The Day of Uniting/Chapter 12
BY THE KING A PROCLAMATION.
Whereas it is desirable that members of one family should from time to time come together for the reëstablishment of those bonds of affection and service which are the bases on which the fabric of nationality is erected and
Whereas many citizens of this realm, by reason of their pecuniary circumstances and the incidence of their toil are unable to forgather periodically with their relatives, and
Whereas it is desirable that opportunity should be given for the stimulation of the amenities of family life
Now, therefore I, John Henry Felbent, Earl of Morland and Tynewood, President of His Majesty's Honorable Privy Council, declare that the fifteenth and sixteenth days of May shall be celebrated as a public holiday and shall be known and styled, 'The Days of Uniting.” And it is declared that on the fifteenth day of May, free transportation shall be given over the railway systems of this realm and all other public conveyances and transportation services. And that on the sixteenth day of May all transportation and labor of all kinds shall cease for a period of twenty-four hours.
Jimmy read the announcement in bed. “The Days of Uniting!” He dressed, and came down to find Ferdie and Delia had read the news and were speculating upon its significance,
“What I want to know is this,” said Ferdie querulously. “Does this mean I've got to call on my Aunt Rachel or must Aunt Rachel call on me? It looks to me like a plot to get me to one of her beastly dinners at Hindhead.”
Delia looked up as Jimmy came in and nodded. He had gone to bed early the previous night, abandoning his contemplated search of the Warden's House, all the more readily because there was a bright moon which made the night wholly unsuitable for his purpose.
“I can't understand it a little bit,” he said. “Everything seems to have grown out of that fatal luncheon. Do you realize that of the dozen people who were there, two are dead, one is broken, another has performed the eccentric feat of giving away his money, Maggerson has disappeared——”
“Who is broken? You mean the bishop?” asked Delia.
“That's where you're mistaken, old bean,” said Ferdinand triumphantly. “I met the Squirrel this morning. He was bicycling, and the old gentleman recognized me, and was as hearty and as cheerful as you could wish!”
“Did he say anything about his breakdown yesterday?”
“Yes, he even had the audacity to talk about overwork,” said Ferdie. “That fellow has a memory like a cash register! He recalled both whackings he gave me—devilish bad taste, I think.”
“Did he whack you?” asked Jimmy with a faint smile. “My respect for him increases. And what were you doing up this morning so early, anyway?” asked Jimmy, pushing aside his egg.
Ferdie smiled triumphantly. “Making a reconnoissance. Also chasing a gentleman I saw in the garden at daybreak.”
The girl turned her startled face to his. “You never told me about that.”
“The fact is, Miss Delia, I suffer from overwhelming modesty,” he confessed. “I didn't intend telling you. A terrible ruffian he was, too. I shouldn't have heard him, but my window looks out on to the leads, and just as it was getting light I heard somebody working away at my window—and he was the clumsiest burglar I have ever heard about. I got up, and there was the gentleman trying to push up the bottom sash with the aid of a pocketknife. The moment he saw me he bolted, slipped down to the ground, and was halfway across the garden before I could get going. I dressed myself more or less sketchily, and went to look for him.”
“What sort of a man was he?”
“About your height, Jimmy. Fairly young, with vile whiskers and a boozy face.”
Jimmy and Delia exchanged glances. They knew it was the half-mad Elmers. After breakfast Jimmy led his friend to the study.
“If you have any exciting adventures ashore or afloat, that you would care to relate, I should be pleased if you would keep them for my private ear,” he said unkindly. “I do not wish Miss Sennett to be alarmed.”
“I'm dreadfully sorry, Jimmy,” said the penitent Ferdie. “I really didn't intend talking at all. Who is he, anyway?”
“He was recently an employee of your papa,” said Jimmy, and Ferdie saw light.
“Is that the fellow who messed about with old Van Roon's type?”
Jimmy nodded. “To-night we'll have a look at the Warden's Lodge, Ferdie,” he said; “but I must go alone. I can't leave the girl by herself. This Elmers person is obviously half mad and I am a little scared for her sake. In fact, I am beginning to think that Blackheath is a pretty unhealthy neighborhood.”
“I've always told you so,” said the complacent Ferdie. “Give me jolly old Cavendish Square—that's quite rural enough for me.”
Before they put their plan into operation that night, Jimmy told the girl frankly just what he intended doing.
“The Warden's Lodge?” she said in surprise. “Is that the house behind the wall?”
“That is the place,” said Jimmy.
“But surely you do not connect the death of Mr. van Roon, or the suicide of Mr. Kendrick with the lodge?”
“That's just the information I can't give you,” he said. “I tell you I'm as uncertain and doubtful about this aspect of the mystery as I am about the whole business. I shall leave Ferdie with you and make my attempt alone.”
