by H. C. McNeile 1929
Temple Tower is a marvellous example of the interwar UK thriller novel. It is also a splendid return to form for H.C. McNeile after the embarrassments of the previous novel In the series, The Female of The Species.
Temple Tower takes place in Its entirety within a few miles of Hugh Drummond's home on Romney Marsh. A thriller reader would have to have a heart of ice not to thrill at name Romney Marsh, with its history of smuggling, night actions, and its previous handling as thriller topography by Russell Thorndike.
Drummond and friend Peter Darrow are thrust into a battle waged between criminals over a loot each has claimed from a crime committed in France thirty years prior. The thieves fell out right after their crime, and one has gone to ground with the booty in a heavily fortified former convent called Temple Tower, just down the road from Drummond.
A giallo-issue masked strangler named le Bossu is after his share of the loot, and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he gets closer to his objective. Two are strangled in the Tower grounds when le Bossu makes his first nighttime attempt to enter. Two more are strangled at the Dolphin inn at Rye.
The cat and mouse between the thieves as le Bossu works out his vendetta, and between le Bossu and Drummond's team, is very nicely balanced. The final hand-to-hand showdown between Drummond and le Bossu, in the sand dunes of the Marsh as dawn breaks, is deeply satisfying. This scene clearly shows the connection between Drummond and latter day hulking vigilante Jack Reacher, another former army captain, in Lee Child's novels and short stories.
Chapters Seven and Eight give a dramatic recapitulation of the thirty year old crime, and are an adventure story in and of themselves.
VII. — IN WHICH VICTOR MATTHEWS BEGINS HIS STORY
"FOR the purposes of this argument, Mr. Matthews," remarked Hugh, "you had better assume that we know nothing."
We had all returned to his house, and having hunted round for bacon and eggs, had first of all had some breakfast. The ladder had been carefully hidden in the undergrowth, and we had seen no further trace of the man in black. And now, seated on the terrace, with the mist stretching like a white sea below us, we waited eagerly for him to begin.
"All right," he answered, "I will assume that you know nothing. And, as a matter of fact, gentlemen, I am very certain that you do know nothing of what I am going to tell you. Because I am going back to the year of grace 1881. It was in that year that the inhabitants of Bordeaux had an unsuspected honour accorded them—so unsuspected, in fact, that most of them are still probably unaware of it. Under the very shadow of the Cathedral of St. André a male child was born into the world. The question of nomenclature was a little difficult, since the mother had no idea who was the proud father, but she compromised by calling the child Jean and giving it her own surname of Marillard.
"From the very first, I should imagine, the child was a most unprepossessing specimen. It was abnormally ugly, and that fact, coupled with the sneers of its companions over the question of its birth, combined to make its life intolerable. Anyway, it never had a fair chance, and as a result, the boy's character grew from bad to worse. He was an incipient criminal from the start, and his surroundings nurtured the growth, until, at the age of sixteen, he was nothing more nor less than a savage young animal. And if you chose to turn up the archives of the Bordeaux police you would there find records of positively murderous assaults perpetrated by this youth, in many cases on men years older than himself. He was possessed of incredible strength, and at times he was perfectly uncontrollable. He also possessed another strange characteristic—a very soft and melodious voice."
The speaker smiled slightly and waved his hand in the direction of Spragge's Farm.
"Thus the propitious beginning of Jean Marillard, now, as you will see, in his forty-seventh year. However, to return to his earlier days. He was eighteen years old, as far as I remember, when he decided that he had had enough of Bordeaux and drifted to Paris, where he naturally became associated with the lowest type of Apache. And you must remember, gentlemen, that in those days the Apaches were Apaches—not harmless citizens earning an honest penny by dressing themselves up for the part for the benefit of credulous tourists, as is the case to-day. Like to like: it was but in the nature of things that young Marillard should consort with the most vicious of the whole tribe. And it was then that he received his nick-name of 'the Nightingale.'
"For the next year or so his history is unimportant. He remained submerged in the underworld of Paris, a skulker in dark corners. And then, with the invention of motor-cars, came the great opportunity. The thing has been done, of course, ad nauseam since, but the first motor bandit gang was the one of which the Nightingale was a prominent member. It is all a question of proportion, and just as in these days a racing car, with its eighty miles an hour, has the advantage over other users of the road, so, then, did some ancient Peugeot capable of only twenty.
"And now I must leave him for a moment and introduce you to some other characters in the story. Only two are of any importance, and one of those two..."
He paused, and a strange, almost dreamy, look came into his eyes.
"One of those two is the most powerful and dangerous man in the world to-day. I will take the other first. His origin is completely obscure. Half an Englishman, half Heaven knows what, he was in his way as dangerous a man as the Nightingale. But it was a very different way. The Nightingale, to do him credit, feared no man. He fought in the open—fought like a beast perhaps—but face to face. Also he was loyal to his pals, which was just what the other was not. A slimy, mean, creeping little beast, who conformed to no standard at all save what suited himself best. They called him le Crapeau, which I always thought was an insult to such an intelligent beast as the toad. And unless I am very much mistaken—in fact, I know I am not mistaken—the Toad is your next-door neighbour, who now passes under the name of Granger. When I say 'passes under,' for all I know Granger may really be his name."
"Do you mean to say," shouted Freckles, "that that is the man who Pat— who Miss Verney is working for?"
"Don't alarm yourself, Mr. Scott," said Matthews quietly. "You already have my word for it that your fiancee is perfectly safe. Moreover, I think it is more than likely that you will finally come to the conclusion that the luckiest thing she ever did in her life was to go there."
"What on earth do you mean?" said Freckles, staring at him blankly.
"May I finish my story, and I think you will see what I mean?" said Matthews. "Where was? Ah! yes—the Toad. There were three other members of the gang, who do not concern us at all now, since they are all dead. For the sake of clearness, however, I will give you their nick-names. One—a great hulking brute of a man—was called the Butcher. He was a slaughterer pure and simple: a man with no brain, but of great strength. The second was a deadly shot with a revolver, who was known—why I can't tell you—as the Snipe. And the last member calls for no particular description. He had no nickname, and was called Robert.
"Now, I do not propose to weary you with a full account of their activities. Many of them were quite insignificant: many were even stupid. Remember that motor-cars were a new toy then for everyone, and our friends were no exception to the rule. They behaved, in short, on frequent occasions like children who are showing off, and they were treated accordingly by the authorities. Until the day came..."
Once again he paused, that same dreamy look in his eyes.
"Gentlemen," he went on quietly, "you may think that what I am about to tell you is an exaggeration: that I have a bee in my bonnet on this particular subject. You may think that such a being as a master criminal is merely part of the stock in trade of the sensational novelist—a fiction of the films. You are wrong. It was in 1898 that a strange sinister influence began to make itself felt throughout the underworld at Paris, and not only through the underworld, but through that section of society that reacts instantly to it—the police. At first the influence was vague—more a suggestion than a definite force. Incredible rumours flew round, and no one knew what to believe. The police, as a body, scoffed openly at the whole thing: so did some of the Apaches. For gradually these rumours crystallised into one central idea: that a power had arisen which was definitely controlling the criminal activities of Paris, and controlling them for its own ends.
