THE BLACK BOX
ON THE RACK
For the moment a new element had been introduced into the horror of the little tableau. All eyes were fixed upon Quest, who had listened to the Inspector’s dubious words with a supercilious smile upon his lips.
“Perhaps,” he suggested, “you would like to ask me a few questions?”
“Perhaps I may feel it my duty to do so,” the Inspector replied gravely. “In the first place, then, Mr. Quest, will you kindly explain the condition of your clothes?”
Quest looked down at himself quickly. More than ever he realised the significance of his dishevelled appearance.
“I travelled from number ten tower, just outside New York, on top of a freight car,” he said grimly. “It wasn’t a very comfortable ride.”
“Perhaps you will explain what made you take it, then?” the Inspector continued.
Quest shrugged his shoulders.
“Here you are, then,” he replied. “This morning I decided to make an attempt to clear up the mystery of Macdougal’s disappearance. I sent on my secretary, Miss Laura, to make friends with the section boss, and Lenora and I went out by automobile a little later. We instituted a search on a new principle, and before very long we found Macdougal’s body. That’s one up against you, I think, Inspector.”
“Very likely,” the Inspector observed. “Go on, please.”
“I left the two young ladies, at Miss Lenora’s wish, to superintend the removal of the body. I myself had an engagement to deliver over her jewels to Mrs. Rheinholdt here at mid-day. I returned to where my automobile was waiting, started for the city and was attacked by two thugs near the section house. I got away from them, ran to the tower house to try and stop the freight, was followed by the thugs, and jumped out on to the last car from the signal arm.”
There was a dead silence. Quest began quietly to dust his clothes. The Inspector stopped him.
“Don’t do that,” he said.
Quest paused in his task and laid down the brush.
“Any more questions?”
“Where is your automobile?”
“No idea,” Quest replied. “I left it in the road. When I jumped from the freight car, I took a taxicab to the Professor’s and called for him, as arranged.”
“That is perfectly true,” the Professor intervened. “Mr. Quest called for us, as arranged previously, at ten minutes to twelve.”
The inspector nodded.
“I shall have to ask you to excuse me for a moment,” he said, “while I ring up Number 10 signal tower. If Mr. Quest’s story receives corroboration, the matter is at an end. Where shall I find a telephone?”
“In every room in the house,” Quest answered shortly. “There is one outside in the passage.”
The Inspector left the room almost immediately. The Professor crossed to Quest’s side. A kindly smile parted his lips.
“My dear Mr. Quest,” he exclaimed, “our friend the Inspector’s head has been turned a little, beyond doubt, by these horrible happenings! Permit me to assure you, for one, that I look upon his insinuations as absurd.”
“The man has gone off his head!” Laura declared angrily.
“It will be all right directly he comes back,” Lenora whispered, laying her hand upon Quest’s arm.
“If only some one would give me my jewels and let me go!” Mrs. Rheinholdt moaned.
The door opened and the Inspector reappeared. He was looking graver than ever.
“Quest,” he announced, “your alibi is useless—in fact a little worse than useless. The operator at Number 10 has been found murdered at the back of his tower!”
“I ought not to have left him to those thugs,” he murmured regretfully.
“There is no automobile of yours in the vicinity,” the Inspector continued, “nor any news of it. I think it will be as well now, Quest, for this matter to take its obvious course. Will you, first of all, hand over her jewels to Mrs. Rheinholdt?”
Quest drew the keys of the safe from his pocket, crossed the room and swung open the safe door. For a moment afterwards he stood transfixed. His arm, half outstretched, remained motionless. Then he turned slowly around.
“The jewels have been stolen,” he announced with unnatural calm.
Mrs. Rheinholdt pushed her way forward, wringing her hands.
“Stolen again?” she said. “Mr. Quest! Inspector!”
“They were there,” Quest declared, “when I left the house this morning. It seems probable,” he added, “that the same person who is responsible for this double tragedy has also taken the jewels.”
The Inspector laid his hand heavily upon Quest’s shoulder.
“It does seem as though that might be so,” he assented grimly. “You will kindly consider yourself under arrest, Quest. Ladies and gentlemen, will you clear the room now, if you please? The ambulance I telephoned for is outside.”
The Professor, who had been looking on as though dazed, suddenly intervened.
