The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 9

Mahomet’s Coffin

The aeroplane acquired by Halliday could be dismounted in three parts, so that it could easily have been taken to pieces and packed for transfer to London. But the race for “The Moment” prize was to take place within seven days, and Dan wished to familiarize himself with the machine as much as was possible in the interval. For this reason he decided to go by air to the metropolis, taking the journey in easy flights, with intervals of rest between. He therefore arranged to send his baggage back to town with Freddy, and carried only a small black bag containing absolutely necessary personal effects. Freddy did not object to this plan, as he did not wish to leave Mildred sooner than was necessary. Therefore Dan started and Laurance remained behind to pass golden hours in the girl’s society. However, he promised his friend to be in London within two days. And as Halliday, besides covering the hundred and sixty odd miles in short flights, desired to practise aviation in the open spaces of the country before getting to the capital, it was not needful for Freddy to return to his business until forty-eight hours had passed. This arrangement suited both the young men very well.

Vincent, who was now as hot in Dan’s favour as he had been cold, presided at the start, and again and again went over various details in connection with the machine, which was much dearer to him than any child could have been. Now that his objections had been set aside by the intervention of Mrs. Jarsell, the inventor was desperately anxious that Dan should win the race, as such a triumph would undoubtedly show the value of the new-fangled biplane. Not that Vincent wished for the money, or even for the glory, but he very greatly desired to show other inventors that he was their master. His vanity, being purely concerned with the result of nights and days of meditation, could only be gratified by actual proof that he had conquered the air. Not entirely that is, for Vincent was far too thorough in his genius to believe that Rome could be built in a day; but at all events he trusted that his machine would reveal itself as the best that any man had yet constructed. So far as that was concerned Halliday, accustomed to aviation, believed that the sour old man had succeeded.

“If I don’t win the race, it won’t be your fault, Mr. Vincent,” Dan assured him, as he stepped into the pilot’s box, and with this farewell speech the inventor expressed himself very well content. He did not expect impossibilities, and he saw that the man to whom he had entrusted his darling airship was both cool and enthusiastic, qualities which go far towards gaining complete success.

It was a calm day with scarcely any wind when Dan began his flight, and as the biplane could easily attain sixty miles an hour he would have had no difficulty in reaching London early in the afternoon. But he did not make straight for the south, but circled gradually down to Rugby, where he proposed to remain for the night. Dawdling in the air, it was five hours before he alighted outside the town, and feeling weary with the strain on his nerves — for the machine required dexterous handling — he determined to rest. Without much difficulty he found a friendly farmer, who was willing that the airship should be housed in an empty barn for the night. When all was safe and Halliday had arranged that no one should enter the barn, he sought out a cheap inn on the borders of the place to rest for the night, within watching distance of his craft. Next morning, after breakfast, he concluded to start again, but after a visit to the barn to see that all was well, he returned to the inn for an hour.

It was necessary, he thought, to consider the situation and his future plans; therefore he wished for solitude to do so. Owing to his fatigue he had not been able to think much on the previous night before sleep overtook him.

The plan, which Dan intended to carry into effect when he reached town, was to force Penn into confessing what he actually knew concerning the perfume. He had obviously spoken falsely as to his being its sole possessor in England, since Mrs. Jarsell had given the like scent to her old governess. Yet, why should Penn lie in this fashion, unless there was some secret connected with the perfume, which he desired to keep concealed? And assuredly the scent had clung round the clothes of the dead man. Dan determined to force Penn into confession, and that could only be done by frightening him greatly. To carry out this plan, Halliday wrote to the man asking him for an interview, and when he came — as Dan was certain he would — intended, in some way, to inveigle him into taking a flight. Once Penn was in the air his fears could be played upon to some purpose. At least Dan thought so, and was hot to make the experiment.

