The Captain, January 1913
the arrival of ogden
THERE is always something going on in a private school, but I think I may say that, until the arrival of Ogden Ford, we were, on the whole, a quiet little community at Sanstead House (Arnold Abney, M.A., proprietor). It was my first term at the school. I was one of the two assistant masters, and the place suited me. Beyond breaking up fights, stopping big boys bullying small boys, preventing small boys bullying smaller boys, inducing boys of all sizes not to throw stones, go on the wet grass, worry the cook, tease the cat, make too much noise, climb trees, scale water-spouts, lean too far out of windows, slide down the banisters, swallow pencils, and drink ink because somebody bet them they wouldn’t, I had very little to do except teach mathematics, carve the joint, help the pudding, play football, read prayers, herd stragglers into meals, and go round the dormitories at night to see that the lights were out. In fact, until the advent of Ogden my life was practically one of fatted ease.
I liked the spot in which Fate had placed me, Sanstead House, a large building in the Georgian style, standing in the midst of about nine acres of land. For the greater part of its existence it had been the private home of a family of the name of Boone, and in its early days the estate had been considerable. But the progress of the years had brought changes to the Boones. Money losses had necessitated the sale of land. New roads had come into being, cutting off portions of the estate from their centre. New facilities for travel had drawn members of the family away from home. The old fixed life of the country had changed, and in the end the latest Boone had come to the conclusion that to keep up such a large and expensive house was not worth his while.
That the place should have become a school was the natural process of evolution. The house was too large for the ordinary purchaser, and the estate had been so whittled down in the course of time, that it was inadequate for the wealthy. Colonel Boone had been glad to let it to Mr. Abney, and the school had started on its career.
It had all the necessary qualifications for a school. It was isolated. The village was two miles from its gates. It was near the sea. There were fields for cricket and football, and inside the house a number of rooms of every size, suitable for class-rooms and dormitories.
The household consisted, besides Mr. Abney, myself, another master named Glossop, and the matron, of twenty-four boys, a lady-housekeeper, White the butler, the cook, the odd-job man, two housemaids, a scullery-maid, and a parlour-maid. It was a little colony, cut off from the outer world.
And then, breaking into our peaceful world, came Ogden Ford.
It was a freckled youth of the name of Beckford who first told me of his existence. He always got hold of any piece of gossip first.
“There’s a new kid coming to-night, sir!” he said. “An American kid. Mr. Abney’s going up to London to fetch him. The kid’s name’s Ford. I believe the kid’s father’s awfully rich. Would you like to be rich, sir? I wish I were rich.”
He pondered the point a moment. “If you wanted a halfpenny to make up twopence to buy a lizard, what would you do, sir?”
He got it.
Ogden Ford entered Sanstead House at a quarter past nine that evening. He was preceded by a Worried Look, Mr. Arnold Abney, a cabman carrying a large box, and the odd-job man carrying two suit-cases. I have given precedence to the “worried look” because it was a thing by itself. To say that Mr. Abney wore it would be to create a wrong impression. Mr. Abney simply followed in its wake. He caught sight of me, and stopped.
“Ah, Mr. Burns, I should like to speak to you. Let us go into the dining-room.”
Mr. Abney was a tall, suave, benevolent man, with an Oxford manner, a high forehead, thin white hands, a cooing intonation, and a general air of hushed importance. As a rule, he preserved a dignified calm, but now this had temporarily deserted him. He applied a silk handkerchief to his forehead before he spoke.
“That is a boy called Ford, Mr. Burns,” he said. “A rather—er—remarkable boy. He is an American, the son of Mr. Elmer Ford, of whom you have possibly heard.”
I remembered having seen the name in the papers. “The multi-millionaire?”
“Exactly. He struck me as a man of great ability, a typical American merchant-prince. Mr. Ford was singularly frank with me about his domestic affairs, and I am bound to say they explain to a great extent little Ogden’s—ah—peculiarities. It seems that until now Mrs. Ford has had sole charge of the boy’s upbringing, and—Mr. Ford was singularly outspoken—was too indulgent, in fact—ah—spoilt him. Mr. Ford regards this school as, in a measure—what shall I say?—an antidote. He wishes there to be no lack of wholesome discipline, of which, I am afraid, there is the profoundest need. I am disposed to imagine that Ogden has been, from childhood up, systematically indulged. The result is that, while I have no doubt that au fond—au fond he is a charming boy, quite charming, at present he is—shall I say?—peculiar. He has tastes and ideas which are precocious, and unusual in a lad of his age. He expresses himself in a curious manner at times. He seems to have little or no reverence for—ah—constituted authority. He——”
He paused while he passed his handkerchief once more over his forehead.
“He will be a great deal in your care, Mr. Burns. I shall expect you to check firmly, though, of course, kindly, such habits of his as—ah—cigarette-smoking——”
“Does he smoke?”
Mr. Abney looked troubled.
“On our journey down from London he smoked incessantly. I found it impossible, without physical violence, to induce him to stop. But, of course, now that he is actually at the school, and subject to the discipline of the school——”
I saw what he meant. He could not handle the boy, so I must. He had handed the case over to me.
“Perhaps it would be as well if you saw him now, Mr. Burns. You will find him in the study.”
He drifted away, and I went to the study to introduce myself.
A cloud of tobacco-smoke rising above the back of an easy-chair greeted me as I opened the door. Moving into the room, I perceived a pair of shoes resting on the grate. I stepped to the right, and the remainder of the new boy came into view.
