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    Chapter 67

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    Chapter 67
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    The End of Hamon

    Welling was going out to lunch when she arrived, and he met her literally on the doorstep.

    "I must see you, Captain Welling, at once," she said. "It is vitally important."

    "Come back to my room," he said kindly. "You look ill, Lydia."

    "I am distracted. I don't know what I shall do," she said, her voice trembling.

    In his room he poured her a glass of water, and waited until she was sufficiently composed to tell him the object of her visit.

    "It is about Ralph," she said. "He was here this morning?"

    The old man nodded with a rueful smile.

    "He was here, and he emerged with flying colours," he said. "If it was a bluff, it was the cleverest bluff I've met with. You have seen him since?"

    She nodded.

    "He came back to the house, and I haven't seen him so buoyant in years. He asked me if I would like to go to Paris, and gave me a cheque. Here it is."

    She handed him the cheque and the detective took it and read, and when he had read, he whistled. For the sum which Ralph Hamon had drawn was a million pounds!

    "What is that?" he asked, seeing the envelope in the girl's hand. It was addressed to him, he saw. "From your brother?" he asked with a frown.

    She nodded, and, tearing open the envelope, he extracted a second cheque, which was also for a million pounds.

    Welling bit his lip.

    "That looks pretty bad to me," he said. "Where is he now?"

    "He's gone off to see Joan. He called her his wife," said the girl.

    She was crying softly, and he put his arm around her shoulder and patted her cheek.

    "You're going to have a bad time for a while, Lydia," he said, "and I am going to help you all I know how. You must stay at an hotel to-night, and not your maid or any of your servants must know where you are. Come and lunch."

    She protested that she had no appetite, but he insisted, and did not leave her until he had carried her bag into the vestibule of the Grand Central and handed her over to the especial care of the hotel detective.

    He had come so far in a taxicab, but a big police car was waiting for him, with three men from police headquarters.

    Jim was practising with a golf club on the lawn when the car arrived.

    "A queer occupation," said Welling, for the snow lay thick everywhere.

    "If you dip a gold ball in ink----" began Jim lightly, when he caught sight of the car's three half-frozen men who were huddled in its depths. "Come inside, Welling," he said. "What is the trouble?"

    "There is trouble for somebody, and I'm not quite sure who it is going to be," said Welling.

    He told all he knew, related the incident of the cheques, and Jim listened in silence.

    "I am putting two men at Creith House. You had better put up the other here."

    Jim shook his head.

    "Let the three go to Creith House," he said. "I can look after myself. Has he left London?"

    Welling nodded.

    "He had a car in a garage--a public garage--near by. Unfortunately, I was not able to trace that until it was too late. This afternoon he took it out, and since then he has not been seen."

    Snow was falling heavily when the police car turned through the gates of Creith House and made a slow and noisy way up the drive. Lord Creith watched the arrival from the dining-room window, and came to the door to meet them. At the first sight of Welling his face fell.

    "There is going to be bother," he said fretfully. "You stormy old petrel!"

    They were glad to get into the warmth and cosiness of the library, for it was bitterly cold and the snow was freezing as it fell.

    "Who are you after?" asked Creith anxiously. "Not Hamon?"

    Welling nodded.

    "Hamon it is. He is in England, and probably not four miles from Creith," he said, and his lordship looked serious.

    "Where is Joan?" asked Welling.

    "She is out," said Creith. "Mrs. Cornford asked her to go down to lunch at the cottage."

    Welling shook his head reprovingly.

    "From now on, until this man is under lock and key, she must not be allowed out alone," he said. "Somebody ought to go and bring her back."

    But Jim was already on his way. He ploughed knee-deep through the icy covering, and, finding that the short cut to the cottage would in the end be the longest way, he struggled back to the drive and followed the wall path. Here he found the tracks of Joan; the impress of her rubber boots was plain, and he felt a little thrill of satisfaction in this evidence of her nearness.

    Then, for no apparent reason, the footprints turned to the right, entering the deeper snow that had drifted about a clump of bushes. With an exclamation of surprise, he followed them. They led him deeper and deeper into the snow, until they turned again and disappeared.

