Chapter XXV
 

Sir Timothy was standing upon the hearthrug of the very wonderful apartment which he called his library. By his side, on a black marble pedestal, stood a small statue by Rodin. Behind him, lit by a shielded electric light, was a Vandyck, "A Portrait of a Gentleman Unknown," and Francis, as he hesitated for a moment upon the threshold, was struck by a sudden quaint likeness between the face of the man in the picture, with his sunken cheeks, his supercilious smile, his narrowed but powerful eyes, to the face of Sir Timothy himself. There was something of the same spirit there--the lawless buccaneer, perhaps the criminal.

"You asked for me, Sir Timothy," Francis said.

Sir Timothy smiled.

"I was fortunate to find that you had not left," he answered. "I want you to be present at this forthcoming interview. You are to a certain extent in the game. I thought it might amuse you."

Francis for the first time was aware that his host was not alone. The room, with its odd splashes of light, was full of shadows, and he saw now that in an easy-chair a little distance away from Sir Timothy, a girl was seated. Behind her, still standing, with his hat in his hand, was a man. Francis recognised them both with surprise.

"Miss Hyslop!" he exclaimed.

She nodded a little defiantly. Sir Timothy smiled. "Ah!" he said. "You know the young lady, without a doubt. Mr. Shopland, your coadjutor in various works of philanthropy, you recognise, of course? I do not mind confessing to you, Ledsam, that I am very much afraid of Mr. Shopland. I am not at all sure that he has not a warrant for my arrest in his pocket."

The detective came a little further into the light. He was attired in an ill-fitting dinner suit, a soft-fronted shirt of unpleasing design, a collar of the wrong shape, and a badly arranged tie. He seemed, nevertheless, very pleased with himself.

"I came on here, Mr. Ledsam, at Sir Timothy's desire," he said. "I should like you to understand," he added, with a covert glance of warning, "that I have been devoting every effort, during the last few days, to the discovery of your friend's brother, Mr. Reginald Wilmore."

"I am very glad to hear it," Francis replied shortly. "The boy's brother is one of my greatest friends."

"I have come to the conclusion," the detective pronounced, "that the young man has been abducted, and is being detained at The Walled House against his will for some illegal purpose."

"In other respects," Sir Timothy said, stretching out his hand towards a cedar-wood box of cigarettes and selecting one, "this man seems quite sane. I have watched him very closely on the way here, but I could see no signs of mental aberration. I do not think, at any rate, that he is dangerous."

"Sir Timothy," Shopland explained, with some anger in his tone, "declines to take me seriously. I can of course apply for a search warrant, as I shall do, but it occurred to me to be one of those cases which could be better dealt with, up to a certain point, without recourse to the extremities of the law."

Sir Timothy, who had lit his cigarette, presented a wholly undisturbed front.

"What I cannot quite understand," he said, "is the exact meaning of that word 'abduction.' Why should I be suspected of forcibly removing a harmless and worthy young man from his regular avocation, and, as you term it, abducting him, which I presume means keeping him bound and gagged and imprisoned? I do not eat young men. I do not even care for the society of young men. I am not naturally a gregarious person, but I think I would go so far," he added, with a bow towards Miss Hyslop, "as to say that I prefer the society of young women. Satisfy my curiosity, therefore, I beg of you. For what reason do you suppose that I have been concerned in the disappearance of this Mr. Reginald Wilmore?"

Francis opened his lips, but Shopland, with a warning glance, intervened.

"I work sometimes as a private person, sir," he said, "but it is not to be forgotten that I am an officer of the law. It is not for us to state motives or even to afford explanations for our behaviour. I have watched your house at Hatch End, Sir Timothy, and I have come to the conclusion that unless you are willing to discuss this matter with me in a different spirit, I am justified in asking the magistrates for a search warrant."

Sir Timothy sighed.

"Mr. Ledsam," he said, "I think, after all, that yours is the most interesting end of this espionage business. It is you who search for motives, is it not, and pass them on to our more automatic friend, who does the rest. May I ask, have you supplied the motive in the present case?"

