It was half-past eleven on the night of Wednesday, April 14th, when the well- known red limousine of Mr. Maverick Narkom, superintendent of Scotland Yard, came abruptly to the head of Mulberry Lane, which, as you may possibly know, is a narrow road skirting one of the loneliest and wildest portions o_imbledon Common.
Lennard, the chauffeur, put on the brake with such suddenness that the ca_eemed actually to rise from the earth, performed a sort of buzzing an_norting semicircle, and all but collided with the rear wall of Wutherin_range before coming to a halt in the narrow road space which lay between tha_all and the tree-fringed edge of the great Common.
Under ordinary circumstances one might as soon have expected to run foul of _pecimen of the great auk rearing a family in St. Paul's churchyard, as t_ind Mr. Narkom's limousine in the neighbourhood of Mulberry Lane at any hou_f the day or the night throughout the whole cycle of the year.
For a reason which will be made clear in the course of events, however, th_uperintendent had been persuaded to go considerably out of his way befor_eturning to town after mingling duty with pleasure in taking part in th_estivities attendant upon the coming of age of his friend Sir Phili_lavering's son and heir, and, incidentally, in seeing, too, that Petrie an_ammond, two of his sergeants, kept a watchful eye upon the famous Claverin_ervice of gold plate which had been brought out of the bank vault for th_ccasion.
All three were sitting serenely back among the cushions of the limousine a_he period when Lennard brought it to this abrupt and startling halt, th_esult of which was to fairly jerk them out of their seats and send the_prawling over one another in a struggling heap.
There was a moment of something like absolute confusion, for mist and darknes_nveloped both the road and the Common, and none of the three could se_nything from the windows of the car which might decide whether they ha_ollided with some obstruction or were hovering upon the brink of som_angerous and unexpected pitfall.
Nor were their fears lessened by perceiving—through the glass screen—tha_ennard had started up from his seat, and, with a hastily produced electri_orch in one upraised hand, was leaning forward and wildly endeavouring t_iscern something through the all-enfolding mist. Mr. Narkom hastily unlatche_he door and leaned out.
"What is it? What's gone wrong?" he inquired in the sharp staccato o_xcitement. "Anything amiss?"
"Lord, yessir! I heard a shot and a cry. A pistol shot … and a police whistle … and a cry of murder, sir. Up the lane ahead of us!" began Lennard, in _uaking voice; then he uttered a cry of fright, for, of a sudden, the darknes_as riven by the screaming note of a police whistle—of two police whistles i_act: shrilling appeal and answer far up the lonely lane.
Hard on this came a man's voice shouting: "Head him off there, whoever yo_re! Don't let him get by you. Look sharp! He's making for the railway arch!"
"All right, mate. I'm here!" another male voice flung back. "He won't get pas_e, the blighter!"
Instantly there struck out the swift-measured sound of heavily shod fee_acing at top speed up the mist-shrouded lane, and rapidly increasing th_istance between the unseen runner and the standing limousine.
No need to tell either Narkom or his men that the man whose steps they hear_as a constable, for there is a distinctive note, to ears that are trained, rung out by the heavy, cumbersome boots which folly accords to the Britis_oliceman.
Catching the ring of that telltale note now, Narkom shouted out at the top o_is voice: "All right, Constable! Stick to him! Help coming!"
Then with a word of command to Lennard he pulled in his head, slammed th_oor, and the chauffeur, dropping back to his seat, threw open the clutch an_ent the limousine bounding up the lane at a fifty-mile clip.
To-night, with the trees shadowing it and the mist crowding in, shoulder high, from the adjacent Common, the lane was a mere dark funnel; but to Lennard, whose boyhood had been passed within hailing distance of the place, i_ossessed no mysteries that the night or the vapour could hide.
He knew that it ran on for some seven or eight hundred feet, with the hig_rick wall which marked the rear boundary of Wuthering Grange on one side o_t and straggling trees and matted gorse bushes shutting it in on the other, until it dipped down a steadily increasing incline, and ran straightwa_hrough an old brick-walled, brick-roofed arch of a long-abandoned Wimbledo_oop line.
Some two hundred feet upon the other side of this it divided into a sort of
"Y," one branch swerving to the left forming a right of way across the meadow_o the public highway, whilst the other struck out over the Common to th_ight, crossed Beverly Brook, and merged at length into the road which lead_o Coombe Wood, and thence, through picturesque ways, to Kingston and th_iver.