What the power consisted of no one knew: who wielded it, no one knew. But after a year had passed the scoffing ceased: the thing was a proven fact. An intelligence was at work more powerful than the police, more cunning than the Apaches.
"How came the proof, you ask? I will tell you. Not by any single dramatic stroke, but by a series of incidents, which, though small in themselves, when taken cumulatively, afforded irrefutable evidence. Men who had received orders from an unknown source, and had disregarded them, were found dead: and no one knew the hand that had struck them down. The police, too, did not escape: gendarmes who had interfered with the unknown's plan were killed. Some were shot: a few were knifed, but his favourite method was to strangle his victims. In fact, a reign of terror started, the more terrifying because of the air of mystery that surrounded it. Men spoke together in bated whispers, glancing fearfully over their shoulders, for no one knew who was a spy or who was not. The King of the Underworld had arrived."
Victor Matthews paused to light a cigarette, whilst we waited eagerly for him to continue. Amazing though the story was, it was his quiet way of telling it that made it so impressive.
"It was in 1900," he continued, "that a further development took place. He was cunning, this man—and clever. He knew to a nicety the French nationality: his psychology was perfect. Up to date, he had maintained his air of mystery: from now on he would give them something concrete to catch hold of. And so it was that there gradually came into circulation a series of exquisitely drawn little pictures. A man would find one in his pocket when he came to undress, with no idea as to how it had come there. And with each of them would be some definite order, written in block capitals. And if those orders were disobeyed, the recipient would later be found dead, with the same device pinned to his coat. Here is one that I kept for many years."
He pulled out his pocket-book, and even as he had it in his hands, his eyes dilated and he sat motionless, staring at a tree just behind my seat.
"My God!" he muttered. "Look at that."
"What the devil," began Hugh, and then he came over to where I was sitting. And in silence we all stared at a small piece of paper which we had failed to notice in our absorption up till then. It was about two inches square, and was fastened to the tree by a drawing-pin. And in the centre of it, drawn in ink, was a perfect representation of a hunchback.
"Is that the device you mean?" said Hugh quietly.
For answer Matthews unfastened his pocket-book, and from it he took the exact replica of the paper pinned to the tree, save that it was yellow with age. But the drawing was the same—a hunchback.
"I took this one," he said gravely, "from the body of a man who was found strangled one morning behind a lot of crates in the Gare de Lyons. He had in his pocket a third-class ticket for Marseilles, but he had not caught his train."
For a while we were all silent, each busy with our own thoughts. This sudden verification of Matthews' story, coming, as it were, out of the blue into a sunny English garden, seemed wellnigh uncanny. Almost mechanically Hugh went to the telescope and stared through it. And after a while he swung round and faced us.
"How the devil did that get there?" he said.
Matthews gave a short laugh.
"Your activities are evidently known. Captain Drummond, and are not approved of. Le Bossu Masqué must have put it there himself."
"Masqué?" I cried, and Matthews nodded.
"Yes: I was coming to that, when this somewhat dramatic interruption occurred."
"Damn the fellow," spluttered Hugh. "Having the gall to come into my garden and stick his cursed bits of paper all over the view. If I catch the blighter I'll turn his hump into a goitre in his neck. However, Mr. Matthews, please pardon the natural annoyance of a respectable English householder. Let's hear some more."
"Well, as I was saying," continued the other, "it was in 1900 that that design began to become familiar with the population of Paris. That it was a further development of the same man, we knew; his methods remained exactly similar to those he employed when he was unknown. Only now he began to grow more daring. Up till then, his orders had always been transmitted in writing: now he commenced to issue them verbally. And this, of course, was seized on as a golden opportunity by the police. In every community there are men who can be bought, and the underworld of Paris is certainly no exception to the rule. And so as soon as this new development became known plans were very carefully laid to catch him. With great secrecy, and through the most trustworthy channels possible, it was communicated to certain likely quarters that in the event of anyone receiving a message from le Bossu, with instructions to meet him personally, the police were to be at once communicated with. And a very big reward was promised if the information led to his capture.
"Sure enough, one day we got a ring on the telephone. And a guarded voice informed us that le Bossu had summoned the speaker—a particularly unpleasant form of brute known as the Rat—to go to a small hotel not far from the Gare de l'Est at ten that night. The police surrounded the place: every entrance to the hotel was picketed when the Rat arrived. He was presumably to receive more detailed instructions in the hall as to which room he was to go to, and we gave him orders to communicate the number to the man at the door. It had been decided to allow him a little time with le Bossu so that we could find out what scheme that gentleman had in view, and it was ten minutes after the Rat had disappeared upstairs that we rushed the room.
"Now, gentlemen, I was in the passage outside the room from the time the Rat went in. And I will swear that no one came out. Yet, when we went in, he was lying stone dead in the middle of the carpet, with a knife driven up to the hilt in his back."
"Good Lord!" said Freckles, a cigarette he had forgotten to light between his lips. "But how did the fellow get away?"
Matthews shrugged his shoulders.
"The window was open, and so that was where he escaped, presumably. But that was only one case out of a dozen."
"Hold hard a minute," said Hugh. "Had no one in the hotel seen the man who took the room?"
"The room had been booked by telephone," said Matthews. "And the hotel, though small, is a busy one. Numbers of men had been in there that evening, and it was quite impossible to say which of them it was."
"But a hunchback is a pretty conspicuous figure," I objected.
"Ah! but was he a hunchback? True, he had adopted this device, but that was no proof that he was one himself. Or possibly the hump was detachable— a specially assumed disguise."
"Yes—that's true," agreed Hugh.
"You may take it from me, gentlemen," went on Matthews, "that we took every possible, and impossible, theory into account. But the plain, bald fact remained that under the very noses of the police the Rat had been murdered, and the murderer had vanished into thin air. However, I must get on: that is all ancient history and is nothing whatever to do with our little affair to-day, save that it gives you a good idea of the type of man we are dealing with."
"Awfully jolly," murmured Freckles. "He sounds an absolute topper,"
"I'm coming now to the part that really concerns us," continued Matthews. "And to make it clear to you, I will take it as it actually happened, not as we found it out at the trial of the Nightingale. He was our informant when, unfortunately, it was too late. As you will understand, after the episode of the Rat, and several others of a similar type, it had become impossible to carry on with the method we had originally hoped so much from. No one dared run the risk, though we doubled and trebled the money offered. But certain facts leaked out from the men who had seen him, and two of these were early established. First—he had a hump, though, as I said before, whether it was genuine or not we didn't know. Second—he was always masked. There was not a soul in the whole underworld of Paris who could claim to have seen his face.
"It was in September, 1902, that the Nightingale received a message which caused him to turn pale with fear—a summons from le Bossu Masqué. The Nightingale and his gang had, as I have already told you, been playing about with their motor-car, and enjoying themselves in their own mild way. If the truth be known, I think they were rather frightened of the machine: certain it is, they had no notion of its possibilities as an instrument of crime. And to them, pottering along with their little footpad tricks, came this sudden summons. The car, driven by the Nightingale alone, was to be taken to the small town of Magny, halfway between Paris and Rouen, and there further instructions would be given him."
Matthews smiled slightly.
