The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 8

Aviation

The tea that followed the fortune-telling was quite a success, as Miss Armour was a most amusing talker, and the rest of the party proved themselves to be good listeners. The old lady, being an invalid, had ample time for reading, and concerned herself chiefly with French Memoires, the cynical light-hearted tone of which appealed to her. But she was also well posted in English literature of the best kind, and could converse very ably — as she did — on leading authors and their works. Dan complimented her on the knowledge she had attained to.

“Oh, but it is no credit to me, Mr. Halliday,” Miss Armour protested. “I have so much time unoccupied, and grow weary of playing Patience and of knitting. It would be strange if I did not know something after years and years of reading. Books are my best friends.”

“Then Mrs. Jarsell is also a book, or say a human document,” said Dan politely.

“She is the best woman in the world,” cried Miss Armour, while Mrs. Jarsell bent her heavy white eyebrows in acknowledgement of the compliment. “You can have no idea how kind she is to me.”

“And to whom should I be kind, but to my old governess,” said Mrs. Jarsell in a gruff way. “Why, you have taught me all I know.”

“And I should think Miss Armour could teach a lot,” said Laurance, in his pleasant manner; “you know so much and have such tact, that you should be out in the world governing people, Miss Armour.”

She sent a sharp glance in his direction, as if to enquire what he exactly meant. Then she accepted the compliment with a charming laugh. “But for this dreadful paralysis, I should, indeed, love to be out in the world. I long to deal with human nature, and make people do what I want.”

“Can you?” asked Mildred, anxiously.

“Yes, child,” replied the exgoverness quietly, “because I base my diplomacy on the knowledge that everyone, with few exceptions, is ruled by self. Harp on that string, and you can manage anyone.”

“Miss Armour,” put in Mrs. Jarsell, in her deep voice, “rather talks of what she would do than what she does. Here, we see few people. I go up to town on occasions, but very rarely.”

“You must find it dull,” said Dan candidly.

For some reason Miss Armour appeared to think this speech amusing. “Oh, no; I don’t find life dull at all, I assure you. There is always a great deal to be done, when one knows how to set about the doing.”

“As how?” questioned the young man, somewhat puzzled.

“Books and music, and card-games and knitting-work,” said Mrs. Jarsell quickly, as if she did not approve of Miss Armour’s observations; “nothing more.”

“Quite so; nothing more,” assented the governess, but with a sudden flash of her brown eyes directed towards her friend. “Here we are out of the world. Do you stay long, Mr. Halliday?”

“Only for another couple of days, until I can get the machine.”

“You shall get it, I promise you,” said Mrs. Jarsell graciously, when the trio arose to depart. “Mr. Vincent owes me too much to disregard my request.”

“Of course,” chimed in Mildred. “Uncle Solomon would never be able to build his aeroplanes if you didn’t help him with money. Good-bye, Miss Armour.”

“Good-bye, dear child. I shall say au revoir to you, Mr. Halliday, as I shall expect you to come and see me again, if only to let me know that your fortune has come true.”

“Will it, do you think?”

“Yes,” said Miss Armour positively. “I am quite certain that the chance foretold by the cards will be given to you.”

Dan hoped it would, and thanked the lady for her happy prediction, after which he and Freddy, with Mildred between them, left the weird house, and walked up the darkened road towards the village. Halliday went at once to the “Peacock”, wishing to give Freddy and his beloved a chance of a tete-a-tete. They took it readily enough, as Laurance escorted the girl home. It was an hour before he returned to an overdue supper, which Mrs. Pelgrin served with fierce grumbling. After supper, Dan spoke his mind to Laurance.

“When I took up that extra pack of cards,” he said abruptly, “I smelt that same perfume that hung about Sir Charles’s clothes when he was dead.”

“What!” Freddy sat up aghast in his corner of the room, “the perfume about which Penn explained?”

“The same. But did he explain? It seems to me that he told a lie. If he only had one bottle, and the perfume is not procurable in England, seeing it is manufactured in Sumatra, how did Miss Armour become possessed of it?”

“It may not be the same scent,” said Laurance, still aghast; “you see a bird in every bush, Dan.”

“This is not a question for the eyes, but for the nose. I tell you, Freddy, that the perfume is exactly the same.”

