Ernest Bramah (1868 – 1942), was a prolific English author. Besides writing detective stories, he became inspiration for many leading figures in comedy and science fiction. He published 21 books and numerous short stories and features. His humorous works were ranked with Jerome K Jerome and W. W. Jacobs, his detective stories with Conan Doyle, his politico-science fiction with H. G. Wells and his supernatural stories with Algernon Blackwood. George Orwell acknowledged that Bramah’s book, What Might Have Been, influenced his 1984.
In 1914, Bramah created the character of Max Carrados, a blind detective. Given the outlandish idea that a blind man could be a detective, in the introduction to the second Carrados book The Eyes of Max Carrados Bramah compared his hero’s achievements to those of real life blind people such as Nicholas Saunderson, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, and John Fielding the Bow Street Magistrate of whom it was said he could identify 3,000 thieves by their voices.
Bramah was a recluse who did not give the public details of his personal life. He died at age 74 in London. “The Tragedy At Brookbend Cottage” was originally published in The News Of The World in September 1913.
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“Max,” said Mr Carlyle, when Parkinson had closed the door behind him, “this is Lieutenant Hollyer, whom you consented to see.”
“To hear,” corrected Carrados, smiling straight into the healthy and rather embarrassed face of the stranger before him. “Mr Hollyer knows of my disability?”
“Mr Carlyle told me,” said the young man, “but, as a matter of fact, I had heard of you before, Mr Carrados, from one of our men. It was in connexion with the foundering of the Ivan Saratov.”
Carrados wagged his head in good-humoured resignation.
“And the owners were sworn to inviolable secrecy!” he exclaimed. “Well, it is inevitable, I suppose. Not another scuttling case, Mr Hollyer?”
“No, mine is quite a private matter,” replied the lieutenant. “My sister, Mrs Creake—but Mr Carlyle would tell you better than I can. He knows all about it.”
“No, no; Carlyle is a professional. Let me have it in the rough, Mr Hollyer. My ears are my eyes, you know.”
“Very well, sir. I can tell you what there is to tell, right enough, but I feel that when all’s said and done it must sound very little to another, although it seems important enough to me.”
“We have occasionally found trifles of significance ourselves,” said Carrados encouragingly. “Don’t let that deter you.”
This was the essence of Lieutenant Hollyer’s narrative:
“I have a sister, Millicent, who is married to a man called Creake. She is about twenty-eight now and he is at least fifteen years older. Neither my mother (who has since died), nor I, cared very much about Creake. We had nothing particular against him, except, perhaps, the moderate disparity of age, but none of us appeared to have anything in common. He was a dark, taciturn man, and his moody silence froze up conversation. As a result, of course, we didn’t see much of each other.”
“This, you must understand, was four or five years ago, Max,” interposed Mr Carlyle officiously.
Carrados maintained an uncompromising silence. Mr Carlyle blew his nose and contrived to impart a hurt significance into the operation. Then Lieutenant Hollyer continued:
“Millicent married Creake after a very short engagement. It was a frightfully subdued wedding—more like a funeral to me. The man professed to have no relations and apparently he had scarcely any friends or business acquaintances. He was an agent for something or other and had an office off Holborn. I suppose he made a living out of it then, although we knew practically nothing of his private affairs, but I gather that it has been going down since, and I suspect that for the past few years they have been getting along almost entirely on Millicent’s little income. You would like the particulars of that?”
“Please,” assented Carrados.
“When our father died about seven years ago, he left three thousand pounds. It was invested in Canadian stock and brought in a little over a hundred a year. By his will my mother was to have the income of that for life and on her death it was to pass to Millicent, subject to the payment of a lump sum of five hundred pounds to me. But my father privately suggested to me that if I should have no particular use for the money at the time, he would propose my letting Millicent have the income of it until I did want it, as she would not be particularly well off. You see, Mr Carrados, a great deal more had been spent on my education and advancement than on her; I had my pay, and, of course, I could look out for myself better than a girl could.”
“Quite so,” agreed Carrados.
“Therefore I did nothing about that,” continued the lieutenant. “Three years ago I was over again but I did not see much of them. They were living in lodgings. That was the only time since the marriage that I have seen them until last week. In the meanwhile our mother had died and Millicent had been receiving her income. She wrote me several letters at the time. Otherwise we did not correspond much, but about a year ago she sent me their new address—Brookbend Cottage, Mulling Common—a house that they had taken. When I got two months’ leave I invited myself there as a matter of course, fully expecting to stay most of my time with them, but I made an excuse to get away after a week. The place was dismal and unendurable, the whole life and atmosphere indescribably depressing.” He looked round with an instinct of caution, leaned forward earnestly, and dropped his voice. “Mr Carrados, it is my absolute conviction that Creake is only waiting for a favourable opportunity to murder Millicent.”
“Go on,” said Carrados quietly. “A week of the depressing surroundings of Brookbend Cottage would not alone convince you of that, Mr Hollyer.”