He was lying almost at full length in the chair, his eyes fixed in dreamy abstraction upon the ceiling. As I came towards him, he drew at the cigarette between his fingers, glanced at me, looked away again, and expelled another mouthful of smoke. He was not interested in me.
Perhaps this indifference piqued me, and I saw him with prejudiced eyes. At any rate, he seemed to me a singularly unprepossessing youth. His age, I suppose, was about fourteen. He had a stout body and a round, unwholesome face. His eyes were dull, and his mouth drooped discontentedly. He had the air of one who is surfeited with life.
“Throw away that cigarette,” I said.
To my amazement he did, promptly. I was beginning to wonder whether I had not been too abrupt—he gave me a curious sensation of being a man of my own age—when he produced a silver case from his pocket, and opened it. I saw that the cigarette in the fender was a stump.
I took the case from his hand, and threw it on to a table. For the first time he seemed really to notice my existence.
“You’ve got a nerve,” he said. “What do you want to come butting in for?”
“I am paid to butt in. It’s the main duty of an assistant master.”
“Oh, you’re the assistant master, are you?”
“One of them. And, in passing—it’s a small technical point—you call me ‘sir’ when you speak to me.”
“Call you ‘sir!’ Up an alley!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Fade away! Take a walk!”
I gathered that, he was meaning to convey that he did not care to entertain my proposition.
“You needn’t think you can breeze in here, telling me to do things,” he proceeded. “I know all about this joint. The hot-air merchant was telling me about it on the train.”
I took the allusion to be to Mr. Arnold Abney.
“He’s the boss, and nobody but him is allowed to hit the fellows. If you tried it, you’d lose your job. And he isn’t going to, because dad’s paying double fees, and he’s scared stiff he’ll lose me if there’s any trouble.”
“You seem to have a grasp of the position.”
“Bet your life I have.”
It was borne in upon me that I was getting the loser’s end of this dialogue. I changed the subject.
“You had better go to bed. It’s past your proper time.”
He stared at me in open-eyed amazement.
He seemed more amused than annoyed.
“Say, what time do you think I usually go to bed?”
“I know what time you go here. Nine o’clock.”
As if to support my words, the door opened, and Mrs. Attwell, the matron, entered.
“I think it’s time he came to bed, Mr. Burns.”
“I was just suggesting it, Mrs. Attwell.”
“You’re crazy,” observed the little nugget.
Mrs. Attwell looked at me despairingly.
“I never saw such a boy!”
The whole machinery of the school was being held up by this legal infant. Any vacillation now, and Authority would suffer a set-back from which it would be hard put to it to recover. It seemed to me a situation that called for action.
I bent down, scooped him out of his chair like an oyster, and made for the door.
He yelled incessantly. Outside he kicked me in the stomach, and then on the knee. He continued to scream. He screamed all the way upstairs, and he was screaming when we reached his room.
things begin to happen
IT was the custom at Sanstead House for each of the assistant masters to take half of one day in every week as a holiday. The allowance was not liberal, and in most schools, I believe, it is increased; but Mr. Abney was a man with peculiar views on other people’s holidays, and Glossop and I were accordingly restricted.
My day was Wednesday; and on the Wednesday following the arrival of Ogden Ford I left the house and strolled to the village for a game of billiards at the local inn.
Sanstead House and its neighbourhood were lacking in the fiercer metropolitan excitements, and billiards at the “Feathers” constituted for the pleasure-seeker the beginning and end of the Gay Whirl.
There was a local etiquette governing the game of billiards at the “Feathers.” You played the marker a hundred up, then you took him into the bar-parlour and bought him refreshment. After that, you could, if you wished, play another game, or go home, as your fancy dictated.
There was only one other occupant of the bar-parlour when we adjourned thither. He was lying back in a chair, with his feet on the side-table, apparently wrapped in thought.
He was a short, tough, clean-shaven man, with a broken nose, over which was tilted a soft felt hat. His wiry limbs were clad in a ready-made tweed suit. He was smoking a peculiarly evil-smelling cigar.
We had hardly seated ourselves when he rose and lurched out.
“American!” said Miss Benjafield, the stately barmaid, with strong disapproval.
I breathed sympathetically.
“What he’s here for I’d like to know,” said Miss Benjafield. “No good, if you ask me.”
She seemed to feel quite strongly on the subject.
It was not late when I started on my way back to the House, but the short January day was over, and it was very dark as I turned in at the big gate of the school and made my way up the drive. The drive at Sanstead House was a fine curving stretch of gravel, about two hundred yards in length, flanked on either side by fir trees and rhododendrons. I stepped out briskly, for it had begun to freeze. Just as I caught sight through the trees of the lights of the windows, there came to me the sound of running feet.
I stopped. The noise grew louder. There seemed to be two runners, one moving with short, quick steps, the other—the one in front—taking a longer stride.
I drew aside instinctively. In another moment, making a great clatter on the frozen gravel, the first of the pair passed me, and as he did so there was a sharp crack, and something sang through the darkness like a large mosquito.
The effect of the sound on the man who had been running was immediate. He stopped in his stride, and dived into the bushes. His footsteps thudded faintly on the turf.
The whole incident had lasted only a few seconds, and I was still standing there, when I was aware of the other man approaching. He had apparently given up the pursuit, for he was walking quite slowly. He stopped within a few feet of me, and I heard him swearing softly to himself.
“Who’s that?” I cried, sharply. The crack of the pistol had given a flick to my nerves. Mine had been a sheltered life, into which hitherto revolver-shots had not entered, and I was resenting this abrupt introduction of them. I felt jumpy and irritated.
