The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 6

The Inventor

Freddy Laurance usually opened his mouth to ask questions, rarely to talk about himself. In the newspaper world, confidences may mean copy; given that such are worthy to appear in print. Therefore, as the young man found, it is just as well to be sparing of personal details, and having made this discovery, he was careful to keep his tongue between his teeth in all matters dealing with his private life. This reticence, useful in business but wholly unnecessary in friendship — particularly when the friendship had to do with Dan Halliday — had grown upon Laurance to such an extent that he said very little about his love affair. Dan, being a genial soul, and a fellow-sufferer in the cause of Cupid, and having heart-whole liking for the journalist, resented being shut out in this way. He therefore made it his business to extract Freddy’s love story from him when the two were in the train making for Sheepeak, via Thawley and Beswick.

“Where did you meet her?” asked Dan abruptly, as they had the compartment to themselves, and he had exhausted not only the newspapers but the magazines.

“Her?” repeated Laurance, who was calmly smoking, with his feet on the opposite seat; “what her?”

“The Her. The one girl in the world for you?”

“Oh, bosh!” Freddy coloured, and looked pleasantly embarrassed.

“Is it? Perhaps you are right” and Dan began to hum a simple little American song, entitled, “I wonder who’s kissing her now.”

Laurance took this personally. “No one is! I can trust her.”

“Trust who?” asked Dan innocently.

“The person you mentioned now. Miss Vincent — Mildred.”

“Did I mention her? Well, now you recall her name, I did. Old man, we are the best of friends, but this fourth estate habit of holding your confounded tongue is getting on my nerves. Give yourself a treat by letting yourself go. I am ready to listen,” and he leaned back with a seraphic smile.

Freddy did not fence any longer, but came out with details. After all, since he could trust Dan, he was beginning to think that it would be delightful to talk his heart empty. “She’s the dearest girl in the world,” was the preamble.

Dan twiddled his thumbs. “We all say that. Now Lillian —”

“Mildred! We are speaking of her.” Freddy spoke very fast lest his friend should interrupt. Since Dan wanted confidences, Dan should have them given to him in a most thorough manner. “Mildred is an angel, and her uncle is an old respectable, clever beast.”

“Yes!” said Halliday persuasively. “I thought in that way of Sir Charles when he interrupted private conversations between Lillian and myself. I am of the same opinion as regards Sir John Moon because —”

“Yes, I know what you mean by ‘because’. But with regard to Mildred —”

“Who is an angel. Yes?”

“I met her a year ago in London — Regent Street, to be precise as to locality. A snob spoke to her without an introduction, so she appealed to me, and I punched his head. Then I escorted her home —”

“To Hillshire? What a knight-errant!” chuckled Dan.

“Don’t be an ass. I escorted her to the Guelph Hotel in Jermyn Street, where she and her uncle were staying. The uncle appreciated the service I did for his niece, and made me welcome, especially when he found that, as a newspaper man, I was able to talk in print about his machines. For an inventor the old man has an excellent idea of business.”

“Inventors being generally fools. So you called the next day to see if Miss Vincent’s nerves were better.”

Freddy cast a look of surprise at Dan’s dark face. “How did you guess that, Halliday? Well, I did, and I got on better with Solomon Vincent than ever.”

“Undoubtedly you got on better with the niece,” murmured Dan, mischievously.

“Well,” Laurance coloured, “you might put it that way.”

“I do put it that way,” said Dan firmly, “and from personal experience.”

“Not with Mildred. To make a long story short, I saw a great deal of them in town, and took them out to dinner and got them theatre seats, and fell deeper in love every day. Then Vincent asked me to visit Sheepeak to inspect his machines and I wrote several articles in ‘The Moment’.”

“Ah. I thought I remembered Vincent’s name. I read those articles. But you didn’t mention the niece.”

“Ass!” said the journalist scornfully, “is it likely? Well, that’s the whole yarn. I’ve been several times to Sheepeak and Vincent likes me.”

“To the extent of taking you as a nephew?” inquired Dan, thoughtfully.

“No, hang him! That’s why I call him a beast. He says that Mildred is necessary to his comfort as a housekeeper, and he won’t allow her to marry me. She is such a good girl that she obeys her uncle because he brought her up when her parents died, and has been a father to her.”