"I have failed to discover any motive at all for Reginald Wilmore's disappearance," Francis admitted, "nor have I at any time been able to connect you with it. Mr. Shopland's efforts, however, although he has not seen well to take me into his entire confidence, have my warmest approval and sympathy. Although I have accepted your very generous hospitality, Sir Timothy, I think there has been no misunderstanding between us on this matter."

"Most correct," Sir Timothy murmured. "The trouble seems to be, so far as I am concerned, that no one will tell me exactly of what I am suspected? I am to give Mr. Shopland the run of my house, or he will make his appearance in the magistrate's court and the evening papers will have placards with marvellous headlines at my expense. How will it run, Mr. Shopland--

  "'MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF A YOUNG GENTLEMAN.
    MILLIONAIRE'S HOUSE TO BE SEARCHED.'"

"We do not necessarily acquaint the press with our procedure," Shopland rejoined.

"Nevertheless," Sir Timothy continued, "I have known awkward consequences arise from a search warrant too rashly applied for or granted. However, we are scarcely being polite. So far, Miss Hyslop has had very little to say."

The young lady was not altogether at her ease.

"I have had very little to say," she repeated, "because I did not expect an audience."

Sir Timothy drew a letter from his pocket, opened it and adjusted his eyeglass.

"Here we are," he said. "After leaving my dinner-party tonight, I called at the club and found this note. Quite an inviting little affair, you see young lady's writing, faint but very delicate perfume, excellent stationery, Milan Court--the home of adventures!"

"DEAR SIR TIMOTHY BRAST:

"Although I am not known to you personally, there is a certain matter concerning which information has come into my possession, which I should like to discuss with you. Will you call and see me as soon as possible?"

Sincerely yours,
"DAISY HYSLOP."

"On receipt of this note," Sir Timothy continued, folding it up, "I telephoned to the young lady and as I was fortunate enough to find her at home I asked her to come here. I then took the liberty of introducing myself to Mr. Shopland, whose interest in my evening has been unvarying, and whose uninvited company I have been compelled to bear with, and suggested that, as I was on my way back to Curzon Street, he had better come in and have a drink and tell me what it was all about. I arranged that he should find Miss Hyslop here, and for a person of observation, which I flatter myself to be, it was easy to discover the interesting fact that Mr. Shopland and Miss Daisy Hyslop were not strangers. "Now tell me, young lady," Sir Timothy went on. "You see, I have placed myself entirely in your hands. Never mind the presence of these two gentlemen. Tell me exactly what you wanted to say to me?"

"The matter is of no great importance," Miss Hyslop declared, "in any case I should not discuss it before these two gentlemen."

"Don't go for a, moment, please," Sir Timothy begged, as she showed signs of departure. "Listen. I want to make a suggestion to you. There is an impression abroad that I was interested in the two young men, Victor Bidlake and Fairfax, and that I knew something of their quarrel. You were an intimate friend of young Bidlake's and presumably in his confidence. It occurs to me, therefore, that Mr. Shopland might very well have visited you in search of information, linking me up with that unfortunate affair. Hence your little note to me."

Miss Hyslop rose to her feet. She had the appearance of being very angry indeed.

"Do you mean to insinuate--" she began.

"Madam, I insinuate nothing," Sir Timothy interrupted sternly. "I only desire to suggest this. You are a young lady whose manner of living, I gather, is to a certain extent precarious. It must have seemed to you a likelier source of profit to withhold any information you might have to give at the solicitation of a rich man, than to give it free gratis and for nothing to a detective. Now am I right?"

Miss Hyslop turned towards the door. She had the air of a person who had been entirely misunderstood.

"I wrote you out of kindness, Sir Timothy," she said in an aggrieved manner. "I shall have nothing more to say on the matter--to you, at any rate."

Sir Timothy sighed.

"You see," he said, turning to the others, "I have lost my chance of conciliating a witness. My cheque-book remains locked up and she has gone over to your side."

She turned around suddenly.

"You know that you made Bobby Fairfax kill Victor!" she almost shouted.

