They listened, dumbfounded.
Was the old professor mad? The voice that had spoken to them was the voice of Colson . . .?
“A hundred and eighty-six million miles?” said Tim incredulously “But, Mr. Colson, that was not your voice I heard?”
He smiled faintly and shook his head.
“That was literally my alter ego — my other self,” he said; and it seemed that he was going to say something else, but he changed the subject abruptly.
“Let us have tea,” he said, smiling at Elsie. “My butler brought the alarming news that the ice cream had not arrived, but it came whilst we were discussing that tragedy!”
Elsie was fascinated by the old man and a little scared, too. She alone of that party realised that the reference he had made to the voice that came one hundred and eighty-six millions of miles was no jest on his part.
It was Chap who, in his awkward way, brought the conversation back to the subject of mysterious voices.
“They’ve had signals from Mars on Vancouver, sir,” he said. “I saw it in this morning’s papers.”
Again the professor smiled.
“You think they were atmospherics?” suggested Elsie; and, to her surprise, Colson shook his head. “No; they were not atmospherics,” he said quietly, “but they were not from Mars. I doubt if there is any organic life on Mars, unless it be a lowly form of vegetation.”
“The canals —” began Chap.
“That may be an optical illusion,” said the science master. “Our own moon, seen at a distance of forty million miles, would appear to be intersected very much as Mars seems to be. The truth is, we can never get Mars to stand still long enough to get a definite photograph!”
“From Jupiter?” suggested Chap, now thoroughly interested.
Again Mr. Colson smiled.
“A semi-molten mass on which life could not possibly exist. Nor could it come from Saturn,” he went on tantalizingly, “nor from Venus.”
“Then where on earth do these signals come from?” blurted Chap, and this time Mr. Colson laughed outright.
As they sat at tea, Elsie glanced out admiringly upon the brilliant-hued garden that was visible through the big window, and then she saw something which filled her with astonishment. Two men had come into view round the end of a square-cut hedge. One was the man they had seen half-an-hour previously — the commonplace little fellow who had claimed to be a relative of the professor. The second was taller and older, and, she judged, of a better class. His long, hawk-like face was bent down towards his companion, and they were evidently talking on some weighty matter, to judge by the gesticulations of the stranger.
“By Jove!” said Chap suddenly. “Isn’t that Hildreth?”
Mr. Colson looked up quickly; his keen blue eyes took in the scene at once.
“Yes, that is Mr. Hildreth,” he said quietly. “Do you know him?”
“Rather!” said Chap. “He has often been to our house. My father is on the Stock Exchange, and Mr. Hildreth is a big pot in the City.”
“Yes, he is a very important person in the City,” he said, with just a touch of hidden sarcasm in his voice. “But he is not a very important person here, and I am wondering why he has come again.”
He rose quickly and went out of the room, and presently Tim, who was watching the newcomers, saw them turn their heads as with one accord and walk out of sight, evidently towards the professor. When the old man came back there was a faint flush in his cheek and a light in his eye which Tim did not remember having seen before.
“They are returning in half-an-hour,” he said, unnecessarily it seemed to Elsie. She had an idea that the old man was in the habit of speaking his thoughts aloud, and here she was not far wrong. Once or twice she had the uncomfortable feeling that she was in the way, for she was a girl of quick intuitions, and though Professor Colson was a man of irreproachable manners, even the most scrupulous of hosts could not wholly hide his anxiety for the little meal to end.
“We’re taking up your valuable time, Mr. Colson,” she said with a dazzling smile, as she rose when tea was over and offered him her hand. “I think there’s going to be a storm, so we had better get back. Are you coming with us, Tim?”
“Why, surely —” began Chap, but she interrupted him.
“Tim said he had an engagement near and was leaving us here,” she said.
Tim had opened his mouth to deny having made any such statement, when a look from her silenced him. A little later, whilst Chap was blundering through his half-baked theories on the subject of Mars — Chap had theories on everything under and above the sun — she managed to speak with Tim alone.
