Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: No Man's Island
Author: Strang, Herbert
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "No Man's Island" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Illustration: Cover]



[Illustration: "THEY RESCUED WHAT THEY COULD."  _See page_ 152.]



                            NO MAN’S ISLAND


                                   BY

                             HERBERT STRANG



                       ILLUSTRATED BY C. E. BROCK



                            HUMPHREY MILFORD
                        OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
                       LONDON, EDINBURGH, GLASGOW
                 TORONTO, MELBOURNE, CAPE TOWN, BOMBAY
                                  1921



        PRINTED 1921 IN GREAT BRITAIN BY R. CLAY AND SONS, LTD.,
       PARIS GARDEN, STAMFORD STREET, S.E.1, AND BUNGAY, SUFFOLK.



                             HERBERT STRANG


                        COMPLETE LIST OF STORIES


ADVENTURES OF DICK TREVANION, THE
ADVENTURES OF HARRY ROCHESTER, THE
A GENTLEMAN AT ARMS
A HERO OF LIEGE
AIR PATROL, THE
AIR SCOUT, THE
BARCLAY OF THE GUIDES
BLUE RAIDER, THE
BOYS OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE
BRIGHT IDEAS
BROWN OF MOUKDEN
BURTON OF THE FLYING CORPS
CARRY ON
CRUISE OF THE GYRO-CAR, THE
FIGHTING WITH FRENCH
FLYING BOAT, THE
FRANK FORESTER
HUMPHREY BOLD
JACK HARDY
KING OF THE AIR
KOBO
LONG TRAIL, THE
LORD OF THE SEAS
MOTOR SCOUT, THE
NO MAN’S ISLAND
OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN, THE
ONE OF CLIVE’S HEROES
PALM TREE ISLAND
ROB THE RANGER
ROUND THE WORLD IN SEVEN DAYS
SAMBA
SETTLERS AND SCOUTS
SULTAN JIM
SWIFT AND SURE
THROUGH THE ENEMY’S LINES
TOM BURNABY
TOM WILLOUGHBY’S SCOUTS
WITH DRAKE ON THE SPANISH MAIN
WITH HAIG ON THE SOMME



                                CONTENTS


CHAP.

      I. NO MAN’S ISLAND
     II. BELOW THE BELT
    III. PRATTLE
     IV. THE FACE IN THE THICKET
      V. THE GAME BEGINS
     VI. A SCRAP OF PAPER
    VII. TIN-TACKS
   VIII. PIN-PRICKS
     IX. REPRISALS
      X. A SOFT ANSWER
     XI. INFORMATION RECEIVED
    XII. QUEER FISH
   XIII. FIRE!
    XIV. A CIRCULAR TOUR
     XV. UNDERGROUND
    XVI. WATERMARKS
   XVII. THE TOPMOST ROOM
  XVIII. ZERO
    XIX. THE PRISONER
     XX. THE PACE QUICKENS
    XXI. TRAPPED
   XXII. A PARLEY
  XXIII. "VI ET ARMIS"
   XXIV. A LEVY EN MASSE
    XXV. SQUARING ACCOUNTS

EPILOGUE



                         LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


"THEY RESCUED WHAT THEY COULD" (see p. 152) . . . _Frontispiece in
Colour_

"’CLEAR UP ALL THIS DISGUSTING LITTER’"

"THE FOREIGNER CHARGED UPON HIM LIKE AN INFURIATED BULL"

"THE OTHER WAS DIVING INTO THE STREAM"

"’GOT A PUNCTURE, OLD MAN?’"

"THEY SHINNED UP A SMALL TREE"

"HALF A MINUTE LATER THE CAR RAN PAST"

"PRATT THREW THE INTRUDER HEAVILY TO THE GROUND"

"’ZE TOWER?  NO, IT IS RUIN, FALL TO PIECES’"

"THEY LIFTED THE BUNDLES OF GEAR, AND CARRIED THEM INTO THE HUT"

"’THE BOTTOM’S ONLY ABOUT FIVE FEET DEEP’"

"THEY SAW A SHORT, STOUT MAN DRAWING SHEETS OF PAPER FROM THE OPENED
PACKAGE"

"BETWEEN THEM THE TWO BOYS ASSISTED THE MOTHER"

"HE STRODE UP AND DOWN, HIS LARGE BONY HANDS CLASPED BEHIND HIM"

"HE REMAINED FOR AN INSTANT IN HIS BENT POSITION, MOTIONLESS"

"RUSH SWIFTLY ROPED HIS ARMS AND LEGS TOGETHER"

"HE STAGGERED BACKWARD, AND THE PISTOL WAS KNOCKED FROM HIS HAND"

"’SQUEEZE INTO THE BOAT’"

"THE FARMER WAS UPPERMOST"



                               CHAPTER I

                            NO MAN’S ISLAND


One hot August afternoon, a motor-boat, with a little dinghy in tow, was
thrashing its way up a narrow, winding river in Southern Wessex. The
stream, swollen by the drainage of overnight rain from the high moors
that loomed in the hazy blue distance, was running riotously, casting
buffets of spray across the bows of the little craft, and tossing like a
cork the dinghy astern.  On either side a dense entanglement of shrubs,
bushes, and saplings overhung the water’s edge, forming a sort of
rampart or outwork for the taller trees behind.

The occupants of the boat were three.  Amidships, its owner, Phil
Warrender, was dividing his attention between the engine and the tiller.
Warrender was tall, lithe, swarthy, with crisp black hair which seemed
to lift his cap as an irksome incubus.  A little abaft of him sat Jack
Armstrong, bent forward over an Ordnance map: he had the lean,
tight-skinned features, spare frame, and hard muscles of the athlete,
and his hay-coloured hair was cropped as close as a prize-fighter’s.  In
the bows, on the scrap of deck, Percy Pratt, facing the others, squatted
cross-legged like an Oriental cobbler, and dreamily twanged a banjo.  He
was shorter and of stouter build than his companions, with a round,
chubby face and brown curly hair clustering close to his poll, and
caressing the edge of his cap like the tendrils of a creeper.  All three
boys were in their eighteenth year, and wore the flannels, caps, and
blazers of their school Eleven.

"We ought to be nearing this island," remarked Armstrong, looking up
from his map.  "I say, Pratt, you’ve been here before: can’t you
remember something about it?"

Pratt thrummed his strings, smiled sweetly, and sang, in the head notes
of a light tenor--

    "The roses have made me remember
      All that I tried to forget;
    The past with its pain comes back again,
      Filling my heart with----

Sorry, old man, I’ve pitched it a bit too high. Lend me your ears while
I modulate from G to E flat."

"Keep your Percy’s Reliques for serenading the moon.  You were here as a
kid; aren’t we nearly there?"

"’The past with its pain’--fact!  It _was_ pain. My old uncle could beat
any beak at licking.  He made a very pretty criss-cross pattern on me
that day--all for pinching a peach!  Frightful temper he had.  My people
said it was due to sunstroke on his travels.  Jolly lot of good being a
famous traveller, if it makes you a beast.  He was more ratty every time
he came home.  I don’t wonder my pater had a royal row with him, and
hasn’t been near the place since.  Rough luck, to have to desert your
ancestral dust-heap.

    "I try, try to forget you,
    But I only love you more."


"Isn’t that the island?  Away there to starboard?" Warrender interposed.
"But I thought you said we might camp there, my Percy?"

"True, sober Philip.  We picnicked there in the days of yore."

"Well, we’d have to do a week’s clearing before we camped there now.
Look at it!"

Pratt swung lazily round on his elbow, and gazed over the starboard
quarter towards the left bank.  The river was parted by what was
evidently an island.  The channel between it and the left bank was very
narrow, and almost impassable by reason of the low, overhanging
branches, which formed a tunnel of foliage. Warrender steered across the
broader channel towards the right bank, all three scanning the island
intently as they coasted along.

"Shows how old Tempus fugit," said Pratt. "In the dim and distant ages
when I was a kid that island was a lawn; now it’s a wilderness. Think
what your beardless cheeks will be like in ten years’ time, Armstrong.
See what Nature will do unless you use the razor.  The place seems quite
changed somehow.  But I’d never have believed trees could grow so fast.
As we’re not dicky birds, we certainly can’t pitch our camp there.
Drive on, old shover."

The island was, indeed, to all appearances, more densely wooded than the
river banks.  By the map scale it was about a third of a mile long, and
at its widest part fully half as broad.  Nowhere along its whole extent
did they see a spot suitable for camping.

They ran past the island.  The stream narrowed; the wooded character of
the mainland banks was unchanged.

"We might as well be on the Congo," growled Armstrong.  "Are you sure
your uncle didn’t bring back a bit of Africa in his carpet bag, Pratt,
and plank it down here?"

    "Let the great big world keep turning,
    Never mind, if I’ve got you,"

hummed Pratt.  "Turn your eyes three points a-starboard, Armstrong, and
you’ll see, peeping at you through the sylvan groves, the gables of my
ancestors’ eligible and beautifully situated riverside residence.  It’s
pretty nearly a quarter-mile from the river, but that’s a detail."

Warrender slowed down so that they might get a better view of the
stately old house of which they caught glimpses through gaps in the
woodland.

"You behold that ruined ivy-clad tower about a cable’s length away from
it," Pratt went on. "Tradition saith that one of my ancestors
incarcerated there a foeman unworthy of his steel, and forgot to feed
him."

"Well, I want my tea," said Armstrong.  "We had next to no lunch, and I
can’t live on memories."

A sharp crack cut the air.

"Some one’s shooting in the woods ahead," said Warrender.  "Perhaps
we’ll catch sight of them, and get a direction."

"Why not make a polite inquiry of that woodland faun or satyr smoking a
clay pipe yonder?" suggested Pratt, pointing with his banjo to the left
bank.

On a tree-stump near the water’s edge sat a thick-set man, square-faced,
beetle-browed, blear-eyed, a cloth cap pushed back on his close-cropped
bullet head, a red cloth tie knotted about his neck.  He wore a rusty,
much-rubbed velveteen jacket, corduroy breeches, and a pair of shabby
leggings.  Warrender slowed down until the boat just held its own
against the current, and called--"Hi! can you tell us of a clear space
where we can camp?"

The man looked suspiciously from one to another, chewing the stem of his
pipe.

"Can’t," said he, surlily.

"Surely there’s a stretch of turf somewhere?" Warrender persisted.

"Bain’t.  Not hereabouts.  Woods, from here to village up along."

"Nothing back on the island?"

The man half closed his eyes, and again suspicion lurked in the glance
he gave the speaker.

"No.  No Man’s Island be nought but furze and thicket.  Nothing
hereabouts.  Better go on and doss at the Ferry Inn."

Then, however, he leered, barely recovering his pipe as it slipped from
between his discoloured teeth.  "Ay, I were forgetting," he said with a
chuckle.  "There be a patch farther up.  Ay, that might suit ’ee.  A
party camped there last week.  Ay, try en."

He chuckled again.  Warrender opened the throttle, and when the boat had
run a few yards up a guffaw, quickly stifled, sounded astern.

"Pleasant fellow," remarked Armstrong.

    "When you are near, the dullest day seems bright;
    Doubts disappear, my load of care grows light,"

warbled Pratt.  "But he didn’t say which bank it’s on."

"We can’t miss it," said Warrender,--"unless he was pulling our leg."

Within three minutes, however, they found that the man had not misled
them.  There was disclosed, on the right bank, a considerable stretch of
smooth green sward, affording ample space for their bell-tent and the
simple impedimenta of their camp.  Warrender ran the boat in, and
hitched it to a sapling; then the three began to transfer their
equipment to the shore.  Besides their tent, they had a Primus stove, a
kettle, a couple of saucepans, pots, cups and plates of enamel, pewter
forks and, stainless knives, cases of provisions, three sleeping-bags,
three folding stools, and other oddments.

While Warrender and Armstrong were stretching and pegging out the tent,
Pratt started the stove, filled the kettle from the river, and assembled
such utensils as they needed for their tea.  These operations were
punctuated by renewed sounds of shooting, which were drawing nearer
through the woods that skirted the clearing.

"I say, you chaps," cried Pratt, "I wonder if I talked nicely, if I
could coax out of them something gamey for supper to-night?"

"Wouldn’t you like to sing for your supper, like little Tommy Tucker?"
said Armstrong.

"Excellent idea!  As you know, I’ve got a select and extensive
repertoire, and--hallo!  Here’s my little dog Bingo."

A retriever came trotting out of the wood, stopped in the middle of the
clearing, and gazed for a moment inquiringly at the tent, just erected;
then turned tail and trotted back.

"A very gentlemanly dog," said Pratt.  "No loud discordant bark, no
inquisitive snuffling; evidence of good breeding and a kind master."

"Hi, there!" called a loud voice.  "What are you doing on my land?  Who
the deuce gave you permission to camp?"

A stout, florid, white-whiskered gentleman of some sixty years, wearing
a loose shooting costume, and carrying a shot-gun under his arm, hurried
across the clearing, the retriever at his heels.

"I’m sorry, sir," said Warrender, politely. "We’ve come up the river,
and this is the first suitable place we’ve found.  If we had known----"

"Known!" interrupted the stranger.  "You knew it wasn’t common
land--public property. If you didn’t know, any one about here would have
told you."

"Just so, sir.  But we understood that a party had camped here a short
while ago, and----"

"You understood, boy?  And where did you get your information?"

"From a gamekeeper sort of man a little below on the other bank.
He----"

"That’ll do," snapped the sportsman.  "Take down that tent.  Clear up
all this disgusting litter, and be off.  The place reeks with paraffin.
Look alive, now."

[Illustration: "’CLEAR UP ALL THIS DISGUSTING LITTER.’"]

In silence Warrender and Armstrong began to loosen the tent guys, while
Pratt put out the stove and started to carry the properties down to the
boat.  He alone of the three showed no sign of feeling; his friends
sometimes said that he was perennially happy because he was fat, not, as
he himself explained, because he had music in his soul.  Warrender’s
mouth had hardened, his face grown pale--sure indications of wrath.
Armstrong, on the contrary, had flushed over the cheek-bones, and
expended his anger in muscular energy, heaving unaided the tent to his
back, and carrying it, the pole, guys, and pegs, with the ease of a
coal-porter.  The landowner stood sternly on guard until the place was
cleared.

The boat moved off.

"Dashed old curmudgeon!" growled Armstrong.

"He and my uncle Ambrose would make a pretty pair," remarked Pratt.
"I’d give anything to hear a slanging match between ’em. Anything but
this," he added, taking up his banjo.

    "I had a little dog,
    And his name was Bingo.

His master’s name ought to be ’Stingo!’  Eh, what?"

"It happens to be Crawshay," said Warrender, pointing to a tree.  Upon
it was nailed a board, facing upstream, and bearing the half-obliterated
legend, "Trespassers will be Prosecuted."  Below this, however, in fresh
paint, were the words, "Camping Prohibited.--D. CRAWSHAY."

"Precisely; D. Crawshay," said Armstrong.



                               CHAPTER II

                             BELOW THE BELT


Something less than a mile up the river they came upon an old-fashioned
gabled cottage of red brick, standing back a few yards from the left
bank.  The walls were half-covered with Virginia creeper; a purple
clematis climbed over the porch and round a sign-board bearing the
words, "Ferry Inn."  Beyond it, on rising ground some little distance
away, glowed the red-tiled roofs of a straggling village.  A ferry boat,
or rather punt, lay alongside of a narrow landing-stage.

The lads tied the boat to a post, and stepped on to the planking.  At
the closed door of the inn, standing with legs wide apart, was a little,
round man whose jolly, rubicund, clean-shaven face and twinkling eyes
bespoke good humour and a contented soul.  He was bare-headed, in
shirt-sleeves, and wore an apron.  His brown, straight hair was
obviously a wig.  In front of him stood a group of villagers.

"’Tis past opening time, I tell ’ee," one of them was saying.  "I can
tell by the feel of my thropple."

"’Twould be always opening time if you trusted to that, Mick," said the
landlord, with a laugh. "I go by my watch."  He pulled out with some
difficulty from the tight band of his apron a large silver timepiece.
"There you are; three minutes to the hour."

"Well, I reckon you be three minutes slow, and so you could swear to if
so be----"

A slight jerk of the landlord’s head caused the rustic to look along the
road to the right. Strolling towards the inn was the village policeman.

"He’s had me fined once, and I didn’t deserve it," the landlord
remarked.  "And there’s another who’d like to catch me tripping."

His eyes travelled beyond the policeman, and rested on a thin,
loose-jointed man with a stubbly fair moustache and a close-cut beard,
who was hurrying to catch up with the constable.

"Ay, Sammy Blevins do have a nature for such," said another of the
rustics.  "’Tis my belief he’ll be caught tripping himself one o’ these
days."

"Ay, and Constable Hardstone too," said the first.  "Birds of a feather.
They be thick as thieves, they two, and no friends o’ yours, Joe. Well,
I bain’t the man to glory in a friend’s tribulation, and so you may keep
your door shut till three minutes past."

"Say, when is this blamed door opening?"

The loud, hoarse voice caused a general turning of heads.  From round
the corner of the inn sauntered, somewhat unsteadily, his hands in his
pockets, a big burly fellow whose red waistcoat, tight leather breeches,
and long gaiters proclaimed some connection with horseflesh.  His accent
was nasal, but there was an undefinable something in his pronunciation
that suggested a European rather than an American origin.  A long, fair
moustache drooped round the corners of a wide, straight mouth; his
clean-shaven cheeks were thin and hard; his pale-blue eyes heavy-lidded
and watery. The rustics appeared to fall back a little as he approached.
He leant one shoulder against a post of the porch, and scowled at the
landlord, attitude and gesture indicating that, so far from needing
refreshment, he had anticipated the opening of the door.

"All in good time, Mr. Jensen," said the landlord, placably.  "Law’s
law, you know."

"Law!" scoffed the man.  "I’m sober.  I want a lemon-squash.  See, if
you don’t open that door----  Ah!  I guess you know me."

The landlord, consulting his watch, had turned, and now threw open the
door leading into the bar.  The foreigner entered behind him, and was
followed by the villagers one by one.  A pleasant-faced, motherly woman
came out into the porch, and looked inquiringly at the three lads.  They
walked up from the landing-stage, where they had lingered watching the
scene.

"Can we have some tea?" asked Warrender.

"Ay sure," replied the woman.  "They told me as three young gemmen had
come up along in boat, and I says to myself ’tis tea, as like as not.
Sit ’ee down at thikky table, and I’ll bring it out to ’ee."

"We’re pretty hungry," said Armstrong.  "What can you give us?"

"Why, there ’tis--I’ve nothing but eggs and bacon."

"Glorious!" said Pratt.  "Two eggs apiece, and bacon to match."

"Ay, I know what young gemmen’s appetite be," said Mrs. Rogers, smiling
as she bustled away.

They sat down at a table placed outside the window.  Within they saw
Rogers, the landlord, energetically pulling ale for his customers.  He
had laid aside his snuff-coloured wig, revealing a scalp perfectly bald.

While they were awaiting their meal, a girl, dressed in white, riding a
bicycle, came along the road on the far side of the river, and,
dismounting at the landing-stage, rang her bell continuously as a
summons to the ferryman.  An old weather-beaten man emerged from the
back premises of the inn, touched his hat, hobbled down to his boat, and
slowly poled it across.  The girl wheeled her bicycle on to it, chatted
to the old man while he recrossed the river, paid him with a silver coin
and smiling thanks, and, having remounted, sped on towards the village.

"Why didn’t I bring up my banjo?" said Pratt, dolefully.  "Of course, I
can sing without accompaniment.

    "There’s no sunbeam as bright as your smile,
    There’s no gold like the sheen of your hair----

but you do want the one-two-tum, one-two-tum to get the full effect,
don’t you, eh?"

"You sentimental owl!" exclaimed Armstrong, laughing.  "Here comes our
tea."

They had finished their meal, and were leaning back comfortably in their
chairs, when the drone of talk within the inn was suddenly broken by
voices raised in altercation.  The clamour subsided for a moment under
the landlord’s protest, but burst forth again.  There was a noise of
scuffling, then two men appeared in the doorway, struggling together in
the first aimless clinches of a fight.  They stumbled over the step;
behind them came the villagers in a group, some of them making
half-hearted attempts by word and act to separate the combatants.
These, reaching the open, shook off restraint, swung their arms as if to
clear a space, and, after a preliminary feint or two, rushed upon each
other.

Warrender and his friends got up; were there ever schoolboys, even
sixth-formers and prefects, who were not interested in a fight?  The
antagonists were not unequally matched.  Height and weight were on the
side of the foreigner, but his opponent, apparently a young farmer,
though slighter in build, had clear eyes and a healthy skin, contrasting
with the other’s well-marked signs of habitual excess.

The rustics formed up on one side, looking on stolidly.  The three lads
moved round until they faced the inn door.  On the step stood the
landlord with arms akimbo.  His wife came behind him, slapped his wig on
to his head, and retreated.

For a minute or two the combatants, displaying more energy than science,
employed their arms like erratic piston-rods, hitting the air more often
than each other’s body.  Armstrong’s lip curled with amusement as he
watched them.  Then they appeared to realise that they had started too
precipitately, and drew apart to throw off their coats and recover their
wind.

"What’s the quarrel?" asked Warrender, in the brief interval, of the
nearest bystander.

"Furriner chap he said as the Germans be better fighters than us
Englishmen, and that riled Henery Drew, he having the military medal and
all.  You can see the ribbon on his coat."

Stripped to their shirts, the combatants faced each other.  They sparred
warily for a moment, then the farmer darted forward on his toes, landed
a blow on the foreigner’s nose, between the eyes, and, springing back
out of reach, just escaped his opponent’s counter.

"One for his jib!" murmured Armstrong.

The blow, and the subdued applause of the rustic onlookers, enraged the
foreigner.  Swinging his bulk forward he bore down on the slighter
Englishman, appeared to envelop him, and for a few seconds the two men
seemed to be a tangle of whirling arms.  Suddenly Armstrong sprang
towards them, shouting, "Foul blow!"  At the same moment the farmer
reeled, and the foreigner, following up his advantage, dealt him a
furious body-blow that dropped him flat as a turbot. Angry cries broke
from the crowd, but, before the slower-witted rustics could act,
Armstrong dashed between Jensen and the prostrate man.

"You hound!" he cried.  "You’ll deal with me now."

One arm was already out of its sleeve, but before he could fling off his
blazer the foreigner charged upon him like an infuriated bull.
Armstrong sidestepped, threw his blazer on the ground, and stood firmly,
ready to meet the next onrush.

[Illustration: "THE FOREIGNER CHARGED UPON HIM LIKE AN INFURIATED
BULL."]

The big man topped him by a couple of inches, and bore down as if to
smother him by sheer weight. He shot out a long arm; Armstrong ducked,
and quick as lightning got in a counter-hit that took the foreigner by
surprise and caused him to draw back an inch or two.  Armstrong said
afterwards that he ought to be shot for mis-timing the blow, which he
had expected to crack the man’s wind-box.  Already breathing fast, the
foreigner perceived that his only chance of winning was to strike at
once.  He lowered his head and swung out his left arm in a lusty drive
at Armstrong’s ribs.  It was an opening not to be missed by a skilled
boxer.  With left foot well forward and body thrown slightly back,
Armstrong dealt him a smashing right upper-cut on the point of the chin.
The man collapsed like a nine-pin, and measured his six feet two on the
ground.

"Jolly good biff, old man!" cried Pratt. "Won’t somebody cheer?"

The rustics were smiling broadly, but their satisfaction at the close of
the battle found no more adequate mode of expression than a prolonged
sigh and a cry: "Sarve en right!"  The farmer, however, a little pale
about the gills, had risen to his feet, and, approaching Armstrong,
said--

"Thank ’ee, sir.  ’Twas a rare good smite as ever I see, and I take it
kind as a young gentleman should have----"

"Oh, that’s all right," Armstrong interrupted, slipping on his blazer.
"He should have fought fair."

"True.  A smite in the stummick don’t give a man a chance.  I feel
queerish-like, and I’ll get Joe Rogers to give me a thimbleful, and then
shail home-along.  That’s my barton, on the hill yonder, and if so be
you’re stopping hereabout, I’ll be main glad to supply you and your
friends with milk _and_ cream."

Assisted by two of his cronies, the farmer walked into the inn, the rest
of the crowd hanging about and casting sheepish glances of admiration at
Armstrong.

"You’ll come in and take a drop of summat, sir?" inquired the landlord.

"No, thanks," replied Armstrong.  "You might have a look at that fellow,
will you?"

"And can you give us beds to-night?" asked Warrender.

"Ay sure, the missus will see to that."

"Very well; we’ll just go on to the village and get a thing or two, and
come back before closing time.  You’ll give an eye to our boat?"

The innkeeper having promised to set the ferryman in charge of the boat,
the three struck into the road.



                              CHAPTER III

                                PRATTLE


The one street of the village contained only two shops.  One of these,
the forepart of a simple cottage, was post office and general store,
whose window displayed groceries, sweetstuffs, stockings, reels of
cotton, and other articles of a miscellaneous stock.  A few yards beyond
it stood a larger, newer, and uglier building, the lower storey of which
was a double-fronted shop, exhibiting on the one side a heterogeneous
heap of old iron, on the other a few agricultural implements, a
ramshackle bicycle, a mangle, tin tea-pots, a can of petrol, a
concertina, and various oddments.  Above the door, in crude letters
painted yellow, ran the description: "Samuel Blevins, General Dealer."

"We must try the post office," said Warrender. "But I don’t expect we’ll
find anything up to much.  Still, there’ll be some local views."

They entered the little shop, filling the space in front of the counter,
and began to examine picture-postcards.  The shopkeeper, a middle-aged
woman in a widow’s cap, was in the act of handing packets of
baking-powder to a customer--a small man who turned quickly about as the
boys went in, showing a plump, brown face decorated with a tiny, black
moustache and dark, vivacious eyes.

"And how be your missus?" the woman was saying.

"She is ver’ vell," said the man, swinging round again.  "Zat is, not
bad--not bad.  She have a cold--yes, shust a leetle cold."

"I be main glad ’tis nothing worse," said the shopkeeper, drily.
"Rogers did say only this morning as he hadn’t seed or heard anything of
her for a week or more--and her his own sister, too, and not that
breadth between ’em.  She might as well be in foreign parts.  ’Twas
never thoughted when she married you, Mr. Rod; my meaning is, Rogers
believed her’d always be in and out, being so near; whereas the truth is
he sees no more of her than if she lived at t’other end of the kingdom."

"And now ze isinglass," said the man, with the obvious intention of
turning the conversation. "Vat!  No isinglass?  Zis is terrible country.
Vell, zat is all, madame.  You put every’ing in ze book?"

"Trust me for that, Mr. Rod.  Remember me to Mary, and I hope she’ll
soon be rid of her cold."

The man gathered up his purchases, and left the shop, darting a glance
at each of the boys as he passed them.

They bought a few postcards and some postage stamps, and issued forth
into the street.  Blevins, the general dealer, standing at his shop-door
with his hands under his coat-tails, gave them a hard look.

"These country folk are as inquisitive as moths," remarked Armstrong.

"Take us for strolling minstrels, I dare say," rejoined Pratt.  "Lucky I
didn’t bring my banjo."

"Our blazers make us a trifle conspicuous," said Warrender.  "I say, as
we’ve plenty of time before dark, and I don’t want to run into that
crowd at the inn again, suppose we stroll on."

They passed the general dealer’s, soon left the last of the cottages
behind them, and rambled along the grassy bank of the road, which wound
across a wide and barren heath land.  About half a mile from the village
they came to narrower cross-roads, leading apparently to the few
scattered farmsteads of the neighbourhood.  A few yards beyond this they
saw, rounding a bend, a girl on a bicycle coasting down a slight hill
towards them.

"The fair maid in white!" said Pratt.  "I think my banjo ought to have
been a guitar, or a lute, whatever that is."

A loud report startled them all.  The bicycle wobbled, stopped, and the
girl sprang lightly from her saddle, and bent down to examine the front
tyre.  She rose just before the boys reached her, gave them a fleeting
glance, and started to wheel the machine down the road.

After a brief hesitation Warrender turned towards her, lifting his cap.

"Can I be of any assistance?" he asked.

"Oh, please don’t trouble," replied the girl. "It’s a frightfully bad
puncture, and I haven’t very far to go."

"Some distance across the ferry?"

"Well, yes; but this will take a long time, and I really couldn’t think
of----"

"It’s no trouble--if you have an outfit."

"Yes, I have, but----"

"He’s a dab at mending tyres, I assure you," Pratt broke in.  "Also at
all sorts of tinkering old jobs.  Our engine broke down the other
day--that’s our motor-boat, down at the ferry, you know--I dare say you
saw it when you passed an hour ago--or was it two?  It seems a jolly
long time.  Do let him try his hand; he’ll be heartbroken if you don’t.
Besides, wheeling a bicycle is no joke; I know from experience; and for
a lady--why, there’s a smudge on your dress already.  Really----"

Like many loquacious persons, Pratt was apt to let his tongue run away
with him.  The girl had shown more and more amusement with every
sentence that bubbled from his glib lips, and here she broke into a
frank laugh, and surrendered the bicycle to Warrender, who laid it down
on the grass bordering the road, opened the tool pouch and set to work.

"He may be nervous, and fumble a bit, you know," said Pratt, "if we look
at him.  I used to be like that myself, when I was young.  Don’t you
think we’d better walk on?  Perhaps you’d like to be shown over our
boat?"

"I think I’d prefer to wait for my bicycle," said the girl, demurely.

"Warrender’s quite to be trusted," rejoined Pratt.  "He isn’t just an
ordinary tramp or tinker. We’ve none of us chosen our professions yet.
We _have_ been called ’The Three Musketeers’ in some quarters."

"At school, I suppose," the girl put in.

"Because we’re always together, you know," Pratt continued.  "We came up
the river to-day--on a holiday cruise--all the joys of nautical
adventure without any of the discomforts.  Of course, there are
disappointments; bound to be. We thought of camping on the banks--one of
the banks, I mean--but, as Armstrong said, it might be the Congo, it’s
so frightfully overgrown, and as we didn’t bring axes or dynamite, or
any of the old things that explorers use, we had to reconcile ourselves
to the shattering of our dreams.... Whew!  That was a near thing!"

At the cross-roads just below, a motor-car, carrying two men, had
emerged suddenly from the right, and run into a country cart which had
been lumbering along the high road from the direction of the village.
The chauffeur had clapped his brakes on in time to avoid a serious
collision, but two spokes of the cart’s near wheel had been smashed, and
the wing of the car crumpled. Springing out of the car, the chauffeur, a
dark-skinned little man, rushed up to the carter, who had been trudging
on the off-side at the horse’s head, and began to berate him excitedly,
with much play of hands.

"Vy you not have care?" he shouted, so rapidly that the monosyllables
seemed to form one word. "You take up all ze road; you sink all ze road
belong to you; you not look round ze corner; no, you blind fool, you
crash bang into my car, viss I not know how many pounds of damage."

"Bain’t my fault," said the carter, stoutly. "Can _you_ see round the
corner?  Then why didn’t you blow your horn?"

The chauffeur retorted with a torrent of abuse, in which broken English
and expletives in some foreign tongue seemed equally mingled, the carter
keeping up a monotonous chant of "Bain’t my fault, I tell ’ee."

The former appealed to his passenger, a tall man of fair complexion and
straw-coloured moustache and beard.  A lull in the altercation between
the other two enabled him to declare that the carter was in the wrong,
and his clear measured words rang with a distinctly foreign intonation
in the ears of the four spectators above.  The squabble revived, and was
ended only when the passenger got out of the car, laid a soothing hand
on the chauffeur, and persuaded the carter to give his name, which he
wrote down in a pocket-book.  A few seconds later the car snorted away
into the cross-road on the left-hand side.

Warrender had looked up from his task only for a moment, but the other
three had watched the whole scene in silent amusement.

"Can you tell us," said Pratt to the girl, "whether the Tower of Babel
is anywhere in this neighbourhood?  We’ve seen four foreigners since we
landed at the ferry an hour or two ago, and, if accent is any guide,
they all hail from different parts."

"It is funny, isn’t it?" said the girl.  "And the explanation is funny,
too.  They are all servants of a strange old gentleman who lives in a
big house near the river.  Some people say he is mad, but I think he’s
only very bad-tempered."

"Very likely the old buffer we saw.  But go on, please."

"His English servants went to him one day in a body and asked him to
raise their wages. It was quite reasonable, don’t you think, with all
the labourers and people earning twice as much as they did before the
war?  But they say he stormed at them, using the most dreadful language,
dismissed them all, and vowed he would never have an English servant
again.  Frightfully, silly of him, but my father says that there’s no
telling what extremes a hot-tempered lunatic like Mr. Pratt will----"

"Who?" ejaculated Pratt.

"That’s his name--Mr. Ambrose Pratt. Perhaps you have heard of him?  He
was a great traveller--quite famous, I believe."

"My aunt!  I mean--I’m rather taken by surprise, you know; but--well,
the fact is," stammered Pratt, "he’s--he’s my uncle."

"Mr. Pratt is!  Oh, I’m so sorry!"

"So am I!"

"For calling him such names, I mean."

"Nothing to what I’ve called him, I assure you. He gave me an awful
licking once.  Not that that matters, of course; we men don’t think
anything of a licking; no--what I meant was I’m sorry an uncle of mine
is bringing the ancient and honourable name of Pratt into disrepute.
Why, he must be a regular laughing-stock.  Fancy having a menagerie of
foreigners!"

"But didn’t you know?  Aren’t you staying with him, then?"

"Rather not.  We’re not on speaking terms."

"I remember--you said you were thinking of camping out."

"Yes; and our dream was shattered.  We’ve had to take beds at the inn.
It’s terrible to lose your illusions, isn’t it?  We all thought nobly of
our fellow-men till this afternoon, and now our hearts are seared, and
we’ll be frightful cynics till the end of the chapter.  I don’t suppose
you know him, but there’s a bullet-headed brute of a fellow in a red
choker and a velveteen coat who sits on a tree-stump down the river----"

"Oh, yes," said the girl.  "That’s Rush. Every one knows him.  I believe
he has been in prison for poaching."

"Well, it seems to be his business in life now to delude unhappy
mariners; a regular siren luring them to their doom.  We asked him to
direct us to a camping-place.  At first he protested there was no
suitable spot, but his malignant spirit prompted him to tell us of a
glade where the sward was like velvet, under a charming canopy of
umbrageous foliage.  We had just got our tent up, and I was boiling the
kettle for tea, when there broke upon our solitude a man and a
dog--detestable, unnatural creatures both; the dog hadn’t a bark in
him--it was all transferred to the man.  The old buffer barked and
bellowed and bullied and brow-beat and bundled us off."

A ripple of laughter from the girl’s lips brought Pratt up short.  He
looked at her reproachfully.

"Do forgive me," she said, "but do you know, I’m sure that--old
buffer--was my father!"

Even the ebullient Pratt was rendered speechless; as Armstrong
afterwards put it, in boxing parlance, "he was fairly fibbed in the
wind."

"Father is a little hasty, but quite a dear, really," the girl
continued.  "He has been frightfully annoyed by trespassers--that man
Rush, for one, and some of Mr. Pratt’s servants.  But don’t you think
perhaps we had better say no more about our relations?"

"Certainly," said Armstrong, with a solemn air of conviction.  It was
the first word he had spoken, and the girl gave him a quick, amused
glance.

"Umpire gives us both out!" remarked Pratt, his equanimity quite
restored.  "We are now back in the _status quo_, Miss Crawshay, with
this difference: that we know each other’s name. The Bard of Avon
wouldn’t have asked ’What’s in a name?’ if he had been here five minutes
ago. If you had known my name, and I had known that you were the
daughter of----"

"That’s forbidden ground, Mr. Pratt."

"Well, is there any ground that isn’t forbidden?" Pratt rejoined.  "For
our camp, I mean?"

"Why not try No Man’s Island?"

"Siren Rush told us it’s a mere wilderness, ’long heath, brown furze,’
and so on."

"Oh!  That’s quite wrong; he must know better than that.  There’s an
excellent camping place on the narrower channel.  We often picnicked
there before my father quarrelled with Mr. P----"

Smiling, she caught herself up.

"Call ’em X and Y," suggested Pratt.  "It is a sort of simultaneous
equation, isn’t it?  But the island can’t belong to Y unless Y is
generally recognised in the neighbourhood as no man at all."

"Nobody knows whose it is.  The owner died years ago; his cottage there
is falling to ruin; they say it belongs now to a distant relative in the
colonies."

"Then there’s no one to chevy us away, as soon as we’ve got things
shipshape?"

"Unless you’re afraid of ghosts.  There are all sorts of queer tales;
the country folk shake their heads when the island is mentioned; not one
of them will have the courage to set foot on it."

"A haunted island!  How jolly!  I’ve always wanted to meet a spook.
That’s an additional attraction, I assure you.  Perhaps I can soothe the
perturbed spirits with my banjo.  I admit it has the opposite effect on
Armstrong, but----"

The girl turned suddenly away towards Warrender, who had finished his
job and was pumping up the tyre.

"You frightful ass!" muttered Armstrong in a savage undertone, heard by
Pratt alone. "You’ve done nothing but drivel for the last half-hour."

"All right, old mule," retorted Pratt, grinning.

"Yes, it will carry you home," Warrender was saying, "but I’m afraid
you’ll have to get a new tyre."

"Thanks so much.  It is really awfully good of you," replied the girl.

"I’m sorry I’ve been such a time."

"I’ve been very well entertained.  It hasn’t seemed long at all.  Thank
you again.  Good-bye."

She mounted the bicycle, beamed an impartial smile upon the three, and
sped away down the road.



                               CHAPTER IV

                        THE FACE IN THE THICKET


When the three friends arrived at the inn it was full to the door.
Rogers, wigless again, caught sight of Warrender over the heads of the
crowd, and came from behind the counter, edging his way outwards through
the press of villagers.

