The Accident that Rescued the Stone
“WELL?” cried both boys in a breath.
The colonel’s voice, when he spoke, was grave.
“One of their wheels came off just as they were rounding a curve. The car is smashed all to pieces. They must have been travelling at over thirty-five miles an hour.”
“And the men?” said the colonel. “All dead.”
Tommy was scrambling down from the car, but the colonel ordered him back sharply.
“It’s not a fit sight for you,” he said. “I am used to these things, but it has given me a shock. It is a horrible sight, Jimmy.”
“Which of the men was it that took the stone? There is one who seems to have been an Indian. The other two are unrecognisable. One of them seems to have been a stout man. Was that the thief?”
“Yes. Ferris. That was the man.”
“Wait here. I must go and search him.”
Tommy and Jimmy waited, awed into silence by the sudden tragedy which had chilled the excitement of the chase in them. Both felt a little sick. They had vivid imaginations, and they could picture to themselves what sort of sight it must be at which Colonel Stewart was now looking.
Presently the colonel came back again.
“Jimmy,” he said huskily, “you’ll find a small flask in the flap on the right-hand door of the tonneau. Hand it to me, will you?”
He took a long drink, and slipped the flask into his pocket. Then he took it out again, and handed it to the boys.
“You had better drink a little,” he said. “You must be frozen.”
The biting, burning spirit put new life into Jimmy and Tommy. They hated the taste, but as medicine it was wonderful.
“Have you got it, father?” asked Jimmy.
Colonel Stewart held his hand in the glare of the front lamp. In the palm was a small, round object. The boys noticed with a shudder that the hand was wet with something thick and dark.
The colonel took a rag from under the seat, and wiped his hand.
“We must be getting back to the nearest village,” he said, taking the wheel, “to tell the police of what has happened.”
The car was turned with some difficulty in the confined space, and they went back along the road till they reached the village through which they had passed ten minutes before. They stopped at the police station. A sleepy constable answered their knock.
“I am Colonel Stewart,” said the colonel. “There has been a motor smash down the road.”
The constable blinked sleepily.
“Three men have been killed. One was a burglar escaping from justice.”
The constable’s sleepiness left him.
“Burglar, sir!” he repeated. “Where was the burglary?”
“At Marleigh. We have been pursuing him in my car. He was certainly a burglar, and possibly a murderer as well.”
This finally woke the constable up. He saw himself being promoted for his connection with this affair. Burglary and possibly murder! He must be in this.
“You leave the matter in my ’ands, sir,” he said, as briskly as it is possible for a country policeman to speak. “About ’ow far down the road? Five or six miles, sir? Right: I’ll rout up landlord Smith, of the ‘King’s Head,’ and get a cart. You’ll leave your card, sir, as a matter of form.”
The colonel handed him his card, and set the car in movement again. It was a very long way back to Marleigh, and both the boys were fast asleep in the tonneau long before they arrived. The stoppage in front of the door awoke them.
The Mystery of the Stone Explained
VERY sleepy, and feeling as if they had not been to bed at all, Jimmy and Tommy dragged themselves up at half-past seven next morning, and made their way, yawning, to the village inn.
The colonel was not down, and they dozed in armchairs till breakfast and he arrived simultaneously. The colonel had not turned a hair. His lean, brown face showed no signs of fatigue whatsoever. A life of campaigning and big game shooting leaves a man tough. Colonel Stewart looked as if he had gone to bed at ten o’clock and slept peacefully from the moment his head touched the pillow.
“Well,” he said cheerily, “and how are you both? No ill effects, eh? Sit down and have some breakfast. You look as if you could hardly keep your eyes open. Tea would be better for you than coffee. Here, waiter, bring some tea. Come along, my boys. It’s no good asking me any questions till after breakfast, for I shan’t answer them.”
The colonel ate little but toast for breakfast himself, but he had ordered for the benefit of the two boys a meal such as they had never had before. After the apology for breakfast to which they had grown accustomed under Mr. Spinder’s rule the present meal seemed too good to be true. Even their curiosity gave way before their determination to make hay while the sun shone. The colonel had no need to repeat his injunction against questions. Both Jimmy and Tommy were too busy for them.
At last Jimmy leaned back in his chair and said, “Ah!” Tommy, almost simultaneously, uttered a contented sigh.
“Finished?” said the colonel, lighting a cheroot.
Jimmy and Tommy nodded.
