The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 16

Dan’s Diplomacy

Mrs. Pelgrin welcomed her unexpected guests with great delight and showed her appreciation of their coming by emphatic aggressiveness. Why she should mask a kind heart and an excellent disposition by assuming a brusque demeanour is not very clear, but certainly the more amiable she felt the more disagreeable did she become. In fact, the landlady appeared to believe that honesty of purpose was best shown by blunt speeches and abrupt movements. Consequently, she did not get on particularly well with Mrs. Bolstreath, who demanded respect and deference from underlings, which Mrs. Pelgrin positively declined to render. She termed the chaperon “a fine madam,” in the same spirit as she had called Dan “a butterfly,” and was always ready for a war of words. But, admiring Lillian’s gay and lively character, she waited on the girl hand and foot, yet with an air of protest to hide the real satisfaction she felt at having her in the house. To Mrs. Pelgrin, Lillian was a goddess who had descended from high Olympus to mingle for a time with mere mortals.

Out of consideration for Halliday’s desire to seek safety for Lillian by placing her under the guns of the enemy, Mrs. Bolstreath decided to remain a week at The Peacock Hotel. Later she arranged to go to Hartlepool in Durhamshire, where she and her charge could find shelter with two spinsters who kept a school. The chaperon admitted that she felt uneasy in the near vicinity of Queen Beelzebub, and all Dan’s assurance could not quieten her fears. She thought that he was playing too bold a game, and that ill would come of the stay at Sheepeak. Lillian was more confident, always confident that Dan could do no wrong, and she was quite indifferent to Mrs. Jarsell’s doings. However, she agreed to go to Hartlepool, and as Mrs. Bolstreath was bent upon the change, Halliday accepted the situation.

Meanwhile, he decided to call at The Grange on some innocent pretext and diplomatically give Queen Beelzebub to understand that he held the winning card in the game he was playing with the Society of Flies. This could be done, he ventured to think, by pretending that Mrs. Jarsell knew nothing about the nefarious association, and he did not believe that she would remove her mask, since it was to her interest to observe secrecy in Hillshire. However, he left this matter of a call and an explanation in abeyance for the time being, and for a couple of days attended to the three ladies. The third, it is needless to say, was Mildred Vincent, who called at The Peacock Hotel on receipt of her lover’s letter. She gave Dan to understand that he was out of favour with the inventor.

“Uncle has never forgiven you for not winning the race,” said Mildred, at afternoon tea; “he says you should have gained the prize.”

“I wish I had,” said Halliday, drily, “the money would have been very acceptable. It was my fancy-flying did the mischief, as I broke the rudder. However, I shall call and apologise.”

“He won’t see you, Mr. Halliday.”

“Ah, that’s so like an inventor, who is as touchy as a minor poet.”

“Mrs. Jarsell is annoyed also,” continued Mildred, sadly; “she says you should have made a better use of the favour she procured for you.”

“It seems to me that I am in hot water all round, Miss Vincent. All the same, I shall survive these dislikes.”

“It is absurd,” cried Lillian, with indignation. “Dan risked his life to win the race, and if he hadn’t had such bad luck he would have won.”

“Thanks, my dear girl, but it was less bad luck than carelessness, and a certain amount of vanity, to show how I could handle the machine.”

“You are very modest, Dan,” said Mrs. Bolstreath, laughing.

“It is my best quality,” replied Halliday, with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Where is Mr. Vincent’s machine now?” questioned Mildred.

“At Blackheath stored away. I suppose, as it was only lent I shall have to return it to your uncle. But I shall have a final fly on it when I go back to London in a few days.”

“Does Miss Moon go back also?”

“Not to London,” interposed Mrs. Bolstreath, “we propose to visit some friends in Scotland.”

Lillian looked up in surprise, as Hartlepool certainly was not in Scotland, and she thought that Mrs. Bolstreath’s geography was at fault. But a significant look from Dan showed her that he understood why the wrong address had been given. Mrs. Bolstreath, with too much zeal, mistrusted Mildred, although she had no cause to do so. Certainly Mildred, in perfect innocence, did she know the actual destination, might tell her uncle, who would assuredly tell Mrs. Jarsell, and for obvious reasons it was not necessary that Mrs. Jarsell should learn where the city of refuge was situated. All the same, Dan did not think for a moment that Mildred knew anything about the Society of Flies. But he was beginning to fancy that Vincent had some such knowledge, as Mrs. Jarsell financed him, and that she would not do so, he was positive, unless she made something out of the business. It was very convenient for Queen Beelzebub to have an inventor at her elbow who could construct swift aeroplanes. And it was at this point of his meditations that Dan jumped up so suddenly as to spill his tea.