"Missus have got the rooms shipshape, sir," he said.  "She’s a rare
woman for making a man comfortable."

"I’m sure she is," returned Warrender, "and I’m only sorry we shan’t
know it by personal experience.  The fact is, we’re going to camp on No
Man’s Island; there’s plenty of time before sunset to fix ourselves up."

"She’ll be main sorry, that she will," said the innkeeper, pocketing the
two half-crowns Warrender handed him.  "No Man’s Island, did ’ee say?
Maybe you haven’t heard what folk do tell?"

"We have heard something, but I dare say it’s just talk, you know.
Anyhow, we’re going to try it, and we’ll let you know in the morning how
we get on."

"Now, Rogers--drat the man!" cried his wife’s voice from behind.  She
came out into the porch, flourishing his wig.  "How many times have I
told ’ee I won’t have ’ee showing yourself without your hair?  If you do
be a great baby, there’s no need for ’ee to look like one."

Rogers meekly allowed her to adjust the wig, explaining meanwhile the
intention of the expected guests.  She received the news with
disappointment and concern.

"I hope nothing ill will come o’t," she said. "Fists bain’t no mortal
use against spirits; ’twould be like hitting the wind.  Howsomever, the
young will always go their own gait.  ’Tis the way o’ the world."  She
went back into the inn.

"That furriner chap was hurt more in his temper than his framework,"
said Rogers.  "And knowing what furriners be, I’d keep my weather eye
open. There’s too many of ’em in these parts."

"I understand they’re servants of Mr. Pratt; they should be fairly
respectable."

"Ay, that’s where ’tis.  A gentleman must do as he likes, and we haven’t
got nothing to say to’t.  But we think the more.  And I own I was fair
cut up when my sister Molly married the cook; a little Swiss feller he
is."

"We saw him up at the post office a while ago; the shopwoman inquired
after your sister, I remember."

"And well she might.  I never see the girl nowadays; girl, I say, but
she’s gone thirty, old enough to know better.  By all accounts Rod’s
uncommon clever at the vittles, and the crew down yonder be living on
the fat of the land, while the skipper’s a-dandering round in furren
parts."

"Mr. Pratt’s away from home, then?"

"Ay sure.  He haven’t been seen a good while, and ’tis just like him to
go off sudden-like.  You’d expect he’d be tired of it at his time o’
life, but ’tis once a wanderer, always a wanderer.  Well, the evening’s
getting on, so I won’t keep ’ee.  Good luck, sir."

Warrender rejoined his companions, who had taken over the boat from the
ferryman, and they were soon floating down on the current.  They took
the narrow channel on the left of the island which they had avoided on
the way up, and found it less difficult to navigate than it had appeared
at the other end.  The dusk was deepening beneath the trees, but in a
few minutes they discovered a wide open space that offered more
accommodation than they needed.  Running the boat close to the shore,
they sprang to land, moored to a tree overhanging the stream, and set to
work with a will to make their preparations for the night.

The clearing was carpeted with long grass, damp from yesterday’s rain,
and encircled by dense undergrowth, thicket, and bramble.  They pitched
the tent in the centre, beat down a stretch of grass in front of it on
which to place the stove and the bulk of their impedimenta, and by the
time that darkness enwrapped them had everything in order.  The moon,
almost at full circle, had risen early, and soon, peering over the
tree-tops on the mainland, flung her silver sheen into the enclosure,
whitening the tent to a snowy brilliance and throwing into strong relief
the massed foliage beyond. A light breeze set the leaves quivering with
a murmurous rustle.  The hour and the scene made an appeal to Pratt’s
sentimental soul too strong to be resisted.  Opening one of the folding
chairs, he lay back in it with crossed legs, gazed up into the serene,
star-flecked heavens, and began with gentle touches of his strings to
serenade the moon.

Warrender, having slipped on his overalls, kindled a lamp and went down
to tinker with his engine.  Unmusical Armstrong, always accused by Pratt
of being "fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils," sauntered, hands in
pockets, across the clearing.  Elbowing his way through the undergrowth
he found, after some fifty or sixty yards, that the vegetation thinned.
The lesser shrubs gave way to trees, which grew close together, but with
a regularity that suggested planting on a definite plan.  Pursuing his
way, he came by and by to a more spacious clearing than the one he had
quitted; and on the left, in the midst of what had evidently been at one
time a small garden, he saw the shell of a two-storeyed cottage. The
walls were covered with creepers growing in rank disorder; the windows
gaped, empty of glass; the doorless entrance shaped a rectangle of
blackness; and bare rafters, shaggy with unpruned ivy, drew parallel
lines upon the inky gloom of half the upper storey.  Ruins, in daylight
merely picturesque, take a new beauty in the cold radiance of the moon,
but present at the same time an image of all that is desolate and
forlorn.  Practical, unemotional as Armstrong was, he thrilled to the
impression of vacuity and abandonment, and stood for a while at gaze, as
though unwilling to disturb the loneliness.

Presently, however, he stepped lightly across the unmown lawn, and the
moss-grown path beyond, and, entering the doorway, struck a match and
looked around.  From the narrow hall--strewn with fragments of brick and
mortar, broken tiles, heaps of plaster, and here and there spotted with
fungi--sprang the staircase, whole as to the stairs, but showing gaps in
the banisters. Curling strips of torn discoloured paper hung from the
walls.  The match went out; through the open roof the stars glimmered.
Deciding to defer exploration till daylight, lest a tile or brick should
fall on his head, or the staircase give way under him, Armstrong turned
to go out.  As he did so he was aware of a low moaning sound, such as a
person inside a house may hear when a high wind soughs under the eaves.
It rose and fell in cadences eerily mournful, as though the spirit of
solitude itself were lonely and in pain. Armstrong shivered and sought
the doorway, and as he felt how gentle was the breeze he met, he
wondered at its having power enough to produce such sounds.  The moaning
ceased; he listened for a moment or two; it did not recur, though the
zephyr had not sensibly dropped.  Puzzled, he started to retrace his way
to the camp.  At the farther side of the clearing the melancholy sound
once more broke upon his car.  Almost involuntarily he wheeled round to
look back at the cottage; then, impatient with himself, turned again to
quit the scene.

His feeling, which was neither awe nor timorousness, but rather a vague
discomfort, left him as soon as his active faculties were again in play.
Pushing his way through the undergrowth, he was inclined to deride his
unwonted susceptibility. All at once, however, without sound or any
other physical fact to account for it, he was seized with the fancy that
some one was behind him.  Does every human being move in the midst of an
invisible, intangible aura, that acts as a sixth sense? Whatever the
truth may be, certain it is that we have all, at one time or another,
been conscious of the proximity of some bodily presence, which neither
sight nor sound nor touch has revealed.

Armstrong swung quickly round, and started, for there in the thicket,
within a dozen yards of him, a shaft of moonlight struck upon a face,
pallid amidst the green.  It disappeared in a flash.

"Who’s there?" called Armstrong, sharply; then impulsively started
forward, parting the foliage.

There was no answer, nobody to be seen.  Indeed, within a yard of him
the thicket was so dense, so closely overarched by loftier trees, that
no ray of moonshine percolated into its pitchy blackness.

Holding the branches apart, peering into the gloom, he listened.
Overhead the leaves softly rustled; within the thicket there was not a
murmur. He let the branches swing back; stood for a few moments
irresolute; then, with an impatient jerk of the shoulders, strode away
towards the camp.

Armstrong was not what the pathologist would call a nervous subject.
His physical courage had never been questioned; in his healthy life of
work and play his moral courage had never been called upon; his lack of
imagination had saved him from the tremors and terrors that prey upon
the more highly strung.

To find himself mentally disturbed was a novel experience; it filled him
with a sense of humiliation and self-contempt; it enraged him.  Thoughts
of Pratt’s mocking glee when the tale should be told made him squirm.
"I say, the old bean’s seen a spook"--he could hear the light, ringing
tones of Pratt’s voice, see the bubbling merriment in his large, round
eyes.  "I swear it _was_ a face!" he angrily told himself.  "Dashed if I
don’t come in daylight and hunt for the fellow--some tramp, I expect,
who finds a lodging gratis in the ruins."

By the time he reached the camp he had made up his mind to say nothing
about the incident. Emerging into the silent clearing, he saw Pratt and
Warrender side by side on their chairs, fast asleep, the latter with
folded arms and head on breast, the former holding his banjo across his
knees, his face, the image of placid happiness, upturned to the sky.
Apparently the swish of Armstrong’s boots through the long grass
penetrated to the slumbering consciousness of the sleepers. Warrender
lifted his head, unclosed his eyes for a moment, muttered "Hallo!" and
slept again. Pratt, without moving, looked lazily through half-shut
eyelids.

"’O moon of my delight, who know’st no wane!’" he murmured.  "Well, old
bean, seen the spook?"

"Rot!" growled Armstrong.

"I believe you have!" cried Pratt, starting up, his face kindling.
"What’s she like?"

"Ass!"

"Well, what _did_ you see?  You don’t, as a rule, snap for nothing.
I’ll say that for you. Only cats will scratch you for love.  What’s
upset the apple-cart?"

"I saw the ruined cottage, if you want to know--a ghastly rotten hole.
I’m dead tired--I’m going to turn in."

"All right, old chap; you shall have a lullaby."  He struck an arpeggio.

    "Sing me to sleep, the shadows fall;
    Let me forget the world and all;
    Lone is my heart, the day is long;
    Would it were come to evensong!
    Sing me to sleep, your hand in mine----"


Armstrong had fled into the tent.

"I say, Warrender," murmured Pratt, nudging the somnolent form at his
side, "something’s put the old sport in a regular bait."

"Eh?" returned Warrender, drowsily.

"Armstrong’s got the pip.  Never knew him like this.  Something’s
curdled the milk."

"Well, it’s time to turn in," said Warrender, rising and stretching
himself.  "He’ll be all right in the morning.  Good-night."

"Same to you.  I suppose I must follow you, but it’s so jolly under this
heavenly moon."

And Warrender, undressing within the tent, smiled as he heard the
lingerer’s pleasant voice.

    "Dark is life’s shore, love, life is so deep:
    Leave me no more, but sing me to sleep."



                               CHAPTER V

                            THE GAME BEGINS


For all his loquacity, his gamesomeness of temper, Pratt was not without
a modicum of discretion.  Next morning, when they had taken their swim
and were preparing breakfast, he did not revive the subject of spooks,
or make any allusion to Armstrong’s ill-humour.  Armstrong, for his
part, always at his best in the freshness of the early hours, had thrown
off the oppression of the night, and appeared his cheerful, vigorous,
rather silent self.

"You fellows," said Warrender, as they devoured cold sausages and a
stale loaf, "after I’ve overhauled the engine, I think of pulling up
stream in the dinghy and getting some new bread at the village----"

"Rolls, if you can," Pratt interpolated.

"And some butter and cheese, etcetera.  Now we’re on this island, we may
as well explore it. You can do that while I’m away."

"And hand you a neatly written report of our discoveries.  All right,
Mr. President."

"I shan’t be gone more than about a couple of hours."

"Unless you get another tinkering job.  By the way, why not call at old
Crawshay’s, and ask if she got home safe?  I think that would be a very
proper thing to do, and the old buffer would appreciate it.  Good for
evil, you know; coals of fire; turning the other cheek, and all that."

"You can turn your own cheek, Percy.  You’ve got enough of it."

"Do you allude to my facial rotundity, which is Nature’s gift, or to my
urbanity of manner, my----"

"Dry up, man.  It’s too early in the morning for fireworks.  So long."

Pratt gave a further proof of his tact when he started with Armstrong on
their tour of exploration.  Instead of striking southward, in the
direction of the ruins, he set off to the north-west. "The island’s so
small," he reflected, "that we are bound to work round to that cottage,
and then----"

Daylight showed the undergrowth dense indeed, but not so impenetrable as
it had seemed overnight. At the cost of a few scratches from bramble
bushes laden with ripening blackberries, they pushed their way through
to the western shore, overlooking the broader channel and the right bank
of the river; then they turned south, zigzagging to find the easiest
route.

Hitherto, except for the whirr of a bird, or the scurry of some small
animal, they had neither seen nor heard anything betokening that the
island had any other visitors than themselves.  But not long after their
change of course they came to a spot where the grass had recently been
trampled.

"Oh, poor Robinson Crusoe!" hummed Pratt.

"Here’s a wire snare," exclaimed Armstrong. "Some one’s rabbiting."

"Very likely Siren Rush," Pratt returned. "It wasn’t original malice
that prompted him to warn us against the island, but a sophisticated
fear of competition.  I dare say he made tons of money out of rabbits in
the lean time during the war; skinned them and the shop people too!"

Armstrong let this pass; the face he had seen for a brief moment
overnight had not recalled the leering countenance of the poacher.

They went on, skirted the southern shore, and turned northward.
Presently Pratt caught a glimpse through the trees of the roof of the
ruined cottage.  He did not mention it, but struck to the right towards
the narrow channel, and led the way as close as possible to its brink.
A minute or two later, in a shallow indentation of the shore, they
discovered the remains of a small pier or landing-stage.  The planks had
rotted or broken away; only a few moss-covered piles and
cross-stretchers were left, still, after what must have been many years,
defying the destructive energy of the stream that swirled around them.
Through the channel, at this spot contracted to half its average width,
the swollen river poured with the force of a millrace.

"The old chap kept a boat, evidently," said Pratt.  "There ought to be a
path from here to the house, but there’s no sign of one.  Let’s strike
inland, and see if we can trace it somewhere."

They pushed through the thicket, here as closely tangled as anywhere
else, and emerging suddenly into the wilderness garden, in which
perennial plants were stifling one another, they saw the ruined cottage
before them.

"Jolly picturesque," said Pratt, halting.  "I dare say distance lends
enchantment to the view; no doubt it’s a pretty dismal place inside; but
the sunlight makes a gorgeous effect with those old walls.  The creepers
running over warm red bricks--it’s a harmony of colour, old man.  I’d
like to make a sketch of it."

"Houses were built to be lived in," grunted Armstrong.

Pratt made no reply at once.  For the moment the schoolboy was sunk in
the artist.  He let his eyes linger on the spectacle--the broken roof;
the one gable that here survived; the creepers straggling round it and
over the glassless window of the room beneath; the heap of shattered
brick-work at the base, half-clothed with greenery and gay with flowers.

"Of course, it looked very different by moonlight," he said at last.
"You’d lose all the colour. Still----"

"I saw it from the other side," said Armstrong. "That won’t please you
so much--it’s not so much ruined."

"Well, let’s go and see."

He was leading through the riot of untended flowers, Armstrong close
behind him, when he stopped suddenly, and in a tone of voice
involuntarily subdued, asked--

"Did you see that?"

[Illustration: "’DID YOU SEE THAT?’"]

"What?" said Armstrong, starting in spite of himself.

"A figure--something--I don’t know; at the back of the room."

The sunlight, slanting from the south-east, shone full upon the cottage,
but left the back of one of the rooms on the ground floor shadowed by
the screen of creepers falling over the gaping window.

"Well, suppose there was, why the mysterious whisper?" said Armstrong,
his own doubts and remembered tremors disposing him to ridicule Pratt’s
excitement.  "Why shouldn’t there be some one there?  _We_ are here--why
not others?"

"Yes, but--well, I didn’t expect it.  Perhaps you did."

"It may have been only the shadow of the creeper on the wall."

"It may have been your grandmother!  Let’s get into the place and have a
look round. The window’s too high to climb; is the door open?"

"There’s no door."

"So much the better.  Come on."

They hastened to the front, and through the doorway into the hall.  The
house was silent as a tomb.  On either side opened a doorless room.
They entered the one on the right--that in which Pratt had believed he
saw a moving figure.  It was pervaded by a subdued greenish sunlight,
becoming misty by reason of the dust their footsteps had stirred up.  It
held neither person nor thing.  They crossed to the opposite room,
which, being out of the sunshine, was in deep gloom.  This, too, was
empty.  Passing the staircase they arrived at the back premises, a
stone-flagged kitchen and scullery.  Both were bare; even the grate had
been removed.

"Now for upstairs," said Pratt.  "They’ve made a clean sweep down here."

They mounted the staircase, at first treading carefully, then with
confident steps as they found that the creaking stairs were sound.
There were four rooms on the upper storey, two of them exposed to the
sky.  Of these the floors were thick with blown leaves, twigs, birds’
feathers, fragments of tiles and bricks, broken rafters, and the debris
of the ceiling.  The other two, roofed and whole, were as bare as the
rooms below.  Through the empty casement of one they caught sight of the
tower in the grounds of Mr. Ambrose Pratt’s house, and the upper windows
and roof of the house itself.  Pratt’s appreciative eye was instantly
seized by the prospect--the foreground of low thicket; the glistening
stream; the noble trees beyond, springing out of a waving sea of
sun-dappled bracken; the gentle slope on whose summit stood the
buildings, and in the far background the rolling expanse of purple
moorland. For the moment he forgot the shadowy figure he had seen, and
lingered as if unwilling to miss one detail of the enchanting landscape.

"There’s no one here," said Armstrong, matter-of-fact as ever.

"I dare say it was an illusion.  Look how the sunlight catches the
ripples, Jack.  And did you see that kingfisher flash between the
banks?"

"I’ll go and have another look downstairs," Armstrong responded.  "I’ll
give you a call if I find anything."

He felt, as he went down, that perhaps he would have done better to be
candid with Pratt. Why make any bones about an incident capable, no
doubt, of a simple explanation?  The tramp, if tramp he was, had, of
course, the objection of his kind to being found on enclosed premises,
even though they were a ruin.  Yet it was strange that he had left no
tracks--had he not?  Armstrong was suddenly aware of something that had
hitherto escaped him.  There was no dust, no litter on the stairs.
Singular phenomenon in a long-deserted house!  And surely the floor of
the room in which Pratt now stood, unlike the other floors, was clear.
It, and the staircase, must have been swept. Why?  Not for tidiness--no
tramp would bother about that.  For what, then?  Secrecy?  Dusty floors
would leave tell-tale marks--and with the thought Armstrong hurried down
to the room in which the figure had been seen, and examined the floor.
Yes! besides the footprints of himself and Pratt between door and
window, there were others along the wall at the back of the room.  The
fellow must have slipped out with the speed of a hare.  Armstrong
perceived at once the clumsiness of the attempt at secrecy, for the very
fact that some of the floors were swept gave the game away. At the same
time, he was puzzled to account for the man’s motive.  The island was
deserted; it was no longer the scene of picnics; the villagers avoided
it; why then should a casual visitor--for there was no evidence of
continuous occupation--be at the pains even to try to cover up his
movements?  The strange oppression of the previous night returned upon
Armstrong’s mind, and he roamed about the lower floor in a mood of
curious expectancy.

He came once more to the kitchen, and noticed that between it and the
scullery was a closed door--the only door that remained in the house.
Instinctively bracing himself, he turned the handle; the door opened,
disclosing a dark hole and a downward flight of stone steps.  He went
down into the darkness, at the foot of the steps struck a match, and
found himself in a low, spacious cellar, empty except for a strewing of
coal dust.  As the match flickered out he caught sight of something
white in a corner.  Striking another, he crossed the floor and picked up
a jagged scrap of paper, slightly brown along one edge.  At the same
moment he observed a little heap of paper ashes.

Throwing down the match he trod upon it, and turned, intending to
examine the paper in the daylight above.  Pratt’s voice shouting, and a
sound of some one leaping down the staircase to the hall, caused him to
spring up the steps two at a time.

"What’s up?" he shouted back, unable to distinguish Pratt’s words.

He reached the hall just in time to see Pratt dash through the doorway
and sprint at headlong pace towards the river.  Stuffing the paper into
his pocket, Armstrong doubled after him. Pratt was already plunging into
the thicket, and, when Armstrong came within sight of the channel, the
other had flung off his cap and blazer, and was diving into the stream.

[Illustration: "THE OTHER WAS DIVING INTO THE STREAM."]

"What mad trick----"

He cut short his exclamation, for his long strides had brought him to
the pier, and he saw the cause of Pratt’s desperate haste.  The
motor-boat, broadside to the stream, was drifting down the channel.
Already it was some thirty yards beyond the spot where Pratt had taken
the water, and Pratt was swimming after it with the ease of a water-rat.

Feeling that there was no reason why himself should get soaked too,
Armstrong forged his way through the vegetation at the brink of the
channel, but made slow progress compared with the swimmer.  Pratt was
rapidly overhauling the boat.  Watching him, instead of his own steps,
Armstrong tripped over a creeper, and fell headlong. By the time he had
picked himself up, Pratt had disappeared.  Armstrong’s momentary anxiety
was banished by the sight of the boat moving slowly in towards the shore
of the island.

"Good man," he shouted.  "You headed it off splendidly."

Pushing and swimming, Pratt was evidently making strenuous efforts to
drive the boat into the bank before the current swept it past the
island. If he failed, Armstrong saw that he would have to change his
tactics and run it ashore on the left bank--his uncle’s property.  It
would then be necessary for Armstrong to swim across, for Pratt had
never taken the trouble to learn the working of the engine.

"Stick it, old man," he called.

In a few moments more Pratt contrived to edge the boat among the low
branches of an overhanging tree.  Its downward progress thus partly
checked, he was able to exert more force in the shoreward direction.
When Armstrong, after a rough scramble, arrived at the spot, he had just
rammed the boat’s nose securely into a tangled network of branches, and
was clambering, a dripping, bedraggled object, up the bank.

A prolonged "Coo-ee!" sounded from far up the river.

"There’s old Warrender, shrieking like a bereaved hen," said Pratt,
shaking himself.  "And it’s all through his not tying the thing up
properly! Armstrong, water is very wet."

"I say, did you ever know Warrender not tie it up properly?"

"How else would it break away?"

"You didn’t see it break away?"

"No, you can’t see our camping-place from the ruins.  It was a good way
down before I caught sight of it."

"Well, they’ve kicked off; the game’s begun!"

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Wring yourself dry, and we’ll talk."



                               CHAPTER VI

                            A SCRAP OF PAPER


Pratt had just stripped off his clothes, and spread them to dry, when
Warrender arrived in the dinghy.

"What’s the game, you chaps?" he inquired. "Why a second bath, Pratt?"

"Eyes left!" responded Pratt.  "The sight of my habiliments basking in
the sunlight will inform you that I have just been performing a cinema
stunt--plunging fully clothed into the boiling torrent to rescue the
heroine, whom the villain----"

"Dry up!" said Armstrong.

"Just what I am trying to do.  But you are bursting with information,
old chap.  Expound. I am all ears."

"You tied up the boat as usual, Warrender?" Armstrong asked.

"Of course.  Why?"

"Pratt saw her drifting down the stream, that’s all, and had to dive in
to prevent her getting right past the island."

"That’s rum," said Warrender.  "The knot couldn’t have worked loose.
Who’s been monkeying with her?"

"That’s the point," said Armstrong.  "There’s some one else on the
island, and whoever it is, wants the place to himself.  Setting the boat
adrift seemed to him a first step to driving us away, which shows he is
a juggins."

"Q.E.D.," said Pratt.  "Now the corollary, if you please."

"Wait a bit," Warrender interposed.  "It may be only a stupid practical
joke--the sort of thing the intelligence of that poacher fellow might
rise to."

"It may be, of course," returned Armstrong, "but I think it’s more.  You
remember what Miss Crawshay and the people at the inn told us about the
island being haunted, you know? Well, rumours of that sort are just what
might be set going by some one who has reasons of his own for keeping
people away.  It may be Rush; we found a rabbit-snare this morning; but
if it is, there’s some one else in the game.  Last night, as I was
returning to camp, I saw a face in the thicket, just for a moment; it
was gone in a flash; but it wasn’t Rush’s face; it was a different type
altogether."

"Why on earth didn’t you tell us?" asked Warrender.

"Well, I might have been mistaken; moonlight plays all sorts of tricks;
besides----"

"Just so, old man," said Pratt.  "Are there visions abroad?  The
witching hour of night----"

"Let’s keep to cold fact," Warrender put in. "You saw a face, and it
wasn’t Rush’s; but Rush lied to us about the island to keep us off it;
therefore Rush and some unknown person are in league. What next?"

"Pratt saw some one in one of the rooms of the ruined cottage as we
approached it an hour or so ago.  We hunted through the place, but
couldn’t find any one.  I noticed one strange fact: that while some of
the rooms are thick with dust, the staircase and one of the rooms
upstairs are pretty clear, although there’s no sign whatever of anybody
living there.  There’s not a stick of furniture.  What is the cottage
used for?"

"Is there anything particular about the upstairs room?" Warrender asked.

"Nothing that I could see," replied Armstrong.

"Except that it gives a magnificent view," Pratt added.  "You can see my
uncle’s grounds, and up and down the river.  It was when I was looking
out of the window that I saw the boat adrift."

"Well, I think I’ll have a look at the place," said Warrender, "and if
you’ll take my advice, Percy, you’ll go up in the dinghy, get into dry
togs, and give an eye to the camp."

"Righto!  There ought to be some one at home to receive callers.  You’ll
be back to lunch, I suppose?"

Warrender nodded, and strode off with Armstrong towards the ruins.
Together they explored the house from roof to cellar, seeking, not for
an inhabitant, but for some clue to the puzzle suggested by the partly
cleared floors.  No discovery rewarded them.  It was not until they were
inspecting the cellar that Armstrong remembered the scrap of paper he
had picked up there.  Taking it out of his pocket when they returned to
daylight, he handed it to Warrender.

"Is it Greek?" he asked.

"No," replied Warrender.  "I fancy it’s Russian; a scrap torn from a
Russian newspaper, by the look of it.  Pretty old, too, judging by the
colour."

"I don’t know.  It’s brown at the edge, but that’s due to the scorching
it got when the other papers were burned.  It’s fairly clean everywhere
else.  You can’t read it, then?"

"Not a word; how should I?  Russian’s a modern language; belongs more to
your side than mine.  Besides, what if I could?  A newspaper wouldn’t
tell us anything."

"Very likely not.  But a Russian newspaper would hardly be in the
possession of anybody but a Russian, and what was a Russian ever doing
here?"

"Ah!  I think I see daylight.  What if it belonged to one of what Pratt
calls his uncle’s menagerie of foreigners?  They might come here in
their off times.  There’s nothing very wonderful about it after all; but
as there’s nothing valuable in the ruins, they can’t have any object in
trying to keep us out.  My belief is that that fellow Rush set the boat
drifting out of sheer mischief, and we’d better keep our eye on him."

On leaving the ruins it occurred to Armstrong to examine the
surroundings more narrowly than he had yet done.  The flower-beds and
the moss-grown path in the direction of the jetty showed the impress of
his own and Pratt’s feet, but another path, which they had not trodden,
also bore slight marks of use.  Following it up with Warrender, he found
that it led to a narrow track through the undergrowth, leading southward
almost in a straight line.  In single file they made their way along
this, and came presently to a shallow indentation in the western shore,
near its southern end.

"Pratt and I must have crossed this track a while ago," said Armstrong;
"but I didn’t notice it, and I’m sure he didn’t."

"Look here," said Warrender, who had bent down to examine the grass and
shrubs growing on the low bank.  "Wouldn’t you say that a boat had been
run in?  In fact, it’s been drawn up on to the bank.  Here’s a distinct
mark of the keel--a small rowing-boat, I should think."

"Not very recent, is it?"

"But certainly not very ancient, or it wouldn’t be so distinct.  It’s on
Crawshay’s arm of the river, though.  D’you know, Armstrong, I shouldn’t
be surprised if it turns out we’re a set of jackasses. I dare say the
place teems with rabbits, and there are plenty of fellows besides Rush
who’d be glad of getting their dinner for nothing, and would want to
keep other people out of their preserves.  Let’s be getting back."

On arriving at their encampment they took the precaution of drawing the
bow of the motorboat well on to the bank, and securing it firmly to a
stout sapling.  The dinghy, which Pratt had tied to a projecting root,
they carried ashore, and placed behind the tent.

Pratt was sitting on his chair, tuning his banjo.

"You perceive I have not been idle," he said. "You couldn’t have carried
the dinghy with such agile ease if I hadn’t emptied her first.  Your
marketing was a success, Warrender?"

"Yes, I got everything we wanted except petrol. By the way, Pratt,
there’s a rival troubadour in the village."

"I say!  Surely not a banjo?"

"A banjo it is, and the player is no other than that general dealer
fellow--what’s his name? Blevins.  I went up to the shop to get a can of
petrol, and heard the tum-ti-tum and a tenor voice as good as your
own----"

"Don’t crush me quite!"

"Warbling one of your own songs out of the open window above the
shop--’Love me and the world is mine.’  Really it might have been you,
only the fellow has a little more of what you call the tremolo, don’t
you?"

"Vibrato--if you want to know.  But hang it! The glory is departed.
Another banjo, another tenor--and singing my songs!  Pity we’re not in
Spain."

"Why on earth?" asked Armstrong.

"Because then we’d meet on some delicious moonlit night under the window
of some fair senorita, and after trying to sing each other down like a
couple of cats, we’d have a bit of a turn-up, and I’d have a chance to
show I’m the better man. But how do you know it was the general dealer?
It might have been some fair swain as comely as myself."

"I’ll tell you.  I went into the shop, and asked the sheepish young
fellow there for one of the cans of petrol I saw against the wall.  He
declared they were all for Mr. Pratt at the Red House.  There were at
least half a dozen, and I protested that Mr. Pratt couldn’t possibly
want them all at once, and insisted on his fetching his employer.  The
singing had been going on all the time.  It stopped a couple of seconds
after the fellow had gone into the house, and the man Blevins came into
the shop.  It’s a fair deduction that he and the singer were one."

"It is, it is," murmured Pratt, mournfully, throwing a glance across the
river.

"What _are_ you squinting at?" asked Armstrong. "I’ve noticed you
several times; what’s there to look at?"

"There’s me," replied Pratt, quickly.  "Look at me, old chap, or at any
rate, don’t look that way; tell you why presently.  Well, what about old
Blevins, Warrender?  My hat! what a name for a light tenor!"

"I asked him for one can to go on with.  He was very polite--oily, in
fact;--regretted extremely that he couldn’t oblige me; the whole supply
had been ordered for Mr. Pratt, and he daren’t offend so good a
customer."

"But I thought my uncle was away from home."

"Of course.  Why didn’t I remember that? Anyhow, while he was talking,
in came that little foreign chauffeur we saw yesterday--an Italian, I
fancy: he talked just like those Italian waiters at Gatti’s.  He had
come to order a car; said that Mr. Pratt’s car had broken down, and he
had had to tow it to Dartmouth for repairs.  He’d keep Blevins’s car
until the repairs were done. Blevins was a bit offhand with me after
that.  I suppose it was the regular tradesman’s attitude to a less
important customer.  Anyhow, he told me rather bluntly that I couldn’t
have any petrol till to-morrow, and I came away."

"Quite right.  You couldn’t argue with a fellow who sucks up to my
uncle, and sings my songs. I say, I think I shall go in for diplomacy.
Don’t you think I’d make a first-class attaché, or whatever they call
’em?"

Astonished at the sudden change of subject, they looked at him.  He
winked.

"You know," he went on--"one of those fellows in foreign capitals whose
job it is to see and hear everything, and look innocent, while inside
they’re as wily as the cunningest old serpent.  Your chronicle of
Blevins is very small beer, Warrender; and while you’ve been yarning on
about your old petrol, I’ve been corking myself up with something vastly
more interesting, and you hadn’t the least notion of it.  That’s why I’m
sure I’d make no end of a hit in the diplomatic corps.  Just keep your
eyes fixed on my goodly countenance, will you? and I’ll enlighten your
understanding."

He took up his banjo, which he had laid across his knees, struck a note
or two, then proceeded--

"After I’d changed, and carried up your purchases, I sat me down to
beguile the tedium of waiting for you with my unfailing resource.
Happening to glance across the river, I caught sight of some one
watching me from the thick of a shrub, and my lively imagination
conjured up the goose-flesh sensations of old Armstrong last night.
With that presence of mind which will serve me well in my climb up the
diplomatic ladder to a peerage, I hummed a stave of ’Somewhere a voice
is calling,’ and turned my head away with the grace of a peacefully
browsing gazelle; but the fellow’s been watching me for the last
half-hour, and I bet he doesn’t know he’s been spotted. Armstrong,
you’ve got the best eyes.  While I go on gassing, just look round as if
you were jolly well bored stiff--no, I’ve a better idea; go into the
tent, and take a squint through that small tear on the side facing the
river, and fix your eyes on the shrub--I fancy it’s a lilac past its
prime--that fills the space between two beeches in the background. I
don’t flatter myself that the fellow was attracted by my dulcet strains,
and if he’s watching me, you may be sure he’s watching all of us."

Armstrong got up, thrust his hands into his trousers pockets, and
strolled nonchalantly into the tent.  In a couple of minutes he returned
in the same unconcerned way.

"You’re right," he said, drawing up his chair beside Pratt’s.  "I saw a
slight movement among the leaves, and a face.  I’m not quite sure, but I
believe it’s that poacher fellow.  It’s certainly not the face I saw
last night."

"Well, now, what interest do you suppose Siren Rush takes in us?  And
what’s he doing in my uncle’s grounds?  D’you think my uncle’s a bit
potty, and sets Rush to keep watch like a warder on a tower?  Is he
afraid of some one squatting on his land in his absence?  I don’t
suppose we’re far wrong in accusing Rush of setting the boat adrift, but
what’s his motive in watching us? It’s not mere curiosity; but if not
curiosity, what is it?"

"We must wait and see," said Warrender.

"That’s very prudent, but it promises poor sport," Pratt rejoined.  "By
the way, I suppose you didn’t find anything fresh in the ruins?"

"Nothing.  But Armstrong picked up a scrap of paper in the cellar this
morning--a bit of a Russian newspaper.  Hand it over, Armstrong."

"No," said Pratt, quickly.  "Don’t show it. I don’t suppose Siren Rush
can read Russian any more than I can; the paper can’t be his, but he’d
better not see us examining anything.  Where did you find it,
Armstrong?"

"In the cellar, by a heap of paper ash."

"Incriminating documents, as they say in the police courts.  But why
Russian?  Look here, I know a man in London who reads Russian; he seems
to like it.  Give me the paper presently. We’ll go into the village this
afternoon and post it to him.  I can’t see how it will throw any light
on things here, but we can at least get it translated. And now, let’s
have lunch."



                              CHAPTER VII

                               TIN-TACKS


That night, Warrender was unusually wakeful. As a rule he slept as
soundly as his companions; but now and then, when he had anything on his
mind, he wooed sleep in vain.  The strange incidents of the past two
days had affected him more, psychologically, than either of the others.
Armstrong, as soon as his doubts were removed, would suffer no more
mental disturbance until something fresh, outside his experience, again
upset his balance; while Pratt was one of those happy souls to whom life
itself is a perpetual joy, and events only the changing patterns of a
kaleidoscope.

Envying the two placid forms stretched on either side of him, Warrender
was trying to grope his way through the labyrinth of mystery in which
they seemed to have been caught, when he was surprised by a sudden
slight rattling sound upon the tent, like the patter of small
hailstones; it ceased in a second or two.  The night had been fine,
without any warning of a change of weather; the air was still; it seemed
strange that a storm could have risen so rapidly, without a premonitory
wind.  His companions had evidently not been awakened.  Moving
carefully, so as not to disturb them, he crept across to the flap of the
tent, and looked out.  The stars glittered in a vault of unbroken blue;
the tree-tops were silvered by the sinking moon; not a wisp of cloud
streaked the firmament.

There was no repetition of the sound, and Warrender, thinking that he
must, after all, have been dreaming, returned to his sleeping-bag.  As
often happens in cases of insomnia, the slight exertion of walking had
the effect of inducing sleep, and he woke no more until morning.

Armstrong, as usual the first to rise, clutched his towel, and sallied
forth barefoot for his dip. He had no sooner passed into the open,
however, than he uttered what, with some exaggeration Pratt called a
fiendish yell.  Hurrying out to learn the cause of it, the others saw
him standing on one foot and rubbing the sole of the other.

"Which of you blighters dropped a tin-tack here?" he asked.

"Got a puncture, old man?" said Pratt, sympathetically.  "Your skin’s
pretty tough, luckily. Now, if it had been me--ough!"

[Illustration: "’GOT A PUNCTURE, OLD MAN?’"]

He, too, hopped on one foot, and crooked the other leg, his face
contorted for a moment out of its wonted cherubic calm.

"Told you so," he cried, picking a blue tack from between his toes.
"I’m a very sensitive plant, I can tell you.  I see blood.  Warrender,
I’d have yours if you weren’t such a thundering big lout."

"Not guilty," said Warrender, who had prudently stood still.  "You had
better both come and put your boots on.  We haven’t any tacks in our
outfit, so--I say!"

"What do you say?" said Pratt.

"Last night I heard a sound like a sharp shower of rain or hail on the
tent.  Just wait till I pull my boots on."

In half a minute he was out again, shod, and began to examine the grass
around the tent.

"As I thought," he said.  "There’s a regular battalion of the beastly
things; another trick of that blackguard Rush, no doubt.  He’s trying
frightfulness."

"I’ll wring his neck if I catch him," cried Armstrong.

"No, you don’t, my son," said Pratt.  "The law would say ’neck for
neck,’ I’m afraid.  I shouldn’t object to your blacking his eyes.  But
when you come to think of it, perhaps Rush isn’t the culprit after all.
We’ve never seen him on this side of the channel.  It may have been the
other fellow."

"What’s clear is that some one is making a dead set at us," said
Warrender, "and I don’t like it.  It will mean our moving camp."

"You surely won’t let this sort of thing drive you away?" said
Armstrong.

"What’s to be done, then?  They first monkey with the boat--by Jove!
they may have cut her loose again."

"No, I spy her nose," said Pratt.  "They believe in variety, evidently.
But I quite agree with you.  We shall always have to leave one on guard,
and that will spoil the trio.  Two’s company, three’s fun.  All the
same, the position is so jolly interesting that I shouldn’t like to go
right away and leave the mystery unsolved--I mean their objection to our
company.  We haven’t had the cold shoulder anywhere else; and here,
first old Crawshay, then these unknown--look here, you fellows, I vote
we take the job up in earnest, and get to the bottom of it.  It will
alter the Arcadian simplicity of our holiday, but for my part I’d risk
any amount of brain fag over a good jigsaw puzzle like this."