“A dull romance and a league-long wooing, with the lady in Hillshire and the swain in London. How long is this unsatisfactory state of things going to last, my son?”

“I don’t know,” rejoined Freddy mournfully, “until her uncle dies, perhaps.”

“Then let us hope he’ll fly once too often,” said Dan cheerfully; “but do not be downhearted. I am sure it will be all right. I shall dance at your wedding and you will dance at mine. By the way, there’s no necessity to talk to Vincent or his niece about our endeavours to spot this gang.”

“Of course not. The matter won’t be mentioned. All I am talking about is private, and you come to Sheepeak with me to get a machine so as to win the London to York race. It will be an advertisement for Vincent.”

“That’s all right. And Mildred — talk about her, old man. I know you are dying to explain the kind of angel she really is. Lull me to sleep with lover’s rhapsodies”— a request with which Freddy, now having broken the ice, was perfectly willing to comply. He described Mildred’s appearance with a lover’s wealth of details, drew attention to her many admirable qualities, quoted her speeches, praised her talents, and thus entertained his friend — and incidentally himself — all the way to Thawley. Dan closed his eyes and listened, puffing comfortably at his pipe. Occasionally he threw in a word, but for the greater part of the time held his peace, and let Laurance babble on about his darling’s perfections. Secretly, Dan did not think these could match Lillian’s in any way.

At the great manufacturing town of Thawley, which was overshadowed by a cloud of dun smoke, the travellers left the main line, and crossed to another platform where they boarded the local train to Beswick. This station was only six miles down the line, and they turned on their tracks to reach it, since it branched off from the main artery into the wilds. It nestled at the foot of a lofty hill covered from top to bottom with trees, now more or less leafless. Laurance informed his companion that there was a ruined abbey hidden in the wood, and also pointed out several interesting places, for he was well acquainted with the locality. At Beswick they piled their bags on a ramshackle old trap, and proceeded in this to climb up a long, winding, steep road, which mounted gradually to the moors. As the year was yet wintry and the hour was late, the air became wonderfully keen, and — as Freddy said — inspiriting. Dan, however, did not find it so, as he felt quite sleepy, and yawned the whole way until the trap stopped at the solitary hotel of Sheepeak, a rough stone house, with thick walls and a slate roof.

The landlady, raw-boned, sharp-eyed, and not at all beautiful, met them at the door, smiling in what was meant for an amiable manner when she saw Laurance. “Oh, you’re here again?” she said defiantly, and Dan noticed that beyond the northern burr she did not reproduce the country dialect.

“Yes, Mrs. Pelgrin, and I have brought a friend to stay for three or four days. We want two bedrooms and a sitting-room, and supper straight away.”

“You shall have them,” said Mrs. Pelgrin, still defiantly.

“And the price will be a pound each for the four days,” ventured Freddy.

“With ten shillings extra for the sitting-room,” said Mrs. Pelgrin, fiercely.

“Oh, come now.”

“I’ll not take you in for less.”

“Well,” put in Dan, shrugging, “sooner than stand here in the cold and argue, I shall pay the extra ten shillings.”

“Cold, do you call it? Cold!” Mrs. Pelgrin’s tone was one of scorn. “Ha, cold!” and she led the way through a flagged stone passage to a large and comfortable room at the back of the house. “Will this suit you?”

“That’s all right, Mrs. Pelgrin,” said Freddy, throwing himself down on a slippery horse-hair sofa —“and supper?”

“You’ll have it when it’s ready, no sooner and no later,” barked the ogress, leaving the room. “Cold is it?” and she laughed hoarsely.

“I say, Freddy,” observed Halliday in a lazy tone, “why is the good lady so very savage?”

“She isn’t. Mrs. Pelgrin is quite fond of me. I’ve stayed here often.”

“Fond of you?” echoed Dan, with a chuckle. “Good Lord, how does she speak to those she isn’t fond of?”

“It’s northern brusqueness. She’s honest —”

“But rude. The two seem to go together with many people. They think they will be taken for rascals if they are decently polite.”

Laurance remonstrated. “Mrs. Pelgrin is a rough diamond.”

“I like my jewels polished. However, here we are and here we stay, and here we eat, if that amiable lady will bring in supper. Then I shall go to bed, as I shall certainly yawn my head off if I don’t.”

