Sandy departed next morning, and, as usual, was not communicative about his plans. I wanted him to see Haraldsen, but he said that there was no need, and that the sooner he was in London the better. He asked for Lombard’s address and a line of introduction to him, and his only instruction was to keep Haraldsen safe for the next week. He suggested that to look after him might be made a whole-time job for Peter John.
Peter John took on the task joyfully, for here was something after his own heart. He worshipped Sandy, and to be employed by him thrilled him to the marrow. Besides, he had struck up with Haraldsen one of those friendships that a shy, self-contained boy very often makes with a shy man. Haraldsen came twice to dinner during the week after Sandy left, and there was no mistake about the change for the better in his condition. He spoke of his daughter at school without the flicker of fear in his eyes which had distressed me. He was full of questions about our small woodland birds, which were mostly new to him, and to which Peter John was introducing him. He was even willing to talk about his Island of Sheep without a face of blank desolation.
Then on the morning of Midsummer Day I got a shock on opening my Times. For on the leader page was a long letter from Sandy, and it was headed, ‘The late M. E. Haraldsen.’
It told the story of the jade tablet and of how he had picked it up in a Peking junk-shop. He quoted the Latin in which Haraldsen had said good-bye to the world, but he didn’t mention the place where the words had been written. The letter concluded as follows:
‘Marius Haraldsen was known to many as one of the most successful prospectors and operators in the early days of the South African gold-fields. But his friends were aware that he was more than an ordinary gold-seeker. He had great dreams for his own Northern peoples, and his life was dedicated, as in the case of Cecil Rhodes, to building up a fortune for their benefit. He must have made great sums of money, but he always cherished the dream that before his death he would find a true Ophir which would enable him to realize fully his grandiose plans. I met him on this quest in the Middle East and others have met him elsewhere. He was no casual prospector, but, with ample means and the most scientific methods, was engaged in following up the trail of earlier adventurers.
‘Now it would seem that before his death he had made good on the biggest scale. The jade tablet in my possession tells us that he had found his treasure. The inscription on the obverse no doubt contains the details, for Marius Haraldsen was above all things a practical man, and did not leave a task half finished. The writing is difficult, but when it is translated, as I hope it will shortly be, the world will know something of what may well prove an epoch-making discovery.
‘Meantime, I thought that this interim report might give satisfaction to the surviving friends of a great man and an intrepid adventurer.’
The thing was signed ‘Clanroyden,’ and dated from Laverlaw, and the Times had as its fourth leader a pleasant little essay on the survival power of material objects and the ingenious ways of Providence.
I pondered long over that letter. The first thing that struck me was that it was not written in Sandy’s usual fastidious style. It was frank journalism, and must be meant to appeal to a particular audience.
My second reflection was that I knew what that audience was. It was the gang who were persecuting Haraldsen’s son. Sandy, in so many words, told them that the old man had brought off his great coup, and that the Haraldsen fortune was potentially far bigger than any of them had dreamed. Here was a new strong scent for the pack.
My last thought was that Sandy had now put himself into the centre of the hunt. Any one reading that letter must assume that he knew all about the Haraldsen family and its affairs. He wrote himself down as the possessor of what might be worth millions — he professed confidence about the meaning of the writing on the tablet and the certainty of its being translated. . . . His purpose was clear. It was to draw off the hounds.
I wired to him at once at his London club asking when I could see him, but I got no answer. Instead I had a telegram in the afternoon from Lombard requesting me to come at once to his country house. The telegram concluded: ‘Lock up carefully behind you,’ and that could only have one meaning. I brought up Haraldsen to stay at the Manor, with instructions to Mary and Peter John not to let him out of their sight, and by five o’clock I had started in the car for Surrey.
I reached Lombard’s house about half-past seven. It was on the skirts of an old-fashioned village which had become almost a London suburb by the building of a ring of big villas round it. The house wasn’t bad of its kind, a pseudo-Georgian edifice of red brick with stone facings, and its six acres or so of ground had been shaped into a most elaborate garden. There was a sample of everything — miniature park, lily pond, water-garden, pergolas, arbours, yards of crazy paving; and he must have kept a largish staff of gardeners, for the place was blazing with flowers and manicured to the last perfection. Fosse was a shabby, old farm-house compared to it. It was the same indoors. Everything was shining white enamel, and polished wood, and glowing brass and copper. Some of the pictures looked to me good, but they were over-varnished and too pretentiously framed. There was overmuch glitter about the place, the masses of cut flowers were too opulent, the red lacquer was too fresh, there was no sober background to give the eye relief.