"We’ll think it over," said Warrender.  "The principal thing is not to
lose my boat, and the hundred odd pounds she cost."

On their way down to the river, Pratt espied a greyish object sticking
in a bush.  Shaking it down, he picked up a broken cardboard box on
which was printed a description of "Best quality tin-tacks: British
made."

"A clue!" he cried.  "Sherlock Holmes would have built a whole theory on
this.  I don’t think I was cut out for diplomacy after all.  Criminal
investigation is my forte.  I’ll go down to remote posterity as the most
brilliant detective of this Pratt lost no time in taking a first step in
his new career.  At breakfast Warrender suggested that the tent had
better be removed from its surrounding of tacks, which were too numerous
to be easily collected.

"Very well," said Pratt.  "You and Armstrong are the hefty men.  You
won’t want my help, so I’ll scull the dinghy up to the ferry, and start
my investigations."

"Don’t talk too much," said Armstrong.

"My dear chap, speech was given us to conceal thought.  There’s an art,
some ancient said, in concealing art, and I bet I’d say more and tell
less than any old Prime Minister that ever lived."

Leaving the dinghy in charge of the ferryman, he smiled a greeting to
Rogers, the innkeeper, whose jolly face he caught sight of at the
window, walked on to the village, and entered the general dealer’s shop.

"Fine morning," he said to the aproned youth in attendance.  "D’you
happen to have any tenpenny nails?"

"We’ve got some nails three a penny, sir."

"No good at all.  You couldn’t hang a pirate on one of those, I’m sure.
I suppose the tenpenny nail has gone out of fashion, but perhaps you
have some tin-tacks.  I dare say they’ll do as well."

"Ay, we’ve got some tin-tacks--two sorts, white and blue."

"Not red?"

"No; I don’t know as ever I seed ’em red."

"Well, I particularly wanted red; they don’t show their blushes, you
know.  If you haven’t, you haven’t.  I’ll try blue; they won’t look any
bluer however hard you hit ’em."  The assistant, staring at him like an
amazed ox, handed him a box.  "Yes," he went on, "now I look at them, I
couldn’t wish for better.  They’re a most admirable shade of blue, and
exactly match my Sunday socks.  I don’t suppose there’s much demand for
’em; my hosier assured me my socks were a very special line, so, of
course, there couldn’t be many people wanting tacks of that colour.  I
dare say you haven’t sold a box of these since last season."

"Ah, but we have," said the simple youth, catching at something at last
within his comprehension.  "Only yesterday one of they furriners up at
Red House bought three boxes."

"You don’t say so!  What an appetite he must have!  I suppose it was
that big fellow who talks through his nose?  He wears a red waistcoat,
so I dare say he has blue socks."

"It warn’t him.  He’s the groom.  ’Twas the gardener chap."

"Of course.  What was I thinking of?  He wanted them to tack up his
vines.  They wouldn’t be any good for horse-shoes, and there’s no
question of socks at all.  You needn’t wrap it up, the box won’t catch
cold in my pocket.  Sixpence ha’penny? Dirt cheap.  I think they’re
worth quite a guinea a box, but you daren’t charge that, of course, or
they would haul you up as profiteers.  Thanks so much."

He had noticed that the full box exactly matched the broken one taken
from the bush.

Elated at the success of his first move, Pratt returned at once to the
camp.

"You’re soon back," said Warrender.  "Changed your mind again?"

"Not a bit.  I’m inclined to think diplomats and detectives are of one
kidney.  I’ve been magnificently diplomatic, and I’ve made a discovery."

"Well?"

"My old uncle’s as mad as a hatter!"

"A family failing," Armstrong remarked.  "But what’s that to do with
it?"

"Why, this, old tomato.  He employs a lot of foreigners; that’s mad, to
begin with.  He goes away, and leaves them in the house with
instructions to sow tin-tacks on No Man’s Island. If that isn’t stark
madness, I’d like to know what is."

"Hadn’t you better tell us plainly what you’ve been about?" said
Warrender.

"In words of one syllable.  I bought a box of tin-tacks.  Here it is,
and here’s the one we found in the bush.  You see, they’re twins.  They
were bought at the same shop, to wit, the one owned by Samuel Blevins,
general dealer and banjoist, I understand.  My uncle’s gardener bought
three yesterday.  Now, I ask you, would any man’s gardener sprinkle
inoffensive campers with tin-tacks unless instructed to?  It’s all as
plain as a pikestaff.  My mad uncle has a morbid horror of trespassers.
He leaves word that they are to be chevied away by means fair or
foul----"

"But No Man’s Island isn’t his," Warrender interrupted.

"Certainly.  That proves his madness.  He thinks anybody who gets a
footing here has designs on his property.  It’s a sort of Heligoland.
He employs an ex-poacher to guard his own domains, and the foreigners to
clear his outpost.  Nothing could be plainer."

"Rot!" exclaimed Armstrong.

"Have it your own way.  The facts are undeniable. Rush and the
foreigners are in league to get rid of us, and they can’t have any
motive except their master’s interest."

"We don’t know that," said Warrender.  "Your imagination runs too fast,
young man.  We don’t even know for certain that Rush and the foreigners
are working together.  All we really know is that some one wants to make
the place too uncomfortable for us.  The question is, what shall we do?"

"Stick it," said Armstrong.  "It means keeping watch by night; we can
take turns at that.  We’ll soon find out if----"

"Ahoy, there!" cried a voice from the river.

Unperceived, a skiff had run in under the bank, and its occupant, a
stout old gentleman in flannels, was stepping ashore.

"Old Crawshay!" murmured Pratt.

They got up to meet their visitor.

"Good-morning, my lads," said he, genially. "Surprised to see me, I dare
say.  We didn’t part on the best of terms, but--well, let’s shake hands
and forget all about that.  My daughter told me that you very kindly
came to her assistance the other day.  I’m obliged to you.  I’m only
sorry it didn’t happen before we--but there, that’s wiped up, isn’t it?
If you knew how I’d been pestered! By the way, one of you is related to
my neighbour across the river, I understand."

"Yes, sir, that’s me," said Pratt.  "We’re not on calling terms,
though."

"Neither am I," rejoined Mr. Crawshay, with a smile.  "We don’t hit it
together.  He’s a little----"

"Potty, sir," said Pratt, as the old gentleman caught himself up.  "It’s
a sore trial to the rest of the family.  We were only talking about his
distressing affliction just before you came.  He really ought to be shut
up."

"Indeed!  I wasn’t aware that it was as bad as that.  That is certainly
very distressing."

"A most unusual form of mania, too.  I never heard anything like it
before.  Of course, there are people who crab their own country and
countrymen, but it’s more talk than anything else.  My poor uncle,
however, goes so far as to employ foreigners, who stick tin-tacks into
people."

"Bless my soul!"

"Pratt draws the long bow, sir," said Warrender, thinking it time to
intervene.

"And hits the bull’s-eye every time," Pratt rejoined.  "You can’t deny
that twenty yards away the grass is simply bristling with tin-tacks."

"The fact is, sir," said Warrender, "that some one is trying to annoy
us.  Yesterday morning our motor-boat was set adrift, and in the night
some one showered a lot of tin-tacks round our tent.  The motive seems
to be the wish to drive us away.  And Pratt thinks that his uncle gave
instructions to the men at the house to prevent camping either on his
ground or on the island. They’ve chosen a very annoying way of going
about it."

"Outrageous!  Scandalous!" cried Mr. Crawshay. "He has no rights on the
island.  It’s criminal.  I’m a magistrate, and I’ll issue you a warrant
against the ruffians."

"The difficulty is that we haven’t caught any one in the act," Warrender
pursued.  "I believe that warrants can’t be anonymous.  We’ve seen a
fellow named Rush hanging about----"

"A notorious gaol-bird.  I’ve had my eye on him."

"But the tacks were bought at Blevins’s shop by my uncle’s gardener,"
said Pratt.  "I pumped that out this morning.  I dare say we could find
out the man’s name."

"But it’s no crime to buy tin-tacks," said Warrender.  "We don’t know
who actually scattered them.  Indeed, we’ve no evidence at all; only
inferences."

"Nothing to act on, certainly," said Mr. Crawshay. "It seems to me you
had better cross the river, and camp on my ground after all; or, better
still, come to the house; I’ve plenty of room."

"It’s jolly good of you, sir," said Warrender, "but it goes against the
grain to knuckle under. We’d like to catch the fellows, and find out, if
we can, what their game really is.  I don’t think even Pratt believes
his uncle is responsible, even indirectly."

"Not responsible for his actions, unfit to plead, to be detained during
His Majesty’s pleasure," said Pratt.  "We talked it over, and decided to
stick it, sir.  It’s a matter of pride with me.  I’m thinking of taking
up criminal investigation as a profession."

"Indeed!"

"He’s just cackling, sir," said Armstrong, impelled to utterance at
last.

"I suspected as much.  Well, you’ve made up your minds, I see.  I
understand.  At your age I should have done the same.  If you want any
help, you’ve only to row across the river. My house is about half a mile
through the woods and across a field.  You must come up one day in any
case, and have lunch or dinner with me, and discuss the situation.  And,
by the way, if you’re fond of shooting, my coverts are positively
overstocked.  I can provide guns, and you’re welcome to ’em."

"Many thanks indeed, sir," said Warrender.

"And you’ll keep me informed?  I’ll take action the moment you have
evidence.  It’s atrocious."

They escorted him to his boat, gave him a shove off, and watched him
until he was out of sight. Returning to the tent, Pratt remarked--

"D. Crawshay seems to be a dashed good sort after all."



                              CHAPTER VIII

                               PIN-PRICKS


Late that afternoon, Warrender and Pratt started for a spin in the
dinghy to the mouth of the river, intending to return on the tide.  In
accordance with their newly formed plan, Armstrong remained on guard in
the camp.

Just before the scullers gained the river mouth they overtook a
weather-beaten old fisherman leisurely rowing his heavy tub out to sea.
Pratt gave him a cheery hail as they came abreast of him, and learning,
in answer to a question, that he was proceeding to inspect his lobster
pots nearly a mile out, they asked if they might accompany him.

"Ay sure, I’ve nothing against it," said the old man.

"Nor against us, I hope," rejoined Pratt, smiling.

"Not as I knows on."

"Then we’re friends already.  I always make friends in two seconds and a
half, and being, like Cæsar, constant as the northern star, I stick like
a limpet.  You can’t shake me off."

"Same as a lobster when he gets a grip."

"Ah! you know more about lobsters than I do. Is that a lobster pot on
the beach there?"

He indicated a low wooden hut, standing a little above high-water mark,
on the shore curving away to the east.

"You be a joker, sir," said the fisher, his native taciturnity thawed.
"That be a fisherman’s hut. Fisherman, says I, but ’tis little fishing
as goes on hereabouts nowadays.  I mind the time when there was a tidy
little fleet in these waters, but that was long ago.  There was good
harbourage in those days, but the sea have cast up a bar across the
mouth of the river; we’re going over it now; and it makes the passage
dangerous for a boat of any draught.  One or two old gaffers like me
goes out now and again, but ’tis not what it was in my young days."

"That hut looks a bit dilapidated--is it yours?"

"No, it belongs to Mr. Pratt, up along at the house."

"You don’t say so!  I dare say you’ll be surprised to hear it, but it
wouldn’t be fair to you to keep it a secret; Mr. Pratt is my uncle."

"Do ’ee tell me that, now?"

"But I hope you won’t think any the worse of me.  It’s not my fault--I’m
sure you’ll admit that."

"Think the worse of ’ee!  I reckon ’tis t’other way about.  He be my
landlord, and a rare good ’un; never raised my rent all the thirty years
I’ve knowed ’un.  We thinks a rare lot of ’un in village."

"I say, do you mean that?"

"What for not?  He never gives us no trouble, and if you can say that of
the landlord as owns best part o’ the village, you may reckon there
ain’t much wrong with ’un.  Not but what he’ve a bit of a temper, and
can’t abide being put upon; but treat him fair, and he’ll treat you
fair.  Ay, and more.  That there hut, now.  It do belong to him, but I
doubt he’s never been richer for any rent paid him for’t."

"Who rents it, then?"

"Uses it, I’d say.  Nick Rush never paid no rent, that I’d swear."

"Siren Rush again, Phil," said Pratt, in an undertone, to Warrender.  "I
thought Rush was a poacher," he added, to the fisherman.

The old man made no reply.  Pratt guessed that for some reason or other
he was unwilling to commit himself.

"My uncle, as you say, can’t stand being put upon," he went on.  "Which
makes it the more surprising that he should allow a rascal like Rush to
use his hut rent free.  I wonder he doesn’t turn him out."

"He did, a year or two back," said the fisherman, tersely.

"That was when Rush went to gaol for poaching, of course?" said Pratt,
with the air of one who was well acquainted with the circumstances. "I
should have done the same myself.  No one would be hard on a poor fellow
who kept straight, but when Mr. Crawshay had to sentence him for
poaching, that was the last straw.  But how is it that he has been
allowed to come back?  Has he turned over a new leaf?"

"The hut was empty for a year or two, and was falling to pieces,"
answered the fisherman.  "When Rush came back to these parts he mended
it a bit, and Mr. Pratt having gone to furrin parts again, I reckon his
secretary didn’t think it worth while to bother about the feller."

"I dare say that was it.  In these days it’s not easy to get rid of an
unsatisfactory tenant, I understand.  But my uncle won’t be pleased when
he comes home, I’m sure.  The secretary ought to know that."

"Ay, and so he would if ’twas an Englishman, but with these furriners,
there’s no accountin’ for them.  The village do have a grudge against
Mr. Pratt on that score; the folk don’t like ’em. I feel a bit strong
about it myself.  There’s my son Henery, as owns a dairy farm up yonder,
was courting Molly Rogers, sister of Joe at the inn, afore the war;
terrible sweet on she, he was; and everybody thought, give her time,
they’d make a match of it.  But bless ’ee, afore he was demobbed, as
they call it, these furriners come along, and daze me if the smallest of
’em weren’t Molly’s husband inside of a month.  And to make matters
worse, it do seem as she’ve cast off all her old friends, becas nobody
sees nothing of her these days.  But there ’tis; you can’t never
understand a woman."

The greater part of this conversation took place while the old man was
lifting his lobster pots--the others lying by.  He went on to give them
information about the coast--where good line-fishing could be had, rocks
where crabs could be picked up at low tide.  Having bought a couple of
lobsters, Warrender turned the dinghy’s head for home.

The sun was going down as they approached the island.  Near its southern
point they met Rush, slowly pulling a tubby boat down stream. He did not
look at them as they passed; his square countenance was expressionless.

Rowing straight along the narrow channel to their camping-place, they
lifted the dinghy ashore, and carried it towards the tent.  Armstrong
was not to be seen.

"The sentry has deserted his post," remarked Pratt.  "But I dare say
he’s not far."

He gave a shrill whistle.  An answer came distantly from the woods, and
presently Armstrong appeared, pushing his way through the thickets on
the western side of the clearing.

"All quiet, old man?" asked Warrender.

"Until a little while ago," Armstrong replied. "I heard a rustling and
crackling in the thicket yonder.  I couldn’t see anything, and for a
time I simply kept on the watch; but it went on so long that I got sick
of doing nothing, and started off quietly to investigate, and nab the
fellow if I could. But though I couldn’t see him, it’s clear he could
see me.  What his game was, I don’t know; I only know that I could
always hear him moving some little distance ahead of me, and before I
realised how far I had got, I found myself pretty near the farther
shore.  I just caught a glimpse of a back among the bushes, but when I
got to the place there was nothing to be seen or heard either.  It
occurred to me then that I’d been decoyed away while some one played
hanky-panky here, and I cursed myself for an ass and hurried back, but
things look undisturbed."

They glanced around the camp and inspected the interior of the tent.
Their various properties appeared to be exactly as they had been left;
nothing was obviously missing.

"I suppose it was another little freak of Siren Rush," remarked Pratt.
"We met him rowing down as we came up.  No doubt he was going to visit
his hut on the beach."

He retailed the bits of information derived from the fisherman, dwelling
particularly on the surprising fact that, "potty" though he might be,
Mr. Ambrose Pratt was respected, and even liked, by the country folk.

It was not until they began to make preparations for their evening meal
that a new light was cast on the mysterious movements in the thicket.
Armstrong took their kettle and bucket down to the river.  Neither would
hold water.  Examining them, he found a hole in the bottom of each,
clean cut as if made by a bradawl.  Meanwhile Pratt had discovered that
their tea was afloat in the caddy, and the wick had been removed from
their stove.

"More pin-pricks," he said.  "Any one would think the blighters had
learnt ragging at a public school."

"Pin-pricks be hanged!" cried Armstrong, wrathfully.  "They’re much
worse than a jolly good set-to--much more difficult to deal with.  If
they’d come out into the open, we’d jolly well settle their hash."

The others guessed that Armstrong’s anger was largely due to his own
failure as a watchman.

"One thing is clear," said Warrender, considerately. "Whoever played
these tricks, it was not Rush.  He couldn’t possibly have drawn you to
the shore, cut round here and done the damage, and then got back to his
boat and dropped down stream to where we met him, while you were coming
straight across.  On the other hand, if he had got into his boat
directly after he disappeared, he could just have done it.  If he was
the decoy, who was the confederate?"

"’Time’s glory is to calm contending kings,’" quoted Pratt, "and among
other stupendous feats, ’to wrong the wronger till he render right.’
But I’m not disposed to leave old Time to his own unaided resources.
These island Pucks are decidedly annoying, but they’re also uncommonly
interesting.  ’Life is a war,’ some one said.  Well, it’s to be a war of
wits, by the look of it, and I’ll back our wits in the end against
sirens or sorcerers, or any old scaramouch.  Only I’m bound to confess
that up to the present the enemy is several points up."



                               CHAPTER IX

                               REPRISALS


"What about dividing the night into watches?" asked Armstrong, when they
had cleared away their evening meal.

"Dark to dawn is about eight hours," responded Warrender.  "By
summer-time, nine to five."

"And three into eight will go with a recurring decimal," added Pratt.
"I don’t mind being the recurring decimal, which as a matter of
practicality I take to mean that I’ll come on every tenth hour; that is
to say, I’ll have ten hours’ sleep unbroken, and turn up, fresh as a
lark, at seven in the morning."

"Very ingenious," said Warrender, "but I prefer my fractions vulgar.
Two-thirds of an hour is forty minutes, and you’ll do your two hours
forty minutes like us two.  We’ll start alphabetically, shall we?
Armstrong first--then the vulgar fraction, then me."

"I always thought the middleman got the best of it in life," said Pratt.
"Here’s an exception, any way.  The first and last men will each have
five hours twenty minutes’ sleep on end; the middleman won’t get any,
because he won’t fall asleep at all in the first watch, from
over-anxiety, or in the third, because it won’t seem worth while. Still,
if we permutate--APW, PAW and so on--we’ll all suffer in turn.  I warn
you, when I’m middleman I shan’t be able to keep awake without the
solace of my banjo."

"I bar that," said Armstrong.  "It’d give me nightmare."

"Well, I’ve warned you.  If the Assyrian comes down like a wolf on the
fold, somewhere about midnight, don’t blame me."

But when, about seven o’clock in the morning, they compared notes, they
found that none of them had been disturbed, and Pratt had a good deal to
say on the advantages of the midnight hours for the refreshment of the
inner man.  Two empty ginger-beer bottles beside his chair approved his
sentiments.

"It’s only a respite, of course," he said.  "They wouldn’t have started
their tricks without a reason; they won’t give them up until they find
them useless; and they’ll make that discovery all the sooner if we open
a defensive offensive.  I propose to go into the village after
breakfast; an idea’s occurred to me; and I’ll call at the post office
and see if any answer has come from the fellow I sent that Russian
newspaper to.  You had better come with me, Jack; it’s Phil’s turn to be
house-dog."

So it was arranged.  Pratt and Armstrong rowed the dinghy to the ferry.
Joe Rogers was standing at his inn door.

"Morning to ’ee, young gentlemen," he said. "You be Mr. Pratt’s nephew,
sir," he added to Pratt.

"How do you know that?" asked Pratt.

"Old Gaffer Drew telled me when he came home along last night.  He said
as ’twas the young feller whose tongue went like a clapper, so I knowed
’ee at once."

"Well, I’d rather be known by my tongue than by my finger-prints,
wouldn’t you?"

"Ay, we’ve all got our weaknesses.  Mine is baldness, come of a fever I
took aboardship when we was off Gallapagos.  My old woman _will_ make me
wear a wig, though I could do without it this hot weather.  And how do
’ee find No Man’s Island, sir?"

"A place of enchantment, equal to Prospero’s island.  We know there’s a
Puck, and we suspect there’s a Caliban, but more of that anon."

"You do talk like a book, sir.  Well, I’m glad you be comfortable.  Good
day to ’ee."

They called at the village post office.  There was no letter from
Pratt’s friend.

"Let’s go on and have a look at my uncle’s house," said Pratt, when they
came out.  "It’s about a mile beyond the village, on that by-road we saw
the other day.  The road winds a good deal, and though I don’t propose
to leave my card at the house, I’d like to take a peep at it once more,
closer than we can get from the river."

They went on, turned into the by-road, and after about three-quarters of
a mile came to a brick wall on the right, in which there was a massive
gate, and within it a small lodge.  The gate was padlocked, the lodge
closed and shuttered.  A few hundred yards beyond was a second gate and
lodge. The latter also was evidently unoccupied, but the gate was open.

"It’s the shortest way from the house to Dartmouth," said Pratt.  "We
can’t see the house for the trees, but if I remember rightly the
ground’s more open a little farther along."

In a minute or so they came to a spot where, by mounting the wall, they
were able to obtain a clear view of the building.  It stood above a
terraced garden some three hundred yards from the road. Fine though the
day was, they were both struck by a sense of gloom.  The windows were
all closed; those on the ground floor were shuttered; and but for a thin
wisp of smoke rising from one of the chimneys the house might have been
supposed to be untenanted.

"The servants’ quarters are at the back," said Pratt.  "The foreigners
at any rate don’t play high jinks in the front rooms while my uncle is
away.  But it looks pretty dreary, doesn’t it, old man?  Makes me think
of Mariana in the moated grange."

"Don’t know the lady," said Armstrong.  "But look! there’s a car coming
out of the garage at the side."

"That used to be the stables," said Pratt, as the doors were flung wide,
and an open four-seated touring car emerged.  "That’s not the car we saw
the other day, though the chauffeur’s the same."

Perched on the wall they remained watching. The chauffeur stopped the
car, got out, and shut the doors of the garage.  Meanwhile the big
fellow whom Armstrong had felled came round the other side of the house
carrying a small leather trunk. Behind him walked a short, dapper little
man, wearing a grey Homburg hat and a light overcoat.  From his gestures
it appeared that he ordered the big man to strap the trunk on to the
luggage-carrier at the rear of the car.  When this was done, the small
man got into one of the back seats, and the chauffeur, already at the
wheel, started the car along the right-hand fork in the drive leading to
the open gate.

"Down!  They mustn’t see us," said Pratt.

They dropped from the wall into the grounds, and shinned up a small tree
whose thick-laden branches overhung the edge of the road.  Half a minute
later the car ran past, swung to the right outside the gate, and dashed
rather noisily in the direction of Dartmouth.

[Illustration: "THEY SHINNED UP A SMALL TREE."]


[Illustration: "HALF A MINUTE LATER THE CAR RAN PAST."]

"The passenger is my uncle’s secretary, I suppose," said Pratt.  "I
wonder which of the many nations of the world claims him?  He might pass
for an Englishman, but you can’t tell from a fugitive glance when a
man’s clean-shaven."

"I thought he looked a decent sort of chap," said Armstrong, as they
returned to the road; "not the kind of fellow to consort with a man like
Rush."

"No.  I dare say Rush is playing some game of his own with one of the
underlings.  I’ll tell you my idea, by the way.  Leaving us alone last
night struck me as rather suspicious.  They’ve probably got something in
hand for to-night.  Well, it occurred to me that if Rush comes prowling
around our tent, with more tin-tacks or who knows what, it would be
rather a good dodge to trip him up and collar him before he can hook
it."

"He’ll guess we’re on the watch.  No man would be such an ass as to
suppose we’d let him do the tin-tack trick a second time."

"That may be.  Very likely he kept off last night just for that reason.
As you say, he’d guess we’d be on the watch, and probably thinks we’re
all jolly sick to-day because nothing happened, and won’t be inclined to
keep vigil again. Anyhow, if he does come again, he won’t expect any
danger until he gets near to the tent, and I propose to nab him before
then."

"How?"

"Stretch a cord two or three inches above the ground just where the
thicket ends at the edge of the clearing.  He wouldn’t see it, even by
moonlight, because it would be pretty well hidden by the grass.  But
he’d be bound to catch one of his hoofs in it, and a lumbering lout like
that couldn’t pick himself up before any one of us three would be down
on him."

"But how d’you know which way he’d come?"

"He wouldn’t come across the clearing, that’s certain.  Well, the tent
is about six yards from the thicket behind, and the edge of the thicket
makes a sort of rough half-circle.  A cord of fifty or sixty yards would
be plenty long enough.  I dare say we’ll get one at old Blevins’s shop.
We’ll pay him a call on the way back."

The shop was unattended when they entered it, but a rap on the counter
brought Blevins himself, wearing the polite tradesman’s smile.

"Good-morning, Mr. Blevins," said Pratt. "You’ve a motor-car for hire, I
believe?"

"Well, yes, sir, I do have as a rule, but ’tis out to-day.  In fact, I
don’t know when it will be back.  ’Tis hired for the Red House, Mr.
Pratt’s being under repair."

"Ah! that’s a pity.  We’ll have to put off our joy-ride.  Well, it can’t
be helped.  Perhaps you could let us have a skipping-rope instead?"

"A skipping-rope, sir?"

"Yes.  Didn’t you know?  Skipping is one of the most beneficial
exercises any one could indulge in.  It brings into play I forget
exactly how many muscles, develops a perfect co-ordination between the
brain, the eye, the hands and feet; and if you ever go to Oxford, I dare
say you’ll see on any college lawn all the brainiest men of the rising
generation skipping about under the eyes of their revered tutors.  If
the mountains could skip like rams, as we’re told they did, there’s
nothing surprising in a future Prime Minister skipping like a giddy
goat, is there?  And there are hundreds of future Prime Ministers
imbibing the milk of academic instruction at Oxford to-day."

Blevins had listened with a stare of puzzlement. The short, chubby youth
appeared to be serious; his companion’s face showed no flicker of a
smile; yet the general dealer, remembering what his assistant had told
him, had a dim suspicion that he was dealing either with a joker or with
a lunatic. To get rid of his dilemma he confined himself to the severely
practical.

"Well, sir," he said, "I don’t keep skipping-ropes as such, but I’ve a
cord which the neighbours do make clothes-line of."

"The very thing!" cried Pratt.  "We haven’t made any arrangements about
our washing, and, as laundry prices have gone up beyond all bearing, we
may have to do our own.  Of course we shall want a clothes-line for
hanging out our shirts and things on, and as my friends are regular
nuts, and possess a very extensive wardrobe, we shall want a long
line--quite fifty yards.  Add ten yards for a skipping-rope, that makes
sixty; we’ll take sixty yards, Mr. Blevins; and as you can’t possibly
make a neat parcel of that, you’d better twist ’em round the hefty frame
of my friend here; sort of bandolier, you know."

The man proceeded to measure out the cord from a bale which he rolled
from his back premises.

"You be camping on No Man’s Island, ’tis said," he remarked.

"We are," replied Pratt.  "We’re followers of the simple life; fresh
air, cold water, and plain fare.  We drink nothing stronger than
ginger-beer, and eat nothing more luxurious than macaroons, and I
suppose we can’t get even them in a place like this?  What’s the
consequence?  We never have bad dreams, like people who stuff themselves
and sleep in stuffy rooms."

"And you haven’t been troubled by the sounds, sir?"

"What sounds?"

"Well--some folks do talk of terrible groans they’ve heard if so be
they’ve rowed past the island by night, and ’tis said the place is
haunted by the spirit of the old gentleman as used to live there."

"He hasn’t disturbed our rest, I assure you. I dare say he’s been
soothed by my banjo; I usually tune up a little before I go to bed.  You
play the banjo yourself, I hear; you know how grateful and comforting it
is--sweet and low, not like the squeaking scrape of the violin, or the
ear-splitting blast of the cornet.  I think you’re a man of taste, Mr.
Blevins, and as a fellow-musician I congratulate you....  That’s sixty
yards? Now, Armstrong, stick out your chest, and Mr. Blevins and I
between us will rig up your bandolier."

When they had left the shop, Pratt asked: "I say, what’s he mean by
those old groans?"

"I heard a sort of moaning the night I first saw the cottage," Armstrong
replied; "but I put it down to the wind, of course."

"There’s been no wind to speak of since we settled on the island.  I’d
like to hear those sounds. Strikes me they’re an acoustical phenomenon.
Sure it wasn’t an owl?"

"Nothing like it; the note was deeper and more prolonged."

"Well, if it’s the wind in the eaves the sound will be heard by day as
well as by night, and I’ll trot over to the cottage the first breezy
morning and listen."

Warrender had nothing to report when they regained the camp.  He thought
well of Pratt’s idea of a trap, and they spent the greater part of the
day in cutting a number of stout pegs from saplings in the woods.  These
they drove into the ground, at intervals of a few feet, in a long
semi-circle at the edge of the clearing, and stretched the clothes-line
upon them about six inches from the ground.  One or other of them kept a
careful look-out while the work was in progress, and nothing was seen of
Rush or any other human being. Before dusk the task was completed, and
they had provided themselves in addition with stout cudgels.

It was Pratt’s turn to take first watch that night. On the previous
night each had sat out in the open, but it occurred to Pratt that a
better place would be just within the tent.  Accordingly, when the
others encased themselves in their sleeping-bags, he posted himself on
his chair at the entrance, shaded from the moonlight by the projecting
flap.

More than two hours had passed; he was growing sleepy, frequently
glancing at his watch to see when it would be time to awaken Warrender.
Just before half-past eleven he heard a slight sound from the thicket on
his right.  Seizing his cudgel, he looked in the direction of the sound.
The edge of the clearing on that side was deep in shadow.  He stood up;
it might be a false alarm; he would not awaken his companions.

Suddenly there was a heavy thud, followed by smothered curses.  Pratt
dashed out of the tent and across the clearing.  At the edge of the
thicket a man was struggling to his feet.  Even at that moment Pratt was
too much of a sportsman to use his cudgel.  He closed with the man,
gripped him by the collar, and hauled him into the moonlight, crying,
"What are you doing here?"  The man attempted to wriggle loose.  Pratt
dropped his cudgel, got a firm grip with both hands, and with a
dexterous use of his knee threw the intruder heavily to the ground.
Next moment he was struck violently on the left side of his head, and
fell half-stunned.

[Illustration: "PRATT THREW THE INTRUDER HEAVILY TO THE GROUND."]

Meanwhile the sounds had wakened Armstrong and Warrender.  Heaving
themselves out of their sleeping-bags they rushed in their pyjamas
across the clearing.  Pratt was sitting up, dazedly rubbing his head.

"What’s the row?" asked Armstrong.

"Diamond cut diamond," murmured Pratt. "Help me up, you fellows.
Everything’s whirling round."

They helped him back into the tent and sponged his head.  Presently he
was able to tell them what had happened.

"Was it Rush you collared?" asked Warrender.

"No, a bigger man, with a broad face, high cheekbones, and a bent-in
nose."

"The face I saw in the thicket!" exclaimed Armstrong.  "Who was the
other chap?"

"I don’t know.  I didn’t see him, confound the fellow!  Just my luck!
And it was my scheme!"



                               CHAPTER X

                             A SOFT ANSWER


There was no more sleep that night for any of the party.  When Pratt’s
bruised head had been bathed and bandaged the three placed their chairs
at the tent entrance, and sat in the still, warm air, discussing the
situation more seriously than they had yet done.  They had learnt
definitely from the recent incident that at least two men were concerned
in the campaign of petty annoyance. One of these--the man whose face
Armstrong had seen in the thicket--looked like a foreigner, and
apparently either lived somewhere on the island or had means of reaching
it from the mainland. What more probable than that the second man was
Rush, and that his boat was placed at the foreigner’s disposal?

"The more I think of it," said Warrender, "the more likely it seems that
Rush and one of the foreigners are playing some private game of their
own.  I haven’t a notion what the game is, but I can’t believe that
Pratt’s uncle left instructions to worry trespassers on an island that
isn’t his, or that any decent fellow in his secretary’s position would
encourage it."

"That assumes the secretary is a decent fellow," remarked Armstrong.

"Well, why not?" asked Pratt.  "A man may be mad without being a fool,
and my old uncle, though he’s mad enough to hate English servants,
wouldn’t be such a fool as to engage foreigners without inquiring about
their characters."

"That fellow Armstrong knocked down wasn’t an attractive specimen," said
Warrender.

"He was drunk," said Pratt.  "Some of the most estimable characters--the
most respectable of English butlers, for instance--may now and then take
a drop too much."

"That fellow is a sot," said Armstrong.  "It’s marked all over him."

"Well, I tell you what I think we had better do," said Warrender.  "Go
up to the house, see the secretary, and put the case to him.  If he’s a
decent fellow, and the man you tripped, Pratt, is one of his crew, he’ll
put a stop to this foolery. Will you go up with me to-morrow?"

"Better take Armstrong," Pratt replied.  "If my uncle were at home I’d
go and beard him, and jolly well tell him a few things for his good. But
I’d rather not show up in his absence.  Besides, I shall have a head
to-morrow, and a swelling the size of a turnip.  I feel the growing
pains; I’ll be fit for nothing."

"Rough luck!" said Warrender, commiseratingly. "Very well.  Jack and I
will go, and I dare say that’ll be the end of our troubles."

At nine o’clock next morning Armstrong and Warrender rowed off in the
dinghy; at a quarter to ten they entered the grounds of the Red House.
The paths were weedy, the grass untrimmed, the flower-beds untidy.

"The foreigners don’t overwork," remarked Armstrong, as they walked
along the drive towards the house.  "The place is a disgrace to the
neighbourhood."

"It certainly looks very much neglected," said Warrender.  "The house
might be uninhabited but for that smoke from one of the chimneys, and
the car waiting at the door."

"The same car Pratt and I saw yesterday. It belongs to old Blevins.  I
wonder whether they use it for joy-riding, or what?  The secretary may
be away, by the bye; yesterday he went off with a trunk."

"A nuisance if he is.  But we’ll see."

The front of the house faced south-east, and the drive wound from the
gate in a wide arc to the left.  The lower windows were shuttered; at
some of those on the upper storey the blinds were drawn; but as the
visitors approached there appeared at a small upper casement on the side
of the house facing them the form of a woman, At first it seemed that
she had not seen them; she stood looking out in an attitude of idle
immobility. They could not distinguish her features through the small
square panes of the casement; she was stout in build, and dressed in the
print of a domestic servant.

Suddenly, as her eyes fell on them, she gave a perceptible start.  She
turned her head quickly from the window, as if to see whether any one
was behind her; then raised her hands, apparently to undo the catch.
Next moment she dropped them with a gesture of impatience or despair.
The boys saw her shake her head, and, lifting an arm, make a sweeping
movement with it towards the rear of the house.  A moment later she left
the window hurriedly, as a servant might do in answering a call.

"Rummy!" said Warrender.  "That’s Rogers’s sister, I suppose; wife of
the chef, you remember. What did she mean?"

"It looked as if she wanted to open the window and couldn’t," returned
Armstrong.  "She wanted to speak to us."

"That movement of her arm--was it a warning to us to go away?"

"Too late in any case.  That’s the secretary coming out; he’s seen us."

The dapper little man whom Armstrong had seen on the day before, dressed
as he was then, was hurrying down the steps from the front entrance when
he caught sight of the boys.  He stopped short, gave a swift glance
behind him, then descended the remaining steps and came towards them.
His movements were quick, his step was light, and as he drew nearer they
were aware of a very vivid personality, accentuated by dark eyes of
great brilliance, set rather closely together.

"Yes, gentlemen," he said, smiling, "what can I do for you?"

His voice was low and smooth; the intonation, rather than the accent,
alone suggested a foreign origin.

"Can you give us a few minutes alone?" said Warrender.

The chauffeur had just come down the steps, carrying a box, and stood
with it still in his arms, beside the car, looking on with an air of
startled curiosity.

"Certainly," replied the man, "if it is only a question of minutes.  As
you see, I am about to drive out, and my time is short.  Henrico"--he
addressed the chauffeur--"put the box down and go into the house.  Now,
gentlemen."

"You are Mr. Pratt’s secretary, I believe," said Warrender, feeling a
little awkwardness in the situation, and wishing that the voluble
banjoist were in the office of spokesman instead of himself.

"Yes.  My name is Gradoff--Paul Gradoff."

"Well, Mr. Gradoff, I’m sorry to trouble you, but you may be able to
throw some light on a puzzle that’s rather annoying to us."

"Anything I can do----"

"We are camping on the island over there, and ever since our arrival
have been the object of annoying and--I’m afraid I must say--malicious
attacks.  We have reason to believe that one of the aggressors is not an
Englishman, and knowing that your staff here is largely foreign, we have
come up to--to----"

"Complain?" suggested Gradoff, as Warrender hesitated.

"Well, rather to ask if you can help us," Warrender went on.  "I should
explain that we fell foul of one of your men on the evening of our
arrival, and it occurs to me that he, or one of his mates, may be
retaliating."

"Ah yes; I had heard of that little matter from my man, Jensen," said
Gradoff, suavely. "You could hardly expect him to be amiable, could you?
He was insulted by a yokel, very properly chastised him, and was then
suddenly set upon by one of you young men, and before he could defend
himself was seriously hurt."

