A Meeting in the Ruined Cottage
THERE was only one place where Jimmy could hide, and that was the shallow loft, to which a trap-door in the corner of the room gave access. A broken-down ladder led to the trap-door, and Jimmy was on the point of climbing this when he remembered his bicycle. There was no time to hide it securely. The best he could do was to prop it against the wall in the darkest corner of the room—it was all very dark in the cottage, for the windows, which were small, had now, owing to neglect, become completely overgrown with ivy—and fling over it a piece of mildewed sacking which he found on the floor. There was the chance that Marshall, having no reason to suspect his presence, would not think of searching the place.
Having done this, he contrived to mount the rickety ladder and enter the loft just as Marshall and his companion turned in at the door.
The floor of the loft was a sieve of holes. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, Jimmy could catch glimpses of the two men. Marshall was smoking a cigar, and the glow lit up his sharp features as he drew in the smoke. The other man Jimmy could not see. He appeared to be sitting down or leaning against one of the walls. At least, he did not walk about, as did Marshall.
The other man spoke. Jimmy had no difficulty in hearing the words. He seemed to be continuing a conversation which had begun outside the cottage.
“I don’t see what you’re grumbling about,” he said. “You’ve been on worse jobs.”
It was an educated voice—Jimmy could hear that—but not a pleasant one. There was a false smoothness in it which would have put most men on their guard.
“Worse jobs!” said Marshall irritably. Jimmy could see him puffing quickly at his cigar. “If you mean more dangerous, perhaps I have. It’s the infernal difficulty of the thing which is breaking my nerve, Ferris.”
“Dear old boy,” said the man addressed as Ferris, smoothly, “not quite so free with names, if you don’t mind. There’s no need for them, and they add a little to the risks of the business, don’t you know. See what I mean?”
“Oh, very well,” said Marshall shortly.
“Thought I’d just mention it. Give me a match and proceed. You were talking about the difficulties of this little affair.”
“It is difficult,” said Marshall. “I’ve at last succeeded in convincing——”
“Call him Jones,” said Ferris softly, “or ‘our employer’.”
“‘Him’ is much better. We’ll stick to that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t interrupt. I’ve at last succeeded in convincing him of the difficulties. That is why he sent for you to help. I happened to hear that you were in England, and I mentioned your name to him.”
“These unsolicited tributes to one’s merit are very gratifying.”
“I could handle the job alone so long as it was simply a question of Sam Burrows, but now——”
“Well? What now? I don’t see your point. Sam was undoubtedly a tough customer. You have now merely a boy to deal with. I should have thought the thing had simplified itself.”
Marshall uttered an exclamation of impatience.
“You seem to be a perfect fool!” he said sharply.
“These unsolicited tributes are very gratifying,” murmured Ferris.
“‘Merely a boy!’ ‘Simplifies itself!’” Marshall kicked angrily at a fragment of brick on the floor. “Can’t you see that it is not a case of merely a boy? It is a case of a school. Bah! merely a boy! Do you think, if that were all, I should want your help? If young Stewart were at his home I could have the stone in a day. But here! How is one to get at him? He is in a fortress. It is as difficult to get at a boy in his school as it would be to enter a monastery.”
“But—this is very interesting. I have never been brought face to face with our English school system before. Does he never go out of the school grounds?”
“Yes,” said Marshall savagely, “he does—with a dozen other little brutes hanging on to him like burrs. How can a man do anything? I admit that I am baffled. Perhaps you will be more successful.”
“Perhaps I shall,” said Ferris softly. “If you will excuse my saying so, my dear old fellow, your methods are excellent in their way, but they have their limitations. At bludgeon work you are capital. But perhaps you lack a certain finesse which I flatter myself I possess. In a case like this I think our mutual friend—er—Jones was wise to call me in. I am not fond of violence—that is more in your line—but it seems to me there is no need for violence here. The affair has passed out of that phase; something a little subtler is needed.”
“We shall be working together,” said Marshall. “You may try your methods, I shall stick to mine.”
