The Surprising Experiences of Mr. Shuttlebury Cobb - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The Surprising Experiences of Mr. Shuttlebury Cobb ebook

R. Austin Freeman

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Richard Austin Freeman, the doyen of the scientific division of detective writing is best known for his character Dr. John Thorndyke. A close and careful investigator and the outstanding medical authority in the field of detective fiction, R. Austin Freeman not only tested the wits of the reader but also inspired many modern detective forensic methods. „Shuttlebury Cobb” is a completely different sort of book. In it Freeman demonstrates his sense of humor and whimsy as he follows the strange and always comic adventures of the hero of the title who finds himself caught up by chance in the quest for a mysterious treasure. Charting a series of adventures set in many strange scenarios, Mr. Shuttlebury Cobb is led through the dark and twisted streets of London where he meets a highly gifted stranger, enters secret chambers, and finds a magic mirror. Cobb engages with a secret code and a castaway in a delightful collection designed to while away the hours.

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Contents

CHAPTER ONE. THE GIFTED STRANGER

CHAPTER TWO. THE SECRET CODE AND THE CASTAWAY

CHAPTER THREE. THE SECRET CHAMBER

CHAPTER FOUR. THE RESURRECTIONISTS

CHAPTER FIVE. A MERMAID AND A RED HERRING

CHAPTER SIX. THE MAGIC MIRROR

CHAPTER ONE. THE GIFTED STRANGER

THE humblest of creatures play their useful, and sometimes indispensable, parts in the great scheme of Nature. My introduction to the strange events connected with the Gifted Stranger was effected by a mere railway guard, and a mighty unceremonious one at that. He had blown his ridiculous whistle and waved his absurd flag, the engine had uttered a warning shriek, and the train had actually begun to move, when I raced wildly up the platform at Herne Hill.

“‘Ere, in you get!” shouted the guard, spitting out his whistle and wrenching open a door; and, as I scrambled on the footboard, he applied a vis a tergo that sent me staggering across the compartment and caused the only other occupant hastily to draw up his foot and rub that portion of his boot that corresponds to the corn on the little toe.

“Seem to be in a hurry,” the proprietor of the toe remarked sourly.

“I’m not really,” I replied. “It was the guard. I am sorry I trod on your foot.”

“So am I,” was the acid rejoinder. And the conversation languished.

I put my bag and stick in the rack and spread myself out. It was a first-class compartment, my ticket was a third, and the first stoppage was at Faversham. This was highly gratifying. We all like to get some of our own back from the railway companies.

My companion sat and stared out at the house roofs that floated past the window as if immersed in his own reflections. He was a massively-built man with large feet, a sandy moustache, and a peculiarly foxy type of countenance. Socially I could not place him at all. He did not look like a professional man, or a farmer, or a ship-master, or, for the matter of that, like a first-class passenger. But that was none of my business.

Presently he produced a letter from his pocket, and, holding it nearly at arm’s length, slowly read it through. Now I object strongly to people who read letters under your very nose, for, try as you will, you can’t help an occasional glance, and then you are annoyed with yourself. This was a long letter, written in a bold, legible hand on both sides of the paper and held out in the full light of the window. I tried to look away, but again and again my eyes unconsciously turned towards it and each time I found myself reading a sentence before I recollected myself. What made it worse was that the sentences were so very odd that they tempted me to steal a further glance to see what they meant, and my struggles to resist the temptation were not so successful as I should have wished.

“If it is really true, there is a fortune waiting for somebody.”

I had read this sentence before I had the presence of mind to shut my eyes. And even while I was considering the question, If what was true? behold! my eyes had automatically opened and taken in another sentence.

“Your peculiar gifts and experience ought to help you to solve it.”

I turned my eyes away guiltily, but could not help speculating. What were his peculiar gifts–besides a hypersensitive little toe? And what would they help him to solve? Before I was aware of it, my eyes were back on the paper and had lighted on this astonishing statement:

“It is in the room in which there is an iron pump and a sedan chair.”

Good Heavens! I ejaculated inwardly. What kind of room can it be that contains an iron pump and a sedan chair? And what can the rest of the furniture be like? In my amazement I stared at the letter like a fool, and at that moment I caught the eye of the owner.