"That’s nonsense, Mr. Gradoff!" exclaimed Armstrong.  "The man dealt a
foul blow, and I stepped in."

"It was you?" rejoined Gradoff, in his suave, smooth tones.  "The
version is different: _tot homines tot sententiæ_--being students you
will recognise the allusion.  It is so very difficult to reconcile
conflicting stories, especially in common brawls.  But, come; it is not
like Englishmen to make a fuss about trifles, and Olof Jensen is not the
man to bear malice.  If that is the sum of your complaint----"

"But it is not," Warrender broke in, nettled by the Russian’s suavity
and his Latin.  "We hadn’t been twelve hours on the island when our
motor-boat was set adrift----"

"My dear young man, _quandoque dormitat Homerus_--you will correct me if
I do not quote accurately; my schooldays, alas! are a distant past.
Even the most experienced sailors--and I am far from saying I do not
include you among them--may tie a careless knot; make a slip, as you
English say.  And the current is strong when swollen by the rain.
Really, my dear sir----"

"At any rate tin-tacks don’t rain from heaven. We had a shower of them
over our tent one night, and in the morning----"

"_Latet anguis in herbâ_!  Come, come; you were dreaming.  I am told
that in the past the island was a favourite resort of trippers, a class
of people who reprehensibly leave behind them much rubbish--paper bags,
bottles, tin cans; why not tin-tacks?"

Warrender was fuming, irritated by his lack of evidence as well as by
the secretary’s manner. He wished that he had ignored the minor
incidents, and confined his statement to the latest.

"We’d no proof--I know that--till last night," he said.  "A fellow
tripped over a rope snare we had rigged up.  One of us caught him, and
knocked him out; he was clearly a foreigner----"

"And you have him in custody?  Ah, now we are getting to something
substantial!  He was a foreigner; on the principle _ex pede
Herculem_--you recognise the proverb?--you infer that he belongs to my
staff.  And you did not bring him with you for confrontation?"

"He was rescued by----"

"By another foreigner?"

"We don’t know who by; he gave my friend a blow from behind."

"That is more serious, truly.  But what do you tell me?  You are camping
on the island--with permission?  No, of course not; is it not No Man’s
Island?  Well, what is no man’s is all men’s. What more likely than that
others are camping there also?  One of them falls over your rope, and is
knocked out by your friend; your friend is, in turn, knocked out by a
friend of the tripper. It is the _lex talionis_--the term is familiar to
you? That, of course, is only a theory, but I commend it to your
consideration.  And now, I take it, I have the sum of your complaints.
I put it to you, do they make a case against my staff?"

"I wasn’t making a case against your staff," said Warrender.  "I merely
stated the facts."

"But with a bias; yes, with a bias, natural enough to youth and hot
blood.  I do not blame you; but you will agree that I am somewhat
concerned for the good name of the men under my charge.  Lest you should
still harbour doubts about them, I will summon them.  You shall see
them.  They number four.  There is Jensen, the Swede, whom you,
sir"--turning to Armstrong--"so unhappily misjudged.  But you shall see
them all.  There is a woman, too, the wife of the chef, an amiable
countrywoman of yours.  It is perhaps not necessary to summon her?  You
do not suspect her of sowing tin-tacks or falling over your rope?"

He smiled, and without waiting for an answer went to the open house-door
and called his chauffeur, to whom he gave instructions.  Meanwhile, the
two boys, chafing under his politeness with its touch of irony,
exchanged looks of silent sympathy.

"The men will be here immediately," said Gradoff, rejoining them.  "What
a delightful summer we are having!  _Per æstivam liquidam_--you remember
the line?  How I envy you your daily browsing on the Classics!  Ah, here
come the four suspects!  Two, you perceive, are tall; two are short.  I
will align them in order of their heights, as they do in your army, I
believe.  Halt, men!  Stand in line: Jensen at one end, then Radewski,
then Prutti, last of all, Rod.  Now, my dear sirs, inspect the company."

"There’s no need," said Warrender.  "We’ve seen them all in or about the
village.  None of these is the man you saw, Jack?"

"No," replied Armstrong, shortly.

"But darkness, even moonlight, is deceptive," said Gradoff, in his
suavest manner.  "Really, I am concerned to convince you thoroughly; I
should regret your going away harbouring the least particle of
suspicion.  I will interrogate them in turn.  Jensen, you do not amuse
yourself by sowing tin-tacks on No Man’s Island?--Jensen, I may explain,
is Mr. Pratt’s horsekeeper, in particular, and handy-man in general.
Well, Jensen?"

"Nope," replied the man, gruffly, eyeing Armstrong with a scowl.

"And you, Radewski?--Radewski is the gardener."  The boys recognised him
as the passenger in the car that had collided with the farm-wagon.

"No, of course not," answered the Pole, smiling.

"And now you, Prutti?--the chauffeur, as you see."

"It is silly, stupid; I say ze question----" began the Italian, volubly.

"Yes, yes; but I want no comments.  Just say yes or no," Gradoff
interrupted.

"No, zen; I say no.  I say ze question----"

"He comes from the south, gentlemen," said Gradoff, deprecatingly.
"Now, Rod, what have you to say?"

"Sacré nom d’un----"

"Now, now.  Maximilien Rod is the chef, gentlemen, accustomed to the use
of the diction of the menu.  Plain English, Rod, if you please."

"Zen I say zat ze man vat accuse me of so imbecile, so--so--so----"

"Contain yourself, Rod.  Yes or no?"

"No, no; not at all--no!"

"Four negatives do not make an affirmative," said Gradoff, turning to
the boys, and smiling with the persistent urbanity they were beginning
to detest.  "These are all my staff--with the exception of the excellent
woman, Rod’s wife. Would you like to pursue your inquiries?"

"Thank you, it is unnecessary," replied Warrender, in as even and polite
a tone as he was master of.

"Then the men may return to their duties, and I may begin my journey.
May I give you a lift as far as the cross-roads?  Or, stay!  You are
here very near the river.  You may prefer to take a short cut through
the grounds, and avoid the long walk on the dusty road."

"Thank you," said Warrender, ready to accept any suggestion that would
remove him quickly from the presence of Mr. Gradoff; "if some one will
show us the way."

"Certainly.  Quite a happy thought," said the Russian.  He called to the
chef, the rearmost of the party filing away.  "Rod, show these gentlemen
the shortest way to the river; bring them opposite to the island.
Good-morning, gentlemen. I am sorry you have found me a broken reed.
But I do hope your holiday will not be spoilt; I have such keen memories
of my own happy holidays--_liberatio et vacuitas omnis molestiæ_: you
remember your Cicero?  _Good_-morning."

He sprang into the car, in which the chauffeur was already seated, and
with a smile and a wave of the hand was driven away.



                               CHAPTER XI

                          INFORMATION RECEIVED


"Sarcastic swine!" muttered Armstrong, savagely, as he set off with
Warrender behind the rotund little chef.

"So confoundedly polite I could have kicked him," returned Warrender, in
the same undertone. "His beastly Latin, too!  What did he take us for?"

"What we are--a couple of mugs.  And Pratt’s worse, with his absurd
theories.  Of course these chaps aren’t in it.  Rush is at the bottom of
it, and the other fellow, though he looked like a foreigner, is very
likely only some ugly freak of a Devonian after all."

"Well, I’ll be hanged if I stand any more of Rush’s nonsense.  Next time
anything happens, I’ll get old Crawshay to set that bobby moving we saw
the other day.  I’m sick of it."

Ill-humour had for the moment got the upper hand, and they were
conscious only of their soreness as they followed their guide through
the unkempt grounds.  Their attention was attracted presently by the
tower that reared itself out of a thicket some little distance on their
left.  It was a square much-dilapidated building of stone, encrusted
with moss and ivy, reaching a height of some fifty or sixty feet.  The
window openings were boarded up with deal planks that were evidently
new.

"Is the tower used for anything now?" Warrender asked the Swiss.

"Ze tower?  No, it is ruin, fall to pieces," replied the man.

[Illustration: "’ZE TOWER?  NO, IT IS RUIN, FALL TO PIECES.’"]

"I say, we _are_ a couple of lunatics!" cried Armstrong.  "We’ve left
the dinghy at the ferry. What’s the good of the short cut?  Pratt can’t
work the motor."

"Hang it!  I’d clean forgotten."

"Zen ve go back?" said the guide, eagerly. He had come to the end of the
open grounds; the rest of the way lay through a wilderness of shrubs
that promised laborious walking.

"No, I’m hanged if we do," said Warrender. "Now we’ve come so far we’ll
not go back."

"Zen how you cross ze river?"

"Swim it.  You needn’t come.  We’ll forge straight ahead.  Thanks."

He tipped the man, and plunged with Armstrong into the thicket.  Ten
minutes’ battling with the intricately woven mass of greenery brought
them to the brink of the stream almost exactly opposite to their
camping-place.  They stripped, bundled their clothes upon their heads,
and made short work of the thirty-foot channel.

"My aunt!  In native garb!" cried Pratt, as they walked up still
unclothed.  "’Here be we poor mariners.’  Shipwrecked?  Lost the
dinghy?"

"No, only our tempers," replied Armstrong. "The dinghy’s still at the
ferry."

"I say, my uncle hasn’t got back, has he?" asked Pratt.

"No.  Why?"

"I thought perhaps you had met him, and got a taste of _his_ temper,
that’s all.  ’Tell me not in mournful numbers’--but tell me anyhow you
like the cause of this Ulyssean exhibition."

Warrender began the narrative as he towelled himself, continued it
through his dressing, and concluded it when he had dropped into his
chair by Pratt’s side.  Pratt listened with ever-growing merriment.

"You priceless old fatheads!" he exclaimed. "When the beggar chucked
Latin at you why didn’t you pelt him with Greek, Phil?--or with sines
and hypotenuses, and all that, Jack?  Don’t you remember how some
Cambridge josser floored a heathen bargee by calling him an isosceles
triangle?  I wish I’d gone."

"I wish you had!" echoed Warrender.  "But when a fellow’s so dashed
polite----"

"Polite!  I tell you what it is: you’re both too serious for this
flighty world.  When you consider that it’s gyrating at the rate of I
don’t know how many thousand miles a minute, it’s unnatural, positively
indecent, for any one to be so stuggy.  The art of life is to
effervesce.  But, you know, the important feature of your morning’s
entertainment seems not to have sufficiently impressed you."

"What’s that?" asked Armstrong.

"Rod’s wife.  _Cherchez la femme_!  You oughtn’t to have come away
without having had a word with her."

"How on earth could we?" said Warrender. "We weren’t asked into the
house, and if we had been----"

"My dear chap, if a fair lady beckoned to me out of her casement window
I’d find some means of receiving her behests.  Rod’s wife, _née_ Molly
Rogers, didn’t make signs to you for nothing, and I foresee that I shall
have to turn our skipping-rope into a rope ladder, and----"

"Oh, don’t go on gassing," Armstrong interposed, irascibly.  "Can’t you
be serious?"

"Solemnity itself.  We’ve got to fetch that dinghy.  I want to go to the
post office.  Very well, after lunch Phil shall run me up in the
motorboat.  I’ll have a word with Rogers on the way, and I bet my boots
I won’t come back without some little addition to our dossier."

Pratt’s programme was carried out.  Warrender and he found Joe Rogers
pulling spring onions in his garden behind the inn.  The man had placed
his wig on a pea-stick, and his bald pate glowed in the sunlight like a
pink turnip.

"Good-afternoon, Joe," said Pratt, genially. "I wonder how it is that
you sailormen so often take to gardening when your sea days are over?"

"I can’t tell ’ee, sir, ’cept it be as we loves the look o’ vegetables,
being without ’em so long at a time.  The old woman do say it keeps me
out o’ mischief."

"Now, Rogers," called his better half from an upper window, "put on your
hair this minute. Drat the man!  Do ’ee want to catch your death of
sunstroke?"

Rogers gave a sly look at his visitors as he donned his wig.

"It do make my skull itch terrible," he said. "But she’s a good woman."

"I jolly well hope I shall be looked after as well when my time comes,"
said Pratt.  "But I’m not thinking of matrimony yet.  What age did you
marry at, Joe?"

"Thirty-one, just the same age as my sister Molly, but not in such a
hurry.  My missus took a deal o’ courting; ’twas five years’ hard
labour; whereas Molly give in in less than a month."

"He came, he saw--he conquered.  Must be something fascinating about
him.  Has she lost her cold, by the way?  My friends happened to see her
this morning."

"Well now, if that ain’t too bad.  She haven’t been nigh me for a good
fortnight, and she didn’t ought to go about the village without looking
in."

"They saw her at the house.  She seemed to be catching flies or
something at the window.  I gather you don’t like her husband."

"I’ve nothing against him, ’cept his name and furren nature.  My missus
told her she was cutting a rod for her own back."

"Surely he doesn’t beat her?"

"That wasn’t her meaning.  Rod’s his name, and the missus do have a way
of taking up a word and twisting of it about, you may say. ’A rod in
pickle,’ says she.  ’Tis just a clappering tongue; there’s no sense in
it.  But it do seem as Molly have turned her back on all her old
friends. ’Tis like this: they furriners bain’t favourites in the parish,
and Molly sticks to her husband, as ’tis her duty.  That’s what I make
of it."

"Well, I dare say she chose the pick of the bunch.  How many are there
of them, by the bye?"

"Four, leaving out the secretary.  They don’t go about in the village
much.  None of ’em comes here ’cept that feller you saw t’other day, and
he don’t come often.  _I_ don’t get no good of ’em. ’Twas different in
the old days."

"Things will take a turn," said Pratt, consolingly.  "When my--when Mr.
Pratt returns I dare say he’ll quarrel with the foreigners, and get
English servants again."

"And be ye all right on the island, sir?"

"Having a ripping time.  We’re always on the look-out for the ghost, but
he seems rather shy.  I can sympathise with him, being so bashful
myself."

"You do seem to have a bit of a bump one side of the head, sir.  No
inseck have been poisoning ’ee, I hope."

"No.  Insects love me too well to disfigure me.  I’m inclined to think
it was a worm, or something like a leech, perhaps.  It’s a trifle; a
molehill, not a mountain.  To-morrow both sides will be equal, and the
angles subtended at the base as right as ever.  Good-bye; keep your hair
on."

"Well, old man, we’ve spent a profitable quarter of an hour," said
Pratt, as he went on with Warrender to the village.  "The number of
Gradoff s staff is confirmed; therefore the chap I collared is not one
of them.  As to Rod’s wife, there’s no mystery about her.  She’s
disgusted, as any sensible person would be, at the petty
narrow-mindedness of the natives who dislike her husband simply because
he’s of another breed, and so she cuts ’em dead."

"But what did her movements at the window mean?" asked Warrender.  "It
certainly looked as if she wanted help or something."

"Nothing of the sort, depend upon it.  She was waving you off; she’s as
careful of Rod as Rogers’s missus is of him; she was afraid Armstrong
would go for Rod as he went for the Swede.  I’m always ready to own up
when I’m wrong.  My old theories won’t hold water.  I think I’ll give up
detecting and go in for the Bar.  You only have to stick to your brief;
needn’t have an idea of your own."

"Well, it seems to me we’re not much for’arder."

"Quite a mistake.  The issue is narrowed down. Clear our minds of the
foreign menagerie and all that, and concentrate on Rush.  That’s the
ticket."

Calling at the post office, he was handed a letter from his London
friend, who reported that the scrap of paper was torn from a copy of the
_Pravda_. Only part of the date of issue was visible--the word June; and
the incomplete paragraph of text appeared to relate to the high prices
of perambulators.

"There you are," said Pratt.  "Much cry and little wool.  It proves
nothing except that some one, some time or other, had a Russian
newspaper, which was partly burnt along with other papers, no doubt
equally uninteresting and unimportant.  What we have to do is simply to
weave a spider’s web for Rush."

"You change your mind twice a day, and are cock-sure every time,"
Warrender remarked.

"A clear proof that I ought to go in for politics, after all.  I’m glad
it’s settled at last.  Percy Pratt, M.P.--reverse ’em, you get P.M.,
Prime Minister; then Sir Percy, Bart.; Baron Pratt, Viscount, Earl--why
not Duke while I’m about it?  But do dukes play the banjo, I wonder?"

"You’re better qualified for the part of Mad Hatter, I fancy.  Come,
let’s step it out."

The evening of that day turned out rather cool and overcast.  A breeze
sprang up in the south-west, refreshing after the still heat.  After
early supper, Armstrong, declaring that he was getting flabby for want
of exercise, set off in the dinghy for a pull down the river.  Pratt
thought it a good opportunity for testing Armstrong’s report of the
sounds he had heard in the cottage, and went off alone, leaving
Warrender on guard at the camp.

He had not yet come within sight of the ruins when, above the rustle of
the stirred leaves, a strange moaning broke upon his ear.  He stopped to
listen.  While far more impressionable than Armstrong, he had solid
musical knowledge which his schoolfellow lacked, and he was struck at
once by an unusual quality in the sound he heard.

"That’s not the wind in the eaves," he thought. "It’s more like the
whining of an organ pipe when a lazy blower is letting the wind out."

He hurried on.  The sound rose and fell.  For some moments it maintained
a steady, pure organ note; then with rising pitch it became almost a
shriek.

"I don’t wonder the rustics are a bit scared," he thought, "but no ghost
could produce a tone like that--unless he’d been a cathedral alto in his
lifetime.  It’s due, I expect, to some metal chimney-pot that’s got
displaced and partly closed. Wonder if I can find it?"

He entered the ruins, and ran up the staircase. A roseate twilight
suffused the western sky.  Led by the persistent sound, he came to the
unroofed room facing the west.  The moaning proceeded from some spot
above his head.  He tried to clamber up the mass of broken masonry that
littered the floor, but found that he could not gain the level of the
roof except by climbing the jagged brickwork of the broken wall, a feat
too perilous in the half light.

"That’s the worst of being fat," he said to himself.  "I believe
Armstrong could do it."

Leaving the room presently, he went idly, without definite motive, into
the second room, facing east and overlooking the river and his uncle’s
grounds.  In this direction dusk was already deepening into night; the
nearer trees were still distinguishable, but beyond the river all
individual objects were blurred by the darkness.

He sat on the paneless window-sill, listening to the strange sound from
above, looking out towards the Red House, wondering whereabouts in the
wide world his uncle was travelling.  All at once, far away, almost on a
level with his eyes, he thought he saw a faint red glow.  It disappeared
in a moment--so quickly that it seemed an illusion.  But there it was
again, indubitably some small luminous body.  "Some one with a lamp in
one of the top rooms of the Red House," he thought.  Again it
disappeared, only to show again after an interval--a third time--a
fourth.

To Pratt these phenomena were at first merely sensations of sight, not
perceptions of intelligence. But by and by he was struck by the fact
that the glow always appeared at the same spot, not here and there, like
a lamp carried by a person moving about a room.  Then he found himself
mentally measuring the intervals between its appearances, expecting
their occurrence as regularly as the beats of a striking clock.  It was
with surprise and a sort of disappointment that he discovered that the
intervals were irregular, and with curiosity, after a while, that they
were regular and irregular both, as it seemed, fitfully; the glow
appeared two or three times at equal intervals, then the intervals
became shorter or longer.  "Signals, of course," he thought, when the
impression of order and purpose became fixed in him.  "Who is it?  Where
is it?  What’s the game?"

The alternations continued for several minutes, then finally ceased.
Pratt got up, left the ruins, and made his way with some difficulty back
to camp.

"Armstrong back?" he asked.

"Not yet," replied Warrender.  "Time he was.  This is the darkest
evening we’ve had. See any one?"

"Not a soul.  All quiet here?"

"Absolute peace.  _You_ weren’t here."

"Thanks.  Glad you missed me.  Will the sweet, melodious strains of my
gentle banjo disturb your serenity?"

"Not a bit.  Strum away.  But hadn’t you better turn in?  It’s past
nine.  Old Jack won’t get much sleep before second watch if he isn’t
here soon; no reason why you shouldn’t have your full whack, especially
after last night’s affair."

"I’ll stay up till he comes."

Pratt softly thrummed his strings, musing on his discoveries.  Half-past
nine came; ten o’clock.

"I say, what’s happened to Armstrong?" said Warrender.  "Surely he
hasn’t been carried out to sea?  Come and help me shove off; I’ll run
down and see if I can find him.  You won’t turn in, so you won’t mind
taking part of my watch."

"Righto!  But I dare say Jack’s enjoying himself."

They were just about to launch the motor-boat when they caught the dull
sound of oars in the distance.  They waited.  The rising moon struggled
through the rack, and cast a faint light on the stream.  Presently the
dinghy appeared from among the overarching foliage.  Armstrong was
sculling very quietly.

"Thought you were lost," said Warrender. "It’s past ten; your watch
starts at eleven-forty."

"All right.  Pratt, tie up, will you?  Come with me, Warrender."

Armstrong led the way at a long, rapid stride across the clearing and
into the thicket.  He said nothing, and did not pause until he came to
the shore of the western channel.

"Keep well behind this tree," he said, in a whisper, placing himself in
shadow.

In a few minutes they heard the splash of oars. A boat emerged from the
shades down stream, lit up fitfully by the transient moonbeams.  It
passed close beneath their hiding-place.  It held a single oarsman,
whose thickset frame would have been unmistakable even if the moonlight
had not touched his face.  He pulled out of sight.

"What’s he been up to?" said Warrender.

"Let’s get back," replied Armstrong.  "I wanted a second witness.  Pratt
will wish to start a new career now, I expect."



                              CHAPTER XII

                               QUEER FISH


When Armstrong had started in the dinghy for a pull down the river his
intention was to scull easily on the current to the mouth, then to turn
westward, and exercise his muscles more strenuously in a contest with
the wind.  On reaching the coastline, however, he found that there was
much more force in the breeze than had appeared inland, and a
considerable swell on the sea, and he contented himself with hugging the
shore, protected in some measure by the cliffs that swept round to a
promontory in the distance.

After a stiff pull for half an hour or so he turned. The last faint
radiance of sunset was behind him, and as he approached the river mouth,
being himself shadowed by the cliffs, he noticed signs of activity about
the fisher’s hut on the beach beyond the farther bank.  Two men were
carrying what appeared to be fishing gear down to a boat at the water’s
edge.  The weather seemed scarcely to promise good fishing, and, knowing
from his friends that the hut was in the occupation, if not the
possession, of Rush, he was sufficiently interested to decide upon
watching the men’s proceedings. He pulled a little more closely inshore,
shipped his oars, and lay to under cover of a mass of rock.

In a few minutes the men got aboard the boat, and pulled out to sea in
the direction of a small tramp steamer which was just visible on the
eastern horizon, and, as the trail of smoke from its funnel showed, was
coming down channel.  It seemed to Armstrong a good opportunity for
examining the hut; possibly he might find there some clue to Rush’s
mysterious activities.  Assured that under the shadow of the cliffs he
would be invisible to the boatmen, he pulled across to the opposite
beach, and ran the dinghy ashore in a small, sheltered cove two or three
hundred yards from the hut. Leaving the boat high and dry, he made his
way back along the beach at the foot of the cliffs, and approached the
hut, which stood on a rocky platform above high-water mark.  As he
neared it he was careful to keep it between himself and the boat at sea;
Rush, if he were one of the two, was probably long-sighted.

By the time he reached the hut the boat was nearly a mile out, and the
men appeared to be letting down a net.  He slipped in through the open
door, and threw a glance round the interior, seizing the last moments of
twilight for his rapid scrutiny.  He saw, as might have been expected,
the usual fisherman’s gear: old nets, lobster pots, cork floats, a
broken oar, part of a rudder, an old sou’wester, baskets, ropes--nothing
that had any particular interest or significance.  But, just as he was
about to leave, he noticed in the darkest corner half a dozen tins
strung by the handles upon a length of trailing rope.  Their shape
suggested paraffin or petrol rather than any material useful to fishers;
yet they were not the common petrol cans; they were larger and
wider-necked than those that held the ordinary motor-spirit. He lifted
one; it was empty, but very firmly corked, as likewise were the others.

Armstrong took one of the cans, stretching the rope, towards the door,
to examine it more closely in what was left of the twilight.  On the
shoulder, enclosed in a panel, was an embossed description, the
characters reminding Armstrong of the printed letters of the Russian
newspaper.

"Rummy," he thought.  "Gradoff, judging by his name, is a Russian, and
the only Russian hereabouts.  Yet we find a Russian newspaper in the
cellar, and Russian petrol tins in Rush’s hut.  Queer!"

He replaced the cans, and left the hut.  As he did so he saw, out at
sea, the steamer he had noticed as a distant smudge some twenty minutes
before.  No smoke was now pouring from her funnel; apparently she had
stopped or slowed down some distance beyond the small boat.  While he
was watching, the vessel went ahead.  The small boat rowed farther out;
then appeared to beat about for a time; finally stopped, and from the
movements of the figures Armstrong saw aboard, they were lifting
something from the water.  The steamer, meanwhile, was proceeding
steadily on her course down channel.

The growing dusk had rendered it impossible for the watcher to discern
anything clearly; steamer, boat, and men were merely indistinct shapes.
But the boat, without doubt, was the one that he had seen leave the
beach; its movements were strange, and Armstrong decided to await its
return.  Who were its occupants?  What was their errand?  What were they
bringing back with them?

The enlarging boat was evidently coming ashore. Armstrong looked rapidly
around, and spied, close to the hut, and, between that and his own boat,
a ridge of rock that would give him cover. Posting himself there, he
waited.  The dusk deepened.  Presently he heard the faint, slow, regular
thuds of oars in the rowlocks, then low voices.  He could now discern
the boat as a dark patch on the white crests of the rollers.  It came
steadily in, grounded; the two men sprang into the surf.  The tide was
going out.  They did not haul the boat up, but lifted from it the
bundles of gear and carried them into the hut.  But there was no fish.
They passed Armstrong’s hiding-place near enough for him to recognise
them.  The first of them was Rush; the second--even in the dusk
Armstrong knew again that broad, flat face. It was the face he had seen
in the thicket--the face of the mysterious assailant Pratt had
described.

[Illustration: "THEY LIFTED THE BUNDLES OF GEAR AND CARRIED THEM INTO
THE HUT."]

After disposing of their gear in the hut, they returned to the boat.
The stranger, a big man, came up again alone, bent under a bulky
package, to which a string of petrol tins was attached. "Smugglers, by
jiminy!" thought Armstrong. The package appeared to be encased in
tarpaulin. The man halted at the door of the hut, let down his load,
detached the cans, and waited.  In a few seconds Rush joined him, helped
him to hoist the package to his back, and bade him a gruff "Good-night."
The man marched heavily up the beach to the east, towards a narrow rift
in the cliff. Rush took the cans into the hut, shut and locked the door,
and, with his hands in his pockets, moved slowly down towards his boat.
Fearing that as he rowed back he might discover the dinghy in the cove,
Armstrong hurried quietly away, shoved off, and had turned into the
river when he heard the splash of Rush’s oars.  Pulling quickly but
steadily, he was out of sight by the time Rush reached the mouth, and
when he arrived at the camping-place guessed that he and Warrender could
cross to the western shore of the island before Rush rowed past.


Such was the story Armstrong quietly told his companions as they sat on
their chairs before the tent.

"Smugglers!" ejaculated Pratt, lowering his voice as if instinctively.
"I thought the smuggling days were over long ago.  D’you think Rush does
a roaring trade in Dutch tobacco, and finds the foreign gang at the
house good customers? Tobacco weighs light for its bulk.  How big was
the bundle, Jack?"

"Two or three feet square, I think," replied Armstrong.  "But tobacco is
light, as you say. I fancy this was something else, for Rush had to help
the other fellow lift it."

"And he took it eastward up the cliff?"

"Yes, in the direction that would lead to your uncle’s house, unless I’m
out in my bearings."

"Well, I’m hanged!  Won’t my old uncle rave when he hears what his pet
foreign domestics are up to in his absence!  He’s a terrible stickler
for law and order, not the kind of man to wink at smuggling, as the
county folk used to do in days of yore.  That explains the light I saw."

"What light?" asked the others.

"I wended my way to the ruins to hear the spooks groan.  They groan
jolly well--a mellow note, mostly on B flat, I fancy, though it
sometimes shrieks up a chromatic scale to what you may call vanishing
point.  Of course, it’s caused by the wind, but what surprises me is how
the wind can fetch such a musical tone out of a chimney-pot.  It must be
a tube of some sort, and what else could it be but a chimney-pot?  I
tried to find it, but that required an acrobatic feat too difficult for
a man of my avoirdupois."

"But the light?" asked Warrender.

"Oh yes, I was forgetting!  I was looking over towards my uncle’s place
when I saw a reddish sort of glow, just about the level of the
tree-tops. It came and went, and presently it dawned upon my usually
alert intelligence that it stood a good deal upon the order of its
comings and goings; in fact, that it was a signal.  It must have been
just about the time that tramp steamer came in sight."

"But why on earth should anybody at the house, even if they are
customers of Rush’s, signal to the smuggling steamer?" asked Armstrong.
"There aren’t any revenue officers about here, and if there were any
about the coast the people at the house wouldn’t know anything about
them."

"My dear chap, there are wheels within wheels," said Pratt, oracularly.
"You have two contemporaneous phenomena--jolly good phrase, that!--the
signal light, and the accosting of a tramp steamer by a poacher and a
burglar.  That’s circumstantial evidence good enough for me."

"Well, drop theories, and come to practice," said Warrender.  "Whatever
the game is, we’re going to find it out.  It’s time for us to take the
offensive.  These fellows have stalked us; it’s now for us to stalk
them.  I vote we leave the island, and accept old Crawshay’s offer.  The
enemy will chortle at having succeeded in driving us away, and will very
likely be off his guard.  Then we’ll chip in."

"Just so; we’ll _reculer pour mieux sauter_--you recognise the phrase,
as your Gradoff would say?  Your suggestion smiles to me, Phil.  We
carry it unanimously, and we’ll strike camp the morn’s morn.  I say,
listen!"

The wind had increased in force, and there came from the direction of
the ruins the musical moan which Warrender, alone of the three, had not
yet heard.

"’The horns of Elfland faintly blowing,’" quoted Pratt.  "Really, it
seems a pity, after all, to leave a spot which one can imagine the haunt
of fairies, the seat of an enchanted palace, the----"

"Don’t start the sentimental strain!" Armstrong interposed.  "Suppose
your horns of Elfland are a signal, too?"

"Jehoshaphat!  What a synthetic mind you have, old bird!  I shouldn’t be
surprised if----  But no! it won’t wash.  A signal that depended on the
wind wouldn’t be any good.  Leave me some of my illusions, Jack.  Let me
revel in my romantic imaginings.  Call it Roland’s horn, appealing
vainly for succour when the paladin was fighting fearful odds in the
pass of Roncesvaux."

"I think you’d better turn in, old man," said Warrender.  "It’s your
last watch to-night.  We none of us got much sleep last night, and that
crack on the head----"

"I’m cracked.  All right--wake me at two-twenty."

He withdrew into the tent.  His companions, tired though they were,
resolved to keep each other company, and patrol the neighbourhood of the
camp till it was time to awaken Pratt. Hour after hour passed.  Nothing
disturbed them. The wind increased to the force of half a gale, and the
sound from the ruins persisted with scarcely a variation of pitch.  When
two-twenty came they agreed to let Pratt sleep on, and kept vigil until
the eastern sky was streaked with dawn.

"D’you hear the sound?" asked Warrender, suddenly.

"No; it’s stopped.  But the wind is higher than ever," Armstrong
replied.

"That’s queer.  The wind is in the same direction, too.  Darkness and
light oughtn’t to make any difference."

"Perhaps it has blown the old chimney-pot clean off the roof.  I’ll go
down and have a look presently.  I’m dog-tired.  We might take a couple
of hours’ sleep now, don’t you think?"



                              CHAPTER XIII

                                 FIRE!


About eleven o’clock next morning Warrender and Pratt landed from the
motor-boat at the ferry, and, inquiring of the ferryman the way to Mr.
Crawshay’s house, struck up the hilly road that ran westward from the
right bank of the river. Mr. Crawshay, it was true, had invited them to
make straight for the house across the fields; but they had decided that
it would be more becoming, on this first visit, to observe the customary
forms.

The house stood amid well-kept grounds, about as far west of the river
as Mr. Pratt’s was in the opposite direction.

The apple-cheeked maid-servant who answered their ring announced that
her master was out, and would not return till the afternoon.
Disappointed, they were leaving when Lilian Crawshay, who had recognised
Warrender’s voice as she descended the stairs, called to them.

"You wanted to see my father, Mr. Warrender?" she asked, as they turned
back.

"Yes; I’m sorry he’s out, but we’ll call again this afternoon."

"What a pity, when you have so far to go! Can’t I give him a message?
Won’t you come in and see Mother?"

"It’s very good of you, but we have some shopping to do in the village,
or Armstrong will get no lunch.  It will be no trouble to come again. We
get up and down very quickly in the motor-boat."

"Well, then come up in time for tea.  Father will be home then; he has
only gone on some stupid business of quarter-sessions.  And bring Mr.
Armstrong with you.  Mother was greatly interested in the ’Three
Musketeers.’"

"Thank you very much."

"Good-bye, then, for the present.  Tea is at half-past four."

"Why didn’t you tell her we can’t all come?" said Pratt, as they walked
away.

"Because it’s clear that the old man hasn’t said anything about our
affairs, and I couldn’t anticipate him with explanations.  We’ll toss
for the odd man."

On returning to the ferry Pratt went on to the village to make some
necessary purchases, leaving Warrender to forestall gossip by informing
Rogers of their change of plan.  Warrender rapped on the door.

"Bain’t opening time yet," called a voice from above.  Mrs. Rogers’s
head appeared at an open window.  "Oh, beg pardon; ’tis you, sir.  We
have to be that careful; Constable Hardstone be always on the prowl.
You’ll find Rogers in the garden, sir--through that little gate.  And if
so be you find he haven’t got his hair on, I beseech ’ee to mind him of
it; he’s that careless of his brains, and I know they’ll be broiled some
day."

The innkeeper, with his wig awry, was pinching out his tomatoes.  He
smiled when Warrender told him of the projected removal of the camp.

"’Tis what I expected--ay, and all the village likewise," he said.

"We find the island a trifle inconvenient, you know," said Warrender, in
pursuance of the understanding he had come to with his companions that
their real reason should not at present be disclosed.

"Ay sure, that’s what we all said.  The neighbours wondered how long
you’d stand it."

"Stand what?" asked Warrender, wondering whether any whispers of the
truth had got abroad.

"Why, them sperits.  Flesh and blood you can deal with, but when it
comes to sperits they’re bound to get the better of you, give ’em time.
You can’t get hold of ’em no way.  Smite ’em, you might as well smite
the wind.  I’ve been here and there about the world in my time, and I
tell ’ee I wouldn’t spend a night on that island not if you doubled my
pension."

"Well, we did hear some very queer sounds last night.  Of course, it was
very windy.  I expected rain to-day, but it has cleared up.  By the way,
are there any coastguards about here?"

"There’s Lloyd’s signal station away at the point yonder.  I go over now
and again for a crack and a smoke with an old messmate of mine."

"How far is it?"

"Four mile or so.  You go past Mr. Crawshay’s, then sheer off to the
left and get into the old coastguard track over the cliffs."

"I’ll take a walk out there some day.  We haven’t seen much of the
neighbourhood yet. There’s no signal station in the village, of course."

"No; we’re too far from the sea.  Have ’ee heard what they’re saying
about Mr. Pratt, sir?"

"What’s that?"

"Ah, poor gentleman.  ’Tis feared he’ve gone a-lost, or been swallered
by lions, or summat. ’Tis the end of many a poor traveller."

"Why do they fear that?  Is there any news?"

"No; that’s where ’tis; there be no news at all.  ’Tis five weeks since
he went off, not a soul knowing, as his way is; and Susan Barter up at
post office was saying only yesterday that there’s not been a single
line from him to any o’ they people at the house.  ’Tis never been
knowed afore.  As a rule there’s a letter from Paris, or Marseilles, or
Brindisi--ay, from places farther away; but this time not a line.  He’ll
be missed in the parish, sir, if so be he’ve gone aloft, like poor Tom
Bowling."

Rogers proceeded to relate anecdotes of his landlord--instances of his
peppery outbursts and splenetic quarrels with his county neighbours, but
more of kindly deeds and unobtrusive generosity among his poorer
tenants.

"And your friend be his nephew, to be sure!" he added.  "Well, don’t
worrit the poor young gent yet awhile.  No news is good news; maybe
there’ll be word of him one of these days.  Susan Barter is sure to tell
us."

Presently Pratt returned, laden with sundry parcels.  The boys took
leave of Rogers, and by half-past twelve were back in camp.  Armstrong
had nothing to report.  He declined at first to make one of the
tea-party, but when the spin of a coin elected him against Pratt, he
yielded to Warrender’s argument that it would appear discourteous if
only one of them accepted the invitation.  Promptly at half-past four
the two, wearing grey flannels for the occasion, entered the grounds of
Mr. Crawshay’s house, and were met on the drive by the owner himself.

"Glad to see you, my lads," he said, heartily. "You’ve something to tell
me?  I guessed it. Now, not a word before the ladies.  I haven’t told
them anything of your troubles; best not to disturb them, you know.
We’ll have a talk in private, after tea."

The consequence was that presently Armstrong found himself left in the
company of Mrs. Crawshay and her daughter, while Warrender was taken by
Mr. Crawshay to his study.

It had been decided that nothing should be said to the old gentleman
about the visit to the Red House, the mysterious doings of Rush at sea,
or the strange light Pratt had seen among the trees. Determined as the
lads were to probe the mystery to the bottom, they felt that their
purpose might be defeated by any premature activity on the part of the
county magistrate.  Accordingly, when Mr. Crawshay and Warrender were
seated in deep armchairs facing each other, and the former said, "Now,
my lad, what is the latest news?" Warrender simply related the incident
of the midnight visit to the camp, concluding--

"And so, sir, we have decided to accept your offer of a camping-place on
your land, not merely to escape these annoyances--we should rather like
to hold our ground in regard to them--but because we think we should
stand a better chance of discovering what really is going on."