“Mr. French,” he said earnestly, “I am convinced that you are making a great mistake. In arresting and taking away Mr. Quest, you are removing from us the one man who is likely to be able to clear up this mystery.”
The Inspector pushed him gently on one side.
“You will excuse me, Professor,” he said, “but this is no matter for argument. If Mr. Quest can clear himself, no one will be more glad than I.”
Quest shrugged his shoulders.
“The Inspector will have his little joke,” he observed drily. “It’s all right, girls. Keep cool,” he went on, as he saw the tears in Lenora’s eyes. “Come round and see me in the Tombs, one of you.”
“If I can be of any assistance,” the Professor exclaimed, “I trust that you will not fail to call upon me, Mr. Quest. I repeat, Inspector,” he added, “I am convinced that you are making a very grave mistake. Mrs. Rheinholdt, you must let me take you home.”
She gave him her arm.
“My jewels!” she sobbed. “Just as they had been recovered, too!”
“My dear lady,” the Professor reminded her, with a faint air of reproach in his tone, “I think we must remember that we are in the presence of a graver tragedy than the loss of a few jewels.”…
The ambulance men came and departed with their grim burden, the room on the ground floor was locked and sealed, and the house was soon empty except for the two girls. Towards three o’clock, Lenora went out and returned with a newspaper. She opened it out upon the table and they both pored over it.—
“He’s a guy, that Justice Thorpe, and so’s the idiot who wrote this stuff!” Laura exclaimed, thrusting the paper away from her. “I guess the Professor was dead right when he told French he was locking up the one man who could clear up the whole show.”
Lenora nodded thoughtfully.
“The Professor spoke up like a man,” she agreed, “but, Laura, I want to ask you something. Did you notice his servant—that man Craig?”
“Can’t say I did particularly,” Laura admitted.
“Twice,” Lenora continued, “I thought he was going to faint. I tell you he was scared the whole of the time.”
“What are you getting at, kid?” Laura demanded.
“At Craig, if I can,” Lenora replied, moving towards the telephone. “Please give me the phototelesme. I am going to talk to the Professor.”
Laura adjusted the mirror to the instrument and Lenora rang up. The Professor himself answered the call.
“Have you seen the three o’clock edition, Professor?” Lenora asked.
“I never read newspapers, young lady,” the Professor replied.
“Let me tell you what they say about Mr. Quest!”
Lenora commenced a rambling account of what she had read in the newspaper. All the time the eyes of the two girls were fixed upon the mirror. They could see the Professor seated in his chair with two huge volumes by his side, a pile of manuscript, and a pen in his hand. They could even catch the look of sympathy on his face as he listened attentively. Suddenly Lenora almost broke off. She gripped Laura by the arm. The door of the study had been opened slowly, and Craig, carrying a bundle, paused for a moment on the threshold. He glanced nervously towards the Professor, who seemed unaware of his entrance. Then he moved stealthily towards the fireplace, stooped down and committed something to the flames. The relief on his face, as he stood up, was obvious.
“All I can do for Mr. Quest, young lady, I will,” the Professor promised. “If you will forgive my saying so, you are a little over-excited just now. Take my advice and rest for a short time. Call round and see me whenever you wish.”
He laid the receiver down and the reflection on the mirror faded away. Lenora started up and hastily put on her coat and hat, which were still lying on the chair.
“I am going right down to the Professor’s,” she announced.
“What do you think you can do there?” Laura asked.
“I am going to see if I can find out what that man burnt,” she replied. “I will be back in an hour.”
Laura walked with her as far as the street car, and very soon afterwards Lenora found herself knocking at the Professor’s front door. Craig admitted her almost at once. For a moment he seemed to shiver as he recognised her. The weakness, however, was only momentary. He showed her into the study with grave deference. The Professor was still immersed in his work. He greeted her kindly, and with a little sigh laid down his pen.
“Well, young lady,” he said, “have you thought of something I can do?”
She took no notice of the chair to which he pointed, and rested her hand upon his shoulder.
“Professor,” she begged, “go and see Mr. Quest! He is in the Tombs prison. It would be the kindest thing any one could possibly do.”
The Professor glanced regretfully at his manuscript, but he did not hesitate. He rose promptly to his feet.
“If you think he would appreciate it, I will go at once,” he decided.
