Chapter XXIII. Two's Company ...
 

On the pavement opposite the post-office stood one of those high pillars which are commonly used in Continental cities for the display of theatre and concert advertisements. Robin instantly stepped behind it. It was not that he wished to avoid being seen by Jeekes as much as that he had not decided in his mind what course he had best pursue. From behind the cover of the pillar he mustered his man.

The little secretary looked strange and unfamiliar in a sporting sort of travelling ulster of a tawny brown hue and a cap of the same stuff. But there was no mistaking the watery eyes, the sharp nose, the features. He had obviously not seen Robin. His whole attention was rivetted on the street. He kept peering nervously to right and left as though expecting some one.

Suddenly he stepped forward quickly to the kerb. Then Robin saw an open car detach itself from the press of traffic in the square and, driven very fast, approach the post-office. It was a large car with a grey body; a sallow man wearing a black felt hat sat at the wheel. The car drew up at the kerb and halted within a few feet of the advertisement pillar. Robin backed hastily round it to escape observation. He had resolved to do nothing until he had ascertained who Jeekes's friend was and what business the secretary had with him.

"It's all right," Robin heard the man in the car say in English; "I telephoned the girl and she's coming. What a piece of luck, eh?"

Robin heard the click of the car door as it swung open.

"... better get along out there at once," he heard the man in the car say, "I'm sending Jan in the car for her at ..."

Then Robin stepped out unexpectedly from behind his pillar and cannoned into Mr. Jeekes, who was just entering the car.

"Good-morning," said Robin with easy assurance; "I'm delighted to hear that you've found Miss Trevert, Jeekes, for, to tell the truth, I was feeling somewhat uneasy about her ..."

The secretary's face was a study. The surprise of seeing Robin, who had dropped, it seemed to him, out of the clouds into the city of Rotterdam, deprived him of speech for an instant. He blinked his eyes, looked this way and that, and finally, with a sort of blind gesture, readjusted his pince-nez and glared at the intruder.

Then, without a word, he got into the car. But Robin, with a firm hand, stayed the door which Jeekes would have closed behind him.

"Excuse me," Robin remarked decidedly, "but I'm coming with you if your friend"--at this he looked at the man in the driving-seat--"has no objection ..."

Mr. Jeekes cast a frightened glance at the sallow man.

The latter said impatiently:

"We're wasting time, Jeekes. Who is this gentleman?"

"This is Mr. Greve," said the little secretary hurriedly, "a friend of Mr. Parrish and Miss Trevert. He was staying in the house at the time of the tragedy. He has, I understand, taken a prominent part in the investigations as to the motive of our poor friend's sad end ..."

Mr. Jeekes looked to Robin as he said this as though for confirmation. The man at the driving-wheel turned and gave the little secretary a quick glance. Then he mustered Robin with a slow, insolent stare. He had a yellow face and small black eyes quick and full of intelligence.

Then he bowed.

"My name is Victor," he said. "The sad news about Mr. Parrish was a great shock to me. I met him several times in London. Were you anxious to see Miss ... er ... Trevert? She has come to Rotterdam (so my friend Jeekes tells me) to look into certain important business transactions which the late Mr. Parrish had in hand at the time of his death. Did I understand you to say that you were uneasy about this lady? Is there any mystery about her journey?..."

For the moment Robin felt somewhat abashed. The question was rather a poser. Was there, in effect, any mystery about Mary's trip to Rotterdam accompanied by her cousin? She had acquainted her people at Harkings with her plans. What if, after all, everything was open and above-board, and she had merely come to Rotterdam on business? It seemed difficult to believe. Surely in such a case the solicitor, Bardy, would have been the more suitable emissary ...

"You'll forgive us, I'm sure," the yellow-faced man remarked suavely, "but we're in a great hurry. Would you mind closing that door?..."

Robin closed the door. But he got into the car first. As he had stood on the pavement in doubt, the recollection of Jeekes's inexplicable lie about the payments made by Parrish for the French lady in the Mayfair flat came back to him and deepened the suspicion in his mind. It would in any case, he told himself, do no harm to find out who this rather unsavoury-looking Rotterdam friend of Jeekes's was ...

So Robin jumped into the car and sat down on the back seat next to the secretary.

"It happens," he said, "that I am particularly anxious to see Miss Trevert. As I gather you are going to meet her, I feel sure you won't mind my accompanying you ..."

The yellow-faced man turned with an easy smile.

"Sorry," he said, "but we are having a meeting with Miss Trevert on private business and I'm afraid we cannot take you along. Jeekes here, however, could take a message to Miss Trevert and if she wanted to see you ..."

He broke off significantly and smiled slily at the secretary. Robin felt himself flush. So Jeekes had been telling tales out of school to Mr. Victor, had he? The young man squared his jaw. That settled it. He would stay.

