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City Chronicles/Some Exploration Enterprise

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No. VIII.—AN EXPLORATION ENTERPRISE.

MR. JULIUS PEMBRIDGE was practically the Exploration and Enterprise Finance Association. If you could not get money from Pembridge for your little scheme, it was not worth while to try elsewhere; you might give it up and go home. He was the friend and comforter of wild cats, but he was not a fool. If most of these ungrateful beasts bit and scratched him, now and again one turned out very good. It was said that he lost more money in a year than any man in his street, but that did not disturb him. At the end of the year he had generally made a living, and a little over. Wherever he saw the faintest glimmer of light—the least possibility—in went Julius Pembridge. If he was right once, that more than made up for ten times when he was wrong.

Pembridge was a dominant male man. He was powerfully built, and rather a handsome man, with keen eyes and a strong chin. He had two distinct manners in general use. One was slangy and good-humoured; the other was different. He was content to let the best possible tailor dress him in the best possible way. His office was well lighted and well and solidly furnished; it was an eccentricity of his to have his office as cleanly and properly kept as his private house, which, by the way, was not a house, but a flat in Jermyn Street. He possessed the smartest and most silent office boy within the cab radius.

One fine morning in May, when Pembridge had gone through his correspondence, he was sitting back in his chair and wondering whether it would be worth while to back anything for the Derby, when the office boy brought in a card. It was not an immaculately clean card, and on it was written—not engraved—"Mr. Percy Mardner." Pembridge held the card by the extreme corner, looking at it through half closed eyes. Then he turned to the boy. "All right," he said.

The boy placed a chair, put the whisky and soda handy, and went out noiselessly. In a moment he returned and announced Mr. Percy Mardner. Mardner's appearance was against him. He looked furtive and shabby and shaky. His appearance was that of a man whose nerves have suffered, one who has been a good deal broken up. His eyes blinked as they met the light.

"It's very good of you to see me, Mr. Pembridge," said Mardner.

"Not at all," said Pembridge. "Always glad to see anyone on business." He spoke genially, but there was a slight emphasis on the word "business," enough to indicate that a charitable appeal would not be considered in the light of business.

"Well, it's on business that I wished to speak to you. It's very queer business and a very queer story that I have to tell. But there's upwards of a hundred thousand pounds at the end of it."

"And what made you come to me?"

"I went first to a man whose name I had seen in an advertisement— a money-lender. He wouldn't let me finish my story. He said it was a fairy tale, and he did not deal in fairy tales. I asked him if he knew of anybody who might help me, and he mentioned your Association, without holding out any great hopes."

"Go on."

"I must begin by telling you that I have been in trouble. I yielded to a temptation, and—well, they gave me three years' penal servitude. I have not been out long. My people gave me a hundred pounds, and told me that was all they would have to do with me."

"And you blued your hundred on booze."

"Yes, I have been drinking hard, and gambling a little. But I still have a few pounds left. I was at it last night; that's why I'm all to pieces this morning." He looked significantly towards the whisky.

"All right. Help yourself. And get to the business as soon as you can; in fact, tell me what it is before you go on with your yarn."

Percy Mardner poured out a great deal of whisky and a very little soda-water. The glass clattered against his teeth as he drank. Then he wiped his ragged moustache with his hand and resumed with more confidence of manner.

"Thank you, Mr. Pembridge; that's done me good. Ill tell you the business at once; only don't send me away until I've told you the story as well. The business is buried treasure—money buried in a little piece of land that is for sale at this moment."

"Ah!" said Pembridge reflectively. "You seem a particularly candid person. One might have said shameless. You speak of the fact that you are an ex-convict who has taken to drink, very much as another man might describe himself as a stockbroker. Perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me, to save time and trouble, whether this is a variation on the Spanish prisoner swindle, or something on the gold brick lines—or, in short, what is it you have been getting up for me?"

"I knew you would say something of that kind. When you hear the story you will see that I do not stand to make a single penny unless my story is absolutely true. You give me nothing in advance."

"Well, well," said Pembridge impatiently, "get on."

