This was the third week of Selwood's secretaryship to Jacob Herapath. Herapath was a well-known man in London. He was a Member of Parliament, the owner of a sort of model estate of up-to-date flats, and something of a crank about such matters as ventilation, sanitation, and lighting. He himself, a bachelor, lived in one of the best houses in Portman Square; when he engaged Selwood as his secretary he made him take a convenient set of rooms in Upper Seymour Street, close by. He also caused a telephone communication to be set up between his own house and Selwood's bedroom, so that he could summon his secretary at any hour of the night. Herapath occasionally had notions about things in the small hours, and he was one of those active, restless persons who, if they get a new idea, like to figure on it at once. All the same, during those three weeks he had not once troubled his secretary in this fashion. No call came to Selwood over that telephone until half-past seven one November morning, just as he was thinking of getting out of bed. And the voice which then greeted him was not Herapath's. It was a rather anxious, troubled voice, and it belonged to one Kitteridge, a middle-aged man, who was Herapath's butler.
In the act of summoning Selwood, Kitteridge was evidently interrupted by some person at his elbow; all that Selwood made out was that Kitteridge wanted him to go round at once. He dressed hurriedly, and ran off to Herapath's house; there in the hall, near the door of a room which Herapath used as a study and business room, he found Kitteridge talking to Mountain, Herapath's coachman, who, judging by the state of his attire, had also been called hurriedly from his bed.
"What is it, Kitteridge?" demanded Selwood. "Mr. Herapath ill?"
The butler shook his head and jerked his thumb towards the open door of the study.
"The fact is, we don't know where Mr. Herapath is, sir," he answered. "He hasn't slept in his bed, and he isn't in the house."
"Possibly he didn't come home last night," suggested Selwood. "He may have slept at his club, or at an hotel."
The butler and the coachman looked at each other—then the coachman, a little, sharp-eyed man who was meditatively chewing a bit of straw, opened his tightly-compressed lips.
"He did come home, sir," he said. "I drove him home—as usual. I saw him let himself into the house. One o'clock sharp, that was. Oh, yes, he came home!"
"He came home," repeated Kitteridge. "Look here, sir." He led the way into the study and pointed to a small table set by the side of Herapath's big business desk. "You see that tray, Mr. Selwood? That's always left out, there, on that table, for Mr. Herapath every night. A small decanter of whiskey, a syphon, a few sandwiches, a dry biscuit or two. Well, there you are, sir—he's had a drink out of that glass, he's had a mouthful or so of sandwiches. Oh, yes, he came home, but he's not at home now! Charlesworth—the valet, you know, sir—always goes into Mr. Herapath's room at a quarter past seven every morning; when he went in just now he found that Mr. Herapath wasn't there, and the bed hadn't been slept in. So—that's where things stand."
Selwood looked round the room. The curtains had not yet been drawn aside, and the electric light cast a cold glare on the various well-known objects and fittings. He glanced at the evidences of the supper tray; then at the blotting-pad on Herapath's desk; there he might have left a note for his butler or his secretary. But there was no note to be seen.
"Still, I don't see that there's anything to be alarmed about, Kitteridge," he said. "Mr. Herapath may have wanted to go somewhere by a very early morning train——"
"No, sir, excuse me, that won't do," broke in the butler. "I thought of that myself. But if he'd wanted to catch a night train, he'd have taken a travelling coat, and a rug, and a bag of some sort—he's taken nothing at all in that way. Besides, I've been in this house seven years, and I know his habits. If he'd wanted to go away by one of the very early morning trains he'd have kept me and Charlesworth up, making ready for him. No, sir! He came home, and went out again—must have done. And—it's uncommonly queer. Seven years I've been here, as I say, and he never did such a thing before."
Selwood turned to the coachman.
"You brought Mr. Herapath home at one o'clock?" he said. "Alone?"
"He was alone, sir," replied the coachman, who had been staring around him as if to seek some solution of the mystery. "I'll tell you all that happened—I was just beginning to tell Mr. Kitteridge here when you come in. I fetched Mr. Herapath from the House of Commons last night at a quarter past eleven—took him up in Palace Yard at the usual spot, just as the clock was striking. 'Mountain,' he says, 'I want you to drive round to the estate office—I want to call there.' So I drove there—that's in Kensington, as you know, sir. When he got out he says, 'Mountain,' he says, 'I shall be three-quarters of an hour or so here—wrap the mare up and walk her about,' he says. I did as he said, but he was more than three-quarters—it was like an hour. Then at last he came back to the brougham, just said one word, 'Home!' and I drove him here, and the clocks were striking one when he got out. He said 'Good night,' and I saw him walk up the steps and put his key in the latch as I drove off to our stables. And that's all I know about it."
Selwood turned to the butler.
"I suppose no one was up at that time?" he inquired.
"Nobody, sir," answered Kitteridge. "There never is. Mr. Herapath, as you've no doubt observed, is a bit strict in the matter of rules, and it's one of his rules that everybody in the house must be in bed by eleven-thirty. No one was ever to sit up for him on any occasion. That's why this supper-tray was always left ready. His usual time for coming in when he'd been at the House was twelve o'clock."
