The Hand Invisible
FLEETWOOD stumbled across the gangway of the Sheffield and staggered into the arms of a purser. Just for a moment he was on the point of collapse. By the time he had caught his breath again, and a little colour was beginning to creep into his cheek, the boat was slowly beginning to make its way out of the dock. It was yet very dark and still, for the dawn was a full hour off, and the decks were deserted so far as every passenger was concerned. The purser grinned good-naturedly as he steadied Fleetwood on his shaking legs.
"That's a pretty near shave, sir," he said. "Did you manage to get your baggage on board?"
"I have no baggage," Fleetwood explained. "I have practically nothing besides my kit-bag, and someone on the quay kindly threw that after me. I hadn't even time to get a ticket. An hour ago I had not the least intention of leaving England to-day."
The purser ceased to smile. Fleetwood had spoken candidly enough, he had a frank, open way of looking the world in the face, but these little things do not always spell honesty, and the purser had seen enough of men and things not to take everything absolutely for granted.
"I think you had better see the captain, sir," he said.
"That's precisely what I want," Fleetwood replied.
Half an hour later he found himself closeted in the cabin of the Sheffield with the captain. And Captain Butcher made no secret of the fact that he did not like it at all.
"You must see for yourself that it is very unusual," he said. "Of course, there's no help for it now. But if you had come to me half an hour before, I might——"
"But, my dear sir," Fleetwood expostulated, "is it an unusual thing for a business man to find himself compelled to catch a boat at a moment's notice? As I explained to your purser, I didn't know an hour ago whether I should be leaving England to-day. It's a matter of life and death. You've got me here for a fortnight—I can't run away—and you can keep as close an eye upon me as you like; and, as far as my passage is concerned, I can pay that ten times over. How does that strike you?"
Fleetwood took a sheaf of notes from his pocket-book and laid them on the table. Butcher's face relaxed a little.
"Oh, well, we must make the best of it," he said. "I'm glad you recognised my position in the matter. And now you'll be wanting a cabin. By the way, you haven't told me if you intend to go the whole way with us."
Fleetwood's face grew a little grim and hard.
"That I cannot say," he said. "Possibly my business may be finished by the time we get to Madeira. I suppose in your time, captain, you have seen many a drama played out with this ship for a background? And, unless I'm greatly mistaken, you're going to watch one now. But that is entirely between you and me. And now may I ask to be shown to my cabin?"
A day or two passed pleasantly enough, and gradually the Sheffield's passengers began to shake down together. She was not a great boat, and the saloon boasted no more than forty all told. For the most part, they were Colonials, and not at all difficult from a social point of view. There was a frankness and directness about Fleetwood that won for him a certain degree of popularity. He had travelled widely—indeed, his profession of mining engineer had enabled him to come in touch with many countries in the world—he was a good talker and bridge player, so that he was speedily on the best of terms with everybody. Captain Butcher had long since forgotten his suspicions, so that Fleetwood's position was quite a pleasant one.
There was only one passenger who appeared to hold aloof from the rest. He was a dark, rather taciturn man, who had given the name of Cree. For the rest, he was supposed to be a merchant with interests somewhere in Rhodesia. There was something attractive and yetabout the man, and on more than one occasion Fleetwood made an attempt to draw him out. But, according to his own account, Cree's time was too occupied to enable him to join in the festivities of the ship. He spent most of the day in his cabin, and the only time he showed himself was after dinner in the smoking-room, when the other male passengers were more or less occupied with their bridge.
On the fifth night of the voyage the bridge play was over earlier than usual. Fleetwood rose from the table with two companions, and made his way over to the remote corner of the smoking-room where Cree was pulling at his pipe in moody silence. He would have escaped if he could, only just at the moment that the bridge was finished he had ordered another whisky and soda, and one of the late players had insisted upon Cree joining them, so that there was no help for it. It was not the first drink by a good many that Cree had had since dinner, and the fact had not escaped Fleetwood's attention.
Just for a moment or two the talk was general, then it veered gradually round to the occult as understood by travellers who had studied the subject in the East. Fleetwood spoke freely and well, for he knew Tibet, and the ways of the Mahatma were familiar to him. His hearers followed him with interest, and one of them, a tea-planter named Stephenson, had a strange story, too, to tell. It was an interesting conversation, and not the less so because Cree sat there nursing his long peg glass with a shaky hand and openly sneering at Stephenson's yarn.
"Do you honestly believe all that nonsense?" he asked.