“Dear old boy, you were always so impetuous, weren’t you? You would always go blundering straight at the fence. I prefer to walk about and see if I can’t find a gate or a gap somewhere. I think the whole business is being conducted on too melodramatic lines. It is a small point, perhaps, but why must our mutual friend arrange this meeting in such an uncommonly damp, dark, beastly spot as this? A far better plan would have been for him to have given us a nice light little lunch at his hotel. Then we could have talked it all over comfortably afterwards over a cigar and coffee. The fact that we shall have deuced bad colds in the head to-morrow does not make our chances of success any brighter. But I suppose, when one is well paid, one must be patient. On the terms on which I am being employed I am prepared to wear a cloak and mask and go about muttering ‘Aha!’ if necessary.”
Marshall made no reply, but continued to pace up and down. Jimmy saw him light a second cigar.
Ferris began to speak again.
“I suppose,” he said reflectively, “it is the privilege of the employer to be unpunctual at the rendezvous, but I wish our friend Jones would not exercise it so rigorously. We were instructed to be here at half-past five. It is now nearly ten minutes to six, but I see no signs of him.”
“Perhaps the rain has stopped him,” growled Marshall. “Hark! was that a footstep?”
Ferris listened. Jimmy, up in the loft, could hear that somebody was walking towards the cottage. The footsteps had a curiously irregular sound.
A moment later a small figure was silhouetted against the light of the open door. Jimmy could not see him clearly enough to judge of his appearance, but he saw that he was lame. One of his legs was shorter than the other.
“Marshall!” said the newcomer in a sharp voice of authority.
“Here, sir,” A note of respect had come into Marshall’s voice which had been markedly absent before.
“Here I am,” came Ferris’s smooth voice. “Ready, aye, ready, as Nelson or somebody observed.”
The lame man turned to Marshall.
“Well?” he said.
“I am afraid that I was unsuccessful, sir.”
The lame man uttered a guttural exclamation of annoyance. From his voice he seemed to be a foreigner. There was nothing English about his accent.
“Explain,” he said.
“I went to the school,” said Marshall, “and saw the boy, but it was useless. Somehow—how I cannot explain—he had got wind of my fight with Burrows in the study that night. How he knew that I was the man I cannot tell. He cannot have been in the room.”
“I should have seen him. There was nowhere for him to hide.”
The lame man’s voice, when he spoke, was quivering with suppressed anger.
“You would have seen him, would you, Marshall? You use your eyes well, Marshall? Is that so? Fool! Did you see anything as you came to this cottage?”
“No, sir.” Marshall’s voice was sullen.
“You did not see footprints in the mud? No, your good eyes did not see those. Nor the track of a bicycle in the mud? No, your keen eyes overlooked that. I saw them, Marshall. Yes, and I saw that on no side of the cottage was there in the mud the track of a bicycle going away or footprints coming away. Yes, Marshall.”
Jimmy’s heart gave a great leap. Marshall sprang forward.
“The boy is here, in this cottage, hiding. You will say: Why the boy? Why not any ordinary cyclist? Bah! why should an ordinary cyclist hide? This boy must have been in the cottage when you arrived. He heard your voice—you would have been speaking. You speak too much—and he hid.”
“Dear old boy,” murmured Ferris, “you have been a little indiscreet, I fear.”
The lame man peered round him. Jimmy could see his eyes shining in the dark like a cat’s. Suddenly he made an ungainly dash forward.
“See!” he hissed. “See, see! Look at it, Marshall. Can you see it? What is this?”
“It looks uncommonly like a boy’s bicycle,” drawled Ferris. “Dear me! how sad that one so young should practise deceit! Excuse me, sir, but that ladder——”
The lame man turned his eyes in the direction indicated. Then he laughed softly.
“Marshall,” he said, “climb that ladder, if you please, and ask our young friend to be good enough to join us.”
Marshall looked up. To all appearances the trapdoor hadn’t been disturbed for weeks. He was about to remark this, but thought better of it. Silently he mounted the ladder, and slowly made his way upward.
The others watched him eagerly.
The Welcome Holiday-makers
IT is probable that many boys in Jimmy’s place would have recognised that the game was up, and, realising this, would have thrown up the sponge and gone down the ladder without further delay. But Jimmy came of a fighting stock. He had not the slightest intention of surrendering without a struggle. He would just as soon have given in to O’Connell in the fight an hour back. Jimmy was his father in miniature, with his father’s traditions, just as his father was the British Army in miniature, with its traditions. The British Army generally puts up something of a fight when the moment arrives, and that spirit was a second nature to Colonel Stewart and to Jimmy himself. Where another boy might have lifted the trap-door and climbed down the ladder, Jimmy, looking about him for a weapon, waited for Marshall to lift it and climb up.