It gave me a malicious pleasure to see that I had startled the unknown dispenser of shocks quite as much as he had startled me. The movement he made as he faced round in my direction was almost a leap; and it suddenly flashed upon me that I had better at once establish my identity as a non-combatant. I appeared to have wandered inadvertently into the midst of a private quarrel, one party to which—the one standing a couple of yards from me with a loaded revolver in his hand—was evidently a man of impulse—the sort of man who would shoot first and inquire afterwards.
“I’m Mr. Burns,” I said. “I’m one of the assistant masters. Who are you?”
Surely that rich voice was familiar.
“White?” I said.
White, the butler, was rather a friend of mine. He was a stout, but active man of middle age. We had established pleasant relations on my first evening in the place, when he had helped me unpack my box. He lacked that quality of austere aloofness which I have noticed in other butlers. There was a geniality about him that I liked. He was new to Sanstead, like myself. His predecessor had left at short notice during the holidays.
“What on earth are you doing, White?” I said. “Who was that man?”
“I wish I knew, sir. I found him prowling at the back of the house very suspicious. He took to his heels and I followed him.”
“But——” I spoke querulously. My orderly nature was shocked. “You can’t go shooting at people like that just because you find them at the back of the house. What were you doing with a revolver?”
“I secured it from the man in the struggle.”
“When he saw me he drew the revolver, and I grappled with him.”
I became excited. “We must ’phone to the police-station. Could you describe the man?”
“I think not, sir. It was very dark. And, if I may make the suggestion, it would be better not to inform the police. I have a very poor opinion of these country constables.”
“But we can’t have men prowling——”
“If you will permit me, sir, I say—let them prowl. It’s the only way to catch them.”
“If you think this sort of thing is likely to happen again, I must tell Mr. Abney.”
“Pardon me, sir, I think it would be better not. He impresses me as a somewhat nervous gentleman, and it would only disturb him. May I ask you to respect my confidence, sir, if I tell you something? I came here anticipating something of this kind. In fact, I was sent here for the purpose of guarding against it. I’m a private inquiry agent, Mr. Burns. A detective.”
“Mr. Elmer Ford sent me here to look after his son. There are several parties after that boy, Mr. Burns. Kidnappers. He’s Mr. Ford’s only son, so naturally he is a considerable prize. Mr. Ford would pay a large sum to get him back if he were kidnapped. Over in America there have been several attempts to get him. Buck Macginnis tried it twice. So did Chicago Ed. Smooth Sam Fisher had one go, and came nearest to getting away with him of them all. You take it from me, sir, that it’s Smooth Sam who’s going to bring it off if anybody does. Buck’s just a common Bowery tough, but Sam’s a man of education. He’s a college man, Sam is. And I happen to know he’s on the trail. So’s Buck for that matter. Old man Ford got that kid out of America pretty quietly, but not quietly enough. Sam and Buck are both here, trailing him. Not that Buck counts,” he added, contemptuously, “I don’t give a flip for Buck. Sam’s got brains.”
“Does Mr. Abney know you are a detective?”
“No, sir. Mr. Abney thinks I am an ordinary butler. You are the only person who knows, and I have only told you because you have happened to catch me in a rather queer position for a butler to be in. You will keep it to yourself, sir? It doesn’t do for it to get about. These things have to be done quietly. It would be bad for the school if my presence here were advertised. The other parents wouldn’t like it. They would think that their sons were in danger, you see. It would be disturbing for them. So if you will just forget what I’ve been telling you, Mr. Burns——”
I assured him that I would. But I did not think it likely. One may forget a good many things in this world, but disguised detectives, Buck Macginnises, and Smooth Sam Fishers are, as far as I am concerned, not among them.
ogden loses his beauty sleep
I OWED it to my colleague Glossop that I was in the centre of the surprising things that occurred that night. Glossop was not an entertaining companion. By sheer weight of boredom he drove me from the house, so that it came about that, at half-past nine, the time at which the affair began, I was patrolling the gravel in front of the porch.
It was the practice of the staff of Sanstead House School to assemble after dinner in Mr. Abney’s study for coffee. The room was called the “Study,” but it was really more of a masters’ common-room. Mr. Abney had a smaller sanctum of his own, reserved exclusively for himself. To this he would sometimes depart of a night in order to write letters.
On this particular night he went there early, leaving me alone with Glossop. And after ten minutes of Glossop I decided for solitude.
Except for my bedroom, whither he was quite capable of following me, I had no refuge but the grounds. I unbolted the front door and went out.
It was still freezing, and, though the stars shone, the trees grew so closely about the house that it was too dark for me to see more than a few feet in front of me.
I began to stroll up and down. The night was wonderfully still. I could even hear a bird rustling in the ivy on the wall of the stables.
I had reached the end of my “beat,” and had stopped to relight my pipe, when the stillness of the night was split by a sound which I could have heard in a gale and recognised among a hundred conflicting noises. It was a scream, a shrill, piercing squeal that did not rise to a crescendo, but started at its maximum and held the note; a squeal which could only proceed from one throat; the deafening war-cry of Ogden Ford.
It cannot have been more than a few seconds later before some person unknown nearly destroyed me. Rounding the angle of the house in a desperate hurry, he emerged from the bushes, and rammed me squarely.
He was a short man, or he must have crouched as he ran, for his shoulder, a hard, bony shoulder, was precisely the same distance from the ground as my solar plexus. In the brief impact which ensued between the two, the shoulder had the advantage of being in motion, while the solar plexus was stationary, and there was no room for any shadow of doubt as to which had the worst of it.