Of course, the young man did not suspect Mrs. Jarsell of being connected in any way with crime of any sort. Still it was strange that the perfume from Sumatra should form a link between her and Sir Charles Moon with Penn intervening. It was also strange that Mrs. Pelgrin should hint that Mrs. Jarsell had secrets. She had not said as much in so many words, but the general trend of her cautious conversation went to show that Mrs. Jarsell was not entirely open and above board. The landlady had wondered where the owner of the Grange got her money. Now why should she so wonder, unless she had proofs that the said money was not come by honestly? And why, also, should she, in a quite unnecessary way, mention her nephew — who was the Thawley station porter — as being friendly with Mrs. Jarsell to such an extent that there was a chance of his getting a legacy? Ladies of wealth do not make friends of railway porters without reason, and Dan wished to learn the reason in this particular case. By a diplomatic question he had ascertained from Mrs. Pelgrin that her nephew was the sole Sheepeak person employed at the station. Consequently he would naturally be the sole person who knew Mrs. Jarsell and all about her; therefore it was not impossible that the lady befriended the man so that he might not speak of her visits to town. Yet why should he not do so, Mrs. Jarsell’s doings being entirely honest? Then there were three motor-cars, a quite unnecessary number for a lady to keep, especially as, according to her own story, she went out little and spent most of her time in attending to Miss Armour. On the whole, although his suspicions were vague, Dan had an idea that Mrs. Jarsell’s doings would not bear the light of day. Still — and especially since she had procured him the biplane — he would not have troubled about her rustic affairs save for the fact of the perfume. It might be-and this he hoped to discover — that Penn’s confession would show more plainly the link which connected Mrs. Jarsell with the Hampstead crime. Yet on the face of it the very idea seemed monstrous and Dan scorned himself for his folly as he wrote the letter to Penn. Nevertheless, something stronger than himself drove him to post the letter.

Afterwards, to get the unpleasant taste of conspiring out of his mouth, the young man wrote a lover-like epistle to Lillian, telling her about his capture of the aeroplane. “You and Mrs. Bolstreath must come and see the start of the race at Blackheath,” wrote Dan, “and your mere presence will inspire me to do my very best to win. Much hangs on my gaining this race, as I want the money to prosecute the search for your father’s assassin!” Then Halliday left business for pleasure, and, telling Lillian that he adored her to distraction, urged her not to see too much of Lord Curberry. Finally, he declared that he was hungering for a glimpse of her angel face, and now that he was returning to London intended to call and see her, despite the prohibition of Sir John. There was much more passionate writing to the same effect, and the letter ended with sentiments of lively and lofty devotion. If another man had written the letter Dan would have smiled at its vehemence, since the scribe cast himself under Miss Moon’s dainty feet to be trampled upon. But as Dan was the author of the epistle, he only regretted that he could not say more ardent things than he had set down. To such lengths does the passion of love carry the most matter-of-fact of men; and Halliday certainly prided himself upon being a very up-to-date child of this materialistic age, believing in nothing he could not see, or touch, or feel.

The letters having been posted, and the bill paid, and the black bag packed, Dan took his way to the barn of the friendly farmer. He found quite a number of people before the great doors, as the news that an aviator was in the neighbourhood had spread rapidly. The farmer did not wish to take any rent for the night’s lodging of the aeroplane, but as it had been guarded so carefully and was housed so comfortably, Halliday insisted upon the man having some recompense for his kindness. Then with the assistance of three or four willing onlookers the machine was wheeled out into the meadow wherein the barn stood. It was close upon mid-day when Dan started and the spectators gasped with awe and delighted surprise when the biplane, like a big dragon-fly, soared into the cloudy sky. Willing to give them pleasure, since an airship was not a common sight in the neighbourhood, Halliday did some fancy flying and circled and dipped and towered directly over the town before finally waving his hand in farewell. A thin cry of many throats came to his ears as he sped southward, and he was delighted to find how readily the machine answered to every motion of his hand. He almost felt that he was riding on a live thing, all nerves and energy, so obedient was the craft to his will. The machine was like a flying beetle, the planes motionless to sustain the body like the front wings of the insect, while the propeller, spinning vigorously, acted like the back wings to drive ahead. Dan had a faint idea of seeing some comparison of this sort in a magazine, and wondered if Vincent, having seen it also, had constructed his aeroplane on insect lines. But he soon dropped all conjecture to attend strictly to his business, which was to reach London as speedily as possible; no very difficult task, considering the swiftness of his vehicle.