Her face shone with gratitude.
“That is really very kind of you, Professor,” she declared.
“I will send for my coat and we will go together, if you like,” he suggested.
“I am going the other way, back to Georgia Square,” she explained. “No, please don’t ring. I can find my own way out.”
She hurried from the room. Outside in the hall she paused, for a moment, listening with beating heart. By the side wall was a hat rack with branching pegs, from which several coats were hanging. She slipped quietly behind their shelter. Presently the Professor came out of the room.
“My coat, please, Craig,” she heard him say.
Her heart sank. Craig was coming in her direction. Her discovery seemed certain. Then, as his hand was half stretched out to remove one of the garments, she heard the Professor’s voice.
“I think that I shall walk, Craig. I have been so much upset to-day that the exercise will do me good. I will have the light coat from my bedroom.”
For a moment the shock of relief was so great that she almost lost consciousness. A moment or two later she heard the Professor leave the house. Very cautiously she stole out from her hiding place. The hall was empty. She crossed it with noiseless footsteps, slipped into the study and moved stealthily to the fireplace. There was a little heap of ashes in one distinct spot. She gathered them up in her handkerchief and secreted it in her dress. Then she moved hurriedly towards the door and stepped quietly behind the curtain. She stood there listening intently. Craig was doing something in the hall. Even while she was hesitating, the door was opened. He came in and moved towards his master’s table. Through a chink in the curtain she could see that he was stooping down, collecting some letters. She stole out, ran down the hall, opened the front door and hastened down the avenue. Her heart was beating quickly. The front door handle had slipped from her fingers, and it seemed to her that she could hear even now the slam with which it had swung to. At the gates she looked back. There were no signs of life. The house still bore its customary appearance, gloomy and deserted. With a sigh of relief, she hailed a taxicab and sank back into the corner.
She found Laura waiting for her, and a few minutes afterwards the two girls were examining the ashes with the aid of Quest’s microscope. Among the little pile was one fragment at the sight of which they both exclaimed. It was distinctly a shred of charred muslin embroidery. Lenora pointed towards it triumphantly.
“Isn’t that evidence?” she demanded. “Let’s ring up Inspector French!”
Laura shook her head doubtfully.
“Not so fast,” she advised. “French is a good sort in his way, but he’s prejudiced just now against the boss. I’m not sure that this evidence would go far by itself.”
“It’s evidence enough for us to go for Craig, though! What we have got to do is to get a confession out of him, somehow!”
Laura studied her companion, for a moment, curiously.
“Taking some interest in Mr. Quest, kid, ain’t you?”
Lenora looked up. Then her head suddenly sank into her hands. She knew quite well that her secret had escaped her. Laura patted her shoulder.
“That’s all right, child,” she said soothingly. “We’ll see him through this, somehow or other.”
“You don’t mind?” Lenora faltered, without raising her eyes.
“Not I,” she replied promptly. “I’m not looking for trouble of that sort.”
Lenora raised her head. There was an immense relief in her face.
“I am so glad,” she said. “I was afraid sometimes—living here with him, you know—”
Laura interrupted her with an easy laugh.
“You don’t need to worry,” she assured her.
Lenora rose to her feet. She was quite herself again. There was a new look of determination in her face.
“Laura,” she exclaimed, “we will save Mr. Quest and we will get hold of Craig! I have a plan. Listen.”
Craig’s surprise was real enough as he opened the back door of the Professor’s house on the following morning and found Lenora standing on the threshold.
“I am very sorry, Miss Lenora,” he apologised. “The front door bell must be out of order. I certainly didn’t hear it ring. Mr. Ashleigh is in his study, if you wish to see him.”
Lenora smiled pleasantly.
“To tell you the truth,” she said, “I really do not want to see him,—at least, not just yet. I came to this door because I wanted a little talk with you.”
Craig’s attitude was perfect. He was mystified, but he remained respectful.
“Will you come inside?” he invited.
She shook her head.
“I am afraid,” she confided, “of what I am going to say being overheard. Come with me down to the garage for a moment.”
She pointed to the wooden building which stood about fifty yards away from the house. Craig hesitated.
“If you wish it, miss,” he assented doubtfully. “I will get the keys.”
