Chapter XXI. A Word with Mr. Jeekes
 

Life is like a kaleidoscope, that ingenious toy which was the delight of the Victorian nursery. Like the glass fragments in its slide, different in colour and shape, men's lives lie about without seeming connection; then Fate gives the instrument a shake, and behold! the fragments slide into position and form an intricate mosaic....

Mark how Fate proceeded on the wet and raw Sunday evening when Bruce Wright, at the instance of Mr. Manderton, quitted Robin Greve's chambers in the Temple, leaving his friend and the detective alone together. To tell the truth, Bruce Wright was in no mood for facing the provincial gloom of a wet Sunday evening in London, nor did he find alluring the prospect of a suburban supper-party at the quiet house where he lived with his widowed mother and sisters in South Kensington. So, in an irresolute, unsettled frame of mind, he let himself drift down the Strand unable to bring himself to go home or, indeed, to form any plan.

He crossed Trafalgar Square, a nocturne in yellow and black--lights reflected yellow in pavements shining dark with wet--and by and by found himself in Pall Mall. Here it was that Fate took a hand. At this moment it administered a preliminary jog to the kaleidoscope and brought the fragment labelled Bruce Wright into immediate proximity with the piece entitled Albert Edward Jeekes.

As Bruce Wright came along Pall Mall, he saw Mr. Jeekes standing on the steps of his club. The little secretary appeared to be lost in thought, his chin thrust down on the crutch-handle of the umbrella he clutched to himself. So absorbed was he in his meditations that he did not observe Bruce Wright stop and regard him. It was not until our young man had touched him on the arm that he looked up with a start.

"God bless my soul!" he exclaimed, "if it isn't young Wright!"

Now the sight of Jeekes had put a great idea into the head of our young friend. He had been more chagrined than he had let it appear to Robin Greve at his failure to recover the missing letter from the library at Harkings. To obtain the letter--or, at any rate, a copy of it--from Jeekes and to hand it to Robin Greve would, thought Bruce, restore his prestige as an amateur detective, at any rate in his own eyes. Moreover, a chat with Jeekes over the whole affair seemed a Heaven-sent exit from the impasse of boredom into which he had drifted this wet Sunday evening.

"How are you, Mr. Jeekes?" said Bruce briskly. ("Mr." Jeekes was the form of address always accorded to the principal secretary in the Hartley Parrish establishment and Bruce resumed it instinctively.) "I was anxious to see you. I called in at the club this afternoon. Did you get my message?"

The little secretary blinked at him through his pince-nez.

"There have been so many messages about this shocking affair that really I forget ..."

He sighed heavily.

"Couldn't I come in and have a yarn now?"

Bruce spoke cajolingly. But Mr. Jeekes wrinkled his brow fussily.

There was so much to do; he had had a long day; if Wright would excuse him ...

"As a matter of fact," explained Bruce with an eye on his man, "I wanted to see you particularly about a letter ..."

"Some other time ... to-morrow ..."

"Written on dark-blue paper ... you know, one of those letters H.P. made all the fuss about."

Mr. Jeekes took his pince-nez from his nose, gave the glasses a hasty rub with his pocket-handkerchief, and replaced them. He slanted a long narrow look at the young man.

Then, "What letter do you mean?" he asked composedly.

"A letter which lay on H.P.'s desk in the library at Harkings when they found the body ..."

"There was a letter there then ...?"

"Haven't you got it?"

Jeekes shook his head.

"Come inside for a minute and tell me about this," he said.

He led Bruce into the vast smoking-room of the club. They took seats in a distant corner near the blazing fire. The room was practically deserted.

Now, Mr. Jeekes's excessive carefulness about money had been a long-standing joke amongst his assistants when Bruce Wright had belonged to Hartley Parrish's secretarial staff. Thrift had become with him more than a habit. It was a positive obsession. It revealed itself in such petty meannesses as a perpetual cadging for matches or small change and a careful abstention from any offer of hospitality. Never in the whole course of his service had Bruce Wright heard of Mr. Jeekes taking anybody out to lunch or extending any of the usual hospitalities of life. He was not a little surprised, therefore, to hear Jeekes ask him what he would take.