“You'll do nothing of the sort,” she said quietly. “I shall not go to bed, and you can tell your manservants to be about until you return.” She bit her lip thoughtfully. “I wish I could get into touch with father.”
“You haven't heard from him?”
She shook her head. “I think he must be engaged on very important work—oh, of course,” she said suddenly. “He printed the proclamation!”
“The Days of Uniting!” said Jimmy in surprise. “Of course, they would have to print posters.”
“They are stuck up all over the town,” said Ferdie. “I saw one pasted on the wall of Greenwich Park and two on each side of the gates.”
“That is it,” said the girl, relieved. “So it wasn't so mysterious after all. I expect we shall see him to-day.”
But the night did not bring old Sennett, nor any word from him.
Though Jimmy had his doubts as to the wisdom of leaving her, she insisted on his taking Ferdinand and at half past eleven the big Rolls slipped silently from the drive and, taking a circuitous route, came slowly along the road by the park and stopped near the Warden's Lodge. It was a night suitable for their purpose, for the weather had broken again and rain was falling drearily.
Ferdie carried the collapsible ladder and the rope from the body of the car, and laid it on the grass some distance from the road, where it would be free from the observation of passing travelers. The difficulty was the disposal of the car. That difficulty was ended by driving on to the heath and leaving it, trusting to luck that nobody strayed in that direction, and, scenting a mystery in the abandoned car, communicated with the police.
Both men were in dark raincoats, and they were very necessary, though, as it proved, somewhat inadequate. They had not been waiting an hour before Jimmy was uncomfortably wet.
About twenty minutes past twelve the light of a car appeared, stopped at the usual distance, and after a while turned.
“Here is the first of the conspirators,” said Jimmy. “They're as regular as the German artillery!”
It was the man with a stick who came first that night, walking slowly, and he turned into the house only a little ahead of the second man, whose car appeared immediately after the first had turned.
“Here's number three, the cyclist,” whispered Jimmy. “He's going to burn his light to-night. No, he isn't; he's put it out.”
The cyclist came noiselessly from the murk and followed his two companions.
“Now for the fourth,” said Jimmy, but he waited in vain. The fourth man did not appear.
The explanation came to Jimmy with a flash, and took his breath away.
“Ferdie!” he whispered, “there will be no fourth to-night.”
“Why not?” asked Ferdie.
“Because he's dead,” said Jimmy. “The fourth man was Stope-Kendrick!”
“You're wrong, my lad,” hissed Ferdie. “There he is! Get down!”
They crouched, for the new man was walking on the grass, on their side of the road. His behavior was peculiar. He did not go through the gate, although he went up to it, and they heard a faint squeak as he tried the handle.
“Can you see him?” whispered Ferdie.
“Perhaps he's forgotten the key,” whispered Ferdie again, but Jimmy pressed his arm to enjoin silence.
They heard the swish of something being thrown. What was happening they could not see. Only occasionally did Jimmy detect the bulk of the black figure against a background almost as dark. Then he focused his night glasses. The figure seemed taller than it did before, and a second later was even taller; the newcomer was climbing the wall! They heard the squeak of the iron chevaux-de-frise as it turned in its socket, and saw the mystery man's head disappear into the greater darkness of the background above the wall. There was no sky line for them. Behind were the chestnut trees, and what was happening they could only conjecture.
They waited a few minutes, and then they heard a soft thud.
“He has got to the other side,” whispered Ferdie excitedly and, standing up, they stepped gingerly across the road toward the wall. A rope was hanging from the iron spikes at the top.
“That's queer,” said Jimmy. “Perhaps he did forget his key, but if he'd forgotten his key, he wouldn't have remembered the rope.”
Jimmy was in a dilemma. If the man who went over was one of the four, he might follow, taking the risks he had anticipated. If, on the other hand, the man was an interloper, some stray burglar who, for reasons best known to himself, was paying the lodge a visit, the chance of detection was doubled.
“We'll wait for an hour,” he said. “If nothing happens then, we'll go over.”
At the end of half an hour Ferdie clutched his arm.
“Did you hear that?” he demanded under his breath.
It was a crash of glass they had heard, then:
“Joe! If it's you, come and fight, you old devil!”
The words were not spoken in anything higher than a conversational tone and came, apparently, from the other side of the wall and near at hand.
“Elmers,” gasped Jimmy. “Listen, he is coming this way.”
They heard feet in the garden, and then a shot broke through the silence of the night. There was no other sound.
“What do you think is happening?” whispered Ferdie.
“Maybe they're reading the proclamation to him,” said Jimmy grimly. They waited another half an hour, and then: “I'm going over,” he said.
The collapsible ladder was a simple affair, and in half a minute they had laid the top rung against the spikes and Jimmy had mounted. He could see nothing. There was no light visible, nor, peering down, could he discover a secure place to drop. He negotiated the spikes and discovered they were not as formidable as they appeared from the roadway. They served their purpose, too, for he hooked the end of the rope he carried to one of the rusty iron supports, and let himself slide down on the other side of the wall.
