Chapter XX
 

Francis drove direct from Grosvenor Square to his chambers in the Temple, and found Shopland, his friend from Scotland Yard, awaiting his arrival.

"Any news?" Francis enquired.

"Nothing definite, I am sorry, to say," was the other's reluctant admission.

Francis hung up his hat, threw himself into his easy-chair and lit a cigarette.

"The lad's brother is one of my oldest friends, Shopland," he said. "He is naturally in a state of great distress."

The detective scratched his chin thoughtfully.

"I said 'nothing definite' just now, sir," he observed. "As a rule, I never mention suspicions, but with you it is a different matter. I haven't discovered the slightest trace of Mr. Reginald Wilmore, or the slightest reason for his disappearance. He seems to have been a well-conducted young gentleman, a little extravagant, perhaps, but able to pay his way and with nothing whatever against him. Nothing whatever, that is to say, except one almost insignificant thing."

"And that?"

"A slight tendency towards bad company, sir. I have heard of his being about with one or two whom we are keeping our eye upon."

"Bobby Fairfax's lot, by any chance?"

Shopland nodded.

"He was with Jacks and Miss Daisy Hyslop, a night or two before he disappeared. I am not sure that a young man named Morse wasn't of the party, too."

"What do you make of that lot?" Francis asked curiously. "Are they gamesters, dope fiends, or simply vicious?"

The detective was silent. He was gazing intently at his rather square-toed shoes.

"There are rumours, sir," he said, presently, "of things going on in the West End which want looking into very badly--very badly indeed. You will remember speaking to me of Sir Timothy Brast?"

"I remember quite well," Francis acknowledged.

"I've nothing to go on," the other continued. "I am working almost on your own lines, Mr. Ledsam, groping in the dark to find a clue, as it were, but I'm beginning to have ideas about Sir Timothy Brast, just ideas."

"As, for instance?"

"Well, he stands on rather queer terms with some of his acquaintances, sir. Now you saw, down at Soto's Bar, the night we arrested Mr. Fairfax, that not one of those young men there spoke to Sir Timothy as though they were acquainted, nor he to them. Yet I happened to find out that every one of them, including Mr. Fairfax himself, was present at a party Sir Timothy Brast gave at his house down the river a week or two before."

"I'm afraid there isn't much in that," Francis declared. "Sir Timothy has the name of being an eccentric person everywhere, especially in this respect--he never notices acquaintances. I heard, only the other day, that while he was wonderfully hospitable and charming to all his guests, he never remembered them outside his house."

Shopland nodded.

"A convenient eccentricity," he remarked, a little drily. "I have heard the same thing myself. You spent the night at his country cottage, did you not, Mr. Ledsam? Did he offer to show you over The Walled House?"

"How the dickens did you know I was down there?" Francis demanded, with some surprise. "I was just thinking as I drove up that I hadn't left my address either here or at Clarges Street."

"Next time you visit Sir Timothy," the detective observed, "I should advise you to do so. I knew you were there, Mr. Ledsam, because I was in the neighbourhood myself. I have been doing a little fishing, and keeping my eye on that wonderful estate of Sir Timothy's."

Francis was interested.

"Shopland," he said, "I believe that our intelligences, such as they are, are akin."

"What do you suspect Sir Timothy of?" the detective asked bluntly.

"I suspect him of nothing," Francis replied. "He is simply, to my mind, an incomprehensible, somewhat sinister figure, who might be capable of anything. He may have very excellent qualities which he contrives to conceal, or he may be an arch-criminal. His personality absolutely puzzles me."

There was a knock at the door and Angrave appeared. Apparently he had forgotten Shopland's presence, for he ushered in another visitor.

"Sir Timothy Brast to see you, sir," he announced.

The moment was one of trial to every one, admirably borne. Shopland remained in his chair, with only a casual glance at the newcomer. Francis rose to his feet with a half-stifled expression of anger at the clumsiness of his clerk. Sir Timothy, well-shaven and groomed, attired in a perfectly-fitting suit of grey flannel, nodded to Francis in friendly fashion and laid his Homburg hat upon the table with the air of a familiar.