"While I was in prison I rendered a service to a fellow-convict; in fact, I helped him to escape. He got clear away to America, and a few weeks ago I got a letter from him. He said that he was dying, and that he would tell me something which might be useful to me, for there was no longer any chance that he would be able to go in for it himself, and I had once done him a good turn. This man had been a poacher and had pretty nearly killed two keepers. It was while he was living in a Sussex village that he learned what he afterwards told me. In that village there lived two brothers. They were supposed to be wealthy, but they lived in an ordinary labourer's cottage with a bit of garden at the back, and in the most miserly possible manner. They did everything for themselves, and no one but themselves ever entered the cottage. They were quarrelsome and eccentric; for instance, they divided the night into watches, and one slept while the other watched. Though they grudged every farthing that they spent, and practically half-starved themselves, they kept a light burning all night in the kitchen always. They lived in the village for twenty years, and died within a week of one another; one of them was carried off by pneumonia one hard winter, and the other hanged himself when he got home from the funeral. It was found out that all those twenty years they had been in receipt of an income of two thousand eight hundred pounds each under their father's will. In each case the money producing this income was left in trust to the son for life, and afterwards, if he bad no children, to different hospitals and charitable institutions. It was shown that these two men drew the whole, or nearly the whole, of their income from the bank every year, and always drew it in gold. They had not spent it, for it was doubtful if they spent fifty pounds a year between them; and no trace of any investment could be found. Both men died intestate, and the cottage and garden, with about a hundred pounds that was in the bank, went to a relative, a man called Jordan. Of course he tried to find out where the savings of twenty years had gone to. He had the whole cottage pulled down, under his own inspection, and the whole of the garden dug up, and found nothing. Then he decided that the savings had been invested, and spent a lot of money in trying to trace them. That was no good, either. Jordan rebuilt the cottage, and left the place on his death, which happened about a year later, to an old woman who had acted as his housekeeper. She is willing to sell—I have just been down there—and I want you to buy, and then share and share alike with me in what we find there."

"At present," said Pembridge, "there doesn't seem to be the slightest earthly prospect that we should find anything."

"That," said Mardner, "is where my friend the poacher comes in. It was always his conviction, in spite of the search that failed, that the money was hidden in the garden. The cottage stands on the road, and the garden slopes rather sharply downwards behind it until it joins a plantation. There may, perhaps, be a third of an acre of this garden altogether, and, of course, when the two old men were working in it they were out of sight of anybody who might happen to be passing in the road. A few months before they died my friend happened to be coming home very early one summer morning about half an hour before dawn. He came through the plantation, and as he got to the edge of it he looked up the garden and saw that the back door of the cottage was open and a light showing in it. At that moment out came the two brothers; the first was carrying on his back a small sack—the kind of thing that would take half a hundredweight of coals—and was bent nearly double under it; the other carried a coil of rope and a lantern. They came right down to the bottom of the garden, where a high yew hedge hid them. Not a word was said, but my friend the poacher heard a spade being used. He had half a mind to call out to them, and ask them what they were up to, but there was a special reason why he did not want anybody to know that he was not in bed and asleep that night, and so he passed on. He never thought much about the incident until after the death of the old men, when the talk about the buried treasure began, and then he kept his own counsel. He got himself taken on at the job of pulling down the cottage, and there he found in the roof a number of bags that had been used for Portland cement. Then he tumbled to it."

"Well, I don't," said Pembridge.

"At some time or other the two brothers must have wanted a lot of concrete; that's what they had the cement for; the gravel they could get anywhere in the garden simply for the trouble of digging for it. Now, there was no concrete at all used anywhere about the cottage. But concrete's fine stuff to make an underground cellar with—say at the bottom of a garden by a high yew hedge. It keeps out the damp, and you can store your sacks of anything in it—sacks of gold, for instance. But it is not all guesswork. When Jordan had pulled down the cottage and found nothing, he was discouraged. He began to dig up the garden, but the further he went the more discouraged he got. By the time that they had got to the lower end of the garden the thing was being done very slackly. They dug very shallow, and often, to save a fruit tree, they would leave a bit untouched. By this time Jordan had the idea that the money was not buried at all, but was invested; and this digging was costing money. My friend was digging by the yew hedge, and there was nobody to look after him much; he felt his spade come down on concrete—there wasn't a doubt about it. He said nothing. A week later he was fool enough to have that row with the keepers, and that finished him. He got seven years, and when he escaped, this country wasn't healthy for him. But he meant to come back one of these days and to have the money."

Mardner paused and finished his drink at a draught. "Well," he resumed, "there's the story, and it's the truth, every word of it. What are you going to do, Mr. Pembridge?"

"I'll do it," said Pembridge—"on terms."

"What terms?"

"To start with, I must have all the names given me now, and I must have a week to investigate your story."

"I'm not afraid of that."

"Secondly, if I go in for it, all that we find will be declared."

"But then we lose it all. Don't you know what the law is?"

"I do, and also what the custom is. If the sum is anything like what you suppose, there will be enough for you in any case."

"I don't know what you mean by enough," said Mardner querulously.

