|PLANETOID 127 by Edgar Wallace|
HILDRETH’S face went white.
“Do you suggest that I am responsible for Colson’s death?”
“You were responsible directly and indirectly,” said Tim. “You sent a man here to steal the code-book—a man who has been identified this afternoon as a notorious criminal. Whether you told him to shoot, or whether he shot to save his skin, we shall never know. The burglar was killed so that he should not blab.”
“By whom?” asked Hildreth steadily.
“You know best,” was the curt reply.
Tim opened the door and stood waiting. The man had regained some of his composure, and, with an easy laugh, walked into the corridor. “You will hear from me again,” he said.
“Thank you for the warning,” was Tim’s rejoinder.
After he had seen his unwelcome visitor off the premises, Tim went in search of Stamford, who, with his two assistants, was working in a little study getting out particulars of the old man’s investments. The lawyer listened in silence while Tim narrated what had passed.
“He is a very dangerous man,” said Mr. Stamford at last; “and, so far from being rich, I happen to know that he is on the verge of ruin. There are some queer stories about Hildreth. I have had a hint that he was once in an Australian prison, but, of course, there is no evidence to connect him with this terrible crime. What are your immediate plans?”
“The voice amplifier has been reconstituted,” said Tim. “The experts are making a test to-day, though I very much doubt whether they will succeed in establishing communication.”
A smile fluttered at the corner of the lawyer’s mouth.
“Do you still believe that Mr. Colson was in communication with another planet?”
“I’m certain,” said Tim emphatically.
He went back to the blue drawing-room, and had hardly entered before Sir Charles came in.
“It is as I thought,” said the scientist; “neither Zeta nor Theta! It is, in fact, a distinct body of some kind, and, in my judgment, well outside the orbit of the hypothetical Vulcan. If you look at the back of the photograph—”
He turned it over, and Tim saw that, written in pencil in the microscopic calligraphy of the Professor, were a dozen lines of writing.
“I knew, of course, that this was a dead world, without atmosphere or even water. There can be no life there. I made an enlargement by my new process, and this revealed a series of flat, rocky valleys.”
“What the deuce his new process was, heaven only knows!” said Sir Charles in despair. “Poor Colson must have been the most versatile genius the world has known. At any rate, that disposes of the suggestion that this planetary body is that whence come the signals—if they come at all.”
Sir Charles waited until the experts had finished the work of reassembling two of the more complicated machines; but, though experimenting until midnight, they could not establish communication, and at last, with a sense of despair, Tim ordered the work to cease for the night.
The whole thing was becoming a nightmare to him: he could not sleep at nights. Chap and his sister came over in the morning to assist him in a search, which had gone on ever since the death of Professor Colson.
“We can do no more,” said Tim helplessly, “until we have seen the Professor’s manuscript. Until then we do not know for what we are searching.”
“What about that stone in the garden? Won’t that tell you anything?” asked Chap. “I’d like to see it.”
They went out into the courtyard together and stood before the stone in silence.
E 6 O 1 T 2 D 4 H 4 L 1 A 1 N 3 W 1 U 1 R 2 B 1 I 3 S 2
“Of course, that isn’t as difficult as it appears,” said Chap, to whom cryptograms were a passion. “There is a sentence written there, containing so many ‘e’s’, so many ‘h’s’, etcetera, and perhaps, when we find the sentence, the mystery will be half solved.”
He jotted the inscription down in a notebook, and throughout the day was puzzling over a solution. Night came, and the two were on the point of departure, when Chap said suddenly: “Do you think you were wise, Timothy, to tell the reporter Johnny all you did?”
(Tim had given an interview to a local newspaper, which had described more fully than he had intended—more fully, indeed, than his evidence at the inquest—what had happened immediately preceding Colson’s death.)
“Because, y’ know, it struck me,” said Chap, “that the poor old Professor’s manuscript would be very valuable to a certain person. Does it occur to you that our friend might also be searching for this narrative?”
This was a new idea to Tim.