That the mysterious unknown was not unshaken by the encounter was made clear by a sharp yelp of surprise and pain. He staggered. What happened to him after that was not a matter of interest to me. I gather that he escaped into the night. But I was too occupied with my own affairs to follow his movements. I can remember reeling across the gravel and falling in a heap and trying to breathe, and knowing that I should never again be able to, and then for some minutes all interest in the affairs of this world left me.
When I had leisure to observe outside matters I perceived that among the other actors in the drama confusion still reigned. There was much scuttering about, and much meaningless shouting. Mr. Abney’s voice was issuing directions, each of which seemed more futile than the last. Glossop was repeating over and over again the words, “Shall I telephone for the police?” One or two boys were darting about like rabbits and squealing unintelligibly. A female voice—I think, Mrs. Attwell’s—was saying, “Can you see him?”
Somebody, who proved to be White, the butler, came from the direction of the stable-yard with a carriage-lamp. Everyone seemed calmer and happier for it.
The whole strength of the company gathered round the light.
“Thank you, White,” said Mr. Abney. “Excellent. I fear the scoundrel has escaped.”
“I suspect so, sir.”
“This is a very remarkable occurrence, White.”
“Undeniably singular, sir.”
“The man was actually in Master Ford’s bedroom.”
A shrill voice spoke. I recognised it as that of the boy Beckford, always to be counted upon to be in the centre of things, gathering information.
“Sir, please, sir, what was up? Who was it, sir? Sir, was it a burglar, sir? Have you ever met a burglar, sir? My father took me to see ‘Raffles’ in the holidays, sir. Do you think this chap was like Raffles, sir? Sir——”
“It was undoubtedly——” Mr. Abney was beginning, when the identity of the questioner dawned upon him, and for the first time he realised that the drive was full of boys actively engaged in catching their deaths of cold. His all-friends-here-let-us-discuss-this-interesting-episode-fully manner changed. He became the outraged schoolmaster. Never before had I heard him speak so sharply to boys, many of whom, though breaking rules, were still titled.
“What are you boys doing out of bed? Go back to bed instantly. I shall punish you most severely. I——”
“Shall I telephone for the police?” asked Glossop.
“I will not have this conduct! You will catch cold! This is disgraceful! Ten bad marks! I shall punish you most severely if you do not instantly——”
A calm voice interrupted him.
Ogden Ford strolled easily into the circle of light. He was wearing a dressing-gown, and in his hand was a smouldering cigarette, from which he proceeded, before continuing his remarks, to blow a cloud of smoke.
“Say, I guess you’re wrong. That wasn’t any ordinary porch-climber.”
The spectacle of his bete noire wreathed in smoke, coming on top of the emotions of the night, was almost too much for Mr. Abney, He gesticulated for a moment in impassioned silence, his arms throwing grotesque shadows on the gravel.
“How dare you smoke, boy? How dare you smoke that cigarette?”
“It’s the only one I’ve got,” responded Ogden, amiably.
“I have spoken to you—I have warned you—Ten bad marks! I will not have—Fifteen bad marks!”
Ogden ignored the painful scene. He was smiling quietly.
“If you ask me,” he said, “that guy was after something better than plated spoons. Yes, sir! If you want my opinion, it was Buck Macginnis, or Smooth Sam Fisher, or one of those guys, and what he was trailing was me. They’re always at it. Buck had a try for me in the Fall of ’07, and Sam——”
“Do you hear me? Will you return instantly——!”
“If you don’t believe me, I can show you the piece there was about it in the papers. I’ve got a press-clipping album in my box. Whenever there’s a piece about me in the papers I cut it out and paste it into my album. If you’ll come right along, I’ll show you the story about Buck now. It happened in Chicago, and he’d have got away with me if it hadn’t been——”
“Twenty bad marks!”
“Mr. Abney,” I said.
They jumped, all together, like a well-trained chorus.
“Who is that?” cried Mr. Abney. I could tell by the sound of his voice that his nerves were on wires. “Who was that who spoke?”
“Shall I telephone for the police?” asked Glossop. (Ignored.)
They made for me in a body, boys and all, White leading with the lantern. I was almost sorry for being compelled to provide an anticlimax.
“Mr. Burns! What—dear me!—what are you doing there?” said Mr. Abney.
“Perhaps Mr. Burns can give us some information as to where the man went, sir,” suggested White.
“On everything except that,” I said, “I’m a mine of information. I haven’t the least idea where he went. All I know about him is that he has a shoulder like the ram of a battleship, and that he charged me with it. I was strolling about when I heard a scream——” A chuckle came from the group behind the lantern.
“I screamed,” said Ogden. “You bet I screamed. What would you do if you woke up in the dark and found a strong-armed rough-neck prising you out of bed as if you were a clam? He tried to get his hand over my mouth, but he only connected with my forehead, and I’d got going before he could switch. I guess I threw a scare into that gink!”
He chuckled again, reminiscently, and drew at his cigarette.
“How dare you smoke! Throw away that cigarette!” cried Mr. Abney, roused afresh by the red glow.
“Forget it!” advised Ogden tersely.
“And then,” I said, “somebody whizzed out from nowhere and hit me. And after that I didn’t seem to care much about him or anything else.”
I heard Glossop speak, and gathered from Mr. Abney’s reply that he had made his suggestion once more. Mr. Abney, like White, believed in keeping things quiet.
“I think that will be—ah—unnecessary, Mr. Glossop. The man has undoubtedly—ah—made good his escape. I think we had all better return to the house.”