“But it’s just after six,” cried Laurance. “I want to take you to see Vincent to-night — this evening, that is.”

“Go yourself and see the beautiful Mildred,” muttered Dan drowsily. “Two’s company and three’s a crowd. I’m going to bed”; and, in spite of Laurance’s arguments against such sloth, to bed he went, after a brisk fight with Mrs. Pelgrin over a fire in his sleeping apartment. He said that he wanted one, while the landlady declared that it was unnecessary. Finally Dan got his own way, and when the fire was blazing, Mrs. Pelgrin said goodnight.

“But you’re no more nor a butterfly,” she informed her guest, and went out banging the door, with muttering remarks concerning people who felt cold.

“No doubt this weather is here regarded as tropical,” murmured Dan, getting into bed and referring to the weather; then he giggled over Mrs. Pelgrin’s manners until he fell asleep.

Next morning Laurance woke him at eight, and Dan grumbled about getting up, although he was assured that he had slept the clock round. However a cold bath soon brisked him up, and he came down to the sitting-room with an excellent appetite for breakfast. Mrs. Pelgrin brought it in, and again joked in her fierce way about the cold, which the butterfly — as she again termed Dan — was supposed to feel so keenly. Laurance talked about Mildred, who had been delighted to see him, but mentioned regretfully that he did not think that Dan would get the machine he was in search of.

“Why not?” asked Dan Halliday, lighting his pipe and finishing his third cup of coffee. “Vincent wants his aeroplanes exploited, doesn’t he? And where will he find a better chance than for an experienced man, such as I am, flying his latest invention in ‘The Moment’s’ London to York race?”

“Vincent’s a queer fish. That’s all I can say,” retorted Laurance.

“Well, you can’t say more and you can’t say less, I suppose. We’ll go and have a look at the queer fish in his pond whenever you like.”

“At eleven o’clock then.”

“Right oh! I can talk to the uncle and you can take on the niece. It’s a fair division of labour.”

This arrangement was willingly agreed to by Laurance, as Dan was certain it would be since he saw that his friend was fathoms deep in love. Afterwards, the two went out of doors and surveyed the landscape. Sheepeak was situated on the top of a lofty tableland, the village being a tolerably large collection of substantial stone houses, whence the moors spread north and south, east and west. From where they were, the friends could see the green squares of cultivated fields, the purple bloom of the heather, and the azure hues which distance gave to the distant mountains. Here and there the vast country, which looked enormously large from the elevation whence they surveyed it, dipped into verdant dales, snugly clothed with forests, and sprinkled with manor-houses and villages, big and little. The lands were so far-stretching and the prospect so extensive, that Dan became mightily impressed with the magnitude of the sky. It covered them like a huge inverted cup, and as there was nothing to break its league-long sweep, Dan felt quite small in the immensity which surrounded him above and below.

“I feel like a pill in the Desert of Sahara,” said Halliday, sighing.

“What is the sensation of feeling like a pill?” rejoined Laurance drily, for he was not an imaginative individual.

“Only a poet can explain, Freddy, and you are very earthy.”

“I never knew you were a genius,” snapped Laurance, with a shrug.

“You have much to learn,” replied Halliday reprovingly; “and as it’s near eleven o’clock, suppose we light out for Vincent.”

Freddy agreed, and skirting the village for three-quarters of a mile, they suddenly came upon a small cottage, with walls and roof of yellowish stone covered with lichen, and standing in a small garden of wind-tormented vegetation. A low stone wall divided this from the high road, and the visitors entered through a small wooden gate to pass up a cobblestone walk to the modest door. But the cottage itself was dwarfed wholly by huge sheds of wood covered with roofs of galvanised tin, which loomed up suddenly behind it, on a vast scale more in keeping with the character of the landscape. These were the workshops of Vincent, where he built his machines and housed them from prying eyes. The fields at the back cultivated into smooth lawns were where the aeroplanes started to fly over hill and dale to the wonderment of the inhabitants.

“Though they are pretty well used to Vincent’s vagaries by this time,” said Freddy, ending his explanation.

