Chapter I. Wanted at Rehearsal
 

Jerramy, thirty years' stage-door keeper at the Theatre Royal, Norcaster, had come to regard each successive Monday morning as a time for the renewal of old acquaintance. For at any rate forty-six weeks of the fifty-two, theatrical companies came and went at Norcaster with unfailing regularity. The company which presented itself for patronage in the first week of April in one year was almost certain to present itself again in the corresponding week of the next year. Sometimes new faces came with it, but as a rule the same old favourites showed themselves for a good many years in succession. And every actor and actress who came to Norcaster knew Jerramy. He was the first official person encountered on entering upon the business of the week. He it was who handed out the little bundles of letters and papers, who exchanged the first greetings, of whom one could make useful inquiries, who always knew exactly what advice to give about lodgings and landladies. From noon onwards of Mondays, when the newcomers began to arrive at the theatre for the customary one o'clock call for rehearsal, Jerramy was invariably employed in hearing that he didn't look a day older, and was as blooming as ever, and sure to last another thirty years, and his reception always culminated in a hearty handshake and genial greeting from the great man of the company, who, of course, after the fashion of magnates, always turned up at the end of the irregular procession, and was not seldom late for the fixture which he himself had made.

At a quarter past one of a certain Monday afternoon in the course of a sunny October, Jerramy leaned over the half-door of his sanctum in conversation with an anxious-eyed man who for the past ten minutes had hung about in the restless fashion peculiar to those who are waiting for somebody. He had looked up the street and down the street a dozen times; he had pulled out his watch and compared it with the clock of a neighbouring church almost as often; he had several times gone up the dark passage which led to the dressing-rooms, and had come back again looking more perplexed than ever. The fact was that he was the business manager of the great Mr. Bassett Oliver, who was opening for the week at Norcaster in his latest success, and who, not quite satisfied with the way in which a particular bit of it was being played called a special rehearsal for a quarter to one. Everything and everybody was ready for that rehearsal, but the great man himself had not arrived. Now Mr. Bassett Oliver, as every man well knew who ever had dealings with him, was not one of the irregular and unpunctual order; on the contrary, he was a very martinet as regarded rule, precision and system; moreover, he always did what he expected each member of his company to do. Therefore his non-arrival, his half hour of irregularity, seemed all the more extraordinary.

"Never knew him to be late before--never!" exclaimed the business manager, impatiently pulling out his watch for the twentieth time. "Not in all my ten years' experience of him--not once."

"I suppose you've seen him this morning, Mr. Stafford?" inquired Jerramy. "He's in the town, of course?"

"I suppose he's in the town," answered Mr. Stafford. "I suppose he's at his old quarters--the 'Angel.' But I haven't seen him; neither had Rothwell--we've both been too busy to call there. I expect he came on to the 'Angel' from Northborough yesterday."

Jerramy opened the half-door, and going out to the end of the passage, looked up and down the street.

"There's a taxi-cab coming round the corner now," he announced presently. "Coming quick, too--I should think he's in it."

The business manager bustled out to the pavement as the cab came to a halt. But instead of the fine face and distinguished presence of Mr. Bassett Oliver, he found himself confronting a young man who looked like a well-set-up subaltern, or a cricket-and-football loving undergraduate; a somewhat shy, rather nervous young man, scrupulously groomed, and neatly attired in tweeds, who, at sight of the two men on the pavement, immediately produced a card-case.

"Mr. Bassett Oliver?" he said inquiringly. "Is he here? I--I've got an appointment with him for one o'clock, and I'm sorry I'm late--my train--"

"Mr. Oliver is not here yet," broke in Stafford. "He's late, too--unaccountably late, for him. An appointment, you say?"

He was looking the stranger over as he spoke, taking him for some stage-struck youth who had probably persuaded the good-natured actor to give him an interview. His expression changed, however; as he glanced at the card which the young man handed over, and he started a little and held out his hand with a smile.

"Oh!--Mr. Copplestone?" he exclaimed. "How do you do? My name's Stafford--I'm Mr. Oliver's business manager. So he made an appointment with you, did he--here, today? Wants to see you about your play, of course."

Again he looked at the newcomer with a smiling interest, thinking secretly that he was a very youthful and ingenuous being to have written a play which Bassett Oliver, a shrewd critic, and by no means easy to please, had been eager to accept, and was about to produce. Mr. Richard Copplestone, seen in the flesh, looked very young indeed, and very unlike anything in the shape of a professional author. In fact he very much reminded Stafford of the fine and healthy young man whom one sees on the playing fields, and certainly does not associate with pen and ink. That he was not much used to the world on whose edge he just then stood Stafford gathered from a boyish trick of blushing through the tan of his cheeks.

"I got a wire from Mr. Oliver yesterday--Sunday," replied Mr. Copplestone. "I ought to have had it in the morning, I suppose, but I'd gone out for the day, you know--gone out early. So I didn't find it until I got back to my rooms late at night. I got the next train I could from King's Cross, and it was late getting in here."

"Then you've practically been travelling all night?" remarked Stafford. "Well, Mr. Oliver hasn't turned up--most unusual for him. I don't know where--" Just then another man came hurrying down the passage from the dressing-rooms, calling the business manager by name.

"I say, Stafford!" he exclaimed, as he emerged on the street. "This is a queer thing!--I'm sure there's something wrong. I've just rung up the 'Angel' hotel. Oliver hasn't turned up there! His rooms were all ready for him as usual yesterday, but he never came. They've neither seen nor heard of him. Did you see him yesterday?"