It was convenient that Dan should know a shed at Blackheath where he could house his machine, as Lord Curberry’s house was in that neighbourhood. Once on the spot it would be easy to have an interview with Marcus Penn, and perhaps not difficult to induce him to take the air in the lofty spaces of the sky. The neighbourhood was well known to Halliday, for his occupation of aviation brought him often there, and he had experimented with various inventions at various times, where the land afforded room for the departure and arrival of the machines; therefore, when he reached London’s outskirts he made for Blackheath, and without difficulty brought the aeroplane to earth, a stone-throw from the shed in question. It said a great deal for the capabilities of the biplane that her pilot was enabled to strike his destination so exactly. Of course, the usual concourse of people gathered when the great bird-like structure fluttered down from the sky, but Dan sent a messenger to the man who looked after the shed, and soon had Vincent’s masterpiece safely put away under lock and key. As he had been practising flying and strenuously testing the qualities of the machine, it was quite five o’clock before he was free to do what he would. As the distance from Rugby was just over eighty miles he could have arrived much earlier had he wished. But there was no need to do so, and every need to accustom himself to handling the biplane easily in view of the great race.

When Dan had given certain instructions to the man who looked after the shed and was responsible for the safety of the machine, he walked across the heath to a comfortable inn, where he was well-known, as he had put up at it many times previously. It was here that he had appointed the meeting with Marcus Penn for the next morning, but so eager was he to come face to face with the man and wring the truth out of him, that he almost decided to walk to Lord Curberry’s house, which was two miles distant. But a swift reflection that he could do nothing until the next morning — since Penn had to be coaxed on to the aeroplane and certainly would decline a night-run — decided him to wait. The “Black Bull” was a particularly comfortable hotel and the landlady supplied tasty dinners; therefore Halliday took the good the gods sent him and settled down for a quiet evening. After a stroll to the shed to see that Vincent’s creation was all right he returned to the inn and went to bed. His nerves speedily relaxed, and he slept deeply until nine o’clock in the morning. As he had invited Penn to see him at eleven, he had just time to take his breakfast comfortably, read the newspaper, and saunter out to breathe the fresh air before his visitor arrived.

Marcus Penn had not improved in looks since Dan had last seen him. His thin face was still yellow, his hair and moustache still scanty, and he appeared to be as nervous as ever. When he sat down he looked apprehensively at Halliday with his pale eyes, and passed his tongue over his dry lips. It seemed to the aviator that Penn’s conscience was not quite at rest, else he would scarcely look so scared, when — on the face of it — there was no need to do so. Dan, however, soon set him at his ease, which was the first necessary step towards gaining his confidence. For, unless that was gained the man assuredly would not mount the aeroplane.

“How are you getting along, Mr. Penn?” said Halliday, genially. “Have a cigarette and something wet? Oh, I forgot you don’t drink so early in the day. I am glad you are up to time, as I am just starting out on a fly.”

“Really,” remarked the secretary eagerly. “I should like to see you make a start. Is your flying-machine near at hand?”

“In the shed over yonder, on the verge of the heath,” said Dan, jerking his head over his left shoulder; “but I daresay you wonder why I asked you to see me, Mr. Penn?”

“Well, er — that is — er — I did wonder a trifle,” hesitated the pale man, and again looked anxious.

“It has to do with your literary ambitions,” said Halliday slowly.

Penn flushed, looking both relieved on learning why he had been summoned to the meeting and pleased that the subject should be of such personal interest. “What do you know of my literary ambitions?” he asked doubtfully.

“All that Miss Moon could tell me,” said Dan, promptly, and this was absolutely correct, as Lillian had long ago asked him to aid the secretary, although he had never troubled about the matter until now.

“Yes, I certainly did tell Miss Moon that I wished to become a novelist. I found her sympathetic.”

