Colson was dead!
He had been shot at close quarters, for the hair about the wound was black and singed. Tim looked over his shoulder to the shivering butler who stood in the doorway.
“Get on the telephone to the police,” he said; and, when the man had gone, he made a brief examination of the apartment.
The destruction which the unknown murderer had wrought was hurried but thorough. Half a dozen delicate pieces of apparatus, the value and use of which Tim had no idea, had been smashed; two main wires leading from the room had been cut; but the safe had obviously been opened without violence, for the key was still in the lock. It was the shot which had wakened the boy, and he realised that the safe must have been opened subsequent to the murder.
There was no need to make an elaborate search to discover the manner in which the intruder had effected his entry: one of the heavy shutters which covered the windows had been forced open, and the casement window was ajar. Without hesitation, lightly clad as he was, Tim jumped through the window on to a garden bed. Which way had the murderer gone? Not to the high road, that was certain. There could only be one avenue of escape, and that was the path which led down to the backwater.
He considered the situation rapidly: he was unarmed, and, even if the assassin was in no better shape (which he obviously was not) he would not be a match for a powerfully built man. He vaulted up to the window-sill as the shivering butler made his reappearance.
“I’ve telephoned the police: they’re coming up at once,” he said.
“Is there a gun in the house — any kind?” said Lensman quickly.
“There’s one in the hall cupboard, sir,” replied the man, and Tim flew along the corridor, wrenched open the door, found the shot-gun and, providentially, a box of cartridges. Stopping only to snatch an electric hand-lamp from the hall-stand, he sped into the grounds and made his way down the precipitous path which led to the river. His progress was painful, for he felt every stone and pebble through the thin soles of his slippers.
He had switched on the light of the hand-lamp the moment he had left the house, and here he was at an advantage over the man he followed, who was working in the dark and dared not show a light for fear of detection. That he was on the right track was not left long in doubt. Presently the boy saw something in his path, and, stooping, picked up a leather pocket-case, which, by its feel, he guessed contained money. Evidently in his hurry the murderer had dropped this.
Nearer and nearer to the river he came, and presently he heard ahead of him the sound of stumbling footsteps, and challenged his quarry.
“Halt!” he said. “Or I’ll shoot!”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when a pencil of flame quivered ahead in the darkness, something “wanged” past his head and struck the bole of a tree with a thud. Instantly Tim extinguished his lamp. The muzzle of his gun advanced, his finger on the trigger, he moved very cautiously in pursuit.
The man must be somewhere near the river now: the ground was falling more steeply. There was no sound ahead until he heard a splash of water, the hollow sound of feet striking the bottom of a boat, and a faint “chug-chug” of engines. A motor-launch! Even as he reached the riverside he saw the dark shape slipping out towards the river under cover of the trees. Raising his gun, he fired. Instantly another shot came back at him. He fired again; he might not hit the assassin, but he would at any rate alarm the lock-keeper. Then, as the little launch reached the opening which brought it to the river, he saw it slow and come almost to a standstill. For a second he thought the man was returning, and then the explanation flashed upon him. The backwater was choked with weeds and the little propeller of the launch must have caught them. If he could only find a boat! He flashed his lamp vainly up and down the bank.
The bullet was so near this time that it stirred the hair of his head. Hastily extinguishing the light, he waited. Somebody was working frantically at the launch’s propeller, and again raising his gun, he fired. This time his shot struck home, for he heard a howl of fury and pain. But in another few seconds the launch was moving again, and had disappeared into the open river. There was nothing for Tim to do now but to retrace his steps to the house. He came into the room of death, hot, dishevelled, his pyjamas torn to ribbons by the brambles through which he had struggled, to find two police officers in the room. One was kneeling by the side of the dead man; the other was surveying the damaged apparatus.
“This is the young gentleman, sir,” said the shivering butler, and the officers turned their attention to Tim.
In a few words he described what he had seen, and whilst one of the policemen went to telephone a warning along to the lock-keepers, he gave an account to the other of the events of that night so far as he knew them.
“There have been several burglaries here,” said the sergeant. “I shouldn’t be surprised if this is the same fellow that tried to do the other jobs. Do you know anything about this?”
He held a sheet of paper to the boy, and Tim took it. It was covered with Colson’s fine writing.
“It looks almost as though it were a message he’d been writing down. He’d been listening in — the receivers are still on his ears,” said the officer. “But who could tell him stuff like that?”