It was very embarrassing. Of course I oughtn’t to have looked at the letter, but then he ought not to have held it under my nose. And, in any case, it was rude of him to stare at me as he put the letter away and then to move pointedly to the other end of the compartment. I felt it very much and for some time sat gaping out of the window in great confusion, trying to ignore my fellow passenger.

When, at length, I ventured to glance in his direction, I again caught his eye. But now there was a new expression in it; an expression of interest and lively curiosity. He held a number of official-looking blue papers in his hand, and, when he caught my glance, he hastily gathered them together–so hastily that he dropped one, and before he could snatch it up from the floor, I was able to observe that it had a photograph pasted on it. He seemed unreasonably annoyed about the accident–for it was only a man’s portrait, after all. He rammed the papers into his inside breast pocket, buttoned his coat, stuck his hands deep into his pockets and looked as if he would have liked to stick his feet in, too, and so generally put himself out of sight. For the rest of the journey he sat motionless in his corner, staring out of the window like a cataleptic waxwork, evidently determined to offer no further entertainment.

But he had given me some food for reflection to go on with. There was the room, for instance, which contained a pump, a sedan chair and “It.” What on earth could “It” be? A stuffed elephant, perhaps, or a full-size model of the Victory, or some similar portable trifle. And then my companion’s “peculiar gifts and experience,” what could that mean? Was he a clairvoyant or a crystal-gazer? He didn’t look like one. But there was that photograph, and here my thoughts wandered off into speculative channels, which led nowhere, as I had not his peculiar gifts.

From these wanderings I presently came back to my own affairs. I had been sent down to Canterbury by old Morlett, our senior partner, on business connected with a property called Elham Manor. The rather ruinous old house had been taken by an American gentleman, Mr Jezreel P Damper, for one year on trial, with the understanding that, if he liked it, he should take it on lease. He had already been given possession but had apparently not entered into residence, and my business was to inspect the premises and make local arrangements for the execution of such repairs as I thought necessary, consulting with Mr Damper if he was to be found. When I had done this I was to take a fortnight’s holiday.

At Canterbury West my gifted fellow-traveller alighted and walked slowly towards the barrier. I bustled past him, and, unostentatiously presenting my third-class ticket, hurried out of the station, down the approach into the High Street. Jubilantly I took my way along the venerable thoroughfare towards the massive towers of the West Gate, anxiously considering where I should put up for the night, until my eye lighted on the jovial sign of the Falstaff Inn. Now a real painted sign is in these days a thing to be thankful for, and such a painted sign, too, to say nothing of the fine forged ironwork. I halted to admire the portrait of jolly Sir John, then, on the front of the house, I descried the winged wheel of the CTC, whereupon I dived in through the low doorway and demanded high tea and a night’s lodging.

There is great comfort in an old-fashioned inn with a painted signboard and a landlord who knows what’s what. I sat complacently in the coffee room and watched a minor canon, disguised as a waiter, prepare the table for afternoon service and vanish silently. I sniffed a growing aroma of grilled ham, and when, anon, the canon reappeared, staggering majestically with a Falstaffian tea tray, I drew up to the table, poured myself out a bumper of tea, and decapitated a soft-boiled egg at a single stroke. And at that very moment the coffee-room door opened and in walked my peculiarly gifted fellow-traveller.

He did not appear to notice me, which was uncomfortable. I am not a conspicuous man, but I am quite visible to the naked eye at a distance of seven feet, which was the distance that separated us as he sat at the other end of the table pretending that I didn’t exist. It was not only uncomfortable, it was offensive. Perhaps his toe still rankled in his breast–if I may use the expression–or my inadvertent glance at his letter was still unforgiven. In any case his glum and silent presence at the table destroyed all pleasure in my meal. It was neither solitude nor company. Hurriedly I gobbled up eggs, ham and toast, drained the teapot to the last drop, rose from the table and stalked out of the room.

A couple of minutes later I was once more strolling up the High Street, debating whether I should begin my business at once or wait till the morrow. Entering the city by the West Gate, I paused on the bridge to look down on the quiet river, the flock of resting boats, and the picturesque houses with their thresholds awash, leaning over their unsteady reflections, when, chancing to look back, to my surprise and annoyance I observed the gifted stranger sauntering towards me.