"We share alike. What's enough for me has got to be enough for you. If you don't like that, clear out and take your yarn somewhere else."

"All right. Of course, I can't help myself."

"The third condition is also important. I don't much care to go into any partnership with a man of your stamp. I don't trust you, and I don't like you. You will have to leave the direction of the matter entirely to me. I shall treat you as a servant, and you will have servant's work to do; you will address me as a servant would. If we are fortunate, and there is anything to divide, you can take your share and go to the devil your own way. Until then you have got to do what you are told, or I don't help you. "

"As I said before, Mr. Pembridge, I've no choice."

"Then address me properly. Now, then, give me all the names, and I'll go into this. And, by the way, whatever your poaching friend saw the old man carrying in that sack, it was not sovereigns. You can make up your mind to that."

A week later the abnormally intelligent office boy once more ushered Mardner into Mr. Pembridge's room. Mardner had changed a little. He was less shabby, and in dress and manner was a good enough imitation of a servant to suggest to Pembridge that this had once been his walk in life. He was also noticeably less shaky.

"Well, I've been into this," said Pembridge, "and I find that your story is substantially correct. I have also been down to Shadenham, and have been able to pick up one or two pieces of additional information. So far, so good."

"Then, sir, if I might suggest," said Mardner, "I think the next step to take is to buy the property in our joint names."

"You needn't trouble about that," said Pembridge. "The property is already bought in my name."

"You're trying to do me," said Mardner truculently.

"Not in the least. If there is anything to divide we shall share equally, so long as you keep to the conditions that I have laid down. I have not the least intention of doing you, as you so prettily put it, but neither do I intend to let you do me. The land's my property—not yours. Behave yourself, and that will make no difference to you. Give me any trouble, and I will have you thrown out. I've got the whip-hand. See?"

Mardner looked sulky, but became civil. He whined a little. It was quite natural that he should be suspected, but he hoped to be able to show that the suspicions were quite needless. If he didn't act on the square, he wished his hands might drop off at the roots.

"Don't talk that kind of rubbish. You'll act on the square, because you will get no chance to do anything else. Now, then, we start for Shadenham to-morrow, and there's not much time to lose. Hold your tongue and listen to the instructions I am going to give you."

Pembridge and Mardner, who travelled as his servant, put up at the only inn in Shadenham. It was conveniently near to the plot of ground where it was supposed that the misers had buried their money; it was not comfortable, though, and expensive discomfort annoyed Pembridge.

"Look here," he said on the morning after their arrival, "how long is this going to take, Mardner?"

"Not more than three or four hours. I've taken the tools over and I'm quite ready to start. I know where to dig, and my friend in his letter said it was not more than three feet down. Of course, if we were both going to dig——"

"We're not. My work will come in afterwards. For the present I will confine myself to keeping an eye on you. Well, if we get through in that time, it will be all right. I don't want another night here. Come along, then."

The cottage stared at them with blindless windows. The old housekeeper had removed her belongings two days before, and straw and other litter lay about on the cinder paths. They passed down the garden to the yew hedge at the bottom. Mardner looked around him. "This is it, I think."

"Go ahead, then," said Pembridge. A rustic seat had been fixed under an old apple tree close by, and there he established himself, with the morning papers and his cigarettes. Mardner took off his coat and waistcoat and laid into the work with a will. He was obviously excited. It was a quiet morning; the blows of the pick and the scrape of the spade came with monotonous regularity, and the only other sound to be heard was the song of the birds or the rustle of Pembridge's paper. Pembridge had finished his second newspaper before a word was spoken. Then Mardner threw down his spade and said, "I'm fully four feet down here, and there isn't a sign. I think I should try nearer the hedge, sir."

"Then, so far, you've done nothing but waste time. Try again, of course. And for goodness' sake get it right this time. We haven't all the day to spare for your blunders, you know."

Mardner made no answer. In another minute he was working as hard as ever. The perspiration streamed from him and his breathing was loud and laboured. But he never stopped for one moment; the fever of the chase was on him. He worked as if he were working for his life.

And once more he worked to no purpose; the second attempt at location was a failure also. Pembridge, gloomy and sarcastic, left his place and came over to Mardner. He was studiously unpleasant and insulting, and Mardner remained as studiously respectful; but Mardner's face when he was turned away from Pembridge was not pretty—it was the face of a dangerous man.