“Why, yes,” he said slowly; “I never thought of that. No; that didn’t strike me. But I don’t know where he would find it. We’ve taken out every likely stone in the building; I’ve had the cellars searched—”
“What makes you think it’s behind a stone?” asked Chap.
“His reference to a mason. My guess—and I may not be far wide of the mark—is that Mr. Colson, having written his manuscript, hid it in one of the walls. But so far I have not been able to discover the hiding-place.”
He walked to the end of the drive to see his friends off, and then returned to the study. He was alone in the house now, save for the servants. Sir Charles had gone back to town by the last train, and Stamford had accompanied him.
The butler came in to ask if he wanted anything before he went to bed, and Tim shook his head.
He had taken up his quarters in a spare room immediately above the library, and for an hour after his visitors had departed he sat on the broad window-seat, looking down into the courtyard, now bathed in the faint radiance of the crescent moon. The light shone whitely upon the cryptogram stone, and absent-mindedly he fixed his eyes upon this, the least of the old man’s mysteries. And then—was his eye playing tricks with him? He could have sworn he saw a dark figure melt out of the darkness and move along the shadow of the box hedge.
He pushed open the casement window, but could see nothing.
“I’m getting jumpy,” he said to himself, and rising with a yawn, took off his coat preparatory to undressing. As he did so, he glanced out of the window again and started. Now he was sure: he could see the shapeless black shadow, and it was moving towards the cryptogram stone.
His pulse beat a little quicker as he watched. There was no doubt about it now. In the moonlight the figure in the long black coat and the broad sombrero which shaded his face, stood clearly revealed. It was touching the stone, and even as Tim looked the little obelisk fell with a crash.
In a second Tim was out of the room and speeding along the corridor. As he came into view of the figure, it stooped and picked something from the ground.
The manuscript! What a fool he had been! That was where the old man had concealed the story of his discovery! But there was no time for regret: the mysterious visitant had already disappeared into the shadows. Was he making for the river? Tim was uncertain. He was halfway down the slope before he realised that he had made a mistake. Behind him he heard the soft purr of a motor-car, and, racing up the slope, he came into view of a red tail-light as it disappeared down the broad drive towards the road. The great iron gates were closed, and that would give him a momentary advantage, though he knew he could not reach the car before they were open.
Then he remembered Colson’s motor-bicycle: he had left it leaning against the wall and had forgotten to bring it in after the trip he had made to Bisham that morning. Yes, there it was! He had hardly started the machine going when he heard a crash. The unknown had driven his car through the frail iron gates and was flying along the road to Maidenhead.
Tim came out in pursuit and put his machine all out. The car ahead gained until it came to the foot of a long and tiring hill, and then the gap between them closed. Once the driver looked back, and a minute later something dropped in the road. Tim only just avoided the spare tyre, which had been thrown overboard to trip him.
The car reached the crest of the hill as Tim came up to its rear, and, heedless of danger, stretched out his hand, and, catching hold of the hood, let the motor-bicycle slip from between his knees.
For a second he held on desperately, his feet swinging in the air, and then, with an effort, he threw his leg over the edge of the hood and dropped breathlessly on to the seat behind the driver. At first the man at the wheel did not realise what had happened, and then, with a yell of rage, he turned and struck blindly at the unauthorised passenger.
The blow missed him by a fraction of an inch, and in another second his arm was around the driver’s neck. The car swayed and slowed, and then an involuntary movement of the man revealed the whereabouts of the manuscript. Tim thrust into the inside-pocket and his fingers touched a heavy roll of paper. In a flash the packet was in his hand, and then he saw the moonlight gleam on something which the man held.
The car was now almost at a standstill, and, leaping over the side, Tim plunged into the hedge by the side of the road. As he did so, he heard the “zip!” of a bullet and the patter of leaves. He ran on wildly, his breath coming in short gasps. To his ears came the blundering feet of his pursuer. He was out of breath and in no condition to meet the murderous onrush of his enemy.
And then, as he felt he could not go a step farther, the ground opened underneath his feet and he went down, down, down. For a second he lost consciousness. All that remained of his breath was knocked from his body, and he could only lie and gape at the starlit sky.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK