Chapter XVI
 

Francis Ledsam was himself again, the lightest-hearted and most popular member of his club, still a brilliant figure in the courts, although his appearances there were less frequent, still devoting the greater portion of his time, to his profession, although his work in connection with it had become less spectacular. One morning, at the corner of Clarges Street and Curzon Street, about three weeks after his visit to the Opera, he came face to face with Sir Timothy Brast.

"Well, my altruistic peerer into other people's affairs, how goes it?" the latter enquired pleasantly.

"How does it seem, my arch-criminal, to be still breathing God's fresh air?" Francis retorted in the same vein. "Make the most of it. It may not last for ever."

Sir Timothy smiled. He was looking exceedingly well that morning, the very prototype of a man contented with life and his part in it. He was wearing a morning coat and silk hat, his patent boots were faultlessly polished, his trousers pressed to perfection, his grey silk tie neat and fashionable. Notwithstanding his waxenlike pallor, his slim figure and lithe, athletic walk seemed to speak of good health.

"You may catch the minnow," he murmured. "The big fish swim on. By-the-bye," he added, "I do not notice that your sledge-hammer blows at crime are having much effect. Two undetected murders last week, and one the week before. What Are you about, my astute friend?"

"Those are matters for Scotland Yard," Francis replied, with an indifferent little wave of the hand which held his cigarette. "Details are for the professional. I seek that corner in Hell where the thunders are welded and the poison gases mixed. In other words, I seek for the brains of crime."

"Believe me, we do not see enough of one another, my young friend," Sir Timothy said earnestly. "You interest me more and more every time we meet. I like your allegories, I like your confidence, which in any one except a genius would seem blatant. When can we dine together and talk about crime?"

"The sooner the better," Francis replied promptly. "Invite me, and I will cancel any other engagement I might happen to have."

Sir Timothy considered for a moment. The June sunshine was streaming down upon them and the atmosphere was a little oppressive.

"Will you dine with me at Hatch End to-night?" he asked. "My daughter and I will be alone."

"I should be delighted," Francis replied promptly. "I ought to tell you, perhaps, that I have called three times upon your daughter but have not been fortunate enough to find her at home."

Sir Timothy was politely apologetic.

"I fear that my daughter is a little inclined to be morbid," he confessed. "Society is good for her. I will undertake that you are a welcome guest."

"At what time do I come and how shall I find your house?" Francis enquired.

"You motor down, I suppose?" Sir Timothy observed. "Good! In Hatch End any one will direct you. We dine at eight. You had better come down as soon as you have finished your day's work. Bring a suitcase and spend the night."

"I shall be delighted," Francis replied.

"Do not," Sir Timothy continued, "court disappointment by over-anticipation. You have without doubt heard of my little gatherings at Hatch End. They are viewed, I am told, with grave suspicion, alike by the moralists of the City and, I fear, the police. I am not inviting you to one of those gatherings. They are for people with other tastes. My daughter and I have been spending a few days alone in the little bungalow by the side of my larger house. That is where you will find us--The Sanctuary, we call it."

"Some day," Francis ventured, "I shall hope to be asked to one of your more notorious gatherings. For the present occasion I much prefer the entertainment you offer."

"Then we are both content," Sir Timothy said, smiling. "Au revoir!"

Francis walked across Green Park, along the Mall, down Horse Guards Parade, along the Embankment to his rooms on the fringe of the Temple. Here he found his clerk awaiting his arrival in some disturbance of spirit.

"There is a young gentleman here to see you, sir," he announced. "Mr. Reginald Wilmore his name is, I think."

"Wilmore?" Francis repeated. "What have you done with him?"

"He is in your room, sir. He seems very impatient. He has been out two or three times to know how long I thought you would be."

Francis passed down the stone passage and entered his room, a large, shady apartment at the back of the building. To his surprise it was empty. He was on the point of calling to his clerk when he saw that the writing-paper on his desk had been disturbed. He went over and read a few lines written in a boy's hasty writing:

DEAR Mr. LEDSAM:

I am in a very strange predicament and I have come to ask your advice. You know my brother Andrew well, and you may remember playing tennis with me last year. I am compelled--

At that point the letter terminated abruptly. There was a blot and a smudge. The pen lay where it seemed to have rolled -on the floor. The ink was not yet dry. Francis called to his clerk.

"Angrave," he said, "Mr. Wilmore is not here."

The clerk looked around in obvious surprise.

"It isn't five minutes since he came out to my office, sir!" he exclaimed. "I heard him go back again afterwards."

Francis shrugged his shoulders.

"Perhaps he decided not to wait and you didn't hear him go by."