I HAVE never kept a diary, and I find it, in consequence, somewhat difficult, in telling this story, to assign events to their correct times. But I think it was two nights after the happenings related in the last chapter that my meeting with Buck Macginnis took place.
I had fallen into the habit, now that the frost made the ground too hard for football, of taking my daily exercise in the shape of a walk to the village and back after dinner.
On this night I was midway between house and village, when I became aware that I was being followed. The night was dark, and the wind, moving in the tree-tops, emphasised the loneliness of the country road. Both time and place were such as made it peculiarly unpleasant to hear stealthy footsteps on the road behind me.
Uncertainty in such cases is the unnerving thing. I turned sharply, and began to walk back on tip-toe in the direction from which I had come.
I had not been mistaken. A moment later a dark figure loomed up out of the darkness, and the exclamation which greeted me, as I made my presence known, showed that I had taken him by surprise.
There was a momentary pause. I expected the man, whoever he might be, to run, but he held his ground. Indeed, he edged forward.
“Get back,” I said, and allowed my stick to rasp suggestively on the road, before raising it in readiness for any sudden development. It was as well that he should know it was there.
The hint seemed to wound rather than frighten him.
“Aw, cut out the rough stuff, bo,” he said, reproachfully, in a cautious, husky undertone. “I ain’t goin’ to start anything.”
“What are you following me for?” I demanded. “Who are you?”
“Say, I want a talk wit youse. I took a slant at youse under de lamp-post back dere, an’ I seen it was you, so I tagged along. Say, I’m wise to your game, sport.”
I had no notion what he might mean. I had identified him by this time. Unless there were two men in the neighbourhood of Sanstead who hailed from America, this must be the man whom I had seen at the “Feathers,” who had incurred the disapproval of Miss Benjafield.
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean,” I said. “What is my game?”
His voice became reproachful again.
“Ah, quit yer kiddin’!” he protested. “‘What was youse rubberin’ around de house for dat night, if you wasn’t trailin’ de kid?”
“That night? Was it you who ran into me?”
“Gee! I t’ought it was a tree. Say, dat’s a great kid, dat. We gotta get together about dat kid.”
“Certainly, if you wish it. What do you happen to mean?”
“Aw, quit yer kiddin’!” He expectorated again. He seemed to be a man who could express the whole gamut of emotions by this simple means. “I know you!”
“Then you have the advantage of me. Though I believe I remember seeing you before. Weren’t you at the ‘Feathers’ one Wednesday evening?”
“Sure. Dat was me.”
“What do you mean by saying that you know me?”
“Aw, quit yer kiddin’, Sam!”
There was, it seemed to me, a reluctantly admiring note in his voice.
“Tell me, who do you think I am?” I asked, patiently.
“Ah! you can’t string me, Sport! Smooth Sam Fisher is who you are, bo. I know you.”
I was too surprised to speak. Verily, some have greatness thrust upon them.
“I hain’t never seen youse, Sam,” he continued, “but I know it’s you. And I’ll tell youse how I doped it out. To begin with, there ain’t but you and your bunch and me and my bunch dat knows de Ford kid’s on dis side at all. Dey sneaked him out of New York mighty slick, and I heard that you had come here after him. So when I runs into a guy dat’s trailin’ de kid down here, well, who’s it going to be if it ain’t youse? And when dat guy talks like a dude, like they all say you do, well, who’s it going to be if it ain’t youse? So quit yer kiddin’, Sam, and let’s get down to business.”
“Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Buck Macginnis?” I said. I felt convinced that this could be no other than that celebrity.
“Dat’s right. Dere’s no need to keep up anyt’ing wit me, Sam. We’re bote on de same trail, so let’s get down to it.”
“One moment,” I said. “Would it surprise you to hear that my name is Burns, and that I am a master at the school?”
He chuckled admiringly.
“Sure, no!” he said. “It’s just what you would be, Sam. I always heard youse had been one of dese college boys oncest. Say, it’s mighty smart of youse to be a professor. You’re right in on de ground floor.”
His voice became appealing.
“Say, Sam, don’t be a hawg. Let’s go fifty-fifty on dis deal. Dere’s plenty for all of us. Old man Ford’ll cough up enough for everyone, and dere won’t be any fuss. Let’s sit in together, Sam.”
As I said nothing, he proceeded.
“It ain’t square, Sam, to take advantage of your having education. If it was a square fight, and us both wit de same chance, I wouldn’t say; but you bein’ a dude professor and gettin right into de job like dat ain’t right. Say, don’t swipe it all, Sam. Fifty-fifty! Does dat go?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You had better ask the real Sam. Good night.”
I walked past him, and made for the school gates at my best pace. He trotted after me, pleading.
“Sam! Give us a quarter, then.” I walked on.
“Sam! don’t be a hawg!”
He broke into a run.
His voice lost its pleading tone, and rasped menacingly.
“Gum, if I had me canister, youse wouldn’t be so flip! Listen here, you big cheese! You t’ink youse is de only t’ing in sight, huh? Well, we ain’t done yet. You’ll see yet. We’ll fix you! Youse had best watch out.”
I stopped, and turned on him.
“Look here, you fool,” I cried, “I tell you I am not Sam Fisher. Can’t you understand that you have got hold of the wrong man? My name is Burns—Burns.”
He was a man slow by nature to receive ideas, but slower to rid himself of one that had contrived to force its way into what he probably called his brain. He had decided on the evidence that I was Smooth Sam Fisher, and no denials on my part were going to shake his belief. He looked on them merely as so many unsportsmanlike quibbles, prompted by greed.