Mardner resumed his digging, and Pembridge went back to his seat. For a while he dozed, and then the midges worried and woke him. He had finished his newspapers and he was inexpressibly bored. For the sake of something to do he walked up to the cottage and went over it. It was a fairly new and quite commonplace building. But the country around was pretty, and the quiet was rather pleasant as a change from the City. As he had bought the place, it might be worth while to spend a little money on it, and use it for Saturdays to Mondays in the summer. There would probably be some fishing procurable. It was a pity the golf links were not nearer. Yes, it was worth thinking about. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was half-past two. He had had no idea that it was so late; it was time to go and eat an abominable luncheon at that incompetent inn. And then, as he glanced out of window, he saw Mardner running up the path towards the cottage.

Pembridge met him in the doorway. "Well?" he said brusquely, as Mardner came up.

"I've got it," said Mardner, panting.

"Then why the deuce couldn't you have got it before?" He showed no sign of satisfaction. "Well, come and show me it." Mardner led the way to a hole big enough for a man to work in, and about three feet deep. At the bottom of the hole was a bed of concrete, that might have been the roof of an underground cellar.

"Yes," said Pembridge, "that looks like it. Now, then, put on your coat and waistcoat, and come back to the inn for lunch."

"Excuse me, sir," said Mardner. "If you don't mind, I would sooner go straight on. I've got the spike and hammer here for the concrete. I don't want anything to eat myself. I'd a good breakfast. I should have the thing opened by the time you came back."

"I don't doubt," said Pembridge, "that you are well trained for working hard on very little food. But considering the circumstances under which you got that training, I won't have that concrete opened except when I am here."

"Very well, sir," said Mardner. And he turned to put on his coat. Once more he looked dangerous.

It was past three when the work was resumed, and the job proved longer than they had expected. The earth was loose and gravelly, and the sides of the hole had to be roughly shored up; the concrete was hard and thick, and Mardner was not used to this kind of work. It was already dark before enough of the concrete had been broken away for a man's body to pass through.

"Now, then," said Pembridge, "fasten your lantern to a string and give it to me. I'm going to see what there is down there."

He remained for some minutes on his knees peering down the hole, and taking no notice of the excited questioning of Mardner. Then he stood up and drew the lantern up again.

"Yes," he said. "I see what it is. It's a well which had run dry and been disused. The old men found it, and thought it a safer place to hide their treasure in than the cottage. The well must have been partly filled up with rubbish, and they put concrete over it; the walls are concrete, too. With the concrete roof over it, and three feet of earth on the top of that, it doesn't make a bad sort of cash-box. I can make out two sacks and some smaller bags lying on the floor, and that's about twelve feet down. We've got rope enough?"

"Plenty, sir."

"Very well, the place looks perfectly dry, and I suppose the air's all right, as the lamp did not go out. You can fasten one end of the rope round that tree and, let yourself down as soon as you like."

Mardner had a little accident while he was fixing the rope; in moving his tools out of the way he dropped his pick down the shaft.

"What a clumsy fool you are!" said Pembridge. Mardner mumbled something and prepared for the descent. His hands were blistered and bleeding with the work that he had been doing, and the rough rope cut into them; but he was hardly conscious of the pain. The moment was coming.

"All right," he called from the bottom of the shaft.

Pembridge came rapidly down the rope after him. He looked quickly at the sacks; Mardner had not touched them.

"Now, then," said Pembridge, "I'm going to make an inventory of what we find here before we hand it all over to the police."

He opened the first sack. It contained some exquisite pieces of old silver, wrapped in washleather and packed in sawdust.

"Ah," he said, as he unpacked them and noted them down, "those old men did not make a bad investment. This kind of thing is worth far more now than when it was bought. And they seem to have only bought really fine pieces. When I've finished with this sack, you will pack it up again while I am going through the next. The gold will be in the small bags."

"Very well, sir," said Mardner. His face and hands were twitching nervously; the moment had come. As Pembridge bent over the sack to take out the last piece, Mardner, without a sound, lifted the pick from the floor.

He got a good grip and raised the pick high above his head and brought it down straight—there was no room to swing it. There was a crash among the silver, and a curious gulping sound. And Pembridge was dead. Mardner stooped down and began to move the silver out of the mess. As he did this he knocked over the lamp and was left in darkness.

Then quite suddenly his nerves went. He had no matches, and his one idea was to get out and get a light as soon as possible. Pembridge had matches, but Mardner did not dare to look for them on the dead man's body. He caught hold of the rope and began to climb. The rope fell coiling over his head; the rough edges of the concrete on which it played had frayed it. Mardner was trapped.

There was nothing else to be done; he had to feel for the matches that Pembridge carried. He bent down and stretched out a hand. It went on the dead man's face, and after that Mardner did not dare to move at all. He remained huddled against the wall until, next morning, the search-party from the inn found him.