"Ah, what does that mean?  There’s more in it than appears?"

"If you don’t mind, sir, I won’t tell you details now; but we have found
out one or two facts that have given rise to certain suspicions.  By
removing from the island we feel that we shall be better able to put
them to the test, and when our information is complete we will lay it
before you."

"Well, I won’t press you.  Many a rogue has escaped justice because the
case against him has been badly prepared.  Tell me all in your own time.
Now as to your camp.  There’s a little natural dock in my bank of the
river.  I’ll put on my gardener and odd man to make a small clearing for
you.  It’s too late to-day; the men knock off at five--eight hours’ day,
you know.  But you can bring your boat up the river, and put up for the
night with me."

"Thank you, sir; but we have a little errand at the signal station
before we go back--it might be rather late before we could get
everything packed up.  I think we had better wait till the morning."

"Very well.  You may have fresh light on the matter then.  I shall
expect all three to lunch to-morrow.  On my land you won’t need to guard
your camp."

Taking leave a little later, the boys walked across the cliffs to the
signal station.  On inquiry from the man in charge they learnt that the
steamer seen late on the previous evening was the _Katarina_, from
Helsingfors for New York.

"Did you notice a small boat pull out to her?" asked Armstrong.

"Rush’s boat," replied the man.  "It didn’t pull out to her; ’twas out
before she came in sight. Rush has some lobster pots out there.  He’s a
well-known character in these parts."

They thanked their informant, and retraced their steps.

"She was a Russian boat," remarked Armstrong. "No secret about her name
or course. All the same--a Russian newspaper, a Russian secretary at the
Red House, Russian petrol cans, a Russian steamer.  Queer coincidences,
at the least."

It was nearly eight o’clock when they regained the camp.  Pratt was
humming "I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls" to the accompaniment of
his banjo.

"And how is the fair lady of the punctured tyre?" he asked.  "Did she
deplore my absence?"

"She did say something about ’that amusing Mr. Pratt,’" Armstrong
replied.  "I like her mother."

"We’re all going up to lunch to-morrow," said Warrender, and explained
the arrangements made.

"Then, as it’s our last night on this island of spooks, I vote that
Armstrong and I go to the ruins and track that weird sound," said Pratt.
"The wind is high; we’ll have time before dark."

Armstrong and he set off.  The breeze was blowing in the same direction,
and almost as strongly, as on the night before, but no moaning met their
ears.  Arriving at the cottage, they heard the characteristic whistle
and hiss of wind playing about the eaves, but not the tuneful, mellow
note that had reminded Pratt of an organ pipe. They searched around the
base of the walls for a recently fallen chimney-pot.  There was none.

"Extraordinary!" said Pratt.  "No wonder the rustics are jumpy.  Of
course, there must be some simple explanation--some slight change of
direction in the wind, I expect.  If you’ve ever tried to play the penny
whistle you’ll know that you can’t always get a note, when you’re a
beginner. We’ve had our walk for nothing."

They were half-way back to the camp; dusk was just merging into
darkness, when the organ-note, riding, as it were, upon the rustle of
the leaves, struck upon their ears.

"By George!" exclaimed Pratt.  "One would think the spook was just
waiting for the dark. Come back.  This is an acoustical phenomenon worth
writing about to some scientific rag."

They hurried back to the ruins, and sprang up the staircase.  Pratt
tracked the sound, as before, to the partially unroofed room on the west
side.  Armstrong tried to climb up the jagged brickwork of the outer
wall, but found the footing too insecure to persevere.  Baffled, they
stood for a while listening.

"It’s no good," said Armstrong at last.  "It’s a job for daylight.
Besides, it’s of no importance; we’ve got more interesting mysteries to
fathom."

"True, old matter-of-fact.  You haven’t a disinterested passion for
science.  Well, I’ll show you where I saw the light from last night."

They went into the other room, and looked across the river into the
darkness, faintly patterned by the nearer trees.  Suddenly, high up, a
glow appeared, shone for a second, disappeared, recurred. They watched
in silence.  Presently Armstrong spoke.

"They’re certainly signals.  Keep your eye on them; count them."

There was a period of complete darkness; it seemed that the signalling
had ceased.  Then the glow peered over the tree-tops again; it was
repeated at regular intervals, at first short, then longer, then short
again.

"It’s like Morse," said Armstrong.  "Did you count?"

"Nine times."

"In groups of three?"

"Four, three, and two, I thought."

"So did I.  Well, if it’s Morse, that spells VGI. What on earth does
that mean?"

"Goodness knows.  It’s stopped.  Wonder if it’ll start again?"

A minute or two passed.  Again the glow appeared, at intervals as
before.  Again they counted its appearances.

"Nine times.  Three groups of three--longs and shorts.  I make that
ROD."

"Well, that’s a word, at any rate; and the chef’s name, by gum!  But
what about VGI?"

"Perhaps I was mistaken.  We’ll wait for the next."

But though they remained some ten minutes at the window the glow
appeared no more.

"A dashed fruitless expedition!" exclaimed Pratt, as they descended the
stairs.  "They used to divide science into sound, light, and heat.
We’re flummoxed by sound and light; it only wants heat to biff us
altogether."

Before many hours had passed they had reason to remember that almost
prophetic utterance of Pratt’s.  It was his turn again to take the
middle watch, and at eleven-forty Armstrong wakened him.

"Hang you, Jack!" he cried.  "I was dreaming I was blowing fire-balloons
out of an organ pipe, and I wanted to see the end of it.  All serene?"

"Not a mouse stirring."

"Well, the air doesn’t bite shrewdly.  I cap your quotation, you see.
It’s a warm sou’wester. Can you hear that sound?"

"Just faintly.  I say, I believe I understand that signal.  I’ve been
thinking it over.  I’ve had no particular practice in reading signals;
perhaps the fellow signalling is a novice, too.  In that case one or
other of us might easily make a mistake.  It’s clear he made three
letters each time; I fancy they weren’t either VGI or ROD."

"What then?"

"S.O.S."

"What-ho!  The signal of distress at sea.  But, I say, this is on land,
old man."

"Yes; but I take it that it’s a signal for help that any one knowing
Morse might make."

"But who wants help?  In my uncle’s grounds? Wait a jiff.  It was in the
direction of the house. I have it!  What a pudding-head I am!  Of
course, Rod’s wife.  You remember she tried to signal to you and Phil.
She’s in trouble.  She’s being ill-treated, or something.  She’s calling
for help.  We’re to be knights-errant--Perseus rescuing Andromeda----"

"Oh, shut up!  Is it likely that an innkeeper’s sister would know
Morse?"

"Mark my words, I’m right.  A woman knows everything she wants to.  Turn
in, old chap.  I wanted something to keep me awake, and I’ll cogitate a
plan for rescuing Molly Andromeda from the jaws of the Minotaur."

Pratt, however, found that cogitation was an ineffectual preventive
against drowsiness.  Three disturbed nights in succession was an
experience unknown to him heretofore.  He paced about for a little, sat
down and lit a cigarette, dozed over it, started up and walked again.
Once more he sat down, ruminated, nodded--and presently awoke, sniffing.
What was that smell of burning?  He looked on the ground, where the
half-smoked cigarette lay.  It was dead.  He got up.  The smell was in
the air.  He took a few steps, looking around.  His eye caught a flicker
of flame to windward--two, three flickers some yards apart.  For a
moment his drowsy intelligence failed to respond to his senses; for a
moment only.  Then he shouted--

"Hi, you fellows!  Fire!  Fire!"

Already the flickers had been whipped by the wind into a wall of flame,
advancing with a hiss and low roar from the thicket across the little
clearing.  The heat of the last few days had dried the grass, which,
though much trampled around the tent, was still long.  The fire swept
over it like a ruddy tide.  Smoke surged across the open space; twigs
and leaves crackled in the surrounding thicket.  When Armstrong and
Warrender, awakened by the shouts, the reck, the roar and crackle,
tumbled out in their pyjamas, they choked and spluttered and fell back
before the intolerable heat and smother.

It was only too clear that the camp was doomed. There was not time to
lower the tent.  They rescued what they could.  Armstrong dashed into
the tent, and returned dragging the three Gladstones that held their
clothes.  Pratt caught up a petrol can and his banjo; Warrender secured
his razor-case and sponge-bag.  Driven by the remorseless flames, they
retreated hurriedly towards the river, working round to the right until
they arrived at a spot on the bank that lay out of the course of the
wind. There they stood, coughing, watching the scene, fascinated.
Springing from the south-west, the fire raced across the island, like a
giant cutting with blazing scythe a path through the tough undergrowth.
There was nothing to stay its advance. The low flames danced beneath the
trees, red goblins in a dust of smoke, twigs and branches crackling, the
sappy wood adding rather to the smother than to the blaze.

"Sound, light, and heat!" murmured Pratt. "What a magnificent
spectacle!"

"We’ve paid pretty dearly for our tickets!" said Armstrong, morosely.

"And some one shall pay pretty dearly before I’ve done with them!" cried
Warrender.  "We’re homeless.  We’d better run up to the Ferry Inn, and
get Rogers to bed us."

"We’ll be the talk of the village for a hundred years," said Pratt.
"We’ll pass into legend; future ages will tell of the three magicians
who exorcised the spooks of No Man’s Island with fire."

"Come and help shove off the boat," said Warrender.  "We’ve still got
that, thank goodness!"

The fire had burnt itself out at the north-east of the island by the
time the boat passed.  At the ferry was assembled a crowd of the
natives. Rogers was in the act of setting off in Fisherman Drew’s boat,
along with Blevins, Hardstone, the village constable, and one or two
more.

"Praise be!" exclaimed the innkeeper, as the motor-boat ran alongside
the stage.  "I was afeared as you young gentlemen might be cinders."

"We’re only smoked at present, dry-cured," said Pratt.  "Saved our
bacon, you see."

"I want to know summat about this," said the constable.  "I’ll have to
make a report.  If so be you set fire to that there island, with the
terrible destruction of growing trees, I won’t say but ’twill be brought
in arson, and that’s five years’ penal.  Which one of you was it chucked
down the match?"

"My dear good man," said Pratt, blandly, "we’re only too anxious to give
every assistance to the officer of the law; but, as you see, we’re in a
great state of nervous agitation.  D’you think Shadrach, Meshach, and
Abednego were in a condition to answer questions after their experience
of the fiery furnace?  Abed we go, if Mr. Rogers will oblige us.  Come
up in the morning, constable; you’re all losing your beauty sleep.  In
the morning we’ll swear affidavits, or whatever it is you want. To-night
we’re too tired even to swear.  Good-night."



                              CHAPTER XIV

                            A CIRCULAR TOUR


Fatigued though they were, the boys lay long awake in the room Mrs.
Rogers provided for them, discussing the situation into which they had
been thrown by the fire, and their plans for the future. They had saved
next to nothing but their clothes. If they were to start another camp a
new tent--almost a complete new outfit--would be necessary.  Pratt
suggested that they should accept Mr. Crawshay’s offer and take up their
abode with him until the mystery of the island had been solved; but this
idea was opposed by the others, Armstrong in particular pointing out
that they would stand a better chance of success if they remained more
closely in touch with their former encampment.

"We must do our best to throw the beggars off the scent," he said.  "If
we rig up barbed wire round our new camp, they’ll imagine we’re merely
on the defensive, and the longer we keep up that illusion, the better."

"I agree," said Warrender.  "There can’t be the slightest doubt now that
something is going on on the island that they’ll stick at nothing to
prevent our discovering.  We’ve got to make them believe we can’t see
farther than the ends of our noses, so we must keep quiet, pretend we
think the fire was caused by our cigarettes--anything to put them off
their guard.  But, of course, we must take the first opportunity of
making another search in the ruins.  It’s as plain as a pikestaff that
that moaning sound is artificial; that is to say, they’ve got some sort
of an instrument rigged up that catches the wind just when they wish,
and only then.  And that signal must have something to do with their
schemes; I’m inclined to think you’re mistaken, Armstrong, and it’s not
S.O.S. at all."

"Perhaps," replied Armstrong.

"I stick to it that Molly Rogers or Rod is in distress," said Pratt.
"Rogers was a seaman, and there’s nothing unlikely in his sister knowing
something of Morse.  I had a passion for ciphers at one time, and my
sister Joan was very keen on it, I can tell you.  Anyway, we’ll ask
Rogers in the morning."

They got up to a late breakfast.  Rogers brought them their bacon and
eggs, and they were struck by a peculiarity in his appearance.

"I say, Rogers, what’s happened to your beautiful auburn locks?" asked
Pratt.

The innkeeper looked profoundly depressed.

"I begged and prayed the missus, but ’twas no good," he answered.  "She
will have me wear a nightcap at night, and my hair by day, no matter how
hot it be.  I said as every one will laugh at me, and she said as health
comes afore feelings."

"A very wise woman.  Still, as a mere matter of scientific curiosity,
we’d like to know how that brown became apple-green."

Rogers snatched off his wig and held it out with a gesture of
indignation.

"’Tis a trick of some blessed young scug in the village, and if I catch
him I’ll give him all the colours of the rainbow.  I did but set my hair
on a pea-stick while I was digging yesterday, the missus being out for
the day.  I own I forgot it, and when, come night, I thought I’d better
put it on, bless me if I could find it.  Half an hour after I’d closed
the door the missus came home.  ’Here’s a parcel on the doorstep,’ says
she, and then she undoes it, and gives a shriek.  ’You wicked man!’ says
she: ’you’ve done it just to rile me.’  As if the cussed thing warn’t
bad enough brown, for one to want it green!  Of course I telled her as
how I’d put it down and missed it, and she went on like one o’clock,
said I’d have to wear it, green or blue, and I’d better stand out in the
first shower of rain and see if it’d wash clean, and ’twould be a lesson
to me.  Don’t you never go bald, young gentlemen: ’tis the way to break
up a happy home."

"Hard luck, Rogers," said Pratt.  "But the colour will soon wear off.
You’ll be piebald for a bit, I dare say--sort of mottled, you know; but
nobody will think the worse of you.  I say, you and your sister were
great pals, weren’t you?"

"Till the missus come along, sir."

"And no doubt you taught her how to splice ropes and reef sails, and
make signals, and all that?"

"There you’re wrong, sir.  The lass don’t know more than a babby about
such things; and as for signals, I don’t know nothing about ’em myself."

Pratt looked crestfallen.

"One theory exploded," remarked Armstrong.

"Did ’ee signal for help last night?" asked Rogers.

"Well, we----" Pratt began, but Warrender interrupted him.

"No, we hadn’t time," he said.  "The fire came on us too suddenly.  By
the way, we shall have to buy some new things.  I suppose Blevins can
provide us with a tent?"

"Surely, sir; he’ve most everything somewhere about.  I always thought
no good ’ud come of camping on that island.  There’s a fate in it."

"How long has it had this ill name?" asked Armstrong.

"Not so long, sir.  You see, nobody bothered much about it after the old
man died years ago. It didn’t belong to no one, seemingly; there was
nothing to take any of the folk there; and ’twasn’t till a month or two
ago that they began to talk of sperits.  Nick Rush came in all of a
tremble one night--he’d been away for a bit--and said he was setting a
snare there when he heard most horrible groanings and moanings.  He took
some of the folk along, and they heard ’em too, and ever since then the
village have give it a wide berth.  You’re well out of it, that’s what I
say.  Not as ghosts carry matches, though; I reckon ’twas one of you
young gentlemen a-smoking as did the mischief."

"A lesson to us, Rogers," said Pratt, gravely. "Smoking is a very bad
habit, according to our masters at school--who all smoke like
furnaces--they ought to know."

They had hardly finished breakfast when Mr. Crawshay drove down to the
ferry in a light trap, crossing on foot.

"It’s true, then," he said, as he entered the parlour.  "I knew nothing
about it until an hour ago.  A lighted match, they say."

Pratt got up and closed the door.

"Let them say, sir.  We were burnt out."

"You don’t say so!  Upon my word, it’s time something was done.  Have
you lost much?"

"Almost everything but our clothes."

"Scandalous!  Then you’ll come up to the house?"

"We’d rather keep to our arrangement, sir," said Warrender.  "It will
give us a better chance of running the fellows to earth.  We think of
making a thorough search on the island.  The difficulty is that we can’t
do it by daylight; we are sure to be watched, at any rate for a day or
two.  There’s another difficulty.  They’re sure to keep their eye on our
motor-boat and dinghy; it will be too risky to use them.  Of course, we
could swim the river, but it would be a bit of a nuisance."

"I can help you there.  You had better not use my skiff, but I’ve an old
Norwegian pram in one of my outhouses----"

"A what, sir?" asked Pratt.

"A pram--a sort of abbreviated punt.  At one time I used it for fishing
on the river.  It’s small and very light; two of you could carry it.
You had better fetch it yourselves; my men might talk in the village.  I
have set them clearing a camping-place for you, by the way.  It’s about
half-way between here and the island.  But I can’t lend you a tent."

Warrender explained that he proposed to buy one of the general dealer.

"Very well," said Mr. Crawshay.  "I shall expect you to lunch.  We’ll
talk over things then more at leisure."

While Warrender went off to do the necessary shopping, Armstrong and
Pratt, in the dinghy, set out for their new camping-place.  It lay on
the shore of a little natural bay some fifteen yards deep and about half
that width.  Mr. Crawshay’s gardeners had already mown the long grass
and lopped some of the lower branches of overhanging trees.  A ten
minutes’ walk through the wood and across fields brought the two boys to
the house, where Mr. Crawshay had already arrived.  Having seen that
none of his men were about, the old gentleman led them to the outhouse
in which he kept his pram; and by the time that Warrender, conveying his
purchases in the motor-boat, reached the new encampment, the others had
carried the odd little craft across the fields, and found a secure
hiding-place for it in the wood a little distance from the bay, almost
opposite to the north end of the island, near a spot convenient for
landing under cover of the trees.  With it Mr. Crawshay had lent them a
couple of light oars.

After erecting their new tent--a sorry specimen compared with the one
that had been destroyed--they went up to the house for lunch, discussed
their plans with Mr. Crawshay privately in his study, and returned to
fence the camp with barbed wire and get things in order.  So far there
had been no sign of the enemy; but in the course of the afternoon
Armstrong climbed a tree from which, unobserved himself, he could obtain
a view of the opposite bank of the river, and discovered without
surprise that a spy was lurking among the bushes.  No doubt all their
ostensible proceedings had been watched, and they congratulated
themselves on the illusion of mere defensiveness which their
business-like activity must have created.

During the remainder of the day they were careful not to depart from
their usual procedure. They had an early supper; when they had cleared
away and washed up, they placed three oddly assorted and shabby
deck-chairs, purchased from Blevins, in front of the tent, and while
Armstrong and Warrender read newspapers, Pratt warbled sentimental
ditties to the accompaniment of his banjo.

Just before dark Pratt and Armstrong went into the tent to go to bed,
while Warrender perambulated the camp armed with a thick club.  The spin
of a coin had decided that he should remain on guard while the others
paid a nocturnal visit to the island.

About midnight, when it was quite dark, the two raiders crept out of the
tent, and striking inland for a little, made their roundabout way to the
spot where the pram was hidden.  Reconnoitring carefully, to assure
themselves that their movements had not been followed, they lifted the
pram, lowered it gently into the water, and pushed off, floating on the
tide near the bank, and steering with one oar in the stern.  They struck
the shore of the island about midway, seized a projecting branch, and
drawing their craft into the bank, pulled it up among the reeds at the
edge.  Then they started to cross the island.

It was pitch-dark in the thicket.  Spreading roots and trailing brambles
tripped their feet; their faces were lashed by the foliage as they
pushed their way through; thorns caught at their clothes. It was
difficult to avoid noise.  Twigs snapped underfoot, branches creaked and
rustled, and every now and again there was a strident shriek of rent
clothing as they tore themselves from the embrace of some clinging
bramble.  Heedless of the obstacles, hot and weary, they plodded
doggedly on, and presently, after making unconscionably slow progress,
they emerged upon the bank of the river.  The stream looked much wider
than they had expected.

"Whereabouts are we?" whispered Pratt.

"We’ve come too far south, I fancy," returned Armstrong.

They peered up and down, trying vainly to discover some landmark.  They
stood listening; there was breeze enough to cause the moaning, but they
heard no sound except the rustle of the leaves and the gentle gurgle of
the tide.  They cast about, taking wary steps up stream and down; hoping
in one direction or the other to come upon the wilderness garden.

Suddenly Pratt whispered: "I say, this isn’t a tidal river, is it?"

"No; it always flows down," replied Armstrong.  "Why?"

"Because----"

And then he stopped.

"Look here," he murmured to Armstrong behind him.

Armstrong looked, and there, at Pratt’s feet, was the dark shape of the
pram, nestling in its bed of reeds.

"Hang!" exclaimed Armstrong.  "We’ve been going in a circle."

"Just so.  Everybody does it!" said Pratt, with a chuckle.  "I suspected
it when I noticed the way the stream was flowing."

"Nothing to chortle about," Armstrong growled. "We’ve had all our
trouble for nothing.  Absolutely waste time!"

"But look how we’ve enlarged our experience! I think I’d like to be a
traveller, like my old uncle. I’ve read about these circular tours often
enough, but never believed in ’em.  Why can’t one walk straight in the
dark?"

"Ask your grandmother!  I’m fed up; scratched all over, too.  I’ll not
try this again without a luminous compass.  Let’s get back."

It was nearly two o’clock before they trudged wearily into camp.

"Any luck?" asked Warrender, still doing sentry-go.

Pratt related what had happened.

"Well, I’m glad for once I lost the toss," said Warrender, smiling.
"We’ll certainly get a luminous compass, and I fancy we’d be the better
for a few lessons from the Boy Scouts."



                               CHAPTER XV

                              UNDERGROUND


The change of camp had relieved the boys of one irksome tie.  There was
no longer any need for a constant guard.  The barbed wire, and
Warrender’s patrolling of the camp, were merely ruses for the deception
of the enemy.  Next morning, therefore, for the first time since their
arrival, all three went off together in the motor-boat, to make a trip
down the river and along the coast westward.  They threw a keen glance
at Rush’s hut as they turned the point.  Its door was closed; nobody was
about; and the only human being they saw in the course of their
expedition was one solitary figure moving slowly along the top of the
cliff--possibly a coastguard.

They lunched on the boat, and did not return until afternoon.  Leaving
the others to prepare tea, Warrender went on to the village, bought a
small luminous compass, and an electric torch from Blevins’s
miscellaneous stock, and a few buns at the baker’s.  When he regained
the camp, his companions reported that there was no sign of its still
being kept under observation--by this time the enemy was probably
persuaded that their only wish was to be left alone.  While they were
having tea, Rush rowed slowly past, going down stream. He did not turn
his head towards them, but Pratt declared that he had given them a sly
glance out of the tail of his eye.

To keep up appearances, they decided that one of them should remain on
guard that night as before.  The lot fell upon Pratt.  At nightfall the
others, equipped with the compass and torch and two short stout sticks,
put off in the pram, and, landing on the island, without much difficulty
struck their old clearing--now clearer than ever, and redolent of smoke
and fire---and wound their way to the ruined cottage.  The moaning
sounded more eerie than they had yet heard it, rising and falling with
the fitful gusts.

When they reached the old garden, they bent low, approached the ruins
under cover of the tallest plants, and waited a while at the foot of the
wall before venturing into the entrance. Warrender kept guard on the
lower floor while Armstrong, who knew the place better, explored the
upper storey thoroughly with the aid of the torch, which he kept
carefully shaded from outside view. Above his head, somewhere on the
roof, the dismal note sounded continually.  He went into the eastern
room from which he had seen the signal light.  No light was visible.
Returning below stairs, he examined the whole of the premises with equal
care.  Everything was as it had been. There was nothing to indicate that
any one had entered the place since his last visit.

"We shall have to make a night of it," said Warrender.  "It was morning
when Pratt saw some one in the lower room.  It doesn’t follow that he
comes every morning, or, indeed, that he has ever come again; but we had
better wait on the chance."

"Let us go upstairs, then, and sit against the wall where we can see the
window.  I don’t believe that signal can be seen from the sea, and the
fact that it can be seen from here seems to show that the signaller
expects some one to be at the cottage.  It won’t be easy to keep awake,
but we mustn’t fall asleep together."

With backs against the wall, arms folded, and legs stretched on the
floor, they sat watching.  No light shone; there was no sound but those
produced by the wind in the leaves and that monotonous, provoking,
doleful wail from the roof. Hour after hour passed.  Now and then each
got up in turn to stretch his limbs.  One or the other dozed at times.
The still hours crept on; nothing happened; it seemed that their
patience was to meet with no reward.

It was not until the faint grey tint of early dawn was stealing up the
eastern horizon that a sound below caught Armstrong’s attentive ear.  He
nudged Warrender dozing by his side.  Grasping their sticks, they rose
and tiptoed to the doorway. Some one was clumsily mounting the stairs.
They peeped out.  At the farther end of the landing a large, dark shape
rose from the staircase, turned at the head, and went into the western
room. Slipping off his boots, Warrender crept stealthily along the wall
and looked in after the intruder. The room was dark, but, against the
twilight framed by the window-opening, he saw the legs and feet of a man
disappearing upwards outside. In a few moments there came scraping
sounds from the roof; the moaning suddenly ceased, and after a little
the man’s feet reappeared; he was lowering himself into the room.
Warrender stole back; at Armstrong’s side he watched the man return
across the landing to the staircase, and heard his heavy footsteps as he
descended.

"Watch from this window; I’ll go to the other," whispered Warrender.

From these posts of observation, commanding almost the whole of the
surroundings of the cottage, they looked for the emergence of the
visitor.  He did not appear; nor, after his footsteps had ceased, did
they hear a sound.  Had he gone into one of the lower rooms?  Leaving
Armstrong to keep watch at his window, Warrender, in his stockinged
feet, stole down the stairs, and peeped into each of the rooms and the
kitchen and scullery in turn. The dawn was growing; but the man was not
to be seen.  All was silent.  A slight whistle summoned Armstrong;
together the boys quietly and rapidly ranged the lower floor, taking
advantage of the increasing light to search for some secret
hiding-place, some recess or cranny in the wall. There was nothing.  The
walls were too thin to enclose space enough for a man to hide.  Where
had he gone?  He had not left the place by doorway or window; he must be
somewhere within.

"The cellar!" said Armstrong, remembering the scrap of paper he had
found there.

Warrender ran upstairs, slipped on his boots, and returned.  The door at
the head of the cellar staircase was closed.  They opened it gently,
listening.  There was no sound from below. Cautiously, step by step,
they descended.  At the foot of the staircase they held their breath for
a moment.  Then Warrender flashed the torch. The cellar was empty.  They
examined every inch of the walls up to the height of a man.  The
brick-work was whole; not a brick was displaced, not a seam of mortar
missing.  They tramped over the black, dusty floor; everywhere it was
solid; there was no hollow ringing beneath their feet.  Scraping away a
little of the coal dust, they found that the floor also was of brick
except at the foot of the steps, where there was a large flagstone.
Something caught Armstrong’s eye.  He stooped.

"Look here," he said.  The joint between the flagstone and the brickwork
of the floor had a sharp, well-defined edge.  The crevice was free from
coal dust.

"A little suspicious, eh?" said Warrender. "Stamp on the stone."

"Hold hard!  What if that fellow is underneath it?"

"We’ve got to the point where we must take risks.  But it’s not credible
that any one actually lives down below, even if there is a below.  Try a
kick or two."

But there was no ringing sound when Armstrong stamped; the stone was
either laid firmly on the earth, or it was so thick that, if there was a
hollow beneath it, the fact would not be detected. Nor, when Armstrong
trod heavily all over its surface, was there the slightest sign of
movement.

"Feel along the edge," Warrender suggested.

Armstrong went down on hands and knees and drew his finger along the
base of the lowest step.

"A slight crack here, at the left end," he said.

"Big enough to get your finger in?"

"No; it can’t be more than an eighth of an inch wide.  It’s upright,
between the step and the wall. Looks as if the stone has shifted."

"Well, if you can’t get your finger in, try your knife blade."

"Wait a bit, there’s another crack, smaller still, right along the edge
of the step, between it and the upright slab."

They had both lowered their voices to a whisper. Armstrong gave the
upright a push, near the middle. It was firm, unyielding.  But pushing
leftwards, he felt a slight movement, and at the extreme end, a very
gentle pressure caused the slab to swing inwards easily, the right half
of it at the same time moving outwards.

"By gum, it works on a pivot!" exclaimed Armstrong, under his breath.
"We’re on the track!  But this opening’s only about six inches wide;
nobody but a baby could crawl through it."

For a few moments they held their breath, listening for sounds.  All was
silent.  Then Warrender dropped on all fours and shone his torch into
the dark gap.  The space was empty.  Armstrong thrust in his hand, and
felt over the earthen floor, then along the edge of the flagstone, and
finally beneath it.

"There’s a hollow space here," he said.  "And, I say, here’s a metal
hand-grip just below the flagstone."

He tugged it; there was no movement.  He pushed it on each side in turn,
still without result. Baffled, he sat on his haunches.

"What’s the hand-grip for?" he said.  "Obviously for moving something.
Then why doesn’t anything move?"

"Perhaps it can only be operated from below," Warrender suggested.  "If
this is an entrance to the cellar, it may be left open when any one
comes this way."

"That’s not likely.  An entrance that can only be opened from one side
isn’t worth much.  No, something sticks, and if that fellow went through
a few minutes ago, it can’t be for want of use. _Why_ does it stick,
then?"

Armstrong pondered for a few moments, then said suddenly, "Possibly it’s
my pressure on the stone.  Let’s try."

He moved back, so that the weight of his body bore upon the rear instead
of the fore end of the stone.  Then, however, he found that he could not
reach the hand-grip.

"Why not try the other side?" said Warrender. "There may be another grip
there."

The other side of the staircase was open to the cellar, and Armstrong
was able to thrust his arm into the aperture below the step without
treading on the flagstone.

"Got it!" he said, a moment later.  "There’s a grip here.  It moves in a
quarter-circle. Something--a disk of stone, I fancy--is revolving."

He pressed on the flagstone; still there was no distinct movement
downwards, though it seemed to have yielded a trifle.

"Clearly it won’t shift until the other grip is turned," he said.  "But
how to get at that?"

After a little consideration he had another idea. Going a few steps up
the staircase, he turned, and crawled down head first until he was able
to get his hand under the edge of the stone.

"All right, old man," he said, cheerfully.  "I’ve moved the grip now.
Keep clear of the other end of the stone."

Lying full stretch on the staircase, he pressed on the stone beneath
him.  It sank gently; the other end moved upwards, and in a few seconds
the stone stood upright in the middle of a dark gap. Warrender bent
down, holding the electric torch just above the opening.

"The bottom’s only about five feet deep," he said.  "It’s the end of
some sort of passage. Come down, old man, and we’ll explore it
together."

[Illustration: "’THE BOTTOM’S ONLY ABOUT FIVE FEET DEEP.’"]

They dropped lightly into the cavity.  By the light of the torch they
saw that on each side a flat circular wheel of stone, lacking one
quadrant, moved on an iron axle in such a way that a half-turn of the
hand-grip removed the support of the flagstone and allowed the corner to
drop down. The flagstone was nicely balanced on a revolving iron rod let
into a socket at each end.  This contrivance formed the entrance to a
narrow tunnel about four feet wide, and something over five feet high in
the centre.  Neither of the boys could stand upright in it.  The floor
was of hard-beaten earth; the walls and the arched roof were of ancient
brick, covered with an incrustation of slimy moss.

"An old smugglers’ tunnel, I’ll be bound," said Armstrong.  "It will be
very odd if we have struck a lair of modern smugglers.  Just look at
your compass and see what direction it takes."

The needle swung almost perpendicular to the course of the tunnel.

"Eastward," said Warrender.  "That’s strange. I thought it probably ran
south, to somewhere near that place at the end of the island where we
saw the marks of a boat the other day."

"It seems to shelve downward slightly.  Looks as if it runs under the
channel."

"Towards Pratt’s uncle’s grounds.  Let’s explore."

"Better switch off your light, then.  We can find our way in the dark by
touching the sides."

They went forward in single file, stepping gingerly, and bending their
heads to avoid the roof.  The air smelt musty and dank, and was
unpleasant and oppressive.  For a time the floor sloped gently
downwards, but presently they were aware that it had taken an upward
trend.

"We’ve crossed the channel," said Armstrong in a whisper that the
vaulted walls made unnaturally loud.

A little later they noticed ahead of them a space dimly illuminated.
Moving forward cautiously, they found themselves at the bottom of a
circular shaft.  Far above them they saw daylight in parallel streaks.

"A dry well," murmured Warrender, "roughly boarded over."  Consulting
his compass, he added, "Still eastwards.  Rummy if the tunnel goes to
the Red House."

Pursuing their way in utter darkness as before, the floor still rising
very slightly, they became aware by and by that the tunnel had enlarged.
From the centre they could not touch the wall on either side, and the
greater lightness of the air gave them a sense of spaciousness.
Suddenly Armstrong, who was leading, stumbled over something on the
floor and fell forward.  His hands, instinctively thrust out, were
arrested by a bundle encased in tarpaulin.  He straightened himself. For
a moment or two they waited, straining their ears.  There was no sound.

"A light," murmured Armstrong.

The light revealed that they had arrived at a small chamber about twelve
feet square and seven or eight feet high.  The farther end was broken by
the tunnel.  In each side wall, a foot below the roof, were let a couple
of iron rings, deeply rusted.

"For holding torches," said Armstrong.

The chamber was empty except for three bundles on the floor.  It was
over one of these that Armstrong had stumbled.  Two of them were
completely covered with tarpaulin, and roped; the third was partly open
at the top.

"They’re like the bundles I saw Rush and the other fellow carry up from
the boat," said Armstrong.

"Queer smuggling," said Warrender, bending over the open bale.  "It
seems to hold nothing but paper."

He took up the topmost sheet.  It was a thin, semi-transparent paper,
and crackled to the touch.

"This isn’t newspaper," he said.

"Cigarette paper, perhaps," said Armstrong. "But where’s the ’baccy?"

"Can’t smell any.  I wonder how much farther the tunnel goes?"

Entering it at the extreme end of the chamber, Warrender came within a
yard to a contrivance similar to that which gave access from the cellar.

"Here’s the end," he said.  "Look, the grips are turned.  Shall we risk
lifting the stone?"

"Dangerous," said Armstrong.  "Goodness knows where we’d find
ourselves."

Scarcely had he spoken when from above came the dull sound of footsteps.
Switching off the light, Warrender backed into the chamber and hastily
crossed it with Armstrong, both moving on tiptoe.  They re-entered the
tunnel, crept along for a few yards, then halted, listening
breathlessly. They heard the footsteps of one man in the chamber they
had just left.  The footsteps ceased, and were followed by a rustling.
It seemed clear that their presence was unsuspected, and they ventured
to tiptoe back until, near the opening of the tunnel, they were able to
peep into the chamber.  By the dim light that came through the aperture
left open by the revolved flagstone on the farther side, they saw a
short, stout man drawing sheets of paper from the opened package.  He
counted them as he took them up, and presently turned, carried them
through the opening, and let down the flagstone behind him.  There was
not light enough by which to identify him.

[Illustration: "THEY SAW A SHORT, STOUT MAN DRAWING SHEETS OF PAPER FROM
THE OPENED PACKAGE."]

The boys re-entered the chamber, and listened until the sound of his
retreating footsteps above had died away.  Then Warrender switched on
the light, took a sheet of paper from the top of the bale, folded it,
and put it into his breast pocket.

"Now for home," he whispered.  "We’ve something for Percy to start a new
theory on."



                              CHAPTER XVI

                               WATERMARKS


As they began to retrace their steps through the tunnel, Armstrong
said--

"If we count our paces we shall have some sort of an idea where we’ve
been to.  We know the tunnel runs pretty nearly due east from the ruins,
and there must be a building at the end.  It seems to me it’s a choice
between the Red House and that old tower.  There’s no other."

"True.  Well, we’ll both count.  Bet you we don’t agree."

"People never do agree when the count is a long one.  Besides, we can’t
keep step in the dark, unless we left-right all the way, and I’m hanged
if I do that!"

They started.  Suddenly Warrender stopped.

"I say, we shall look pretty green if some one has discovered that open
trap in our absence--Rush, for example."

"Frightful mugs, the two of us.  We ought to have closed it.  But it’s
still very early in the morning.  Let’s hope Rush isn’t up with the
lark. Hang it.  I’ve forgotten how many steps I’d counted.  What do you
make it?"

"Fifty-eight.  Concentrate your mind, my son."

"I’ll start at fifty-nine, then.  Don’t you think we might venture on a
light now?"

"Not for anything.  The tunnel’s straight, and if you’ve ever been in a
straight railway tunnel you’ll know a light can be seen for miles.
Better be on the safe side."

They completed the course in darkness.

"Well, what’s your total?" asked Warrender.

"Two hundred and eighty-three."

"Mine’s two hundred and ninety-one.  Not so bad."

On emerging into the cellar, they replaced the flagstone and made sure
that the hand-grips were turned as they had found them.  Then they
mounted to the upper floor of the cottage.

"I want to discover how that moaning is caused," said Armstrong.

"But it means shinning up to the roof," said Warrender.  "It’s broad
daylight now.  You might be seen."

"So I might.  Well, let’s take a look over Ambrose Pratt’s grounds."

They went into the eastern room.  The tower, a little south of the
house, appeared to be slightly the nearer to them, but, ignorant as they
were of the exact length of their paces, they agreed that the end of the
tunnel might lie beneath either of the buildings.

Going then into the room facing south, they started back from the
window.  Rush was tramping along the weedy path leading to the southern
end of the island.

"Lucky I didn’t climb!" murmured Armstrong.