“Tell it to Sweeney!” was the form in which he crystallised his scepticism.
Then, with a sudden return to ferocity, “All right, you Sam, you wait! We’ll fix you, and fix you good! See? Dat goes. You t’ink youse kin put it across us, huh? All right, you’ll get yours. You wait!”
And with these words he slid off into the night. From somewhere in the murky middle distance came a scornful “Hawg!” and he was gone.
THAT Buck Macginnis was not the man to let the grass grow under his feet in a situation like the present one I would have gathered from White’s remarks, if I had not already done so from personal observation. The world is divided into dreamers and men of action. From what little I had seen of him, I placed Mr. Macginnis in the latter class.
I looked for frontal attack from Buck, not subtlety; but, when the attack came, it was so excessively frontal that my chief emotion was a sort of paralysed amazement. It seemed incredible that such peculiarly Wild Western events could happen in peaceful England—even in so isolated a spot as Sanstead House.
It had been one of those interminable days which occur only at schools. A school, more than any other institution, is dependent on the weather. Every small boy rises from his bed of a morning charged with a definite quantity of mischief; and this, if he is to sleep the sound sleep of health, he has to work off somehow before bedtime. That is why the summer term is the one a master longs for, when the intervals between classes can be spent in the open. There is no pleasanter sight for an assistant master at a private school than that of a number of boys expending their venom harmlessly in the sunshine.
On this particular day snow had begun to fall early in the morning; and while his pupils would have been only too delighted to go out and roll in it by the hour, they were prevented from doing so by Mr. Abney’s strict orders. No schoolmaster enjoys seeing his pupils running risks and catching cold, and just then Mr. Abney was especially definite on the subject. The disturbance which had followed Mr. Macginnis’s nocturnal visit to the school had had the effect of giving violent colds to three of the boys. And, in addition to that, Mr. Abney himself was in his bed, looking on the world with watering eyes. His views, therefore, on playing in the snow as an occupation for boys were naturally prejudiced.
The result was that Glossop and I had to try to keep order among a mob of small boys, none of whom had had any chance of working off his superfluous energy.
Little by little, however, we had won through the day, and the boys had subsided into comparative quiet over their evening preparation, when from outside the front door there sounded the purring of the engine of a large automobile. The bell rang.
I heard White’s footsteps crossing the hall, then the click of the latch, and then—a sound that I could not define. The closed door of the class-room deadened it, but for all that it was audible. It resembled the thud of a falling body, but I knew it could not be that, for, in peaceful England, butlers opening front doors do not fall with thuds.
My class, always ready to stop work for a friendly chat, found material in the sound for conversation.
“Sir, what was that, sir?”
“Did you hear that, sir?”
“What do you think’s happened, sir?”
“Be quiet,” I shouted. “Will you be——”
There was a quick footstep outside; the door flew open; and on the threshold stood a short, sturdy man in a motoring coat and cap. The upper part of his face was covered by a strip of white linen, with holes for the eyes, and there was a Browning pistol in his hand.
It is my belief that, if assistant masters were allowed to wear white masks and carry automatic pistols, keeping order in a school would become child’s play. A silence such as I had never been able to produce fell instantaneously upon the class-room.
As for me, I was dazed. Motor bandits may terrorise France, and desperadoes hold up trains in America, but this was peaceful England. The fact that Buck Macginnis was at large in the neighbourhood did not make the thing any the less incredible.
And yet it was the simple, even the obvious, thing for Buck to do. Given an automobile, success was certain. Sanstead House stood absolutely alone. There was not even a cottage within half a mile. A train broken down in the middle of the Bad Lands was not more cut off.
Consider, too, the peculiar helplessness of a school in such a case. A school lives on the confidence of parents, a nebulous foundation which the slightest breath can destroy. I do not suppose Mr. Macginnis had thought the thing out in all its bearings, but he could not have made a sounder move if he had been a Napoleon. Where the owner of an ordinary country house, raided by masked men, can raise the countryside in pursuit, a schoolmaster must do precisely the opposite. From his point of view, the fewer people that know of the affair the better. Parents are jumpy people. Golden-haired Willie may be receiving the finest education conceivable yet, if men with Browning pistols are familiar objects at his shrine of learning, they will remove him.
I do not, as I say, suppose that Buck, whose forte was action rather than brain-work, had thought all this out. He had trusted to luck, and luck had stood by him. There would be no raising of the countryside in his case. On the contrary, I could see Mr. Abney becoming one of the busiest persons on record in his endeavour to hush the thing up and prevent it getting into the papers.
The man with the pistol spoke. He sighted me—I was standing with my back to the mantelpiece, parallel with the door—made a sharp turn, and raised his weapon.
“Put ’em up, sport,” he said.
It was not the voice of Buck Macginnis. I put my hands up.
He half turned his head to the class.
“Which of youse kids is Ogden Ford?”
The class was beyond speech. The silence continued.
“Ogden Ford is not here,” I said.
Our visitor had not that simple faith which is so much better than Norman blood. He did not believe me. Without moving his head, he gave a long whistle. Steps sounded outside. Another short, sturdy form entered the room.
“He ain’t in de odder room,” observed the new comer. “I been rubberin’!”
This was friend Buck beyond question. I could have recognised his voice anywhere.
“Well, dis guy,” said the man with the pistol, indicating me, “says he ain’t here. What’s de answer?”
“Why, it’s Sam!” said Buck. “Howdy, Sam? Pleased to see us, huh? We’re in on de ground floor, too, dis time, all right, all right.”
His words had a marked effect on his colleague.