"Oh, you call it nonsense, do you?" Fleetwood said quietly. "I could tell you a story which you'd have to believe. I suppose your opinion is formed by what you read in the newspapers. They are not all to be laughed at, you know, and I'd like to have a sporting bet with you, Mr. Cree. I'll bet you a five-pound note that I can give you a demonstration of occultism that will keep you here till I've finished. All I stipulate is that you should listen for a quarter of an hour, and, if at the end of that time you like to leave us, then the fiver is yours. Now, come, is it a bet or not?"
An ugly sneer crossed Cree's face,
"I'll take you four times the amount," he said. "Now, what's it to be—hypnotism or blindfold thought-reading, or that crystal-gazing humbug? I've seen them all myself in different parts of the world, and, if I had my way, I'd clap all those rogues in gaol. Here, waiter, bring me another drink, and see that you put in some whisky this time that I can taste."
"Which do you consider the cheapest form of humbug?" Fleetwood asked. "I want to give you every chance."
"Oh, crystal-gazing," Cree muttered contemptuously.
"Then crystal-gazing it shall be. Didn't you say that you had got a crystal somewhere, Stephenson?"
"I believe I have," Stephenson replied. "I've got the whole bag o' tricks in my cabin."
Stephenson returned to the smoking-room a few minutes later with the globe of glass in his hand. Fleetwood turned it round thoughtfully, holding the sphere so that the rays of the electric light fell on it. Then he placed it on the table and gazed long and earnestly at it, until he seemed utterly lost to all surroundings. Cree would have uttered some jibe had not Stephenson checked him with a warning glance. A moment or two later, and Fleetwood began to speak. His voice sounded distant and hollow, his eyes appeared to have lost their expression altogether.
"What do you see?" Stephenson asked.
"It's all blurred and indistinct at present," Fleetwood said. "Wait, and it will grow clearer presently. Ah, I begin to make it out! Here is a room—a room barely furnished, with no carpet on the floor; there is only a table and a chair or two, and a roll-top desk between the two windows. The room is a large one, the panels of the walls are of oak, and the ceiling is the work of Inigo Jones or one of his pupils. It can be nothing but a London house in a suburb which at one time was fashionable. Now it is surrounded by slums and workmen's tenements, because I can hear the shrill voices of women and the crying of children. Though the room is so barely furnished, the two candelabra on the writing-desk are old silver, and the clock on the mantelpiece is genuine Sèvres. It is just like the scene in 'Les Cloches de Corneville' where Gaspard is discovered counting over his money."
"This is devilish interesting!" one of the audience murmured. "All humbug, though, I suppose, Stephenson—eh?"
"I've seen too many strange things in the East to disbelieve, Maple," Stephenson whispered. "At any rate, our cynical friend yonder is not altogether indifferent. Look at him."
Maple glanced in Cree's direction. His white, set face was twitching, and his teeth were bare in an unsteady grin. As a waiter hovered near, he indicated his empty glass. All this time Fleetwood was going on in a steady monotone.
"The miser must be somewhere, though I cannot see him yet. His desk is open, and in the light of the candles I can see some bags of money and piles of bank-notes. Ah, he's beginning to come at last! He is a little, dried-up man, with a black velvet skull-cap on his scant and silvery hair. He closes the door behind him and looks about him fearfully as if afraid of being seen. Despite his years and the yellow parchment of his face, his black eyes have all the fire and vivacity of youth. See, he is seated by his desk, turning over his money and counting it again and again. The door opens, and a young girl comes in. She is dressed as if she had just come out of the street; she is clad in shabby garments, and her pretty face is pinched and wan. She looks as if she knew what it was to go without proper food. Directly she comes in, the old man pulls down the lid of his desk and turns towards her with an angry frown upon his face. The girl is pleading for something, for she holds out her hands to the old man, she falls on her knees at his feet. Then very reluctantly and slowly he takes from his pocket a small silver coin, and hands it to the girl with an expression of resignation on his face. But what have we got here? The corner of the ragged blind is on one side, and the pale outline of a face can be seen beyond the grimy pane. It is a white, set face with dark, restless, greedy eyes, and a mouth slightly twisted on the left side."
"So's mine, for that matter," Cree laughed.
No one else spoke—they were all deeply interested in following Fleetwood's strange story. He did not appear to hear the interruption, for he went on steadily.
"The girl vanishes, and a young man takes her place. He is a fine youngster enough, with a bronzed face and blue eyes. But the bronzed face is convulsed in rage now, and the blue eyes are blazing. Just for the moment it looks as if the old man went in peril of his life; then the young man throws himself down in the chair and begins to take his boots off. He leaves his boots by the side of the fireplace, and produces a pair of carpet slippers from a cupboard in the wall. It is plain that the young man lives in the house, for he leaves the room presently, and a door bangs sullenly in a bedroom overhead. The Sèvres clock over the mantelpiece strikes the hour of twelve. It is impossible to tell the time by the face of the clock, because one of the hands is missing."