It was very singular. I had left the inn only a few minutes and when I came away he had but just begun his meal. This indecorous haste in feeding further prejudiced me against him, which, together with a dim suspicion that he was following me, made me decide to get clear of him. Starting forward, I strode down a by-street, darted through an archway and along an alley and then traversing a narrow lane once more found myself in the High Street.

A careful look round showed me that the gifted one was not in sight. Probably he had gone down the by-street and missed the archway. I was turning to resume my walk when I perceived straight before me the entrance of the City Museum. Now museums have a fascination for me, especially provincial museums, which are apt to contain antiquities of local interest. The present one, too, offered a sanctuary from my gifted acquaintance, for if he was really following me, he would probably spend the rest of the day scouring the streets in search of me. Accordingly I entered the museum and began to browse round the galleries, of which the first two that I entered were tenanted by a dreary company of stuffed birds. From the ornithological rooms I passed to a picture gallery furnished abundantly with examples of the old masters of the “brown and shiny” school. This was not very thrilling. What was more to the point was a notice on the wall directing visitors to the Coplin Collection of local antiquities. Following the direction of the pointing hand, I started forthwith along a narrow passage that led to a distant annexe, which, to judge by its present condition, was seldom trodden by the foot of man. At the end of the passage I came to a large room, at the threshold of which I halted with a gasp of recognition. For the first thing that met my eye was a sedan chair, and the second, a curious iron pump.

This, then, was the mysterious room. The next question was What was “It?” I ran my eye over the various objects displayed confidingly on tables, unguarded by glass covers. “Leather corset, said to have been worn by Queen Elizabeth,” and extremely contracted in the region of the gizzard. That wasn’t it. “Ivory recorder with silver key.” That wasn’t it. “Wheel-lock musket,” “Child’s Shoe,” “Carved horn drinking-cup,” none of these fitted the implied description. And, at last, I came to the veritable “It.”

No doubt was possible. I identified it at the first glance. Mystery and secrecy exhaled from it like a subtle perfume. Concentrating my attention to a perfect focus, I bent over the table to examine it minutely.

It was a silver mirror, a small piece, of charming design and exquisite workmanship, wrought–mirror and frame together–from a single plate of silver. The few square inches of polished surface were surrounded by a broad, richly ornamented frame, the design of which included an encompassing ribbon which supported an oblong pendant. And here was where the mystery came in. For on ribbon and pendant was engraved, in delightfully picturesque “old face” lettering, the following strange inscription:

A Harp and a Cross and goode redd golde, Beneath ye Cross with ye Harp full nigh, Ankores three atte ye foote of a tree And a Maid from ye Sea on high. Take itt. Tis thine. Others have stepped over.

–Simon Glynn. 1683.

I read through this poetic gem a half a dozen times and was none the wiser then. In sporting parlance, it was a “fair knockout.” I could make nothing of it. At length I turned to the descriptive label for enlightenment–and didn’t get it.

“Small silver mirror, discovered in 1734, concealed in an aumbry in Elham Manor House. This house was built by Simon Glynn, a goldsmith and an official of the mint under the Commonwealth, who lived in it for many years. The aumbry was discovered behind the panelling of the dining room during some repairs. The mirror is believed to be Glynn’s own work and the doggerel verses engraved on the frame are supposed to refer to some hidden treasure, but their exact meaning has never been ascertained. See Boteler’s ‘Manor Houses of Kent’, for an account of Simon Glynn and Elham Manor House.”

Here was news indeed! Elham Manor! I had the keys in my pocket at the very moment! And I had full authority to carry out any structural repairs that I thought necessary! And the cryptogram had never been deciphered!

Now I understood that mysterious sentence in my friend’s letter: “There is a fortune waiting for somebody.” Yes, indeed! Perhaps it was waiting for me. I seemed to understand, too, why the gifted one had dogged me in that singular manner. No doubt his letter had contained some helpful tips and he suspected that I had read them–and I wished I had, now. But he little suspected that I had the run of Elham Manor, and I mustn’t let him if I could help it.

Feverishly I copied into my notebook the inscription and the label. Then I wandered round the room, thinking hard and looking at the exhibits. Should I repair to the adjoining library and look up Boteler, or should I make a beeline for the Manor House? I turned over this question before the pump, the shoe, the pistol and the recorder, but could not make up my mind. I cogitated as I stood in front of the sedan chair, vainly seeking to peer in through the curtained windows. In sheer absence of mind, I tried the fastening, and when, to my surprise, the door came open, revealing the snugly-cushioned interior, I became suddenly possessed by an insane curiosity to feel what the inside of a sedan chair was like. Yielding to the impulse, I backed in and sat down, and then, to complete the sensation, I drew the door to, when it shut with an audible click.