“Is dat Sam! Let me blow de head off’n him!” he said with simple fervour; and, advancing a step nearer, he waved his disengaged fist truculently. In my rôle of Sam I had plainly made myself very unpopular. I have never heard so much emotion packed into a few words.
Buck, to my relief, opposed the motion. I thought this decent of Buck.
“Cheese it,” he said, curtly.
The other cheesed it. The operation took the form of lowering the fist. The pistol he kept in position.
Mr. Macginnis resumed the conduct of affairs.
“Now den, Sam,” he said, “come across! Where’s de kid?”
“My name is not Sam,” I said. “May I put my hands down?”
“Yes, if you want the top of your head blown off.”
Such was not my desire. I kept them up.
“Now den, you Sam,” said Mr. Macginnis again, “we ain’t got time to burn. Out wit it. Where’s dat kid?”
Some reply was obviously required. It was useless to keep protesting that I was not Sam.
“At this time in the evening he is generally working with Mr. Glossop.”
“Who’s Glossop? Dat guy in de room over dere?”
“Well, he ain’t dere. I bin rubberin’. Aw, quit yer foolin’, Sam, where is he?”
“I couldn’t tell you just where he is at the present moment,” I said precisely.
“Let me swat him one!” begged the man with the pistol. A most unlovable person. I could never have made a friend of him.
“Cheese it, you!” said Mr. Macginnis.
The other cheesed it once more, regretfully.
“You got him hidden away somewheres, Sam,” said Mr. Macginnis. “You can’t fool me. I’m goin’ t’roo dis joint wit a fine-tooth comb, till I find him.”
“By all means,” I said. “Don’t let me stop you.”
“You! You’re comin’ with me.”
“If you wish it, I shall be delighted.”
“Say, why mayn’t I hand him one?” demanded the pistol-bearer, “What’s your kick against it?”
I thought the question in poor taste. Buck ignored it.
“Gimme dat canister,” he said, taking the Browning pistol from him. “Now den, Sam, are youse goin’ to be good, and come across, or ain’t you, which?”
“I’d be delighted to do anything you wished, Mr. Macginnis,” I said, “but——”
“Aw, hire a hall!” said Buck, disgustedly. “Step lively, den, and we’ll go t’roo de joint.”
Shooting pains in my shoulders caused me to interrupt him.
“One moment,” I said. “I’m going to put my hands down. I’m getting cramp.”
“I’ll blow a hole in you if you do!”
“Just as you please. But I’m not armed.”
“Lefty,” he said to the other man, “feel around to see if he’s carryin’ anyt’ing.”
Lefty advanced, and began to tap me scientifically in the neighbourhood of my pockets. He grunted morosely the while. I suppose at this close range the temptation to “hand me one” was almost more than he could bear.
“He ain’t got no gun,” he announced, gloomily.
“Den youse can put ’em down,” said Mr. Macginnis.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Lefty, youse stay here and look after dese kids. Get a move on, Sam.”
We left the room, a little procession of two, myself leading, Buck in my immediate rear administering occasional cautionary prods with the faithful “canister.”
The first thing that met my eyes as we entered the hall was the body of a man lying by the front door. The light of the lamp fell on his face, and I saw that it was White.
His hands and feet were tied. As I looked at him, he moved, as if straining against his bonds; and I was conscious of a feeling of relief. That sound that had reached me in the class-room, that thud of a falling body, had become, in the light of what had happened later, very sinister. It was good to know that he was still alive.
There was a masked man leaning against the wall by Glossop’s class-room. He was short and sturdy. The Buck Macginnis gang seemed to have been turned out on pattern. Externally, they might all have been twins. This man, to give him a semblance of individuality, had a ragged red moustache. He was smoking a cigar with the air of the warrior taking his rest.
“Hello!” he said, as we appeared. He jerked a thumb towards the class-room. “I’ve locked dem in. What’s doin’, Buck?” he asked, indicating me with a languid nod.
“We’re going t’roo de joint,” explained Mr. Macginnis. “De kid ain’t in dere. Hump yourself, Sam!”
His colleague’s languor disappeared with magic swiftness.
“Sam! Is dat Sam? Here, let me beat de block off’n him!”
Few points in this episode struck me as more remarkable than the similarity of taste which prevailed, as concerned myself, among the members of Mr. Macginnis’s gang. Men, doubtless, of varying opinions on other subjects, on this one point they were unanimous. They all wanted to assault me.
Buck, however, had other uses for me. For the present I was necessary as a guide, and my value as such would be impaired were the block to be beaten off me. Though feeling no more friendlier towards me than did his assistants, he declined to allow sentiment to interfere with business. He concentrated his attention on the upward journey with all the earnestness of the young gentleman who carried the banner with the strange device in the poem.
Briefly requesting his ally to cheese it—which he did—he urged me on with the nozzle of the pistol. The red-moustached man sank back against the wall again with an air of dejection, sucking his cigar now like one who has had disappointments in life, while we passed on up the stairs and began to draw the rooms on the first floor.
These consisted of Mr. Abney’s study and two dormitories. The study was empty, and the only occupants of the dormitories were the three boys who had been stricken down with colds on the occasion of Mr. Macginnis’s last visit. They squeaked with surprise at the sight of the assistant-master in such questionable company.
Buck eyed them disappointedly. I waited, with something of the feelings of a drummer taking a buyer round the sample-room.
“Get on,” said Buck.
“Won’t one of those do?”
“Hump yourself, Sam.”
“Call me Sammy,” I urged. “We’re old friends now.”