“I am not so sure,” declared Hollyer doubtfully. “There was a feeling of suspicion and—before me—polite hatred that would have gone a good way towards it. All the same there was something more definite. Millicent told me this the day after I went there. There is no doubt that a few months ago Creake deliberately planned to poison her with some weed-killer. She told me the circumstances in a rather distressed moment, but afterwards she refused to speak of it again—even weakly denied it—and, as a matter of fact, it was with the greatest difficulty that I could get her at any time to talk about her husband or his affairs. The gist of it was that she had the strongest suspicion that Creake doctored a bottle of stout which he expected she would drink for her supper when she was alone. The weed-killer, properly labelled, but also in a beer bottle, was kept with other miscellaneous liquids in the same cupboard as the beer but on a high shelf. When he found that it had miscarried he poured away the mixture, washed out the bottle and put in the dregs from another. There is no doubt in my mind that if he had come back and found Millicent dead or dying he would have contrived it to appear that she had made a mistake in the dark and drunk some of the poison before she found out.”
“Yes,” assented Carrados. “The open way; the safe way.”
“You must understand that they live in a very small style, Mr Carrados, and Millicent is almost entirely in the man’s power. The only servant they have is a woman who comes in for a few hours every day. The house is lonely and secluded. Creake is sometimes away for days and nights at a time, and Millicent, either through pride or indifference, seems to have dropped off all her old friends and to have made no others. He might poison her, bury the body in the garden, and be a thousand miles away before anyone began even to inquire about her. What am I to do, Mr Carrados?”
“He is less likely to try poison than some other means now,” pondered Carrados. “That having failed, his wife will always be on her guard. He may know, or at least suspect, that others know. No…. The common-sense precaution would be for your sister to leave the man, Mr Hollyer. She will not?”
“No,” admitted Hollyer, “she will not. I at once urged that.” The young man struggled with some hesitation for a moment and then blurted out: “The fact is, Mr Carrados, I don’t understand Millicent. She is not the girl she was. She hates Creake and treats him with a silent contempt that eats into their lives like acid, and yet she is so jealous of him that she will let nothing short of death part them. It is a horrible life they lead. I stood it for a week and I must say, much as I dislike my brother-in-law, that he has something to put up with. If only he got into a passion like a man and killed her it wouldn’t be altogether incomprehensible.”
“That does not concern us,” said Carrados. “In a game of this kind one has to take sides and we have taken ours. It remains for us to see that our side wins. You mentioned jealousy, Mr Hollyer. Have you any idea whether Mrs Creake has real ground for it?”
“I should have told you that,” replied Lieutenant Hollyer. “I happened to strike up with a newspaper man whose office is in the same block as Creake’s. When I mentioned the name he grinned. ‘Creake,’ he said, ‘oh, he’s the man with the romantic typist, isn’t he?’ ‘Well, he’s my brother-in-law,’ I replied. ‘What about the typist?’ Then the chap shut up like a knife. ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘I didn’t know he was married. I don’t want to get mixed up in anything of that sort. I only said that he had a typist. Well, what of that? So have we; so has everyone.’ There was nothing more to be got out of him, but the remark and the grin meant—well, about as usual, Mr Carrados.”
Carrados turned to his friend.
“I suppose you know all about the typist by now, Louis?”
“We have had her under efficient observation, Max,” replied Mr Carlyle, with severe dignity.
“Is she unmarried?”
“Yes; so far as ordinary repute goes, she is.”
“That is all that is essential for the moment. Mr Hollyer opens up three excellent reasons why this man might wish to dispose of his wife. If we accept the suggestion of poisoning—though we have only a jealous woman’s suspicion for it—we add to the wish the determination. Well, we will go forward on that. Have you got a photograph of Mr Creake?”
The lieutenant took out his pocket-book.
“Mr Carlyle asked me for one. Here is the best I could get.”
Carrados rang the bell.
“This, Parkinson,” he said, when the man appeared, “is a photograph of a Mr——What first name, by the way?”
“Austin,” put in Hollyer, who was following everything with a boyish mixture of excitement and subdued importance.
“—of a Mr Austin Creake. I may require you to recognize him.”
Parkinson glanced at the print and returned it to his master’s hand.
“May I inquire if it is a recent photograph of the gentleman, sir?” he asked.
“About six years ago,” said the lieutenant, taking in this new actor in the drama with frank curiosity. “But he is very little changed.”
“Thank you, sir. I will endeavour to remember Mr Creake, sir.”
Lieutenant Hollyer stood up as Parkinson left the room. The interview seemed to be at an end.
“Oh, there’s one other matter,” he remarked. “I am afraid that I did rather an unfortunate thing while I was at Brookbend. It seemed to me that as all Millicent’s money would probably pass into Creake’s hands sooner or later I might as well have my five hundred pounds, if only to help her with afterwards. So I broached the subject and said that I should like to have it now as I had an opportunity for investing.”