I sat in the semi-darkness turning over my problem. Should I risk the publicity of the reading room or go direct to the Manor House? And what the deuce could Simon Glynn mean by that absurd doggerel? The sedan chair was extremely comfortable, and the dim light that filtered in through the worn curtains was pleasant and conducive to thought. I enjoyed myself amazingly–until my ear caught the sound of approaching footsteps and an unmistakable clerical voice. Then, thinking that it was high time to move, I gave a gentle push at the door.

But the confounded thing wouldn’t budge. I pushed a little harder, but the door only creaked protestingly. It evidently had a snap catch. In short, I was locked in. I was about to try if the front window could be let down when the footsteps entered the room and a sonorous clerical voice arose in wordy exposition. I broke out into a cold perspiration and hardly dared to breathe–especially as the dusty interior was inducing a distinct tendency to sneeze.

“Here is a sedan chair,” the voice expounded, “a vehicle which illustrates–leave that handle alone, James, you are not allowed to touch–which illustrates the primitive modes of locomotion in use among our forefathers. You will observe–”

Here I seized my nose with both hands. My eyes watered. My shoulders heaved. I tried to hold my breath, but it was no go. I felt it coming– coming–and at last it came.

“Ha chow!”

The expounding voice ceased. There was a deathly silence. And then, in stern accents:

“How many more times am I to remind you, Alfred, of the indecorousness of sneezing in public places?”

“Please, sir, it wasn’t me,” piped a small, protesting voice.

“‘It wasn’t me‘! You mean, I presume, ‘It was not I.’ And don’t make your bad manners and bad grammar worse by prevarication. I heard you. Let us move on.”

They moved on. The solemn exposition continued. And then they moved off. As their footsteps retreated, I made a tentative attack on the front window, but hardly had I grasped the webbing strap when my ear caught a faint creak. There was someone in the room, still, a person with one slightly creaky boot. I heard the creak travel slowly round the room, halting at intervals. Then it made a prolonged halt–in the neighbourhood of the mirror, as I judged by the sound. And meanwhile I sat and perspired with anxiety.

Presently the creaking boot moved on again. It travelled more quickly now; and it began to travel in my direction. Slowly, gradually it approached, nearer and nearer it came, until, at last, it was opposite my prison. And there it paused. I held my breath until I was like to burst. How much longer was the idiot going to stand there staring like a fool at an ordinary, commonplace sedan chair?

I was on the very verge of suffocation when something touched the handle. Then it turned slowly; the door opened, and there–yes–my prophetic soul! it was–my highly gifted friend. He looked in at me with sour surprise and hastily closed his note book. But he made no remark. After a prolonged stare he made an attempt to shut the door, but I had the presence of mind to stick my foot out. Then he turned away. I listened to his footsteps retreating down the passage at a slow saunter until they were faint in the distance, when their rhythm suddenly changed to that of a quick walk. He was off somewhere in a great hurry–probably to the library to consult Boteler.

I stepped out of my prison with my mind made up. I would go and make a preliminary inspection of Elham Manor and read up Boteler when I had seen it. Striding briskly down the passage and through the galleries I came out into the street and turned towards the road to Sturry. I knew my way, for I had looked it up on the Ordnance Map. The old house stood on a side road between Sturry and the village of Bouldersby, only a mile or two out of the town.

It was a pleasant summer evening and the sun was still shining brightly as I came out on the country road and took my way blithely past farm and meadow and tree-shaded oast. About a mile and a half from the city I came upon a finger-post inscribed “Bouldersby and Hawkham,” and pointing up a byroad bordered by lofty elms. Taking this direction I walked on for another mile or so until a bend in the road brought me suddenly to what I recognised at once as my destination, a low, red-brick wall abutting on the road and above it the stepped gables and lichen-covered roof of an ancient and highly picturesque house.

I walked along in front of the wall until I reached the iron gates, and here I halted to reconnoitre. For that ridiculous jingle of old Simon Glynn’s rang in my head anew as I looked at the front of the old house. The iron gates were hung from two massive brick pillars, each surmounted by a stone pineapple, and on the front of one pillar was carved in high relief a shield bearing a St George’s cross, while the other bore a relief of a shield with an Irish harp.