“Why did you not ask Miss Armour about it?”

“I did; you heard me. She got it from Mrs. Jarsell, so she said. Now where did Mrs. Jarsell get it? From Sumatra?”

“Perhaps. Why not ask her straight out?”

“No,” said Dan decisively. “I shall not mention the subject to Mrs. Jarsell until I have questioned Marcus Penn once more. He told me a lie once, by saying that no one in this country possessed this especial perfume. He shan’t tell me another.”

“How do you mean to get him to tell you the truth?” asked Freddy dubiously.

“Never mind. I have some sort of a plan. I shan’t explain until it comes off. There is some connection between that perfume and the crime, I am certain,” concluded Dan, with a positive air.

Laurance wriggled uneasily. “Oh, that is absurd! On such an assumption, you suggest that Miss Armour knows about the matter.”

“About what matter?”

“You know-the gang.”

“Well,” said Halliday, smoking thoughtfully, “we are not entirely certain yet if such a gang exists. It’s all theory anyhow, in spite of the letters you drew from this person and the other. Penn certainly explained the scent, but told an obvious lie, since Miss Armour has it. I don’t say that she knows anything, but it is strange that she should possess the Sumatra perfume.”

“Other people can send the same perfume to England,” retorted Freddy. “Penn isn’t the sole person who has friends in Sumatra. Mrs. Jarsell, since she gave the scent to Miss Armour, may have friends in that island. Ask her.”

“No,” said Dan, very positively. “I shall ask no one until I make Penn speak out. In any case, I want to know why he told a lie.”

“Perhaps he didn’t.”

“I’m jolly well sure that he did.”

“Then, to put it plainly — you suspect Mrs. Jarsell?”

“To answer plainly, I don’t. There can be no connection between two harmless old ladies living in these wilds and the murder of Sir Charles. Yet this confounded scent forms a link between the dead man, Mrs. Jarsell, and Penn.”

Laurance rubbed his chin reflectively. “It’s odd, to say the least of it. I suppose you are certain that the perfume is the same?”

“I’ll swear to it.” Dan rose and knocked the ashes out of his pipe. “And I intend to learn how Mrs. Jarsell became possessed of it. I may be on a wild goose chase. All the same, with the stake I have, I can’t afford to lose an opportunity.”

“So Miss Armour said, when she told your fortune,” commented Freddy thoughtfully.

“Yes. I wonder what she meant?” Dan stretched himself. “I’m for bed. Ring the bell, and ask Mrs. Pelgrin for the spirits.”

Laurance, not feeling called upon to resume the conversation, as he was tired himself, did as he was told, and Mrs. Pelgrin, raw-boned and grim, bounced aggressively into the room, to demand fiercely what they required. She sniffed when whisky was ordered, but as its consumption would increase her bill, she brought in a bottle of “Johnny Walker” and a syphon of soda, without comment. When she turned to depart, and wished them good-night in tones suggestive of a gaoler, a sudden thought struck Dan. It would not be amiss, he thought, to question Mrs. Pelgrin concerning the hermit ladies. Not that he expected a great deal to result from his examination, as the worthy woman was a she-cat, and what she knew would probably have to be clawed out of her.

“We had tea at the Grange today, Mrs. Pelgrin,” said Dan casually.

The landlady wrapped her hands in her apron, and wheeled grimly at the door to speak agressively. “Ho!” she grunted.

“What’s that?”

“I said ‘Ho,’ and ‘Ho’s’ all I’m going to say.”

“Well,” drawled Freddy with a shrug, “you can’t say much less, you know.”

“Less or much, I don’t say anything,” retorted Mrs. Pelgrin, screwing up her hard mouth and nodding.

“Nobody wants you to say anything,” remarked Dan lazily, but on the alert.

Of course this speech opened the landlady’s mouth. “People say as it’s queer two ladies should live like dormice in a haystack,” she observed significantly.

“That’s like people. They will meddle with what doesn’t concern them.”

“Not me,” snorted Mrs. Pelgrin violently, and epigrammatically. “I don’t say what I could say, for what I could say wouldn’t be what’s right to say.”

“Wouldn’t it?” inquired Freddy, innocently.