"I promise not to butt in on your private business," he replied, "but I simply must see Miss Trevert before I go back to London. So, if you don't mind, I think I'll come along ..."

The yellow-faced man glanced at his wrist watch.

"I can't prevent you!" he exclaimed. Then he rapped out something in Dutch to Jeekes. The secretary leaned forward to catch the remark. The yellow-faced man threw in the clutch.

"Goed!" (good), answered Jeekes in the same language, and resumed his seat as the car glided smoothly away from the kerb into the traffic of the busy square. Robin settled himself back in the seat with an inaudible sigh of satisfaction. He did not like the look of Jeekes's companion, he told himself, and Mr. Victor, whoever he was, had certainly manifested no great desire for Robin's company. But he was going to see Mary. That was all that counted for the moment.

They threaded their way through the streets in silence. It passed through Robin's mind to start a discussion with Jeekes about the death of Hartley Parrish. But in the circumstances he conceived it might easily assume a controversial character, and he did not want to take any risk of jeopardizing his chance of meeting Mary again. And no other subject of conversation occurred to him. He did not know Jeekes at all well, knew him in fact only as a week-end guest knows the private secretary of his host, a shadowy personality, indispensable and part of the household, but scarcely more than a name ...

The car had put on speed as they left the more crowded streets and emerged into the suburbs. Now they were running over a broad straight main road lined with poplars. Robin wondered whither they were bound. He was about to put the question to the secretary when the man Victor turned his head and said over his shoulder:

"Nu!"

At the same moment the speed of the car sensibly diminished.

Jeekes put his arm across the young man at his side.

"That door," he said, touching his sleeve, "doesn't seem to be properly shut. Would you mind ..."

Robin pushed the door with his hand.

"It seems all right," he said.

"Permit me ..."

The secretary stretched across and pulled back the latch, releasing the door. It swung out.

"Now close it," said Mr. Jeekes.

The door was flapping to and fro with the swaying of the car over the rough road and Robin had to half rise in order to comply with the request. He was leaning forward, steadying himself with one hand grasping the back of the driving-seat, when he received a tremendous shove in the back. At the same moment the car seemed to leap forward: he made a desperate effort to regain his balance, failed, and was whirled out head foremost on to the side of the road.

Fortunately for himself he fell soft. The road ran here through a little wood of young oak and beech which came right down to the edge of the chaussée. The ground was deep in withered leaves which, with the rain and the water draining from the road's high camber, were soft and soggy. Robin went full length into this muss with a thud that shook every bone in his body. His left leg, catching in a bare gorse-bush, acted as a brake and stopped him from rolling farther. He sat up, his mouth full of mud and his hair full of wet leaves, and felt himself carefully over. He contemplated rather ruefully a long rent in the left leg of his trousers just across the knee.

"Jeekes!" he murmured; "he pushed me out! The dirty dog!"

Then he remembered that, with the men in the car gone, he had lost trace again of Mary Trevert. His forcible ejection from the car was evidence enough of their determination to deal with Mary without interference from outside. It looked ominous. Robin sprang to his feet and rushed to the middle of the road.

The chaussée was absolutely empty. About a hundred yards from where he stood in the direction in which the car had been travelling the road made a sharp bend to the right, thus curtailing his view. Robin did not hesitate. Not waiting to retrieve his hat or even to wipe the mud from his face, he started off at a brisk run along the road in the direction in which the car had disappeared. He had not gone far before he found that his heavy overcoat was seriously impeding him. He stripped it off and, folding it, hid it beneath a bush just inside the plantation. Then he ran on again.

Fresh disappointment awaited him when he rounded the bend in the road. A few hundred yards on the road turned again. There was no sign of the car. A cart piled high with manure was approaching, the driver, wearing wooden shoes and cracking at intervals a huge whip, trudging at the side.

Robin stopped him.

"Motor-car? Automobile?" he asked pointing in the direction from which the cart had come. The driver stared at him with a look of owlish stupidity.

"Automobile?" repeated Robin. "Tuff-Tuff?"

Very slowly a grin suffused the carter's grimy face. He showed a row of broken black teeth. A tiny stream of saliva escaped from the corner of his mouth and trickled over the reddish stubble on his chin. Then he continued his way, turning his head every now and then to display his idiot's grin.

"Damnation!" exclaimed Robin, starting to run again. "Not a soul to ask in this accursed desert except the village idiot! Oh! that Jeekes! I'll wring his blinking neck when I get hold of him!"

He was furious with himself for the abject way in which he had been fooled. The man Victor had given Jeekes his orders in Dutch and had purposely picked a soft spot on the roadside and slowed down the car in order that the unwelcome intruder might be ejected as safely as possible. And to think that Robin had blandly allowed Jeekes to open the door and throw him out on the road!