Here, then, were the Harp and Cross plain enough, but the other items mentioned in the doggerel were not so obvious. It is true that, between the windows above the porch, was a carved brick niche containing a statue of a young woman, and a very charming little statue it was, evidently the portrait of a young Puritan lady; but whether she came from the sea or the land there was nothing to show. There was, however, a good deal to show what interpretation had been put on the doggerel rhyme, for the flagged path from the gate to the porch seemed to have suffered from a succession of earthquakes. And the excavators had not stopped at the path; the pillar that bore the Cross device was sensibly out of the perpendicular, showing that its very foundations had been rooted up, and the brickwork itself showed numerous patches where treasure-seekers had bored into it. Evidently the gifted one and I were by no means the first explorers in this field.

I had just taken the keys from my pocket, and was selecting the one that belonged to the gate, when the silence was broken by a faint rhythmical sound from the road round the bend. It was the creak of a boot–one boot, not a pair–and as I listened, it seemed to me that I had heard it before. I slipped the keys back into my pocket–for it would be better not to be seen entering the house–and was beginning to saunter up the road, when the creak materialized into my gifted competitor, coming round the bend like a lamplighter. He slowed down suddenly when he saw me, and as I strolled round another turn in the road, I observed that he had stopped and was gazing about him with his back to the house, as if he had not noticed it.

I walked on towards Bouldersby considering the situation. My respected rival was evidently nervous and suspicious of me. He thought I knew a good deal more than I did. And this suggested the question: How much did he know? Apparently that letter had contained some useful information which he suspected me of having extracted. But if it was true that the treasure was still undiscovered, and he had some private information that I had not, perhaps it would be as well to keep an eye on him and see if I could pick up a hint or two from his proceedings.

I had just reached this sage conclusion and was on the point of turning back, when I perceived, a little way ahead, a small roadside inn; a picturesque little house, standing back from the road behind a small green, on which was a signpost bearing the sign of the Royal George. The pleasant aspect of the house led me to approach and reconnoitre when I observed that it had a back wing extending into a garden and that the garden ran down to the river and adjoined an orchard. I approached past the little bay window (in which was a card inscribed with the legend “New-laid Eggs”) and looked in at the door. It was a most primitive inn. A couple of barrels on stands and a row of mugs on a shelf formed its entire outfit, and the only persons visible were an old woman, who sat sewing busily in a Wycombe armchair, and a corpulent tabby cat.

The homely comfort of the place, the quiet and the proximity of the river, offered an agreeable suggestion. As the old lady looked up and smiled a greeting, I advanced and ventured to enquire:

“Do you happen to have any accommodation for a lodger?”

Mine hostess nodded and smiled as she replied: “Yes, they’re all new-laid. I keeps my own fowls and feeds ‘em myself.”

This seemed irrelevant. Raising my voice considerably, I asked:

“Could you put me up here for a week or so?”

“Oh, apples!” she answered doubtfully. “No, they’re hardly ripe yet. It’s a bit early, you see.”

The reply was a little disconcerting. But its dogged as does it. I tried again. With an ear-splitting yell that was like to have swept the mugs off the shelf, I repeated my question–and was asked in return whether I would have mild or bitter?

It seemed hopeless. But I liked the look of the place. It was scrupulously clean and well kept; and the rustic quiet, the pleasant garden and the river flowing past, urged me to new efforts. I scribbled my question on a scrap of paper which I handed to the old lady; but observing that this seemed to give offence, I hastily added a line explaining that I was suffering from a sore throat and had lost my voice. This completely appeased her and she allowed me to continue the negotiations on paper, of which the upshot was that, if I was content to “live plain and not expect too much waiting on,” I could have the small bedroom overlooking the garden and move in tomorrow evening.

I walked back towards Elham Manor in high spirits. I had secured pleasant country lodgings and a convenient base from which to carry out the repairs and explorations on the old house and keep a watch on my rival. That was a good start, and now I would make a preliminary inspection of the house–if I could do so unobserved–and then look up Boteler’s history.