"I can imagine the feelings of le Rossignol," he went on, "as he drove out through the Porte Maillot on that fine September morning. The ever-present fear of the driver of those days that the car would break down was for once forgotten: he probably prayed devoutly that it would. But his prayer was unanswered, and at eleven o'clock he drew up outside the Hôtel du Grand-Cerf, in Magny, and proceeded to fortify himself with some alcohol.
"Lunch time came, and with it a wild hope that there was some mistake, and that he was to be allowed to continue his normal life undisturbed by le Bossu Masqué. Vain thought: the summons came as he finished his meal. A letter was handed to him by the garçon, which he opened with trembling hands. It ran as follows:
"'At eight to-night you will take the road to Gisors on foot. Four kilometres out of the town, on the left of the road, is a small copse. In the centre of the copse is a wood-cutter's shed. Go there.'
"He told us at the trial, that three times that afternoon did he get as far as the local gendarmerie, only on each occasion to have his courage fail him at the last moment. Poor devil! one can hardly blame him. No one knew better than he what had been the penalty for treachery in Paris. And if it occurred in Paris with the whole force of police available, what chance had a couple of stout local gendarmes at night in the middle of a wood? And so eight o'clock found him taking the road for Gisors. He trudged along whistling, probably to try and keep his spirits up, until at length the copse on the left of the road loomed up out of the darkness. Like all town-dwellers the country at night was full of nameless terrors for him, even on normal occasions. The sudden scream of a night-bird could make him sweat with fear far more easily than any report of a revolver. So it isn't difficult to imagine his feelings on this far from normal occasion, when he struck into the trees and began to search for the wood-cutter's shed.
"At last he found it. It was in pitch darkness, and when he tried the door it was locked. (Interrupting myself for a moment, I think at the trial, when all this came out, that our friend made as good a story as he could out of it, to try and enlist sympathy. But even granted that, I'll bet he had a pretty grim half-hour.) After a while he sat down, and took out a packet of Caporals. A cigarette, he reflected, might help to quieten his nerves. And even as he felt in his pocket for a match a hand came out of the darkness and took the cigarette out of his mouth.
"Frozen with horror he sat there, leaning against the wall of the shed. Speech he could understand: the roar of Paris he was at home in, but that silent action in the middle of a deserted wood, where he had believe himself to be alone, literally petrified him with terror. His tongue was cleaving to his dry mouth: he couldn't even scream. Somewhere close to him was that most dreaded being in Paris—the masked hunchback.
"The sweat ran in streams from his forehead: his teeth chattered. If only this other one would speak: if only something would happen to break this ghastly silence! But there was nothing—nothing save the faint creaking of the trees in the night breeze. At last he forced himself to look round: there, standing just behind him, was the figure of a man. He could make out no details: only the outline could be seen against the blackness of the wood. And after a while he scrambled to his feet.
"'I have come,' he said in a shaking voice.
"'Why do you suppose, Rossignol, that I chose a spot like this for our rendezvous?"
"According to Marillard at his trial the voice of le Bossu was the most terrible thing he had ever heard. It was never raised, and his own description of it was that it sounded like drops of iced water boring into his brain.
"'That we should be secret, M'sieur,' he stammered.
"'And that is why you propose to light a cigarette in the middle of a dark wood,' went on the voice. 'That you were a fool I have long known: I perceive that you are an even more incredible imbecile than I suspected.'
"'Pardon, M'sieur,' muttered le Rossignol. 'I am not used to the country: I did not think.'
"'Precisely: you did not think. In future, you will think. Now pay very close attention. To-night you will sleep at the Hôtel du Grand-Cerf. To-morrow you will return to Paris. The day after you and the Snipe will take the car and go to Châteaudun. You know the road?'
"'No, M'sieur. But I will find out.'
"'Yes: you will find out. You leave Paris through the Porte d' Orleans. The distance is one hundred and twenty-five kilometres. Arrived there you will put up at the Hôtel de la Place, and see that your car is refilled with petrol and oil. Place also in your car two bottles of wine and food sufficient for two of you for a day. The rest of your gang will go there by train. They will put up at the Hôtel St. Louis. Repeat what I have said.'
"In a trembling voice le Rossignol repeated his instructions.
"Good. You will then await further instructions. And be careful, Rossignol, to put a guard on your tongue. Too much wine may be dangerous. If you serve me well, it will be to your advantage. If you fail—you will not do so twice. It is my pleasure to employ your car for other purposes than frightening old women in the street.'
"'Oui, M'sieur: I will not fail. The Porte d' Orleans, you said?'
"But there was no answer: le Rossignol was alone. As he had come so did le Bossu Masqué go—in utter silence. And an hour later a badly shaken Apache entered the Hôtel du Grand-Cerf and called for wine. Whatever the future might hold, this nerve-wracking first fence was safely over. That eerie wood was a thing of the past: in the inn was warmth and comfort and, most important of all, light.
"Now there were many people who, when they heard the story I have just told you at the trial, laughed it to scorn. Why, they demanded, these elaborate and theatrical details? Why this meeting in a deserted wood at what must have been great inconvenience to le Bossu himself, if all that transpired could as easily have been done in Paris itself? But they didn't see what I and one or two others saw. They didn't understand that le Bossu was a master of criminal psychology. He realised the immensely more powerful effect that he would produce on the mentality of a man like Marillard, if he met him as he had done, rather than in Paris, which was le Rossignol's own atmosphere. It was the terror of the unknown that he was exploiting—the most potent terror of all, especially to a man of low mental calibre. He was proposing to use this gang for his own ends, and none knew better than he that fear was the safest way of keeping their mouths shut. However, that is all in parenthesis. Subsequent events prove only too clearly that I and the others who thought as I did were right. So we will pass on to the day but one after, which found Rossignol and the Snipe installed in the Hôtel de la Place at Châteaudun, while the Toad and the other two were in the Hôtel St. Louis. The car had been filled up with petrol and oil: all instructions had been carried out, and there was nothing to do but to wait.
And now we come to one of the most amazing crimes that has ever been perpetrated in France: the crime, moreover, that is the direct cause of this present state of affairs here. Strange, you will think, that such a long time has elapsed, but the reason for that you will understand when I have finished. Many of the actual details of the crime, I can, of course, only fill in by guess-work: for many we have to take Marillard's unsupported word, on an occasion, too, when admittedly he was trying to make out the best case he could for himself. Still, the story hangs together, and I can vouch for its main essentials.
"About three miles out from Châteaudun, on the road to Vemdôme, there stands the Château du Lac Noir. It is a magnificent old building standing in enormous grounds. It dates, I think, from the thirteenth century, and until quite recent years was the property of the Duc de St. Euogat. However, he had found keeping up the place beyond his means, and he had sold it about ten years previously to a Russian—Prince Boris Marcovitch. He was a man of fabulous wealth, whose only hobby in life was collecting. He didn't confine himself to one particular line: anything that attracted his attention and that he liked, he bought. But if there was one thing that he did have a predilection for, it was precious stones—particularly emeralds. I have talked to men who had seen his collection, and they have, one and all, assured me that it was unique in the world.
"He was a man of peculiar tastes—this Russian Prince. He rarely, if ever, left the château grounds, and when he wanted company he imported it wholesale from Paris. It didn't seem to matter very much to him whether he knew the people or whether he didn't. He would write to a cousin of his who lived in the capital, requesting him to bring down a party. Perhaps a dozen girls and some men would arrive, and then for twenty-four hours there would take place what can only be described as an orgy. Drink flowed like water, and the only person on whom it had no effect was the Prince himself.