"Waiter," Cree cried hoarsely, "more drink!"
"The white face disappears from the window. The door of the room opens, and the white face and the uneasy, glittering eyes come in. The old man turns from his desk, and for the first time his eves are full of fear. He crosses over to lay his hand upon the tattered bell-pull, but the other man bars the way. The old man struggles. For his age, he is marvellously strong and active, but at last he staggers and falls, and a cry for help breaks from his lips. There is an open knife on the mantelpiece—the sort of knife that sailors generally use. The knife has probably been left there by the young man who is upstairs in his bedroom. Oh, it is horrible to watch what follows! The old man lies there in a pool of blood on the bare floor. He is dead. He has been murdered by the man with the white face and the restless eyes."
"Upon my word, it sounds quite real!" Maple whispered. "I say, Mr. Cree, you've lost your bet. It's quite half an hour since the seance began—what?"
But Cree made no reply. He sat there absolutely engrossed in what was going on. At every pause that Fleetwood made, he wriggled with an impatience that was almost painful to witness.
"The knife lies on the floor by the dead man's side. Evidently the murderer is no stranger to the house, because he knows exactly what to do. He takes off his own shoes and picks up the pair of boots belonging to the lad who is asleep upstairs. He dips the soles of the boots in the pool of blood and slips them on his own feet. Then, snatching one of the candles from the stand, he makes a series of red footsteps on the bare boards leading into the hall. He is concocting evidence against the innocent boy upstairs. He crosses to the desk and places everything he can find there in a bag. There are a good many thousands' worth of property—twenty-three thousand seven hundred and fifty, to be correct; a memorandum in the old man's handwriting shows that. All grows indistinct for a moment."
"You've lost your bet, Cree," Maple chuckled.
"It is all coming distinct again. And here is another man—a man who gazes with horror at the object on the floor. This man pulls violently at the bell, the young man from above comes down, the room is full of people, and the police are here. They ask questions, they clear the room, they find that knife and those tell-tale footprints. But they do not find a pocket-book and a cake of tobacco manufactured by a firm in Cape Town, which the man who discovered the body picked up, for the simple reason that he has hidden these things in his pocket. Then the young man with the blue eyes goes off in charge of the police, and once more the crystal grows blurred and misty."
No word was uttered as Fleetwood rose and stretched himself. Apparently Cree had forgotten all about his bet, for he sat there white and rigid, his eyes strained and full of a certain awe. But Fleetwood had not finished yet. He bent once more over the crystal, and began to speak again.
"I see many pictures now. I see keen-eyed men bending over the pocket-book and cake of tobacco. In some way I know that they are detectives from Scotland Yard. The man who discovered the dead body must have sent the evidence on to them. I see them comparing those boots with the footprints; I see them examining the grease stains from the candle across the floor. They are asking themselves why a young man who knows the house so well should need a candle. They have found out all about the owner of the pocket-book; they have discovered that he only landed in England four hours before the murder, and they are after him before he can leave the country again. But they are too late—he has already vanished. Still, he is not destined to escape. For the man who discovered the body is after him; and the pursuer has the advantage of having seen a photograph of the murderer, and this advantage is all on one side. It comes to me in some way that the murderer is a ne'er-do-well nephew of the poor old man, who has come home on purpose to rob him.
"And then I see long, black buildings and a forest of shipping, and I see a vessel leaving the docks, and a man gain her decks just in the nick of time. And I see myself at this moment with this crystal in my hand."
A strange, strangled cry came from Cree's lips as he rose unsteadily to his feet. The empty glass fell from his hand and crashed upon the floor. He seemed to be struggling hard for some form of collected speech.
"It's all arrant humbug!" he said hoarsely. "Did anyone ever hear such a farrago of nonsense? How you men supposed to be possessed of common-sense can sit down and listen to it, I don't know. For me, I'm going to bed."
"Oh, that's all very well!" Maple protested. "If it's all nonsense like that, why did you stay so long? You've lost your bet, though you seem to have forgotten it."
"I was thinking of something else," Cree muttered. "I had actually forgotten all about the bet. Still——"
He plunged his hand in his pocket, but Fleetwood shook his head. His face was grim and hard now.