He disappeared for a moment and came out again almost immediately afterwards with a bunch of keys in his hand. He seemed a little disturbed.
“I am doing as you wish, Miss Lenora,” he said, “but there is nobody about here likely to overhear, and I have no secrets from my master.”
“Perhaps not,” Lenora replied, “but I have. The Professor is a dear,” she added hastily, “but he is too wrapped up in his scientific work to be able to see things like men of ordinary common-sense.”
“That is quite true,” Craig admitted. “Mr. Ashleigh has only one idea in his life…. This way, then, if you please, miss.”
He opened the door of the garage, leaving the keys in the lock, and they both passed inside. The place was gloomy and lit only by a single narrow window near the roof. The only vehicle it contained was the Professor’s little car.
“You can say what you please here without the slightest fear of being overheard, miss,” Craig remarked.
Lenora nodded, and breathed a prayer to herself. She was nearer the door than Craig by about half-a-dozen paces. Her hand groped in the little bag she was carrying and gripped something hard. She clenched her teeth for a moment. Then the automatic pistol flashed out through the gloom.
“Craig,” she threatened, “if you move I shall shoot you.”
It seemed as though the man were a coward. He began to tremble, his lips twitched, his eyes grew larger and rounder.
“What is it?” he faltered. “What do you want?”
“Just this,” Lenora said firmly. “I suspect you to be guilty of the crime for which Sanford Quest is in prison. I am going to have you questioned. If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear. If you are guilty, there will be some one here before long who will extract the truth from you.”
The man’s face was an epitome of terror. Even his knees shook. Lenora felt herself grow calmer with every moment.
“I am going outside to send a message,” she told him. “I shall return presently.”
“Don’t go,” he begged suddenly. “Don’t leave me!”
She turned around.
He drew a step nearer. Once more the few inches of blue steel flashed out between them.
“None of your games,” she warned him. “I am in earnest, and I am not afraid to shoot.”
“I won’t come any nearer,” he promised, “but listen! I am innocent—I have done nothing wrong. If you keep me here, you will do more harm than you can dream of.”
“It is for other people to decide about your innocence,” Lenora said calmly. “I have nothing to do with that. If you are wise, you will stop here quietly.”
“Have you said anything to Mr. Ashleigh, miss?” the man asked piteously.
“Not a word.”
An expression of relief shone for a moment upon his face. Lenora pointed to a stool.
“Sit down there and wait quietly,” she ordered.
He obeyed without a word. She left the place, locked the door securely, and made her way round to the other side of the garage—the side hidden from the house. Here, at the far corner, she drew a little pocket wireless from her bag and set it on the window-sill. Very slowly she sent her message,—
There was no reply. She sent the message again and again. Suddenly, during a pause, there was a little flash upon the plate. A message was coming to her. She transcribed it with beating heart:
The guard swung open the wicket in front of Quest’s cell.
“Young woman to see you, Quest,” he announced. “Ten minutes, and no loud talking, please.”
Quest moved to the bars. It was Laura who stood there. She wasted very little time in preliminaries. Having satisfied herself that the guard was out of hearing, she leaned as close as she could to Quest.
“Look here,” she said, “Lenora’s crazy with the idea that Craig has done these jobs—Craig, the Professor’s servant, you know. We used the phototelesme yesterday afternoon and saw him burn something in the Professor’s study. Lenora went up straight away and got hold of the ashes.”
“Smart girl,” Quest murmured, nodding approvingly. “Well?”
“There are distinct fragments,” Laura continued, “of embroidered stuff such as the Salvation Army girl might have been wearing. We put them on one side, but they aren’t enough evidence. Lenora’s idea is that you should try and get hold of Craig and hypnotise him into a confession.”
“That’s all right,” Quest replied, “but how am I to get hold of him?”
Laura glanced once more carelessly around to where the guard stood.
“Lenora’s gone up to the Professor’s again this afternoon. She is going to try and get hold of Craig and lock him in the garage. If she succeeds, she will send a message by wireless at three o’clock. It is half-past two now.”
“Well?” Quest exclaimed. “Well?”
“You can work this guard, if you want to,” Laura went on. “I have seen you tackle much worse cases. He seems dead easy. Then let me in the cell, take my clothes and leave me here. You did it before when you were trying to hunt down those men in Chicago, and not a soul recognised you.”