Mildred received them in the small parlour of the cottage which was about the size of a doll’s drawing-room, and expressed herself as pleased to make the acquaintance of Mr. Halliday. Her uncle, she mentioned, was busy as usual in his workshop, but would see the visitors in half an hour. While she explained, Dan took stock of her, and admitted that she was really a very amiable and pretty girl, though not a patch on Lillian. But then Dan did not care for tall ladies with olive complexions, blue eyes, dark hair, and the regal melancholy look of discrowned queens. Mildred — the name suited her — was too tall and stately for his taste, which approved more of little golden-haired women, fairy-like and frolicsome. Miss Vincent looked serious and thoughtful, and although her smile was delicious, she smiled very seldom. It seemed to Dan that her solitary life in these moorlands and in the company — when she enjoyed it — of her morose uncle, made the girl sober beyond her years, which were not more than two and twenty. However, many minds many tastes, and Dan could not deny but what Freddy’s fair Saxon looks went very well with the Celtic mystic appearance of the inventor’s niece. They were a handsome couple, indeed, but much too solemn in looks and character for Dan, whose liking leaned to the frivolous side of things.

“Don’t you find it dull here, Miss Vincent?” asked Halliday casually.

“Dull!” she echoed, turning her somewhat sad eyes of dark blue in his direction, “oh, not at all. Why, I have a great deal to do. We have only one servant and I assist in the housework. My uncle is not easy to cater for, as he has many likes and dislikes with regard to food. Then he employs a certain number of workmen, and I have to pay them every Saturday. Indeed, I look after all the financial part of my uncle’s business.”

“Is it a business, or a whim — a hobby?” inquired Dan respectfully, for, being frivolous, he was struck with awe at the multitude of Miss Vincent’s employments.

“Well, more of the last than the first perhaps,” said Mildred smiling at his respectful expression. “Uncle Solomon really doesn’t care for publicity. All his aim is to construct a perfect machine, and he is always inventing, and improving, and thinking of new ways in which to obtain the mastery of the air.”

“His machines have been tried by other people, though,” remarked Freddy.

“Oh, yes, and with great success. But uncle doesn’t even read the papers to see what is said about his aeroplanes, although he is always anxious to learn what other inventors are doing, and takes a great interest in races across the Channel and over the Alps, and from city to city. But he is wrapt up in his own schemes, and works for twelve and more hours out of the twenty-four towards perfecting his machines. Public applause or public rewards don’t appeal to him, you see, Mr. Halliday; it’s the work itself.”

“Ah, that’s the true spirit of genius,” said Dan approvingly, “a man like that is sure to arrive.”

“He will never arrive,” said Miss Vincent quietly, “for as soon as he arrives at one point, he only regards it as a resting-place to start for a further goal. He doesn’t care for food, or drink, or clothes, or politics, or amusements, or anything for which the ordinary man strives. His machine takes up all his attention.”

“Happy man! To have one strong aim and to be allowed to work at that aim, is the true happiness of any man. I shall be glad to have a talk with him.”

“He doesn’t talk much, Mr. Halliday.”

“A man obsessed with one idea seldom does,” retorted the young fellow. “I hope, however, he will let me have a machine for this race. I can handle any aeroplane, once it is explained to me, and Freddy here, says that your uncle’s machines have many improvements likely to tell against competitors.”

“I am not sure if he will let you have a machine,” said Mildred, her face clouding; “he is very jealous and whimsical, you know.”

“Like all inventors,” murmured Laurance rising, “let us go and see him.”

“Yes,” added Dan, also getting on his feet, “and then you take Freddy away, Miss Vincent, and let me talk to your uncle. I shall get what I want, somehow.”

Mildred laughed and led the way out of the cottage by the back door. “It is not an easy task you have set yourself to do,” she said, doubtfully; “here are the workshops and the buildings where the machines are housed, and yonder is Uncle Solomon.”

The buildings looked plebeian and gimcrack with their flimsy wooden walls and tin roofs, impressive only in their magnitude. They must have cost a deal to erect in this neighbourhood where all the houses, great and small, were of stone; and wood was comparatively scarce. Vincent, as Dan considered, must be well-off to indulge in so expensive a hobby. To be sure, by racing he could gain prizes, and if successful could also sell machines at a good figure; but from what Mildred had said, it seemed to Dan that her uncle had the true jealous spirit of an inventor, and did not let his darlings go out of his hands if he could help it. To live on this vast moorland, working at his inventions and experimenting with his ideas was enough for Solomon Vincent, without the applause and rewards of the world. Undoubtedly to carry out his plans he must have a private income, and not an inconsiderable one at that.