They watched the man.  He seemed to be a little suspicious, stopping
every now and again to listen and look round.  Presently he disappeared
into the thicket.

"Safe to go now?" asked Armstrong.

"Let’s wait a bit."

Warrender kept his eyes fixed on the stretch of river which was visible
over the low trees southward.  After a while he saw a small boat moving
slowly down stream.

"All right now," he remarked.  "I dare say he’s been spying out on our
camp from the north end.  Hope he hasn’t missed us."

"Or found our pram!  Come on, I want my breakfast."

They stepped out of the cottage, regained the western shore, discovered
the pram where they had concealed it, and, having crossed the river
unobserved, so far as they knew, laid the craft in its former
hiding-place, and returned to camp. Pratt was busy at the paraffin
stove.

"What ho!" he exclaimed.  "One must feed, even when pain and anguish
wring the brow.  I made sure the spooks or some one had got you, and
after fortifying myself with bacon and eggs I was going up to ask old
Crawshay whether an inquest would be necessary.  You look very much
washed out.  Been on the tiles?"

"I’ll wring your neck if you don’t hand over that frying-pan," said
Armstrong.

"Thy necessity is greater than mine.  As you know, I’d lick Philip
Sidney or any other old paladin in chivalry.  Eat, drink, and be merry.
There’s enough coffee brewed for us all.  Make a fair division of the
bacon and eggs between you, and I’ll fry some more in a brace of shakes.
I say, I am jolly glad to see you!  I’ve had the deuce of a time!"

"More pin-pricks?" asked Warrender.

"No.  But I’m blessed--or cursed--with a very vivid imagination, as you
are aware.  I stayed up till daybreak, expecting you back every minute,
and when you didn’t come I got in a regular stew, saw you tumble from
the roof, and your members all disjected over the garden--horrid sight!
Saw you knocked on the head, trussed and gagged in the cellar; boated
off to France; growing white-haired in a dungeon like that fellow in the
Bastille--you know, finger nails a yard long--mice and rats and toads.
Toads were the last straw, I saw ’em hopping about, and----"

"That bacon done?" said Armstrong.  "How many bottles of ginger-beer did
you drink?"

"I am not drunk, most noble Festus.  But I say, what _did_ happen?"

"I’d have told you already," said Warrender, "only I couldn’t get a word
in."

"That’s the reward of patience!  I only twaddled, you juggins, to give
you a chance to feed.  You did both look awfully done up.  The hue of
health is returning now.  Fire away, then!"

Warrender, between the mouthfuls, related the experiences of the night,
Pratt showing unusual self-restraint as a listener.

"My poor old uncle!" he exclaimed at the conclusion of the story.  "He
can’t be convicted as an accessory, can he?"

"Of course not," replied Warrender.  "No one could hold him responsible
for what his foreign crew are doing in his absence.  It’s a pity you
don’t know where he’s gone.  A cable or a Marconigram would bring him
home post-haste."

"I might, perhaps, ask Gradoff for his last address."

"The less we have to do with Gradoff the better, until we have got to
the bottom of the business. Just run down to the boat, will you, and
bring up our map."

The scale of the map was two inches to the mile. A moment’s examination
proved that the tower, marked on the map, lay within a radius of
one-eighth of a mile from the island.

"There isn’t much doubt that the far end of the tunnel is under the
tower," said Warrender. "The house is a trifle beyond.  Didn’t you ever
hear of the smugglers’ passage, Percy?"

"Never.  All I know about it is the tradition that some one was starved
in the tower centuries ago.  My sister and I used to play in it as kids;
it was a mere ruin then; no roof, no boarding on the windows."

"I wonder if a local guide-book would give any information?" said
Armstrong.

"Good idea!  We’ll see presently," said Pratt.

"But we’re not studying antiquities," Warrender remarked.  "The
essential point is, what are those beggars using the place for now?
What are they doing with those bales of paper?  Come into the tent, and
I’ll show you the specimen I bagged."

Within the shelter of the tent he unfolded the sheet, and the others
bent over it curiously, fingering it.

"It has a sort of parchmenty feel, and it’s much too thick for cigarette
paper," said Pratt. "Is there a watermark?"  He held it up to the
sunlight.

"Jiminy!" he exclaimed.  Whipping out his pocket-book he took a pound
note, and held it beside the larger sheet.  "Look here!  The watermark’s
almost, but not quite, the same.  A dashed clever imitation.  Here are
the words, ’One pound,’ crowns, diagonal hatchings--everything.  The
beggars are forging Bradburys."

The sinister discovery almost robbed the others of breath.  There could
be little room for doubt. Such paper, so marked, could be used for only
one purpose.  A flood of light was poured on all the mysterious events
of the past week.  The paper was brought from abroad, and landed as a
rule on the island in preference to the coast, to avoid the risk of
interference by coastguards; also, no doubt, for greater ease of
transport.  Rush was employed because he was a well-known figure in the
neighbourhood, and could go up and down the river in his boat without
awakening suspicion.  He might or might not know the contents of the
bales; what was clear was that the printing of the notes must be done
either in the tower or in Mr. Pratt’s house.  The foreigners had entered
his service with no other end in view than their criminal work.
Gradoff, the head of the gang, had probably known in advance of Mr.
Pratt’s intention to travel, and had astutely seized the opportunity of
carrying on his operations in this remote spot, on the premises of an
eccentric gentleman who was something of a recluse, and prone to quarrel
with his neighbours.

"They’re clever blackguards," said Pratt.  "No wonder the island is
haunted!  And I say, Molly Rod’s peculiar actions the other day are
explained. She has found out what’s going on, and being a decent
Englishwoman, wants to stop it, husband or no husband.  You may say what
you like, Jack; I’m certain it is she who makes those signals, and, of
course, my poor old uncle is absolutely ignorant of everything.  He’ll
be in a terrific bait when he knows."

"What’s our next move to be?" asked Warrender.  "Inform the police?"

"Certainly not that fellow who yarned about arson the other night," said
Armstrong.  "It’s a matter for the Chief Constable."

"Or Mr. Crawshay?  He’s a magistrate," suggested Pratt.

"And an impetuous old hothead," rejoined Armstrong.

"Plenty of common sense, though," said Warrender.  "You remember, he
said a good case is often lost through being ill prepared?  Well, we’ve
still only suspicion to go on.  There’s no earthly doubt about it, of
course; but wouldn’t it be best to catch the forgers in the act before
we call in the law?"

"It means loss of time," said Armstrong.

"That doesn’t matter to us.  You see, if we set the authorities at work
now, they might send a bobby to the house to make inquiries, and give
clever scoundrels like those a chance to get away. But if we can go to
them and say definitely, ’An international gang of forgers is printing
notes in the Red House, and here’s one of the forgeries,’ the matter
becomes much more important, and they’d take steps to secure the whole
crowd without the possibility of failure.  To my mind we’d better keep
everything a dead secret until we’ve got positive proof."

"I concur with my learned brother," said Pratt. "Besides, we’ve got so
far with it that I own I should hate to see it taken out of our hands.
Furthermore and finally, it’s good sport, and a ripping holiday
adventure."

"That’s the best argument of the lot," said Armstrong.  "The only sound
one.  I confess I’d like to get into the tower, and see them at it."

"We’ll go through the tunnel again to-night," said Warrender.  "If we
can’t find an entry that way, we’ll try the outside."

"I make a third to-night," said Pratt.

"We must leave some one in camp, if only for appearance’s sake," said
Warrender.  "I think Armstrong and I had better go again, as we know the
course.  Hope you don’t mind.  Your turn will come, Percy."

"Well, I’d like to feel myself a martyr, but unluckily I’ve got a
certain amount of common sense, and I can’t help admitting you’re right.
Hadn’t you better take a snooze, then?"

"I intend to," said Armstrong.  "We’ll sleep till lunch; this afternoon
we’ll go to the village and get a guide-book.  We want some more bacon,
too."

"And I’ll start preparing our case," said Pratt. "We’d better have it in
writing, so I’ll draw up an account of our discoveries so far.
Shouldn’t wonder if it becomes a classic document in the archives of
Scotland Yard."

After lunch Armstrong and Warrender set off up the river in the dinghy
for the sake of exercise. They made various purchases in the village,
and obtained a small guide-book at the post office. It contained a few
lines about the tower, which Warrender read aloud as they returned to
the ferry: "In the grounds of the Red House are the remains of a square
tower, believed to date from the troublous times of King Stephen.  There
is a tradition that in the thirteenth century a certain baron was
incarcerated there by an ancestor of the present owner, and starved to
death.  At one time open to the public, since tourists cut their
initials in the oaken beams it has been closed to sightseers."

"Not a word about smugglers, you see," remarked Warrender.  "The secret
was evidently very well kept."

Rogers happened to be cleaning his windows as they passed, and they
turned to have a chat with him.  Warrender discreetly led the
conversation to the subject of the tower.

"Ay, ’tis the only old ancient curiosity we’ve got in these parts," said
the innkeeper.  "I know the place, though I haven’t been there since I
was a nipper, thirty odd years ago.  Us youngsters used to like to climb
the winding stairs; ’twas open in those days.  Had no roof then.  Mr.
Pratt a few years back did some restoring, as they call it; put on a
flat roof.  My friend Saunders, his old butler, told me the top room was
used as a sort of museum; Mr. Pratt kept there a whole lot of
curiosities he’d collected in his travels.  I mind as how my neighbour
Parsons, the builder, was affronted because the building job was done by
a firm from Dartmouth, and so far as I know none of the village folk
have been inside the place since. Mr. Pratt was very particular after
he’d rigged up his museum; wouldn’t let anybody in except his special
cronies; and ’tis always locked up when he’s away, so if you young gents
had an idea of visiting it, I’m afeard you’ll be disappointed."

"We should certainly have liked to see the museum," said Warrender.
"There’s nothing else very interesting, apparently.  But no doubt the
curiosities are valuable, and Mr. Pratt is quite right to lock up the
place.  Have you seen your sister, by the way?"

"Not a sign of her.  She’ve deserted us quite. She won’t even see Henery
Drew’s milkman, I suppose becos Henery fought her husband’s friend,
Jensen.  I call it downright silly, but there, who’d be so bold as to
say what a woman’ll do next? There’s my missus----"

"Now, Joe," called Mrs. Rogers from within, "get on with they winders,
my man.  There’s all the pewters to shine afore opening time."

Rogers gave the boys his usual rueful smile, and they went on their way.
Rowing with their faces up stream, they did not notice until they pulled
in to the landing-place above the camp that the motor-boat no longer lay
at her moorings.

"Have those beggars let her drift again?" said Warrender, angrily.
"Pratt!" he called.

There was no answer.  They looked down the river.  The boat was not in
sight.  Hurrying to the tent, with the expectation of finding Pratt
asleep there, they discovered that it was untenanted.

"What the dickens!" exclaimed Warrender. "Surely he hasn’t gone larking
with the boat? He always prided himself on knowing nothing about her
working!"

"Seems to me they’ve run off with him and the boat too," said Armstrong.
"Where’s his banjo, by the way?"

It was neither in the tent nor on the chair outside, where Pratt
sometimes left it.

They looked blankly at each other for a moment, then Warrender
exclaimed--

"Come on!  This is serious!  I can’t believe he’s kidnapped.  What’s the
use of that?  Let us row down--perhaps he hasn’t gone far."

They ran to the bank, sprang into the dinghy, and sculled rapidly down
stream, every now and then turning their heads to scan the river, the
banks, the island, for a sign of the motor-boat. They had almost reached
the mouth when Armstrong suddenly cried--

"Listen!  Isn’t that a banjo?"

They shipped oars.  Faintly on the breeze from seaward came the strains
of "Three Blind Mice."  A few strokes brought the rowers round the
slight bend.  Looking out to sea they descried, about half a mile away,
the motor-boat, stationary, lapped by white-crested wavelets.

"By George!  He’s picked up some girls," exclaimed Armstrong.

There were certainly two parasols, a pink and a blue, at the stern of
the boat.

"The young dog!" cried Warrender.  "And got them stranded on a sandbank.
But ’Three Blind Mice!’  He’s a rummy idea of entertaining girls."

The sound of the banjo ceased.  "Ahoy!" came from the boat, and the two
parasols were agitated.  The scullers pulled on.

"Heavens!  It’s Mrs. Crawshay and her daughter," said Warrender, after
glancing over his shoulder.  Armstrong grinned.

"Twig?" he said.  "Master Percy has been showing off."

"Silly young ass!  Jolly lucky he hasn’t wrecked ’em!  I shall have to
talk to him."

They rowed almost up to the boat, keeping clear of the sandbank.

"Hullo, old sports," said Pratt.  "Really, Phil, you ought to carry a
chart--an up-to-date one, you know, that would show all the coral reefs
and other traps for the hapless navigator.  The Admiralty ought to mark
’em with buoys or lightships or something, but you can never expect
anything from the Government.  There’s no danger, of course.  I assured
the ladies that they needn’t be the least bit nervous or frightened, but
it’s annoying to be pulled up when you don’t want to be.  I’m sure a
’bus conductor must get frightfully annoyed when the old ’bus is
spanking along and somebody wants to get in or out.  I dare say you’ve
noticed it, Mrs. Crawshay; the conductor is so ratty at being
interrupted that he simply won’t see the umbrella you’re waving at him
from the kerb. Mrs. Crawshay and Miss Crawshay were kind enough to pay a
call on us at the camp this afternoon.  It was just after you had gone,
and as it was far too early for tea, I thought it would be
interesting--what they call a treat, you know"--Pratt’s impetuous tongue
had fairly run away with his _savoir faire_--"to take the ladies for a
spin, especially as they had never been in a motor-boat before.  I
promised faithfully to bring them back to tea; you got some meringues
and things, of course--and I have a distinct grudge against fate for
making me out to be not a man of my word. There’s no armour against----"

"Oh, Mr. Pratt, please!" Lilian Crawshay implored.  "Mr. Warrender, can
you get us off?"

"I have given up all hope of tea," said Mrs. Crawshay, good-temperedly.
"We have friends coming to dinner, and Mr. Pratt tells me that we must
wait till the tide turns.  Will that be long?"

"Three hours or so, I’m afraid," replied Warrender.

"Dear, dear!  We shall be very late, Lilian," said Mrs. Crawshay.

"Can’t you tug us off?" asked the girl.

"I’m sorry to say we haven’t a hawser.  But I think we could pull the
dinghy near enough for you to get into it, if Mrs. Crawshay would
venture?"

"I’ll venture anything rather than wait here three hours," said the
lady, "though Mr. Pratt has been most kind.  I have really quite enjoyed
it, but three hours more, you know----"

"It would be rather awful!" said Warrender, with a glance at Pratt, who
having succeeded in his object, to prevent certain disclosures, was
mopping his brow in the background.  Now, however, he came forward.

"That’s right, Phil," he said.  "No nearer, or you’ll run aground too."

He leapt overboard, and stood up to his knees in water.  "I’ll hold the
boat’s nose, Mrs. Crawshay. Or perhaps I might take you in my arms
and----" "Bless the boy!  You’re getting your feet wet. No, no!  I don’t
think you shall take me in your arms."

"Or try pick-a-back?  Or shall I make myself into a gangway for you to
walk over?  I’d stand perfectly firm."

"If you would give me a hand!  Lilian, my dear, jump in first.  Then you
can each give me a hand, and I shall manage very nicely.  Dear me! What
an adventure for an old woman!"

"Not at all," said Pratt.  "I mean----"

"I am sure you do," said Mrs. Crawshay, interrupting.  "Will you take my
parasol?"

Pratt meekly relieved her of the parasol, then turned to help the girl
into the dinghy.  Lilian, however, sprang in without his aid, and
between them the two boys assisted the mother, who gave a sigh of relief
as she sank down upon the thwart.

[Illustration: "BETWEEN THEM THE TWO BOYS ASSISTED THE MOTHER"]

"We’ll come back for you presently, Pratt," said Warrender, stiffly.
"Don’t attempt to run up, mind."

"Good-bye, Mr. Pratt," said Mrs. Crawshay. "And thank you so much.  When
you come up to dinner, be sure to bring your banjo."

The two boys pulled off, Pratt climbing back into the motor-boat.

"What a clever, amusing person Mr. Pratt is," said Mrs. Crawshay to
Armstrong, facing her. "So ready!  And an excellent performer on the
banjo!  We could never be dull in his company. He talked most amusingly,
then sang us song after song.  Don’t you think ’Two Eyes of Blue’ very
pretty, Mr.----"

"Rather sentimental, isn’t it?" said Armstrong, blushing.

"All his songs are sentimental.  He was playing a very funny tune,
though, when you came round the bend.  I was sure his voice was getting
tired, and asked him just to play.  The tune was quite unknown to me,
but I thought it very cheering."

Meanwhile, at the other end of the boat, Lilian had been giving
explanations to Warrender.

"He intended just to bring us to the mouth of the river, but seemed to
have some difficulty in turning round.  I think he said he wanted more
sea-room.  At any rate, he ran out to sea, and then we stuck on that
wretched sandbank.  He talked and sang to amuse us; he has quite a
pleasant voice, but his songs are dreadfully sentimental, aren’t they?"

"Frightful tosh!" returned Warrender.

"Well, it was very good of him, especially when he must have been much
annoyed at the mishap, which, of course, wasn’t his fault."

"No, of course not," said Warrender.

"You speak as if you thought it was."

"Oh, no.  Any one might run on a hidden sandbank.  But the fact is----"

"Yes?"

"You see, he was in charge of the camp."

"You mean he oughtn’t to have come at all?"

"Naturally he thought it would please you and Mrs. Crawshay, but----"

"Oh!"

The girl said no more.

"She thought I was jealous, or huffy, or something," Warrender confided
to Armstrong later. "I wonder what she’d have said if I’d told her that
the idiot had never run a motor-boat before?"



                              CHAPTER XVII

                            THE TOPMOST ROOM


It was in the evening twilight that Armstrong and Warrender put off in
the pram for their second expedition to the tunnel.  On reaching the
ruins, Warrender posted himself in one of the lower rooms, while
Armstrong mounted to the upper floor, intent on discovering the source
of the ghostly moans.  Climbing out of the window opening, and pulling
aside the ivy, he found that steps had been made in the brickwork of the
crumbling wall, by means of which any one with a steady head might with
ease ascend to the roof. And there, behind one of the gables, partly
protected from the weather, he came upon a long metal organ pipe laid
flat, and near it a large funnel-shaped object.  A strong breeze was
blowing from the south-west, but the organ pipe gave forth no sound.

Still puzzled as to the manner in which the sound was produced, and
reflecting that Pratt would probably have jumped to it at once,
Armstrong heard a low whistle from below.  He scrambled hastily down,
and had only just slipped into the eastern room when he heard lumbering
footsteps upon the stairs.  From the doorway he watched the man whom he
had seen in the morning. A minute or two after the new-comer had entered
the western room, the moaning broke out. Armstrong waited until the man
had descended and all was quiet again, then once more climbed upon the
roof.  The mystery was solved.  The funnel had been so adjusted as to
catch the wind, and direct it with some force into the mouth of the
organ pipe. It turned like a weather-cock, so that the sound was
independent of the veering of the wind.

Rejoining Warrender, Armstrong informed him of the discovery, and
suggested that he should examine the contrivance for himself.

"I’ll take your word for it," said Warrender, smiling.  "I don’t care
about steeple-jack feats in half darkness.  We’ll wait a little before
we follow that fellow through the tunnel.  Let’s go up and watch for the
signal."

It was perhaps half an hour later when the light appeared above the
tree-tops.

"Most certainly it’s S.O.S.," said Armstrong, after counting the
recurring glows.

"I shouldn’t wonder if Pratt is right after all, and it’s Molly Rod
signalling.  He was right about the organ pipe."

"Doesn’t it occur to you that the light may come from the tower?"

"But if the forgers are at work there, why should any one signal?"

"Can’t we discover whether it’s from the tower or the house?"

"We can’t take any bearings in the dark. Stay, though.  If we move back
from the window, and go to the side of the room, perhaps we’ll find a
spot where the light just becomes invisible.  I’ll mark that on the
floor, and in daylight there’d be no difficulty."

Acting on this suggestion, they were not long in discovering the
required spot.  Warrender scratched a pencil mark on the floor; then
they descended to the cellar, cautiously lifted the flagstone, and
groped their way through the tunnel until they came to the chamber at
the end.  Nothing was altered there, except that the opened bale of
paper had been removed.  They had intended to enter the archway on the
farther side, and lift the flagstone which, they suspected, closed the
entrance to another cellar; but from above there came dully a succession
of regular thuds which proved that somebody was about, and active.

"I dare say that’s the press at work," said Warrender in a whisper,
after they had listened for a few minutes.

"Doing overtime," said Armstrong.  "I suppose, not knowing exactly when
Mr. Pratt will return, they want to make the most of their opportunity.
Who knows how many thousands of pounds of spurious money are getting
into circulation?  No doubt Gradoff had his trunk full of notes that
morning we saw him driving off in the car."

They seated themselves on the unopened bales, hoping that work would
presently cease, and the man would leave the tower.  But the thuds
continued with monotonous regularity.

"Every thud means a forged note," said Armstrong.  "They may be going on
all night.  How long can you stick it?"

"We’ll wait till eleven; then if they’re still at it, we’ll go back and
reconnoitre the outside."

"Perhaps they have a sentry."

"Perhaps; but I fancy they’ll feel pretty safe now that they’ve chevied
us from the island."

At eleven o’clock the work was still going on. The boys retraced their
course to the ruins, regained the pram, and allowed it to drift on the
current down channel to the south of the island.  There they lay to for
a few minutes, listening, peering through the darkness.  There was no
moon; the starlight scarcely revealed the outlines of the trees.
Presently, with careful, soundless movements of the sculls, they rowed
across to the left bank, and, pulling the craft out of sight, landed a
little below the island, and laboriously pushed their way through the
thicket, guiding themselves by the compass.  Some fifty yards from the
bank the vegetation thinned, and they found themselves in a wood of
taller trees.  Here the going was easier, though once or twice they
stumbled over trunks that had been felled and stripped ready for
carting.  Emerging from the wood into park-like ground, where there were
large trees only at intervals, they progressed still more rapidly, and
at last caught sight, on their left, of the dim, square shape of the
tower.  Behind a broad elm they stood for a minute or two, watching.
There was no light in the tower.  Its base was surrounded by a mass of
low-growing shrubs.  The doorway, no doubt, was on the farther side from
them.  The walls were covered with ivy, except at the window openings,
where the recent boarding was visible as faint grey patches.

"Now for it," whispered Warrender.

They stole forward over the long grass.  As they drew nearer to the
tower they heard the dull regular thudding; there was no other sound.
Armstrong posted himself at one corner, while Warrender gently pushed a
way through the shrubs to the wall.  He examined the boarded window,
apparently an old embrasure much widened. The boards were on the inside;
the outside was protected by cross bars of iron.  He went round the
building.  There was only one other window opening on the ground floor.
At the north-eastern angle he halted, looking out for a possible sentry,
then crept along until he reached the entrance, a low iron-studded door
flush with the wall. Putting his ear against the wood, he heard more
clearly the metallic thuds, and men’s voices.  A footstep approached.
He slipped back to the corner, and crouched in the shelter of a shrub.
The door opened outwards, creaking on its hinges, and letting out a
stream of light.  A short, stout figure emerged from the tower, carrying
a number of cans which rattled as he walked.

"_Fermez la porte!_"

The words, in a savage, half-suppressed shout, sounded from some little
distance away in the direction of the house.  The man addressed hastily
closed the door behind him, and went on. Warrender saw another man meet
him.  They stopped and exchanged a few words.  Rod continued his way to
the house, his progress faintly marked by the rattling cans.  The other
man came towards the tower.  He opened the door quickly, slipped inside,
and shut it.  In the one second during which the light shone out,
Warrender recognised the pale face of Paul Gradoff.

He hurried round to the spot where Armstrong had remained on guard.

"All right!" he whispered.  "No sentry.  Rod has just gone to the house;
Gradoff has gone in."

"Well," returned Armstrong, "what can we do?"

"We’ll try the door first of all.  Come on!"

They moved with slow, careful steps round the tower, came to the door,
and gently tried the handle.  There was no yielding; the door was
fastened.  They went on to the western face of the tower.  Here also
there was a window opening on the ground floor, as securely boarded up
as the other.  At equal intervals above it were two other embrasures,
similarly blocked.

"No way of getting in," murmured Armstrong.

The sound of the door creaking sent them scurrying to cover in the
undergrowth.  When all was silent again, Warrender whispered--

"Come among the trees.  We can talk more freely there."

They crept over the ground, and took post under a tall, thick-leaved
beech nearly a hundred yards away.

"I don’t see any chance of getting in," said Warrender, "and that’s a
pity.  I wanted to see them actually turning out their forged notes."

"I suppose it was Gradoff going out again we heard just now," said
Armstrong.  "If he and Rod are both away, there can’t be more than four
others in the tower, probably not so many. They’ll take turns at
night-work."

"That doesn’t matter.  Any forcible entry is quite out of the question,
if that’s what you’re thinking of.  I say, isn’t that a light up the
tower?"

More than half-way up the wall a faint streak of light was visible.

"Evidently there’s some one in the top room," said Warrender.  "Some one
sleeps there, I suppose.  The machine is on the ground floor. Where
light gets out, we should be able to see in. You’ve done some climbing
already to-night; are you game to clamber up the ivy?  There’s no other
way."

"I weigh eleven stone," said Armstrong, dubiously.

"But ivy’s pretty tough.  It may support you.  You may find foothold in
the wall."

"Hanged if I don’t try.  You’ll stand underneath and break my fall if I
tumble.  I reckon it’s about thirty feet up; plenty high enough to break
one’s neck or leg."

They hastened to the foot of the tower.  With Warrender’s help,
Armstrong got a footing in the lower embrasure.  Then, taking firm hold
of the stout main stem of the ivy, he began to swarm up, seeking support
for his feet in the thick, spreading tendrils and in notches of the
stone-work. Warrender watched him hopefully.  Slowly, inch by inch, he
ascended.  He gained the second embrasure, rested there a few moments,
then climbed again, and was almost half-way to his goal, when he felt
the ivy above him yield slightly.  Digging his feet into the wall, he
hung on, but at the first attempt to ascend he felt that the attenuated
stem would no longer support his weight, and began slowly to lower
himself.

At this moment Warrender heard the door creak, and threw up a warning
whisper. Armstrong stopped, effacing himself as well as he could amongst
the ivy, to which he clung with the disagreeable sensation that he was
dragging it from its supports above.  Voices were heard; heavy
footsteps.  After a few moments they ceased.  Were the men turning to
come back? Had they heard anything?  Then came the scratching of a
match.  Warrender drew relieved breath; some one had halted, only, it
appeared, to light his pipe or cigarette.  The footsteps sounded again,
gradually receding, and finally died away.

"All safe!" whispered Warrender.

Armstrong let himself down, and stood beside his friend.

"A quivery job," he murmured.  "My arms ache frightfully.  It’s not to
be done, Phil. Another foot up and I should have dragged down the whole
lot, possibly a stone or two as well.  We’re fairly beaten."

"The sound inside has stopped.  They’ve apparently knocked off work;
it’s past midnight.  I wonder if any one’s left inside?"

"Why should there be?"

"Well, there was some one up above.  Is the light showing still?"

They walked some distance away from the tower, and looked up.  The thin
streak of light, so faint that it might have escaped casual observation,
still showed at the level of the topmost room. They went to the door and
again gently tried it. It was shut fast.

"We had better get back," said Warrender. "There’s nothing to be done."

"Unless we try the tunnel again, now that all is quiet inside."

"If you like."

They crossed the grounds with the guidance of the compass, and presently
came among the medley of prostrate trunks.

"I’ve an idea," said Armstrong.  "It’ll take a long time to get back
through the tunnel.  Why not shift one of these poles, and put it up
against the tower?  I could climb then, and take a look in at that upper
window."

"Good man!  We must take care to get one long enough."

They found a straight fir stem that appeared to be of the required
length, carried it to the tower, and raised it silently until the top
rested in the ivy, just above the left-hand corner of the window.

"Steady it while I climb," said Armstrong. "Don’t let it wobble over."

He began to swarm up.  For the first eighteen or twenty feet it was easy
work; then with every inch upward his difficulties grew, for not only
was there less and less room between the pole and the wall, but the pole
itself showed more and more tendency to roll sideways, in spite of
Warrender’s steadying hands below.  Slowly, very slowly Armstrong
mounted, maintaining equilibrium partly by clutching the ivy.  At last,
gaining the level of the window, he gripped one of the iron bars that
stretched across it, rested one knee on the wide embrasure, and peeped
through a narrow crack between two of the boards.

He was transfixed with amazement.  The first object that caught his eye
was the figure of an elderly man, bald, with thick grey moustache and
beard, seated at a table, resting his head on his hands as he read by
the light of a small paraffin lamp the book open before him.  On one end
of the table stood a couple of plates, one holding a half-loaf of bread,
a knife, and a jug.  Upon the walls beyond him hung animals’ horns,
tusks, savage weapons, necklaces of metal and beads.  The remainder of
the room was out of the line of sight.

As Armstrong gazed, the inmate got up and paced to and fro.  He was tall
and lank; his clothes--an ordinary lounge suit--hung loosely upon his
spare frame.  There was a worn, harassed look in the eyes beneath a
deeply furrowed brow. He strode up and down, his large bony hands
clasped behind him; sighed, sat down again, and began to take off his
clothes.

[Illustration: "HE STRODE UP AND DOWN, HIS LARGE BONY HANDS CLASPED
BEHIND HIM."]

Puzzled as to the identity of this solitary, wondering whether he, and
not Gradoff, was the head of the gang, Armstrong backed down to make his
descent.  The pole swayed as his full weight came upon it, and he saved
himself from crashing to the ground only by desperately clinging to the
ivy, and forcing the top of the pole into a tangled mass of the foliage.
Then he slid rapidly down, barking his hands on the rough stem.

"Quick!" whispered Warrender.  "You made too much row."

He ran backwards, letting down the pole; Armstrong caught up the lower
end, and they hurried away with it, laying it in the wood among the
others.  Meanwhile they had heard sounds of movement from the tower.
Some one had come out.  There were low voices, footsteps coming towards
them.  Without an instant’s delay they pushed on in the direction of the
river, thankful for the darkness of the night and the overshadowing
trees.  Only when they had gained the shelter of the thicket did they
dare to pause for a moment to consult the compass.  On again, but more
slowly, lest the rustling leaves should betray them.

At length they came to the channel.  The island was opposite to them.
Turning southward, they groped along the bank until they stumbled upon
the pram.  They launched it, and floated down stream.  When they were
well past the southern end of the island they pulled round into the
broader channel, and, closely hugging the right bank, rowed quietly up
the river to their landing-place.

Only then did Warrender venture a whispered question--

"What did you see?"

"An oldish man, reading."

"Not one of those we have seen?"

"No.  Can’t make it out."

They returned to camp.  It was past two o’clock. Pratt sprang up from
his chair before the tent, and held a small paraffin lamp towards them.

"Well?" he asked, guessing from their aspect that they brought news.

"They were working in the tower," said Warrender.  "We heard the
machine, and couldn’t risk going up from the tunnel.  But we came back
and reconnoitred the outside, and Armstrong climbed up and peeped
through a crack in the boarding of the top room.  What did you see,
Jack?"

"An old man reading by the light of a paraffin lamp."

"Another one of the gang!" exclaimed Pratt.

"I don’t know.  Perhaps.  He looked haggard and anxious."

"No wonder.  What was he like?"

"Tall and thin, with grey moustache and beard."

"A foreigner?"

"Couldn’t tell.  He might well have been English.  A queer old
johnny--hook-nosed, high bald head: might have been a ’varsity
professor."

"What!" shouted Pratt.  "Bald!  Beard! Hook nose!  Like a professor!
Great heavens--my uncle!"



                             CHAPTER XVIII

                                  ZERO


A half truth, some one has said, is the greatest of lies: perhaps there
is nothing more staggering to the intelligence than a half discovery--a
discovery which solves one problem only to propound another.

"My old uncle, for a certainty," said Pratt. "He has been bald as long
as I can remember him: lost his hair in the wilds of Africa, I believe.
Years ago his man stuffed me up with the tale that a lion clawed his
tresses out by the roots.  Lucky he didn’t marry, or his wife might have
plagued him about wearing a wig, like Mother Rogers. That’s the mystery
of the signal solved, then."

"Is it?" said Armstrong.  "No signal was ever shown from the window of
that top room; that I’d swear.  The light we saw to-night was the merest
streak: came through a slit certainly not more than a quarter of an inch
wide."

"But hang it all!--there’s the poor old chap a prisoner: who else would
signal for help?"

"I thought you suggested Molly Rogers," remarked Warrender.

"I’ve given that up.  Didn’t Rogers say she knows nothing about signals?
But that doesn’t matter.  The point is that those foreign blackguards
have him under lock and key while they’re committing a criminal offence
on his premises.  I shouldn’t wonder if it killed him, or made him clean
potty.  He’s over sixty, and solitary confinement----"

"I say, it’s very late," Armstrong interrupted. "We’ve none of us had
much sleep lately.  Let’s see what’s to be done and then get all the
rest we can before morning.  I foresee a thick time to-morrow."

"We must set old Crawshay moving," said Pratt.  "No doubt he’s hand in
glove with the Chief Constable."

"We talked about Crawshay before," rejoined Armstrong.  "The affair is
complicated now. We’ve got your uncle’s safety to consider.  You may be
sure that those ruffians won’t stick at trifles, and if any action is
taken against them publicly it’s quite on the cards that they’d put a
bullet into the old man.  I’m inclined to think it’s up to us."

"What do you mean?" asked Warrender.

"We know the subterranean entrance to the tower.  Can’t we get in and
release him ourselves? He’d be valuable outside as a witness."

"But, my dear chap, if the prisoner disappeared the foreigners would
know the game was up," said Warrender.  "They’d clear off before they
could be caught."

"Look here, old man, he’s my uncle," said Pratt earnestly.  "The poor
old boy has been cooped up there goodness knows how long.  He’s over
sixty, accustomed to an active life: imagine what it means to him.  It’s
just the sort of thing to send him to a lunatic asylum for the rest of
his days.  I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t make some effort to get
him out of it.  If you put it to me, I say I don’t care a hang whether
the forgers are caught or not.  The personal matter quite outweighs any
other.  If we go interviewing magistrates and constables we’ll lose
precious time: you know what officials are.  The thing is, to rescue my
old uncle without a moment’s delay, and let the rest take its chances."

Pratt’s unwonted gravity had its effect upon his companions.

"Shall we try it?" asked Warrender, turning to Armstrong.

"I’m game," was the ready reply.  "It’s risky: no good blinking that.
We are three to six or seven, if we include Rush; and there’s not the
least doubt they’re armed.  Fellows like that always carry automatics.
We’ve got cudgels!  We can’t fight ’em; our only chance is to get in
when there are few of them about."

"That’s during the morning," said Warrender. "You remember that Gradoff
has twice gone off in the car, and that morning we went up all the men
were at the house."

"Except Rush," added Armstrong, "and that ugly fellow we weren’t
introduced to."

"Well, then, I tell you what," said Pratt. "I’ll go into the village in
the morning and find out whether the car has left as usual.  We want
some eggs, and some spirit for the stove.  I’ll get that at Blevins’s,
and see if I can pump a little information out of him or his assistant.
If Gradoff and the chauffeur are away the odds against us will be
reduced, and with luck we might get into the tower in their absence.
What do you say?"

"There seems nothing better," said Warrender. "Let us turn in and get
four or five hours’ sleep."

Soon after breakfast next morning Pratt went off alone in the dinghy.

"By the way," Warrender said as he was pulling away, "bring an ounce of
pepper, and a large tin of sardines.  We can’t bother about cooking
to-day, and sardines want a little condiment."

"A packet of mustard, too," called Armstrong. "There’s none for
to-morrow’s bacon."

"Righto," shouted Pratt.  "I shan’t be long."

Arrived at the village, he made his purchases at the little provision
shop, thrust them into his pocket, and went on to the general dealer’s
for a can of spirit.  As he approached, he heard a high-pitched, angry
voice from the depths of the yard at the side of the shop.

"You go at vunce, at vunce, I say.  Ve hire your car; vat is ze goot?
Always it break down, one, two, tree times.  It is too much."

"Ay, and you owe me too much already," replied Blevins gruffly.

Pratt halted, straining his ears towards the altercation.

"You pay up: that’s what I say," Blevins went on.  "You’ve had my car a
week or more, and over-drive, that’s what you do.  And not a penny piece
have you paid."

"But zat is all right," expostulated the foreigner. "Mr. Gradoff he pay
at end of ze month.  He say so; vell, you vait all right.  You have--vat
you call it?--a bike; it is ten mile, but vat is zat? You go quick."

[Illustration: "’BUT ZAT IS ALL RIGHT.’"]

"And you think I’m going to ride twenty mile for a commutator.  Not me.
What do you want the car for, anyway?  Driving in and out nigh every
day, scorching along fit to bust up any machine.  What’s your game?  Do
’ee take me for a fool?  You’re up to some hanky-panky while your
master’s away.  Think I didn’t know that all along?  Nice goings on!  A
pretty tale the village ’ll have to tell him when he gets back! Spending
his money like I don’t know what. Spending, says I; running up bills,
that’s what it is.  You pay up, and you shall have a commutator. I don’t
need to ride no bikes to fetch it: I’ve got it on the spot; only I’ll
see your money first."

The men had begun to walk up the yard.  Pratt slipped into the shop.
Evidently the car would not be used to-day, he thought, if Blevins
remained obdurate.  Evidently, also, Blevins was suspicious of the
doings at the Red House, though it was clear that he had no well-defined
idea of what those doings were, or any knowledge of Mr. Pratt’s
whereabouts.  He went past the shop, still bickering with the Italian.
Pratt had a free field.

His former acquaintance, the youthful assistant, came forward to attend
to him.