The limousine took those seven or eight hundred feet between the head of th_ane and the old railway arch at such a stupendous pace that it seemed to hav_o more than started before the distance was eaten up and it came to hal_gain; but this time, in such a din and babel of struggling and shouting tha_ennard seemed to have reached the very gateway of Sheol.
Narkom and his men were out of the vehicle almost as the brake fell int_lace, and clicking their electric pocket torches into sudden flame, rushe_eadlong into the black opening of the arch, into which they had taken bu_alf a dozen steps, when they came upon a startling sight.
Snarling and yapping like a couple of fighting dogs and crying out in concert:
"Got you, you blighter! Got you fast!" were two men, locked tight in eac_ther's arms, reeling and swaying—one wearing the official badge of a_ppointed Common keeper, the other in the helmet and tunic of an ordinar_onstable.
"Lend a hand, gov'ner, for Gawd's sake!" rapped out the former. "Name'_awson, sir—keeper on the Common— Number four, sir. Got the blackguard!
Murder, sir—got him red handed!"
"Good Lord!" little more than gulped the man he held.
The two pairs of gripping hands dropped, the struggling figures fell apart, and the two men who but an instant before had been locked in an angry embrac_tood staring at each other in open-mouthed amazement.
"What kind of a game is this?" demanded Narkom, as with his allies he crowde_orward. "You two people are paid to keep the peace, not to break it, das_ou!"
"My word!" exclaimed the Common keeper, finding his voice suddenly. "A copper, is it?—a copper! when I thought… . Gawd's truth, Constable, wot have you don_ith him? He run in here with me on his blessed heels. You didn't let him ge_ast you, did you?"
"No fear!" snapped out the constable indignantly. "I stood her_aiting—waiting and shouting to you—until you ran smack into my blessed arms; and if anybody but you come in _your_ side of the arch, he never come out o'
mine, I'll take my solemn oath!"
"Then where's he gone? Wot's become of him?" shouted the Common keepe_xcitedly. "I tell you I was on the very heels of him from the moment I firs_histled and called out to you to head him off. I could a-most have touche_im when he dashed in here; and—and his footsteps never stopped soundin' fo_ne second the whole blessed time. Murder is wot he's done—murder!—and I'v_een on his heels from the very moment he fired the shot."
Narkom and his allies lost not an instant in revealing their identity an_isplaying their insignia of office to the two men.
"Murder is it, Keeper?" exclaimed the superintendent, remembering all at onc_hat Lennard had said about hearing the cry and the shot. "When and how? Lea_e to the body."
"Lor' bless you, sir, I aren't 'ad no time nor chanct to look after any body,"
replied the keeper. "All's I can tell you is that I was out there in m_helter on the Common when I heard the first cry—like as some one was callin'
for help whiles some one else had 'em by the windpipe, sir; so I dashes ou_nd cuts through the mist and gorse as fast as my blessed legs could carry me.
Jist as I gets to the edge of the lane, sir, 'Bang!' goes a revolver shot jist
'arf a dozen feet in front of me, and a man, wot I couldn't see 'ide nor 'ai_f on account of the mist, nicks out o' somewheres, and cuts off down the lan_ike a blessed race 'orse. I outs with me whistle and blows it as 'ard as _ould, and cuts off after him. He never stopped runnin' for a blessed instant.
He never doubled on me, never turned to the right nor to the left, gov'ner, but jist dashes into this arch—straight in front of me, sir, and me running o_lmost within reachin' distance, until I runs smack into the arms of thi_onstable here, and grabs _him_ , thinkin' I'd got my man for sure. Whereve_e's got to since, I tell you he come in here, sir—smack _in_!—and me afte_im; and if he didn't get past the constable——"
"He didn't— I've told you so once, and I'll stick to it!" interrupted th_onstable himself, with some show of heat. "What do you take me for—an ol_oman? Look here, Mr. Narkom, sir, my name's Mellish. It's true I've only bee_n the force a little over a week, sir, but my sergeant will tell you I've go_y wits about me and aren't in the least likely to let a man slip past me i_he manner that this chap thinks. _Nothing_ went past me—nothing the size of _at, let alone a man, sir—and if the party in question really _did_ come i_ere——"
"I'll soon settle that question!" rapped in Narkom sharply.
He flung a hurried command to Lennard, waved Petrie and Hammond aside, and a_nstant later the limousine moved swiftly up out of the mist until its bul_illed the entrance of the arch and its blazing acetylene lamps were sweepin_t with light from end to end. Smooth as a rifle bore, its damp walls an_urving roof shone out in the sudden glare—not a brick displaced, not _revice big enough to shelter a rat much less a human being—and of the man th_ommon keeper had been chasing, not a sign nor a trace anywhere!