"I remember a man who had attended one of them describing the end of the performance to me.
"'I was pretty well tight myself,' he said, 'but not as bad as the rest. The whole lot of them, men and women alike, were sprawling round the table dead drunk. In the earlier part of the debauch the Prince had been the leader of the revels: now he sat at the end of the table, twirling a wine-glass between his fingers and with a look of ineffable contempt on his face. His thoughts were so obvious that he might have spoken them aloud.'
"'"You boors: you loutish swine—why in heaven's name did I ever have anything to do with you?"'
"So my informant told me, and I had confirmation from other sources. He seemed to be a man who from time to time had to break out, and then was sickened by the reaction when he had done so. But his disgust would only last a couple of months at the most. Then another of the same sort of parties would be given, to be attended with the same result.
"It is perhaps unnecessary to say that, whatever was the effect on the host, his guests thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment—particularly the ladies of the party. The Prince would think nothing of giving each girl a present worth a hundred pounds when they left, and since most of them came from the ranks of the Casino de Paris or the Folies Bergères, you can imagine their feelings on the matter. And so when it was noised abroad in the theatrical set in Paris that a supreme debauch of all was planned, the Prince's cousin became amazingly popular. It was to be a fancy-dress affair, and everyone was to come as an Apache. It got round of course to Police Headquarters, but it was none of our business what the Prince chose to do in his château. Our only concern was the prevention of crime, and it was on that account that a week before this historic party I found myself getting out of the train at Châteaudun. You will understand that I was unofficially attached, and Grodin, my immediate superior, thought that I could give the Prince a friendly warning better than one of the regular men.
"He saw me at once when I arrived, and as I looked at that refined aristocrat I marvelled that he could ever give way to these appalling excesses.
"'Monsieur le Prince,' I said, when he had glanced at my card, 'I wish to assure you that my visit is entirely unofficial. But we understand that you are giving a party here shortly, and that your guests are coming as Apaches.'
"'Correct, Mr. Matthews,' he remarked. 'Is there any objection?'
"'None, sir,' I said. 'But in view of your magnificent collection we wondered at Headquarters if you would like any police protection for the night in question? '
"He drew himself up and stared at me coldly.
"'May I ask why I should require protection against my own guests?'
"'You will pardon me, sir,' I said doggedly, 'but I intend no reflection on those of your guests whom you know personally. It is, however, a well-known fact that many of the people who accept your hospitality are quite unknown to you.' 'Proceed, sir,' he said quietly.
"'And such an opportunity as this is the very one to attract the attention of le Bossu Masqué.'
"He began to laugh silently: then he rose and pressed a bell.
"'Come with me, Mr. Matthews.' He gave an order in Russian to a servant who entered. 'I have heard rumours of this mysterious Bossu Masqué, and I can assure you that nothing would please me more than if he should honour my party with his presence.'
"He was leading the way into the garden as he spoke.
"He might succeed in giving me what I find so difficult to experience to-day—a genuine thrill. On the other hand—he might not. In my spare time, Mr. Matthews, I have sought to improve a natural aptitude in the use of firearms, and you shall judge for yourself whether my efforts have proved successful.
"He had halted by a small garden table on which a waiting servant had already placed a case containing two revolvers. Once again he gave an order in Russian, and the man took up a position twenty yards away, holding my visiting-card in his outstretched hand. There came a crack, and the visiting-card was no more. Then the man threw an apple in the air. The Prince shot twice. He got the apple with the first, and the largest bit of it with the second."
"Good shooting," said Hugh. "I used to be able to do that myself, but I have my doubts if I could do it now. Sorry to interrupt. Go on, Mr. Matthews."
"As you say. Captain Drummond—good shooting, marvellous shooting. He laid down his revolver, and turned to me with a smile.
"'That, sir,' he said, 'is why I say that on the other hand—he might not. For I should have not the smallest hesitation in killing him on the spot.'
"I bowed: there seemed nothing more to say.
"'I understand perfectly,' he continued, 'the object of your visit. And I am greatly obliged to your Headquarters for their courtesy. But I can assure you that I am quite capable of dealing with any uninvited guest myself; and, as for the others, I have implicit confidence in my cousin.'
"So I returned to the station and to Paris. I reported the result of my visit to Grodin, who shrugged his shoulders.
"'Well, anyway, he can't blame us if anything does happen,' he remarked, and at that we left it. We had done all we could: we had warned him. And, as Grodin pointed out, le Bossu Masqué, up to date, had confined his activities to Paris and its suburbs."
Victor Matthews paused and lit a cigarette.
"Eight days later," he said quietly, "we received a frenzied call on the telephone from the Châteaudun police. In the early hours of the morning Prince Boris Marcovitch, while at supper with his friends, had been shot dead through the heart, by le Bossu Masqué, and practically the whole collection had been stolen."
"Good Lord!" cried Hugh, "this beats the band. Take a breather, my dear fellow, and have a drink."
VIII. — IN WHICH VICTOR MATTHEWS ENDS HIS STORY
"I WAS afraid you might find the story a little long," said Matthews, as the butler brought out the tray.
"Long be blowed," cried Hugh. "It is the most extraordinary yarn I ever listened to. Sounds like a book."
"Truth is stranger, Captain Drummond. The old tag. I think that beer looks very promising."
He took the glass, and raised his hand in a toast.
"I'm just trying to think," he went on after a while, "of the best way of telling you the remainder. I think perhaps I shall make it most interesting if I first of all give you the story as it was told us on our arrival at the Château du Lac Noir by the guests who had been detained there by the local police pending our coming.
"There were fourteen of them in all—eight women, and six men. And their condition, as you can imagine, was pretty bad. In addition to this appalling affair, which in itself was sufficient to upset anyone, the whole lot of them had been extremely drunk the night before. And they looked like it.
"However, by dint of questioning and piecing together their various stories, we managed to arrive at a fairly accurate account of what had happened. They had arrived by the train which reached Châteaudun at four o'clock the previous day. As usual they had been met at the station by the Prince's private carriages, and taken straight to the château, where the Prince received them. Champagne and caviar had at once been served, which sent them all upstairs to change for dinner in an expansive mood.
Dinner itself started at eight-thirty and was preceded by more rounds of a special aperitif known only to the Prince, so that even at the beginning of the meal several of them were talking out of their turn. And by eleven o'clock most of them were riotously tight. Two girls from the Folies Bergères were dancing on the table: in fact, an extra special debauch was in full swing. The hours went on: more drink arrived, and yet more drink, until many of the guests were frankly and unashamedly asleep. Only the Prince remained his normal self, though he was drinking level with them all.
"Now it was his custom to hold these carousals in the huge old banqueting-hall. It was a lofty room with a broad staircase at one end leading up to the musicians' gallery. They had long since faded away, completely worn out, and in the general din probably no one even noticed that they had ceased playing. And so you can visualise the scene. The candles guttering on the table around which sprawled the drunken guests; and sitting at one end, with a look of scornful weariness already beginning to show on his face, their host. The staircase was behind his left shoulder, the top half of it in semi-darkness, as were the portraits of the Prince's ancestors which stared down on the revellers from the walls.