    He peered into the bushes but could see no sign of her. Crushing his way between the snow-covered boughs, he found a comparatively clear space where the grass showed. But there was no sign of Joan. She must have gone out somewhere, and he pushed his way clear of the bushes, to find her tracks leading to the path again.

    He stood with a frown on his forehead, puzzling out her eccentric movements. And then he saw another set of footprints which were obviously recent, for the falling snow had not yet obliterated them. They were fairly small, and the toes were pointed. He gasped--Hamon! The girl must have seen him coming along the path, and then flown on to her destination.

    He turned back, this time following Hamon's tracks. There were two sets: one going toward Creith House and the other returning; and presently he found the place where the man had turned. Jim unbuttoned his overcoat and took from his pocket the little black automatic, and slipped it into his overcoat; and then, hurrying as fast as the snow would allow him, he made for the gardener's cottage, all the time keeping his eyes upon the footprints.

    At the end of the path the two sets branched off--Joan's toward the cottage. He ran up the cottage path, and a glance at the house told him that something unusual had happened. The shutters were drawn in every room. He knocked at the door, and, receiving no answer, knocked again more loudly.

    "Are you there, Mrs. Cornford?" he called, and he thought he heard a creaking sound inside, and flung himself against the door.

    It shook under his weight, and an agonised voice called:

    "If you open the door, I will shoot you."

    It was the voice of Joan!

    "It is I, Joan," he called eagerly. "Look through the key-hole--it is Jim!"

    He walked back half-a-dozen paces in order to give her a clear view, and, as he did so, he felt his hat jerked violently from his head. That and the crack of the explosion came together, and he spun round to face the danger. Nobody was in sight.

    And then the door of the cottage opened.

    "Keep inside," he cried. "For God's sake don't come out."

    Ping!

    The bullet struck the wall of the cottage with a snap, and, running, he gained the shelter of the passage and slammed the door.

    "Oh, I'm so glad!" sobbed the girl distraitly. "Oh, Jim, I'm frightened--frightened! I saw him in the grounds," she went on, when he had soothed her.

    "And you hid in the bushes--I followed your tracks. He didn't see you?"

    She shook her head.

    "Not until I was nearly at the cottage, and then he ran after me. Mrs. Cornford had seen him, and had put up her shutters. It is Hamon, isn't it?"

    Jim nodded.

    The shutters operated from inside the house, and he gently raised the lower half of one and peered out. He had hardly done so before a bullet smashed the window, tore a long, jagged hole in the wooden shutter, and temporarily numbed his hand with the shock.

    "I think we had better wait," he said. "Welling will have heard the shots. Our only hope is that friend Hamon guesses, by my hasty retreat, that I am unarmed, and comes to close quarters."

    "Have you no weapon?" she asked anxiously.

    He produced a little pistol.

    "Only this," he said, "which is comparatively useless except at short range. It is, in fact," he smiled, "the weapon with which I have terrified night watchmen and unfortunate banking officials these ten years past."

    He had rightly estimated the effect of his precipitate flight upon the cunning madman who was glaring at the house from behind the cover of a wood pile. Hamon knew that Jim Morlake would not fly into the house if he had a gun handy; and he knew, too, that the sound of the shooting must soon bring assistance. Already a curious and fearful knot of children had gathered in the middle of the street at a respectful distance, and if he were to accomplish his great revenge, and bring to fruition a plan that had occupied his mind for the past three months, he must move quickly.

    He sprang from his place of concealment and ran across the cottage garden; and, as he expected, he drew no fire from the house. He looked round for something he could use as a battering-ram, and his eyes returned to the wood pile, and going back, he picked up a heavy branch and brought it to the door. The whole cottage seemed to shake under the impact of the ram, and Jim, watching from the passage, knew that the lock would not stand another blow.

    "Keep back," he warned the girl in a whisper, and slipped through the door which led from the passage into the room where Farringdon had lost his life.

    Again Hamon struck, and the lock broke with a crash. In another second, Hamon had pushed open the door, and, gun in hand, had stepped in. He saw the open doorway and guessed who stood there.

    "Come out, Morlake!" he screamed. "Come out, you dog!"

    He fired at the lintel, and the bullet ricochetted past Jim's face. Jim was waiting for the second shot, and when it came he leapt out, his little black pistol levelled.