“Yes, she would be; she always is. I suppose,” said Dan darting off at a tangent, “that you are comfortable with Lord Curberry?”

“Oh, yes,” assented the man, cheerfully. “I have good pay and little to do, and Lord Curberry is very kind. I have plenty of time to write my stories.”

“Have you had any published?”

“No,” sighed Penn, sadly, “I have tried again and again to get some short tales printed, but so far, without success.”

“Well, then, you know that I have a friend — Mr. Frederick Laurance — who is on that newspaper ‘The Moment’. I suggest that you should send me some of your manuscripts for him to read. If he approves of them he will see what he can do, as he knows nearly everyone of any note in the literary world.”

“Oh, you are too good. I shall be delighted. All the same,” Penn hesitated, and writhed, “why should you do this for me?”

“It is Miss Moon who is doing this for you,” rejoined Halliday, saying what was perfectly true. “She asked me to help you. I suppose she comes sometimes to Lord Curberry’s house?”

“Oh, yes,” said Penn, with a swift glance at him, “her uncle, Sir John, and Miss Moon and Mrs. Bolstreath dined with Lord Curberry last week. I am afraid, Mr. Halliday,” added the secretary timidly, “that you will lose Miss Moon.”

Dan laughed cheerfully. “I don’t think so. Why should I?”

“Her uncle is very anxious for her to marry Lord Curberry, who is also very desirous to make Miss Moon his wife.”

“That shows Curberry’s good taste,” said Halliday rising, and putting on his cap. “However, she is to be my wife, and Curberry and Sir John can go hang.”

“I should not be so sure, Mr. Halliday,” said Penn, in a mysterious manner; “when Lord Curberry wants anything, he generally gets it.”

“He is crying for the moon just now,” said the other man, making a pun, “and the moon is no man’s property. However, I must go off to start for my flying practice. I am going to compete in the London to York race next week. Come with me and see me start. As to your stories, you can send them to me at my old address, which you knew when you were with Sir Charles. I shall see Mr. Laurance about them.”

“You are good,” murmured Penn, drawing a long breath and following Dan out of the inn, “I am obliged to you.”

“To Miss Moon, you mean. She is the one who takes an interest in your literary efforts. But come along and see my machine. I got it from an inventor called Vincent,” and Dan turned suddenly to shoot an inquiring glance at his companion. It occurred to him that Penn might have heard the name since Penn had the perfume as well as Mrs. Jarsell, who knew the inventor. But evidently Penn had not heard the name, for he gave no sign of knowledge.

“I hope it is a good machine,” he said innocently and weakly.

“Very good,” said Halliday, as they halted near the great doors of the shed, “a clipper. Why not try a fly with me?”

“Oh!” Penn shrank back. “I should be afraid.”

“Nonsense, man!” joked the aviator while the aeroplane was wheeled out, and the usual crowd of onlookers began to gather. “As a literary man you ought to experience all sensation so as to write about it. Coming stories will be full of flying-machines and airships.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?” asked Penn, looking at the delicate structure which appeared almost too fragile to sustain one person, let alone two.

“Not at all, especially if one doesn’t do any fancy flying, which I shall avoid if you come with me.”

“I should like to have the experience,” hesitated the secretary, “that is if you will not fly too high or too far.”

“I’ll take you across the heath and back again and will keep within a tolerably safe distance from the ground.”

“It’s tempting,” quavered Penn, wistfully, while Dan busied himself in getting things square.

“Please yourself,” rejoined Halliday carelessly, and satisfied that the timid man was nibbling at the bait. “I can’t stay here all day.” He slipped into the pilot’s seat. “Well, well?”

“I really think I should like — where am I to sit?”

“In this place.” Dan touched a spring and the pilot box of aluminium lengthened out so that there was room for two people. This was one of Vincent’s improvements upon which he prided himself, as the vehicle could, by adjusting the closed-in car, seat two people or one, as the need arose. “But don’t come, if you feel the least fear.”

