Officially they called the big, ugly barracks at the top of Sketchley Hill the Sketchley Poor Law Institution. Locally it was the Asylum. Only the oldest inhabitants could remember the furious controversy which had accompanied its building. Every landed proprietor within miles protested against the outrage; there were petitions, questions in Parliament, meetings en plein air when resolutions were passed demanding that the Government should stay its desecrating hand; but in the end it was built. And to the argument that it was a monstrous act of vandalism to erect an insane asylum with the loveliest view in Surrey, the officials concerned answered, reasonably enough, that even mad people were entitled to a pleasant outlook.
That was years ago, when the Old Man was a boy, walking moodily through the bracken and planning odd and awful deeds. Authority caught him young, before any of his fantastic dreams were realized. Three doctors asked him irrelevant questions (as it seemed to him), called at the infirmary and drove him away in a pony-cart, and answered him courteously when he asked if Queen Victoria knew about the trouble his younger brother was.
Here he lived for many years. Kings and queens died, and there were wars. On the white ribbon of the Guildford road the light carts and traps were superseded by swift-moving carriages that moved without horses. There was a lot of discussion about this up at Sketchley. New arrivals professed to understand it all, but the old man and his ancient friends knew that the people who explained the miracle were mad.
He had enormous, heartbreaking desires to go beyond the red brick walls and see and hear the world he had left behind, and when these came—as they did at intervals—he usually found himself in bed in a strange, silent room, where he remained until he grew content with the grounds and the ward and the nigger minstrel entertainments of the local world in which he lived.
Outside apparently nothing had altered much. There were some new houses over by Blickford, but Sketchley was, as he knew, unchanged. From his dormitory window he could see the gables of Arranways Hall. For forty-five years he looked through the window and saw those gables, and the smoke going up from the twisting chimneys in the winter, and the line rhododendron blooms in the spring. The church beyond was the same, though nowadays it had a flagstaff on which a Red Cross ensign was flown.
Then one night there came to him a terribly strong call for the lonely loveliness of Sketchley woods and the caves where he had brooded as a boy, and the sheer-walled quarry with the deep pond at its foot. It was a most powerful, tugging desire that could not be denied. He dressed himself and went out of the ward and down the stairs, taking with him a heavy hammer which he had stolen and concealed all that day.
The officer on duty in the hall was asleep, so the old man hit him with the hammer several times. The guard made no sound from first to last. Probably the first blow killed him. Taking his keys, the old man let himself out, crossed the grounds quickly, and passed through the lodge gate. He came to the cool woods of Sketchley in the early hours of the dawn, a wild old man with blood on his beard, and he sat on the very edge of Quarry Pit and looked down at the calm waters of the pool below.
And as he looked, he saw his old mother standing on the pool's edge, beckoning…
Mr. Lorney, of the "Coat of Arms", was not inclined to join in the hunt. He was a large man, broad-shouldered, bald, stern of face, harsh-voiced, a driver of men. He had no enthusiasm, little sense of public interest.
He had newly come to Sketchley, and received and returned the antagonism proper to a foreigner. The big inn he had bought was something of a white elephant, and that did not improve matters.
He played the races consistently and scientifically; was a student of sporting sheets, an authority on form, and an occasional visitor to Metropolitan race-tracks. Yet, oddly enough, he never discussed the sport with his customers, nor did he neglect his business.
He planned to cater for the better-class week-end custom, to make a road-house of this rambling Tudor inn, and to that end had furnished expensively and with considerable taste, had rescued and revitalized old gardens, had created lawns where untidy pastures had been, and had used so much paint upon the "Coat of Arms" that Sketchley smelt of it.
He had no time for escaped madmen, refused to enrol himself as a special constable, and became unpopular with his officious neighbours, who appeared in caps and armlets and carried overgrown truncheons.
The reporters who flocked to Sketchley found excellent accommodation but little news. Not that they suffered from his dumbness. Hundreds of thrilling columns described the search of the woods, the mystery of the unexplored caves beneath the woods, the clues, the personal narratives of terrified countryfolk who had seen the old man shuffle past in the dead of night, talking strangely to himself.
Then there was the dead keeper and his funeral; his history; the premonition he had had, and which he had confided to his friends. Front-page stuff for a week; feature stuff for page six; half-column stuff, paragraph stuff, and, at the end of a fortnight, no stuff at all, for the newspaper public is an exacting public, and demands that its stories shall move swiftly to a logical end, and there was no logical end to the Sketchley mystery.
"The sooner they forget all about it the better," said John Lorney. "We don't want people to think of Sketchley as though it were a murder hole. We want people to come down and camp in the woods, and if they've got their minds on the old man and his hammer all the time this'll be a grand season for visitors!"
The hardware merchants of Guildford did a thriving trade in new locks and bolts and window-fastenings. You seldom saw men and women abroad at night; even daring lovers went no farther than Hadleigh Copse, which was within running distance of the main road, where a bus passed every quarter of an hour.