"Suddenly one of the men who was singing some maudlin song broke off abruptly and leaned forward rubbing his eyes. What on earth was that strange object on the staircase? Was it really there—or was the great black shadow his imagination? Then it moved and he lurched to his feet. Grim reality struggled through the fumes of alcohol, and he hiccoughed out a warning.
"The others looked up: a woman screamed. And cold as ice the Prince turned round to find himself facing a masked hunchback. There was a moment of dead silence—then he rose to his feet. And even as he did so a solitary shot rang out from the stairs, and the Prince pitched forward on his face—stone dead.
"The guests, sobered by this utterly unexpected tragedy, huddled together like sheep. 'Le Bossu Masqué' passed from lip to lip in fearful whispers. And still this monstrous figure stood there motionless, his revolver still in his hand. Suddenly the door from the servants' quarters opened and five men came in. Save for the fact that they were masked they might have been five of the guests, because they too were dressed as Apaches. Two of them advanced to the terrified guests, and each of them carried a revolver. No word was spoken; evidently the whole thing had been planned beforehand. While the two of them guarded the guests, and the sinister masked hunchback stood in silence on the stairs the other three systematically looted the place. They smashed in cabinets and wrenched open drawers, while the man whose collection they were taking lay dead by his own table.
"It lasted nearly an hour so we are told. The stuff was carried out through the front door, the looters returning each time for more. And then at length they finished, and the three men who had been removing the stuff disappeared. There was the sound, and of this they were one and all quite positive, of a motor-car driving away—then silence. Slowly the two men who had been covering them the whole time backed to the door and disappeared also. And with that pandemonium broke loose.
"As mysteriously as he had come le Bossu Masqué had vanished. The thing was over and finished; only broken cabinets and a dead man, who stared at the ceiling, remained to prove that it was ghastly reality and not a drunken dream. Completely sobered by now the men of the party dashed round the house, only to find that every servant had been bound and gagged. So they did the only thing there was to be done and sent for the local police.
"Well, that was the situation that confronted us on our arrival. Two things were established at once. Le Bossu Masqué had added yet another murder to the long list already to his credit; and the fact that a motor-car had been used, and that there were five Apaches in the raid, made it practically certain that the gang involved was le Rossignol's. So the first thing obviously to do was to try and lay that gang by the heels, which should have proved an easy matter. They have their invariable haunts to which they always return sooner or later, and we anticipated no difficulty whatever in catching them. But two days went past; three; a week; and still there was no sign of them. And it became increasingly obvious to me that the reason was simply and solely that they were acting under orders from le Bossu Masqué himself: it was his brain we were contending against—not theirs.
"Then came a new development. In a wood not far from Chartres a shepherd found a deserted motor-car. It had been forced in through some undergrowth, and was completely hidden from the road. Indeed, but for the fact that he thought he had seen a snake, and had gone into the bushes after it, the car might have remained there for months without being discovered. Of the gang, however, there was still no trace, nor of the loot they had taken—loot which, on the Prince's cousin's valuation, was worth, at a conservative estimate, half a million pounds.
"And then at last came the final development of all. The telephone bell rang in our office, and a voice came over the wire. It was disguised, but not quite sufficiently. Before he had said a sentence I knew it was the Toad speaking, though I didn't let on that I knew. And his information was to the effect that le Rossignol's gang were lying up in a wood halfway between Mamers and Alençon. He was speaking from a public telephone call office so it was hopeless to try and track him through that. But I passed on the word that the Toad was back in Paris, and sat down to think it out.
"If you look at the map you will see that the wood mentioned by the Toad is some sixty miles west of Châteaudun, while the wood where the car was found is about twenty miles due north. That seemed peculiar in the first place. In the second, what had caused the Toad to split? That it was quite in keeping with his nature I knew, but the Toad never did anything without a reason. And what was the reason in this case? Why had he turned traitor? Was he doing it on his own account, or was he doing it under orders from le Bossu Masqué? Had that gentleman decided that now the cat had pulled the chestnut out of the fire for him, its services could very well be dispensed with?
"However, the first thing to be done was to verify the Toad's information. The wood he mentioned was surrounded by a cordon of armed police, who gradually closed in on the centre. And what he had told us proved correct. The gang was there; at least, three of them were. Who fired the first shot I don't know, but men's fingers are quick on the trigger in cases like that. Sufficient to say that two of the police were killed, and two were wounded, before the three bandits fell riddled with bullets. Finding themselves cornered, half starving, dirty, and unkempt, the Snipe, the Butcher, and the man called Robert fought like rats in a trap and died. But of the Nightingale there was no trace. Nor, again, was there any sign of the stolen property, though we searched the wood with a fine-tooth comb. And so there we were up against a brick wall once again. It was true that three of the gang were dead, but they were the three least important ones. Le Bossu Masqué had completely vanished: so had both the Nightingale and the Toad. Had they split up the loot between them, or what had they done with it? Were they hanging together or had they fallen out? Those were the questions we constantly asked one another, and as constantly failed to answer.
"And then, one day about a fortnight after the fight in the wood, we caught the Nightingale. With his voice and terrible appearance he was altogether too conspicuous a character to escape notice. And the police found him hiding in a back slum in Rouen, and promptly despatched him to us in Paris, where he first of all told us that part of his story that I have already told you.
"If you remember, we left him and his gang at Châteaudun putting up in the two hotels of the town, and having arrived there on the day of the Prince's party. They were completely in the dark as to what their further orders were to be: all they had to do was to sit and wait. Their instructions came to them at eight o'clock that night, and were simple in the extreme. They were to wait until eleven, and were then to proceed by car to the Château du Lac Noir. The motor was to be left in the shadow of some trees a hundred metres from the front door, and they were to remain hidden in the trees, also, until they saw a light flash twice from the bedroom window over the front door. They were then to proceed to the back door, where they would again receive instructions.
"They waited until, at two-thirty, they saw the light. When they got to the back door they found it open, and confronting them in the darkness of the passage the dim black figure of the Bossu Masqué, who ordered them to pick up some coils of rope and follow him.
"They obeyed: as le Rossignol said—'Messieurs, we dared not do otherwise. We were more frightened of le Bossu Masqué than of all the fiends in hell.'
"Suddenly he flung open the door into a lighted room, and there confronting them they saw the four men-servants, who, following the example of those upstairs, were a bit fuddled themselves. Incidentally, of course, we knew all this part of the story already. But confirmation is always valuable, and we thought it a good thing to let him tell the yarn in his own way. They trussed the servants up, and then they received their final instructions. When they heard a shot they were to go straight into the banqueting-hall: the Snipe and he were to cover the guests, the other three were to loot the place. And he told us then exactly the same story as we had already heard from the guests.
"So far, so good—but what we wanted to know was still to come.
"'Be very careful now, Rossignol,' said Grodin sternly. 'You have spoken the truth up to date: see that you continue doing so.'
"'By the Holy Virgin, M'sieur,' he exclaimed passionately, 'no word but the truth shall pass my lips. And if it does then may I be stricken dead, and have to forego my revenge on that festering sore le Crapeau.'
"Grodin glanced at me—that was a bit of news. But he merely told le Rossignol curtly to continue.
"It appeared, then, that the Snipe, the Butcher, and Robert were to find their way by cross-country trains to Mamers, from which place they were to go to a wood between there and Alençon.
