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Copyright © 2016 by J.S. Fletcher
Published by Jovian Press
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
WANTED AT REHEARSAL
Jerramy, thirty years’ stage-door keeper at the Theatre Royal, Norcaster, had come to regard each successive Monday morning as a time for the renewal of old acquaintance. For at any rate forty-six weeks of the fifty-two, theatrical companies came and went at Norcaster with unfailing regularity. The company which presented itself for patronage in the first week of April in one year was almost certain to present itself again in the corresponding week of the next year. Sometimes new faces came with it, but as a rule the same old favourites showed themselves for a good many years in succession. And every actor and actress who came to Norcaster knew Jerramy. He was the first official person encountered on entering upon the business of the week. He it was who handed out the little bundles of letters and papers, who exchanged the first greetings, of whom one could make useful inquiries, who always knew exactly what advice to give about lodgings and landladies. From noon onwards of Mondays, when the newcomers began to arrive at the theatre for the customary one o’clock call for rehearsal, Jerramy was invariably employed in hearing that he didn’t look a day older, and was as blooming as ever, and sure to last another thirty years, and his reception always culminated in a hearty handshake and genial greeting from the great man of the company, who, of course, after the fashion of magnates, always turned up at the end of the irregular procession, and was not seldom late for the fixture which he himself had made.
At a quarter past one of a certain Monday afternoon in the course of a sunny October, Jerramy leaned over the half-door of his sanctum in conversation with an anxious-eyed man who for the past ten minutes had hung about in the restless fashion peculiar to those who are waiting for somebody. He had looked up the street and down the street a dozen times; he had pulled out his watch and compared it with the clock of a neighbouring church almost as often; he had several times gone up the dark passage which led to the dressing-rooms, and had come back again looking more perplexed than ever. The fact was that he was the business manager of the great Mr. Bassett Oliver, who was opening for the week at Norcaster in his latest success, and who, not quite satisfied with the way in which a particular bit of it was being played called a special rehearsal for a quarter to one. Everything and everybody was ready for that rehearsal, but the great man himself had not arrived. Now Mr. Bassett Oliver, as every man well knew who ever had dealings with him, was not one of the irregular and unpunctual order; on the contrary, he was a very martinet as regarded rule, precision and system; moreover, he always did what he expected each member of his company to do. Therefore his non-arrival, his half hour of irregularity, seemed all the more extraordinary.
“Never knew him to be late before—never!” exclaimed the business manager, impatiently pulling out his watch for the twentieth time. “Not in all my ten years’ experience of him—not once.”
“I suppose you’ve seen him this morning, Mr. Stafford?” inquired Jerramy.
“He’s in the town, of course?”
“I suppose he’s in the town,” answered Mr. Stafford. “I suppose he’s at his old quarters—the ‘Angel.’ But I haven’t seen him; neither had Rothwell—we’ve both been too busy to call there. I expect he came on to the ‘Angel’ from Northborough yesterday.”
Jerramy opened the half-door, and going out to the end of the passage, looked up and down the street.
“There’s a taxi-cab coming round the corner now,” he announced presently.
“Coming quick, too—I should think he’s in it.”
The business manager bustled out to the pavement as the cab came to a halt. But instead of the fine face and distinguished presence of Mr. Bassett Oliver, he found himself confronting a young man who looked like a well-set-up subaltern, or a cricket-and-football loving undergraduate; a somewhat shy, rather nervous young man, scrupulously groomed, and neatly attired in tweeds, who, at sight of the two men on the pavement, immediately produced a card-case.
“Mr. Bassett Oliver?” he said inquiringly. “Is he here? I—I’ve got an appointment with him for one o’clock, and I’m sorry I’m late—my train—”
“Mr. Oliver is not here yet,” broke in Stafford. “He’s late, too—unaccountably late, for him. An appointment, you say?”
He was looking the stranger over as he spoke, taking him for some stage-struck youth who had probably persuaded the good-natured actor to give him an interview. His expression changed, however; as he glanced at the card which the young man handed over, and he started a little and held out his hand with a smile.
“Oh!—Mr. Copplestone?” he exclaimed. “How do you do? My name’s Stafford—I’m Mr. Oliver’s business manager. So he made an appointment with you, did he—here, today? Wants to see you about your play, of course.”
Again he looked at the newcomer with a smiling interest, thinking secretly that he was a very youthful and ingenuous being to have written a play which Bassett Oliver, a shrewd critic, and by no means easy to please, had been eager to accept, and was about to produce. Mr. Richard Copplestone, seen in the flesh, looked very young indeed, and very unlike anything in the shape of a professional author. In fact he very much reminded Stafford of the fine and healthy young man whom one sees on the playing fields, and certainly does not associate with pen and ink. That he was not much used to the world on whose edge he just then stood Stafford gathered from a boyish trick of blushing through the tan of his cheeks.