Those of the idle spectators close at hand grinned at Penn’s pale face, and he was stung into accepting hastily what he would have rejected in a cooler moment. “I am not afraid,” he said, trying to steady his voice, and with an air of bravado he stepped in beside the aviator. “Oh, I say!” he gasped.

And no wonder. Dan did not give him a moment to change his mind. Having captured his prey, he intended to keep him, so set the engine going almost before Penn was comfortably seated. In less time than it takes to tell the aeroplane whirled along the ground swiftly and lifted herself gracefully upward. Penn gasped again, and glanced down at the sinking ground, where the spectators were already beginning to grow smaller. But the motion of the biplane was so easy, and the face of her pilot so composed, that after the first thrill of terror Penn began to feel that flying was not such a very dangerous pastime as he had imagined.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” he murmured, as the great artificial bird glided smoothly through the air, “but don’t — don’t go too high, Mr. Halliday.”

“I shall go high enough to smash you,” said Dan, coolly. He was circling in swallow flights round the heath, now high now low, now swift now slow, and had the machine so entirely under command that he was enabled to give a certain amount of his attention, though not all, to his companion.

Penn gasped again, and his terror revived. “Smash me! Oh!” he almost shrieked.

“Yes,” said Dan, not looking, since he had to watch where he was going, but speaking rapidly and clearly all the same. “I want to know the truth about that perfume. About the Sumatra perfume which you told me was possessed alone by you. That was a lie, and you know it was a lie.”

“I— I— I don’t know anything about it,” whimpered the secretary.

“Yes you do. Out with the truth,” said Dan relentlessly, “if you don’t I shall drop you overboard to smash like an egg.”

Penn clung to his seat desperately. “That would be murder.”

“I daresay, but I shouldn’t suffer. Accidents will happen in aeroplanes you know. You are like Mahomet’s coffin, slung between heaven and earth, and overboard Mahomet’s coffin will go in a few minutes, unless —” Dan swerved the machine which tilted slightly and Penn went green with terror.

“What — what — what do you want to know?” he wailed, as the biplane dipped nearly to earth, to sweep upward in a graceful curve.

“Who is Mrs. Jarsell?”

“I— oh, Lord — I don’t know.”

“You do. She has this perfume also. Has it anything to do with a gang?”

“Yes, yes.” Penn’s teeth were chattering, and the sinking motion made him sick.

“What has it to do with a gang?”

“It’s — it’s a — a sign.”

“Was Sir Charles murdered by this gang?”

“I don’t know — I don’t know. Oh!” Penn screamed and clutched again at the side of the car.

“You do. This false Mrs. Brown belonged to the gang.”

“I can’t say. I daren’t tell you. If I say anything I shall die.”

“You shall die if you don’t say what I want you to say,” said Dan between his teeth, and again the machine dipped and towered. “I’ll tilt you out, I swear, if you don’t tell me who murdered Sir Charles.”

“I don’t know, I tell you,” cried Penn desperately, “the perfume has to do with a society of people, who — who — but I daren’t speak. I should be killed. I have said too much as it is. And if you reveal what I have said, you will be killed also.”

“I don’t care. Is Mrs. Jarsell connected with this gang?”

“I don’t know Mrs. Jarsell,” said Penn sullenly, although his terrified face showed that he was nearly frightened out of his wits.

“Do you belong to this —” started Dan, when a sudden action of Penn took him by surprise. In endeavouring to frighten the man he had flown too low, and the aeroplane was only six feet off the ground, preparing to swing skyward again. The secretary, in desperation, flung himself sideways out of the machine, as it curved at the lowest and fell heavily on the herbage of the heath. Dan could not stop to see if he was safe or hurt, but soared aloft again to a considerable height. Circling widely he came sailing directly over the spot where the secretary had tumbled out in his desperate endeavour to escape. Already the man had picked himself up and was limping off toward the town as quickly as he was able.

“Now”, said Dan grimly to himself, “he will have me arrested for attempted murder. That’s all right,” and he chuckled contentedly, even though he had not been entirely successful in his endeavour to make Penn confess.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55