"And if I refuse to take the money?" he asked. "It is morally and legally wrong to bet on a certainty, and it was a certainty from the first that Mr. Cree would stay and hear every word that I had to utter. We will defer the question of the bet till to-morrow morning. Meanwhile I have to wish Mr. Cree good night, and may his dreams be as pleasant as he deserves."
Without another word Cree turned on his heel and left the smoking-room. He was followed a few moments later by Fleetwood, who declined to carry the matter any further just then. He was tired and exhausted with his mental effort, and, if the audience had anything further to say, he would rather it was deferred till the next morning.
Maple and Stephenson followed him quietly and thoughtfully out of the smoking-room.
"There's something devilish queer about this," the former exclaimed. "Made me feel quite creepy. And did you happen to see Cree's face? Never have I seen such abject funk in my life before. The chap was absolutely livid. Now, what do you make of it, Stephenson? If it was humbug——"
But Stephenson declined to be drawn.
"Oh, it's no humbug," he said, "and, incidentally, it's no business of ours. Keep your eyes open and ask no questions, and you'll see things before long. Good night, old chap."
But Fleetwood had not retired to bed. He sat there smoking till far into the night; his electrics were burning, and he seemed to be waiting for something. It came presently towards morning; there was a timid tap on the door, and a white, ghastly face looked in. The ghastliness of feature and the glaring, tired eyes were in almost amusing contrast to the gaudy suit of pyjamas that Cree was wearing.
"May I come in?" he stammered.
"I've been waiting for you for hours," Fleetwood said quietly. "Sit down and tell your story in your own way."
But Cree paced up and down the cabin.
"I can't sit down," he whined. "Fleetwood, you are the devil! I've heard of these things before, and I've never believed them; and yet I cannot doubt the evidence of my senses. What brought those pictures in the crystal? Why, out of millions of people, was I selected as the victim?"
"Oh, it is a picture from your own life, then?" Fleetwood asked.
"Oh, you know it, you devil," Cree screamed, "and yet, as far as I know, you were on this boat before the murder was committed."
"The murder of Stephen Syme, you mean?"
"Why should I deny it? Do you know, till to-night I never discovered that I had left that pocket-book and that packet of tobacco behind me. I could have screamed aloud when you got to that part of the story. If you have tricked me——"
"Keep to the point," Fleetwood said sternly, "and remember that I never asked you to make a confession."
"But the police are after me," Cree whined; "you told me all about it when you were reading the crystal. And you had got it as clear as if you had been there and seen it all yourself. I came back from South Africa on purpose to see the old man and get money out of him. I didn't care much how I obtained it, and nobody know that I was coming. It was no difficult matter to get into the house. When I saw the old man sitting at his desk, with all that money about him—well, I am a desperate man, and the temptation was too much for me. He was a miserable old miser. I have known his own daughter appeal to him——"
"I know," Fleetwood said quietly. "I am engaged to Mary Syme, and I came back on purpose to marry her. But I am saying a little bit too much. You go on with your story."
"There is no more story to tell," Cree resumed. "The temptation was too much for me. Within ten minutes I was out of the house and on my way to the docks. I had all that money with me, and the comfortable assurance that I should be on the Sheffield before anybody knew that I was in London. Oh, I'm not defending myself! It was a blackguardly thing on my part to try and throw the blame on young Matthew Syme. Anyway, I shall know how to meet my punishment when the time comes. You'll find all that money in my cabin, and, as for the rest, it must take care of itself. I can't sleep, Fleetwood—I dare not be alone!"
Cree clasped his hands to his eyes and rushed from the cabin. A moment later there was a cry and a noise overhead, and a hoarse voice yelling that a man was overboard.
"Of course, he was utterly puzzled," Fleetwood told the captain. "He died a firm believer in the dark mysteries of the crystal. You see, I had chapter and verse of the things that happened, a day or two after the Sheffield left port, and Cree knew that every item was correct. I was going to see old Syme, and I practically met Cree on the doorstep of the miser's house as he was hurrying off after the murder. I knew him from his photograph, but he did not know me. I heard him ask a boy to get him a cab; I followed and heard the address given. Then I found the evidence of the crime, and ten minutes after I was on Cree's track, only just in time. Sentiment is all very well, but I was anxious to save the money for the family. That is why I played that theatrical game and frightened a confession out of him. If he had landed in South Africa, he would certainly have got rid of the money, probably feeling that there was a chance of being arrested. It sounds cheap, but it was very effectual."
"Not so clever as he thought," Butcher smiled.
"No, or he would have guessed," Fleetwood replied. "And now I shall be obliged if you will tell me what I owe you for all those expensive marconigrams?"