“What’s the matter?” asked Lillian, making a dash at the cup and saucer to save breakage.

“I’ve got an idea,” said Halliday, with a gasp. “I must go out and think it over,” and without excusing himself further, he rushed from the room.

“That’s not like Dan,” remarked Mrs. Bolstreath, uneasily; “he is calm and cool-headed as a rule. I wonder what is the matter.”

“Oh, he’ll tell us when he comes back,” replied Lillian, philosophically. “I can always trust Dan.” Then she turned the conversation in a somewhat heedless manner. “Do you like living here, Miss Vincent?”

“Well,” admitted Mildred, “it is rather too quiet for my taste. But I have plenty to do in looking after my uncle and his business. He depends so much on me, that I wonder what he will do when I get married.”

“When do you intend to get married?” asked Mrs. Bolstreath, curiously. She could not disabuse herself of the idea that, living so close to Mrs. Jarsell, and having an uncle who was helped by Mrs. Jarsell, the girl knew something about the Society of Flies.

“Next year, the year after — I don’t exactly know. It all depends upon my dear Freddy’s success. We must have a home and an income. But I suppose we shall marry sooner or later, and then Mrs. Jarsell can look after Uncle Solomon.”

“Who is Mrs. Jarsell?” asked Lillian, artfully and cautiously.

“Se is an old lady who lives at The Grange with another old lady, her former governess, Miss Armour. Both are charming. If you are dull here, perhaps, Miss Moon, you would like to meet them?”

“Later, later,” put in Mrs. Bolstreath, hurriedly; “thank you for the suggestion, Miss Vincent. Meanwhile, we wish to explore the country. It is a charming neighbourhood, although very quiet in many respects.”

Mildred agreed and then began to plan excursions to this place and that, with the idea of making the stay of the visitors at Sheepeak pleasant. So agreeably did she behave and took such trouble in designing trips that Mrs. Bolstreath revised her opinion and began to believe that so nice a girl could not possibly know of Mrs. Jarsell’s doings, whatever knowledge her uncle might be possessed of.

And Dan, walking at top speed along the high road in a vain attempt to quieten his mind, was convinced that the inventor had some such knowledge. The idea which had brought him to his feet, and had sent him out to work off his excitement, was that the inventor was responsible for Mrs. Jarsell’s presence in London at unexpected moments. She financed him and retained him at her elbow, so to speak, that she might utilise his capabilities and his clever inventions. If, on the day of the London to York race, Mrs. Jarsell was at The Peacock Hotel about the hour of nine o’clock — as she certainly was on the evidence of Mrs. Pelgrin, who had no obvious reason to tell a lie — she could not have got to London by train or motor in time to murder Durwin. Yet she was assuredly at Blackheath, if the cinematograph was to be believed. Dan had hitherto been puzzled to reconcile apparent impossibilities, but at tea-time the solution of the problem had suddenly flashed into his mind. Mrs. Jarsell had travelled to town on an aeroplane.

“It is about one hundred and sixty miles from this place to town,” muttered Dan, walking very fast, and talking aloud to himself in his excitement, “so she could accomplish that distance with ease in three hours, considering that Vincent’s machine can fly at sixty miles in sixty minutes. He said so and I proved that he spoke truly when I experimented with the machine he lent me. Mrs. Jarsell was at The Peacock Hotel at nine o’clock, and the cinematograph showed she was at Blackheath at one o’clock. The race started then, and Durwin was killed shortly afterwards. Sixty miles an hour means one hundred and eighty miles in three hours. Say she started at half-past nine — which she could easily do. Leaving Mrs. Pelgrin immediately for Vincent’s place — she could reach London by half-past twelve, if not earlier, seeing she had just one hundred and sixty miles to go. There would be no difficulty in her reaching Blackheath and stabbing Durwin at the time the death took place; and, of course, had she travelled from Sheepeak to Thawley to catch the London express at nine o’clock, she could not have been at The Peacock Hotel at that hour. The aeroplane had been used to establish an alibi.”