Quest followed the scheme in his mind quickly.
“It is all right,” he decided, “but I am not at all sure that they can really hold me on the evidence they have got. If they can’t, I shall be doing myself more harm than good this way.”
“It’s no use unless you can get hold of Craig quickly,” Laura said. “He is getting the scares, as it is.”
“I’ll do it,” Quest decided. “Call the guard, Laura.”
She obeyed. The man came good-naturedly towards them.
“Well, young people, not quarrelling, I hope?” he remarked.
Quest looked at him steadfastly through the bars.
“I want you to come inside for a moment,” he said.
“What for?” the man demanded.
“I want you to come inside for a moment,” Quest repeated softly. “Unlock the door, please, take the key off your bunch and come inside.”
The man hesitated, but all the time his fingers were fumbling with the keys. Quest’s lips continued to move. The warder opened the door and entered. A few minutes later, Quest passed the key through the window to Laura, who was standing on guard.
“Come in,” he whispered. “Don’t step over him. He is sitting with his back to the wall, just inside.”
Laura obeyed, and entered the cell. For a moment they were breathless with alarm. A passing warder looked down their avenue. Eventually, however, he turned in the other direction.
“Off with your coat and skirt like lightning, Laura,” Quest ordered. “This has got to be done quickly or not at all.”
Without a word, and with marvellous rapidity, the change was effected. Laura produced from her hand-bag a wig, which she pinned inside her hat and passed over to Quest. Then she flung herself on to the bed and drew the blanket up to her chin.
“How long will he stay like that?” she whispered, pointing to the warder, who was sitting on the floor with his arms folded and his eyes closed.
“Half an hour or so,” Quest answered. “Don’t bother about him. I shall drop the key back through the window.”
A moment or two later, Quest walked deliberately down the corridor of the prison, crossed the pavement and stepped into a taxicab. He reached Georgia Square at five minutes to three. A glance up and down assured him that the house was unwatched. He let himself in with his own key and laughed softly as he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. The house was strangely quiet and deserted, but he wasted no time in looking around. He ran quickly upstairs, paused in his sitting-room only to take a cigar from the cabinet, passed on to the bedroom, threw Laura’s clothes off, and, after a few moments’ hesitation, selected from the wardrobe a rough tweed suit with a thick lining and lapels. Just as he was tying his tie, the little wireless which he had laid on the table at his side began to record the message. He glanced at the clock. It was exactly three.
Quest’s eyes shone for a moment with satisfaction. Then he sent off his answering message, put on a duster and slouch hat, and left the house by the side entrance. In a few moments he was in Broadway, and a quarter of an hour later a taxicab deposited him at the entrance to the Professor’s house. He walked swiftly up the drive and turned towards the garage, hoping every moment to see something of Lenora. The door of the place stood open. He entered and walked around. It was empty. There was no sign of either Craig or Lenora!…
Quest, recovered from his first disappointment, stole carefully out and made a minute examination of the place. Close to the corner from which Lenora had sent her wireless message to him, he stooped and picked up a handkerchief, which from the marking he recognised at once. A few feet away, the gravel was disturbed as though by the trampling of several feet. He set his teeth. For a single moment his own danger was forgotten. A feeling which he utterly failed to recognise robbed him of his indomitable nerve. He realised with vivid but scarcely displeasing potency a weakness in the armour of his complete self-control.
“I’ve got to find that girl,” he muttered. “Craig can go to hell!”
He turned away and approached the house. The front door stood open and he made his way at once to the library. The Professor, who was sitting at his desk surrounded by a pile of books and papers, addressed him, as he entered, without looking up.
“Where on earth have you been, Craig?” he enquired petulantly. “I have rung for you six times. Have I not told you never to leave the place without orders?”
“It is not Craig,” Quest replied quietly. “It is I, Professor—Sanford Quest.”
The Professor swung round in his chair and eyed his visitor in blank astonishment.
“Quest?” he exclaimed. “God bless my soul! Have they let you out already, then?”
“I came out,” Quest replied grimly. “Sit down and listen to me for a moment, will you?”
“You came out?” the Professor repeated, looking a little dazed. “You mean that you escaped?”