When I came in sight of the Manor House, my rival was nowhere to be seen. But I approached warily in case he had climbed over into the grounds to begin his explorations, and I had a good look round before inserting my key into the gate. As I turned the key, I noted the excellent condition of the lock–which seemed to have been recently oiled–and the same thing struck me when I unlocked and opened the front door. Apparently our tenant, Mr Damper, had begun his restorations with an oil can.

I walked with echoing footsteps through the hall and into the empty rooms, wondering dimly how I should communicate with Mr Damper, but thinking more of Simon Glynn and his hidden treasure. The fine old house was falling slowly but surely into decay. Such repairs as would make it really habitable would leave no corner of it undisturbed and must surely bring to light the secret hiding place if it really existed. Thus reflecting, I wandered from room to room, noting the dilapidations and speculating as to the whereabouts of the treasure, until I came to a chamber at the end of the building which was at a slightly lower level. Descending the short flight of stairs, I tried the massive door, and, finding it locked, produced the bunch of labelled keys. As I inserted the first key, I thought I detected a faint sound of movement from within, and the unpleasant idea of rats suggested itself, but I worked away until I found a key–labelled “Butler’s Pantry”–that turned in the lock. The heavy door swung open with a loud creak, and I entered the room, which was in almost total darkness, the only source of light being a few chinks in the shutters.

Dark as it was, however, there was light enough for me to see a very strange and unexpected object, to wit, a small but massive chest which stood on the bumpy oaken floor near to one window. I drew near to examine it, and then found that it was fastened only by a bolt, though it was clearly intended to be secured with a padlock. In mere idle curiosity, I drew back the bolt and raised the lid, and then I got a mighty surprise. For even in that dim light it was easy to see that the contents were of no ordinary value. Rings, pendants, bracelets, brooches, glittered and sparkled in the dim light; gold chains were heaped together like samples of cable in a ship-chandler’s, and the interstices of the pile were filled in with a litter of unmounted stones.

I was positively staggered. What made it still more astonishing was that this was obviously not Simon Glynn’s treasure. The chest was a new one and the jewels were not only fresh and bright but were manifestly modern in character. That I could see at a glance. But what this treasure was, how it came here, and to whom it belonged, were questions to which I could suggest no answer.

I knelt down by the chest and began to turn over the articles one by one. I am no great judge of jewellery, but it was evident that some of these things were of very great value. Here was a pendant, for instance, of which the central diamond was half an inch in diameter. That alone must be worth some hundreds of pounds. I picked it up to look at it more closely–and at that instant both my wrists were seized in a vice-like grip. I dropped the pendant and, uttering a yell of surprise, began to struggle to free myself. But the grip only tightened; gradually my hands were forced together on my chest; something cold touched my wrists; there was a metallic click, and, glancing down, my astonished gaze lighted on a pair of handcuffs.

“Now, it’s no use kicking up a dust,” said a voice close to my ear. “I’ve got the cuffs on you, so you’d better come along quiet.”

I twisted my head round to get a view of the speaker, and succeeded in catching a glimpse of half a face. But that was enough. It was–my prophetic soul again–the gifted investigator. And one of his peculiar gifts I was now able to sample–a most uncommon degree of muscular strength.

“I’ve got you, you know,” he resumed unpleasantly. “You can’t get away, so you’d better chuck up the sponge and come quietly.”

This was all very well, but I am not a naturally submissive person. I made no comment, but, straightening myself suddenly like a mechanical jumping frog, I capsized him backwards and began to make play with my legs. It was an undignified affair, I must admit. We rolled over and over on the floor; we pummelled and prodded one another ambiguously and without purpose, and once I cut short an eloquent remonstrance by planting my knee in the middle of his abdomen. But the odds were against me, and the end of it was that I reclined on my back with his knee on my chest and listened to the terms of surrender.

But now a most astonishing thing befell. Even as he leaned over me and expounded the folly of my conduct, I was aware of a dim shape behind him, noiselessly approaching. A face–a foreign-looking face, with a waxed moustache and fiercely-cocked eyebrows–appeared over his shoulder and slowly drew nearer and nearer. I gazed with fascination, and the words of wisdom trickled unheeded into my ears; and still the face drew nearer. Then came a sudden movement, a shout of surprise from the gifted one, another shout, and a sound of sixteen heavy portmanteaux falling down a steep flight of stairs.