“And you think?”
“It may possibly influence Creake to act sooner than he otherwise might have done. He may have got possession of the principal even and find it very awkward to replace it.”
“So much the better. If your sister is going to be murdered it may as well be done next week as next year so far as I am concerned. Excuse my brutality, Mr Hollyer, but this is simply a case to me and I regard it strategically. Now Mr Carlyle’s organization can look after Mrs Creake for a few weeks but it cannot look after her for ever. By increasing the immediate risk we diminish the permanent risk.”
“I see,” agreed Hollyer. “I’m awfully uneasy but I’m entirely in your hands.”
“Then we will give Mr Creake every inducement and every opportunity to get to work. Where are you staying now?”
“Just now with some friends at St Albans.”
“That is too far.” The inscrutable eyes retained their tranquil depth but a new quality of quickening interest in the voice made Mr Carlyle forget the weight and burden of his ruffled dignity. “Give me a few minutes, please. The cigarettes are behind you, Mr Hollyer.” The blind man walked to the window and seemed to look out over the cypress-shaded lawn. The lieutenant lit a cigarette and Mr Carlyle picked up Punch. Then Carrados turned round again.
“You are prepared to put your own arrangements aside?” he demanded of his visitor.
“Very well. I want you to go down now—straight from here—to Brookbend Cottage. Tell your sister that your leave is unexpectedly cut short and that you sail to-morrow.”
“No, no; the Martian doesn’t sail. Look up the movements on your way there and pick out a boat that does. Say you are transferred. Add that you expect to be away only two or three months and that you really want the five hundred pounds by the time of your return. Don’t stay in the house long, please.”
“I understand, sir.”
“St Albans is too far. Make your excuse and get away from there to-day. Put up somewhere in town, where you will be in reach of the telephone. Let Mr Carlyle and myself know where you are. Keep out of Creake’s way. I don’t want actually to tie you down to the house, but we may require your services. We will let you know at the first sign of anything doing and if there is nothing to be done we must release you.”
“I don’t mind that. Is there nothing more that I can do now?”
“Nothing. In going to Mr Carlyle you have done the best thing possible; you have put your sister into the care of the shrewdest man in London.” Whereat the object of this quite unexpected eulogy found himself becoming covered with modest confusion.
“Well, Max?” remarked Mr Carlyle tentatively when they were alone.
“Of course it wasn’t worth while rubbing it in before young Hollyer, but, as a matter of fact, every single man carries the life of any other man—only one, mind you—in his hands, do what you will.”
“Provided he doesn’t bungle,” acquiesced Carrados.
“And also that he is absolutely reckless of the consequences.”
“Two rather large provisos. Creake is obviously susceptible to both. Have you seen him?”
“No. As I told you, I put a man on to report his habits in town. Then, two days ago, as the case seemed to promise some interest—for he certainly is deeply involved with the typist, Max, and the thing might take a sensational turn any time—I went down to Mulling Common myself. Although the house is lonely it is on the electric tram route. You know the sort of market garden rurality that about a dozen miles out of London offers—alternate bricks and cabbages. It was easy enough to get to know about Creake locally. He mixes with no one there, goes into town at irregular times but generally every day, and is reputed to be devilish hard to get money out of. Finally I made the acquaintance of an old fellow who used to do a day’s gardening at Brookbend occasionally. He has a cottage and a garden of his own with a greenhouse, and the business cost me the price of a pound of tomatoes.”
“Was it—a profitable investment?”
“As tomatoes, yes; as information, no. The old fellow had the fatal disadvantage from our point of view of labouring under a grievance. A few weeks ago Creake told him that he would not require him again as he was going to do his own gardening in future.”
“That is something, Louis.”
“If only Creake was going to poison his wife with hyoscyamine and bury her, instead of blowing her up with a dynamite cartridge and claiming that it came in among the coal.”
“True, true. Still——”
“However, the chatty old soul had a simple explanation for everything that Creake did. Creake was mad. He had even seen him flying a kite in his garden where it was bound to get wrecked among the trees. ‘A lad of ten would have known better,’ he declared. And certainly the kite did get wrecked, for I saw it hanging over the road myself. But that a sane man should spend his time ‘playing with a toy’ was beyond him.”
“A good many men have been flying kites of various kinds lately,” said Carrados. “Is he interested in aviation?”
“I dare say. He appears to have some knowledge of scientific subjects. Now what do you want me to do, Max?”
“Will you do it?”
“Implicitly—subject to the usual reservations.”
“Keep your man on Creake in town and let me have his reports after you have seen them. Lunch with me here now. ‘Phone up to your office that you are detained on unpleasant business and then give the deserving Parkinson an afternoon off by looking after me while we take a motor run round Mulling Common. If we have time we might go on to Brighton, feed at the ‘Ship,’ and come back in the cool.”