In the drawing-room I found the Lombards, and I recognized the inspiration which had created this glossiness. His wife, whom I had caught a glimpse of at the station in the preceding autumn, proved to be the most sumptuous of Lombard’s possessions. She was dressed, I remember, in white and purple, and she had a wonderful cluster of orchids at her breast. As a girl she must have been lovely, and she was still a handsome woman of the heavy Madonna type — a slightly over-coloured Madonna. Being accustomed to slim people like Mary and Barbara Clanroyden and Janet Raden, I thought her a little too ‘fair of flesh,’ in the polite phrase of the ballads. I learned afterwards that she had been a tempestuous beauty, and well-dowered as well, for it was his marriage that first launched Lombard on his career.
‘We are not to wait,’ she told me. ‘The fourth of our little party may be late. And we are not to use names, please, at table. Barton (that was the butler) is a confidential person, but it is not desirable that anybody else should know who is dining here. So you are to be Dick, please, and the fourth will be Sandy. These are Lord Clanroyden’s own instructions.’
Dinner was announced, and I hadn’t been seated five minutes at the table before I had Mrs. Lombard placed. She was a warm-hearted woman, without much brains, but with certain very definite tastes, and she dominated her environment. She was deeply in love with Lombard and he with her, and, since they had no children, each had grown into the other’s ways. He had been swallowed up in the featherbed of her vast comfortableness, but she in turn had caught a spark from him, for she had a queer passion for romance, which I don’t think she could have been born with. She amazed me by the range and variety of her not very intelligent reading, she had odd sensitive strains in her, and she sat in her suburban paradise expectant of marvels. Lombard had probably not told her very much about the present business, but he had told her enough to thrill her. I found her eyes looking at me sometimes just like an excited child, and I could see that she anticipated the coming of Sandy almost with awe. A few people no doubt knew my name, but half the world knew Sandy’s.
He did not appear till the June twilight filled the big french windows, through which he slipped as if he had been a guest staying in the house. Barton and a footman were in the room at the time, and Mrs. Lombard behaved as if he were an old friend. ‘So glad to see you at last, Sandy,’ she said. ‘I hope you had a pleasant journey.’
‘Pleasant but longish,’ he said. ‘The air is the best route on a summer night. What a jolly place! I never smelt such roses.’
‘Have you come from Laverlaw?’ I asked when we were alone.
‘No, only from London. But I didn’t think it wise to come direct. I’ve been half round the southern counties, and I did the last stage on a bicycle — from Heston. You must give me a lift back there in your car, Dick.’
Sandy made an excellent meal and set himself to draw out Mrs. Lombard. I could see that he was asking himself the same question that I had asked, what part she played in her husband’s life; and I think that he reached the same conclusion. She was not going to make any difficulties. Soon he had her talking about all her interests, the pleasantness of the neighbourhood, her brief season in London, her holiday plans — it was to be the Pyrenees, but her husband might not get away till later in the summer. He looked on her with favour, for her kindness and comeliness were manifest, and the embarrassment left her eyes as she spoke to him, not as a notable, but as a sympathetic human being. She had a delicious voice, and her prattle was the most soothing thing conceivable. It explained Lombard’s smug contentment with his life, but it convinced me that in that life the lady was not an active force. She would neither spur nor impede him.
In the library after dinner I got my notion of Lombard further straightened out, for the room was a museum of the whole run of his interests. Sandy, who could never refrain from looking round any collection of books, bore me out. The walls on three sides were lined to the ceiling with books, which looked in the dim light like rich tapestry hangings. Lombard had kept his old school and college texts, and there was a big section on travel, and an immense amount of biography. He had also the latest works on finance, so he kept himself abreast of his profession. But the chief impression left on me was that it was the library of a man who did not want the memory of any part of his life to slip from him — a good augury for our present job.
‘I’ve burned my boats, as you saw from the Times this morning,’ said Sandy. ‘I dare say you guessed the reason. The pace was becoming too hot — for Haraldsen.’
‘How about yourself?’ said Lombard.
‘I have better wind and a better turn of speed,’ was the answer. He filled his pipe, and sat himself crosswise in an armchair with his legs dangling over an arm.
‘What do you make of Haraldsen, Dick?’ he asked. ‘Apart from his father and all that, is he worth taking trouble about?’
