Chapter XXX. A Strange Commission
 

Robert Westcote did not go to his luncheon the day of Lois' visit to the city. He intended to go but was unexpectedly detained. He had been very busy all the morning in his office. His lawyer had been with him for some time, and when he was at last alone he turned his attention to a type-written manuscript lying on the desk before him. This consisted of several sheets of legal paper, attached to which was an official seal which had been recently broken. This was the third time that Mr. Westcote had read it and when he was through he sat for a while in deep thought. He paid no attention to the click of the typewriters in the adjoining room, and so engrossed was he that he did not at first hear a tap upon the office door. When it was repeated, he started from his reverie and called to the visitor to enter, thinking that perhaps it was one of the clerks. It was not his habit to be caught off guard, for he prided himself upon his alertness and strict attention to every business detail.

The office door slowly opened, and instead of a clerk, there stood before him a man dressed in rough working clothes. He recognised him at once as one of the men employed at the falls, and whom he had met on several occasions. It was Mr. Westcote's kindness and courtesy which always won for him the hearty support of his employees. They knew that they would receive justice and consideration at his hands and that he did not look upon them with contempt and as inferior beings. Mr. Westcote at once arose from his chair and held out his hand.

"Why, Dobbins," he exclaimed, "this is a surprise. I did not know you were in the city. How are things going on at the falls? Nothing wrong, I hope? Sit down, please," and he motioned him to a chair.

"The work is going on all right, sir," Dobbins replied, as he took the offered seat. "But I have come to see you, sir, on very important business. It has troubled me so much that I have not been able to sleep ever since Randall was arrested."

"Oh, I see, it has to do with that murder case, has it?" Mr. Westcote asked, now greatly interested.

"I wouldn't like to say that, sir," and Dobbins twirled his hat in his hands. "But it might throw some light upon the matter. You see, somebody killed old David. That's certain, isn't it?"

Mr. Westcote nodded his assent.

"Well, if you knew for sure that somebody had tried to but a short time before, it would make you rather suspicious of that somebody, wouldn't it?"

"I should say so!" Mr. Westcote exclaimed. "But do you know of any one who made the attempt, Dobbins?"

"You can judge of that, sir, when you hear what I have to say. It was this way. The day of the big wind I was sent to the shore to get a piece of mill belting, which was to come from the city on the afternoon boat. I had almost reached the brow of logs on the edge of the clearing when I stopped to get a drink from that little spring by the side of the road. I sat down for a minute or two under the shade of a small thick fir tree to fill my pipe, when happening to glance to my left I saw a man running up the road. I at once saw it was that artist fellow, and curious to know what he was running for I moved back a little behind the fir so's he couldn't see me. He stopped right by the logs and peered down the bank. Then he looked cautiously around and, picking up a stick, he pried loose one of the logs lying on top, and which was almost ready to go anyway. As soon as he had done this, he dropped the stick and ran like a streak of lightning down the road, and that was the last I saw of him."

"Well?" Mr. Westcote questioned as Dobbins paused and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with a big red handkerchief.

"This is the part, sir, which I am ashamed to tell," the man continued. "I heard the crash of that log down the bank and the splash in the water. Then there fell upon my ears a shriek of terror. I knew it was a woman's voice and I leaped from my hiding place and peeked down the bank. And there I saw old David and that girl Betty Bean standing there frightened almost out of their senses. Say, I wasn't long getting back under cover again, for I knew that if they saw me they would say for sure that I had rolled that log down the bank on purpose. I didn't dare to go to the shore on the road so I cut up through the woods and came out another way. I didn't dare to say a word about it for fear I might get into trouble. But when young Randall, who is a chap we all think a lot of, was arrested for the murder of that old man I couldn't sleep a wink. If that artist fellow tried to kill old David once he would try again, and put the blame off on some one else. At last I could stand it no longer and so made up my mind to tell you all I know. You can judge now, sir, for yourself."

Mr. Westcote was greatly excited at this story, though outwardly he remained very calm. Twice during the narration he had glanced at the manuscript lying upon the desk, and once he had reached out his hand as if to pick it up. For a few seconds he remained silent when the story was ended. Then he rose to his feet and reached out his hand.

"Dobbins," he began, "I wish to thank you for what you have told me to-day. You have done a good deed by thus unburdening your mind. Will you be willing to swear to what you have just told me?"

"Swear! Indeed I will. I'll swear on a dozen Bibles any time and anywhere."

"That's good," Mr. Westcote replied, as he bade him good-day. "We shall need you before long, if I'm not much mistaken, so be ready."

Dobbins had scarcely left the office when Lois and Margaret arrived.

"My, how the morning has gone!" Mr. Westcote remarked as he greeted Lois with a hearty shake of the hand. "I suppose we had better get down to business at once, as no doubt you wish to go home this afternoon. I hope you will pardon my sending for you and giving you all this trouble."

"I do not mind in the least," Lois replied, "for I am sure it has something to do with the murder, and I am so anxious to learn whether you have found out anything new."

"Only something this morning, Miss Sinclair, which may be of considerable value. I trust that we may unearth more in a few days."

"Oh, don't wait for a few days, Mr. Westcote," Lois pleaded. "You must act at once, this very afternoon, if the criminal is to be caught."

"How can we, Miss Sinclair," was the reply, "when we are not sure who the real criminal is?"