Tim read the message:
“Colson was killed by robbers in the third part of the first division of the day. Nobody knows who did this, but the correctors are searching. Colson said there was a great earthquake in the island beyond the yellow sea. This happened in the sixth division of the day and many were killed. This place corresponds to Japan, but we call it the Island of the Yellow Sea. The great oilfields of the Inland Sea have become very rich, and those who own the fields have made millions in the past few days. There will be —”
Here the writing ended.
“What does he mean by ‘Colson was killed in the third division’ or whatever it is?” said the dumbfounded policeman. “He must have known he was going to be killed . . . it beats me.”
“It beats me, too,” said Tim sadly. “Poor old friend!”
At eleven o’clock came simultaneously Inspector Bennett, from Scotland Yard, and Mr. Colson’s lawyer: a stout, middle-aged man, who had some information to give.
“Poor Colson always expected such a death. He had made an enemy, a powerful enemy, and he told me only two days ago that this man would stop at nothing.”
“Did he give his name?” asked the detective.
Tim waited breathlessly, expecting to hear Hildreth’s name mentioned, but the lawyer shook his head.
“Why did you see him two days ago? On any particular business?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Stamford, the lawyer. “I came here to make a will, by which this young gentleman was named as sole heir!”
“I?” said Tim incredulously. “Surely you’re mistaken?”
“No, Mr. Lensman. I don’t mind admitting that, when he told me how he wished to dispose of his property, I urged him against leaving his money to one who, I understand, is a comparative stranger. But Mr. Colson had great faith in you, and said that he had made a study of your character and was satisfied that you could carry on his work. That was the one thing which worried him, the possibility of his life’s work being broken off with no successor to take it up when he put it down. There is a clause in the will which makes it possible for you to operate his property immediately.”
Tim smiled sadly. “I don’t know what operating his property’ means,” he said. And then, as a thought struck him: “Unless he refers to his speculations. The Stock Exchange is an unknown country to me. Has any discovery been made about the man in the motor-launch?”
Inspector Bennett nodded.
“The launch was found abandoned in a local reach of the Thames,” he said. “The murderer must have landed and made his way on foot. By the way, do you know he is wounded? We found traces of blood on the launch.”
Tim nodded. “I had an idea I winged him,” he said. “The brute!”
Late that afternoon there was a sensational discovery: the body of a man was found, lying amidst the weeds three miles down the river. He had been shot with a revolver.
“He is our man undoubtedly,” said the inspector, who brought the news. “There is a shot wound in his shoulder.”
“But I did not use a rifle or a revolver,” said Tim, puzzled.
“Somebody else did,” said the inspector grimly. “Dead men tell no tales.”
“Where was he found?”
“Near Mr. Hildreth’s private landing stage —” began the inspector.
“Hildreth?” Tim stared at him open-mouthed. “Has Hildreth got a property near here?”
“Oh, yes; he has a big estate about three miles down the river.” The detective was eyeing the boy keenly. “What do you know about Mr. Hildreth?”
In a few words Tim told of the interview which he had witnessed, and the detective frowned.
“It can only be a coincidence that the man was found on his estate,” he said. “Mr. Hildreth is a very rich man and a Justice of the Peace.”
Nevertheless, he did not speak with any great conviction, and Tim had the impression that Bennett’s view of Hildreth was not such an exalted one as he made out.
Borrowing the old motor-bicycle of the science master, he rode over to Bisham and broke the news to Chap West and his sister. The girl was horrified.
“But, Tim, it doesn’t seem possible!” she said. “Why should they do it? The poor old man!”
When Chap had recovered from the shock of the news, he advanced a dozen theories in rapid succession, each more wildly improbable than the last; but all his theorising was silenced when Tim told him of Colson’s will.
“I’m only a kid, and absolutely unfitted for the task he has set me,” Tim said quietly; “but I am determined to go on with his work, and shall secure the best technical help I can to reconstitute the apparatus which has been destroyed.”
“What do you think is behind it?” asked Chap.
Tim shook his head. “Something beyond my understanding,” he replied. “Mr. Colson made a discovery, but what that discovery was we have to learn. One of the last things he told me was that he had written out a full account of his investigations, and I am starting an immediate search for that manuscript. And then there is the stone in the grounds, with all those queer figures and letters which have to be deciphered.”
“Have you any idea what the nature of the discovery was?” asked Chap.
“Yes, I think I have,” he said. “Mr. Colson was undoubtedly in communication with another planet!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14