“I got a wire from Mr. Oliver yesterday—Sunday,” replied Mr.
Copplestone. “I ought to have had it in the morning, I suppose, but I’d
gone out for the day, you know—gone out early. So I didn’t find it until
I got back to my rooms late at night. I got the next train I could from
King’s Cross, and it was late getting in here.”
“Then you’ve practically been travelling all night?” remarked Stafford. “Well, Mr. Oliver hasn’t turned up—most unusual for him. I don’t know where—” Just then another man came hurrying down the passage from the dressing-rooms, calling the business manager by name.
“I say, Stafford!” he exclaimed, as he emerged on the street. “This is a queer thing!—I’m sure there’s something wrong. I’ve just rung up the ‘Angel’ hotel. Oliver hasn’t turned up there! His rooms were all ready for him as usual yesterday, but he never came. They’ve neither seen nor heard of him. Did you see him yesterday?”
“No!” replied Stafford. “I didn’t. Never seen him since last thing
Saturday night at Northborough. He ordered this rehearsal for one—no, a
quarter to one, here, today. But somebody must have seen him yesterday.
Where’s his dresser—where’s Hackett?”
“Hackett’s inside,” said the other man. “He hasn’t seen him either, since Saturday night. Hackett has friends living in these parts—he went off to see them early yesterday morning, from Northborough, and he’s only just come. So he hasn’t seen Oliver, and doesn’t know anything about him; he expected, of course, to find him here.”
Stafford turned with a wave of the hand towards Copplestone.
“So did this gentleman,” he said. “Mr. Copplestone, this is our stage-manager, Mr. Rothwell. Rothwell, this is Mr. Richard Copplestone, author of the new play that Mr. Oliver’s going to produce next month. Mr. Copplestone got a wire from him yesterday, asking him to come here today at one o’clock, He’s travelled all night to get here.”
“Where was the wire sent from?” asked Rothwell, a sharp-eyed, keen-looking man, who, like Stafford, was obviously interested in the new author’s boyish appearance. “And when?”
Copplestone drew some letters and papers from his pocket and selected one. “That’s it,” he said. “There you are—sent off from Northborough at nine-thirty, yesterday morning—Sunday.”
“Well, then he was at Northborough at that time,” remarked Rothwell. “Look here, Stafford, we’d better telephone to Northborough, to his hotel. The ‘Golden Apple,’ wasn’t it?”
“No good,” replied Stafford, shaking his head. “The ‘Golden Apple’ isn’t on the ‘phone—old-fashioned place. We’d better wire.”
“Too slow,” said Rothwell. “We’ll telephone to the theatre there, and ask them to step across and make inquiries. Come on!—let’s do it at once.”
He hurried inside again, and Stafford turned to Copplestone.
“Better send your cab away and come inside until we get some news,” he said. “Let Jerramy take your things into his sanctum—he’ll keep an eye on them till you want them—I suppose you’ll stop at the ‘Angel’ with Oliver. Look here!” he went on, turning to the cab driver, “just you wait a bit—I might want you; wait ten minutes, anyway. Come in, Mr. Copplestone.”
Copplestone followed the business manager up the passage to a dressing-room, in which a little elderly man was engaged in unpacking trunks and dress-baskets. He looked up expectantly at the sound of footsteps; then looked down again at the work in hand and went silently on with it.
“This is Hackett, Mr. Oliver’s dresser,” said Stafford. “Been with him—how long, Hackett?”
“Twenty years next January, Mr. Stafford,” answered the dresser quietly.
“Ever known Mr. Oliver late like this?” inquired Stafford.
“Never, sir! There’s something wrong,” replied Hackett. “I’m sure of it.
I feel it! You ought to go and look for him, some of you gentlemen.”
“Where?” asked Stafford. “We don’t know anything about him. He’s not come to the ‘Angel,’ as he ought to have done, yesterday. I believe you’re the last person who saw him, Hackett. Aren’t you, now?”
“I saw him at the ‘Golden Apple’ at Northborough at twelve o’clock Saturday night, sir,” answered Hackett. “I took a bag of his to his rooms there. He was all right then. He knew I was going off first thing next morning to see an uncle of mine who’s a farmer on the coast between here and Northborough, and he told me he shouldn’t want me until one o’clock today. So of course, I came straight here to the theatre—I didn’t call in at the ‘Angel’ at all this morning.”