“Perhaps I made a mistake,” he admitted, “but here I am. Now listen, Professor. I know this will be painful to you, but give me your best attention for a few minutes. These young women assistants of mine have formed a theory of their own about the murder in my flat and the robbery of the jewels. Hold on to your chair, Professor. They believe that the guilty person was Craig.”
The Professor’s face was almost pitiful in its blank amazement. His mouth was wide open like a child’s, words seemed absolutely denied to him.
“That’s their theory,” Quest went on. “They may be right or they may be wrong—Lenora, at any rate, has collected some shreds of evidence. They hatched a scheme between them, clever enough in its way. They locked Craig up in your garage and got me out of the Tombs in Laura’s clothes. I have come straight up to find your garage open and Lenora missing.”
The Professor rose to his feet, obviously making a tremendous effort to adjust his ideas.
“Craig locked up in my garage?” he murmured. “Craig guilty of those murders? Why, my dear Mr. Quest, a more harmless, a more inoffensive, peace-loving and devoted servant than John Craig never trod this earth!”
“Maybe,” Quest replied, “but come out here, Mr. Ashleigh.”
The Professor followed his companion out to the garage. Quest showed him the open door and the marks of footsteps around where he had picked up the handkerchief.
“Now,” he said, “what has become of your man Craig, and what has become of my assistant Lenora?”
“Perhaps we had better search the house,” the Professor suggested. “Craig? My dear Mr. Quest, you little know—”
“Where is he, then?” Quest interrupted.
The Professor could do nothing but look around him a little vaguely. Together they went back to the house and searched it without result. Then they returned once more to the garage.
“I am going back,” Quest announced. “My only chance is the wireless. If Lenora is alive or at liberty, she will communicate with me.”
“May I come, too?” the Professor asked timidly. “This matter has upset me thoroughly. I cannot stay here without Craig.”
“Come, by all means,” Quest assented. “I will drive you down in your car, if you like.”
The Professor hurried away to get his coat and hat, and a few minutes later they started off. In Broadway, they left the car at a garage and made their way up a back street, which enabled them to enter the house at the side entrance. They passed upstairs into the sitting-room. Quest fetched the pocket wireless and laid it down on the table. The Professor examined it with interest.
“You are marvellous, my friend,” he declared. “With all these resources of science at your command, it seems incredible that you should be in the position you are.”
Quest nodded coolly.
“I’ll get out of that all right,” he asserted confidently. “The only trouble is that while I am dodging about like this I cannot devote myself properly to the task of running down this fiend of the Hands. Just one moment, Professor, while I send off a message,” he continued, opening the little instrument. “Where are you, Lenora?” he signalled. “Send me word and I will fetch you. I am in my own house for the present. Let me know that you are safe.”
The Professor leaned back, smoking one of Quest’s excellent cigars. He was beginning to show signs of the liveliest interest.
“Quest,” he said, “I wish I could induce you to dismiss this extraordinary supposition of yours concerning my servant Craig. The man has been with me for the best part of twenty years. He saved my life in South America; we have travelled in all parts of the world. He has proved himself to be exemplary, a faithful and devoted servant. I thought it absurd, Mr. Quest, when you were suspected of these crimes. I should think it even more ridiculous to associate Craig with them in any way whatever.”
“Then perhaps you will tell me,” Quest suggested, “where he is now, and why he has gone away? That does not look like complete innocence, does it?”
The Professor sighed.
“Appearances are nothing,” he declared. “Craig is a man of highly nervous susceptibilities. The very idea of being suspected of anything so terrible would be enough to drive him almost out of his mind. I am convinced that we shall find him at home presently, with some reasonable explanation of his absence.”
Quest paced the room for a few moments, moodily.
There was a certain amount of reason in the Professor’s point of view.
“Anyway, I cannot stay here much longer, unless I mean to go back to the Tombs,” he declared.
“Surely,” the Professor suggested, “your innocence will very soon be established?”
“There is one thing which will happen, without a doubt,” Quest replied. “My auto and the chauffeur will be discovered. I have insisted upon enquiries being sent out throughout the State of Connecticut. They tell me, too, that the police are hard on the scent of Red Gallagher and the other man. Unless they get wind of this and sell me purposely, their arrest will be the end of my troubles. To tell you the truth, Professor,” Quest concluded, “it is not of myself I am thinking at all just now. It is Lenora.”