‘Yes,’ I said firmly. ‘I have come to like him enormously. He is a high-strung being and has gone through a very fair imitation of hell, but there’s no crack in his brain, and I’m positive there is none in his character.’
‘Apart from the old man, and your promise, and one’s general dislike of letting the Devil have the upper hand, you think he’s worth saving?’
‘Most certainly I do.’
‘Good,’ said Sandy. ‘I asked, because this affair looks like being infernally troublesome, and it is as well to be sure about the principal personage. . . . Well, I haven’t let the grass grow under my feet since I saw you last. I’ve seen Macgillivray, who didn’t know much, but gave me some hints that were more useful than he imagined. Lombard here has been doing good work on the Barralty trail — by the way, the reason why I’ve been so melodramatic about coming here to-night is that Lombard must be kept free from suspicion as long as possible, or half his usefulness goes. I’m deeply suspect by this time; so are you, Dick; but Lombard has still a clean sheet. And I can assure you that the people we are up against are very active citizens. Chiefly, I’ve been busy with some of my old channels — very nearly silted up, some of them were, and one way and another I’ve convinced myself that Haraldsen is the quarry of a very dangerous and desperate gang. The most dangerous kind, for they range from stolid respectability down to the dirtiest type of criminal. They have every weapon in their armoury, and they are organized like an American football team.’
‘Hold on,’ I said, much impressed, for Sandy didn’t use words like ‘dangerous’ or ‘desperate’ very readily. ‘I don’t quite see their purpose. I can understand a vulgar attempt to blackmail a simple Norlander. But isn’t this organization you speak of a bit too elaborate, like using a steam-hammer to crack a nut?’
‘No,’ was the reply, ‘for the possible reward is immense. Quite apart from what my jade tablet may have to contribute, old Haraldsen’s fortune was very large. Those blackguards could milk his son to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions. Lombard has been good enough to verify that.’
‘It took some doing,’ said Lombard; ‘but I had a pull with the Scandinavian banks. Haraldsen holds the bulk of the preference stock in’— he mentioned some famous companies —‘and he has ludicrous balances on current account.’
Sandy nodded. ‘There’s no doubt then about the bigness of the prize. And it should have been easy fruit. They had only to get hold of Haraldsen, a shy, unworldly recluse, to strip him bit by bit of his possessions — all by proper legal process. The man’s a baby in these things. I can see him in Troth’s hands assigning great blocks of his gilt-edged stuff — for consideration, of course, such as a holding in some of Barralty’s shaky concerns. Then there would be a little peace for him, and then another cut at the joint. All very simple and pleasant, if ugly snags like us three hadn’t got in the way. We won’t be popular in certain quarters.’
‘Have you a line on the gang?’ I asked.
‘So-so,’ he said. ‘I know a good deal about Troth, not all to his disadvantage. He has his enemies and plenty of critics, but he has also his friends. A sharp practitioner, of course, but there’s more in his persecution of Haraldsen than mere greed. I haven’t got the facts quite straight yet, but at the back there is some kind of family vendetta, which he inherited from his father. The elder Troth and the elder Haraldsen were once partners on the Rand, and I gather that they were together in a big venture which turned out well. Troth did something dirty, and Haraldsen kicked him out, as apparently he was justified in doing under their contract. But Troth thought that he had been badly treated and was entitled to his share in the profits of the big coup, and he was determined to make Haraldsen disgorge. That was the reason of the scrap on the Rhodesian hills you told me about. Troth believed that he was trying to get what belonged to him, and his son is on the same tack. Also, I suppose, Albinus.’
‘Have you got in touch with Albinus?’ I asked.
‘Yes, and it wasn’t hard. He’s quite a prominent figure in his own line. He has lived for the last two years in a fashionable West–End hotel, and done himself pretty well. He seems to be comfortably off, for, though he does a little in the City, he spends most of his time amusing himself — races a bit and patronizes the drama, and entertains lavishly. Quite a popular citizen. I had him pointed out to me at Epsom — a fellow a little more than your own age, Dick, who has kept his figure as well as you have, but far better dressed than you could ever hope to be. His hair has gone grey, and he has the air of a retired cavalry colonel. I didn’t care for his looks, for I don’t like a face that is perpetually smiling while the eyes never change, but people don’t seem to mind him. He’s a member of ——.’ And he mentioned a highly respectable club. ‘They say his finances are dicky.’