“Did he say anything about his own movements yesterday?” asked Stafford.
“Did he tell you that he was going anywhere?”
“Not a word, Mr. Stafford,” replied Hackett. “But you know his habits as well as I do.”
“Just so,” agreed Stafford. “Mr. Oliver,” he continued, turning to Copplestone, “is a great lover of outdoor life. On Sundays, when we’re travelling from one town to another, he likes to do the journey by motor—alone. In a case like this, where the two towns are not very far apart, it’s his practice to find out if there’s any particular beauty spot or place of interest between them, and to spend his Sunday there. I daresay that’s what he did yesterday. You see, all last week we were at Northborough. That, like Norcaster, is a coast town—there’s fifty miles between them. If he followed out his usual plan he’d probably hire a motor-car and follow the coast-road, and if he came to any place that was of special interest, he’d stop there. But—in the usual way of things—he’d have turned up at his rooms at the ‘Angel’ hotel here last night. He didn’t—and he hasn’t turned up here, either. So where is he?”
“Have you made inquiries of the company, Mr. Stafford?” asked Hackett.
“Most of ‘em wander about a bit of a Sunday—they might have seen him.”
“Good idea!” agreed Stafford. He beckoned Copplestone to follow him on to the stage, where the members of the company sat or stood about in groups, each conscious that something unusual had occurred. “It’s really a queer, and perhaps a serious thing,” he whispered as he steered his companion through a maze of scenery. “And if Oliver doesn’t turn up, we shall be in a fine mess. Of course, there’s an understudy for his part, but—I say!” he went on, as they stepped upon the stage, “Have any of you seen Mr. Oliver, anywhere, since Saturday night? Can anybody tell anything about him—anything at all? Because—it’s useless to deny the fact—he’s not come here, and he’s not come to town at all, so far as we know. So—”
Rothwell came hurrying on to the stage from the opposite wings. He hastened across to Stafford and drew him and Copplestone a little aside.
“I’ve heard from Northborough,” he said. “I ‘phoned Waters, the manager there, to run across to the ‘Golden Apple’ and make inquiries. The ‘Golden Apple’ people say that Oliver left there at eleven o’clock yesterday morning. He was alone. He simply walked out of the hotel. And they know nothing more.”
GREY ROCK AND GREY SEA
The three men stood for a while silently looking at each other. Copplestone, as a stranger, secretly wondered why the two managers seemed so concerned; to him a delay of half an hour in keeping an appointment did not appear to be quite as serious as they evidently considered it. But he had never met Bassett Oliver, and knew nothing of his ways; he only began to comprehend matters when Rothwell turned to Stafford with an air of decision.
“Look here!” he said. “You’d better go and make inquiry at Northborough. See if you can track him. Something must be wrong—perhaps seriously wrong. You don’t quite understand, do you, Mr. Copplestone?” he went on, giving the younger man a sharp glance. “You see, we know Mr. Oliver so well—we’ve both been with him a good many years. He’s a model of system, regularity, punctuality, and all the rest of it. In the ordinary course of events, wherever he spent yesterday, he’d have been sure to turn up at his rooms at the ‘Angel’ hotel last night, and he’d have walked in here this morning at half-past twelve. As he hasn’t done either, why, then, something unusual has happened. Stafford, you’d better get a move on.”
“Wait a minute,” said Stafford. He turned again to the groups behind him, repeating his question.
“Has anybody anything to tell?” he asked anxiously. “We’ve just heard that Mr. Oliver left his hotel at Northborough yesterday morning at eleven o’clock, alone, walking. Has anybody any idea of any project, any excursion, that he had in mind?”
An elderly man who had been in conversation with the leading lady stepped forward.
“I was talking to Oliver about the coast scenery between here and Northborough the other day—Friday,” he remarked. “He’d never seen it—I told him I used to know it pretty well once. He said he’d try and see something of it on Sunday—yesterday, you know. And, I say—” here he came closer to the two managers and lowered his voice—"that coast is very wild, lonely, and a good bit dangerous—sharp and precipitous cliffs. Eh?”
Rothwell clapped a hand on Stafford’s arm.
“You’d really better be off to Northborough,” he said with decision. “You’re sure to come across traces of him. Go to the ‘Golden Apple’—then the station. Wire or telephone me—here. Of course, this rehearsal’s off. About this evening—oh, well, a lot may happen before then. But go at once—I believe you can get expresses from here to Northborough pretty often.”
“I’ll go with you—if I may,” said Copplestone suddenly. “I might be of use. There’s that cab still at the door, you know—shall we run up to the station?”