Released from the weight of my assailant, I sat up and watched events. My eyes, accustomed by now to the dim light, took in a heap of squirming humanity from which issued a stream of breathless objurgation. I counted six legs–all in violent movement–and reasonably assumed the existence of three individuals. One pair of legs, incomparably the most active, I identified speculatively, by the stockinged feet, as those of my late assailant, for he must have removed his creaky boots to have approached me so silently, which now placed him at a disadvantage, as the other two warriors wore their boots–and used them.

Presently, from the writhing mass, a man partially detached himself and began to angle for the wildly-kicking feet with a loop of cord. For some time he was unsuccessful and the feet had the best of it– unless his head was unusually hard–but at last the loop slipped over the ankles and was drawn tight; on which the gifted one made appropriate comments in terms unsuitable for verbatim report and ending in a muffled snort. The loop having been secured by one or two round turns and a knot, the two strangers rose, breathing heavily and rubbing certain apparently painful spots on their persons. Meanwhile, my late adversary lay motionless and silent, his legs lashed together and his wrists secured by handcuffs; and now I understood that curious snort that had cut short the flow of his eloquence, for I observed that my rescuers had tied a gag over his mouth.

I ventured, at this juncture, to draw attention to my own condition. But it was unnecessary. The two strangers approached me, still rubbing themselves. I held out my manacled hands to have the gyves unlocked, when, to my astonishment, one of the foreign rascals pushed me down and sat on my stomach while the other took a few turns with a cord round my ankles. I protested vigorously.

“Here! I say! You’re making a mist–” I didn’t get any further, for one of the foreign brutes dabbed something into my mouth and tied it there with a string behind my neck. Then he issued a command to the other miscreant in some ridiculous jargon which I suppose served them in place of a language, and the other villain hurried out of the room. He returned in less than a minute and made some report in his wretched substitute for speech, and the two wretches then picked up my unfortunate and gifted acquaintance and carried him away.

I lay on the floor reflecting, with profound misgivings, on my alarming situation. Evidently I and my rival had unwittingly discovered the hiding place of a gang of thieves, and those scoundrels were going to put us out of the way of doing them any mischief. That was clear. But what was our destination? Were they going to drop us in the river? Or would they convey us to some cellar or vault and knock us on the head? Either possibility was equally likely and equally unpleasant.

My meditations were cut short by the reappearance of the two miscreants, who, without a word, picked me up by my arms and ankles and marched away with me. Up the stairs, into the hall and out through this on to the flagged path, we went, like a somewhat hurried and premature rustic funeral; and we were just approaching the front gates when another very singular thing happened. I was being borne head first, while my captors marched facing forward, and I was thus able to command a view of the rear. Now, as we approached the gate, chancing to turn my eyes towards the flanking wall that separated the garden from the orchard, to my unutterable surprise I saw three heads slowly rise from behind it. Each head was, naturally, furnished with a face, and each face was adorned with one of the very broadest grins that I have ever seen. It was really a most astonishing affair.

Outside the gates a closed fly was drawn up, otherwise not a creature was in sight. The door was opened by the driver and I was bundled in and deposited on the back seat, the other half of which was occupied by my gifted friend, whose boots had been considerately placed on his knees. The two ruffians entered and shut the door, the driver mounted to his seat, and away we went at a smart trot.

I was relieved to note that we were not being driven towards the river, and was rather surprised to find that our route lay towards the town. But it was not merely towards the town; it soon became evident that the town itself was our objective. The audacity of these villains was positively staggering! Heedless of the risk of detection, these miscreants bore us, manacled, bound and gagged, not merely through the outlying suburbs, but into the very city. Jostling cabs, carts, vans and carriages, past the teeming footways and busy shops, we passed unblushingly into the High Street itself, and then, turning down a well-frequented side street, came at length to a halt. I directed my astonished eyes out of the near window, hardly able to believe in such brazen audacity; and the first object they encountered was a blue glass lamp bearing the inscription “Police Station.”

The driver sprang down and opened the door, the two “foreign devils” hooked me out of the seat and carried me swiftly in through the open doorway to a large office, where they deposited me on the floor and hurried away without a word. A police inspector and a sergeant looked in amazement from me to the departing ruffians and then looked at one another.

“Rum go, this,” said the inspector, with another doubtful glance at me. “I hope it’s all right, but they’d no authority to make arrests.”