Lombard nodded. ‘I heard for a fact that his bank has pulled him up about his overdraft. He has been too thick with Barralty.’
‘Ah! Barralty!’ Sandy’s face took on that look of intense absorption which meant that his interest was really awakened. ‘There’s the puzzler. I can place Troth and Albinus — they’re types — but Barralty is his own species and genus. I’ve been collecting data about him and it’s mighty interesting. It’s going to take us a long time to get the measure of that lad. But I’ve managed to see him — from a distance, and I confess I was fascinated.’
‘I got a young friend to take me to a party — golly, such a party! I was a French artist in a black sweater, and I hadn’t washed for a day or two. A surréaliste, who had little English but all the latest Paris studio argot. I sat in a corner and worshipped, while Barralty held the floor. It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect — terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day — the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be-perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.” Our popular sciolism is different — it is a smattering not so much of facts as of points of view. But the youths and maidens at this party hadn’t even that degree of certainty. They took nothing for granted except their own surpassing intelligence, and their minds were simply nebulae of atoms. Well, Barralty was a king among those callow anarchists. You could see that he was of a different breed from them, for he had a mind, however much he debased it. You could see too that he despised the whole racket.’
‘What is he like?’ I asked, for I had never had him properly described to me.
‘Quite ordinary, except for his eyes. His pupils don’t appear to be quite in the centre of the eyeballs, but rather high up, so he has always the air of looking over your head. And those pupils are intensely bright. An impressive face, but the more repellent the more you look at it. I have only begun my study of Mr. Barralty, but I have reached one firm conclusion. The man is inordinately, crazily ambitious. He has to assert himself even if it is only to be a Pope among the half-baked. I should say that he had about as much morals as a polecat, but he has what often does fairly well as a substitute, worldly wisdom. He is a cautious fellow, and up to now he has kept his feet on a very slippery floor, at least as far as repute goes. He wants to keep that repute, but he must have money, great quantities of money, so that he can prove to the world that a fastidious and cynical intellectual can beat the philistines at their own game. It’s one version of the Grand Manner that our ancestors used to talk about. Do you follow me? Do you see how tempting the Haraldsen affair must be to him? Here is something quite secret and far away from the ordinary swim, which promises immense loot and not a word said. I think we can be certain that he is the brain in the enterprise and will get the biggest share. And that he won’t stick at trifles. I can imagine Troth having scruples, but not Barralty.’
Sandy’s tone was so grave that for a moment there was silence. Then I felt bound to put in a word of caution.
‘You realize,’ I said, ‘that we are taking all this story of a plot on Haraldsen’s word?’
‘I do,’ he said. ‘That’s why we must go slowly and wait on developments.’
‘And the other two,’ I said. ‘We have nothing to link the young Varrinder and your Conquistador friend with the business except that they seem to have come sniffing round Haraldsen.’
‘True,’ was the answer. ‘On that point we have no evidence, only suspicions. Therefore we must go very cannily. But not too cannily, or we may be caught. Who was it said that behind every doubt there lurked an immoral certainty? We must take suspicions for facts till they are disproved, for I don’t think that in this affair we can afford to give away any weight. I’m coming in, partly because I don’t like the Devil to score, and partly because I’m pretty certain that D’Ingraville is in it, and I have a rendezvous with D’Ingraville as long as he is above the sod. Therefore I’m going to follow my instinct and treat the thing seriously from the start. Our immediate duty is to safeguard Haraldsen.’
‘Your Times letter today will help,’ I said.
‘It is a step in the right direction. But only a step. We must make it impossible for those blackguards to get at his money. So Lombard and I have made certain arrangements. To-morrow morning he goes back with you to Fosse with a bagful of papers which Haraldsen will sign. I assume that he’ll agree, for it’s the only way. We’re making a trust of his possessions, with several most responsible trustees, and he must give Lombard his power of attorney. He will have enough free income for his modest needs, but till the trust is revoked he won’t be able to touch the capital. That means that there can be no coercion on him to part with his fortune without considerable delays and a good many people knowing about it.’
‘That sounds common sense,’ I said. ‘But will the gang that is after him ever discover it?’
‘I shall take steps to see that they are informed,’ he replied. ‘I want to get them off his trail and gunning for me. My Times letter will have put them on my track. By the way, I propose presently to announce in the same admirable newspaper that I intend to present old Haraldsen’s jade tablet to the British Museum.’
‘Whatever for?’ I asked.