“Good!” assented Stafford. “Yes, come by all means.” He turned to Rothwell for a moment. “If he should turn up here, ‘phone to Waters at the Northborough theatre, won’t you?” he said. “We’ll look in there as soon as we arrive.”
He hurried out with Copplestone and together they drove up to the station, where an express was just leaving for the south. Once on their way to Northborough, Stafford turned to his companion with a grave shake of the head.
“I daresay you don’t quite see the reason of our anxiety,” he observed. “You see, we know Oliver. He’s a trick of wandering about by himself on Sundays—when he gets the chance. Of course when there’s a long journey between two towns, he doesn’t get the chance, and then he’s all right. But when, as in this case, the town of one week is fairly close to the town of the next, he invariably spots some place of interest, an old castle, or a ruined abbey, or some famous house, and goes looking round it. And if he’s been exploring some spot on this coast yesterday, and it’s as that chap Rutherford said, wild and dangerous, why, then—”
“You think he may have had an accident—fallen over the cliffs or something?” suggested Copplestone.
“I don’t like to think anything,” replied Stafford. “But I shall be a good deal relieved if we can get some definite news about him.”
The first half-hour at Northborough yielded nothing definite. A telephone message from Rothwell had just come to the theatre when they drove up to it—nothing had so far been heard of the missing man at Norcaster—either at theatre or hotel. Stafford and Copplestone hurried across to the “Golden Apple” and interviewed its proprietor; he, keenly interested in the affair, could tell no more than that Mr. Bassett Oliver, having sent his luggage forward to Norcaster, had left the house on foot at eleven o’clock the previous morning, and had been seen to walk across the market-place in the direction of the railway station. But an old head-waiter, who had served the famous actor’s breakfast, was able to give some information; Mr. Oliver, he said, had talked a little to him about the coast scenery between Northborough and Norcaster, and had asked him which stretch of it was worth seeing. It was his impression that Mr. Oliver meant to break his journey somewhere along the coast.
“Of course, that’s it,” said Stafford, as he and Copplestone drove off again. “He’s gone to some place between the two towns. But where? Anyhow, nobody’s likely to forget Oliver if they’ve once seen him, and wherever he went, he’d have to take a ticket. Therefore—the booking-office.”
Here at last, was light. One of the clerks in the booking-office came forward at once with news. Mr. Bassett Oliver, whom he knew well enough, having seen him on and off the stage regularly for the past five years, had come there the previous morning, and had taken a first-class single ticket for Scarhaven. He would travel to Scarhaven by the 11.35 train, which arrived at Scarhaven at 12.10. Where was Scarhaven? On the coast, twenty miles off, on the way to Norcaster; you changed for it at Tilmouth Junction. Was there a train leaving soon for Scarhaven? There was—in five minutes.
Stafford and Copplestone presently found themselves travelling back along the main line. A run of twenty minutes brought them to the junction, where, at an adjacent siding they found a sort of train in miniature which ran over a narrow-gauge railway towards the sea. Its course lay through a romantic valley hidden between high heather-clad moorland; they saw nothing of their destination nor of the coast until, coming to a stop in a little station perched high on the side of a hill they emerged to see shore and sea lying far beneath them. With a mutual consent they passed outside the grey walls of the station-yard to take a comprehensive view of the scene.
“Just the place to attract Oliver!” muttered Stafford, as he gazed around him. “He’d revel in it—fairly revel!”
Copplestone gazed at the scene in silence. That was the first time he had ever seen the Northern coast, and the strange glamour and romance of this stretch of it appealed strongly to his artistic senses. He found himself standing high above the landward extremity of a narrow bay or creek, much resembling a Norwegian fiord in its general outlines; it ran in from the sea between high shelving cliffs, the slopes of which were thickly wooded with the hardier varieties of tree and shrub, through which at intervals great, gaunt masses of grey rock cropped out. On the edge of the water at either side of the bay were lines of ancient houses and cottages of grey walls and red roofs, built and grouped with the irregularity of individual liking; on the north side rose the square tower and low nave of a venerable church; amidst a mass of wood on the opposite side stood a great Norman keep, half ruinous, which looked down on a picturesque house at its foot. Quays, primitive and quaint, ran along between the old cottages and the water’s edge; in the bay itself or nestling against the worn timbers of the quays, were small craft whose red sails hung idly against their tall masts and spars. And at the end of the quays and the wooded promontories which terminated the land view, lay the North Sea, cold, grey, and mysterious in the waning October light, and out of its bosom rose, close to the shore, great masses of high grey rocks, strong and fantastic of shape, and further away, almost indistinct in the distance, an island, on the highest point of which the ruins of some old religious house were silhouetted against the horizon.