“Amiable and thrice lucky mortal,” sighed Mr Carlyle, his glance wandering round the room.
But, as it happened, Brighton did not figure in that day’s itinerary. It had been Carrados’s intention merely to pass Brookbend Cottage on this occasion, relying on his highly developed faculties, aided by Mr Carlyle’s description, to inform him of the surroundings. A hundred yards before they reached the house he had given an order to his chauffeur to drop into the lowest speed and they were leisurely drawing past when a discovery by Mr Carlyle modified their plans.
“By Jupiter!” that gentleman suddenly exclaimed, “there’s a board up, Max. The place is to be let.”
Carrados picked up the tube again. A couple of sentences passed and the car stopped by the roadside, a score of paces past the limit of the garden. Mr Carlyle took out his notebook and wrote down the address of a firm of house agents.
“You might raise the bonnet and have a look at the engines, Harris,” said Carrados. “We want to be occupied here for a few minutes.”
“This is sudden; Hollyer knew nothing of their leaving,” remarked Mr Carlyle.
“Probably not for three months yet. All the same, Louis, we will go on to the agents and get a card to view, whether we use it to-day or not.”
A thick hedge, in its summer dress effectively screening the house beyond from public view, lay between the garden and the road. Above the hedge showed an occasional shrub; at the corner nearest to the car a chestnut flourished. The wooden gate, once white; which they had passed, was grimed and rickety. The road itself was still the unpretentious country lane that the advent of the electric car had found it. When Carrados had taken in these details there seemed little else to notice. He was on the point of giving Harris the order to go on when his ear caught a trivial sound.
“Someone is coming out of the house, Louis,” he warned his friend. “It may be Hollyer, but he ought to have gone by this time.”
“I don’t hear anyone,” replied the other, but as he spoke a door banged noisily and Mr Carlyle slipped into another seat and ensconced himself behind a copy of The Globe.
“Creake himself,” he whispered across the car, as a man appeared at the gate. “Hollyer was right; he is hardly changed. Waiting for a car, I suppose.”
But a car very soon swung past them from the direction in which Mr Creake was looking and it did not interest him. For a minute or two longer he continued to look expectantly along the road. Then he walked slowly up the drive back to the house.
“We will give him five or ten minutes,” decided Carrados. “Harris is behaving very naturally.”
Before even the shorter period had run out they were repaid. A telegraph-boy cycled leisurely along the road, and, leaving his machine at the gate, went up to the cottage. Evidently there was no reply, for in less than a minute he was trundling past them back again. Round the bend an approaching tram clanged its bell noisily, and, quickened by the warning sound, Mr Creake again appeared, this time with a small portmanteau in his hand. With a backward glance he hurried on towards the next stopping-place, and, boarding the car as it slackened down, he was carried out of their knowledge.
“Very convenient of Mr Creake,” remarked Carrados, with quiet satisfaction. “We will now get the order and go over the house in his absence. It might be useful to have a look at the wire as well.”
“It might, Max,” acquiesced Mr Carlyle a little dryly. “But if it is, as it probably is, in Creake’s pocket, how do you propose to get it?”
“By going to the post office, Louis.”
“Quite so. Have you ever tried to see a copy of a telegram addressed to someone else?”
“I don’t think I have ever had occasion yet,” admitted Carrados. “Have you?”
“In one or two cases I have perhaps been an accessory to the act. It is generally a matter either of extreme delicacy or considerable expenditure.”
“Then for Hollyer’s sake we will hope for the former here.” And Mr Carlyle smiled darkly and hinted that he was content to wait for a friendly revenge.
A little later, having left the car at the beginning of the straggling High Street, the two men called at the village post office. They had already visited the house agent and obtained an order to view Brookbend Cottage, declining, with some difficulty, the clerk’s persistent offer to accompany them. The reason was soon forthcoming. “As a matter of fact,” explained the young man, “the present tenant is under ournotice to leave.”
“Unsatisfactory, eh?” said Carrados encouragingly.
“He’s a corker,” admitted the clerk, responding to the friendly tone. “Fifteen months and not a doit of rent have we had. That’s why I should have liked——”
“We will make every allowance,” replied Carrados.
The post office occupied one side of a stationer’s shop. It was not without some inward trepidation that Mr Carlyle found himself committed to the adventure. Carrados, on the other hand, was the personification of bland unconcern.
“You have just sent a telegram to Brookbend Cottage,” he said to the young lady behind the brasswork lattice. “We think it may have come inaccurately and should like a repeat.” He took out his purse. “What is the fee?”
The request was evidently not a common one. “Oh,” said the girl uncertainly, “wait a minute, please.” She turned to a pile of telegram duplicates behind the desk and ran a doubtful finger along the upper sheets. “I think this is all right. You want it repeated?”
“Please.” Just a tinge of questioning surprise gave point to the courteous tone.
“It will be fourpence. If there is an error the amount will be refunded.”
Carrados put down a coin and received his change.