"Whatever the fellow did or wherever he went, he can't have gone far, so loo_harp, my lads!" commanded Narkom. "If we're quick we're sure to nab him. Com_long, Constable, come along, Keeper. Lennard, you stop where you are an_uard the exit from the arch, so if he doubles on us he can't get by _you_!"
"Right you are, sir!" responded Lennard, as the superintendent and the fou_en made a dash toward that end of the arch through which the keeper was s_ositive the fugitive had come.
"I say, Mr. Narkom!" he added, raising his voice and shouting after them.
"Eyes sharp to the left, all of you, when you get outside this arch. Know th_eighbourhood like a book, sir. Lane forks out into a 'Y' after you get abou_ifty yards on. Branches off on the left where there's an old house calle_leer Cottage, sir, that hasn't been tenanted for years and years. Walle_arden—tool house—stable. Great place for man to hide, sir!"
"Good boy! Thanks!" flung back Narkom. "Come on, my lads! Lively!"
Then they swung out of the arch with a rush, and the last that Lennard saw o_hem before the shrouding mist took them and blotted them from his view, the_ere pelting up the lane at top speed and making headlong for the branching
"Y" to which he had directed them, their footsteps sounding on the mois_urface of the road and their electric torches emitting every now and again _park like a glowworm flashing.
Five minutes passed—the click of their flying steps had dropped off int_ilence; the flash of their torches had vanished in the distance and the mist; even the blurred sound of their excited voices was stilled; and neither ea_or eye could now detect anything but the soft drip of the moisture from th_oof of the arch and the white oblivion of the close-pressing, ever-thickenin_ist.
Still he sat there, waiting—alert, watchful, keen—looking straight before hi_nd keeping a close watch on the unobstructed end of the miniature tunne_hose entire length was still flooded with the glare from the motor's lamps.
If a mouse had crawled down its damp walls he must have seen it; if even s_uch as a shadow had come up out of that wilderness of mist and crept into th_lace, he must have detected, it. But there was nothing; neither man no_east, neither shade nor shadow; only the loneliness and the mist and the soft
"plick-plick!" of the dropping moisture.
The five minutes became eight, ten, a dozen, without the slightest change i_nything. Then, all of a sudden, Lennard's tense nerves gave a sort of jum_nd a swift prickle flashed up his spine and through his hair. A sound ha_ome—a rustle—a step—a movement. Not from the direction in which he wa_ooking, however, but from the lane beyond the arch and _behind_ th_imousine.
He jumped to his feet and rising on tiptoe on his driver's seat flashed th_ight of his electric torch back over the top of the vehicle; what he saw too_ll the breath out of him and set his heart and pulses hammering furiously.
Against that thick blanket of mist the penetrating power of the torch's glea_as so effectually blunted that it could do nothing more than throw a pale, weak circle of light a few feet into the depths of a crowding vapour, leavin_ll beyond and upon either side doubly dark in contrast.
Yet as the light streamed out and flung that circle into the impinging mist, there moved across it the figure of a woman, young and fair, with a scarf o_ace thrown over her head, from beneath which fell a glory of unbound hair, thick and lustrous, over shoulders that were wrapped in ermine—ermine in mid- April!
A woman! Here! At this hour! In this time of violence and evil doing! Th_hing was so uncanny, so unnatural, so startlingly unexpected, that Lennard'_ead swam.
She was gone so soon—just glimmering across the circle of light and the_anishing into the mist as suddenly as she had appeared—that for a moment o_wo he lost his nerve and his wits, and ducked down under the screen of th_otor's top, remembering all the tales he had ever heard of ghosts an_pparitions, and, in a moment of folly, half believing he had looked upon one.
But of a sudden his better sense asserted itself, and realizing that for _oman— _any_ woman, no matter how dressed, no matter how young and fair an_ood to look upon—to be moving stealthily about this place, at this hour, whe_here was talk of murder, was at least suspicious, he laid hands upon th_heel, and being unable to turn the vehicle in the arch and go after _her_ , put on full power and went after Narkom and his men. A swift whizz carried hi_hrough the arch and up the lane, and, once in the open, he laid hand upon th_ulb of the motor horn and sent blast after blast hooting through th_tillness, shouting at the top of his voice as he scorched over the ground:
"Mr. Narkom! Mr. Narkom! This way, sir, this way! This way!"