“Don’t get fresh,” he said, austerely. And we moved on.
The top floor was even more deserted than the first. There was no one in the dormitories. The only other room was Mr. Abney’s; and, as we came opposite it, a sneeze from within told of the sufferings of its occupant.
The sound stirred Buck to his depths.
“Who’s in dere?” he demanded.
“Only Mr. Abney. Better not disturb him. He has a bad cold.”
He placed a wrong construction on my solicitude for my employer. His manner became excited.
“Open dat door, you,” he cried.
No one who is digging a Browning pistol into the small of my back will ever find me disobliging. I opened the door—knocking first, as a mild concession to the conventions—and the procession passed in.
My stricken employer was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, and our entrance did not at first cause him to change this position.
“Yes?” he said thickly, and disappeared beneath a huge pocket-handkerchief. Muffled sounds, as of distant explosions of dynamite, together with earthquake shudderings of the bed-clothes, told of another sneezing fit.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I began, when Buck, ever the man of action with a scorn for palaver, strode past me, and, having prodded with the pistol that part of the bed-clothes beneath which a rough calculation suggested that Mr. Abney’s lower ribs were concealed, uttered the one word, “Sa-a-ay!”
Mr. Abney sat up like a jack-in-the-box. One might almost say that he shot up. And then he saw Buck.
I cannot even faintly imagine what were Mr. Abney’s emotions at that moment. He was a man who, from boyhood up, had led a quiet and regular life. Things like Buck had appeared to him hitherto, if they had appeared at all, only in dreams after injudicious suppers. Even in the ordinary costume of the Bowery gentleman, without such adventitious extras as masks and pistols, Buck was no beauty. With that hideous strip of dingy white linen on his face, he was a walking nightmare.
Mr. Abney’s eyebrows had risen and his jaw had fallen to their uttermost limits. His hair, disturbed by contact with the pillow, gave the impression of standing on end. He stared at Buck, fascinated.
“Say, you, quit rubberin’. Youse ain’t in a dime museum. Where’s dat Ford kid, huh?”
I have set down all Mr. Macginnis’s remarks as if they had been uttered in a bell-like voice with a clear and crisp enunciation; but, in doing so, I have flattered him. In reality his mode of speech suggested that he had something large and unwieldy permanently stuck in his mouth; and it was not easy for a stranger to follow him. Mr. Abney signally failed to do so. He continued to gape helplessly, till the tension was broken by a sneeze.
One cannot interrogate a sneezing man with any satisfaction to oneself. Buck stood by the bedside in moody silence, waiting for the paroxysm to spend itself.
I, meanwhile, had remained where I stood, close to the door. And, as I waited for Mr. Abney to finish sneezing, for the first time since Buck’s colleague Lefty had entered the class-room the idea of action occurred to me. Until this moment, I suppose, the strangeness and unexpectedness of these happenings had numbed my brain. To precede Buck meekly upstairs and to wait with equal meekness while he interviewed Mr. Abney had seemed the only course open to me. To one whose life has lain apart from such things, the hypnotic influence of a Browning pistol is irresistible.
But now, freed temporarily from this influence, I began to think; and, my mind making up for its previous inaction by working with unwonted swiftness, I formed a plan of action at once.
It was simple, but I had an idea that it would be effective. My strength lay in my acquaintance with the geography of Sanstead House and Buck’s ignorance of it. Let me but get an adequate start, and he might find pursuit vain. It was this start which I saw my way to achieving.
To Buck it had not yet occurred that it was a tactical error to leave me between the door and himself. I suppose he relied too implicitly on the mesmeric pistol. He was not even looking at me.
The next moment my fingers were on the switch of the electric light, and the room was in darkness.
There was a chair by the door. I seized it, and swung it into the space between us. Then, springing back, I banged the door, and ran.
I did not run without a goal in view. My objective was the study. This, as I have explained, was on the first floor. Its window looked out on to a strip of lawn at the side of the house, ending in a shrubbery. The drop would not be pleasant, but I seemed to remember a waterspout that ran up the wall close to the window; and, in any case, I was not in a position to be deterred by the prospect of a bruise or two. I had not failed to realise that my position was one of extreme peril. When Buck, concluding the tour of the house, found that Ogden Ford was not there, as I had reason to know that he would—there was no room for doubt that he would withdraw the protection which he had extended to me up to the present in my capacity of guide. On me the disappointed fury of the raiders would fall. No prudent consideration for their own safety would restrain them. If ever the future was revealed to man, I saw mine. My only chance was to get out into the grounds, where the darkness would make pursuit an impossibility.
It was an affair which must be settled one way or the other in a few seconds; and I calculated that it would take Buck just those few seconds to win his way past the chair and find the door-handle.
I was right. Just as I reached the study the door of the bedroom flew open, and the house rang with shouts and the noise of feet on the uncarpeted landing. From the hall below came answering shouts, but with an interrogatory note in them. The assistants were willing, but puzzled. They did not like to leave their posts without specific instructions, and Buck, shouting as he clattered over the bare boards, was unintelligible.
I was in the study, the door locked behind me, before they could arrive at an understanding. I sprang to the window.
The handle rattled. Voices shouted.
A panel splintered beneath a kick, and the door shook on its hinges.
And then, for the first time, I think, in my life, panic gripped me—the sheer blind fear which destroys the reason. It swept over me in a wave, that numbing terror which comes to one in dreams. Indeed, the thing had become dream-like. I seemed to be standing outside myself, looking on at myself, watching myself heave and strain with bruised fingers at a window that would not open.
(To be continued.)