"Good-morning," said Pratt, genially.  "It seems quite an age since I
saw you.  I’ve often thought of that pleasant little conversation we
had. But I’m in rather a hurry to-day.  I want some methylated spirit:
that’s what you call it, isn’t it?--the stuff that burns with a blue
flame.  Rummy how often blue comes into business affairs, don’t you
think?  Last time I was here I wanted blue tacks, I remember.  By the
way, I suppose your friend, the gardener at the Red House, hasn’t bought
any more tacks?"

"No friend o’ mine," growled the youth.

"Indeed!  It’s a pity not to be friends.  Friendship oils the machinery
of life, don’t you know. Still, I am sure it’s not your fault.  Why
doesn’t he reciprocate the amiable sentiments you cherish towards him?"

The youth gave Pratt a puzzled stare.  "I don’t know nothing about
that," he said slowly. "All I do know is, I hate furriners, I do so.
Fair cruel they be.  Why, the feller comed in here not a hour ago and
wanted six foot of iron chain--to chain up a dog.  ’Twas cruelty to
animals, and so I told ’un."

"Perhaps the dog feels the heat and gets snappy."

"But the thickness of it!  Look ’ee here, sir; here’s the chain I cut.
’Tis thick enough to hold a mad bull.  Do ’ee call that a chain for a
dog?  He wouldn’t have a little small chain, as was proper."

"Well, after all, you haven’t seen the dog.  It may be a whopper of a
brute.  Give him the benefit of the doubt.  You’ll feel better now
you’ve told me."

He paid for the can of spirit and left the shop. Blevins and the
chauffeur were a little way up the road, still quarrelling.  Forgetting
the eggs that were part of his commission, Pratt hastened back to the
ferry, and found that his friends had just arrived in the motor-boat.

"We saw Rush pulling down stream," said Warrender, "and hurried up to
meet you and save time.  He’s one less.  Any news of the car?"

"It appears to have broken down," replied Pratt, going on to relate what
he had heard. "Pity Gradoff won’t be away.  But the Italian is still
squabbling with Blevins, and if we look sharp we may get into the tower
before he returns to the house.  That will make them two short."

He had placed on the deck the can of spirit and the tin of sardines
while he was speaking, then tied the dinghy astern and jumped aboard.

"Rush wasn’t going to the island?" he asked.

"We watched him row past it," said Warrender. "He’s probably off to his
hut.  Let’s hope that the other fellows are at the house and not at the
tower."

"It’s ’over the top’ now," remarked Armstrong, as the boat sidled away
from the landing-stage.



                              CHAPTER XIX

                              THE PRISONER


Pratt was the only one of the three who had the curiosity to look at his
watch when they descended into the cellar of the ruined cottage.  It was
twelve minutes past ten.

They had tied up the motor-boat at its moorings below the camp, and
after a careful look-out in all directions, had crossed to No Man’s
Island by Mr. Crawshay’s pram.  For weapons Pratt and Armstrong each
carried a short thick cudgel; Warrender at the last moment caught up his
spanner, remarking that he might need a knuckle-duster.

The flat stone was revolved.  They sprang lightly into the cavity below.

"Shall we leave it open in case we have to come back in a hurry?" asked
Warrender in a whisper.

"Better close it," said Armstrong.  "If Rush or the other fellow turns
up and finds it open we may be fairly trapped."

Having made all secure they stood for a few moments listening.  There
was no sound.

"Now," said Warrender, moving to the front with his electric torch.
"You’re lucky, Pratt; you’re the only one of us who can walk upright."

"’Were I so tall to reach the pole,’" Pratt quoted.

"Shut up!" said Armstrong, in a murmur. "Every sound carries.  You can
recite your little piece when we’re through with it."

Slowly, quietly, in pitch darkness, they groped their way.  Warrender
thought it prudent not to switch on his light.  At the dry well they
halted to listen once more.  On again, until they reached the vaulted
chamber at the end.  From overhead came the dull regular thud of the
working machine. This was a disappointment.  They wondered how many men
were above.  Did the trap here give entrance to a cellar as in the
cottage?  Was the printing done in such a cellar, or on a higher floor?
They could not tell.  The least movement of the flagstone might be
noticed; they might be overwhelmed before they could emerge; but it was
no time to weigh risks.

Armstrong went forward, and by a momentary flash from Warrender’s torch
saw the positions of the hand-grips.  With infinite care he moved them
round, and let the flagstone drop for a fraction of an inch.  The sound
from the machine was scarcely louder; only a subdued light shone through
the crack.  He lowered the stone noiselessly a little more; again a
little more.  The thuds continued; there was no other sound.  No longer
hesitating, Armstrong turned the stone over until it stood upright and
peered over the edge of the cavity. He saw a large, dimly lit chamber,
evidently underground, one side of which was filled with packing cases,
crates and boxes.  On the other side was a wooden staircase with a short
return, giving access to the room from which came, more distinctly now,
the thud of the printing press.  It was only through the opening at the
head of the staircase that light, apparently from a lamp, penetrated
into the chamber.

Armstrong scrambled up; Warrender was following him, when the thuds
suddenly ceased. The boys held their breath.  Had they been heard in
spite of their care?  There was no movement above.  Warrender signed to
Pratt to clamber up. Whether from excitement, or because he was shorter
than the others, Pratt dropped his stick, which fell with a crack upon
the floor.  A voice from above called out two or three words which none
of the boys understood.  They had the rising inflection of a question;
the last seemed to be a name.  With quick wit Pratt uttered a low-toned
grunt as if in answer.  Armstrong flung a glance at his companions--a
look in which they read resolution and a claim for their support. Then
he walked boldly up the stairs.

On turning the corner he saw the well-remembered figure of Jensen the
Swede in his shirt-sleeves, bending over, examining the platen of a
small hand printing press.  No daylight penetrated into the room, which
was illumined by a powerful lamp hanging from the ceiling.  Jensen’s
back was towards the staircase.  He did not at once look up; Pratt’s
grunt had apparently satisfied him; but he growled a few words in a
tongue unknown to the boys, as if he was finding fault with the machine.
Receiving no answer, he glanced up.  At the sight of Armstrong he
remained for an instant in his bent position, motionless, as though
turned to stone.  Then he dashed towards the farther wall, where his
coat hung from a nail.

[Illustration: "HE REMAINED FOR AN INSTANT IN HIS BENT POSITION,
MOTIONLESS."]

His momentary hesitation was his undoing. Armstrong sprang after him.
Before the man could withdraw his hand from the coat pocket Armstrong
struck down his left arm, raised instinctively to ward off a blow, with
a smart stroke from his cudgel, following it up with a smashing
left-hander between the eyes, which drove his head against the wall.
While he still staggered, Armstrong seized him about the middle and
flung him to the floor, wrenching from his hand the automatic pistol he
had taken from his pocket.

"Hold his legs," cried Armstrong to Warrender, who had joined him.
"Pratt, bring up some rope; there’s plenty on the packing cases below."

The Swede heaved and writhed, but the firm hands of Armstrong and
Warrender held him to the floor until Pratt had neatly bound his arms
and legs. He filled the air with curses while the pinioning was a-doing.
Warrender caught up some sheets from the pile of paper that had already
been printed, and twisting them into a wad, stuffed it between the man’s
teeth.  Laid helpless against the wall, the Swede concentrated all the
bitterness of his rage and resentment in his eyes, which followed every
movement of his captors.

Armstrong had already shot the stout bolt that defended the heavy oaken
door on the inside. Having disposed of their victim, they threw a hasty
glance at the small hand press, the piles of paper, printed and
unprinted; in their eagerness to achieve their purpose they did not stay
to make a thorough examination.

"Jack, will you close the trap-door below and remain on guard here?"
said Warrender.  "Take this fellow’s pistol.  You can spy out through a
chink in the boarding, and if you see any of the others coming, sing
out."

"Righto," said Armstrong.

Pratt was already through the low doorway in the north-east corner of
the room.  Warrender followed him, and found himself at the foot of a
dark stone staircase, which wound so rapidly that Pratt was even now out
of sight.  The stairs were much worn in the middle, and in their haste
to ascend the boys were glad to avail themselves of the rope that ran
along the inner wall, supported by rusty iron stanchions.

When they had mounted a score of steps by the light of Warrender’s
torch, they came to an open doorway giving access to a low room lined
with bookcases, except on the eastern wall, where a window, closely
boarded up, looked towards the Red House.  A desk stood in the centre of
the floor; there was no other furniture, no occupant, only an array of
small tin cases along one of the walls.  Going higher, they presently
halted before a closed door, the top of which was only a few feet below
the massive timbers of the roof.  Pratt turned the large iron ring; the
door did not yield. He rapped smartly on the oak: there was no reply.
Stooping, he peeped through the enormous keyhole. The interior of the
room was dark.  Warrender held the torch to the hole.

"The door’s four or five inches thick," said Pratt.  "No wonder he can’t
hear--if this is the room.  Bang with your spanner."

Warrender smote the door vigorously, Pratt listening at the keyhole.
There was no reply, but Pratt declared that he heard a slight movement,
and putting his mouth to the keyhole he cried--

"Can you hear?  We are friends."

Still there was no voice in answer.  The only sound was a clanking of
metal.

"Is your uncle deaf?" asked Warrender.

"He wasn’t ten years ago.  You try, Phil; your voice may carry better
than mine."

"Are you Mr. Ambrose Pratt?" Warrender shouted, then turned his ear to
the hole.

"Yes.  Who are you?"

The words were spoken in tones so low and hollow that Warrender could
scarcely distinguish them.

"Friends," he replied.  "Your nephew Percy. Come to the door."

"What did you say?"

"Come--to--the--door!" Warrender bawled, spacing out the words.

"Why do you mock me?  You know I cannot."

Again came the clanking of metal.

"He must be deaf," said Pratt.

"We have come to help you," cried Warrender, slowly and distinctly.
"Can you open the door?"

"To help me!"  The clanking was louder, more prolonged.  "Are the
villains gone?  Who are you?"

"This is rotten," said Warrender to Pratt. "Shall I never make him
understand?  Please be still and listen," he called.  "We are friends.
We have come to let you out.  Can you help us?"

"No.  The door is locked.  That man Gradoff has the key, and I am
chained."

"Good heavens!" ejaculated Pratt.  "Can we burst in the door?"

Standing on the narrow top step of the staircase, with winding stairs
behind them, they were unable to bring any momentum to bear, and the
pressure of their shoulders did not cause the heavy timber to yield a
fraction of an inch.  Warrender tried to force first the head of his
spanner, then the narrower end of the handle between the door and the
side-post.  He failed.

"Get Jensen’s pistol and blow it in," suggested Pratt.

Warrender hurried down the stairs.  Returning with the pistol, he called
through the keyhole--

"We will try to blow the lock in.  Keep away from the line of fire."

"Fire away.  I am at the side of the room," said the prisoner.

Warrender placed the muzzle in the keyhole and fired.  There was the
crack of shattered metal, but still the door did not yield.  He fired a
second time and pushed.

"It is giving.  Shove!" he said.

Pratt turned his back to the door, and thrusting his feet as firmly as
he could against the curving wall, he drove backwards with all his
force.  The fragments of the broken lock clattered upon the floor
within, and the door swinging open suddenly, precipitated Pratt headlong
into the room.

Warrender flashed his torch upon the scene. Against the left, the
eastern wall, sitting on a roughly contrived bunk supported between two
massive oaken beams that stretched from floor to roof, was the tall lank
figure that Armstrong had described.  He was chained by the leg to one
of the beams, the chain forming a loop around it, the last link being
riveted to one in the longer portion.

Ambrose Pratt gazed in speechless surprise at the two schoolboys.

"Uncle!" exclaimed Pratt, going forward with outstretched hand.

Mr. Pratt looked with an expression of utter bewilderment and
incredulity.

"Don’t you remember me?  I’m your nephew Percy," said the boy.

"My nephew!" murmured Mr. Pratt.

"Let us postpone explanations," said Warrender. "We have to get away.
Hold the chain, Percy. I’ll smash it with the spanner."

But the chain, which the general dealer’s assistant had described as
strong enough to hold a mad bull, resisted all the vigorous blows
Warrender rained upon it.

"Run downstairs, Pratt," he said, "and see if there’s a hammer and
chisel below--or any tool about the printing press."

During Pratt’s absence he repeated his efforts with the spanner, but
made no impression on the tough steel.  Pratt returned with a long steel
rod which he had found lying near the press, and inserting this in one
of the links, they tried to burst it.

"No good!" declared Warrender.  "Nothing but a chisel and hammer will do
it.  I’ve both in my tool box in the motor-boat.  We must have them.
It’s the only chance.  You had better go for them, Pratt.  Jack and I
could tackle the foreigners if they came up."

"All right," said Pratt.  "What’s the chisel like?"

"What’s it like?" exclaimed Warrender.  "Like a chisel!  Hang it!  We
can’t risk a mistake. I’ll go myself.  You stay with your uncle.  Jack
will keep guard below, with the pistol.  The door’s strong, and we may
be able to keep the enemy out until I have time to get back, suppose
they come. I’ll be as quick as I can: afraid I can’t do it under half an
hour.  Good luck!"



                               CHAPTER XX

                           THE PACE QUICKENS


"So you are my nephew Percy," said Mr. Pratt when Warrender had gone.
"Light the lamp and let me look at you.  I don’t recognise you.  When
was our last meeting?"

"About ten years ago," replied Pratt, surprised at his uncle’s calm
demeanour.  "You tanned me for picking one of your peaches."

"Did I?"  Mr. Pratt smiled.  "You were always a mischievous young
ruffian.  But how do you come here?  Do you bear an olive branch from
that cantankerous father of yours?"

"I came through the tunnel," Pratt began, ignoring the aspersion upon
his father.  Mr. Pratt interrupted him.

"What tunnel?"

"The tunnel between No Man’s Island and this tower.  Didn’t you know of
it?"

"I never heard of it before.  Who told you about it?"

"We discovered it by accident.  My chums and I came for a boating
holiday, and camped on the island.  We have had----"

"You saw my signals?" his uncle interposed.

"Yes, and----"

"And the police are informed?  These villains will be arrested?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, Uncle," said Pratt, and was again
interrupted.

"You did not?  Then I am afraid you and your companions have tumbled
into a hornets’ nest, young man.  As we are to have apparently a few
minutes’ leisure, I think you had better put me wise, as our American
friends say, about the essential facts of the situation.  How many do
you muster?"

Pratt, in the exalted mood of a rescuer, and himself bursting with
questions, was a little dashed by his uncle’s cool matter-of-fact
manner.

"There are three of us," he said.  "We got in through the tunnel, and
found one man below at the printing press."

"A printing press!  Indeed!  What literature are my guardians
disseminating?"

"Forged notes."

"Forgers!" ejaculated Mr. Pratt, for the first time showing signs of
agitation.  "Things are worse than I dreamed.  You are sure of what you
say?"

"Absolutely.  We found the watermarked paper."

"The scoundrels!  You had better get away. If these fellows are an
international gang of forgers they will have no scruples.  The lives of
you and your companions are not worth a rap.  Leave me. Get away while
there is time.  Inform the police and leave matters in their hands."

"It’s too late for that," said Pratt.  "We have trussed up the man
downstairs.  Our only idea was to rescue you.  If we left you now the
others would find Jensen and know that the game is up. They might shoot
you.  We must get you away now at all costs."

"It is utter folly.  Hare-brained adventuring! I fear you are right; it
is too late.  I must join forces with you when this chain is broken.  I
blame myself that my signals have let you young fellows into this
terrible trap."

"We had suspicions before we saw them--in fact, ever since we heard
about your staff of foreign servants."

"Yes, yes.  I have been frightfully deluded. No doubt it is the talk of
the village.  I engaged my cook and gardener through an advertisement.
The cook introduced that scoundrel Gradoff as an unfortunate Russian
nobleman driven from his country.  The plausible wretch engaged the
others. They seemed a respectable, hard-working set of men.  I was
making hurried arrangements for a trip to North Africa via Paris.
Gradoff gave me every assistance.  I was on the point of starting. They
kidnapped me and shut me up here.  I thought their sole motive was
robbery.  Gradoff tried to get me to sign cheques for large amounts. I
flatly refused, of course.  They adopted starvation tactics, threatened
to murder me; but I have looked death in the face too often to purchase
life at such a price.  They dropped these efforts some time ago, but I
suspected that Gradoff was forging my name, and thought he would
liberate me as soon as he had fleeced me bare."

"And how did you signal, with the windows boarded up?" asked Pratt.

"With handfuls of flock from my mattress dipped in paraffin, stuck on a
lath from my bed and poked up the chimney.  Gradoff discovered me last
night.  I was in the chimney.  He had gone to the roof, saw the flame
emerge, and snatched the lath from my hands.  He whipped out his pistol
and threatened to shoot me.  I laughed at him; asked him whether he
wished to add murder to forgery; he gave me a curious stare at that.  I
reminded him that we still retain capital punishment.  He cursed me and
left.  This morning he brought the chain.  No doubt he would have killed
me if there had been anything to gain by my death; but he must have
supposed that the signals had not been seen; they had had no apparent
result.  You say you had suspicions before you saw the signals.
Why?--apart from the usual British distrust of foreigners."

Pratt was beginning to recount the series of incidents that had occurred
since the arrival on No Man’s Island when there came a hail from below.
He went to the top of the stairs.

"What is it, Armstrong?"

"Can you come down for a moment?"

Pratt ran downstairs.

"I didn’t want to alarm your uncle," said Armstrong, "but just now,
looking through a chink in the boards, I saw four men coming towards the
tower.  What are we to do?"

Pratt went to the boarded window and looked out.

"Gradoff and the chauffeur," he said.  "The other two I haven’t seen
before.  We might have tackled two; let ’em in and bagged them.  But
four!--probably armed, like Jensen.  It’s no go."

"We can only lie low, then, and play for time.  The door’s a stout piece
of timber, and it’s not so easy to blow off a bolt as to blow in a
lock."

"Don’t speak," whispered Pratt, "they’re just here."

The handle of the door was turned.  Then came a sharp knock.  A pause of
a few seconds; then a more peremptory knock and Gradoff’s voice.

"Jensen!"

The Swede prostrate against the wall wriggled and emitted a low gurgling
noise through his gag. The boys glanced at him; he was unable to release
his limbs; the sound could not have been heard through the thick door.

A third time Gradoff knocked.  He rattled the door-handle, repeated his
call, with the addition of sundry violent expletives.  The boys remained
tensely silent.

The voices without subsided.  Conversation was still carried on, but in
lower tones.

"Probably they think he is downstairs getting paper," whispered Pratt.
"There’s nothing alarming at present."

"But they’ll smell a rat if he doesn’t soon answer. What then?"

"They may think he has fallen ill or something."

"And then?"

"Well, I can’t answer for the intelligence of Gradoff and company, but
if I were in his shoes I should either break in the door or send some
one round by the tunnel.  You see, he can’t have the ghost of an idea
what has happened.  And if his game were discovered, he wouldn’t expect
to find the place merely closed against him."

"I dare say you’re right.  But don’t you think you had better go through
the tunnel and hurry Phil up?  We should be in a pretty tight place if
Gradoff did send a man or two round, and we found, when we had released
your uncle, that the exit at the other end was blocked."

"I don’t care about leaving you alone.  Suppose they broke in while I
was away?"

"Two wouldn’t be much better than one against four armed ruffians.  And
they’d guess that you and Phil had gone to fetch the police, and I fancy
they’d be too anxious to save their skins to bother much about me.  At
any rate, I’ll risk it.  I think you had better go.  In fact, when you
meet Phil, why not go and tell Mr. Crawshay how things stand?  Phil and
I will get your uncle away if it’s possible, and though I don’t suppose
Crawshay could do anything to secure the gang--there’s apparently only
one policeman--he might ’phone or wire the authorities, and set every
one on the qui vive for miles around."

"All right.  If I’m going, better go at once, before any one has time to
go round by the cottage. I’ll consult Phil about your suggestion, and go
to Crawshay if he agrees.  I wish I had the torch. I shall have to grope
my way along the tunnel, but I’ll be as quick as I can."

He ran noiselessly down the stairs.  The flagstone was upright, as it
had been left.  He jumped into the cavity, crossed the store-room,
entered the tunnel on the farther side, and hurried along as rapidly as
the darkness allowed.  Now and again he stopped to strike a match and to
listen for Warrender’s footsteps, but he reached the end without having
seen or heard anything of his friend.

By the light of a match he saw that the flagstone was slightly
depressed.  Then he caught sight of Warrender’s electric torch lying on
the ground, and was seized with a vague uneasiness.  He picked up the
torch.  Revolving the stone, he heard something slide with a metallic
rattle along its surface, and felt a smart blow on one of his feet. He
flashed the torch, and saw a hammer and a chisel.  Still more uneasy, he
clambered up into the cellar, and without lowering the flagstone,
climbed on to the staircase.

"You there, Phil?" he called up.

There was no answer.  The door at the top was open.  He rushed up, ran
through the kitchen and the corridor to the front of the cottage, and
looked anxiously around.  No one was in view.

"What on earth is he doing?" he thought.

It was clear that Warrender had fetched the tools from the motor-boat
and returned to the cellar.  Why then had he left them there?  Where had
he gone?  What could have interrupted him?

Pratt felt himself on the horns of a painful dilemma.  He had now the
instruments of his uncle’s deliverance; one impulse urged him to hurry
with them back to the tower.  On the other hand, Warrender’s
disappearance argued that something untoward had happened, and he was
loth to leave the spot without making an attempt to find him.  For a few
moments he stood in the doorway, weighing the one course against the
other.  A search for Warrender might prove fruitless, and in any case
would take time. Meanwhile affairs at the tower might be developing in a
way that would nullify the prime motive that had actuated them all--the
release of his uncle.  It seemed that this had a paramount claim upon
him, and he turned, reluctantly, to retrace his steps to the cellar.

As he passed the foot of the staircase to the upper floor, it occurred
to him that from the windows there, giving a wider outlook over the
surroundings of the cottage, he might see Warrender approaching:
perhaps, indeed, as the result of an after-thought, he had made a second
visit to the motor-boat. Pratt ran upstairs, and going from room to
room, threw a searching glance upon the prospect. Neither on the eastern
side nor on the western was there anything to attract his attention.
But looking out of the window of the room facing south, he noticed that
the foliage of the thicket beyond the weedy path was violently
disturbed.  Some one was moving in it, towards the ruins.  He watched
eagerly: surely it was Warrender returning. Presently two legs came into
view; but they were not Warrender’s.  They were encased in rusty brown
leggings.  In another moment the figure of Rush emerged from the thicket
upon the path, and immediately behind him was a second form, that of a
tall and heavily built man with a broad flattish face.  When free from
the thicket they quickened their pace.

Pratt hesitated no longer.  The men were evidently making for the ruins:
perhaps they intended to proceed along the tunnel.  It was imperative
that he should anticipate them.  He hastened downstairs, and had just
reached the cellar when he heard clumping footsteps overhead. Leaping
into the cavity, he swung the stone over, turned the hand-grips, and by
the light of the torch bolted along the tunnel.  After running about
twenty yards he switched off the light and stopped.  Voices came from
behind him; then he heard two heavy thuds in succession; the men had
jumped into the tunnel.  The flagstone banged as it was swung carelessly
into place; the men were coming after him.  Without more delay he set
forward with all speed, guiding himself by touching the walls with his
outstretched hands.



                              CHAPTER XXI

                                TRAPPED


Meanwhile, what had happened to Warrender?

On entering the cottage by way of the tunnel and the cellar, he went
upstairs to make a careful survey of the surroundings, saw no sign of
the enemy, and hurried across the island to the pram, in which he
crossed the river unobserved.  In less than ten minutes he was back at
the cottage with the hammer and chisel taken from his motor-boat. As he
was on the point of re-opening the trap, he found that the electric
torch showed a much feebler light than before, and if it gave out before
Mr. Pratt was brought away, the flight through the tunnel might be
dangerously delayed.  It seemed worth while to pay another rapid visit
to the camp for the purpose of getting a small hand lamp or a couple of
candles.  Laying the hammer and chisel under the staircase, he went up
again, once more crossed the island, found one candle in the motorboat,
and returned without delay.

It happened, however, that as he left the cottage on this second
journey, Rush and his big flat-faced companion were approaching it from
the south. Unseen themselves, they caught sight of Warrender as he
emerged from the entrance, watched him until he had disappeared into the
thicket, waited a few minutes, then entered the cottage and descended to
the cellar.  They had no light, and Warrender had taken the precaution
of carefully replacing the flagstone; but in his haste he had omitted to
close the upright slab beneath the lowest step, leaving open the access
to the handgrips.  Rush was suspicious.  The gap might have been left
open, of course, by one of the confederates; on the other hand, it was
possible that the secret passage had been discovered by the boy he had
seen leaving the cottage.  The boy might return, and Rush allowed his
curiosity to delay the visit to the tower on which he had been summoned.
It was an error of judgment that had important consequences.

He posted himself with his companion in a remote corner of the cellar,
and waited.

Some ten minutes later, Warrender came down the steps.  He flashed his
torch to light the opening, retrieved the hammer and chisel, and laid
them down on the flagstone while he inserted his arm in the gap to turn
the hand-grips.  All the time his back was towards the men lurking
within twenty feet of him.  As he sprawled over the stone, there was a
sudden noise behind him. Hastily withdrawing his hand, he half rose, but
too late.  Seized by powerful hands and taken at a disadvantage, he was
helpless.  His torch fell into the gap, and in the darkness he was
dragged up the stairs between his captors.

"Cotched ’en!" chuckled Rush, as they lugged him through the hall.
"What’ll we do with ’en, Sibelius?"

"Kill!" said the Finn.  "Throw in river!"

"No, no, that won’t do!" said Rush.  "He bain’t alone.  There’s the
other young devils. It bain’t safe.  I think of my neck.  No; we’ll take
’en down to the hut and tie ’en up; he’ll be out of harm’s way there,
and in a few hours it won’t matter."

Like most Englishmen in speaking to a foreigner, he shouted, and the
Finn warned him to speak more quietly: the prisoner would hear all he
said.

"What do it matter?" laughed Rush.  "Let ’en hear--by the time his
friends find ’en we’ll be far away.  Curious ’tis, that we’ve cotched
’en the very last day.  If it’d a been yesterday, we might have _had_ to
kill ’en.  We’ll stuff up his mouth, though; t’others may be about."

Pulling Warrender’s handkerchief from his pocket, he rolled it up, and
thrust it between the lad’s teeth.  Warrender ruefully reflected that
just in such a way had Jensen been gagged that morning.  Then the men
hauled him through the thicket towards the point of the island where
Rush moored his boat.

"I say, Sibelius," remarked Rush, when they were half-way there, "I
reckon we’d better not take ’en to the hut after all.  ’Twill take time,
and we don’t know where his mates be.  Better go and tell the boss all
about it; he’d be fair mad if anything spoilt his game the last moment."

"What we do, then?" asked the Finn.

"We’ll truss ’en up: plenty of rope in the boat; and put ’en in among
the bushes.  He’ll be snug enough there."

He chuckled.  Dismayed at the prospect opened before him, Warrender, who
had hitherto offered no resistance, made a sudden dive towards the
ground, at the same time throwing out his leg in an attempt to trip the
bulkier of his captors.  But though he succeeded in freeing one arm, and
causing the Finn to stumble, he had no time to wrench himself from
Rush’s grip before the other man had recovered his balance and seized
him in a clutch of iron.

"Best come quiet!" growled Rush, "or there’s no saying what we might do
to you.  I’ve got a tender heart," he chuckled, "but my mate ’ud as soon
kill a man as a rat."

Arrived at the boat, they threw him into the bottom, and the Finn held
him down while Rush swiftly roped his arms and legs together.  Then they
carried him a few yards into the thicket, and laid him down in a spot
where he was completely hidden from any one who might pass within arm’s
length of him.

[Illustration: "RUSH SWIFTLY ROPED HIS ARMS AND LEGS TOGETHER."]

"Now we’ll traipse through to the tower," said Rush.  "He’ll take a deal
of finding, I’m thinking!"

The men struck away towards the ruins, satisfied that their victim could
not escape, and that his hiding-place was not likely to be discovered
until discovery mattered nothing.  They had not noticed, however, that
while the trussing was in progress, Warrender’s cap had fallen off, and
now lay between two of the thwarts of the boat.

Pratt, hurrying along the tunnel with the hammer and chisel, and knowing
that he was pursued, felt that he had done rightly in not making a
prolonged search for Warrender.  His sole pre-occupation now was the
necessity of outstripping his pursuers by an interval sufficient to
allow him time to block up their ingress to the tower.  If Armstrong was
still unmolested, and Mr. Pratt could be set free, the three were
capable of dealing with the two men in the tunnel, and might make good
their escape before Gradoff and his confederates at the tower door had
any inkling of the true situation.

He soon understood that he was gaining on the men behind; but he
presently became aware that, not far ahead of him, daylight seemed to
have percolated into the tunnel.  For a moment he was nonplussed until
he remembered the dry well.  It then occurred to him in a flash that
some one must have removed the boards that had lain across the top of
the well, and he was seized with a misgiving. Had Gradoff, unable to
obtain admittance to the tower, bethought himself of this opening into
the tunnel from above, and lowered one or more of his men, who had
already made their way to the end, and perhaps overpowered Armstrong?

Taking advantage of the faint illumination of the tunnel, he quickened
his pace.  In a moment or two he saw to his consternation a man swing
down the well, and on reaching the ground, begin to release himself from
the rope that was looped under his arms.  It was not a time for
hesitation. Pratt dashed forward, flung himself against the man before
he was free from the rope, and drove him doubled up against the wall.
The man yelled; from the top of the well forty feet above them came
excited shouts; and out of the tunnel behind sounded hoarse
reverberating cries from the pursuers, who must have seen what had
happened.  Pratt plunged into the tunnel beyond, and, sprinting along
with reckless haste, arrived in a few minutes breathless at the end,
where the flagstone was still raised as he had left it.

He sprang up, slammed down the flagstone behind him, and let out a lusty
cry for Armstrong to join him.

"They’re after me--at least three of them!" he exclaimed, as Armstrong
came leaping down the stairs.  "Help me to lug these boxes on to the
flagstone."

The crates and boxes ranged along the wall were empty, and their weight
alone would not have sufficed to resist the pressure of determined men
below.  But the roof was low-pitched, and the boys saw that by piling
box upon box they could create an obstruction which would defy all
efforts to remove it.  With feverish haste they dragged the boxes across
the floor, and had already placed them one upon another when they heard
footsteps beneath, and felt a movement of the flagstone.

"Another box will do it," said Armstrong. "You must heave it up while I
stand on the stone."

He placed himself on the half of the stone that moved upwards as it
revolved, and bore down with all his weight.  Pratt pulled over a fourth
box, and, standing on the projecting edge of that which formed the base
of the pile, managed with some difficulty to shove it on to the top,
where a space of no more than two or three inches separated it from the
roof.

"Good man!" said Armstrong, stepping off the stone.

The pressure below raised it perhaps three inches, then it stuck.

"We’ll put another pile on each side, to make all secure," said
Armstrong.  "Then I think we needn’t worry."

With less haste they erected the buttress piles, listening grimly to the
hoarse curses of Rush, and shriller cries from a foreigner by whose
voice they recognised the Italian chauffeur.  In a few minutes their
work was done.  Short of an explosion, nothing could dislodge the jam of
boxes between the flagstone and the roof.

Panting from the strain of their exertions, they went up into the tower.

"Where’s Phil?" asked Armstrong.

"I don’t know," replied Pratt, going on to relate rapidly his discovery
at the end of the tunnel.

"They’ve got him, I expect," said Armstrong. "Though I can’t make out
how they came to leave this hammer and chisel."

"What has happened here?" asked Pratt.

"Nothing.  Gradoff and the others waited outside for a bit, talking
quietly.  I couldn’t understand what they said.  Then Gradoff sent the
chauffeur towards the house, and by and by went off himself in the
direction of the river, leaving the two strangers behind.  Evidently he
had sent the chauffeur for a rope.  Perhaps he thought Jensen had drunk
himself silly, and decided to let a man down the well--a much shorter
way than going across to the island and entering by the tunnel. The
fat’s in the fire now.  If we release your uncle we can’t get him away."

"No," replied Pratt, looking through the chink in the boards.  "Here
they come: Gradoff, Rod, the Pole, the whole gang except the fellows
below. It strikes me we are squarely trapped."

Looking towards the prisoner on the floor, Armstrong fancied he caught a
malignant gleam in the man’s eyes.

"On the whole," he said quietly, "I’m inclined to agree with you."



                              CHAPTER XXII

                                A PARLEY


"You’re more hefty with tools than I am," said Pratt to Armstrong.  "So
if you’ll run upstairs and smash that chain off my uncle, I’ll keep an
eye on what’s happening outside."

"Right," replied Armstrong.  "The hammer strikes me as a bit light for
the job, but one can only try.  Yell if you want me."

Taking the hammer and chisel, he leapt up the winding staircase to the
topmost room.  Mr. Pratt was thoughtfully drawing his fingers through
his beard.

"So you are the third member of the trio," he said.

"Yes, I’m Armstrong.  If you’ll kindly stretch the chain tight over the
edge of the bed, I’ll do my best to break a link.  I’m afraid I shall
jar you, but----"

"Don’t consider that.  Make your break as near my leg as you can."

"I’ll break the loop.  Are you ready, sir?"

"Quite."

For perhaps two minutes the room echoed and re-echoed with the metallic
din of hammering. The chisel was of finely tempered steel, and Armstrong
compensated the lightness of the hammer by the vigour of his blows.  A
link snapped, the chain clanked upon the floor, and the prisoner stood
up, free.

"Very neatly done," said he.  "And now I will go below and join you and
your companions in a council of war."

"There are only two of us now, sir," said Armstrong.  "Warrender didn’t
come back."

As they went downstairs he related succinctly the events of the last
three-quarters of an hour. Mr. Pratt made no comment.  Entering first
the room at the bottom, he threw a glance on the printing press, the
piles of paper, and the Swede glowering on the floor; then he turned to
his nephew.

"Well, Percy, what is going on?" he asked.

"Nothing, Uncle.  I haven’t seen any of the men.  D’you think they see
the game is up, and have bolted?"

"I think not, judging by what your friend has just told me.  It appears
that they have captured the other man--Warrender, I think you called
him--and they know that you two are here.  It seems improbable that they
will decamp already. They outnumber you hopelessly, and it is more than
likely that there is a large number of forged notes in the tower which
they will secure if they can."

"Well, as the coast seems clear, can’t we get away?" asked Percy.  "We
came to rescue you; our job’s done."

"But, if you’ll permit me, mine is just beginning," said Mr. Pratt.  "Do
you suppose that I’d be content to walk meekly away, and let the pack of
scoundrels who have made my house a hotbed of crime get off with the
fruits of their villainy?"  The old gentleman spoke warmly.  "I’ve
knocked about the world for more than thirty years, been in many tight
corners, and I’ve never knuckled under to man, beast, or circumstance.
This is the tightest of them all, and, by the Lord Harry, I’ll make a
fight for it.  You young fellows----"

"We’re with you, sir," cried Armstrong, enthusiastically.

"Rather!" exclaimed Pratt.  "If you’re game, Uncle Ambrose----"

"Let us keep cool," returned his uncle.  "I’m no longer under any
illusions as to the character of the wretches I was misguided enough to
employ. They are forgers--that is bad enough--but before they were
forgers they were anarchists, members of that fraternity of fools whose
ideas, put into practice, would turn the world into a hell.  There are
no more reckless malefactors than these international gangs who exercise
their criminal propensities under the cloak of political enthusiasm.
Make no mistake, young fellows; in resisting Gradoff and his gang we
take our lives in our hands.  In their eyes we are of less value than
rats."

"We’ve got to keep ’em out, then," said Percy.

"Let us keep cool, I repeat.  Let us discuss the situation."

"Yes, sir," said Armstrong, somewhat amazed at the professional manner
of the old gentleman; "but time’s flying, and----"

"Therefore it is vitally important that we should focus our attention.
As I read the situation, we shall have to stand a siege.  Gradoff
determines to save his forged notes, if not his accomplice yonder.  The
question is, what will he do?"

"I know what I’d do if I----" began Pratt, but his uncle silenced him
with a gesture.

"What you would do is not in question.  What Gradoff will do we must
infer from the probabilities. His final aim must be to get away quickly
with his booty.  His booty is inaccessible while we hold the tower.
Therefore he must either persuade or compel us to let him in.  Finding
persuasion, reinforced by menace, futile, he will attempt compulsion.
That is to say, he will bring up all his men and try to force the door.
It is useless for us to blink facts--just peep through the crack, Percy,
and see if he is already moving."

Percy reported that still there was no one in sight.

"Then we will continue our calm conference. Gradoff had four men under
him at my house. One of them, Jensen, the Swede, lies there.  From what
you tell me he employs also Rush, and another foreigner whom I have
never seen.  You tell me that two strangers--by their appearance
foreigners--came with him to the tower to-day.  Therefore we are three
against eight."

"But we are inside," said Percy.

"As a chicken is inside an egg.  The shell can be cracked.  That door,
stout as it is, can be hacked through, blown in, or battered down.
Probably they will not risk an explosion; it might attract even our
stolid village policeman to the scene.  Defending our position with such
poor weapons as we have, we cannot prevent the enemy from sooner or
later forcing an entrance."

"These are surely arguments for scuttling, sir, while we have time,"
said Armstrong.

"I am not arguing, but calmly stating facts," returned Mr. Pratt.
"Scuttle!  Is it conceivable that I shall scuttle for fear of this
pirate crew, who have half-starved me, chained me up, carried on their
dastardly work under my roof?  But let me keep cool," he added, checking
the tide of indignation. "The villains break in, I say, sooner or later.
What then?  With your assistance I propose to defend the stairs.  The
winding of the staircase is in favour of the defence.  In so narrow a
space the assailants lose the advantage of numbers. With resolution we
shall hold our own."

"But that can’t go on indefinitely, Uncle," said Pratt.  "They could
starve us out."

