with that night you and Marshall fought. Let’s have it.”
“If the stone’s locked up anywhere in ’is room—and it might be—you’ll soon have it out with that.”
“Thanks, Sam. That’s splendid. I think you’d better go to the Crown, and meet father when he arrives, and tell him all about this. I’ll be trying for the stone.”
Jimmy went back, and found Tommy.
“It’s all right about getting into Spinder’s study,” he said. “Sam Burrows has given me a skeleton key. It’ll unlock anything. We could go down to-night.”
“Not to-night,” said Tommy.
“I’ve an idea. I’m pretty certain Spinder has got that stone on him at present. I think he’d carry it about with him for a day or two till he could think of somewhere to hide it. But I think he’s bound to hide it in the end, so as to run no risk of being collared with it on him. After a bit he won’t think much of our chances of getting the thing. He’ll think that a locked door is enough to keep us out. And then he’ll shove it back in its old place behind the books. Because, you see, except for us that’s a ripping place for it. The Ferris gang can’t know of it. They might break in and search for hours without finding anything. And he won’t be afraid of us. All he’ll do, by way of choking us off, is to keep the door locked all day instead of only at night. So we’ll give him another day. Then we’ll nip down to-morrow night and see what happens.”
“All right. Sam’s going to wait at the Crown for my pater, and tell him all about what’s been happening.”
“Just as well,” said Tommy. “He couldn’t do any good by hanging round here. This job can only be tackled from inside the house. To-morrow night, then. And I only hope we have some luck!”
Yet Another Midnight Raid
IT was not with any very great feeling of hopefulness that Jimmy accompanied Tommy over the difficult route which lay between them and Mr. Spinder’s study on the following night. Tommy’s theory that the master would look on them as out of the battle, and feel that the old hiding-place behind the books was as good as any others, was not so sound as it had seemed on first sight. Of course, Mr. Spinder might do that, but Jimmy was not very hopeful. He knew the housemaster too well to believe that he would be capable of such carelessness and want of resource. However, he did not tell Tommy that this was his view. The latter was full of confidence, and it seemed a pity to discourage him.
They stole downstairs in their gymnasium shoes, pausing every now and then to listen. No sound came to their ears. The house seemed asleep.
They could find their way to Mr. Spinder’s study in the dark easily now.
“Got the key?” whispered Tommy.
Jimmy handed it to him. Before trying to find the lock, Tommy turned the handle, more from force of habit than because he expected any result from the action. To his surprise, at first, and then to his horror, he found that the door was not locked. To his horror, because the push which opened the door also let loose a stream of light, which darted out into the passage. The room, instead of being dark and empty, was lit up.
Was it occupied? That was the question which the two boys asked themselves, as they stood there paralysed, Tommy still holding the handle. Every moment they expected to hear a sharp voice cry, “Who is that?” from inside the room. Each second that passed seemed like an hour, till at length, reassured by the silence, Tommy pushed the door still further open, and looked in.
There was nobody in the room. But there were plenty of signs that somebody had been there only a short time before. A great book was open on the desk, and a cigar smouldered on an ash-tray beside it.
Tommy looked at Jimmy, and Jimmy looked blankly at Tommy.
“We’d better be getting back,” said Jimmy. “And jolly quick, too, or we shall be caught here. He’ll probably be back in a minute. I can’t think why we didn’t meet him.”
“This is no place for us,” agreed Tommy. “What on earth is he doing up so late? Shift ho, I think!”
They were on the point of retracing their steps down the corridor when Tommy clutched Jimmy by the arm.
“Listen!” Somebody was coming down the stairs.
Tommy was a man of action.
“In here! Quick!” he whispered.
They were in the study, and had closed the door behind them before the man on the stairs could turn the corner. Their old ally, the piano, was standing in the corner it had always occupied.
“In there,” said Tommy. “Look sharp.”
Jimmy scrambled behind the piano. Tommy followed him.
Just as they had settled themselves down as comfortably as was possible, the door opened, and somebody walked across to the writing-table and sat down. From the smell of smoke it was evident that he had continued his cigar at the point where he had left off.
Then ensued the weariest period of waiting which either of the two boys had ever experienced, rendered even more wearisome than it might have been by the fact that only with the utmost caution could they move their limbs. They began to feel cramped and stiff, but still the master sat where he was. They heard him throw away his cigar and light another. Once there came the swish of soda-water into a glass. At intervals there was the rustling sound of the pages of the big book being turned. Jimmy and Tommy came ruefully to the conclusion that Mr. Spinder had made himself comfortable, and got hold of a book which interested him, and intended to make a night of it. They both wondered dismally how they would feel after an hour or so of waiting.