Bruce said he would take some coffee.

"Have a liqueur? Have a cigar?" said Jeekes, turning to Bruce from the somnolent waiter who had answered the bell.

There was a strange eagerness, a sort of over-done cordiality, in the invitation which contrasted so strongly with the secretary's habits that Robin felt dimly suspicious. He suddenly formed the idea that Mr. Jeekes wanted to pump him. He refused the liqueur, but accepted a cigar. Jeekes waited until they had been served and the waiter had withdrawn silently into the dim vastness of the great room before he spoke.

"Now, then, young Wright," he said, "what's this about a letter? Tell me from the beginning ..."

Bruce told him of the letter from Elias van der Spyck & Co. which Robin had seen upon the desk in the library at Harkings, of his (Bruce's) journey down to Harkings that afternoon and of his failure to find the letter.

"But why do you assume that I've got it?"

There was an air of forced joviality about Mr. Jeekes as he put the question which did not in the least, as he undoubtedly intended it should, disguise his eagerness. On the contrary, it lent his rather undistinguished features an expression of cunning which can only be described as knavish. Bruce Wright, who, as will already have been seen, was a young man with all his wits about him, did not fail to remark it. The result was that he hastily revised an intention half-formed in his mind of taking Jeekes a little way into his confidence regarding Robin Greve's doubts and suspicions about Hartley Parrish's death.

But he answered the secretary's question readily enough.

"Because Miss Trevert told me you went to the library immediately you arrived at Harkings last night. I consequently assumed that you must have taken away the letter seen by Robin Greve ..."

Mr. Jeekes drew in his breath with a sucking sound. It was a little trick of his when about to speak.

"So you saw Miss Trevert at Harkings, eh?"

Bruce laughed.

"I did," he said. "We had quite a dramatic meeting, too--it was like a scene from a film!"

And, with a little good-humoured exaggeration, he gave Mr. Jeekes a description of his encounter with Mary. And lest it should seem that young Wright was allowing Mr. Jeekes to pump him, it should be stated that Bruce was well aware of one of the secretary's most notable characteristics, a common failing, be it remarked, of the small-minded, and that was an overpowering suspicion of anything resembling a leading question. In order, therefore, to gain his confidence, he willingly satisfied the other's curiosity regarding his visit to Harkings hoping thereby to extract some information as to the whereabouts of the letter on the slatey-blue paper.

"There was no letter of this description on the desk, you say, when you and Miss Trevert looked?" asked Jeekes when Bruce had finished his story.

"Nothing but circulars and bills," Bruce replied.

Mr. Jeekes leaned forward and drank off his coffee with a swift movement. Then he said carelessly:

"From what you tell me, Miss Trevert would have been perhaps a minute alone in the room without your seeing her?"

Bruce agreed with a nod.

Adjusting his pince-nez on his nose the secretary rose to his feet.

"Very glad to have seen you again, Wright," he said, thrusting out a limp hand; "must run off now--mass of work to get through ..."

Then Bruce risked his leading question.

"If you haven't got this letter," he observed, "what has become of it? Obviously the police are not likely to have taken it because they know nothing of its significance ..."

"Quite, quite," answered Mr. Jeekes absently, but without replying to the young man's question.

"Why," asked Bruce boldly, "did old H.P. make such a mystery about these letters on the slatey-blue paper, Mr. Jeekes?"

The secretary wrinkled up his thin lips and sharp nose into a cunning smile.

"When you get to be my age, young Wright," he made answer, "you will understand that every man has a private side to his life. And, if you have learnt your job properly, you will also know that a private secretary's first duty is to mind his own business. About this letter now--it's the first I've heard of it. Take my advice and don't bother your head about it. If it exists ..."

"But it does exist," broke in Bruce quickly. "Mr. Greve saw it and read it himself ..."

Mr. Jeekes laughed drily.

"Don't you forget, young Wright," he said, jerking his chin towards the youngster in a confidential sort of way, "don't you forget that Mr. Greve is anxious to find a plausible motive for Mr. Parrish's suicide. People are talking, you understand! That's all I've got to say! Just you think it over ..."