"Hardly; for this reason.  You will be missed from your camp.  Mr.
Crawshay, you tell me, knows that you are making investigations.  Your
prolonged absence will alarm him; he will raise a hue and cry.  Gradoff
is perfectly aware that what he has to do must be done quickly.  If we
can withstand him for twenty-four hours, he is a beaten man."

"You think, then, sir, that they will give it up within twenty-four
hours and then bolt?" said Armstrong.

"That is my forecast.  They will save their skins and lose their forged
notes, which are no doubt hidden away somewhere in the tower.  Take
another look out, Percy."

The boy peered through the crack in the boarding, and again reported no
one in sight.

"Come with me to the roof," said his uncle. "From there we can survey a
wide extent of the park.  Armstrong will oblige me by remaining on
guard."

He led the way up the stairs to the topmost room.  Here he opened a low
door in the wall, which gave access to a short flight of steps leading
to the flat roof.  Looking out towards the river, they saw a group of
men gathered about the well-head.  A moment later they caught sight of
Gradoff and the two strangers approaching the tower from the direction
of the house.  Mr. Pratt leant over the parapet in full view, watching
them. One of the strangers noticed him, and caught Gradoff by the arm.
The Russian looked up, halted, and seemed for a moment to be taken
aback. The three men spoke rapidly together, then advanced to the foot
of the tower.  Gradoff tried the door.  Retreating a few steps, he
called up--

"Holà!"

"Well?" said Mr. Pratt, leaning on the parapet.

"Come down and open the door.  I have a proposition to make."

"Make it now.  I can hear you quite well."

"You have Olof Jensen in the tower?"

"He is a prisoner.  Yes."

"I also have a prisoner--one of three boys.  I exchange him for Jensen,
on condition that you come out with the other two."

"And then?"

"You shall go free, provided you promise to remain quietly in the park
for two hours and do not approach the house."

"You would accept my promise?"

"Certainly."

"And what assurance have I that you would keep yours?"

"You have my word, witnessed by my friends here."

"And what is your word worth, by whomsoever witnessed?"

Gradoff’s habitual smoothness left him.  Shaking his fist, he shouted--

"I will show you what my word is worth.  If you do not unbolt the door
we shall kill you like--like a dog.  I give you one minute."

Mr. Pratt leant motionless on the parapet, gazing down at the three men
with a grim smile.  Beside him his nephew, tingling with excitement,
felt unbounded admiration for this strange uncle of his.  The minute
passed in silence.  Gradoff, watch in hand, paced restlessly about.  His
friends stood together.

At the end of the minute Gradoff thrust his watch into his pocket.

"Look out, Uncle!" cried Percy.

One of the strangers had whipped out a revolver with extraordinary
rapidity and fired point-blank at the motionless figure above.  Mr.
Pratt did not wince--showed neither fear nor agitation.  Slowly
unfolding his arms, he stood erect and turned to his nephew.

"Come," he said, "I think it is time we went below."



                             CHAPTER XXIII

                             "VI ET ARMIS"


When uncle and nephew regained the lower floor they found that Armstrong
had not been idle. From one side of the room he had hauled a long, stout
table and set it up endwise against the door, between that and the
printing press.

"Capital!" said Mr. Pratt.  "You have doubled the thickness of our
armour.  But, in default of sandbags, we must find something to
strengthen our defences still further."

"I had thought of that, sir," said Armstrong. "There’s nothing but this
bale of paper and the sheets already printed.  I think they will pretty
well fill the space between the press and the door; if not we can get
some of the boxes from below. They are no longer needed there."

"Excellent idea!  You young fellows set about that while I keep watch."

In a few minutes the boys had wedged the paper and a number of boxes
into the vacant space, so as to form almost a solid block.  Mr. Pratt
meanwhile reported the movements of the enemy without.

"Gradoff is surrounded by his gang.  He is haranguing them.  Two of them
have gone away towards the river.  Nick Rush looks a little
uncomfortable.  No doubt he prefers stealth and secrecy, and has visions
of the interior of a prison cell.  Wonderful how brave a man can be if
he thinks he will not be found out.  They are taking off their coats.
Aha!  They are going to ram us. The two men have returned with a long
pole.  A pity I had those trees felled; pity, too, that I had the
parapet so thoroughly repaired, or we might have hurled stones upon our
assailants in the manner of our ancestors.  They used boiling oil, too,
molten lead, and various other pleasant devices which are out of our
power.  Ah!  The performance is about to begin.  Six of them have lifted
the pole--a fine, straight piece of timber. One of the strangers, I
observe, is lending a hand. Gradoff is usually so calm and
self-contained that the excitement with which he is now giving orders is
somewhat amusing.  What weapons have we, by the way?"

"I have that fellow Jensen’s pistol, sir," said Armstrong.  "Besides
that we have only short cudgels."

"And the hammer and chisel," added Percy.

"We are unexpectedly well off," said Mr. Pratt. "I think I will take the
pistol; no doubt I am a little more used to that sort of thing than
Armstrong.  For the rest--come, my lads, Gradoff has finished.  Stand
ready!"

The position now was that before an entry could be forced, the door must
be broken, and the barricade of table, boxes and paper overthrown. Mr.
Pratt and the boys had just posted themselves beside the printing press,
when there was a thundering crash at the door.  The room seemed to
quiver; some of the upper sheets of paper rose and fell as if a wind had
blown upon them; and the vibration caused the printing press to give
forth a low ringing note.  But the stout oaken door had not yielded.
There were shouts outside.  A few moments passed; then the building
shook under the impact of a second stroke.

"Heart of oak!" exclaimed Mr. Pratt, with satisfaction.  "The door is
oak; the ram, I think, is beech.  Listen."

The tones of Gradoff’s voice, soaring to an unnatural pitch, were heard
chiding, urging, encouraging.  A third time his men advanced, not with
the cheery unisonal "Yo! ho!" of British tars, but each man raising his
particular cry.

"More vim in that," remarked Armstrong, as the shattering blow
resounded.  "And look, sir."

About a foot below the upper hinge of the door, which was not covered by
the table, a jagged streak of light shone through.

"Yes," said Mr. Pratt, coolly.  "They have cracked the shell.  The
hinges will give.  In five or six minutes they will be scrambling over
our barricade.  I find I have only four cartridges; they must be
reserved for the critical moment. Percy, run upstairs and bring down the
hammer and chisel--yes, and the chain.  I have no objection whatever to
turning the enemy’s weapons against him."

While Percy was absent, the assailants, who had evidently marked the
damage already done, again rammed the door, on the same side.  There was
a flood of light through a gap nearly a foot square; splinters of timber
across the upturned end of the table fell at Armstrong’s feet.  At the
next blow the door split from top to bottom, and the whole of the upper
part fell inwards. Apparently the enemy guessed that some attempt at a
barricade had been made, for their next stroke was delivered lower down,
with such force that it broke through the door, drove the table in, and
sent some of the piled-up boxes toppling.

"Won’t you now try a shot, sir?" said Armstrong.

"They have drawn back; next time," replied Mr. Pratt.  "Stand clear."

Once more the battering-ram was rushed forward.  It could now be seen
that the shorter men held the fore part; the taller men were behind. Mr.
Pratt raised his arm, but before he could take deliberate aim the
forceful stroke carried the remnants of the door inwards, and hurled the
shattered table, broken boxes, and flying sheets of paper in one
indistinguishable mass upon the printing press, which gave way and fell
with a mighty crash upon the floor.  Mr. Pratt barely escaped being
overthrown with it.  He staggered backward, and the pistol was knocked
from his hand.  The small figure of the Italian chauffeur leapt into the
breach, and began to clamber over the wreckage.  Armstrong darted
forward, and, before the man had time to swing round, Armstrong’s cudgel
descended with a resounding crack upon his skull, and he fell sprawling
among the litter.

[Illustration: "HE STAGGERED BACKWARD, AND THE PISTOL WAS KNOCKED FROM
HIS HAND."]

But Maximilien Rod was at his heels.  Stumbling over him, the cook
plunged head foremost among the boxes, only his fall saving him from
Armstrong’s club.  Immediately behind him dashed the tall Pole.  Having
no time to swing his cudgel, Armstrong jabbed at him, and catching him
under the chin sent him reeling against the doorpost. Meanwhile Mr.
Pratt had disengaged himself from the obstructing press and regained his
pistol, just as Rush and his big comrade of the island forged through
the opening.  The Pole had sprung to his feet with catlike agility.  A
revolver cracked. Mr. Pratt recoiled, rapidly changed his pistol from
the right hand to the left, and fired.

There was a sudden lull.  Rush and the Finn had slipped back out of
harm’s way.  Through the smoke Armstrong saw two men on the floor--the
chauffeur whom he had felled, and the Pole, victim to Mr. Pratt’s
pistol.

"Back to the stairs!" murmured the old gentleman.  He tottered.

"Are you hit, sir?" cried Armstrong, darting to his support.

"Yes.  Leave me and hold the stairs."

At this moment the entrance was darkened by the forms of the remaining
members of the attacking party, Rush and the Finn, urged forward by
Gradoff and his friends.  Armstrong, holding Mr. Pratt, felt that the
game was up.  But now came Percy leaping down the winding stairs.  Into
the room he dashed, carrying a long bar of iron. Taking in the situation
at a glance, he flung himself at the foremost intruders.  Rush doubled
up under his vehement onslaught; Sibelius recoiled upon Gradoff; and the
momentary check gave Armstrong time to haul Mr. Pratt out of the light
to the foot of the dark stairway.  Swiftly withdrawing from the heap of
wreckage, Percy had barely joined them and helped to draw his uncle up a
few steps to the protection of the curving wall, when four pistols
cracked, and chips of stone fell clattering upon the stairs.

Immediately afterwards a burly arm and shoulder showed itself in the
round of the wall. Quick as thought Percy lunged with his iron bar and
jabbed the intruder just below the elbow. The man threw out a hoarse,
savage cry, and disappeared.  For a brief space there was silence; then
came the noise of heavy feet kicking aside the debris in the room below,
and rushing towards the stairway.

"Leave me," said Mr. Pratt again, sitting on one of the steps.

Armstrong sprang down, and darting in front of Percy, came face to face
with one of the strangers, who was rounding the corner, brandishing a
pistol. Unprepared, apparently, for sudden counter-attack, and
incommoded by the right-hand twist of the narrow staircase, the man let
slip his momentary chance of firing point-blank, but had enough presence
of mind to dodge the blow Armstrong aimed at him.  If there had been
room for two abreast on the stairs it might have gone ill with Armstrong
then; he staggered forward and thrust his hands against the wall to save
himself from falling.  Behind him, however, Percy had swiftly taken his
cue.  With his extemporised pike he caught the stranger in the middle.
The man recoiled upon his companions in the rear.  A storm of curses
broke from them, but in a few moments the din subsided, and nothing was
heard except the low voices of the enemy in consultation.

"Jolly good weapon," whispered Armstrong, indicating the iron bar.
"Where did you get it?"

"Wrenched it off my uncle’s bedstead," replied Percy.

"Any more?"

"One."

"Well, leave me this and go and get it, old chap. It’s more useful than
the club."

"Is there time?"

"I think so.  They won’t know quite what to do.  But hurry up.  I’ll
look after your uncle--give him first aid.  He ought to go upstairs; by
the time you’re down again I’ll have him ready to move."

"Much hurt, Uncle?" asked Pratt, bending down.

"A furrow ploughed in my forearm; nothing vital. Perhaps one of you will
bind up the wound for me."

"I’ll do that, sir," said Armstrong.  "Cut away, Percy."



                              CHAPTER XXIV

                            A LEVY EN MASSE


To lie on one’s back, bitted like a horse, trussed like a chicken, with
flies and midges disporting themselves, unchecked, about one’s features,
and ants making adventurous journeys among one’s clothes, is a situation
that, to say the least of it, puts a strain upon a man’s patience and
equanimity. It is not greatly eased by the liberty of his eyes when
their range is limited by dense overhanging foliage, which stirs in the
breeze, opening tantalising glimpses of a sunbright sky.

On his turfy couch Warrender lay, groaning inwardly, cursing himself for
delaying his errand, and Fate for bringing his enemies just then upon
the scene; vexing his soul with visions of his companions caught
unawares, and of Mr. Pratt still chained to his post; blaming himself,
with the insight of the afflicted, for having countenanced a scheme that
usurped the functions of the officers of the law.  A fly feasted on his
nose; gnats buzzed in and out of his ears; ants chased one another over
his neck and up his arms, causing him to feel one multitudinous and
intricate itch.

He had tried to wriggle himself free from his bonds, but Rush had not
been poacher and fisher for nothing.  Desisting from his vain struggles,
he lay mumbling his gag, shaking his head like a tormented horse, and,
as the minutes passed, sweating with alarm.

Presently his straining ears caught the faint regular thud of oars
turning in rowlocks.  The sound drew nearer.  He tried to shout, but was
capable of nothing more than a gurgling grunt. The knowledge that a boat
was rounding the southern end of the island set him a-throb with hope,
anxiety, despair--for what should bring the oarsman to shore?  If,
indeed, he should land, what should draw him to this overgrown spot, or
cause him to pry among the bushes?  The sound began to recede; the boat
was passing on down the river; his momentary hopefulness was crushed
under the weight of disappointment.

But after a little while his numb spirit was revivified by the sound of
oars approaching again. He listened with throbbing eagerness.  The
movements were not now so regular; they were interrupted; presently they
ceased altogether.  Then he heard a rustle, and a slight thud as of some
light-footed person jumping ashore.  Again he tried to shout, but only
the feeblest groan issued. All was silent.  The new-comer, whoever it
was, had seemingly not moved.  But--was that not a cry?--a faint coo-ee,
like an attenuated echo rather than a substantive sound.  It came again,
a little louder.  After an interval, a third time, louder still.  But
there was no footstep, no rustling of branches, or swishing in trodden
grass.

Frenzied by the thought of some one standing within easy reach of
him--some one, too, who was seeking, if not him, at any rate
somebody--Warrender jerked his jaw until he succeeded in shifting a
little the handkerchief knotted behind his poll; and, blowing out his
cheeks, he fetched from the depth of his throat a note like the boom of
a bull-frog.  He heard--or was it fancy?--a muffled exclamation.  Again
he boomed.  Then--surely he was not mistaken?--a light-toned voice,
asking, with the breathless utterance of surprise, "Who is it?"  He
could but reply with his inarticulate bass note.  Footsteps came towards
him; then hesitated.  He boomed encouragement.

"Where are you?"

The words were scarcely above a whisper. Boom, boom!  The swishing
footsteps advanced, leaves clashed together, twigs snapped, and
Warrender, feeling that his throat would crack and his cheeks burst,
kept up his hollow note in moto continuo--accelerando--crescendo, as the
hoped-for relief drew nearer.

Presently, after what seemed an age, the foliage above his head was
gently, timorously parted, and his eyes beheld amazement, concern,
indignation in the face of Lilian Crawshay.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, pushing through the shrub.  "What--why--oh, you
poor thing!"

She dropped on her knees, lifted his head, and swiftly untied the knot
in the handkerchief.

"Thank you," he gasped.

"Who did it?  What does it mean?  But presently--presently.  Your arms!"

Turning, she sought to untie the knots.  They were too firm, the rope
too coarse, for her little fingers.

"My knife--coat pocket," murmured Warrender.

In a trice she found the knife; even its keen blade she had to use as a
saw before the bonds were severed.  Warrender got up, stiffly.  He
stretched his aching arms, shook himself, stamped his feet.

"I can’t thank you enough," he said, the words coming hoarsely through
his parched lips.

"But who had the wickedness----?  Never mind; tell me presently.  What
can I do?  There is something--something terrible, I know.  What can I
do to help?"

"Will you row me to our camp?  As we go, I shall be able to explain.  My
voice is coming back."

"Yes, let us go.  Let me help you."

She took his arm, hurried him on his cramped legs to the skiff that lay
half on the bank, and, hauling this into the water, assisted him to the
stern thwart.  Then she turned, ran a few steps to Rush’s boat, and
brought from it Warrender’s cap.

"But for this----" she began.  "Oh, it’s too horrible!"

Springing to her seat facing him, she unshipped the sculls and began to
pull up stream.

"I rowed to your camp," she said.  "My father gave me a message for you.
I was surprised to find it deserted, and came down, thinking I might see
some of you on the water.  But there was no sign of you, and I was
returning when I caught sight of the cap in Rush’s boat.  I wondered.  I
knew it belonged to one of you, and it surprised me to find it there.  I
got ashore.  Did you hear me coo-ee?  It was very soft; I hardly knew
what to think."

Warrender nodded.

"Then I heard that strange sound.  I was a little frightened; but after
a moment I thought it might be Mr. Pratt; he is funny sometimes. It was
when you didn’t answer that I thought something must be wrong,
and--well, you know. I am so glad I didn’t run away.  How long had you
been in that dreadful position?"

"I don’t know--an age."

"And was it Rush?"

"Yes.  I must tell you.  The foreigners at the Red House----"

"Oh, I guessed!  Dear old Father was so mysterious.  Did he tell you to
keep it from me?"

"Well, yes, he did."

"I knew it.  Why does a man like to play the ostrich?  I knew ages ago
there was something strange happening, and we poor women creatures
mustn’t be startled, shocked.  Daddy is an Early Victorian.  Is it so
very horrid?"

"It’s a long story.  D’you mind if I tell you later?  I want you to
land, if you will, at the camp, and go across to your house as quickly
as possible, and ask Mr. Crawshay to bring every man he can muster,
armed, to the tower in Mr. Pratt’s grounds.  One thing I had better tell
you at once: the foreigners had Mr. Pratt a prisoner in the tower."

"Good gracious!  Mr. Ambrose Pratt?"

"Yes.  Here we are.  Please give my message at once.  Mr. Crawshay will
partly understand. Impress on him that speed is vital."

"And you?"

"I am going to rush up to the village in the motor-boat."

"But are you able?"

"Quite.  The stiffness is wearing off.  Tell Mr. Crawshay I am taking
some men--all the able-bodied men I can collect--to the tower, and if he
can somehow send a message to the nearest town for the police----"

"Yes; I understand.  We’ve no telegraph or telephone in this benighted
place, but it shall be done.  You are quite sure you can manage alone? I
don’t think you are fit for much exertion, you know."

"I’m quite all right," replied Warrender, smiling as he handed the girl
ashore.  "By the way, Pratt and Armstrong are in the tower.  Will you
tell Mr. Crawshay that?  And speed is all important."

"I’ll run like a hare.  Good-bye.  I do hope----"

She left her thought unsaid, and, gathering her skirt, fled across the
field towards her home.

Ten minutes afterwards, Warrender ran the motor-boat alongside the
landing-stage, sprang ashore, and hurried up to the Ferry Inn.  The door
was open--it was the mid-day interval for refreshment--and he saw a good
many familiar figures with their elbows on the bar, or tipping up the
pots which Joe Rogers, in his shirt-sleeves, had drawn for them.  His
arrival precisely at this moment could not have happened more luckily.
Rogers greeted him with a smile; Henery Drew and one or two others
nodded and went on drinking.  No one spoke; the countryman takes a
minute or two to think of an opening.

"Rogers, my friends, I want your help," said Warrender.  The rustics
looked at him solemnly. He went on, not pausing to choose his words:
"Those foreigners are forging Treasury notes in Mr. Pratt’s tower.  They
have Mr. Pratt himself a prisoner there."  Eyes widened; pots were
suspended in mid course.  "My chums have got in and are holding the
place against them.  I want every man of you to come with me and lend a
hand. With your help we’ll collar the whole gang.  There’s no time to
lose."

No one moved.  Rogers stood staring, with his hand on the draw-pull.
The others gaped.

"Don’t you understand?" cried Warrender. "Mr. Pratt’s in danger.
They’re desperate criminals--six or eight of them against three. You,
Mr. Drew--you’re a soldier.  Rogers----"

"What have they done to my sister Molly?" shouted Rogers.  "Neighbours
all, do ’ee hear? Mr. Pratt, as we thought abroad--’od rabbit it all,
come on!" He darted round the counter.

"Got a gun, Rogers?" asked Warrender.

"Ay, there’s a fowling-piece in the parlour," cried the man, running
back again.

"I’ve got one up along," said Drew.  "Do ’ee say now!  I’ll fetch ’en."

"Stay!" said Warrender.  "There isn’t time. You must bring what you can.
Don’t delay. Sticks, forks, spades--you’ve a mattock there," he added,
addressing a man on the settle against the wall.  "Bring it along.  All
of you bring what you can lay hands on.  Mr. Drew, you’re an active man.
Run up into the village and collect all the men you can find, and take
them up to the Red House by the road.  Set a couple to guard the gate,
lead the rest on to the tower.  You others, borrow some garden tools
from Rogers--or anything; and come with me.  Here’s Rogers."  The
innkeeper, minus his wig, came back with his fowling-piece. "You’ll lend
your tools?"

"Ay sure.  In the shed, neighbours; you do know the way.  My poor
Molly!"

"I give you five minutes!" cried Warrender. "Come down to the ferry.
I’ll wait for you--five minutes only."

He hurried out, followed by Rogers.  The younger men among the rest,
bestirring themselves at last, went round the inn into the garden.
Within five minutes a group of seven, armed with hoe, rake, spade,
mattock, fork, fowling-piece, and coal-hammer, was gathered on the
landing-stage.

"Squeeze into the boat," said Warrender. "I’ll run you down and land you
opposite No Man’s Island.  You must pack tight."

[Illustration: "’SQUEEZE INTO THE BOAT.’"]

They crowded into the boat.  Warrender opened the throttle.  A shriek
was heard, and Mrs. Rogers came flying out of the inn, flourishing her
husband’s wig.

"Joe, you gawkhammer, you’ve left your hair behind."

"Make it into a stew and be jowned to it!" shouted Rogers, as the boat
hummed away.

Landing on the bank opposite the cottage, the party hurried through the
plantation, Warrender taking the lead.

"No talking, men," he said.

They emerged into the park.  The tower came in sight.  From the roof a
dense column of brown smoke rose straight into the still air.  Rogers
groaned.

"God send we be in time!" he murmured, as he pounded heavily along.



                              CHAPTER XXV

                           SQUARING ACCOUNTS


Armstrong profited by the enemy’s first check to bind his handkerchief
round Mr. Pratt’s arm.

"Hadn’t you better go upstairs, sir, out of harm’s way?" he asked.

"Call myself a casualty and slink to the rear? No, thank you, my lad.
Not while I can stand and use my left arm.  We must hold our ground here
at all costs."

"Here, sir?"

"Yes.  They must not drive us beyond the first floor.  No doubt they
have released the man you tied up, and the fact that they still attack
us shows there is something upstairs they don’t want to leave."

"I saw some tin cases in the room above."

"Filled with forged notes, beyond doubt.  But what’s this?  Do you smell
burning?"

"Smoke--wood smoke.  D’you hear the crackling?  They have fired the
tower."

"Not they.  They won’t burn their notes. They want to drive us above.
It is very ingenious--and very unpleasant."

The pungent smoke from burning wood rolled up the staircase in
ever-increasing volume.  Percy came running down, carrying, not an iron
bar, but an assegai taken from the wall of the top room.

"Didn’t notice it before," he said.

"Run up again and open the door to the roof," said his uncle.  "We may
as well stave off asphyxia as long as we can."

Armstrong caught sight of a head peering up from the round of the wall
below.  He raised his hand suddenly as if to fire.  The head
disappeared.

"Spying to see if we have gone," chuckled Mr. Pratt.

With the opening of the door above, the smoke rose more rapidly.  Mr.
Pratt coughed.

"I have the misfortune to be a trifle asthmatical," he said.  "It is
very unpleasant."

"May as well cough, too.  It will encourage ’em," said Armstrong, with a
grim smile.  "Percy, you can manage a churchyard cough."

They both coughed, at first deliberately, but as the smoke thickened,
involuntarily.

Suddenly there was a rush of feet below. Armstrong bent forward,
thrusting out his iron bar; but the foremost of the assailants, the
Swede, seemed to have expected the move, for he slipped aside, bent
almost double, crying to his comrade behind him, and sprang towards
Percy.  The boy, having just run downstairs and only at that moment
caught up the assegai, was a little late with his lunge.  Jensen seized
the head of the weapon and tugged at it, forcing Percy down a step or
two.  To save himself, Percy let go; the Swede staggered backward
against Radewski, who was in the act of discharging his revolver at
Armstrong.  The jostling of the man’s arm spoilt his aim, and the
bullet, which, fired point-blank, would probably have found its billet
in Armstrong’s breast, struck him on the right shoulder and spun him
half round.  Mr. Pratt had hitherto been unable to use his pistol for
fear of hitting one or other of the boys; but now, seeing that both were
for the moment at a disadvantage, he dashed between them, fired with his
left hand at the Pole, only two steps below, and sent him rolling down
the stairs with a shot in his groin.

But the enemy were not this time to be denied. Jensen, inspired with
lust of vengeance, had quickly recovered his footing.  Immediately below
him Rod and Sibelius, pointing their revolvers, only awaited an
opportunity of firing as soon as there was no risk of hitting their own
comrade. Mr. Pratt, who was weaker than he knew, had just pulled his
trigger without effect; either the chamber was empty or something had
jammed.  Armstrong, with a wound in the shoulder, was leaning, for the
moment overcome with pain, against the wall of the staircase.  Taking in
the whole scene, Percy felt that all was over.  His own weapon was gone;
even if he should seize Armstrong’s bar, single-handed he must soon be
overpowered.

At this crisis, by one of those tricks of the mind which no one can
account for, he suddenly remembered the packet of pepper he had bought
in the village, and one of the uses to which pepper could be put.  It
was still in his pocket.  Snatching it out, he swiftly unfolded the top
of the cone-shaped paper bag, and holding the bag by the screwed-up end,
he scattered its contents upon the face of Jensen, just rounding the
bend.  With a howl of rage and pain the Swede recoiled on his comrades
behind, driving them back upon the remainder of their party at the foot
of the stairs.  The volume of wood smoke had lessened when they started
the attack; and now the cloud of pepper, floating down slowly upon the
fumes, spread over the whole width of the staircase.  A chorus of
sneezes soared up--a chorus in many parts, from the shrill tenor of
Prutti, the Italian chauffeur, to the resonant bass of the corpulent
Swiss, Maximilien Rod.  Gradoff’s sneeze was distinguishable from
Jensen’s, and the two strangers performed a duet in sternutation.  There
were interludes of cursing and yelling; Rush’s sense of humour appeared
to be tickled, as well as his nostrils; for Pratt declared that he heard
him guffawing between his sneezes. After all, Rush was an Englishman.

The performers were still busy--the audience on the stairs was about to
move a little higher up--when there came, from some spot without, a
sound of cheers.  Never was applause so unwelcome to a foreign band.
With the sneezes now mingled cries of alarm, the noise of feet scuffling
amid litter, a running to and fro.  Percy, with a whoop of delight,
dashed downstairs, picking up his assegai on the way.  When he reached
the room below, he was momentarily checked by a sneeze; then, through
the clearing smoke, his streaming eyes beheld two figures struggling on
the floor.  A second glance distinguished them as Jensen and his old
enemy, Henery Drew.  The farmer was uppermost.

[Illustration: "THE FARMER WAS UPPERMOST."]

"Come and see fair play, Jack," Pratt shouted up the stairs to
Armstrong, who had pulled himself together and was following him.

From outside came fierce shouts, pistol shots, the clash of weapons.
Pratt dashed out.  Gradoff and his gang (all but Rush, who had
surrendered at once) were sustaining an unequal struggle with the
infuriated villagers who had closed upon them. On the one side
Warrender, with Rogers and the rest, on the other the group of villagers
collected by Drew--of whom the general dealer, smarting for his unpaid
bill, had constituted himself the temporary leader in rivalry with
Constable Hardstone--a body of some twenty determined men, who were
perhaps a little breathless from haste. Not so with the others.  As
Samson lost his strength with his hair, so these international
adventurers, desperate, courageous enough, holding life cheap, became as
children under the debilitating pungency of pepper.  A man cannot sneeze
and fight.  Some few shots were fired; a bullet grazed Rogers’s shining
skull; another struck out of Blevins’s hand the mallet he carried; a
third carried away the lobe of an ear from a young carter, who refused
to leave the field until he had found it.  Short, sharp, decisive, the
battle ended in a general capitulation.  Only one of the foreigners
escaped; Gradoff, seeing that all was lost, kept his last bullet for
himself.

From the doorway Mr. Pratt had watched the pinioning of the prisoners.
A cheer broke from his neighbours and tenants.  And, just as a move
towards the house was being made, Mr. Crawshay and two of his men, armed
with shot-guns, came trotting across the sward.

"God bless you, Pratt, my dear fellow," cried the old gentleman,
grasping his neighbour by the hand, and shaking it vigorously up and
down.

Mr. Pratt sneezed.

"And you, Crawshay," he said.  "But try the other hand, my friend; my
right arm bears an honourable wound."



                                EPILOGUE


It was Saturday afternoon.  The spacious lawn in front of Mr. Crawshay’s
house was spread with bamboo tables and deck-chairs.  At the porch stood
Mr. Crawshay and Mr. Ambrose Pratt side by side, smoking long cigars,
chatting and laughing with the familiarity of old friends.  Mr. Pratt’s
right arm was in a sling.

"It’s time they came," said Mr. Crawshay, taking out his watch.  He wore
a large panama, and his suit of spotless ducks gave him a festal air.

"They’re probably squabbling for precedence," said Mr. Pratt; "not on
social grounds, but for modesty.  It’s an ordeal, you know, Crawshay;
and when they see your rig, and that purple tie of yours, they’ll be
abashed."

"What’ll they say to the women, then?" returned Mr. Crawshay.  "Upon my
soul, Pratt, I think you are right to come in your old clothes; they’ll
feel more at home.  It never occurred to me."

"Oh, well, you’re lord of the manor; I dare say you’re right to look the
part.  But here they come, in a bunch.  Mrs. Rogers is, perhaps, a shade
ahead."

Mr. Crawshay turned and called through the open door.  His daughter, in
a dainty confection of muslin and lace, and a straw hat trimmed with
pink silk, came running out, followed by her mother, an impressive
figure in blue, and our three campers, in flannels and blazers.
Armstrong also had an arm in a sling.

Grouped in front of the porch they awaited the coming of the party that
had just entered the drive. Mrs. Rogers, in stiff black silk, and a
wonderful bonnet, marched along a little in advance of her husband,
hardly recognisable in his Sunday suit of blue serge and a bowler hat
sitting uneasily on the back of his head.  Samuel Blevins, the general
dealer, had affected a long frock coat and a tall hat. Henery Drew,
magnificent in a brown bowler and a suit of large-checked tweed, walked
beside Hardstone, the constable, disguised in habiliments that might
have become a prosperous plumber.  The rest of the company, whose names
we do not know, were alike in one respect; all had donned their "Sunday
best."  Every face, without exception, wore an air of deep solemnity.

Mr. Crawshay took a step forward.

"Glad to see you, neighbours," he said, genially. "We are lucky in a
fine afternoon."

He shook hands with them individually, a greeting that inflicted on them
various degrees of embarrassment, deepened by the smiling welcome of his
wife and daughter.  Mr. Pratt contented himself with a general
salutation; it was not until the boys began to crack jokes with them
that the prevailing gloom lightened.

"You didn’t bring your sister, Rogers?" said Mr. Crawshay to the
innkeeper.

"True, sir; she bain’t come along."

"She couldn’t face ’ee, sir," added Mrs. Rogers. "I always did say as
she was making a rod for her back, though never did I think Rod was such
a downright wicked feller.  And Henery Drew, as would have made her a
good husband as far as husbands do go, and now he can’t marry her
without committing bigamy."

"Well, well!  We must hope for the best," said Mr. Crawshay.  "Now, my
friends, we’re all here. Take your seats, and we’ll have tea."

The company seated themselves.  Maids brought from the house trays
filled with good things. Mrs. Crawshay poured out tea, and Lilian and
the boys carried round the eatables.  Under the influence of good cheer
the villagers’ stiffness wore off, and they began to descant upon the
moving events of the past days.  For the first time in its history the
village had become a place of importance.  Visitors had flocked to it
from all parts; journalists with cameras had interviewed the actors in
the drama, and expressed themselves very freely on Mr. Pratt’s refusal
to admit them to his grounds, and to pose for his photograph.  His
modesty in this respect was a standing puzzle to his humble neighbours.
Mrs. Rogers, for instance, was extremely proud of the portrait of her
husband that had appeared in the previous day’s picture paper.

"The scar shows beautiful," she said, complacently.

"Dear me," said Mrs. Crawshay, with a discreet glance at Rogers’s broad
face, "I wasn’t aware----"

"Take off your hat, Joe, and show the lady."

Removing his hat, Rogers displayed a red furrow that ran across his
shiny pate.

"What a narrow escape!" exclaimed Mrs. Crawshay.

"Ay sure, ma’am, ’twas so," said Mrs. Rogers. "And I’m certain a widow’s
cap wouldn’t have suited me."

"Well, Mrs. Rogers, you won’t be so particular about Joe’s wig after
this," said Percy Pratt. "You see, if he’d worn his wig, his scalp
wouldn’t have been touched; think what millions of people have had the
pleasure of admiring your husband, talking about his bravery, discussing
the track of the bullet across his skull.  No one wanted to take my
photograph."

"They took ’ee unbeknownst, then, becos there you be, next to Joe, with
’Pepper and Salt’ printed underneath; very clever, I call it, Joe being
once a sailor."

"Oh, I say," exclaimed Pratt, "did they get the others too?"

"No, sir.  Not as I think it a very good likeness. You’ve got your two
eyes half shut, and your mouth is a very queer shape, like as if you was
expecting of somebody to pop something in it--a drop of physic, maybe."

The villagers looked merely interested, the others frankly amused.
Pratt blushed.

"He must have caught you when you were singing a particularly
sentimental song, old chap," said Warrender, smiling.

"That reminds me," said Mrs. Crawshay.  "Do bring out your banjo, Mr.
Pratt, and sing us something."

"Wait a minute," said Mr. Crawshay.  "Before we begin
the--entertainment, shall I call it?--I want to say a word or two."

"Hear, hear!" exclaimed Blevins.  "’Tis what I call an event."

"No heroics, for goodness’ sake, Crawshay," murmured Mr. Pratt.

Mr. Crawshay assumed the look of one determined not to be interfered
with.

"I just want to say, neighbours," he proceeded, "how glad I am to see
you all here this afternoon, in celebration of what Mr. Blevins rightly
calls an event in the simple history of our little parish. You all had a
part in the frustration of the most nefarious criminal conspiracy that
has ever come within my long experience as a county magistrate. Thanks
to the ingenuity and perseverance of my dear young friends, their
refusal to be intimidated, their sleepless vigils and untiring
watchfulness, the secrets of that criminal conspiracy were laid bare, my
old friend and neighbour was rescued from a most distressing situation,
and you, anticipating the slow operation of the law, but sanctioned by
the presence among you of an officer of the law, were able to secure the
apprehension of the whole band of criminals, who are now awaiting in the
darkness of the county gaol the due reward of their deeds.  Our village
is to be congratulated on the visit of three young men, typical products
of our renowned public school system, and on the public spirit of its
own inhabitants, who, when the call for action came, forgetting all
class distinctions, regardless of personal risk, braved the murderous
weapons of unscrupulous villains, and nobly carried out the first duty
of the patriotic citizen.  I am speaking the mind of you all," the
worthy magistrate went on, warming to his subject, "when I say that we
shall long treasure the memory of our young friends, their high spirits,
their unfailing cheerfulness under persecution, their courage and
ingenuity; and it is a matter of regret that, yielding to paramount
claims, the claims of parental affection, they are leaving us to-day.
But it will please you all to hear that, in response to my invitation--I
may say to my insistence--they have agreed to visit us again next year;
and I understand from my old friend and neighbour, Mr. Pratt, that he
intends to acquire No Man’s Island, so long derelict, and restore the
cottage as a holiday hostel for boys of our public schools."

Here there were general cheers.

"Dear old Father!" whispered Lilian to the boys.  "He gets so few
chances of making a speech, and he does love it so."

"I won’t detain you longer," Mr. Crawshay went on.  "No doubt Mr. Pratt
would like to say a few words."

"Hate it!" exclaimed Mr. Pratt.  "One thing only.  I’ve had a bad time.
I deserved it.  I was over-hasty.  My old servants are scattered; if any
of you know where they are, tell them to come to me.  I’ll reinstate
them--if we can agree about wages."

Under cover of the villagers’ applause, Percy seized the opportunity of
unbosoming himself to a select audience, his companions and Lilian
Crawshay.

"Are we blushing, Miss Crawshay?" he asked. "I don’t think we are,
because, you see, we are supremely conscious of each other’s merits.  We
really are benefactors, you know--public and private.  Who would ever
believe that the two old gentlemen were not long ago calling each other
luna----"

"Now, Mr. Pratt," the girl interrupted.

"Well, X and Y then," rejoined Pratt.  "It’s undeniable, isn’t it, that
they’re reconciled through us?  And as for my uncle and me, we’re quite
pally; the old feud is healed, and before long I expect my father and
Uncle Ambrose will kiss again with tears.  Tennyson, you know. Anyway,
it’s been a ripping holiday, and----"

"Now, Mr. Pratt, we are all waiting," said Mrs. Crawshay, amiably.

Pratt obediently went into the house, brought out his banjo, and trolled
out ditties of the most sentimental order.  Presently Warrender
announced that it was time to go if they meant to reach Southampton
before dark.  The whole company trooped down to the bank with them, and
watched them board the motor-boat, already loaded with their camp
equipment.  Last good-byes were said; Warrender opened the throttle; and
as the boat panted down stream there came to the ears of the silent
spectators the gentle strumming of the banjo, and Pratt’s melodious
tenor--

    "Our hearts were once divided,
      But now they beat as one;
    The clouds roll by across the sky,
      And yonder shines the sun."



                                THE END





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "No Man's Island" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home