Things must have gone on like this for about half an hour, when a very faint sound made itself heard. Both boys had heard it before, on that memorable night when Sam and Marshall had fought on the floor in this same room. It was the sound of a diamond on glass. Somebody was cutting out a pane.
The curtains were drawn in front of the window, so that nobody outside could tell that there was anyone in the room. The man, whoever he was, had made the same mistake that Jimmy and Tommy had made, in supposing that at such a late hour it was certain that there would be nobody about.
Mr. Spinder got up. They heard his chair creak as he rose. The next moment the room was in darkness. The master had switched off the electric light.
The scratching noise continued for a long time, then stopped. There was a soft, a very soft, thud as a foot touched the carpet, and a momentary rustle as the curtains were pushed back. Tommy gripped Jimmy’s arm excitedly. What was going to happen? They wondered that Mr. Spinder could not hear their hearts thumping.
The visitor breathed a long, soft breath. Then he uttered a gasping curse, for the room was suddenly flooded with light again, and the dry, hard voice of Mr. Spinder spoke.
“Good evening,” he said. “Rather an unceremonious mode of entry, is it not? The last time I had the honour of a visit from you, you came and left by the front door quite in the orthodox style. Is there anything I can do for you? I take it that such a late call as this must be a business visit.”
The other man laughed.
“You’ve got me,” he said. “Don’t let that gun go off.”
“Ferris,” whispered Jimmy in Tommy’s ear.
What happened after that was so rapid that Tommy could not follow it. He saw Ferris dip languidly in the side pocket of his coat, and draw out a handkerchief. Then suddenly the scene changed to one of noise and movement. He saw Ferris suddenly open and shoot forward his hand. What left it he could not see, but he heard Mr. Spinder utter a piercing cry of agony, and, springing from his seat, stagger about the room. His head and shoulders appeared above the level of the piano, swaying. He had dropped the revolver, and was covering his face with both hands. He plunged heavily against the piano, causing it to rock. Then there came the sound of a blow being struck, followed by a crash, as the housemaster’s body fell heavily to the ground.
They could hear Ferris’s quick breathing, as he knelt beside the body and searched for the stone with feverish haste. From far away in the other part of the house came the noise of voices and running footsteps. Mr. Spinder’s cry had roused the house.
Ferris muttered oaths as he searched. He darted to the door and locked it. As he did so running footsteps made themselves heard.
“Mr. Spinder!” cried a voice.
There followed a rapping of knuckles on the panels.
Ferris was tearing the prostrate man’s clothes in his haste.
“Come on!” shouted Jimmy to Tommy.
They sprang up.
At the same moment Ferris leaped to his feet with a cry of triumph, holding something aloft in his hand. For a moment he stood there, staring at them, while the panels of the door splintered beneath the blows from outside. Then, leaping to the window, he sprang out.
Jimmy and Tommy followed on his heels. Ferris was running down the road; but he was a stout man, and Tommy and Jimmy, helped by their condition, had begun to overhaul him, when he turned and stopped. There was a flash and a crack. A bullet zipped between the two boys. Another flicked up the dust at their feet. Ferris turned and ran on again.
The two boys redoubled their efforts, but, as they ran, they were aware of a throbbing noise down the road. Ferris heard it, and shouted. An answering shout came from the darkness.
“It’s a motor,” gasped Jimmy. “Quick, or he’ll get to it.”
But he had already done so. The throbbing increased in volume, and the black mass began to slide away into the night.
The two boys stood where they were, looking after it. So fixed was their attention that they did not notice that from behind them there was coming the ever-increasing murmur of a second car.
They realised it just in time, and sprang to one side just as the car, with much jarring of brakes, pulled up short.
It was a big car, but there was only one man in it. He seemed irritated.
“What the deuce do you mean by standing out in the middle of the road like that on a dark night?” he shouted over his shoulder.
Jimmy knew the voice.
“Father!” he cried, and dashed towards the car.
A Stern Chase
“Who on——! Jimmy! Whatever are you doing out here at this time of night?”
“Father, catch that motor in front,” gasped Jimmy, clambering on to the seat by Colonel Stewart’s side.
“That’s Tommy. Tommy Armstrong. Nip into the car, Tommy. Do make haste, father, or they’ll get away.”
Colonel Stewart was a man who believed in doing a thing first, and asking for explanations afterwards. He released the clutch, and opened the throttle, and the big motor raced away down the road. The noise of the other car could be heard faintly in the distance. By now it must have been half a mile ahead.
“And now,” said Colonel Stewart, “perhaps you’ll kindly explain, my son, why I am risking my neck in this way, and who your friends in the car in front are.”
“Haven’t you seen Sam?”
“I have not seen Sam,” said the colonel politely. “Who may Sam be?”