“Will it take long?” he inquired carelessly, as he pulled on his glove.
“You will most likely get it within a quarter of an hour,” she replied.
“Now you’ve done it,” commented Mr Carlyle, as they walked back to their car. “How do you propose to get that telegram, Max?”
“Ask for it,” was the laconic explanation.
And, stripping the artifice of any elaboration, he simply asked for it and got it. The car, posted at a convenient bend in the road, gave him a warning note as the telegraph-boy approached. Then Carrados took up a convincing attitude with his hand on the gate while Mr Carlyle lent himself to the semblance of a departing friend. That was the inevitable impression when the boy rode up.
“Creake, Brookbend Cottage?” inquired Carrados, holding out his hand, and without a second thought the boy gave him the envelope and rode away on the assurance that there would be no reply.
“Some day, my friend,” remarked Mr Carlyle, looking nervously towards the unseen house, “your ingenuity will get you into a tight corner.”
“Then my ingenuity must get me out again,” was the retort. “Let us have our ‘view’ now. The telegram can wait.”
An untidy workwoman took their order and left them standing at the door. Presently a lady whom they both knew to be Mrs Creake appeared.
“You wish to see over the house?” she said, in a voice that was utterly devoid of any interest. Then, without waiting for a reply, she turned to the nearest door and threw it open.
“This is the drawing-room,” she said, standing aside.
They walked into a sparsely furnished, damp-smelling room and made a pretence of looking round, while Mrs Creake remained silent and aloof.
“The dining-room,” she continued, crossing the narrow hall and opening another door.
Mr Carlyle ventured a genial commonplace in the hope of inducing conversation. The result was not encouraging. Doubtless they would have gone through the house under the same frigid guidance had not Carrados been at fault in a way that Mr Carlyle had never known him fail before. In crossing the hall he stumbled over a mat and almost fell.
“Pardon my clumsiness,” he said to the lady. “I am, unfortunately, quite blind. But,” he added, with a smile, to turn off the mishap, “even a blind man must have a house.”
The man who had eyes was surprised to see a flood of colour rush into Mrs Creake’s face.
“Blind!” she exclaimed, “oh, I beg your pardon. Why did you not tell me? You might have fallen.”
“I generally manage fairly well,” he replied. “But, of course, in a strange house——”
She put her hand on his arm very lightly.
“You must let me guide you, just a little,” she said.
The house, without being large, was full of passages and inconvenient turnings. Carrados asked an occasional question and found Mrs Creake quite amiable without effusion. Mr Carlyle followed them from room to room in the hope, though scarcely the expectation, of learning something that might be useful.
“This is the last one. It is the largest bedroom,” said their guide. Only two of the upper rooms were fully furnished and Mr Carlyle at once saw, as Carrados knew without seeing, that this was the one which the Creakes occupied.
“A very pleasant outlook,” declared Mr Carlyle.
“Oh, I suppose so,” admitted the lady vaguely. The room, in fact, looked over the leafy garden and the road beyond. It had a French window opening on to a small balcony, and to this, under the strange influence that always attracted him to light, Carrados walked.
“I expect that there is a certain amount of repair needed?” he said, after standing there a moment.
“I am afraid there would be,” she confessed.
“I ask because there is a sheet of metal on the floor here,” he continued. “Now that, in an old house, spells dry rot to the wary observer.”
“My husband said that the rain, which comes in a little under the window, was rotting the boards there,” she replied. “He put that down recently. I had not noticed anything myself.”
It was the first time she had mentioned her husband; Mr Carlyle pricked up his ears.
“Ah, that is a less serious matter,” said Carrados. “May I step out on to the balcony?”
“Oh yes, if you like to.” Then, as he appeared to be fumbling at the catch, “Let me open it for you.”
But the window was already open, and Carrados, facing the various points of the compass, took in the bearings.
“A sunny, sheltered corner,” he remarked. “An ideal spot for a deck-chair and a book.”
She shrugged her shoulders half contemptuously.
“I dare say,” she replied, “but I never use it.”
“Sometimes, surely,” he persisted mildly. “It would be my favourite retreat. But then——”
“I was going to say that I had never even been out on it, but that would not be quite true. It has two uses for me, both equally romantic; I occasionally shake a duster from it, and when my husband returns late without his latchkey he wakes me up and I come out here and drop him mine.”
Further revelation of Mr Creake’s nocturnal habits was cut off, greatly to Mr Carlyle’s annoyance, by a cough of unmistakable significance from the foot of the stairs. They had heard a trade cart drive up to the gate, a knock at the door, and the heavy-footed woman tramp along the hall.
“Excuse me a minute, please,” said Mrs Creake.
“Louis,” said Carrados, in a sharp whisper, the moment they were alone, “stand against the door.”