"'And of those three, Messieurs, I can tell you no more. I saw in the paper that they were dead. How, if I may ask, did you find them?'
"'The Toad gave them away,' I said quietly, and for a moment we thought he was going to have an apoplectic fit. The veins stood out on his forehead, and a flood of the most filthy blasphemy poured out of his lips. We let him finish: as far as his feelings about the Toad were concerned, we had a certain sympathy with him.
"At last he pulled himself together and continued. His orders and the Toad's were to take the car, with the loot inside it, on the road towards
174 IN WHICH VICTOR MATTHEWS
Chartres. After they had gone twenty kilometres, they would find a track leading off to the right. They would know it, because there were three tall trees at the junction. They were to proceed along this track for two kilometres, where they would find a disused quarry. In the quarry was a shed, and in that shed they were to put the car. Under no circumstances were they to move out of the quarry, or light a fire, or attract attention to themselves in any way. But if, by any chance, they were discovered by some wandering pedestrian, the pedestrian was to wander no more. And they would receive further instructions in due course.
"Now I may say at once that we subsequently verified this statement. We found the track, and the quarry, and the actual wheelmarks of the car in the shed.
"Well, it appeared that they sat there the whole of the next day. They had the bread and cheese and wine which le Bossu Masqué had ordered them to put in the car, so they were not hungry. And, incidentally, it struck me, even at the time, what astounding attention to detail that little fact showed. For if there is one thing that will overcome fear it is hunger, and but for having given them food one or other of them would most certainly have gone to the nearest village to get it.
"I will now try and continue in the Nightingale's own words.
"'It was about six o'clock, M'sieurs, that it happened. The sun was just setting, so I know the time. I had risen and was standing in the door of the shed, wondering what we should next be told to do. Suddenly I received the most terrible blow in the back of the neck, and I knew no more.'
"We looked at his neck, and there was an ugly looking scar about two inches long. In fact, anyone except an abnormality like the Nightingale would never have known any more.
"'When I recovered consciousness,' he went on, 'it was dark. At first I didn't know where I was, everything was a blank. And then, little by little, memory came back to me. The quarry—the affair at the château—the car. Mon Dieu! M'sieurs—sick and faint, I raised myself on my elbow. The car had gone: so had le Crapeau. I was alone in the shed. How long I had lain there I knew not: some hours, because the sky was studded with stars. And then there came a voice out of the darkness, and I nearly fainted with horror.
"'"Rossignol,'" it said, "where is the car?"
"'I was not alone: le Bossu Masqué was there too.
"'"M'sieur," I cried, "I do not know. That accursed traitor le Crapeau struck me from behind with what must have been a spanner. See—I am wet with blood." '
"'And, in truth, I was, gentlemen—soaked with it—my coat, my shirt, everything.'
"'"Accursed fool," went on the voice, and I could dimly see le Bossu's outline in the gloom. "Blundering idiot. Do I plan with my great brain this wonderful coup in order that you should allow yourself to be sandbagged like an English tourist? And by le Crapeau of all people."
"'"M'sieur," I pleaded, "I did not suspect him. I was standing in the door wondering what our next instructions would be when he crept on me from behind."
"Be silent, worm," he said. "It is well for you, Rossignol, that your shirt is soaked with blood. Were it otherwise I might be tempted to think that this was a put-up job between you."
"'"By the blood of the Virgin, M'sieur," I cried, "I swear to you—"
"'"Be silent," he snarled. "I said it was well for you that he hit so hard. It proves to me that you are only a fool and not a traitor. Were you the second, Rossignol, I would strangle you here and now with my own hands. As it is, your punishment is sufficient."
"'"But, M'sieur," I cried, "what am I to do?"
There was no answer, le Bossu Masqué had gone. I was alone now, in very truth—miles from anywhere.'
"So did the Nightingale ramble on. We let him talk, but there was obviously nothing more that he could tell us. He was very incoherent as to dates and times, and I think he undoubtedly remained in that shed in a semi-delirious state for three or four days. How he finally arrived at Rouen we never found out: he hardly seemed to know himself. Anyway, the point was not important.
"He was brought up on a charge of robbery with violence, and sentenced to twenty-one years' imprisonment in Devil's Island. And with that we can leave him for the present. And with that also my story of the quarter of a century ago is practically finished. Le Rossignol, with a characteristic outburst of frenzied invective against the Toad, disappeared from the dock into twenty-one years of hell.
"And now, gentlemen, we pass out of the region of certain fact into the region of guess-work. To take the Toad first. I do not think there can be any doubt as to what he did. Overcome by the thought of so much loot, he determined to try and get it all for himself. He laid out the Nightingale, and went off in the car. What happened then we can only surmise. Perhaps he found that he couldn't manage the car: perhaps he lost his nerve. But somewhere in that area of country he hid the stolen stuff. Probably he put in his pocket sufficient jewellery to keep him in comfort for many a long day. But the bulk of the stuff he must have hidden, intending to go back for it when the hue and cry was over. Then he ran the car into a wood, hid it as well as he could, and disappeared. And it is a fact that he did disappear. Years passed by: the war came, but never a trace of the Toad did we see. He vanished from the underworld of Paris as completely as a stone vanishes in the sea. Many people thought he was dead, though, personally, I never agreed with them. But at last the whole thing was forgotten: even the search for the treasure was abandoned. That had really been hopeless from the first, unless we could lay our hands on the Toad and make him lead us to it.
"As to what happened to le Bossu Masqué we are equally in doubt. Many people believed that he had caught the Toad, and had murdered him for his treachery, first compelling him to reveal the hiding-place of the loot. There was a great deal to be said for the theory, though, somehow, I never believed it myself. No body was ever found anywhere which could possibly have been the Toad's. And I felt tolerably certain that a big man like le Bossu would never have taken the trouble to follow an object of that sort out of the country merely to kill him. It was the loot he was after—not the Toad. We still felt his activities in Paris, though, as years went by, they seemed to grow less and less. And there are strange stories told of incredible deeds of heroism performed in the war by a masked hunchback, who appeared suddenly in different parts of the line. Fiction, of course, but le poilu likes his little bit of mystery—just as your Tommy does.
"And so we come to the present moment, and this strange reunion of the principals in that drama of nearly thirty years ago. As a matter of fact, you will see that it is not quite so strange as it would appear at first sight, but a perfectly logical affair.
"It starts with the release of the Nightingale from Devil's Island five years ago. I was then working with the police in New York, but not because I had to. I happen to be of independent means, and I work for the love of the thing, not for the salary. And the case of all others that intrigued me most during my whole career was the one I have just told you. It was unsolved: I felt I had been beaten.
Now I have a fairly good knowledge of the criminal nature. And quite by chance I happened to learn that an uncle of le Rossignol's had died leaving his money to his nephew. So I gambled on the result that twenty-one years in Devil's Island would produce on a man like the Nightingale, believing, as he did, that he was there principally because of the Toad's treachery. I chucked up my job, and got on the heels of the Nightingale.
"Well, my guess proved right. He was now, for a man in his position, comparatively affluent, which enabled him to be free from the necessity of working. And, as I thought would prove the case, he was obsessed with one idea, to the exclusion of everything else. And that idea was revenge on the Toad. While le Crapeau was still alive he was going to find him.