“Corporal Sam Burrows, who was under me in the Surreys?”
“And how in the world do you come to be mixed up with Corporal Burrows?”
Jimmy, as briefly and clearly as he could, told his father the whole story from the beginning; how he had met Sam, how Sam had been shot, how the stone had been entrusted to himself, and how it had passed from hand to hand in a sort of hunt-the-slipper fashion, till finally it had been taken by Ferris, who was now, with his accomplices, speeding away into the night at forty miles an hour in a car whose tail-lights they could just see.
The colonel listened with growing interest.
“You seem to have had a fairly lively term,” he said, when Jimmy had finished. “What sort of stone was it? Can you describe it?”
“It was a rummy blue stone, with scratches on it. It looked like blue sealing-wax.”
The colonel took his eyes from the road for a moment, to look at Jimmy with increased interest.
“Blue?” he said. “Like blue sealing-wax? Can it have been? It must be. But how in the world did Corporal Burrows get hold of it? How big was this stone?”
“About the size of a shilling.”
“What sort of scratches were there on it? Did they look like writing?”
“Yes. In some rum language, though.”
“It must be the same. Good heavens, if they get away with it! We must catch that car if we follow it to the other end of England.”
He opened the throttle still wider. The car seemed to bound over the road, as a race-horse might gallop. Jimmy hung on to the side of his seat with all his might, and Tommy, in the tonneau, was being bumped up and own as if he were the ball in a cup-and-ball game. Jimmy felt very cold. The glass screen broke the force of the wind to a great extent; but it was a chilly night, and he was not dressed for motoring. Tommy was doing better, for he had found a rug on the floor of the car, and was tolerably comfortable in it. The colonel, muffled to the eyes in a huge coat, and wearing fur gloves, was the best off of the three.
Gradually, however, Jimmy began to forget the cold in the excitement of the chase. The car in front was powerful and speedy, but the colonel’s had the advantage of it.
Little by little the pursuers were gaining. The tail-lights of the other car gleamed quite close now. Jimmy could see the dark figures of the occupants of its tonneau, as they stood up and looked back at the motor that was chasing them. It was evident that they realised now that there was a motive in this pursuit, and that the car behind them was not merely a chance traveller down the same road.
The road was one of those broad, well-laid tracks which the Romans put down in England to be a memorial of themselves to all time. It ran almost straight for mile after mile across the level plain. At intervals a straggling village broke the symmetry of it. Neither car slowed down at these villages. They passed through with a roar and a rattle which probably roused the inhabitants from their slumbers and set them wondering what was happening.
The night was dark but for the rare gleams of a moon which never succeeded in breaking completely through the drifting clouds.
The other car was very close now.
The dark figures were standing up again. Suddenly there was a flash and a report, sounding faintly above the measured roar of the engines. Something struck the woodwork of the glass screen, and sang away into space.
“Hullo!” said Colonel Stewart. “Revolvers! This won’t do. I forgot that they might be armed. We must slow down a bit.”
He closed the throttle slightly, and the other car bounded ahead. A derisive shout came to them like a distant whisper. Jimmy cried out in dismay.
“It’s all right,” said the colonel reassuringly, as he leaned back in his seat. “They think they’ve done us, but they haven’t. I don’t happen to want my paint chipped off with bullets, but I can follow them all night and all day, keeping them in sight. I’ve enough petrol to last out any car on the road. And when it’s daylight they won’t be in such a hurry to shoot off revolvers. We can take it easy for a little now.”
“If it wasn’t for that revolver we could overhaul them in five minutes,” said Tommy.
“Yes, we—— Great Scott!”
The two uttered a simultaneous shout, for the tail-lights of the car they were pursuing seemed to leap into the air. The next moment there was a fearful crash. The lights went out. A great shriek rent the air. Then, save for the mad roaring of the engines, there was silence.
Colonel Stewart threw out his clutch, and applied the brake. The car slowed down, and stopped.
“What’s happened? What is it?” cried the two boys, awed by the sense of disaster in the air.
Colonel Stewart drew off his gloves, and got down.
“Stay here,” he said shortly. “They’ve had a smash. I am going to look. Stay where you are, you boys. If they are not killed, they may shoot.”
He unscrewed one of the large lamps from the front of the car. The engine of the wrecked motor had stopped now, and all was silence.
He shouted. There was no reply.
He moved cautiously down the road. Jimmy and Tommy strained their eyes, but could see nothing. Everything was dark and vague. They saw the light of the lamp darting about the road and the ditches on either side. It rested now and then on certain shapeless heaps.
Then the colonel walked slowly back to them. His face, as he drew near, looked very stern and set.
(To be concluded next week.)