"No!" replied Stafford. "I didn't. Never seen him since last thing Saturday night at Northborough. He ordered this rehearsal for one--no, a quarter to one, here, today. But somebody must have seen him yesterday. Where's his dresser--where's Hackett?"

"Hackett's inside," said the other man. "He hasn't seen him either, since Saturday night. Hackett has friends living in these parts--he went off to see them early yesterday morning, from Northborough, and he's only just come. So he hasn't seen Oliver, and doesn't know anything about him; he expected, of course, to find him here."

Stafford turned with a wave of the hand towards Copplestone.

"So did this gentleman," he said. "Mr. Copplestone, this is our stage-manager, Mr. Rothwell. Rothwell, this is Mr. Richard Copplestone, author of the new play that Mr. Oliver's going to produce next month. Mr. Copplestone got a wire from him yesterday, asking him to come here today at one o'clock, He's travelled all night to get here."

"Where was the wire sent from?" asked Rothwell, a sharp-eyed, keen-looking man, who, like Stafford, was obviously interested in the new author's boyish appearance. "And when?"

Copplestone drew some letters and papers from his pocket and selected one. "That's it," he said. "There you are--sent off from Northborough at nine-thirty, yesterday morning--Sunday."

"Well, then he was at Northborough at that time," remarked Rothwell. "Look here, Stafford, we'd better telephone to Northborough, to his hotel. The 'Golden Apple,' wasn't it?"

"No good," replied Stafford, shaking his head. "The 'Golden Apple' isn't on the 'phone--old-fashioned place. We'd better wire."

"Too slow," said Rothwell. "We'll telephone to the theatre there, and ask them to step across and make inquiries. Come on!--let's do it at once."

He hurried inside again, and Stafford turned to Copplestone.

"Better send your cab away and come inside until we get some news," he said. "Let Jerramy take your things into his sanctum--he'll keep an eye on them till you want them--I suppose you'll stop at the 'Angel' with Oliver. Look here!" he went on, turning to the cab driver, "just you wait a bit--I might want you; wait ten minutes, anyway. Come in, Mr. Copplestone."

Copplestone followed the business manager up the passage to a dressing-room, in which a little elderly man was engaged in unpacking trunks and dress-baskets. He looked up expectantly at the sound of footsteps; then looked down again at the work in hand and went silently on with it.

"This is Hackett, Mr. Oliver's dresser," said Stafford. "Been with him--how long, Hackett?"

"Twenty years next January, Mr. Stafford," answered the dresser quietly.

"Ever known Mr. Oliver late like this?" inquired Stafford.

"Never, sir! There's something wrong," replied Hackett. "I'm sure of it. I feel it! You ought to go and look for him, some of you gentlemen."

"Where?" asked Stafford. "We don't know anything about him. He's not come to the 'Angel,' as he ought to have done, yesterday. I believe you're the last person who saw him, Hackett. Aren't you, now?"

"I saw him at the 'Golden Apple' at Northborough at twelve o'clock Saturday night, sir," answered Hackett. "I took a bag of his to his rooms there. He was all right then. He knew I was going off first thing next morning to see an uncle of mine who's a farmer on the coast between here and Northborough, and he told me he shouldn't want me until one o'clock today. So of course, I came straight here to the theatre--I didn't call in at the 'Angel' at all this morning."

"Did he say anything about his own movements yesterday?" asked Stafford. "Did he tell you that he was going anywhere?"

"Not a word, Mr. Stafford," replied Hackett. "But you know his habits as well as I do."

"Just so," agreed Stafford. "Mr. Oliver," he continued, turning to Copplestone, "is a great lover of outdoor life. On Sundays, when we're travelling from one town to another, he likes to do the journey by motor--alone. In a case like this, where the two towns are not very far apart, it's his practice to find out if there's any particular beauty spot or place of interest between them, and to spend his Sunday there. I daresay that's what he did yesterday. You see, all last week we were at Northborough. That, like Norcaster, is a coast town--there's fifty miles between them. If he followed out his usual plan he'd probably hire a motor-car and follow the coast-road, and if he came to any place that was of special interest, he'd stop there. But--in the usual way of things--he'd have turned up at his rooms at the 'Angel' hotel here last night. He didn't--and he hasn't turned up here, either. So where is he?"

"Have you made inquiries of the company, Mr. Stafford?" asked Hackett. "Most of 'em wander about a bit of a Sunday--they might have seen him."

"Good idea!" agreed Stafford. He beckoned Copplestone to follow him on to the stage, where the members of the company sat or stood about in groups, each conscious that something unusual had occurred. "It's really a queer, and perhaps a serious thing," he whispered as he steered his companion through a maze of scenery. "And if Oliver doesn't turn up, we shall be in a fine mess. Of course, there's an understudy for his part, but--I say!" he went on, as they stepped upon the stage, "Have any of you seen Mr. Oliver, anywhere, since Saturday night? Can anybody tell anything about him--anything at all? Because--it's useless to deny the fact--he's not come here, and he's not come to town at all, so far as we know. So--"

Rothwell came hurrying on to the stage from the opposite wings. He hastened across to Stafford and drew him and Copplestone a little aside.

"I've heard from Northborough," he Said. "I 'phoned Waters, the manager there, to run across to the 'Golden Apple' and make inquiries. The 'Golden Apple' people say that Oliver left there at eleven o'clock yesterday morning. He was alone. He simply walked out of the hotel. And they know nothing more."