“Just the place!” repeated Stafford. “He’d have cheerfully travelled a thousand miles to see this. And now—we know he came here—what we next want to know is, what he did when he got here?”
Copplestone, who had been taking in every detail of the scene before him, pointed to a house of many gables and queer chimneys which stood a little way beneath them at the point where the waters of a narrow stream ran into the bay.
“That looks like an inn,” he said. “I think I can make out a sign on the gable-end. Let’s go down there and inquire. He would get here just about time for lunch, wouldn’t he, and he’d probably turn in there. Also—they may have a telephone there, and you can call up the theatre at Norcaster and find out if anything’s been heard yet.”
Stafford smiled approvingly and started out in the direction of the buildings towards which Copplestone had pointed.
“Excellent notion!” he said. “You’re quite a business man—an unusual thing in authors, isn’t it? Come on, then—and that is an inn, too—I can make out the sign now—The ‘Admiral’s Arms’—Mary Wooler. Let’s hope Mary Wooler, who’s presumably the landlady, can give us some useful news!”
The “Admiral’s Arms” proved to be an old-fashioned, capacious hostelry, eminently promising and comfortable in appearance, which stood on the edge of a broad shelf of headland, and commanded a fine view of the little village and the bay. Stafford and Copplestone, turning in at the front door, found themselves in a deep, stone-paved hall, on one side of which, behind a bar window, a pleasant-faced, buxom woman, silk-aproned and smartly-capped, was busily engaged in adding up columns of figures in a big account-book. At sight of strangers she threw open a door and smilingly invited them to walk into a snugly furnished bar-parlour where a bright fire burned in an open hearth. Stafford gave his companion a look—this again was just the sort of old-world place which would appeal to Basset Oliver, supposing he had come across it.
“I wonder if you can give me some information?” he asked presently, when the good-looking landlady had attended to their requests for refreshment. “I suppose you are the landlady—Mrs. Wooler? Well, now, Mrs. Wooler, did you have a tall, handsome, slightly grey-haired gentleman in here to lunch yesterday—say about one o’clock?”
The landlady turned on her questioner with an intelligent smile.
“You mean Mr. Oliver, the actor?” she said.
“Good!” exclaimed Stafford, with a hearty sigh of relief. “I do! You know him, then?”
“I’ve often seen him, both at Northborough and at Norcaster,” replied Mrs. Wooler. “But I never saw him here before yesterday. Oh, yes! of course I knew him as soon as he walked in, and I had a bit of chat with him before he went out, and he remarked that though he’d been coming into these parts for some years, he’d never been to Scarhaven before—usually, he said, he’d gone inland of a Sunday, amongst the hills. Oh, yes, he was here—he had lunch here.”
“We’re seeking him,” said Stafford, going directly to the question. “He ought to have turned up at the ‘Angel Hotel’ at Norcaster last night, and at the theatre today at noon—he did neither. I’m his business manager, Mrs. Wooler. Now can you tell us anything—more than you’ve already told, I mean?”
The landlady, whose face expressed more and more concern as Stafford spoke, shook her head.
“I can’t!” she answered. “I don’t know any more. He was here perhaps an hour or so. Then he went away, saying he was going to have a look round the place. I expected he’d come in again on his way to the station, but he never did. Dear, dear! I hope nothing’s happened to him—such a fine, pleasant man. And—”
“And—what?” asked Stafford.
“These cliffs and rocks are so dangerous,” murmured Mrs. Wooler. “I often say that no stranger ought to go alone here. They aren’t safe, these cliffs.”
Stafford set down his glass and rose.
“I think you’ve got a telephone in your hall,” he said. “I’ll just call up Norcaster and find out if they’ve heard anything. If they haven’t—”
He shook his head and went out, and Copplestone glanced at the landlady.
“You say the cliffs are dangerous,” he said. “Are they particularly so?”
“To people who don’t know them, yes,” she replied. “They ought to be protected, but then, of course, we don’t get many tourists here, and the Scarhaven people know the danger spots well enough. Then again at the end of the south promontory there, beyond the Keep—”
“Is the Keep that high square tower amongst the woods?” asked
“That’s it—it’s all that’s left of the old castle,” answered Mrs. Wooler. “Well, off the point beneath that, there’s a group of rocks—you’d perhaps noticed them as you came down from the station? They’ve various names—there’s the King, the Queen, the Sugar-Loaf, and so on. At low tide you can walk across to them. And of course, some people like to climb them. Now, they’re particularly dangerous! On the Queen rock there’s a great hole called the Devil’s Spout, up which the sea rushes. Everybody wants to look over it, you know, and if a man was there alone, and his foot slipped, and he fell, why—”
Stafford came back, looking more cast down than ever.