Sandy grinned in his impish way. ‘More ground bait. They won’t believe it. They’ll think it’s a dodge to put them off the scent. They’ll think too that something has happened to rattle me, which is what I intend. I don’t want them to consider me too formidable. They’ll fumble for a little and make one or two false casts, but soon I shall have the pack in full cry.’
It seemed to me that Sandy was going a little beyond the mark in his quixotry, and I told him so. His face was so lit up and eager that I thought it was simply another ebullition of the boy in him that could not die, and I reminded him he was a married man. That at once made him grave.
‘I know, Dick,’ he said. ‘I’ve thought of that. But Barbara would be the first to agree. It isn’t only saving Haraldsen, poor devil, though that is a work of necessity and mercy. It’s putting a spoke in D’Ingraville’s wheel, for if that sportsman is left on the loose there will be hell to pay for others than Haraldsen. You needn’t worry about me, for as I’ve told you, they’re bound to fumble at the start. They won’t know what to make of me, and, if I may say it modestly, they may be a little worried. Presently, they’ll pull themselves together, but not just yet. I must put in a week or two in London. I’ll stay at the club, which I don’t fancy they’ll attempt to burgle. Violence won’t be their line, at least not at the start. You see, I must get a line on D’Ingraville to make sure.’
I asked him how he proposed to get that, and he said ‘Varrinder. I have found out a good deal about that lad, and I think I may make something of him. He’s still only a novice in crime, and his nerve isn’t steady. I fancy he may be turned into what the French police call an indicateur, half-apache and half-informer. We shall see. And meantime, Dick, I have a whole-time job for you. You are responsible for Haraldsen.’
He spoke the last sentence in the tone of a general giving orders to his staff. There was nothing boyish now about his face.
‘Haraldsen,’ he said, ‘is the key of the whole business. I can’t think how on earth he has escaped them so long. Probably his blundering simplicity. If he had been cleverer most likely they would have caught him. Well, we can’t afford to let them catch him. God knows what might happen if they got a weak-nerved fellow into their clutches! Apart from what he might be made to suffer there’s a good chance that they might win, for a trust can be revoked, and I can imagine a shattered Haraldsen giving them all the legal authority they want. He’s our Achilles-heel, and we must guard him like a child. And there’s the daughter, too, the little girl at school — I’m not easy about her if her father is left anywhere in the neighbourhood. It’s a queer business to have as our weak point a neurotic Viking. All the same, I’ve a notion that in the last resort Haraldsen might surprise us — might go clean berserk and turn and rend them. I don’t know him, but I remember the old man.’
‘You mean that Fosse isn’t safe?’ I asked.
‘Just that. It is almost certain that they have their eyes on it already, and even if they haven’t they soon will have. It doesn’t do to underrate the intelligence of that crowd. The place is not much more than seventy miles from London on a knuckle of upland accessible from every side — with a trunk road close to your gates, and hikers and tourists thick around it all summer. You’re as defenceless as an old sow basking in the sun. Your own people are trusty, but your frontiers are too wide to watch. You must get yourself into a sanctuary, and there’s one place only that fills the bill.’
I asked its name, but I had already guessed the answer.
‘Laverlaw,’ he said. ‘I want you to shift your camp there at once — you and Mary and Peter John and Haraldsen. You’ll only be antedating your yearly visit by a few weeks. There’s nothing to keep you in the south, is there?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘But are you sure it’s wise? They’re still doubtful about Fosse, but now that you’re in the business, they will be certain about Laverlaw.’
‘I mean them to be,’ he replied. ‘The fight must come, and I want to choose my own ground for it. Fosse is hopeless — Laverlaw pretty well perfect. Not a soul can show his face in that long glen of mine without my people knowing it. Not a stray sheep can appear on my hills without my shepherds spotting it. Not the smallest unfamiliar thing can happen but it is at once reported. Haraldsen will be safe at Laverlaw till we see how things move. You remember in the Medina business that I advised you to get straight off to Machray? Well, Laverlaw is as good as any Highland deer forest — better, for there are more of my own folk there. So, Dick, you’ve got to move to Laverlaw at once — as inconspicuously as possible, but at once. I’ve warned Babs, and she’s expecting you.’
I saw the reason in Sandy’s plan, but I wasn’t quite happy. For I remembered what he seemed to have forgotten, that when I went to Machray to keep out of Medina’s way I had had an uncommonly close shave for my life.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05