Then the scare subsided, and people came out at night. The old man, of course, was dead or had gone away. On the night of his disappearance there had been seen the inevitable grey roadster, moving swiftly along the London road. This friendless old man, who had never received a visitor, suddenly acquired rich and powerful friends. Lovers strolled deep into the heart of Sketchley Woods. Daring young people began the re-exploration of the caves—and then the old man appeared again.
It was the night that Tinsden House was burgled and a thousand pounds' worth of silver plate vanished between two o'clock and four. A labourer whose wife was ill had gone on to the road for a smoke. It was a moonlight night, and as he paced up and down, waiting for the arrival of the doctor, he saw a figure move from the cover of a hedge and, crossing the road, vanish into a plantation. He moved towards the man, thinking he was a poaching friend.
"Hullo!" he called.
Then the figure turned his head, and he saw him distinctly: a bent old man, white-haired, white-bearded, his eyes "glaring"…
When the doctor arrived he had two patients on his hands.
Sketchley bolted its doors and fastened its windows after that. Detectives came from Scotland Yard and from Guildford. Chief Constables conferred importantly. And even as they sat in conference another big house was entered and another haul was made. This time it was the driver of the mail van between Guildford and London who saw the shabby figure standing by the roadside.
Inspector Collett, who came down from head-quarters, made an examination of the old man's record, but could find nothing in the books of the asylum that helped him to elucidate the mystery.
"He was either a first-class burglar when he was young, or he has learnt a lot in the asylum," he said. "Oh no, that isn't impossible; I remember a case… "
The fourth burglary was at Arranways Hall, an act of sacrilege. Lord Arranways heard a sound, and, getting up, passed into his young wife's room.
"I thought I heard a window break," he said in a low voice. "I'm going down to see."
"Why don't you call the servants?" she asked, a little fearfully.
She got out of bed and, slipping into her dressing-gown, followed him into the dark corridor and down the broad stairs. He whispered to her to go back, but she shook her head. He crossed the silent hall and threw open the library door. As he did so, somebody darted out of the shadows into the bright visibility of the open french windows. He had a glimpse of white hair and flowing beard, and his revolver jerked up. There was an explosion, the sound of smashing glass.
"Why did you do that?" he asked angrily.
As he fired she had knocked up his arm. There was the wreckage of a chandelier and a smother of ceiling plaster on the floor to prove it.
"Why on earth did you shoot at the poor old man?" she asked calmly.
He was middle-aged, irascible; the glamour of his second honeymoon had worn off. Marie Arranways could be very irritating.
"Or can you shoot burglars at sight?" she went on.
"The fellow was probably armed," growled his lordship. "Damned silly thing to do!"
She smiled, and walked ahead of him to the open french windows. There was no sign of the old man. Half-dressed servants came rushing down the stairs. A hasty examination of the room was made. There were two gold cups, presented by King Charles the Martyr to the seventh Earl of Arranways, and one of these was gone.
Eddie Arranways sulked for a week.
The old man was live news again, and, because of his peculiar atmosphere, world news. Carl Rennett, sometime police captain, duly returned from a fruitless world chase, read the story of the old man, examined carefully and minutely the details of his burglaries, and, packing his grip, left for England.
The cold and blusterous day Rennett's voyage finished at Southampton was a great day for John Lorney, for a horse called Sergeant Murphy won the Grand National Steeplechase and completed a double event which brought forty thousand pounds into the banking account of the landlord of the "Coat of Arms".
Captain Rennett went straight to Scotland Yard and presented his credentials, a letter of introduction from the Department of Justice at Washington, and the Chief Constable listened whilst the American explained just why he had come.
"We'll give you all the facilities possible," said the Chief, "but, as you probably know, Scotland Yard has no jurisdiction outside the Metropolitan area, and the matter is more or less in the hands of the local police. Their theory—and it is one we share—is that the old man must have learnt the business from some other inmate of the institution. He has no criminal history so far as the records show, but he is undoubtedly a great hoarder. That is one of the forms his lunacy took. We have been in touch with the best-known receivers, and, so far as we can discover, not a single piece he has stolen has been on the market. He is probably stealing for the sake o' stealing, and it is likely that we shall find his hoard intact."
"Where is it cached?" asked Rennett.
Chief Collett smiled.
"That's a pretty foolish question," admitted Rennett. "I suppose it is in one of the caves under the wood?"
"They've never been thoroughly explored," said the Chief Constable. "There are four or five strata, probably more—one layer under the other. If the old man dies, as he is likely to, the stuff may never be found. On the other hand, he may do something eccentric which will bring him into our hands. The country is terrified—I mean that part of the country."
He looked at the big American with a twinkle in his eye.
"You're an authority on burglaries?"
"That's my speciality," said Rennett calmly. "I suppose the letter from Mr. Adelton told you that? Yes, I've even written a book about them." He smiled good-humouredly.
He drove down to Sketchley that afternoon, and throughout the journey his mind was occupied by one problem. Bill Radley he expected to find in the Guildford area, but would his sleek partner be with him?