“They’ve heard nothing there,” he announced. “Come on—we’ll go down and see if we can hear anything from any of the people. We’ll call in and see you later, Mrs. Wooler, and if you can make any inquiries in the meantime, do. Look here,” he went on, when he and Copplestone had got outside, “you take this south side of the bay, and I’ll take the north. Ask anybody you see—any likely person—fishermen and so on. Then come back here. And if we’ve heard nothing—”
He shook his head significantly, as he turned away, and Copplestone, taking the other direction, felt that the manager’s despondency was influencing himself. A sudden disappearance of this sort was surely not to be explained easily—nothing but exceptional happenings could have kept Bassett Oliver from the scene of his week’s labours. There must have been an accident—it needed little imagination to conjure up its easy occurrence. A too careless step, a too near approach, a loose stone, a sudden giving way of crumbling soil, the shifting of an already detached rock—any of these things might happen, and then—but the thought of what might follow cast a greyer tint over the already cold and grey sea.
He went on amongst the old cottages and fishing huts which lay at the foot of the wooded heights on the tops of whose pines and firs the gaunt ruins of the old Keep seemed to stand sentinel. He made inquiry at open doors and of little groups of men gathered on the quay and by the drawn-up boats—nobody knew anything. According to what they told him, most of these people had been out and about all the previous afternoon; it had been a particularly fine day, that Sunday, and they had all been out of doors, on the quay and the shore, in the sunshine. But nobody had any recollection of the man described, and Copplestone came to the conclusion that Oliver had not chosen that side of the bay. There was, however, one objection to that theory—so far as he could judge, that side was certainly the more attractive. And he himself went on to the end of it—on until he had left quay and village far behind, and had come to a spit of sand which ran out into the sea exactly opposite the group of rocks of which Mrs. Wooler had spoken. There they lay, rising out of the surf like great monsters, a half-mile from where he stood. The tide was out at that time, and between him and them stretched a shining expanse of glittering wet sand. And, coming straight towards him across it, Copplestone saw the slim and graceful figure of a girl.
THE MAN WHO KNEW SOMETHING
It was not from any idle curiosity that Copplestone made up his mind to await the girl’s nearer approach. There was no other human being in view, and he was anxious to get some information about the rocks whose grim outlines were rapidly becoming faint and indistinct in the gathering darkness. And so as the girl came towards him, picking her way across the pools which lay amidst the brown ribs of sand, he went forward, throwing away all formality and reserve in his eagerness.
“Forgive me for speaking so unceremoniously,” he said as they met. “I’m looking for a friend who has disappeared—mysteriously. Can you tell me if, any time yesterday, afternoon or evening, you saw anywhere about here a tall, distinguished-looking man—the actor type. In fact, he is an actor—perhaps you’ve heard of him? Mr. Bassett Oliver.”
He was looking narrowly at the girl as he spoke, and she, too, looked narrowly at him out of a pair of grey eyes of more than ordinary intelligence and perception. And at the famous actor’s name she started a little and a faint colour stole over her cheeks.
“Mr. Bassett Oliver!” she exclaimed in a clear, cultured voice. “My mother and I saw Mr. Oliver at the Northborough Theatre on Friday evening. Do you mean that he—”
“I mean—to put it bluntly—that Bassett Oliver is lost,” answered Copplestone. “He came to this place yesterday, Sunday, morning, to look round; he lunched at the ‘Admiral’s Arms,’ he went out, after a chat with the landlady, and he’s never been seen since. He should have turned up at the ‘Angel’ at Norcaster last night, and at a rehearsal at the Theatre Royal there today at noon—but he didn’t. His manager and I have tracked him here—and so far I can’t hear of him. I’ve asked people all through the village—this side, anyway—nobody knows anything.”
He and the girl still looked attentively at each other; Copplestone, indeed, was quietly inspecting her while he talked. He judged her to be twenty-one or two; she was a little above medium height, slim, graceful, pretty, and he was quick to notice that her entire air and appearance suggested their present surroundings. Her fair hair escaped from a knitted cap such as fisher-folk wear; her slender figure was shown to advantage by a rough blue jersey; her skirt of blue serge was short and practical; she was shod in brogues which showed more acquaintance with sand and salt water than with polish. And her face was tanned with the strong northern winds, and the ungloved hands, small and shapely as they were, were brown as the beach across which she had come.