Bruce Wright bristled up hotly at this.

"I don't see you have any reason to try and impugn Greve's motive for wishing to get at the bottom of this mysterious affair ..."

Mr. Jeekes affected to be engrossed in the manicuring of his nails. Very intently he rubbed the nails of one hand against the palm of the other.

"No mystery!" he said decisively with a shake of the head: "no mystery whatsoever about it, young Wright, except what the amateur detectives will try and make it out to be. Or has Mr. Greve discovered a mystery already?"

The question came out artfully. But in the quick glance which accompanied it, there was an intent watchfulness which startled Bruce accustomed as he was to the mild and unemotional ways of the little secretary.

"Not that I know of," said Bruce. "Greve is only puzzled like all of us that H.P. should have done a thing like this!"

Mr. Jeekes was perfectly impassive again.

"The nerves, young Wright! The nerves!" he said impressively. "Harley Street, not Mr. Greve, will supply the motive to this sad affair, believe me!"

With that he accompanied the young man to the door of the club and from the vestibule watched him sally forth into the rain of Pall Mall.

Then Mr. Jeekes turned to the hall porter.

"Please get me Stevenish one-three-seven," he said, "it's a trunk call. Don't let them put you off with 'No reply.' It's Harkings, and they are expecting me to ring them. I shall be in the writing room."

When, twenty minutes later, Mr. Jeekes emerged from the trunk call telephone box in the club vestibule, his mouth was drooping at the corners and his hands trembled curiously. He stood for an instant in thought tapping his foot on the marble floor of the deserted hall dimly lit by a single electric bulb burning over the hall porter's box. Then he went back to the writing-room and returned with a yellow telegram form.

"Send a boy down to Charing Cross with that at once, please," he said to the night porter.

Fate which had brought Bruce Wright face to face with Mr. Jeekes gave the kaleidoscope another jerk that night. As Bruce Wright entered the Tube Station at Dover Street to go home to South Kensington, it occurred to him that he would ring up Robin Greve at his chambers in the Temple and give him an outline of his (Bruce's) talk with Jeekes. Bruce went to the public callbox in the station, but the rhythmic "Zoom-er! Zoom-er! Zoom-er!" which announces that a number is engaged was all the satisfaction he got. The prospect of waiting about the draughty station exit did not appeal to him, so he decided to go home and telephone Robin, as originally arranged, in the morning.

Just about the time that he made this resolve, Robin in his rooms in the Temple was hanging up the receiver of his telephone with a dazed expression in his eyes. Mr. Manderton had rung him up with a piece of intelligence which fairly bewildered him. It bewildered Mr. Manderton also, as the detective was frank enough to acknowledge.

Mary Trevert had gone to Rotterdam for a few days in company with her cousin, Major Euan MacTavish. Mr. Manderton had received this astonishing information by telephone from Harkings a few minutes before.

"It bothers me properly, Mr. Greve, sir," the detective had added.

"There's only one thing for it, Manderton," Robin had said; "I'll have to go after her ..."

"The very thing I was about to suggest myself, Mr. Greve. You're unofficial-like and can be more helpful than if we detailed one of our own people from the Yard. And with the investigation in its present stage I don't reely feel justified in going off on a wild-goose chase myself. There are several important enquiries going forward now, notably as to where Mr. Parrish bought his pistol. But we certainly ought to find out what takes Miss Trevert careering off to Rotterdam in this way ..."

"It seems almost incredible," Robin had said, "but it looks to me as though Miss Trevert must have found out something about the letter ..."

"Or found it herself ..."

"By Jove! She was in the library when Bruce Wright was there. This settles it, Manderton. I must go!"

"Then," said the detective, "I'm going to entrust you with that slotted sheet of paper again. For I have an idea, Mr. Greve, that you may get a glimpse of that letter before I do. I'll send a messenger round with it at once."

Then a difficulty arose. Manderton had not got the girl's address. They had no address at Harkings. Nor did he know what train Miss Trevert had taken. She might have gone by the 9 P.M. that night. Had Mr. Greve got a passport? Yes, Robin had a passport, but it was not viséed for Holland. That meant he could not leave until the following evening. Then Robin had a "brain wave."