Halliday was convinced that in this way the miracle of Mrs. Jarsell had taken place. No other means of transit could have landed her at the place where Durwin had met with his death. Of course, this assumption intimated that Mrs. Jarsell was an accomplished aviator, and that there had been no hitch in the journey from Sheepeak to Blackheath. But these were not impossibilities, for Vincent probably had taught the woman how to fly, and perhaps had handled the machine himself. There was room for two in the aeroplane, as Dan very well knew, since he had taken Penn for a flight himself, and the vehicle used was probably built on the same lines as the one lent. Since aviation was yet in its infancy there was certainly a possibility that such a journey could not take place without accidents or hindrance. But, as inferior machines had accomplished greater distances, Dan quite believed that Mrs. Jarsell, with or without Vincent as pilot, had reached London in one smooth stretch of flying. On other occasions she might not have been so successful, but on this one she probably had, for to get to Blackheath in time to commit the crime it would have been necessary for her to use rightfully every second of the given time. No wonder with such a means of transit at her disposal she could prove an advantageous alibi, when occasion demanded. Also, since the late conquest of the air afforded her the opportunity of swift travelling, greatly in excess of other human inventions, it was quite reasonable that she should live so far from the scene of her criminal exploits.

Thinking thus, Halliday stumbled across the very person who was in his thought. He rushed with bent head along the roads and unconsciously mounted towards the vast spaces of the moorlands, stretching under grey skies. Thus — and he swiftly decided that the collision was meant — he ran into Mrs. Jarsell, who approached in the opposite direction. She laughed and expostulated, as if Dan was in the wrong, although she must have seen him coming, and the road was wide enough for her to move to one side.

“Really, Mr. Halliday, you require the whole country to move in,” said Mrs. Jarsell in her heavy way, and with an affectation of joviality.

“I— I— I beg pardon,” stammered Dan, not quite himself, and stared at her as though she had suddenly risen out of the earth. Indeed, so far as he was concerned, she had done so, ignorant as he was of her approach.

The woman was arrayed in her favourite white, but as the day was chilly, she wore a voluminous cloak of scarlet silk quilted and padded and warm both in looks and wear. Her black eyes, set in her olive-hued face, peered from under her white hair as watchfully as ever. At the present moment, her heavy countenance wore an expression of amusement at the startled looks of the young man, and she commented on them with ponderous jocularity.

“One would think I was a ghost, Mr. Halliday. You will admit that I am a very substantial ghost,” and she shook her silver-mounted can playfully at him.

“I didn’t expect to meet you here,” said Dan, drawing a deep breath, and thinking how best he could introduce the subject of Lillian.

“Nor did I expect to meet you,” responded Mrs. Jarsell, still phlegmatically playful. “Have you risen from the earth, or dropped from the skies? I did not even know that you were in the neighbourhood.”

Dan grimly decided that this last statement was false, since he had been a whole two days at The Peacock Hotel, and he was certain Mrs. Jarsell must have heard of his visit. Also of the ladies sheltering under Mrs. Pelgrin’s wing, for in the country gossip is more prevalent than in town. “I came up for a day or two, or three or four,” said Dan, still staring.

“You don’t appear to be very decided in your own mind,” rejoined Mrs. Jarsell, drily, and sat down on a large block of granite, which was embedded amongst the heather; “our neighbourhood evidently has a fascination for you,” her eye searched his face carefully. “I am pleased, as we are proud of our scenery hereabouts. Those who come once, come twice: quite a proverb, isn’t it? Is your friend Mr. Laurance with you?”

“Not on this occasion,” answered Dan, coolly, and coming to the point. “I came with two ladies, Miss Moon and her companion. They are stopping at The Peacock Hotel for a short time.”

“Miss Moon! Miss Moon!” mused Mrs. Jarsell, “oh, yes, the young lady you are engaged to marry. The daughter of that poor man who was murdered.”

“You have an excellent memory, Mrs. Jarsell.”

“We have little to exercise our memories in this dull place,” said the woman graciously, and with a motherly air, “you don’t ask after Miss Armour, I observe. That is very unkind of you, as you are a great favourite with her.”

“Miss Armour is my very good friend,” responded Halliday, cautiously, “and so are you, since you induced Mr. Vincent to lend me the aeroplane.”