Sir Timothy smiled in triumph.

"My dear young lady," he begged, "let us now be friends again. I desired to know your trump card. For that reason I fear that I have been a little brutal. Now please don't hurry away. You have shot your bolt. Already Mr. Shopland is turning the thing over in his mind. Was I lurking outside that night, Mr. Shopland, to guide that young man's flabby arm? He scarcely seemed man enough for a murderer, did he, when he sat quaking on that stool in Soto's Bar while Mr. Ledsam tortured him? I beg you again not to hurry, Miss Hyslop. At any rate wait while my servants fetch you a taxi. It was clouding over when I came in. We may even have a thunderstorm."

"I want to, get out of this house," Daisy Hyslop declared. "I think you are all horrible. Mr. Ledsam did behave like a gentleman when he came to see me, and Mr. Shopland asked questions civilly. But you--" she added, turning round to Sir Timothy.

"Hush, my dear," he interrupted, holding out his hand. "Don't abuse me. I am not angry with you--not in the least--and I am going to prove it. I shall oppose any search warrant which you might apply for, Mr. Shopland, and I think I can oppose it with success. But I invite you two, Miss Hyslop and Mr. Ledsam, to my party on Thursday night. Once under my roof you shall have carte blanche. You can wander where you please, knock the walls for secret hiding-places, stamp upon the floor for oubliettes. Upstairs or down, the cellars and the lofts, the grounds and the park, the whole of my domain is for you from midnight on Thursday until four o'clock. What do you say, Mr. Shopland? Does my offer satisfy you?"

The detective hesitated.

"I should prefer an invitation for myself," he declared bluntly.

Sir Timothy shook his head.

"Alas, my dear Mr. Shopland," he regretted, "that is impossible! If I had only myself to consider I would not hesitate. Personally I like you. You amuse me more than any one I have met for a long time. But unfortunately I have my guests to consider! You must be satisfied with Mr. Ledsam's report."

Shopland stroked his stubbly moustache. It was obvious that he was not in the least disconcerted.

"There are three days between now and then," he reflected.

"During those three days, of course," Sir Timothy said drily, "I shall do my best to obliterate all traces of my various crimes. Still, you are a clever detective, and you can give Mr. Ledsam a few hints. Take my advice. You won't get that search warrant, and if you apply for it none of you will be at my party."

"I accept," Shopland decided.

Sir Timothy crossed the room, unlocked the drawer of a magnificent writing-table, and from a little packet drew out two cards of invitation. They were of small size but thick, and the colour was a brilliant scarlet. On one he wrote the name of Francis, the other he filled in for Miss Hyslop.

"Miss Daisy Hyslop," he said, "shall we drink a glass of wine together on Thursday evening, and will you decide that although, perhaps, I am not a very satisfactory correspondent, I can at least be an amiable host?"

The girl's eyes glistened. She knew very well that the possession of that card meant that for the next few days she would be the envy of every one of her acquaintances.

"Thank you, Sir Timothy," she replied eagerly. "You have quite misunderstood me but I should like to come to your party."

Sir Timothy handed over the cards. He rang for a servant and bowed the others out. Francis he detained for a moment.

"Our little duel, my friend, marches," he said. "After Thursday night we will speak again of this matter concerning Margaret. You will know then what you have to face."

Margaret herself opened the door and looked in.

"What have those people been doing here?" she asked. "What is happening?"

Her father unlocked his drawer once more and drew out another of the red cards.

"Margaret," he said, "Ledsam here has accepted my invitation for Thursday night. You have never, up till now, honoured me, nor have I ever asked you. I suggest that for the first part of the entertainment, you give me the pleasure of your company."

"For the first part?"

"For the first part only," he repeated, as he wrote her name upon the card.

"What about Francis?" she asked. "Is he to, stay all the time?"

Sir Timothy smiled. He locked up his drawer and. slipped the key into his pocket.

"Ledsam and I," he said, "have promised one another a more complete mutual understanding on Thursday night. I may not be able to part with him quite so soon."