The weapon was ready to his hand in an unwieldy piece of wood which had once formed part of the flooring. It was almost separated from the other planks, joined to them only by a few rusty nails, and it came away silently in Jimmy’s hand.
He lifted it and waited.
He could hear Marshall fumbling with the trapdoor. Presently, with a slight creaking, it rose. Marshall’s head appeared in the opening. And at that instant Jimmy struck at it with his plank.
Struck is hardly, perhaps, the word, for the plank was too heavy and unwieldy to use as a club. But he half struck with it and half let it fall, just as Marshall’s head and shoulders entered the loft.
At the last moment the latter saw the danger, and attempted to draw back. But it was too late. He succeeded in avoiding the full force of the blow, but the plank struck him slantingly on the side of the head, and fell with a crash on to the floor of the loft, while Marshall dropped back with a groan, the trap-door shutting with a bang behind him. Jimmy heard the thud as he fell to the ground, and then for a moment there was absolute stillness. The unexpectedness of the disaster had silenced the enemy.
Presently Jimmy heard whispers, then another groan. Then Ferris’s voice saying, “He’s all right. He’s coming to.”
He waited breathlessly for the next move.
Apparently the enemy were considering the position. This unexpected resistance had taken them by surprise. He heard whisperings.
Then Ferris’s voice hailed him.
“Well?” said Jimmy, after a momentary pause.
“Don’t you think, my boy, that you had better come down without any of this fuss? You are giving a great deal of unnecessary trouble.”
There was something about this shouted conversation which appealed to Jimmy’s sense of humour even in that crisis. The most imminent danger has not the power to stifle one’s sense of the ridiculous, and Jimmy could not help being reminded of a ventriloquial entertainment which he had once heard, where the performer had carried on a conversation with an acquaintance on the roof of the hall.
“I’m quite comfortable where I am, thanks,” said Jimmy.
“I’m advising you for your own good,” said the smooth voice from below.
“Thanks,” said Jimmy drily.
“We’re bound to get you. It’s only a question of time. And the more trouble you give, the worse it will be for you in the end.”
Jimmy made no reply to this. It was an aspect of the affair of which he preferred not to think too much. He liked to fix his mind on the fact that they had not got him yet, and that, all things considered, he was in a fairly strong position. As far as he could see, the only means of entrance to the loft was by way of the trapdoor; and he felt himself capable of guarding that all night. Indeed, he rather hoped that another attack would be made from that quarter. His blood was up now, and he would have welcomed another chance of active fighting.
Below there was a stir. Evidently Marshall had recovered, and was on his feet again. Jimmy could hear him swearing faintly.
“Have a pull at this,” said Ferris.
A flask apparently changed hands. He heard Marshall utter a deep satisfied “Ah-ah!”
“That’s the stuff,” said Ferris. “I think I’ll try a little drop myself. Mr. Stewart,” he called.
“Well?” said Jimmy.
“I am drinking to our speedy acquaintance.”
“Thanks,” said Jimmy. “If you’ll step up that ladder and open the trap-door, you’ll find me here.”
Marshall’s voice broke in, thick and furious.
“You young whelp! I’ll pay you for this! I’ll——” He burst into a flood of threats.
“I’m afraid you have annoyed our friend here, Mr. Stewart,” said Ferris blandly. “He is quite cross.”
All this while the lame man had made no sound, but now he began to speak rapidly in a language which was strange to Jimmy. He spoke in quick, sharp sentences. It seemed to Jimmy that he was giving advice or orders. When he stopped, Ferris said, “Not at all a bad idea. I had thought of something of the kind myself.”
The next thing that happened took Jimmy completely by surprise. Suddenly, as he stood listening, there was a sound like a very soft cough, and simultaneously something ripped through the floor a yard from where he stood and passed through the thatched roof. The next moment the same thing happened again. Then he understood. It was the air-gun, that quiet, deadly weapon which had struck down Sam Burrows in the drive at home on the night when he had first made the acquaintance of the blue stone.
