Chapter XII
 

Mr. Briggerland, it seemed, had some other object in life than the regeneration of the criminal classes. He was a sociologist--a loose title which covers a great deal of inquisitive investigation into other people's affairs. Moreover, he had published a book on the subject. His name was on the title page and the book had been reviewed to his credit; though in truth he did no more than suggest the title, the work in question having been carried out by a writer on the subject who, for a consideration, had allowed Mr. Briggerland to adopt the child of his brain.

On a morning when pale yellow sunlight brightened his dining-room, Mr. Briggerland put down his newspaper and looked across the table at his daughter. He had a club in the East End of London and his manager had telephoned that morning sending a somewhat unhappy report.

"Do you remember that man Talmot, my dear?" he asked.

She nodded, and looked up quickly.

"Yes, what about him?"

"He's in hospital," said Mr. Briggerland. "I fear that he and Hoggins were engaged in some nefarious plan and that in making an attempt to enter--as, of course, they had no right to enter--a block of flats in Cavendish Place, poor Talmot slipped and fell from the fourth floor window-sill, breaking his leg. Hoggins had to carry him to hospital."

The girl reached for bacon from the hot plate.

"He should have broken his neck," she said calmly. "I suppose now the police are making tender inquiries?"

"No, no," Mr. Briggerland hastened to assure her. "Nobody knows anything about it, not even the--er--fortunate occupant of the flat they were evidently trying to burgle. I only learnt of it because the manager of the club, who gets information of this character, thought I would be interested."

"Anyway I'm glad they didn't succeed," said Jean after a while. "The possibility of their trying rather worried me. The Hoggins type is such a bungler that it was almost certain they would fail."

It was a curious fact that whilst her father made the most guarded references to all their exploits and clothed them with garments of euphemism, his daughter never attempted any such disguise. The psychologist would find in Mr. Briggerland's reticence the embryo of a once dominant rectitude, no trace of which remained in his daughter's moral equipment.

"I have been trying to place this man Jaggs," she went on with a little puzzled frown, "and he completely baffles me. He arrives every night in a taxicab, sometimes from St. Pancras, sometimes from Euston, sometimes from London Bridge Station."

"Do you think he is a detective?"

"I don't know," she said thoughtfully. "If he is, he has been imported from the provinces. He is not a Scotland Yard man. He may, of course, be an old police pensioner, and I have been trying to trace him from that source."

"It should not be difficult to find out all about him," said Mr. Briggerland easily. "A man with his afflictions should be pretty well-known."

He looked at his watch.

"My appointment at Norwood is at eleven o'clock," he said. He made a little grimace of disgust.

"Would you rather I went?" asked the girl.

Mr. Briggerland would much rather that she had undertaken the disagreeable experience which lay before him, but he dare not confess as much.

"You, my dear? Of course not! I would not allow you to have such an experience. No, no, I don't mind it a bit."

Nevertheless, he tossed down two long glasses of brandy before he left.

His car set him down before the iron gates of a squat and ugly stucco building, surrounded by high walls, and the uniformed attendant, having examined his credentials, admitted him. He had to wait a little while before a second attendant arrived to conduct him to the medical superintendent, an elderly man who did not seem overwhelmed with joy at the honour Mr. Briggerland was paying him.

"I'm sorry I shan't be able to show you round, Mr. Briggerland," he said. "I have an engagement in town, but my assistant, Dr. Carew, will conduct you over the asylum and give you all the information you require. This, of course, as you know, is a private institution. I should have thought you would have got more material for your book in one of the big public asylums. The people who are sent to Norwood, you know, are not the mild cases, and you will see some rather terrible sights. You are prepared for that?"

Mr. Briggerland nodded. He was prepared to the extent of two full noggins of brandy. Moreover, he was well aware that Norwood was the asylum to which the more dangerous of lunatics were transferred.

Dr. Carew proved to be a young and enthusiastic alienist whose heart and soul was in his work.

"I suppose you are prepared to see jumpy things," he said with a smile, as he conducted Mr. Briggerland along a stone-vaulted corridor.

He opened a steel gate, the bars of which were encased with thick layers of rubber, crossed a grassy plot (there were no stone-flagged paths at Norwood) and entered one of the three buildings which constituted the asylum proper.

It was a harrowing, heart-breaking, and to some extent, a disappointing experience for Mr. Briggerland. True, his heart did not break, because it was made of infrangible material, and his disappointment was counter-balanced by a certain vague relief.