“And now you want to hear all about it?” Jimmy and Tommy nodded again. There are moments when speech is a nuisance.
“Well, I’ll tell you. But let’s have everything in its proper order. First your story, then Corporal Burrows’s, then mine. Burrows will be here soon. Meanwhile, let’s have your yarn, Jimmy.”
Jimmy was not feeling in the mood for speech, but he made the necessary effort, and told his father, as briefly as he could, the story of his adventures with the stone; how he had received it from Sam; how Mr. Spinder had taken it; and how Marshall and the others had dogged him, thinking it was in his possession.
The colonel listened attentively.
“You seem to have had a lively term,” he said. “I suppose,” he added carelessly, “you realised that there would be a certain amount of danger attached to the possession of the stone when you took it over?”
“I was afraid there might be a bit.”
“But you took it all the same.”
“I thought I might as well,” said Jimmy awkwardly.
Colonel Stewart’s eyes flashed with approval. “Jimmy,” he said quietly, “you’re a brick.” Jimmy blushed to the roots of his hair. He had an overwhelming admiration for his father, and these few words of praise from him were more welcome than a long eulogy from anyone else. He knew that his father was a man who had a high standard, and that he never said very much at any time. That simple remark of the colonel’s was more than enough to reward him for all he had passed through.
“Thanks awfully, father,” he muttered, and there was a silence till a knock at the door made itself heard and Sam Burrows entered. Sam stood stiffly at attention in the presence of the colonel, and looked as if he were prepared to go on so standing till the end of the interview; but Colonel Stewart motioned him to a seat, gave him one of his cheroots, and ordered beer for him. Sam looked slightly disturbed at this unusual conduct on the part of an officer, but thawed under the influence of the cheroot.
“I missed you last night, Burrows,” said the colonel. “I was due to arrive at the inn at about eleven, but I had a couple of punctures.”
“It was lucky you did, father,” said Jimmy. “We should have been done if you hadn’t come by just then. Does Sam know about what happened?”
“Yes. I saw him for a few minutes, when I got back. I told him the main facts. What I want from you now, Burrows, is the story of your dealings with this stone.” He produced the blue stone and laid it beside his plate. They all looked at it with interest. In itself it was an insignificant object, but it had been the cause of many strange happenings.
“Now then, Burrows,” said the colonel.
Sam took a pull at his mug of beer and began his story.
“I don’t rightly know much about the stone, sir,” he said, “not about why it was so valuable and that. I can only tell you what ’appened to me along of it, and ’ow I got it.”
“That’s what I want to know,” said Colonel Stewart. “I’m going to tell you about the stone when you’ve finished your story.”
“It was up in Estapore, sir. I was Major Ingram’s servant.”
“Major Ingram succeeded me as political agent at Estapore when I went home on leave.”
“Right, sir. I was the major’s servant. One morning he sent for me. ‘Burrows,’ he says, ‘you and me have got to get over to England sharp on a matter of life and death and find Colonel Stewart.’ ‘Right, sir,’ I says. ‘When do we start?’ ‘In half an hour,’ says the major. ‘Right, sir,’ I says. We didn’t stop to pack and say goodbye to the girls and boys. We just saddled horses and let out as fast as we knew for the railway, which, as you know, sir, is a precious long way off. The major had told me to keep my eyes skinned and never to let my revolver out of my ’and, and ’e’d do the same. And my word! it’s lucky we didn’t take no risks. Night and day, day and night, it was just the same. Somebody was after us. Who it was was what we didn’t bloomin’ well know. It wasn’t more than once in a blue moon we’d see anybody, but they was sniping us. All the bloomin’ time they was sniping us. Sometimes with Mausers, for all the world as if it had been South Africa and the Boers over again, and sometimes with that bloomin’ air-gun of theirs, wot laid me out subsequent, as Master Jimmy here knows. We didn’t stop to argue about it. We galloped on as fast as our ’orses would let us, down valleys, across rivers, all the bloomin’ fun of the fair. Till at last, about one day’s easy journey from the rail-head, we get to a Dâk bungalow. And that was the ’ottest part of the whole entertainment. Knowin’ we was pretty nearly ’ome,—’cos, once we was in the train it ’ud be difficult to corner us—they made their big effort. Tried to rush us, the beggars. A dozen of ’em, there was. Either they’d squared the ’ead waiter of the bloomin’ Rowton ’Ouse we was in, or scared him. Anyway, he wasn’t on the premises. We was all alone with them. There was one blackie wot seemed to be the leader. He came