“No, it wouldn’t, Sir; I’m not to be pumped,” cried Mrs. Pelgrin, “try you ever so hard. So there!” and she screwed up her mouth tighter than ever.

“Who is pumping?” asked Dan coolly; “I simply remarked that we had tea with Mrs. Jarsell and Miss Armour today.”

“Friends of yours, no doubt?” snapped the landlady.

“I never saw them before today, Mrs. Pelgrin.”

“Then don’t see them again,” advised the woman sharply.

“Thank you for that advice. Anything wrong?”

“Wrong! Wrong! What should be wrong?” Mrs. Pelgrin became more violent than ever. “There’s nothing wrong.”

“Then that’s all right,” said Halliday coolly. “Good-night.”

Mrs. Pelgrin stared hard at him, evidently wondering why he did not press his questions, seeing how significant a remark she had made. The idea that her conversation was trivial in his eyes hurt her self-esteem. She gave another hint that she knew something. “I wonder how those ladies make their money,” she observed casually to the ceiling.

“Ah, I wonder,” agreed Dan, making a covert sign that Freddy should restrain the question now on the tip of his tongue.

“Three motor-cars,” said Mrs. Pelgrin musingly, “four servants, women all and sluts at that, I do say, with a house like a palace inside, whatever it may be to look at from the road. All that needs money, Mr. Halliday.”

“Quite so. Nothing for nothing in this greedy world.”

“Ten years have those ladies been here,” continued the landlady, exasperated by this indifference as Dan intended she should be, “and dull they must find that old house. To be sure, Miss Armour is ill, and never moves from her chair — so they say,” she ended emphatically and stared at Halliday.

“So who say?” he inquired phlegmatically.

“Everyone, Sir. She’s paralysed — so they say.”

“And Mrs. Jarsell attends to her like an angel,” remarked Dan suavely; “they say that also, you know.”

“Why do you advise us not to see the ladies again?” asked Freddy, who could not longer rein in his curiosity.

Halliday was annoyed by the question, as he thought it would dry up the stream of Mrs. Pelgrin’s hinted information. But, instead of this happening, she became excessively frank. “Well, it’s this way, Mr. Laurance,” she said, rubbing her nose in a vexed manner. “You are two nice young gentlemen, and I don’t want either of you to step in and spoil George’s chance.”

“George?”

“My nephew, he being the son of my late husband’s brother, and a porter at the Thawley railway station. Mrs. Jarsell had taken quite a fancy to him, he being a handsome lad in his way, and the chances are she will leave him a lot of her money, if you two gentlemen don’t take her fancy. Now you know my reason for not wanting you to see her again.”

“Oh, I don’t think Mrs. Jarsell will leave either my friend or me money,” said Dan affably. “George Pelgrin is quite safe. I suppose one good turn deserves another.”

“What do you mean?” said the landlady, sharper than ever.

“Well, George Pelgrin must have done something for Mrs. Jarsell to make her leave him money.”

“He’s done nothing, and she don’t say she’ll leave him her money. But George thinks she might, seeing she has taken a fancy to him. I don’t want you, or Mr. Laurance here, to spoil my nephew’s chances.”

“Oh, we shan’t do that!” rejoined Halliday calmly. “I suppose George finds it dull at the Thawley station, when there are no Sheepeak friends there with him. Working at the station, that is.”

“Oh, he doesn’t find it dull!” replied Mrs. Pelgrin innocently; “he has made friends with plenty of Thawley folk. Are you going away tomorrow?”

“Perhaps, and perhaps the next day,” said Dan, wondering at the direct question. “You see I wish to get an aeroplane from Mr. Vincent, and as soon as I do, I shall go back to London.”

“You’ll be seeing Mrs. Jarsell again.”

Halliday shook his head. “I shall be too busy to spare the time.”

Mrs. Pelgrin drew a breath of relief, and again became fierce. “I ain’t ashamed of what I’ve said,” she declared, pulling open the door violently; “you can tell the whole village if you like,” and she bounced out as she had bounced in, leaving Laurance overcome with surprise.

“Now what’s the meaning of all that chatter?” he asked, staring at Dan.