“Uncle, this is Mr. Laurance and Mr. Halliday,” said Mildred, introducing the two young men, though the first did not require mention.

But Vincent like most inventors, was absent-minded, and it took him quite a minute to recognise Laurance, whom he had not seen on the previous night.

“Mr. Laurance and Mr. Halliday,” he said casually, and turning from the workman to whom he had been speaking —“yes, of course. You understand about the propellor, Quinton,” he added, again taking up his conversation with the workman, “it must be seen to at once,” and quite oblivious of the company he went on giving instructions, until the man went away to do his task, and Mildred touched her uncle’s arm.

“This is Mr. Laurance and Mr. —”

“Of course I know it is Mr. Laurance,” said Vincent testily, “do you think I am blind? How do you do, Laurance. Good-bye, I am busy.”

“And this is Mr. Halliday, who wants a machine,” went on Mildred persuasively.

“Indeed. Then Mr. Halliday shan’t get one,” retorted Vincent, and sauntered into the nearest shed with a scowl on his lean face. He was an acrid-looking man of fifty, with untidy grey hair and an untrimmed beard.

“Follow him, and he will talk,” said Mildred hastily, “I shall remain here with Freddy, as uncle doesn’t like many people to be about him.”

“He is not easy to get on with,” sighed Dan, “I can see that.” However, he took the girl’s advice and went into the shed after the ungracious inventor, leaving the lovers to return to the cottage parlour, which they did forthwith. Laurance was quite astute enough to lose no time, since the moments spent with Mildred were all golden and not easily obtainable.

Dan marched into the shed with a fine air of possession, and again surveyed Vincent, who was examining some specifications near a window. The man was carelessly dressed in a shabby suit of blue serge, and seemed to care little about his personal appearance. Marking once more his shaggy hair and beard, and yellow skin considerably wrinkled, the young man went up to him. As if waking from a dream, Vincent looked up, and Dan met the gaze of two very keen dark eyes, whose expression was anything but amiable.

“Who are you, and what do you want?” demanded the owner of the eyes, crossly.

“My name is Halliday. I want a machine to race between London and York. I have just been introduced to you by your niece.”

“My niece should have more sense than to have brought you here,” cried the inventor fiercely; “you come to spy out my ideas and to steal them.”

“I assure you I don’t,” said Dan drily. “I am not a genius as you are.”

“All the more reason you should pick my brains,” snapped Vincent, in no way mollified by the compliment, as Dan intended he should be.

Halliday laughed. “If I did, I could make no use of my pickings, Mr. Vincent, as you may guess. I can handle a machine, but I can’t put one together.”

“Who told you about me?” demanded the man suspiciously.

“Laurance.”

“He’s a meddlesome fool.”

“Well,” said Dan cheerfully, “there may be two opinions about that, you know.”

“I don’t want him, and I don’t want you, and I don’t want any one. Why do you come and bother me when I don’t want you?”

“Because my wants are to be considered. See here, Mr. Vincent,” added Halliday in a coaxing voice, for he saw that it was necessary to humour this clever man like a child, “there is to be a race between London and York for a big prize given by ‘The Moment’, the paper Mr. Laurance works for. I wish to compete, but my machine isn’t so good as I should like it to be. I hear that you have made several improvements which make for speed and easier handling of aeroplanes. Let me have one of your latest, and I’ll share the prize with you. It’s two thousand, you know.”

“I don’t want money,” snapped Vincent abruptly.

“I congratulate you,” said Dan coolly; “and yet large sums must be needed to help you to build machines. You must be rich. Are you rich?”

Vincent grew a dusky red, and glanced in an odd way over his shoulder, as if he expected to find someone at his elbow. “Mind your own business,” he said in a harsh voice, and with suppressed fury; “whether I’m rich or not, is my business. You shan’t have an aeroplane of mine. Clear out!”

Dan did clear out, but as he went, wondered why the man was so angry and confused. He seemed quite afraid of the simple question that had been put.

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