Here the two ruffians returned, bearing my unfortunate companion, at the sight of whom the inspector’s face assumed a distinctly careworn expression.

“I seem to know this man,” he said in a low voice. Then, addressing our captors, he asked: “Who are these two prisoners?”

“Zey are two of ze gang,” the senior ruffian replied carelessly; “I do not know vich two. I find zem quarrelling about ze booty. I catch zem. Zey are here. Enough,” and he began superciliously to roll a cigarette.

“Take off the gags, sergeant,” said the inspector, and as he spoke he, himself, untied mine and pulled me up into a sitting position, while the sergeant did the same for my fellow-sufferer.

“Now,” said the inspector, addressing the latter, “what’s your name?”

“My name, sir,” replied the gifted one with as majestic an air as is possible to a man who is seated on the floor with his feet tied together, “is Burbler, Detective-Sergeant Burbler of the Criminal Investigation Department.”

“Hanged if I didn’t think so,” murmured the inspector. “Take off the cuffs, sergeant, and untie his feet. You’ve made a mistake, gentlemen. You’ve arrested one of our officers.”

“I sink not,” the foreign person replied haughtily. “Zat man is a criminal. Look at ‘is face. I haf experience;” and he calmly lighted his cigarette.

“You’ll have some more experience when I get these handcuffs off,” said Burbler; but here the inspector interposed, forbidding violence and demanding explanations.

“How did this affair happen?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you,” Burbler replied, savagely. “I was sent down here to look out for this Chicago-St Petersburg gang. From information received I was going to Elham Manor where I expected to find traces of them, when I met this man Polopsky” (here he actually pointed to me!). “I recognised him at once from his photograph–I’ve got it here,” and he pulled out from his pocket the photograph which I had seen in the train, and showed it to the inspector, who examined it closely, and, having remarked that it “seemed rather a poor likeness,” returned it. “Well,” pursued Burbler, “I followed him and saw him hanging about Elham Manor, and, when he saw me and sneaked away, I got into the house by a back window and waited. Presently he came back and let himself in with a key and went to a locked room and entered that with another key. I followed him in and caught him with a lot of the stolen property in his possession, a whole trunk-load of it.”

“Where is the stolen property now?” the inspector asked.

“I suppose it’s in the house still,” replied Burbler, and he continued furiously: “Well, I had just overpowered Polopsky and got the cuffs on him, and was about to secure the property, when these two blithering lunatics rushed in, and–well, you see what happened. I’m going to prosecute them for assault and unlawful arrest.”

“Better not,” said the inspector. “Russian Secret Police, you know. Exceeded their powers, of course, but better not make a fuss. You are going to charge Polopsky, I suppose?”

Burbler grunted assent, and turning to me said:

“Louis Polopsky, I arrest you on the charge of burglary and forgery, and I caution you that anything you may say will be used in evidence against you. Do you want to make any statement?”

“I should like to remark,” I replied, “that my name is not Polopsky; and that, if any damage is done to the premises of Elham Manor through your coming away and leaving the door and gates unlocked, I shall hold you responsible.”

The inspector looked at me suspiciously and asked: “What do you say your name is?”

“My name,” I replied, “is Shuttlebury Cobb, of the Firm of Morlett and Griller, solicitors to the landlord of Elham Manor, and I am, at present, in charge of the property.”

I handed the inspector some papers and a draft agreement that I had in my pocket, together with a bunch of labelled keys; and while he looked them over, the rather chap-fallen detective put on his boots.

“It seems to me,” I continued, “that you have all been making rather free with our premises. May I ask if those other three men were some of your people?”

“What other three men?” the inspector asked in a rather startled tone.

“The men who were watching us as we left the house.”

“What men?” demanded the inspector, the two foreign devils and Sergeant Burbler in a frantic chorus.

“The men who were in the orchard, watching us over the wall.”

Burbler sprang to his feet, with one boot unlaced. For one moment the four officers and the station sergeant stared at me in silence; for another moment they stared at one another; then, with one accord, they made a rush for the door.

I followed them out. The fly was still waiting at the kerb, and the five men were endeavouring to enter it simultaneously by the same doorway. I watched their frantic struggles. I saw them finally pack themselves in; and, when the inspector had snorted out the destination, I saw the fly drive off. Then I slowly wended my way back to the Falstaff and bespoke a substantial dinner.

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