"But I know, and I think you will agree with me when I tell you my story. Listen."

Lois then related what she had heard from Andy Forbes and Betty Bean. She told her story well and Mr. Westcote was keenly interested not only in what she told him, but in the animated look in her eyes and the varying shades of expression which passed over her fair face. He considered Jasper a lucky fellow in having such a beautiful woman striving so hard for his release.

When Lois had finished, Mr. Westcote turned to his desk and drew the telephone toward him.

"What you tell me, Miss Sinclair," he said, "is very valuable, and I must see my lawyer at once. Excuse me a moment."

After he had called up the lawyer and asked him to come at once to his office, he hung up the receiver and sat for a few seconds lost in deep thought.

"Yes, we had better do it at once," he remarked as if to himself. "It will not do to run any risk."

"Do what, Father?" Margaret enquired.

"Have that Bramshaw detained. I have received some additional information to-day, and with what Miss Sinclair has just told me it should be enough to arrest any man. Now, I must come to the question I wish to speak to you about," and he turned to Lois. "You have told me your story and in return I shall relate one perhaps of a more startling nature."

"In connection with this same affair?" Lois eagerly asked.

"It has a direct bearing upon it. It has to do with the mystery which has been surrounding the life of old David."

"And does it clear it up?"

"Wait, please, until I am through, and you can judge for yourself," Mr. Westcote smilingly told her.

"I shall be as patient as Job," Lois replied, as she settled herself in her chair as comfortably as possible.

"My story might seem strange to you," Mr. Westcote began. "In fact, it has always seemed strange to me, and sometimes I think that I shall wake up and find it nothing more than a dream. Well, without going into details, which would not interest you, it is sufficient to say that I came to this country over two years ago on one of the strangest commissions ever given to man. I was handed two sealed papers numbered 1 and 2, with strict orders to break the seal of paper Number 1 only upon my arrival in Canada, and then I should find my instructions in reference to Number 2."

"What were the instructions?" Lois eagerly asked, as Mr. Westcote paused for a few seconds as if considering how to proceed.

"That will come later," he replied. "I must tell you about Number 1 first. You promised to be patient, you know."

"Excuse me, I know I did," Lois smilingly confessed, as she glanced at Margaret, whose eyes were twinkling with amusement.

"I was naturally anxious to know what my orders were," Mr. Westcote continued, "and shortly after my arrival here, I broke the seal of Number 1. Then I learned that I was to search for an old man who was living in this country under the name of David Findley. No effort or expense was to be spared. Money would be provided without stint through one of the city banks. When the old man was found he was to be kept in complete ignorance of the fact that I had been searching for him. The hard part was that I should undertake to assist him in such a way that he should not have the slightest idea that anything was being done on his behalf. There was not to be the least semblance of charity, and whatever was done for him had to appear to be the natural payment for value received. If the old man had any special hobby or scheme, no matter how wild, so long as it was legitimate, I was to undertake to see that it should be carried out, no matter what the expense. If the scheme proved feasible, so much the better, and strict business methods were to be used to make it pay. But if not, the old man's every lawful wish was to be gratified. One of the strict instructions was that he should be induced as soon as possible to make his will. This was to be done in such a way as to arouse no suspicion, but that he should consider it as a matter of business detail, so that his fond scheme, or whatever it might be, would not suffer in case of his death.

"You can readily understand, Miss Sinclair, the magnitude of the undertaking. At first I thought that I had been made the victim of a madman, and was tempted to return to England at once, and have nothing to do with the affair. But the amount of money placed at my disposal in the bank settled all scruples and started me forth upon my strange quest. I even began to enjoy the adventure of the whole thing, and the mystery attached to it lured me on. I searched far and wide for David Findley and at last, owing to an accident to my auto, located him at Creekdale, living as a pauper. By the description given in paper Number 1 I knew that he was the man for whom I had been searching. After that, matters moved along very smoothly. He had a fond scheme, too, which served my purpose splendidly. He was wrapped up in the idea of converting the water of Break Neck Falls into light and power for the benefit of the entire community. I consulted with the best engineers, and they said the scheme was most feasible, and so we began work. David was paid a sum of money for his plans, which satisfied him, and he was made Honorary President of a company which has never really existed. The money at my disposal made everything easy. You know the rest, and why should I go further into details? It would be unnecessary for me to tell you of the faithful and excellent work of Mr. Randall. He has been of great assistance to me, and without his aid my task would have been much harder than it has been."

When Mr. Westcote paused Lois looked enquiringly into his face.

"May I speak now?" she asked. "I have been very patient, have I not?"

"Indeed you have, Miss Sinclair," and Mr. Westcote smiled. "You may ask anything you like."

"Surely you have not told me all. I thought you had merely begun when you stopped. Who was David Findley, anyway, and what does paper Number 2 contain? I am most curious to know the end of this strange story."

"Oh, I forgot to tell you a very important thing," and Mr. Westcote laughed. "My instructions in paper Number 1 told me not to open Number 2 until after the old man's death. Then I should learn all about him and the mystery of my strange commission would be solved."

"Do you know yet?" Lois eagerly asked. "Have you broken the seal?"

"Yes, I broke it this morning, and have read the contents of the paper three times. I am going to read it to you now, for that will be better than if I tell it to you in my own words."