With extreme plausibility Mr Carlyle began to admire a picture so situated that while he was there it was impossible to open the door more than a few inches. From that position he observed his confederate go through the curious procedure of kneeling down on the bedroom floor and for a full minute pressing his ear to the sheet of metal that had already engaged his attention. Then he rose to his feet, nodded, dusted his trousers, and Mr Carlyle moved to a less equivocal position.
“What a beautiful rose-tree grows up your balcony,” remarked Carrados, stepping into the room as Mrs Creake returned. “I suppose you are very fond of gardening?”
“I detest it,” she replied.
“But this Glorie, so carefully trained——?”
“Is it?” she replied. “I think my husband was nailing it up recently.” By some strange fatality Carrados’s most aimless remarks seemed to involve the absent Mr Creake. “Do you care to see the garden?”
The garden proved to be extensive and neglected. Behind the house was chiefly orchard. In front, some semblance of order had been kept up; here it was lawn and shrubbery, and the drive they had walked along. Two things interested Carrados: the soil at the foot of the balcony, which he declared on examination to be particularly suitable for roses, and the fine chestnut-tree in the corner by the road.
As they walked back to the car Mr Carlyle lamented that they had learned so little of Creake’s movements.
“Perhaps the telegram will tell us something,” suggested Carrados. “Read it, Louis.”
Mr Carlyle cut open the envelope, glanced at the enclosure, and in spite of his disappointment could not restrain a chuckle.
“My poor Max,” he explained, “you have put yourself to an amount of ingenious trouble for nothing. Creake is evidently taking a few days’ holiday and prudently availed himself of the Meteorological Office forecast before going. Listen: ‘Immediate prospect for London warm and settled. Further outlook cooler but fine.‘ Well, well; I did get a pound of tomatoes for my fourpence.”
“You certainly scored there, Louis,” admitted Carrados, with humorous appreciation. “I wonder,” he added speculatively, “whether it is Creake’s peculiar taste usually to spend his week-end holiday in London.”
“Eh?” exclaimed Mr Carlyle, looking at the words again, “by gad, that’s rum, Max. They go to Weston-super-Mare. Why on earth should he want to know about London?”
“I can make a guess, but before we are satisfied I must come here again. Take another look at that kite, Louis. Are there a few yards of string hanging loose from it?”
“Yes, there are.”
“Rather thick string—unusually thick for the purpose?”
“Yes; but how do you know?”
As they drove home again Carrados explained, and Mr Carlyle sat aghast, saying incredulously: “Good God, Max, is it possible?”
An hour later he was satisfied that it was possible. In reply to his inquiry someone in his office telephoned him the information that “they” had left Paddington by the four-thirty for Weston.
It was more than a week after his introduction to Carrados that Lieutenant Hollyer had a summons to present himself at The Turrets again. He found Mr Carlyle already there and the two friends awaiting his arrival.
“I stayed in all day after hearing from you this morning, Mr Carrados,” he said, shaking hands. “When I got your second message I was all ready to walk straight out of the house. That’s how I did it in the time. I hope everything is all right?”
“Excellent,” replied Carrados. “You’d better have something before we start. We probably have a long and perhaps an exciting night before us.”
“And certainly a wet one,” assented the lieutenant. “It was thundering over Mulling way as I came along.”
“That is why you are here,” said his host. “We are waiting for a certain message before we start, and in the meantime you may as well understand what we expect to happen. As you saw, there is a thunderstorm coming on. The Meteorological Office morning forecast predicted it for the whole of London if the conditions remained. That was why I kept you in readiness. Within an hour it is now inevitable that we shall experience a deluge. Here and there damage will be done to trees and buildings; here and there a person will probably be struck and killed.”
“It is Mr Creake’s intention that his wife should be among the victims.”
“I don’t exactly follow,” said Hollyer, looking from one man to the other. “I quite admit that Creake would be immensely relieved if such a thing did happen, but the chance is surely an absurdly remote one.”
“Yet unless we intervene it is precisely what a coroner’s jury will decide has happened. Do you know whether your brother-in-law has any practical knowledge of electricity, Mr Hollyer?”
“I cannot say. He was so reserved, and we really knew so little of him——”
“Yet in 1896 an Austin Creake contributed an article on ‘Alternating Currents’ to the American Scientific World. That would argue a fairly intimate acquaintanceship.”
“But do you mean that he is going to direct a flash of lightning?”
“Only into the minds of the doctor who conducts the post-mortem, and the coroner. This storm, the opportunity for which he has been waiting for weeks, is merely the cloak to his act. The weapon which he has planned to use—scarcely less powerful than lightning but much more tractable—is the high voltage current of electricity that flows along the tram wire at his gate.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Lieutenant Hollyer, as the sudden revelation struck him.
“Some time between eleven o’clock to-night—about the hour when your sister goes to bed—and one-thirty in the morning—the time up to which he can rely on the current—Creake will throw a stone up at the balcony window. Most of his preparation has long been made; it only remains for him to connect up a short length to the window handle and a longer one at the other end to tap the live wire. That done, he will wake his wife in the way I have said. The moment she moves the catch of the window—and he has carefully filed its parts to ensure perfect contact—she will be electrocuted as effectually as if she sat in the executioner’s chair in Sing Sing prison.”