    Before Hamon could fire, Jim pressed the trigger. There was no explosion. Only from the muzzle of the black "gun" shot with terrific force a white spray of noxious vapour. It struck the would-be murderer in the face, and with a choking gasp he fell heavily to the floor.

    Jim's eyes were watering, he himself found it difficult to breathe, and he came back for a moment to the girl, who held her handkerchief to her mouth.

    "Open the windows," he ordered quickly, and then went back to the unconscious man, just as Welling and his men came flying up the path.

    "It isn't pleasant, is it?" said Jim, eyeing his stubby gun with a smile. "It has never carried a cartridge, because it isn't built that way. It throws a spray of pure ammonia vapour, and throws it a considerable distance."

    It was necessary to put the maniac into a strait-jacket before he could be moved to the nearest lock-up, and they did not see Welling again until he came to Creith House late that afternoon, weary and bedraggled, but with a look of triumph in his eyes.

    "Well," he said, speaking to the company in general but addressing Jim, "I have discovered the mystery is not such a mystery after all. And why I did not hit upon the solution as soon as I heard and knew that you were burgling banks and strong rooms in order to secure a document which would incriminate Ralph Hamon, I cannot for the life of me understand. Maybe I am getting old and dull."

    "I am too," said the girl, "for it certainly puzzles me."

    Lord Creith stretched his hands to the blazing warmth, rubbed them together and ruminated profoundly.

    "I give it up too--our American friend must explain. But perhaps you have the document, Welling?"

    Captain Welling smiled.

    "It is here," he said, and produced Ralph Hamon's pocket-book. "It seemed incredible to me that Hamon should carry about with him a statement written by his victim that would most inevitably bring him to the gallows if it ever was produced in a court of law."

    "Then why the devil didn't he burn it?" asked Lord Creith irritably, and for answer Welling produced the document.

    Lord Creith read it through with a frown.

    "He could have burnt this----" he began.

    "Turn it over," said Welling quietly, and Creith obeyed.

    He stared for a moment at the engraved letters on the other side.

    "Good God!" he said.

    The statement was written on the back of a Bank of England note for £100,000.

    "He could have burnt it," said Jim, "but his natural cupidity would not allow him to destroy so much money. He dared not pay it into the bank; he could not bring himself to do away with the evidence of his guilt. When I found John Cornford, he was dying, and the first name I heard was that of Ralph Hamon, whom I had met once in Tangier and knew to be a shady customer. And then I recognised in the sailor the mysterious visitor that Hamon had had some months before. Little by little, I learnt from the half-sane man the story of Hamon's villainy. In order that he might not be wronged, Cornford had changed all his money into one note of a hundred thousand pounds. I was able to trace that at the bank, and even if Hamon had presented it for payment, it would have been stopped. The monkey and the gourd," he mused; "he could not let go of his treasure and he was caught."

    * * * * * * *

    On a bitterly cold day in January, when the whole country was ice-bound, and rivers which had never known obstruction were frozen from bank to bank, Jim Morlake and Joan Carston came out of Creith parish church, man and wife. They left that afternoon by car for London, and it was Joan's wish that they should make a détour through Ascot.

    "You are sure you don't mind, Jim?" she asked for the tenth time, as the car was rolling swiftly along the frozen Bagshot Road.

    "Why, of course not, honey. It is very dear of you."

    "He was a boy, just a silly, romantic boy, who had held such promise of a big career, and I feel that this--this ruined him."

    She was thinking of Ferdinand Farringdon, and Jim understood. They halted near the place where the black pines hid the little church in the wood, and she handed a great bunch of lilies to Jim as he got out of the car.

    "Lay them on the altar, Jim," she said, and he nodded and slammed the door tight.

    The cold was phenomenal: it struck through his fur-lined coat and made his fingers tingle. How different it was in winter, he thought! And yet the chapel in the wood had a beauty of its own, even on this drear day. As he turned to cross, he stood looking, and then he saw the figure crouched against the steps--a bundle of rags that bore no semblance to anything human. He ran forward and looked down into the cold, grey face, strangely beautiful in death. What freak impulse brought Bannockwaite to the door of the church he had built, there to die in the cold night?

    Jim looked round: there was nobody in sight, and, stooping, he laid the lilies on the dead man's stiffened hands, and, bareheaded, walked back to the car.

    THE END.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *
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