"Gentlemen, these past few years may seem to you to have been dull: to me they have been fascinating. Backwards and forwards, searching and ferreting, the Nightingale has chased his man. Old companions of twenty years previously have been interrogated: clues have been followed up, only to be discarded. And all the time, unknown to him, I have been sitting on his heels, patiently waiting. I knew that no one was better qualified to find the Toad than he was. He had access to information that I could never have got: in addition it was the sole driving force of his life.
"It is true, I admit, that at one period, when for months he seemed completely defeated, I very nearly gave it up. And then, quite suddenly out of the blue, there came the message that gave me the greatest thrill of my life. It was proof of what I had always thought in days gone by. Just an envelope handed to me by a gamin as I sat outside a cafe in Paris.
"'Keep out of this.' That was all that was written on the paper: that— and the drawing I hadn't seen for so many years. So le Bossu Masqué was not dead: le Bossu Masqué was on the trail, too. He also was following the Nightingale: he also was working on the same lines as myself. A strange situation as you will agree: I and that greatest of criminals both using the same dog to hunt our man, and the dog quite unconscious of the fact that he was being so used. It added zest to it, I can assure you. It meant sleeping with one eye permanently open: it meant that the whole time it was necessary to look in every direction, not only at the Nightingale. Several times I sensed his presence near me: how, I can't tell you. And remember the terrible handicap that I was working under. He knew me, but I didn't know him.
"However, that is neither here nor there. Just as the obsession of le Rossignol's life was to lay hands on the Toad, so the obsession of mine became the desire to catch le Bossu Masqué. It had turned into a duel between him and me. And that duel is now approaching its end."
For a moment or two Victor Matthews fell silent, his eyes fixed on the little drawing still pinned to the tree above my head. And we, enthralled though we were, let him take his own time.
"The rest," he continued after a while, "is fairly soon told. Little by little, from a clue here and a clue there, it became increasingly certain that the Toad had left France. But where had he gone, and had he taken the loot with him? And then came a sudden and astounding stroke of luck. The Nightingale, in the course of his search, had reached Boulogne, and one evening he was sitting in a small wine-shop on the Quai Gambetta. At the next table to him was a French ouvrier, and I venture to think that not even the Bossu Masqué himself would have recognised me in that excellent workman. The cafe was fairly empty, and I was on the point of going when two French fishermen came in. They were both a little tight, and their conversation was clearly audible. But what principally attracted my attention was the fact that they obviously were full of money.
"At first I listened idly, and then a stray sentence struck my ear.
"'Le moulin à Bonneval.'
"The mill at Bonneval, and Bonneval was the name of a village between Châteaudun and Chartres. Moreover, it was the nearest village to the quarry where the motor-car had been hidden during the day. Isn't it an astounding fact how sometimes, after months and years of fruitless labour, a stray remark casually overheard may provide a clue? As it stood, of course, there was nothing in it—but the coincidence attracted my attention. It was well it did so: amazing though it seems that a chance remark was destined to end our search.
"I stole a glance at the Nightingale: he, too, had caught the phrase, and was listening intently. And after a while, as the full significance of their conversation sank into his mind, he began to quiver like a terrier when it sees a rat. Sometimes the men lowered their voices, but for the most part what they said was clearly audible. And one fact was soon established definitely. These two sailors owned the ketch Rose Marie, and they had recently smuggled over a cargo consisting of three large wooden cases, which had been landed on Romney Marsh somewhere between Rye and Dungeness. Further, that these cases had something to do with the mill at Bonneval.
"I give you my word that by this time I was almost as excited as the Nightingale himself. I remembered that there was an old disused mill, standing a little back from the road, about a kilometre north of Bonneval.
"Was it possible that that was the hiding-place which we had searched for in vain? And if so, who was the recipient of the cases on Romney Marsh?
"Then another thought struck me: was le Bossu Masqué present? I glanced round the room: there were only some fisher-folk and a pale youth who looked as if he served in some shop. Honestly I could not think he was there, and yet—"
He waved his hand at the tree behind me.
"However," he continued, "it may be that he wasn't. The Nightingale is an easy man to track, and that may easily account for it. To return to that evening. The two sailors didn't say much more, but what they had said was quite enough to send the Nightingale flying over to England. He has one gift which you probably noticed the night before last—he speaks English fluently. And that was a considerable help to him. It was impossible for him to tell, of course, if the cases had been landed on Romney Marsh because the Toad was near at hand, or simply because it is an admirably situated locality for smuggling."
"Hold hard a moment," said Hugh. "How long ago did you overhear this conversation in the wine shop?"
"About six weeks," answered Matthews. "Rather more. Well, I can't tell you when the Nightingale first discovered that the man he wanted was your next-door neighbour. He's no fool, and presumably his suspicions at once fell on a house fortified like Temple Tower. So did mine. But the Toad is a secretive gentleman, and suspicion is not proof. Personally, I have not seen the man who now calls himself Granger, though I've lain up for hours waiting for him. I assume that the Nightingale has; at any rate, he has satisfied himself somehow that Granger is the Toad. And so his quest is ended: he has found his enemy. Theatrical as all those people are, he has flashed his warning across the Marsh—red and blue lights, the colours of the gang. For years that man—ever since le Rossignol was liberated from Devil's Island—has lived in fear of being found. And now he has been."
Young Freckles took a deep breath.
"I say, chaps," he remarked," we are having a jolly party, aren't we? And how do the Beaver and the girl come in?"
"I was just coming to them," said Matthews. "Paul Vandali is one of those men, well-known to the police to be criminals, who have yet succeeded in steering clear of trouble. The only commandment they keep is the eleventh— thou shalt not be found out. The lady has not, I think, ever been united to Vandali in the holy bonds of matrimony, but she has been his inseparable companion for three years."
"I suppose he is not the Bossu Masqué?" I asked.
Matthews shook his head.
"Quite impossible," he said. "He is not old enough. Vandali is a man of only about thirty-five. So that rules him out. Oh, no! He comes in in a very different way. I have mentioned, if you remember, the Prince's cousin, who chose his parties for him. Now that cousin is also the Prince's heir, and he is alive to-day in Paris. He inherited all the Prince's money, and so is an extremely wealthy man. After the affair at the Château du Lac Noir, he offered an enormous reward for the recovery of the stolen property—no less than fifty thousand pounds. Naturally he, years ago, gave up all hope of getting it back, though the reward still stood. And then Vandali and the lady appeared on the scene. You have seen them, and you will realise that they are people who are quite at home in the highest society. At any rate, they met Count Vladimir—that is the cousin—at supper one night not very long ago. And the conversation came round to the affair at the Château du Lac Noir. My informant was the waiter—who was not a waiter. To be more explicit, the Paris police were after Vandali over a little matter at Nice. They had no proof, but they were trying to trap him in an unguarded moment. And the waiter was really a detective.
"Well, he got nothing from the meal which helped him over the Nice business, but what he did get was that Vladimir most categorically stated that the reward of fifty thousand pounds still held good. He said it with a laugh, almost as if he implied that it might just as well be a million for the good it would do. But the detective caught a very significant glance that passed between the two. And here they are.