“I am as glad that I did that, as I am sorry you lost the race, Mr. Halliday.”

“Fortune of war,” said Dan, lightly, “we can’t always be successful you know, Mrs. Jarsell. I wish you had seen the start; it was grand.”

“I wish I had,” said the woman, lying glibly, “but it was impossible for me to leave Miss Armour on that day, as she had bad health. In fact, Mr Vincent wished to go also and see how his machine worked; but he could not get away either. Still,” added Mrs. Jarsell, with a cheerful air, “perhaps it is as well, so far as I am concerned, that I could not go. Aviation seems to be very dangerous, and I should have been afraid for your safety.”

“Oh, I shall never come to harm in the air, I hope,” responded Dan, with emphasis, “you must let me take you up some day.”

Mrs. Jarsell shuddered. “I should be terrified out of my wits,” she protested, “fancy a heavy woman such as I am, trying to emulate a bird. Why, I am quite sure I would fall and smash like an egg, even supposing there is any machine capable of bearing my none too trifling weight.”

“Oh, I think there is, Mrs. Jarsell. Some machines can carry two you know, and lately in France, an aviator took five or six people from one given point to another. It is quite safe.”

Mrs. Jarsell shook her head seriously. “I think not, since aviation is yet in its infancy. In five years, if I live as long, I may venture, but now — no thank you, Mr. Halliday.”

“Most ladies are afraid, certainly. Even Miss Moon, who is plucky, will not let me take her for a fly.”

“Miss Moon, of course. I was quite forgetting her. I hope you will bring her to see me and Miss Armour.”

“If she stays here, certainly. But I think of returning to town tomorrow, so I may not be able to bring her. I daresay Mrs. Bolstreath will, however,” ended Dan, quite certain in his own mind that the chaperon would find some good excuse to avoid the visit.

“I shall be delighted,” Mrs. Jarsell murmured vaguely; “how have you been, Mr. Halliday, since I saw you last?”

It seemed to Dan that she asked this question with intention, and he was entirely willing to give her a frank answer. In frankness, as in taking Lillian under the guns of the enemy lay the safety of both. Halliday was convinced of this. “I have been rather worried,” he said, slowly, and with a side-glance at Mrs. Jarsell’s watchful face. “I had an adventure.”

“I love adventures,” replied the woman, heavily, “and this one?”

“Well. I was hustled into a taxi-cab and carried in a drugged condition to some place where I met with a collection of scoundrels. A kind of murder-gang, you might call it, who slay, blackmail, and thieve for the sake of power.”

“Rather a strange reason,” said Mrs. Jarsell, equably, and not at all moved. “I should say the reason was money.”

“That, with power,” explained Dan; “but, indeed, this society appears to be governed on wonderful principles, such as one would ascribe to honest men.”

“In what way?” Mrs. Jarsell was quite curious in a detached manner.

“Well, the members are chaste and sober and industrious.”

“They must be virtuous. You are describing a society of saints.”

“Quite so; only these saints apply their virtues to crime. They have a head who is called Queen Beelzebub.”

Mrs. Jarsell shuddered and drew lines on the dust of the road with her can slowly and carefully. “Did you see her?” she asked, “it’s a horrid name, full of horrid possibilities.”

“No, I did not see her or any one,” said Dan, frankly; “the room was in darkness save for a red light round Queen Beelzebub’s mask.”

“Oh, this person wore a mask! How did you know she was a woman?”

“Well, you see the name is Queen Beelzebub.”

“That might be taken by a man to hide the truth.”

“It might,” admitted the other carelessly, “and indeed, I don’t think that any woman would have the nerve to belong to such a gang.”

“I agree with you,” said Mrs. Jarsell, gravely, “well, and what happened?”

“I was asked by Queen Beelzebub to join the gang and share the profits, which you may guess are large. I have a month to think over the matter.”

Mrs. Jarsell looked at him keenly. “surely, you would never belong to such an organisation,” she said with a reproachful tone in her heavy voice.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I have my own axe to grind like other people, and if this gang helps me to grind it I may consider the offer. Do I shock you, Mrs. Jarsell? Your voice sounded as though I did.”

“You shock me more than I can say,” she replied decisively; “that an honest man should even think of such a thing is dreadful. This gang should be denounced to the police. I wonder you have not done so already.”