"There's an air service to Rotterdam!" he exclaimed. "It doesn't leave till noon. A pal of mine went across by it only last week. That will leave me time to get my passport stamped at the Dutch Consulate, to catch the air mail, and be in Rotterdam by tea-time! And, Manderton, I shall go to the Grand Hotel. That's where my friend stopped. Wire me there if there's any news ..."

Air travel is so comfortably regulated at the present day that Robin Greve, looking back at his trip by air from Croydon Aerodrome to the big landing-ground outside Rotterdam, acknowledged that he had more excitement in his efforts to stir into action a lethargic Dutch passport official in London, so as to enable him to catch the air mail, than in the smooth and uneventful voyage across the Channel. He reached Rotterdam on a dull and muggy afternoon and lost no time in depositing his bag at the Grand Hotel. An enquiry at the office there satisfied him that Mary Trevert had not registered her name in the hotel book. Then he set out in a taxi upon a dreary round of the principal hotels.

But fate, which loves to make a sport of lovers, played him a scurvy trick. In the course of his search it brought Robin to that very hotel towards which, at the selfsame moment, Mary Trevert was driving from the station. By the time she arrived, Robin was gone and, with despair in his heart, had started on a tour of the second-class hotels, checking them by the Baedeker he had bought in the Strand that morning. It was eight o'clock by the time he had finished. He had drawn a blank.

The sight of a huge, plate-glass-fronted café reminded him that in the day's rush he had omitted to lunch. So he paid off his taxi and dined off succulent Dutch beefsteak, pounded as soft as velvet and swimming with butter and served in a bed of deliciously browned 'earth apples,' as the Holländers call potatoes. The café was stiflingly hot; there was a large and noisy orchestra in the front part and a vast billiard-saloon in the back--a place of shaded lights, clicking balls, and guttural exclamations. The heat of the place, the noise and the cries combined with the effect of his long journey in the fresh air to make him very drowsy. When he had finished dinner he was content to postpone his investigations until the morrow and go to bed. Emerging from the café he found to his relief that his hotel was but a few houses away.

As he sat at breakfast the next morning, enjoying the admirable Dutch coffee, he reviewed the situation very calmly but very thoroughly. He told himself that he had no indication as to Mary Trevert's business in Rotterdam save the supposition that she had found the van der Spyck letter and had come to Rotterdam to investigate the matter for herself. He realized that the hypothesis was thin, for, in the first place, Mary could have no inkling as to the hidden significance of the document, and, in the second place, she was undoubtedly under the impression that Hartley Parrish was driven to suicide by his (Robin's) threats.

But, in the absence of any other apparent explanation of the girl's extraordinary decision to come to Rotterdam, Robin decided he would accept the theory that she had come about the van der Spyck letter. How like Mary, after all, he mused, self-willed, fearless, independent, to rush off to Holland on her own on a quest like this! Where would her investigations lead her? To the offices of Elias van der Spyck & Co., to be sure! Robin threw his napkin down on the table, thrust back his chair, and went off to the hotel porter to locate the address of the firm.

The telephone directory showed that the offices were situated in the Oranien-Straat, about ten minutes' walk from the hotel, in the business quarter of the city round the Bourse. Robin glanced at the clock. It was twenty minutes to ten. The principals, he reflected, were not likely to be at the office before ten o'clock. It was a fine morning and he decided to walk. The hotel porter gave him a few simple directions: the gentleman could not miss the way, he said; so Robin started off, hope high in his breast of getting a step nearer to the elucidation of the mystery of the library at Harkings.

A brisk walk of about ten minutes through the roaring streets of the city brought him to a big open square from which, he had been instructed, the Oranien-Straat turned off. He was just passing a large and important-looking post-office--he remarked it because he looked up at a big clock in the window to see the time--when a man came hastily through the swing-door and stopped irresolutely on the pavement in front, glancing to right and left as a man does who is looking for a cab.

At the sight of him Robin could scarcely suppress an expression of amazement. It was Mr. Jeekes.