forward to where we’d barricaded ourselves, and he slung a lot of talk at the major in Hindustani. I wasn’t never good at the language, and I only managed to get hold of a word here and there. As far as I could make it out they was talking about this stone. I heard the blackie keep on saying, ‘Give it up and you shall go safe’. He’d hark back to that whenever ’e couldn’t think of anything else to say. Well, after about ’arf an hour of his ’igh-class patter, he seemed to think the time ’ad come for a bit of knockabout business. He ups with his hand and shouts something, and at us they all come in a body. It was gettin’ pretty dark then, or they wouldn’t have risked a frontal attack. I loosed off with my revolver and bowled over the blackie who’d been doing the talking—hit him on the ankle. Then they all came on, yelling and firing, and matters became a little ’ot. Down goes the major with a bullet in the shoulder, and, just as I’m beginning to think it’s all up, out comes the moon, and it’s like daylight. That settled their ’ash. They couldn’t see me, and I could see them proper. I ’ad three of ’em down and out before you could say knife, and that conclooded the proceedings. They sheered off, taking the boss blackie with them, and didn’t come back no more. I tied the major’s shoulder up and did wot I could for him, and when he was a bit easier he calls me, and says, ‘Burrows.’ ‘Sir?’ I says. He ’ands me the blue ruin. ‘Wot’s this, sir?’ I says. ‘Never mind,’ he says. ‘It’s valuable. You must go on with it alone. I shall ’ave to stay here and mend. Guard that stone with your bloomin’ life, and ’and it over to Colonel Stewart in England.’”
“By Jingo!” said Tommy. It was the first time he had spoken.
“You did splendidly, Burrows. I’ll see that official notice is taken of what you have done. And now I’ll add my information to yours. This is The Tear of Heaven. You’ll read about it in any good book on India. It is the sacred jewel of the Maharajahs of Estapore. The people of the state believe the stone to be sacred and worship it. Without it a Maharajah would have little chance of keeping his throne. Now in Estapore things are more than a little complicated. In these native states the ruler can name his heir. The succession does not go automatically to the eldest son. And that is the trouble in Estapore. The old Maharajah has two sons, and the younger is the one he has named as his heir. Naturally the elder son is jealous, and when an oriental is jealous things are likely to happen. So the Maharajah consulted me. I advised him to send the heir to England to be educated, which he did. He went to Eton, and later to Cambridge, where he is now. You probably know his name quite well. He got his cricket blue last season.”
Jimmy and Tommy gave a simultaneous gasp.
“Not the chap who made a century against Oxford?”
The colonel nodded and went on.
“Having got him out of the country he was safe as long as his father lived. If he had remained at Estapore he would have been murdered as sure as we are sitting here. But now, I suspect, the old Maharajah feels himself nearing the end, and is anxious to make preparations that will ensure his heir succeeding to the throne. That is where the stone comes in. In a nutshell, the position is this. The man who has the stone gets the throne, for the people, whatever their political views, would be absolutely swayed by their superstition. They would no more dare to oppose the owner of the sacred stone than fly. So the old Maharajah gave this stone to Ingram to take to me, the guardian of the heir. If I had been at home all would have been simple. I should have handed the stone to the heir, and he would have returned with it, strongly guarded, to Estapore, for, you must know, it is greatly to the interest of Britain that your friend the cricketer should succeed to the throne.”
“By Jingo!” said Tommy.
“But, father,” said Jimmy, “how did Spinder know that the stone meant such a lot?”
“Spinder? Spinder? A small man with a hooked nose? Wears glasses?”
“It must be the same. Why, this Mr. Spinder is one of the best-informed men on Indian mythology in the country. He would have read all about The Tear of Heaven in the course of his studies. I suppose he recognised the stone and was holding it up to ransom when they took it by force.”
“And who was Marshall?”
“And Ferris?” added Tommy.
“Agents of the usurper. Probably broken army men who had got mixed up in shady affairs. There are scores of them in the underworld of India. And now,” said the colonel, “you two boys had better be running off, or you will be late for school.”
Subsequent revelations proved that the colonel was right. The Indian who had perished in the motor smash was the claimant to the throne of Estapore. His death made the rest of the affair simple.
To Tommy and Jimmy the rest of the term seemed terribly flat and uninteresting after the excitement they had gone through.