Dan shook his head and admired the cool, clever way in which she was playing a very dangerous game, though to be sure, she was far from suspecting that he guessed her connection with Queen Beelzebub.

“I can’t do that yet.”

“What do you mean by — yet?” questioned Mrs. Jarsell, and this time, there was a distinct note of alarm in her voice.

“I risk death if I denounce the gang, not only to myself, but to Miss Moon. I am sure she and I would be killed as her father was killed, if I moved in the matter. Also, I am not sure of many things.”

Mrs. Jarsell, still drawing patterns, spoke thoughtfully. “I don’t think you are wise to speak of this gang if it is so dangerous, even to a country mouse such as I am. Of course, I shall say nothing, as I have no one to say anything to, and if I had I should not speak. But if you talk to a stranger like me, about things you were told to keep secret, you or Miss Moon may be murdered.”

“I thought so a week ago,” admitted Halliday, candidly.

“Then you don’t think so now.”

“No. Not since Marcus Penn died.”

Mrs. Jarsell drew a long breath and wriggled uneasily. “Who is Marcus Penn?”

“Well, he was the secretary of Sir Charles Moon, and afterwards he was the secretary of Lord Curberry. Now he’s a corpse.”

“Oh!” cried Mrs. Jarsell, suddenly, “I wish you wouldn’t talk of these horrible things. Has this gang —”

“Murdered him?” finished the young man; “yes, I believe so, although a verdict of suicide was brought in. But poor Penn’s death may be the means of saving me and Miss Moon.”

“Indeed,” the woman’s tone became harsh and imperative, but she did not ask any questions.

“Yes. He left a confession.”

Even the side-glance Dan sent in Mrs. Jarsell’s direction showed him that her olive cheeks had turned to a dead white. However, she said nothing, although she moistened her lips slowly, so he went on easily as if he were telling an idle story. “This confession was concealed in Lord Curberry’s house, but Penn sent a note of its whereabouts to Miss Moon, who told me. I got the confession and placed it in safe keeping.”

“That was wise,” said Mrs. Jarsell, with an effort. “And the safe keeping?”

“Oh, I shall only tell the whereabouts of the confession and the name of the person who holds it when there is no necessity for the confession to be used.”

“I don’t see quite what you mean, Mr. Halliday.”

“Well, you see, Mrs. Jarsell, I have to protect myself and Miss Moon from the machinations of the society. The person who holds the confession will not open the sealed envelope in which it is placed unless something happens to Miss Moon or to myself. Therefore, so long as no member of the gang hurts us the secrets of the gang are quite safe.”

To his attentive ear it seemed that Mrs. Jarsell drew a long breath of relief. With a command of herself which did her credit, she displayed no emotion but observed playfully, “It is very clever of you and very wise to guard yourself in this way. Certainly the gang cannot hurt you in any way so long as there is a danger of the confession being opened in the event of things happening to you or to Miss Moon. I suppose the confession is a very dreadful one, Mr. Halliday?”

“It is not so dreadful or so full as I should like it to be,” said Dan, in his calmest manner; “but there is sufficient set down to warrant the interference of the authorities. If that confession comes to the notice of the Scotland Yard officials they can lay hands on the gang”; he was bluffing when he said this, as he was not quite sure if Curberry had not let Mrs. Jarsell know that the confession — as Curberry thought — had been destroyed.

“I think the police should know,” said Mrs. Jarsell, rising.

“Thank you for nothing,” said Dan, following her example; “but if I move in the matter, I run the risk of death. Besides, I may accept the offter of the society. Who knows?”

“Don’t do that,” implored Mrs. Jarsell so earnestly that Dan was convinced Curberry had not told her of any confession, “it’s so wicked.”

“Perhaps it is. However, if these beasts leave me and Miss Moon alone, the confession won’t be opened and the gang is safe. Otherwise —”

“Otherwise the whole association will be exposed to the danger of arrest,” said Mrs. Jarsell, lightly; “well, it sounds all very dreadful to a country lady as I am. I wish you had not told me. Why did you tell me?”

“Because,” said Dan, ironically, “I look upon you as a friend.”

Mrs. Jarsell’s face cleared and she smiled. “I am your friend,” she said in an emphatic way, “and believe me, when I say that I am sure Miss Moon is safe.”

“Thank you,” replied Dan, agreeably, “I am sure also.”

Then they parted with mutual compliments, smiles, and handshakes.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42