“Oh, it’s very plain! Mrs. Jarsell has taken a fancy to her nephew, and Mrs. Pelgrin thinks our fascinations may spoil his chance of getting money. What I want to know is what George has done for Mrs. Jarsell to warrant the deep interest she apparently takes in him. Evidently,” mused Dan to himself, “there are no other Sheepeak people employed at the Thawley station.”

“What of that?” Laurance stared harder than ever.

“Nothing. Only George Pelgrin would be the only person likely to know Mrs. Jarsell at the Thawley station. There are motor-cars also, remember.”

“I really don’t see what you are driving at, Dan.”

“I scarcely see myself, save that I want to learn the secret of that perfume, and why it forms a link between Moon and Penn and Mrs. Jarsell.”

“But how can this chatter of Mrs. Pelgrin help?” asked Freddy, more and more puzzled.

Dan lighted his bedroom candle and walked slowly to the door before he replied. “I shall have to sleep upon what I know before I can answer that,” he said, nodding. “Good-night, old chap!”

“But Dan, Dan, Dan!” called out Laurance, who had heard just enough to make him wish to hear more, “tell me —”; he stopped speaking, as he saw that Halliday was out of hearing. It was in a very dissatisfied frame of mind that Laurance retired to his bed.

Next morning Dan had evidently quite forgotten the conversation of the landlady, for he made no remark, and although Freddy tried to start the subject again he declined to revert to it. Halliday declared that he did not know what to say, that he was putting two and two together, but as yet could not make four, and that it would be just as well to seek Mr. Solomon Vincent, to hear if he was disposed to supply an aeroplane. “Only I wonder,” he remarked irrelevantly, as he walked up the road with his friend, “how it comes that Mrs. Pelgrin speaks more like a Londoner than a Derbyshire woman.”

“I thought we discussed that question before,” replied Laurance. “School-boards are doing away largely with the local dialect. Also Mrs. Pelgrin, as Mildred told me, was in service for some years at Reading. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I ask nothing!” said Dan easily, “it was only an idea I had.”

“Connected with the case?”

“Yes, and with Mrs. Jarsell.”

“Pooh! You see a bird in every bush, Dan.”

“So you said before,” rejoined Halliday, drily; “why repeat yourself? Hullo, there is our inventor!” he added, as they drew near to the cottage, “and, by jove! he’s smiling. Mrs. Jarsell has evidently spoken to him.”

It was as Dan said, for Vincent received the young men with a sour smile, which sat uneasily on his face, since he was more accustomed to frowning. However, as he was disposed to be amiable, Dan was thankful for small mercies, and expressed his feeling loudly when the inventor graciously placed at his disposal an aeroplane of the latest construction.

“I owe Mrs. Jarsell much,” said Vincent, leading the way towards the shed, “so her requests must be granted. Here is the machine, Mr. Halliday.”

“It’s very good of you —”

“It isn’t. Don’t thank me, but Mrs. Jarsell. Speaking for myself, I shouldn’t allow you to have the aeroplane,” said Vincent sourly. “I want to keep all my improvements to myself until I make a perfect machine.”

“Oh, I’ll keep all your secrets,” Dan assured him cheerfully as they entered the vast shed, “and I’ll share the prize money with you.”

“I don’t want it. Win the race and prove that my machine is the best. That is all I ask. By the way, where is Laurance?”

“Don’t you remember? We left him in the cottage with your niece.”

“I don’t want him to marry her, and he shan’t,” said Vincent with a frown, speaking on the subject unexpectedly, “and, what is more, since he’s a newspaper man, I don’t want you to talk too freely to him about my improvements.”

“Laurance can hold his tongue,” rejoined Dan somewhat stiffly; “your trade secrets are safe with him. So this is the machine,” he ended, to avert further discussion on the inventor’s part.

“Yes,” said Vincent, forgetting all else in the passion of his hobby, and he began to explain matters. “A biplane, as you see, and it can carry enough oil and essence for a twelve hours’ flight. Wheel it out,” he added, turning to a quartette of workmen. “Mr. Halliday will try a flight.”

Dan was only too ready, as the beauty of the machine appealed to him immensely, especially when he beheld it in the pale light of the sun, when it was brought into the open. The men wheeled it out of the back part of the shed onto a level lawn, which could serve as a starting-place. Vincent talked all the time in a great state of excitement, and pointed out the various improvements and beauties of the masterpiece.