"My dear Ledsam," he said, "I do hope that you will excuse this early call. I could only have been an hour behind you on the road. I dare say you can guess what I have come to see you about. Can we have a word together?"

"Certainly," was the ready reply. "You remember my friend Shopland, Sir Timothy? It was Mr. Shopland who arrested young Fairfax that night at Soto's."

"I remember him perfectly," Sir Timothy declared. "I fancied, directly I entered, that your face was familiar," he added, turning to Shopland. "I am rather ashamed of myself about that night. My little outburst must have sounded almost ridiculous to you two. To tell you the truth, I quite failed at that time to give Mr. Ledsam credit for gifts which I have since discovered him to possess."

"Mr. Shopland and I are now discussing another matter," Francis went on, pushing a box of cigarettes towards Sir Timothy, who was leaning against the table in an easy attitude. "Don't go, Shopland, for a minute. We were consulting together about the disappearance of a young man, Reggie Wilmore, the brother of a friend of mine--Andrew Wilmore, the novelist."

"Disappearance?" Sir Timothy repeated, as he lit a cigarette. "That is rather a vague term."

"The young man has been missing from home for over a week," Francis said, "and left no trace whatever of his whereabouts. He was not in financial trouble, he does not seem to have been entangled with any young woman, he had not quarrelled with his people, and he seems to have been on the best of terms with the principal at the house of business where he was employed. His disappearance, therefore, is, to say the least of it, mysterious."

Sir Timothy assented gravely.

"The lack of motive to which you allude," he pointed out, "makes the case interesting. Still, one must remember that London is certainly the city of modern mysteries. If a new 'Arabian Nights' were written, it might well be about London. I dare say Mr. Shopland will agree with me," he continued, turning courteously towards the detective, "that disappearances of this sort are not nearly so uncommon as the uninitiated would believe. For one that is reported in the papers, there are half-a-dozen which are not. Your late Chief Commissioner, by-the-bye," he added meditatively, "once a very intimate friend of mine, was my informant."

"Where do you suppose they disappear to?", Francis enquired.

"Who can tell?" was the speculative reply. "For an adventurous youth there are a thousand doors which lead to romance. Besides, the lives of none of us are quite so simple as they seem. Even youth has its secret chapters. This young man, for instance, might be on his way to Australia, happy in the knowledge that he has escaped from some murky chapter of life which will now never be known. He may write to his friends, giving them a hint. The whole thing will blow over."

"There may be cases such as you suggest, Sir Timothy," the detective said quietly. "Our investigations, so far as regards the young man in question, however, do not point that way."

Sir Timothy turned over his cigarette to look at the name of the maker.

"Excellent tobacco," he murmured. "By-the-bye, what did you say the young man's name was?"

"Reginald Wilmore," Francis told him.

"A good name," Sir Timothy murmured. "I am sure I wish you both every good fortune in your quest. Would it be too much to ask you now, Mr. Ledsam, for that single minute alone?"

"By no means," Francis answered.

"I'll wait in the office, if I may," Shopland suggested, rising to his feet. "I want to have another word with you before I go."

"My business with Mr. Ledsam is of a family nature," Sir Timothy said apologetically, as Shopland passed out. "I will not keep him for more than a moment."

Shopland closed the door behind him. Sir Timothy waited until he heard his departing footsteps. Then he turned back to Francis.

Mr. Ledsam," he said, "I have come to ask you if you know anything of my daughter's whereabouts?"

"Nothing whatever," Francis replied. "I was on the point of ringing you up to ask you the same question."

"Did she tell you that she was leaving The Sanctuary?"

"She gave me not the slightest intimation of it," Francis assured his questioner, "in fact she invited me to meet her in the rose garden last night. When I arrived there, she was gone. I have heard nothing from her since."

"You spent the evening with her?"

"To my great content."

"What happened between you?"