The Professor nodded sympathetically.
“The young lady who shut Craig up in the garage, you mean? A plucky young woman she must be.”
“She has a great many other good qualities besides courage,” Quest declared. “Women have not counted for much with me, Professor, up till now, any more than they have done, I should think, with you, but I tell you frankly, if any one has hurt a hair of that girl’s head I will have their lives, whatever the penalty may be! It is for her sake—to find her—that I broke out of prison and that I am trying to keep free. The wisest thing to do, from my own point of view, would be to give myself up. I can’t bring myself to do that without knowing what has become of her.”
The Professor nodded again.
“A charming and well-bred young woman she seems,” he admitted. “I fear that I should only be a bungler in your profession, Mr. Quest, but if there is anything I can do to help you to discover her whereabouts, you can count upon me. Personally, I am convinced that Craig will return to me with some plausible explanation as to what has happened. In that case he will doubtless bring news of the young lady.”
Quest, for the third or fourth time, moved cautiously towards the window. His expression suddenly changed. He glanced downwards, frowning slightly. An alert light flashed into his eyes.
“They’re after me!” he exclaimed. “Sit still, Professor.”
He darted into his room and reappeared again almost immediately. The Professor gave a gasp of astonishment at his altered appearance. His tweed suit seemed to have been turned inside out. There were no lapels now and it was buttoned up to his neck. He wore a long white apron; a peaked cap and a chin-piece of astonishing naturalness had transformed him into the semblance of a Dutch grocer’s boy.
“I’m off, Professor,” Quest whispered. “You shall hear from me soon. I have not been here, remember!”
He ran lightly down the steps and into the kitchen, picked up a basket, filled it haphazard with vegetables and threw a cloth over the top. Then he made his way to the front door, peered out for a moment, swung through it on to the step, and, turning round, commenced to belabour it with his fist. Two plain-clothes men stood at the end of the street. A police automobile drew up outside the gate. Inspector French, attended by a policeman, stepped out. The former looked searchingly at Quest.
“Well, my boy, what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I cannot answer get,” Quest replied, in broken English. “Ten minutes already have I wasted. I have knocked at all the doors.”
“You can hop it, Dutchie,” he advised. “By-the-bye, when was that order for vegetables given?” he added, frowning for a moment.
“It is three times a week the same,” Quest explained, whipping the cloth from the basket. “No word has been sent to alter anything.”
The Inspector pushed him hurriedly in the direction of the street.
“You run along home,” he said, “and tell your master that he had better leave off delivering goods here for the present.”
Quest went off, grumbling. He walked with the peculiar waddle affected by young Dutchmen of a certain class, and was soon out of sight round the corner of the street. French opened the door with a masterkey and secured it carefully, leaving one of his men to guard it. He searched the rooms on the ground floor and finally ascended to Quest’s study. The Professor was still enjoying his cigar.
“Say, where’s Quest?” the Inspector asked promptly.
“Have you let him out already?” the Professor replied, in a tone of mild surprise. “I thought he was in the Tombs prison.”
The Inspector pressed on without answering. Every room in the house was ransacked. Presently he came back to the room where the Professor was still sitting. His usually good-humoured face was a little clouded.
“Professor,” he began—“What’s that, Miles?”
A plain-clothes man from the street had come hurrying into the room.
“Say, Mr. French,” he reported, “our fellows have got hold of a newsie down in the street, who was coming along way round the back and saw two men enter this house by the side entrance, half-an-hour ago. One he described exactly as the Professor here. The other, without a doubt, was Quest.”
French turned swiftly towards the Professor.
“You hear what this man says?” he exclaimed. “Mr. Ashleigh, you’re fooling me! You entered this house with Sanford Quest. You must tell us where he is hiding.”
The Professor knocked the ash from his cigar and replaced it in his mouth. His clasped hands rested in front of him. There was a twinkle of something almost like mirth in his eyes as he glanced up at the Inspector.
“Mr. French,” he said, “Mr. Sanford Quest is my friend. I am here in charge of his house. Believing as I do that his arrest was an egregious blunder, I shall say or do nothing likely to afford you any information.”
French turned impatiently away. Suddenly a light broke in upon him, he rushed towards the door.
“That damned Dutchie!” he exclaimed.
The Professor smiled benignly.