"How they spotted this place I can't tell you. It may be that they, too, through friends in the underworld, have kept themselves posted in the Nightingale's movements, realising, as I did, that in him lay their best chance of being led to the treasure. At any rate, they are here."
Matthews paused and lit a cigarette.
"Well, gentlemen, so much for the past, and the original causes that have led up to the situation as it stands to-day. Of my doings since I have been here there is little to say. I have told you that the main obsession of my life is to lay hands on the man who nearly murdered me to-night. And I have been lying up in a small place in Rye, watching and waiting for what I knew must happen, sooner or later—his arrival. I have kept my eye on le Rossignol: you saw me the other night when I very foolishly got caught in the light. But until to-night I did not know le Bossu was here. I don't know quite what took me up there—restlessness, perhaps, or something deeper. It sounds strange, I know," his voice grew almost solemn, "but I veritably believe, though I have never seen him until to-night, that there is some channel of communication between him and me which cannot be explained by any natural means. Gentlemen, I have felt him near me in Paris: I know it. And to-night an overmastering impulse took me to Temple Tower, You know with what result. Suddenly I saw him—looming out of the darkness—right on top of me. And although I had half expected it, the shock at the moment was almost paralysing. I even forgot to draw my gun till it was too late: he had gone."
He paused, and a dreamy look came into his eyes.
"But he is here, and I am here, and this time it is the end, one way or the other."
For a moment or two no one spoke: there was something almost awe-inspiring in the quiet finality of his words. Just as at Spragge's Farm, the soft melodious voice of le Rossignol had seemed to ring Granger's death knell, so, now, did this second deadly hatred promise a fight to the finish.
"Enough, gentlemen," he went on in his normal voice. "No good has ever come of dreaming. Will you now return the compliment, and tell me what has happened to you? Then we will draw up a plan of campaign and decide what to do."
We told him everything: about the chimney-pot episode, the sparking plugs, the stolen map, and Miss Verney's letter. And when we had finished, he smoked a complete cigarette before he spoke.
"Captain Drummond," he said quietly, "I congratulate you. I think your deductions are absolutely correct. Whether he meant to kill you with the chimney-pot, or only put you out of the way temporarily, is immaterial—but that was his first idea. And I think your appearance on the scene has changed all his plans. He has only just arrived, of that I am sure. He came expecting to find le Rossignol and me: instead, he finds all of you, to say nothing of the Vandalis."
He rose and began pacing up and down, his face working eagerly as he emphasised each point.
"What is the result? Merely that time becomes all important. He hears of the map belonging to Sir John: he steals it. Not knowing of the verse behind, he thinks that he has solved the method of getting in to Temple Tower. And he was looking for the entrance to-night when the dog found him. Probably alarmed by the din the animal made, he hid for a while near by, and it was then that Gaspard stumbled on him, only to be strangled. Who knows why he did that? It is possible he did not know you were in the grounds, and thought he might gain access to the house by pretending to be Gaspard: it is possible he had no alternative. But of one thing, gentlemen, I am very sure: time is now even more all important to le Bossu than it was a few hours ago.
"In view of the fact that he did not gain access to the house, the killing of Gaspard was an error—a bad error. But it is done and cannot be undone. And of another thing I am very sure, too." His voice grew grave, and he stared over the Marsh thoughtfully. "If you heard the Vandalis' programme, Mr. Darrell, so did he. And I do not think it would find favour in his eyes —far from it. I hold no brief for either of them, but "
He said no more, but the little shrug of his shoulders filled in the silence more ominously than any spoken word.
"Had he got into the house to-night, the Vandalis would not have mattered. But he didn't, and now they do. However, they can look after themselves: the point we have to decide is what we are going to do. Shall we call in the police, or shall we not? There are, it seems to me, two main objections. The first is this: What are we going to tell them? Nothing that we can do can bring the man Gaspard back to life, and if we tell them anything, we must tell them all. And frankly, gentlemen, though you are, of course, the best judges of that, I think an account of your recent doings, told in cold blood at a police station, might prove a little awkward."
"I know the Inspector pretty well," said Hugh, "but perhaps you are right."
"The other objection," went on Matthews, "is this. And to me it is a far bigger one. If we tell the police, and they take the matter up, we drop out, or at any rate you do. And"—he thumped his fist into his open palm—"for the local police to try and tackle le Bossu is about equivalent to asking a board school child to explain Einstein's Theory. They are naturally trammelled by the law, and le Bossu would laugh at them. No, gentlemen, the only way of catching him, if you are prepared to do it, is for us to join forces and act outside the law on our own. Keep the police out of it, and we will catch him. Let them in, and our hands are tied."
"My dear fellow," said Hugh with a grin, "no one loathes the idea of letting the police in more than I do. But do not forget there is a lady involved."
"I don't," remarked Matthews gravely, and turned to young Freckles. "I quite appreciate your position, Mr. Scott. But I am going to say something which I hope you will not consider impertinent. There is a reward of fifty thousand pounds at stake. Wait, please"—he held up his hand, as Freckles started to speak—"and then bite me afterwards. Captain Drummond, if I may say so, hardly seems to be a gentleman in need of money. I am in this show for one reason only—to get to grips with le Bossu. If between us we find that property, we get fifty thousand pounds. And do not be under any delusion. Count Vladimir can pay that sum without feeling it. Which brings me to my point. Your fiancee can be of invaluable assistance to us in finding it, and as a natural result would be entitled to the whole reward. Please understand me, Mr. Scott," he continued with a smile, which robbed his words of any offence. "But young ladies do not as a general rule take on jobs of that sort if their future husbands are wealthy."
"My dear old lad," laughed Freckles, "we haven't got a blinking bean between us, if that is what you mean."
Then here is an unprecedented opportunity of getting fifty thousand of the best," said Matthews.
"Be a bit more explicit," said Hugh after a pause.
"Le Bossu will return to Temple Tower," said Matthews quietly. "You disturbed him last night, but there is no power in Heaven or Hell that will deter that man from doing what he has come here to do. He may or may not kill le Crapeau, according to the mood he is in: but he has come to get the stuff stolen twenty-five years ago—the stuff which, as Captain Drummond says, Miss Verney has been engaged to sell. Well, gentlemen, my suggestion is this. Let us lie up and wait for him. In the past we have always laboured under the disadvantage of not knowing where he would turn up: this time that disadvantage is gone. We know exactly, and all we have to do is to wait for him. And this time," he added softly, "we are going to catch him. What do you say?"
Hugh glanced round at all of us.
"It seems to me," he said, "that Scott must decide."
"Well, old birds," answered Freckles, "it seems to me that if five of us can't tackle this bloke, the addition of a couple of policemen isn't going to help much. I'm all for Mr. Matthews' suggestion."
"Good," cried Hugh. "Then that's that. What do you want, Denny?"
The butler had come out of the house in an obvious state of suppressed excitement.
"Have you heard sir, what they've found in the wood opposite Temple Tower?"
"No," said Hugh quietly. "What?"
"A dead man, sir. Hidden in the bushes. A terrible looking thing he was, so the postman told me—more like a great monkey than a man. They say that he has been stopping at Spragge's Farm."
For a moment or two there was silence: then Victor Matthews spoke.
"How was he killed?" he asked.
And I think we all knew the answer before it came.
"Murdered, sir, so I hear. From the marks round his neck they say he was strangled."