“But what are we doing here!” exclaimed Hollyer, starting to his feet, pale and horrified. “It is past ten now and anything may happen.”
“Quite natural, Mr Hollyer,” said Carrados reassuringly, “but you need have no anxiety. Creake is being watched, the house is being watched, and your sister is as safe as if she slept to-night in Windsor Castle. Be assured that whatever happens he will not be allowed to complete his scheme; but it is desirable to let him implicate himself to the fullest limit. Your brother-in-law, Mr Hollyer, is a man with a peculiar capacity for taking pains.”
“He is a damned cold-blooded scoundrel!” exclaimed the young officer fiercely. “When I think of Millicent five years ago——”
“Well, for that matter, an enlightened nation has decided that electrocution is the most humane way of removing its superfluous citizens,” suggested Carrados mildly. “He is certainly an ingenious-minded gentleman. It is his misfortune that in Mr Carlyle he was fated to be opposed by an even subtler brain——”
“No, no! Really, Max!” protested the embarrassed gentleman.
“Mr Hollyer will be able to judge for himself when I tell him that it was Mr Carlyle who first drew attention to the significance of the abandoned kite,” insisted Carrados firmly. “Then, of course, its object became plain to me—as indeed to anyone. For ten minutes, perhaps, a wire must be carried from the overhead line to the chestnut-tree. Creake has everything in his favour, but it is just within possibility that the driver of an inopportune tram might notice the appendage. What of that? Why, for more than a week he has seen a derelict kite with its yards of trailing string hanging in the tree. A very calculating mind, Mr Hollyer. It would be interesting to know what line of action Mr Creake has mapped out for himself afterwards. I expect he has half-a-dozen artistic little touches up his sleeve. Possibly he would merely singe his wife’s hair, burn her feet with a red-hot poker, shiver the glass of the French window, and be content with that to let well alone. You see, lightning is so varied in its effects that whatever he did or did not do would be right. He is in the impregnable position of the body showing all the symptoms of death by lightning shock and nothing else but lightning to account for it—a dilated eye, heart contracted in systole, bloodless lungs shrunk to a third the normal weight, and all the rest of it. When he has removed a few outward traces of his work Creake might quite safely ‘discover’ his dead wife and rush off for the nearest doctor. Or he may have decided to arrange a convincing alibi, and creep away, leaving the discovery to another. We shall never know; he will make no confession.”
“I wish it was well over,” admitted Hollyer. “I’m not particularly jumpy, but this gives me a touch of the creeps.”
“Three more hours at the worst, Lieutenant,” said Carrados cheerfully. “Ah-ha, something is coming through now.”
He went to the telephone and received a message from one quarter; then made another connection and talked for a few minutes with someone else.
“Everything working smoothly,” he remarked between times over his shoulder. “Your sister has gone to bed, Mr Hollyer.”
Then he turned to the house telephone and distributed his orders.
“So we,” he concluded, “must get up.”
By the time they were ready a large closed motor car was waiting. The lieutenant thought he recognized Parkinson in the well-swathed form beside the driver, but there was no temptation to linger for a second on the steps. Already the stinging rain had lashed the drive into the semblance of a frothy estuary; all round the lightning jagged its course through the incessant tremulous glow of more distant lightning, while the thunder only ceased its muttering to turn at close quarters and crackle viciously.
“One of the few things I regret missing,” remarked Carrados tranquilly; “but I hear a good deal of colour in it.”
The car slushed its way down to the gate, lurched a little heavily across the dip into the road, and, steadying as it came upon the straight, began to hum contentedly along the deserted highway.
“We are not going direct?” suddenly inquired Hollyer, after they had travelled perhaps half-a-dozen miles. The night was bewildering enough but he had the sailor’s gift for location.
“No; through Hunscott Green and then by a field-path to the orchard at the back,” replied Carrados. “Keep a sharp look out for the man with the lantern about here, Harris,” he called through the tube.
“Something flashing just ahead, sir,” came the reply, and the car slowed down and stopped.
Carrados dropped the near window as a man in glistening waterproof stepped from the shelter of a lich-gate and approached.
“Inspector Beedel, sir,” said the stranger, looking into the car.
“Quite right, Inspector,” said Carrados. “Get in.”
“I have a man with me, sir.”
“We can find room for him as well.”
“We are very wet.”
“So shall we all be soon.”
The lieutenant changed his seat and the two burly forms took places side by side. In less than five minutes the car stopped again, this time in a grassy country lane.
“Now we have to face it,” announced Carrados. “The inspector will show us the way.”
The car slid round and disappeared into the night, while Beedel led the party to a stile in the hedge. A couple of fields brought them to the Brookbend boundary. There a figure stood out of the black foliage, exchanged a few words with their guide and piloted them along the shadows of the orchard to the back door of the house.