"Everybody in the house might be in bed," observed Selwood, "but not everybody might be asleep. Have you made any inquiry as to whether anybody heard Mr. Herapath moving about in the night, or leaving the house? Somebody may have heard the hall door opened and closed, you know."
"I'll make inquiry as to that, sir," responded Kitteridge, "but I've heard nothing of the sort so far, and all the servants are aware by now that Mr. Herapath isn't in the house. If anybody had heard anything——"
Before the butler could say more the study door opened and a girl came into the room. At sight of her Selwood spoke hurriedly to Kitteridge.
"Have you told Miss Wynne?" he whispered. "Does she know?"
"She may have heard from her maid, sir," replied Kitteridge in low tones. "Of course they're all talking of it. I was going to ask to see Miss Wynne as soon as she was dressed."
By that time the girl had advanced towards the three men, and Selwood stepped forward to meet her. He knew her as Herapath's niece, the daughter of a dead sister of whom Herapath had been very fond; he knew, too, that Herapath had brought her up from infancy and treated her as a daughter. She was at this time a young woman of twenty-one or two, a pretty, eminently likeable young woman, with signs of character and resource in eyes and lips, and Selwood had seen enough of her to feel sure that in any disturbing event she would keep her head. She spoke calmly enough as the secretary met her.
"What's all this, Mr. Selwood?" she asked. "I understand my uncle is not in the house. But there's nothing alarming in that, Kitteridge, is there? Mr. Herapath may have gone away during the night, you know."
"Kitteridge thinks that highly improbable," replied Selwood. "He says that Mr. Herapath had made no preparation for a sudden journey, has taken no travelling coat or rug, or luggage of any sort."
"Did he come in from the House?" she asked. "Perhaps not?"
Kitteridge pointed to the supper-tray and then indicated the coachman.
"He came in as usual, miss," he replied. "Or rather an hour later than usual. Mountain brought him home at one o'clock, and he saw him let himself in with his latch-key."
Peggie Wynne turned to the coachman.
"You're sure that he entered the house?" she asked.
"As sure as I could be, miss," replied Mountain. "He was putting his key in the door when I drove off."
"He must have come in," said Kitteridge, pointing to the tray. "He had something after he got in."
"Well, go and tell the servants not to talk, Kitteridge," said Peggie. "My uncle, no doubt, had reasons for going out again. Have you said anything to Mr. Tertius?"
"Mr. Tertius isn't down yet, miss," answered the butler.
He left the room, followed by the coachman, and Peggie turned to Selwood. "What do you think?" she asked, with a slight show of anxiety. "You don't know of any reason for this, do you?"
"None," replied Selwood. "And as to what I think, I don't know sufficient about Mr. Herapath's habits to be able to judge."
"He never did anything like this before," she remarked. "I know that he sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and comes down here, but I never knew him to go out. If he'd been setting off on a sudden journey he'd surely have let me know. Perhaps——"
She paused suddenly, seeing Selwood lift his eyes from the papers strewn about the desk to the door. She, too, turned in the same direction.
A man had come quietly into the room—a slightly-built, little man, grey-bearded, delicate-looking, whose eyes were obscured by a pair of dark-tinted spectacles. He moved gently and with an air of habitual shyness, and Selwood, who was naturally observant, saw that his lips and his hands were trembling slightly as he came towards them.
"Mr. Tertius," said Peggie, "do you know anything about Uncle Jacob? He came in during the night—one o'clock—and now he's disappeared. Did he say anything to you about going away early this morning?"
Mr. Tertius shook his head.
"No—no—nothing!" he answered. "Disappeared! Is it certain he came in?"
"Mountain saw him come in," she said. "Besides, he had a drink out of that glass, and he ate something from the tray—see!"
Mr. Tertius bent his spectacled eyes over the supper tray and remained looking at what he saw there for a while. Then he looked up, and at Selwood.
"Strange!" he remarked. "And yet, you know, he is a man who does things without saying a word to any one. Have you, now, thought of telephoning to the estate office? He may have gone there."
Peggie, who had dropped into the chair at Herapath's desk, immediately jumped up.
"Of course we must do that at once!" she exclaimed. "Come to the telephone, Mr. Selwood—we may hear something."
She and Selwood left the room together. When they had gone, Mr. Tertius once more bent over the supper tray. He picked up the empty glass, handling it delicately; he held it between himself and the electric light over the desk; he narrowly inspected it, inside and out. Then he turned his attention to the plate of sandwiches. One sandwich had been taken from the plate and bitten into—once. Mr. Tertius took up that sandwich with the tips of his delicately-shaped fingers. He held that, too, nearer the light. And having looked at it he hastily selected an envelope from the stationery cabinet on the desk, carefully placed the sandwich within it, and set off to his own rooms in the upper part of the house. As he passed through the hall he heard Selwood at the telephone, which was installed in a small apartment at the foot of the stairs—he was evidently already in communication with some one at the Herapath Estate Office.
Mr. Tertius went straight to his room, stayed there a couple of minutes, and went downstairs again. Selwood and Peggie Wynne were just coming away from the telephone; they looked up at him with faces grave with concern.
"We're wanted at the estate office," said Selwood. "The caretaker was just going to ring us up when I got through to him. Something is wrong—wrong with Mr. Herapath."