“I’m quite sure Mr. Colson wants to speak to you,” she said; “and if he does, you are not to worry about us: we can get back, it is down-stream all the way.”
“But why on earth do you think that?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “But I have that feeling. And I’m sure he did not want to see you until those two men came.”
How miraculously right she was, was soon proved. As they walked into the garden towards the path leading to the riverside, Colson took the arm of his favourite pupil and, waiting until the others were ahead, he said: “Would it be possible for you to come back and spend the night here, Lensman?”
“Why, yes, sir,” said Tim in astonishment. In his heart of hearts he wanted to explore the place, to see some of the wonders of that great instrument-house which, up to now, Colson had made no offer to show them. What was in the room marked “Planetoid 127”? And the queer receiver on the square tower — that had some unusual significance, he was certain. And, most of all, he wanted to discover whether the science master had been indulging in a little joke at the expense of the party when he claimed to have heard voices that had come to him from one hundred and eighty-six millions of miles away.
“Return when you can,” said Colson in a low voice; “and the sooner the better. There are one or two things that I want to talk over with you — I waited an opportunity to do so last term, but it never arose. Can you get rid of your friends?” Tim nodded. “Very good, then. I will say good-bye to them.”
Tim saw his companions on their way until the punt had turned out of sight round the osiers at the end of the backwater, and then he retraced his steps up the hill. He found the professor waiting for him, pacing up and down the garden, his head on his breast, his hands clasped behind him.
“Come back into the library, Lensman,” he said; and then, with a note of anxiety in his voice: “You did not see those precious scoundrels?”
“Which precious scoundrels? You mean Dawes and Hildreth?”
“Those are the gentlemen,” said the other. “You wouldn’t imagine, from my excited appearance when I returned to you, that they had offered me no less than a million pounds?”
Tim stared in amazement at the master.
“A million pounds, sir?” he said incredulously, and for the first time began to doubt the other’s reason.
“A million pounds,” repeated Colson, quietly enjoying the sensation he had created. “You will be able to judge by your own ears whether I am insane, as I imagine you believe me to be, or whether this wretched relative of mine and his friend are similarly afflicted. And, by the way, you will be interested to learn that there have been three burglaries in this house during the last month.”
Tim gaped. “But surely, sir, that is very serious?”
“It would have been very serious for the burglars if I had had, on either occasion, the slightest suspicion that they were in the grounds,” said Mr. Colson. “They would have been certainly electrified and possibly killed! But on every occasion when they arrived, it happened that I did not wish for a live electric current to surround the house: that would have been quite sufficient to have thrown out of gear the delicate instruments I was using at the time.”
He led the way into his library, and sank down with a weary sigh into the depths of a large armchair.
“If I had only known what I know now,” he said, “I doubt very much whether, even in the interests of science, I would have subjected myself to the ordeal through which I have been passing during the last four years.”
Tim did not answer, and Mr. Colson went on: “There are moments when I doubt my own sanity — when I believe that I shall awake from a dream, and find that all these amazing discoveries of mine are the figments of imagination due, in all probability, to an indiscreet supper at a very late hour of night!”
He chuckled softly at his own little joke.
“Lensman, I have a secret so profound that I have been obliged to follow the practice of the ancient astronomers.”
He pointed through the window to a square stone that stood in the centre of the garden, a stone which the boy had noticed before, though he had dismissed it at once as a piece of meaningless ornamentation.
“That stone?” he asked.
“Come, I will show it to you,” he said, rising to his feet. He opened a door in what appeared to be the solid wall, and Tim followed him into the garden.
The stone stood upon an ornamental plinth and was carved with two columns of figures and letters:
|E 6||O 1|
|T 2||D 4|
|H 4||L 1|
|A 1||N 3|
|W 1||U 1|
|R 2||B 1|
|I 3||S 2|
“But what on earth does that mean?”