“You will find a broken pane near the catch of the scullery window,” said the blind man.
“Right, sir,” replied the inspector. “I have it. Now who goes through?”
“Mr Hollyer will open the door for us. I’m afraid you must take off your boots and all wet things, Lieutenant. We cannot risk a single spot inside.”
They waited until the back door opened, then each one divested himself in a similar manner and passed into the kitchen, where the remains of a fire still burned. The man from the orchard gathered together the discarded garments and disappeared again.
Carrados turned to the lieutenant.
“A rather delicate job for you now, Mr Hollyer. I want you to go up to your sister, wake her, and get her into another room with as little fuss as possible. Tell her as much as you think fit and let her understand that her very life depends on absolute stillness when she is alone. Don’t be unduly hurried, but not a glimmer of a light, please.”
Ten minutes passed by the measure of the battered old alarum on the dresser shelf before the young man returned.
“I’ve had rather a time of it,” he reported, with a nervous laugh, “but I think it will be all right now. She is in the spare room.”
“Then we will take our places. You and Parkinson come with me to the bedroom. Inspector, you have your own arrangements. Mr Carlyle will be with you.”
They dispersed silently about the house. Hollyer glanced apprehensively at the door of the spare room as they passed it but within was as quiet as the grave. Their room lay at the other end of the passage.
“You may as well take your place in the bed now, Hollyer,” directed Carrados when they were inside and the door closed. “Keep well down among the clothes. Creake has to get up on the balcony, you know, and he will probably peep through the window, but he dare come no farther. Then when he begins to throw up stones slip on this dressing-gown of your sister’s. I’ll tell you what to do after.”
The next sixty minutes drew out into the longest hour that the lieutenant had ever known. Occasionally he heard a whisper pass between the two men who stood behind the window curtains, but he could see nothing. Then Carrados threw a guarded remark in his direction.
“He is in the garden now.”
Something scraped slightly against the outer wall. But the night was full of wilder sounds, and in the house the furniture and the boards creaked and sprung between the yawling of the wind among the chimneys, the rattle of the thunder and the pelting of the rain. It was a time to quicken the steadiest pulse, and when the crucial moment came, when a pebble suddenly rang against the pane with a sound that the tense waiting magnified into a shivering crash, Hollyer leapt from the bed on the instant.
“Easy, easy,” warned Carrados feelingly. “We will wait for another knock.” He passed something across. “Here is a rubber glove. I have cut the wire but you had better put it on. Stand just for a moment at the window, move the catch so that it can blow open a little, and drop immediately. Now.”
Another stone had rattled against the glass. For Hollyer to go through his part was the work merely of seconds, and with a few touches Carrados spread the dressing-gown to more effective disguise about the extended form. But an unforeseen and in the circumstances rather horrible interval followed, for Creake, in accordance with some detail of his never-revealed plan, continued to shower missile after missile against the panes until even the unimpressionable Parkinson shivered.
“The last act,” whispered Carrados, a moment after the throwing had ceased. “He has gone round to the back. Keep as you are. We take cover now.” He pressed behind the arras of an extemporized wardrobe, and the spirit of emptiness and desolation seemed once more to reign over the lonely house.
From half-a-dozen places of concealment ears were straining to catch the first guiding sound. He moved very stealthily, burdened, perhaps, by some strange scruple in the presence of the tragedy that he had not feared to contrive, paused for a moment at the bedroom door, then opened it very quietly, and in the fickle light read the consummation of his hopes.
“At last!” they heard the sharp whisper drawn from his relief. “At last!”
He took another step and two shadows seemed to fall upon him from behind, one on either side. With primitive instinct a cry of terror and surprise escaped him as he made a desperate movement to wrench himself free, and for a short second he almost succeeded in dragging one hand into a pocket. Then his wrists slowly came together and the handcuffs closed.
“I am Inspector Beedel,” said the man on his right side. “You are charged with the attempted murder of your wife, Millicent Creake.”
“You are mad,” retorted the miserable creature, falling into a desperate calmness. “She has been struck by lightning.”
“No, you blackguard, she hasn’t,” wrathfully exclaimed his brother-in-law, jumping up. “Would you like to see her?”
“I also have to warn you,” continued the inspector impassively, “that anything you say may be used as evidence against you.”
A startled cry from the farther end of the passage arrested their attention.
“Mr Carrados,” called Hollyer, “oh, come at once.”
At the open door of the other bedroom stood the lieutenant, his eyes still turned towards something in the room beyond, a little empty bottle in his hand.
“Dead!” he exclaimed tragically, with a sob, “with this beside her. Dead just when she would have been free of the brute.”
The blind man passed into the room, sniffed the air, and laid a gentle hand on the pulseless heart.
“Yes,” he replied. “That, Hollyer, does not always appeal to the woman, strange to say.”