"Nothing happened. I took the opportunity, however, of letting your daughter understand the nature of my feelings for her."

"Dear me! May I ask what they are?"

"I will translate them into facts," Francis replied. "I wish your daughter to become my wife."

"You amaze me!" Sir Timothy exclaimed, with the old mocking smile at his lips. "How can you possibly contemplate association with the daughter of a man whom you suspect and distrust as you do me?"

"If I suspect and distrust you, it is your own fault," Francis reminded him. "You have declared yourself to be a criminal and a friend of criminals. I am inclined to believe that you have spoken the truth. I care for that fact just as little as I care for the fact that you are a millionaire, or that Margaret has been married to a murderer. I intend her to become my wife."

"Did you encourage her to leave me?"

"I did not. I had not the slightest idea that she had left The Sanctuary until Lady Cynthia told me, halfway to London this morning."

Sir Timothy was silent for several moments.

"Have you any idea in your own mind," he persisted, "as to where she has gone and for what purpose?"

"Not the slightest in the world," Francis declared. "I am just as anxious to hear from her; and to know where she is, as you seem to be."

Sir Timothy sighed.

"I am disappointed," he admitted. "I had hoped to obtain some information from you. I must try in another direction."

"Since you are here, Sir Timothy," Francis said, as his visitor prepared to depart, "may I ask whether you have any objection to my marrying your daughter?"

Sir Timothy frowned.

"The question places me in a somewhat difficult position," he replied coldly. "In a certain sense I have a liking for you. You are not quite the ingenuous nincompoop I took you for on the night of our first meeting. On the other hand, you have prejudices against me. My harmless confession of sympathy with criminals and their ways seems to have stirred up a cloud of suspicion in your mind. You even employ a detective to show the world what a fool he can look, sitting in a punt attempting to fish, with one eye on the supposed abode of crime."

"I have nothing whatever to do with the details of Shopland's investigations," Francis protested. "He is in search of Reggie Wilmore."

"Does he think I have secret dungeons in my new abode," Sir Timothy demanded, "or oubliettes in which I keep and starve brainless youths for some nameless purpose? Be reasonable, Mr. Ledsam. What the devil benefit could accrue to me from abducting or imprisoning or in any way laying my criminal hand upon this young man?"

"None whatever that we have been able to discover as yet," Francis admitted.

"A leaning towards melodrama, admirable in its way, needs the leaven of a well-balanced discretion and a sense of humour," Sir Timothy observed. "The latter quality is as a rule singularly absent amongst the myrmidons of Scotland Yard. I do not think that Mr. Shopland will catch even fish in the neighbourhood of The Walled House. As regards your matrimonial proposal, let us waive that until my daughter returns."

"As you will," Francis agreed. "I will be frank to this extent, at any rate. If I can persuade your daughter to marry me, your consent will not affect the matter."

"I can leave Margaret a matter of two million pounds," Sir Timothy said pensively.

"I have enough money to support my wife myself," Francis observed.

"Utopian but foolish," Sir Timothy declared. "All the same, Mr. Ledsam, let me tell you this. You have a curious attraction for me. When I was asked why I had invited you to The Sanctuary last night, I frankly could not answer the question. I didn't know. I don't know. Your dislike of me doesn't seem to affect the question. I was glad to have you there last night. It pleases me to hear you talk, to hear your views of things. I feel that I shall have to be very careful, Mr. Ledsam, or--"

"Or what?" Francis demanded.

"Or I shall even welcome the idea of having you for a son-in-law," Sir Timothy concluded reluctantly. "Make my excuses to Mr. Shopland. Au revoir!"

Shopland came in as the door closed behind the departing visitor. He listened to all that Francis had to say, without comment.

"If The Walled House," he said at last, "is so carefully guarded that Sir Timothy has been informed of my watching the place and has been made aware of my mild questionings, it must be because there is something to conceal. I may or may not be on the track of Mr. Reginald Wilmore, but," the detective concluded, "of one thing I am becoming convinced--The Walled House will pay for watching."