He was round the second bend now. The sun was shining with a quite respectable warmth and the steamy air made him desperately hot. The perspiration rolled off his face. But he never slackened his gait. Robin knew these Continental roads and their habit of running straight. He reckoned confidently on presently coming upon a long stretch where he might discern the car.

He was not deceived. After the second bend the chaussée, just as he anticipated, straightened out and ran clear away between an ever-narrowing double line of poplars to become a bluish blob on the horizon. But of the car nothing was to be seen.

For the second time Robin pulled up. He took serious counsel with himself. He estimated that he could see for about three miles along the road. Less than three minutes had elapsed since his misadventure, and therefore he was confident that the car should yet be in sight, unless it had left the road, for it could not have warmed up to a speed exceeding sixty miles an hour in the time. There was no sign of the car on the road, consequently it must have left it. Robin had passed no side roads between the scene of the accident and the second bend; therefore, he argued, he had the car before him still. He would go on.

When he started off for the third time, it was at a brisk walking pace. As he went he kept a sharp lookout to right and left of the road for any trace of the car. It never occurred to him that to follow on foot a swift car bound for an unknown destination was the maddest kind of wild-goose chase. He was profoundly uneasy about Mary, but at the same time immeasurably angered by the trick played upon him--angered not so much against Jeekes as against the sallow-faced man whom he recognized as its inceptor. He had no thought for anything else.

The flat Dutch landscape stretched away on either side of the road. A windmill or two, the inevitable irrigation canals with their little sluices, and an occasional tree alone broke the monotony of the scene. But away to the right Robin noticed a clump of trees which, he surmised, might conceivably enclose a house.

As he walked, he scrutinized the roadway for any track of a car. But on the hard brick pavé wheels left no mark. The first side road he came to was likewise paved in brick. In grave perplexity Robin came to a halt.

Then his eye fell upon a puddle. It lay on the edge of the footpath bordering the chaussée about five yards beyond the turning. The soft mud which skirted it showed the punched-out pattern of a studded tyre! The car had not taken this side road, at any rate. It had probably pulled over on to the footpath to pass the manure cart which Robin had met. He pushed on again valiantly.

Another hundred yards brought him to a second side road. There was no pavé here, but a soft sandy surface. And it bore, clearly imprinted in the mud, the fresh tracks of a car as it had turned off the road.

Breaking into a run Robin followed the track down the turning. It led him to a black gate beyond which was a twisting gravel drive fringed with high laurels. And the gravel showed the same tyre marks as the road.

He vaulted the gate lightly and ran up the drive. He was revolving in his head what his next move should be. Should he walk boldly into the house and confront Jeekes and his rascally looking companion or should he first spy out the ground and try to ascertain whether Mary had arrived? He decided on the latter course.

Accordingly, when an unexpected turn of the drive brought him in view of a white porch, he left the avenue and took cover behind the laurel bushes. Walking softly on the wet grass and keeping well down behind the laurels, he went forward parallel with the drive. It ran into a clean courtyard with a coachhouse or garage on one side and a small green door, seemingly a side entrance into the house, on the other.

There was no one in the courtyard and the house seemed perfectly quiet. From his post of observation behind the laurels, Robin observed that a tall window beside the green door commanded the view across the courtyard. He therefore retraced his steps by the way he had come. When he was past the corner of the house, he returned to the drive and keeping close to the bushes walked quietly into the courtyard. There, hugging the wall, he crept round past the closed doors of the garage until he found himself beside the tall window adjoining the green door.

The window was open a few inches at the top. From within the sound of voices reached him. Jeekes was speaking. Robin recognized his rather grating voice at once.

"... no more violence," he was saying; "first Greve and now the girl. I don't like your methods, Victor ..."

Very cautiously Robin dropped on one knee and shuffled forward in this position until his eyes were on a level with the window-sill. He found himself looking into a narrow room, well lighted by a second window at the farther end. It was apparently an office, for there was a high desk running down the centre and a large safe occupied a prominent place against the wall.

Jeekes and the man Victor stood chatting at the desk. The yellow-faced man was grinning sardonically.

"Parrish don't like your methods, I'll be bound," he retorted. "Don't you worry about the little lady, Jeekes! Bless your heart, I won't hurt her unless ..."

The loud throbbing of a car at the front of the house made Robin duck his head hastily. The car, he guessed, might be round at the garage any moment and it would not do for him to be discovered. He got clear of the window, rose to his feet, and tiptoed round the house by the way he had come. Then he crossed the drive and regained the shelter of the laurels. Crawling along until he came level with the porch, he peeped through.

Mary Trevert was just entering the house.