“I have not seen—nor heard—of Mr. Bassett Oliver—here,” she answered. “I was out and about all yesterday afternoon and evening, too—not on this side of the bay, though. Have you been to the police-station?”
“The manager may have been there,” replied Copplestone. “He’s gone along the other shore. But—I don’t think he’ll get any help there. I’m afraid Mr. Oliver must have met with an accident. I wanted to ask you a question—I saw you coming from the direction of those rocks just now. Could he have got out there across those sands, yesterday afternoon?”
“Between three o’clock and evening—yes,” said the girl.
“And—is it dangerous out there?”
“Very dangerous indeed—to any one who doesn’t know them.”
“There’s something there called the Devil’s Spout?”
“Yes—a deep fissure up which the sea boils. Oh! it seems dreadful to think of—I hope he didn’t fall in there. If he did—”
“Well?” asked Copplestone bluntly, “what if he did?”
“Nothing ever came out that once went in,” she answered. “It’s a sort of whirlpool that’s sucked right away into the sea. The people hereabouts say it’s bottomless.”
Copplestone turned his face towards the village.
“Oh, well,” he said, with an accent of hopelessness. “I can’t do any more down here, it’s growing dusk. I must go back and meet the manager.”
The girl walked along at his side as he turned towards the village.
“I suppose you are one of Mr. Oliver’s company?” she observed presently.
“You must all be much concerned.”
“They’re all greatly concerned,” answered Copplestone. “But I don’t belong to the company. No—I came to Norcaster this morning to meet Mr. Oliver—he’s going—I hope I oughtn’t to say was going!—to produce a play of mine next month, and he wanted to talk about the rehearsals. Everything, of course, was at a standstill when I reached Norcaster at one o’clock, so I came with Stafford, the business manager, to see what we could do about tracking Mr. Oliver. And I’m afraid, I’m very much afraid—”
He paused, as a gate, set in the thick hedge of a garden at this point of the village, suddenly opened to let out a man, who at sight of the girl stopped, hesitated, and then waited for her approach. He was a tall, well-built man of apparently thirty years, dressed in a rough tweed knickerbocker suit, but the dusk had now so much increased that Copplestone could only gather an impression of ordinary good-lookingness from the face that was turned inquiringly on his companion. The girl turned to him and spoke hurriedly.
“This is my cousin, Mr. Greyle, of Scarhaven Keep,” she murmured. “He may be able to help. Marston!” she went on, raising her voice, “can you give any help here? This gentleman—” she paused, looking at Copplestone.
“My name is Richard Copplestone,” he said.
“Mr. Copplestone is looking for Mr. Bassett Oliver, the famous actor,” she continued, as the three met. “Mr. Oliver has mysteriously disappeared. Mr. Copplestone has traced him here, to Scarhaven—he was here yesterday, lunching at the inn—but he can’t get any further news. Did you see anything, or hear anything of him?”
Marston Greyle, who had been inspecting the stranger narrowly in the fading light, shook his head.
“Bassett Oliver, the actor,” he said. “Oh, yes, I saw his name on the bills in Norcaster the other day. Came here, and has disappeared, you say? Under what circumstances?”
Copplestone had listened carefully to the newcomer’s voice; more particularly to his accent. He had already gathered sufficient knowledge of Scarhaven to know that this man was the Squire, the master of the old house and grey ruin in the wood above the cliff; he also happened to know, being something of an archaeologist and well acquainted with family histories, that there had been Greyles of Scarhaven for many hundred years. And he wondered how it was that though this Greyle’s voice was pleasant and cultured enough, its accent was decidedly American.
“Perhaps I’d better explain,” said Copplestone. “I’ve already told most of it to this lady, but you will both understand more fully if I tell you more. It’s this way—” and he went on to tell everything that had happened and come to light since one o’clock that day. “So you see, it’s here,” he concluded; “we’re absolutely certain that Oliver went out of the ‘Admiral’s Arms’ up there about half-past two yesterday, but—where? From that moment, no one seems to have seen him. Yet how he could come along this village street, this quay, without being seen—”
“He need not have come along the quayside,” interrupted the girl. “There is a cliff path just below the inn which leads up to the Keep.”
“Also, he mayn’t have taken this side of the bay, either.” remarked Greyle. “He may have chosen the other. You didn’t see or hear of him on your side, Audrey?”
“Nothing!” replied the girl. “Nothing!”
Marston Greyle had fallen into line with the other two, and they were now walking along the quay in the direction of the “Admiral’s Arms.” And presently Stafford, accompanied by a policeman, came hurriedly round a corner and quickened his steps at sight of Copplestone. The policeman, evidently much puzzled and interested, saluted the Squire obsequiously as the two groups met.