He came to earth on a heap of garden refuse, the same that probably had broken the fall of Tom Elmers, if Tom Elmers it was. The garden was choked with laurel bushes, but his electric lamp showed him a weed-grown path and this he followed.
Though the house was not more than fifty feet from the road, it was a considerable time before he sighted it. It was in darkness, and there was no sign of life. He walked round to the back, and here he was rewarded. A light was showing from a small window, but it was not this which brought him to a standstill holding his breath.
At the back of the house there was a space clear of trees. Here, on what appeared to be a lawn, three or four men were working. It was when he discovered the nature of their labor, that his heart came into his mouth. They were digging a hole. Presently the man who was in the hole stopped and climbed wearily forth, and then the three lifted something that was on the ground, and placed it in the earth. It was the body of a man. Jimmy had no doubts as to whose body it was. He moved closer, lying flat on the grass, and worming his way forward. Somebody was talking in a deep, emotional voice, and the curious intonation puzzled him, until he realized that the speaker was reading the burial service!
Jimmy was incapable of further movement. He could only lie staring at the blurred figures which loomed through the rain, standing over the grave of the man they had killed. He heard the chik-chik of earth against steel spades. They were filling in the hole.
Tom Elmers was dead! Who had shot him? Was it Sennett? He thought he had recognized the bowed figure of old Joe climbing out of the grave, but the light was bad and so uncertain that he could not be sure. After a while their labors were finished and they moved in the direction of the house and disappeared. Jimmy waited for a long time before he dared move, and then, pulling off his boots and tying the laces together so that he could sling them round his neck, he stepped cautiously toward the lighted window.
It must have been half an hour after the burial before he maneuvered himself so that he could look into the room without fear of detection. The light, he found afterward, came from a tin kerosene lamp, which had a reflector, and it was not until the lamp was turned, so that no direct light was shining toward the window, that he raised his head and looked.
There were five men in the room. Maggerson he recognized at once. He was sitting at a table covered with papers and he was writing for dear life. Opposite to him was a stranger, whom Jimmy did not remember having seen before—a tall, gray-bearded man. He was also writing with a pencil, apparently taking no notice of his fellow scribe. Another man was sweeping the room. A cigar was clenched between his teeth, and he was sweeping with long, slow, methodical strokes. He turned his head, and Jimmy nearly swooned. It was the prime minister of England! And the man who was holding the dust pan was Joe Sennett.
That was not the last of his surprises. A small fire was burning in an old-fashioned grate. The fifth person was bending over the fire frying bacon. The aroma of it came to Jimmy as he stood. Here, then, was a fitting companion to the picture of the prime minister of England sweeping a floor; for the cook was the Lord Bishop of Fleet.
Jimmy gazed fascinated.
Presently the bacon was done, and the bishop, who wore his apron and his gaiters—Jimmy noticed that his boots were wet and muddy—took up a coffeepot and filled the cups on the sideboard, and then faintly the watcher heard him say:
“This man's death must be registered.”
“Registered!” said the prime minister's voice in the deepest scorn. “My dear Frederick, don't be absurd!”
Jimmy pulled up the rope after him and came down the ladder slowly.
“What did you see?” whispered Ferdie, agog with excitement.
“Nothing,” said Jimmy. “Get the car while I fold this ladder, Ferdie.”
“But you must have seen something,” urged Ferdie as the car was making its noiseless way across the heath.
“Nothing, except—Elmers is dead.”
“I thought so,” Ferdie nodded. “And what else did you discover?”
“What sort of a mind must a man have,” asked Jimmy slowly, “to read the burial service over a man he has helped murder, and to follow that performance by frying bacon?”
Ferdie looked at him in alarm.
“Don't say you have gone off your jolly old head!” he said anxiously.
“No, I haven't gone off my jolly old head,” replied Jimmy, rousing himself; “and for Heaven's sake, don't give Miss Sennett the impression that I have. Now remember, Ferdie Ponter,” he said as he stopped the car just outside the house, “you're not to say anything about the shot or Elmers!”
“The fellow who tried to break in last night?”
“Oh, well,” said Ferdie, relieved, “he ain't very important, is he?”
Delia had arranged to wait up for them in the study and her look of relief when they appeared was especially gratifying to Jimmy.
“Did you make any discovery?” was the first question she asked.
“None,” said Jimmy.
And then she looked at his feet.
“Where are your boots?” she asked in surprise, and Jimmy's jaw dropped. He had left his boots outside the window of the Warden's Lodge.
Only for a second did he gape, and then the humor of the situation overcame him and he laughed hysterically.
“I wonder if they'll fry bacon after my funeral?” he said, and Ferdinand looked at the girl and tapped his forehead significantly.