He crouched back against the wall as a third shot smashed through the floor.
Even as he did so he thought that the attackers must be nearly at the end of their tether if they had to try desperate measures like this. It must mean that they had given up all hope of storming the loft, and were, trusting to the chance of maiming him with a random shot.
There did not seem to be much danger of this happening. The shots were passing through the floor several feet from where he stood. After the first shock of the surprise he began to smile again. It was a foolish thing to do, this shooting. While it continued it meant that he was safe as far as a direct assault went. He leaned against the wall and waited.
Presently the shots ceased. In the room below there was complete silence.
A few minutes later a curious sound broke the stillness. At first Jimmy could not locate it. Then it flashed on him what it was, and all his feeling of confidence left him.
Somebody was tearing away the thatched roof.
Jimmy’s position was now becoming desperate. He had not reckoned on an attack from above, and it chilled him to think how helpless he was against such a move. His good plank was useless now. That very heaviness and unwieldiness which made it so excellent a weapon against an attack from below rendered it useless now. He could barely lift it, much less handle it as a club. He must trust to his hands. And what sort of fight could he make with them against a grown man? And if he could manage him, how could he guard the trap-door and prevent the others coming up from below? For the first time he felt like giving up the struggle.
The man on the roof was digging like a dog at a rabbit-hole. The sodden thatch, once the first layer had been removed, offered little resistance. Jimmy could hear it being torn away in great handfuls. Presently a glimpse of daylight appeared, and the gap widened swiftly. Now Jimmy could see a head and shoulders. He stood rigid, unable to move.
A soft voice from above addressed him.
“I shall not keep you waiting very much longer, Mr. Stewart,” said Ferris.
And almost at the same instant he sprang down into the loft.
What happened then had all the suddenness and unexpectedness of a dream. Jimmy saw Ferris spring, heard the crash of his feet on the floor, and then the air was filled with noise and dust, and he was looking down into a ragged gap. The planks, rotten with age and damp, had been unable to bear the shock, and had given way, taking Ferris with them. Jimmy had a momentary sight of the latter seated in the midst of a heap of debris with a dazed look on his face, and leaned back against the wall, shaking with hysterical laughter.
The sound seemed to madden Ferris. His smoothness and humorous calm vanished. He sprang to his feet with a curse.
“Give me that gun, Marshall,” he cried furiously.
Jimmy darted to one side as a shot splashed against the wall where he had been standing.
He was on the alert for another, but it did not come. He heard the lame man say something sharply in his strange tongue. The other seemed to listen. Another word from the lame man, and they had left the cottage. Jimmy heard them scrambling out of the window at the back of the room, bursting through the ivy with furious haste.
He was wondering if this were a fresh development of the attack when the sound of voices came to his ears.
“Here you are, Jim. This way to the Court of Honour.”
“All change for the Scenic Railway.”
“I’m not half soaked, I don’t think.”
“Come along, Ada. Make yourself at home.”
Jimmy moved so as to get a sight of the door. A party of cyclists ran in, wheeling their machines. Their voices were not naturally harmonious, but to Jimmy at that moment they sounded like the sweetest music.
He was safe.
He opened the trap-door, and climbed down the ladder.
“’Ullo! ’ullo! ’ullo!” said one of the party. “See what’s come down the chimney. What ho! Santa Claus!”
“Beastly wet, isn’t it?” said Jimmy. “I came in here for shelter. I’ve been exploring.”
The cyclists were a friendly band. They made Jimmy one of themselves. They sang music-hall songs with great cheerfulness, and cracked small jokes, till one of the party, stationed at the door, announced that the rain had stopped, and that they might as well be popping off. Jimmy walked to the road with them, and they parted with expressions of mutual esteem. They were going in the direction from which Jimmy had come. He wheeled his bicycle on towards the school. He felt curiously dazed, as if he had wakened.
Half a mile from the cottage the road passed through an avenue of trees.
As Jimmy entered this avenue a man stepped out into the road in front of him, a tall man with a bandaged head. At first Jimmy took him for a tramp. It was not till he spoke that he realised that he was face to face with Marshall once more.
(Next week there will be another exciting instalment.)