“No news at all!” exclaimed Stafford, glancing at Copplestone’s companions. “You got any?”
“None,” replied Copplestone. “Not a word. This is Mr. Greyle, of the Keep—he has heard nothing. This lady—Miss Greyle?—was out a good deal yesterday afternoon; she knows Oliver quite well by sight, but she did not see him. So if you’ve no news—”
Marston Greyle interrupted, turning to the policeman.
“What ought to be done, Haskett?” he asked. “You’ve had cases of disappearance to deal with before, eh?”
“Can’t say as I have, sir, in my time,” answered the policeman. “Leastways, not of this sort. Of course, we can get search parties together, and one of ‘em can go along the coast north’ards, and the other can go south’ards, and we might have a look round the rocks out yonder, tomorrow, as soon as it’s light. But if the gentleman went out there, and had the bad luck to fall into that Devil’s Spout, why, then, sir, I’m afraid all the searching in the world’ll do no good. And the queer thing is, gentlemen, if I may express an opinion, that nobody ever saw the gentleman after he had left Mrs. Wooler’s! That seems—”
A fisherman came lounging across the quay from the shadow of one of the neighbouring cottages. He touched his cap to Marston Greyle, and looked inquiringly at the two strangers.
“Are you the gentlemen as is asking after another gentleman?” he said. “‘Cause if so, I make no doubt as how I had a word or two with him yesterday afternoon.”
Stafford and Copplestone turned sharply on the newcomer—an elderly man of plain and homely aspect who responded frankly to their questioning glances. He went on at once, before they could put their questions into words.
“It ‘ud be about half-past two, or maybe a bit nearer three o’clock,” he said. “Up yonder it was, about a hundred yards this side of the ‘Admiral’s Arms.’ I was sitting on a baulk o’ timber there, doing nothing, when he comes along—a tall, fine-looking man. He gives me a pleasant sort o’ nod, and said it was a grand day, and we got talking a bit, about the scenery and such-like, and he said he’d never been here before. Then he pointed up to the big house and the old Keep yonder, and asked whose place that might be, and I said that was the Squire’s. ‘And who may the Squire be?’ says he. ‘Mr. Marston Greyle,’ says I, ‘Recent come into the property.’ ‘Marston Greyle!’ he says, sharp-like. ‘Why, I used to know a young man of that very name in America!’ he says. ‘Very like,’ says I, ‘I have heard as how the Squire had been in them parts before he came here.’ ‘Bless me!’ he says, ‘I’ve a good mind to call on him. How do you get up there?’ he says. So I showed him that side path that runs up through the plantation to near the top, and I told him that if he followed that till he came to the Keep, he’d find another path there as would take him to the door of the house. And he gave me a shilling to drink his health, and off he went, the way as I’d pointed out. D’ye think that’ll be the same gentleman, now?”
Nobody answered this question. Everybody there was looking at Marston Greyle. The little group had drawn near to the light of one of the three gas-lamps which feebly illuminated the quay; it seemed to Copplestone that the Squire’s face had paled when the fisherman arrived at the middle of his story. But it flushed as his companion turned to him, and he laughed, a little uneasily.
“Said he knew me—in America?” he exclaimed. “I don’t remember meeting Mr. Bassett Oliver out there. But then I met so many Englishmen in one place or another that I may have been introduced to him somewhere, at some time, and—forgotten all about it.”
Stafford spoke—with unnecessary abruptness, in Copplestone’s opinion.
“I don’t think it very likely that any one would forget Bassett Oliver,” he said. “He isn’t—or wasn’t—the sort of man anybody could forget, once they’d met him. Anyhow—did he come to your house yesterday afternoon as this man suggests?”
Marston Greyle drew himself up. He looked Stafford up and down. Then he made a slight gesture to the girl, whose face had already assumed a troubled expression.
“If I had seen Mr. Bassett Oliver yesterday, sir, we should not be discussing his possible whereabouts now,” said Greyle, icily. “Are you coming, Audrey?”
The girl hesitated, glanced at Copplestone, and then walked away with her cousin. Stafford sniffed contemptuously.
“Ass!” he muttered. “Couldn’t he see that what I meant was that Oliver must either have been mistaken, or have referred to some other Greyle whom he met? Hang his pride! Well, now,” he went on, turning to the fisherman, “you’re dead certain about what you’ve told us?”
“As certain as mortal man can be of aught there is!” answered the informant. “Sure certain, mister.”