“It is a cryptogram,” said Mr. Colson quietly. “When Heyghens made his discovery about Saturn’s rings, he adopted this method to prevent himself from being forestalled in the discovery. I have done the same.”
“But what does it mean?” asked the puzzled Tim.
“That you will one day learn,” said the professor, as they walked back to the house.
His keen ears heard a sound and he pulled out his watch.
“Our friends are here already,” he said in a lower voice.
They went back to the library and closed the door, and presently the butler appeared to announce the visitors.
The attitude of the two newcomers was in remarkable contrast. Mr. Hildreth was self-assured, a man of the world to his finger-tips, and greeted the professor as though he were his oldest friend and had come at his special invitation. Mr. Dawes, on the contrary, looked thoroughly uncomfortable.
Tim had a look at the great financier, and he was not impressed. There was something about those hard eyes which was almost repellent.
After perfunctory greetings had passed, there was an awkward pause, and the financier looked at Tim.
“My friend, Mr. Lensman, will be present at this interview,” said Colson, interpreting the meaning of that glance.
“He is rather young to dabble in high finance, isn’t he?” drawled the other.
“Young or old, he’s staying,” said Colson, and the man shrugged his shoulders.
“I hope this discussion will be carried on in a calm atmosphere,” he said. “As your young friend probably knows, I have made you an offer of a million pounds, on the understanding that you will turn over to me all the information which comes to you by — er — a ——” his lip curled —“mysterious method, into which we will not probe too deeply.”
“You might have saved yourself the journey,” said Colson calmly. “Indeed, I could have made my answer a little more final, if it were possible; but it was my wish that you should be refused in the presence of a trustworthy witness. I do not want your millions — I wish to have nothing whatever to do with you.”
“Be reasonable,” murmured Dawes, who took no important part in the conversation.
Him the old man ignored, and stood waiting for the financier’s reply.
“I’ll put it very plainly to you, Colson,” said Hildreth, sitting easily on the edge of the table. “You’ve cost me a lot of money. I don’t know where you get your market ‘tips’ from, but you’re most infernally right. You undercut my market a month ago, and took the greater part of a hundred thousand pounds out of my pocket. I offer to pay you the sum to put me in touch with the source of your information. You have a wireless plant here, and somewhere else in the world you have a miracle-man who seems to be able to foretell the future — with disastrous consequences to myself. I may tell you — and this you will know — that, but for the fact that your correspondent speaks in a peculiar language, I should have had your secret long ago. Now, Mr. Colson, are you going to be sensible?”
Colson smiled slowly.
“I’m afraid I shall not oblige you. I know that you have been listening-in — I know also that you have been baffled. I shall continue to operate in your or any other market, and I give you full liberty to go to the person who is my informant, and who will be just as glad to tell you as he is to tell me, everything he knows.”
Hildreth took up his hat with an ugly smile. “That is your last word?” Colson nodded.
“My very last.” The two men walked to the door, and turned.
“It is not mine,” said Hildreth, and there was no mistaking the ominous note in his tone.
They stood at the window watching the two men until they had gone out of sight, and then Tim turned to his host.
“What does he want really?” he asked.
Mr. Colson roused himself from his reverie with a start.
“What does he want? I will show you. The cause of all our burglaries, the cause of this visit. Come with me.”
They turned into the passage, and as the professor stopped before the door labelled “Planetoid 127.”
Tim’s heart began to beat a little faster. Colson opened the door with two keys and ushered him into the strangest room which Tim had ever seen.
A confused picture of instruments, of wires that spun across the room like the web of a spider, of strange little machines which seemed to be endowed with perpetual motion — for they worked all the time — these were his first impressions.
The room was lined with grey felt, except on one side, where there was a strip of fibrous panelling. Towards this the professor went. Pushing aside a panel, he disclosed the circular door of a safe and, reaching in his hand, took out a small red-covered book.
“This is what the burglars want!” he said exultantly. “The Code! The Code of the Stars!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01