Angrave shook his head.

"I do not see how he could have left the place without my hearing him, sir," he declared. "The door of my office has been open all the time, and I sit opposite to it. Besides, on these stone floors one can hear any one so distinctly."

"Then what," Francis asked, "has become of him?"

The clerk shook his head.

"I haven't any idea, sir," he confessed.

Francis plunged into his work and forgot all about the matter. He was reminded of it, however, at luncheon-time, when, on entering the dining-room of the club, he saw Andrew Wilmore seated alone at one of the small tables near the wall. He went over to him at once.

"Hullo, Andrew," he greeted him, "what are you doing here by yourself ?"

"Bit hipped, old fellow," was the depressed reply. "Sit down, will you?"

Francis sat down and ordered his lunch.

"By-the-bye," he said, "I had rather a mysterious visit this morning from your brother Reggie."

Wilmore stared at him for a moment, half in relief, half in amazement.

"Good God, Francis, you don't say so!" he exclaimed. "How was he? What did he want? Tell me about it at once? We've been worried to death about the boy."

"Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't see him," Francis explained. "He arrived before I reached my rooms--as you know, I don't live there--waited some time, began to write me this note,"--drawing the sheet of paper from his pocket--"and when I got there had disappeared without leaving a message or anything."

Wilmore adjusted his pince nez with trembling fingers. Then he read the few lines through.

"Francis," he said, when he had finished them, "do you know that this is the first word we've heard of him for three days?"

"Great heavens!" Francis exclaimed. "He was living with his mother, wasn't he?"

"Down at Kensington, but he hasn't been there since Monday," Andrew replied. "His mother is in a terrible state. And now this, I don't understand it at all."

"Was the boy hard up?"

"Not more than most young fellows are," was the puzzled reply. "His allowance was due in a few days, too. He had money in the bank, I feel sure. He was saving up for a motorcar."

"Haven't I seen him once or twice at restaurants lately?" Francis enquired. "Soto's, for instance?"

"Very likely," his brother assented. "Why not? He's fond of dancing, and we none of us ever encouraged him to be a stay-at-home."

"Any particular girl was he interested in?"

"Not that we know of. Like most young fellows of his age, he was rather keen on young women with some connection with the stage, but I don't believe there was any one in particular. Reggie was too fond of games to waste much time that way. He's at the gymnasium three evenings a week."

"I wish I'd been at the office a few minutes earlier this morning," Francis observed. "I tell you what, Andrew. I have some pals down at Scotland Yard, and I'll go down and see them this afternoon. They'll want a photograph, and to ask a few questions, I dare say, but I shouldn't talk about the matter too much."

"You're very kind, Francis," his friend replied, "but it isn't so easy to sit tight. I was going to the police myself this afternoon."

"Take my advice and leave it to me," Francis begged. "I have a particular pal down at Scotland Yard who I know will be interested, and I want him to take up the case."

"You haven't any theory, I suppose?" Wilmore asked, a little wistfully.

Francis shook his head.

"Not the ghost of one," he admitted. "The reason I am advising you to keep as quiet as possible, though, is just this. If you create a lot of interest in a disappearance, you have to satisfy the public curiosity when the mystery is solved."

"I see," Wilmore murmured. "All the same, I can't imagine Reggie getting mixed up in anything discreditable."

"Neither can I, from what I remember of the boy," Francis agreed. "Let me see, what was he doing in the City?"

"He was with Jameson & Scott, the stockbrokers," Wilmore replied. "He was only learning the business and he had no responsibilities. Curiously enough, though, when I went to see Mr. Jameson he pointed out one or two little matters that Reggie had attended to, which looked as though he were clearing up, somehow or other."

"He left no message there, I suppose?"

"Not a line or a word. He gave the porter five shillings, though, on the afternoon before he disappeared--a man who has done some odd jobs for him."

"Well, a voluntary disappearance is better than an involuntary one," Francis remarked. "What was his usual programme when he left the office?"

"He either went to Queen's and played racquets, or he went straight to his gymnasium in the Holborn. I telephoned to Queen's. He didn't call there on the Wednesday night, anyhow."

"Where's the gymnasium?"

"At 147 a Holborn. A lot of city young men go there late in the evening, but Reggie got off earlier than most of them and used to have the place pretty well to himself. I think that's why he stuck to it."

Francis made a note of the address.

"I'll get Shopland to step down there some time," he said. "Or better still, finish your lunch and we'll take a taxi there ourselves. I'm going to the country later on, but I've half-an-hour to spare. We can go without our coffee and be there in ten minutes."

"A great idea," Wilmore acquiesced. "It's probably the last place Reggie visited, anyway."