At the end of two hours' inspection they were standing out on the big playing fields, watching the less violent of the patients wandering aimlessly about. Except one, they were unattended by keepers, but in the case of this one man, two stalwart uniformed men walked on either side of him.

"Who is he?" asked Briggerland.

"That is rather a sad case," said the alienist cheerfully. He had pointed out many "sad cases" in the same bright manner. "He's a doctor and a genuine homicide. Luckily they detected him before he did any mischief or he would have been in Broadmoor."

"Aren't you ever afraid of these men escaping?" asked Mr. Briggerland.

"You asked that before," said the doctor in surprise. "No. You see, an insane asylum is not like a prison; to make a good get-away from prison you have to have outside assistance. Nobody wants to help a lunatic escape, otherwise it would be easier than getting out of prison, because we have no patrols in the grounds, the wards can be opened from the outside without a key and the night patrol who visits the wards every half-hour has no time for any other observation. Would you like to talk to Dr. Thun?"

Mr. Briggerland hesitated only for a second.

"Yes," he said huskily.

There was nothing in the appearance of the patient to suggest that he was in any way dangerous. A fair, bearded man, with pale blue eyes, he held out his hand impulsively to the visitor, and after a momentary hesitation, Mr. Briggerland took it and found his hand in a grip like a vice. The two attendants exchanged glances with the asylum doctor and strolled off.

"I think you can talk to him without fear," said the doctor in a low voice, not so low, however, that the patient did not hear it, for he laughed.

"Without fear, favour or prejudice, eh? Yes, that was how they swore the officers at my court martial."

"The doctor was the general who was responsible for the losses at Caperetto," explained Dr. Carew. "That was where the Italians lost so heavily."

Thun nodded.

"Of course, I was perfectly innocent," he explained to Briggerland seriously, and taking the visitor's arm he strolled across the field, the doctor and the two attendants following at a distance. Mr. Briggerland breathed a little more quickly as he felt the strength of the patient's biceps.

"My conviction," said Dr. Thun seriously, "was due to the fact that women were sitting on the court martial, which is, of course, against all regulations."

"Certainly," murmured Mr. Briggerland.

"Keeping me here," Thun went on, "is part of the plot of the Italian government. Naturally, they do not wish me to get at my enemies, who I have every reason to believe are in London."

Mr. Briggerland drew a long breath.

"They are in London," he said a little hoarsely. "I happen to know where they are."

"Really?" said the other easily, and then a cloud passed over his face and he shook his head.

"They are safe from my vengeance," he said a little sadly. "As long as they keep me in this place pretending that I am mad, there is no possible chance for me."

The visitor looked round and saw that the three men who were following were out of ear shot.

"Suppose I came to-morrow night," he said, lowering his voice, "and helped you to get away? What is your ward?"

"No. 6," said the other in the same tone. His eyes were blazing.

"Do you think you will remember?" asked Briggerland.

Thun nodded.

"You will come to-morrow night--No. 6, the first cubicle on the left," he whispered, "you will not fail me? If I thought you'd fail me----" His eyes lit up again.

"I shall not fail you," said Mr. Briggerland hastily. "When the clock strikes twelve you may expect me."

"You must be Marshal Foch," murmured Thun, and then with all a madman's cunning, changed the conversation as the doctor and attendants, who had noticed his excitement, drew nearer. "Believe me, Mr. Briggerland," he went on airily, "the strategy of the Allies was at fault until I took up the command of the army...."

Ten minutes later Mr. Briggerland was in his car driving homeward, a little breathless, more than a little terrified at the unpleasant task he had set himself; jubilant, too, at his amazing success.

Jean had said he might have to visit a dozen asylums before he found his opportunity and the right man, and he had succeeded at the first attempt. Yet--he shuddered at the picture he conjured--that climb over the high wall (he had already located the ward, for he had followed the General and the attendants and had seen him safely put away), the midnight association with a madman....

He burst in upon Jean with his news.

"At the first attempt, my dear, what do you think of that?" His dark face glowed with almost childish pride, and she looked at him with a half-smile.

"I thought you would," she said quietly. "That's the rough work done, at any rate."

"The rough work!" he said indignantly.

She nodded.

"Half the difficulty is going to be to cover up your visit to the asylum, because this man is certain to mention your name, and it will not all be dismissed as the imagination of a madman. Now I think I will make my promised call upon Mrs. Meredith."