The planes were not exactly horizontal, since Vincent considered that he gained more power by making them branch at a slight angle. The wings were doubly covered with fine canvas, and a broad streak of crimson ran through their white, which the inventor informed Dan was a characteristic of all his machines. “A sort of distinguishing mark, as it were,” said Vincent. Another improvement was that the aviator could steer with his knees on occasions, which gave freedom to the hands when necessary. The engine was light and powerful, with tremendous driving-power considering its size. Finally, the steering-seat — the bridge of the airship, as it might be-was fenced in comfortably with aluminium, and a broad expanse of mica protected the controller of the aeroplane from the force of the winds. It was really an admirable machine and Halliday was loud in his praises, to which, however, its maker paid little attention. Genius does not require laudation; talent does.

Dan inspected the machine in every direction, tried the steering gear which ran easily, saw that the engine was well supplied with fuel, and tested, as well as he could, the various spars and ropes and bolts. Then he took his seat in the pilot-box, and prepared for a trial flight.

“Not that she hasn’t been out before,” said Vincent, while Dan gathered his energies to start. “Ready, Mr. Halliday. Let her go.”

The workmen ran the machine along the lawn, Dan set the propellor going, and after lightly spinning along the ground for some distance the aeroplane rose into the grey sky like an immense bird. A side glance showed Dan that Mildred and her lover were running out of the shed, and had arrived just a moment too late to witness his start. However, he had no time to pay attention to terrestrial matters, for all his capabilities were given to handling the new craft. Up and up he went to a considerable height with the engine running true and sweet, then dived nearly to earth in switch-back fashion, only to tower again like a hawk. Shortly he was at a lofty elevation travelling along at top speed in the direction of the ten-mile-distant Thawley. Vincent and his workmen, Laurance and the girl, became mere black dots, and beneath him the earth slipped past at more than railroad speed. Once in the vast spaces of the firmament Dan let his engines travel at their fastest, and the vanes of the propeller spun, as an American would say, like greased lightning. Halliday’s pulses raced almost as fast, as the joy of playing with death seized him. In the delicate structure of the aeroplane — being its soul and controlling power — he felt like a bird and swooped in mighty arcs in proof of his mastership of the sky.

In a few minutes he was over Thawley, and a downward glance showed him innumerable black insects running with excitement here, there, and everywhere, as the machine was sighted. Dan dipped nearly to the weather-cock of the parish church, then slid out towards the northern portion of the town. Making his aerial way with the speed of the wind Thawley was soon left behind and the aviator hovered over a wide country dotted with villages, intersected with streams, and rough with more or less high hills that divided the many vales of the country. Ten minutes took him out of Hillshire, and he flew over the wild Yorkshire moors. The air sang past him on either side of the mica screen, which prevented his breath being taken away. Everything was taut and fit and neat, and in its right place, and the engine sang a song of triumph, which mingled with the droning hum of the screw. Below was the painted earth, above the grey sky, faintly illuminated by the wintry sunshine, and between the two Halliday flew with the swiftness of a kestrel sighting its prey. Dan was used to this sublime excitement, and could control his feelings — otherwise he would have shouted for joy, which would have been from his point of view, a mere waste of energy.

He finally reached York, circled round the Minster, and then turned his craft homeward in glee. The machine was certainly the best he had yet handled, and he made sure that, given moderately decent conditions, he would win the race and gain the £2,000 necessary to continue his search for Moon’s murderess. And the capture of her, as he reminded himself, meant his marriage with Lillian. No wonder the young man’s heart beat high, for it was not easy to come by so magnificent an aeroplane, and he felt as grateful to Vincent for building it as he felt to Mrs. Jarsell for procuring him the mastership of the same.

Those Dan left on the lawn behind the Sheepeak shed stared steadily into the grey distance, and shortly saw a dim spot moving towards them with the swiftness of an eagle. Larger and larger it grew, until they could distinguish the aeroplane’s construction, like a delicate tracery against the clouds. In a wide circle it moved gracefully and then like a bird folding its wings, settled gently at the very feet of its inventor. The trial was a complete success in every way.

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