Mr. Beverley Qualifies for the Stage

Bill had come back, and had reported, rather breathless, that Cayley was still at the pond.

“But I don’t think they’re getting up much except mud,” he said. “I ran most of the way back so as to give us as much time as possible.”

Antony nodded.

“Well, come along, then,” he said. “The sooner, the quicker.”

They stood in front of the row of sermons. Antony took down the Reverend Theodore Ussher’s famous volume, and felt for the spring. Bill pulled. The shelves swung open towards them.

“By Jove!” said Bill, “it is a narrow way.”

There was an opening about a yard square in front of them, which had something the look of a brick fireplace, a fireplace raised about two feet from the ground. But, save for one row of bricks in front, the floor of it was emptiness. Antony took a torch from his pocket and flashed it down into the blackness.

“Look,” he whispered to the eager Bill. “The steps begin down there. Six feet down.”

He flashed his torch up again. There was a handhold of iron, a sort of large iron staple, in the bricks in front of them.

“You swing off from there,” said Bill. “At least, I suppose you do. I wonder how Ruth Norris liked doing it.”

“Cayley helped her, I should think.⁠ ⁠… It’s funny.”

“Shall I go first?” asked Bill, obviously longing to do so. Antony shook his head with a smile.

“I think I will, if you don’t mind very much, Bill. Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“Well, in case.”

Bill, had to be content with that, but he was too much excited to wonder what Antony meant.

“Righto,” he said. “Go on.”

“Well, we’ll just make sure we can get back again, first. It really wouldn’t be fair on the Inspector if we got stuck down here for the rest of our lives. He’s got enough to do trying to find Mark, but if he has to find you and me as well⁠—”

“We can always get out at the other end.”

“Well, we’re not certain yet. I think I’d better just go down and back. I promise faithfully not to explore.”

“Right you are.”

Antony sat down on the ledge of bricks, swung his feet over, and sat there for a moment, his legs dangling. He flashed his torch into the darkness again, so as to make sure where the steps began; then returned it to his pocket, seized the staple in front of him and swung himself down. His feet touched the steps beneath him, and he let go.

“Is it all right?” said Bill anxiously.

“All right. I’ll just go down to the bottom of the steps and back. Stay there.”

The light shone down by his feet. His head began to disappear. For a little while Bill, craning down the opening, could still see faint splashes of light, and could hear slow uncertain footsteps; for a little longer he could fancy that he saw and heard them; then he was alone.⁠ ⁠…

Well, not quite alone. There was a sudden voice in the hall outside.

“Good Lord!” said Bill, turning round with a start, “Cayley!”

If he was not so quick in thought as Antony, he was quick enough in action. Thought was not demanded now. To close the secret door safely but noiselessly, to make sure that the books were in the right places, to move away to another row of shelves so as to be discovered deep in Badminton or Baedeker or whomever the kind gods should send to his aid⁠—the difficulty was not to decide what to do, but to do all this in five seconds rather than in six.

“Ah, there you are,” said Cayley from the doorway.

“Hallo!” said Bill, in surprise, looking up from the fourth volume of The Life and Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Have they finished?”

“Finished what?”

“The pond,” said Bill, wondering why he was reading Coleridge on such a fine afternoon. Desperately he tried to think of a good reason⁠ ⁠… verifying a quotation⁠—an argument with Antony⁠—that would do. But what quotation?

“Oh, no. They’re still at it. Where’s Gillingham?”

The Ancient Mariner⁠—water, water, everywhere⁠—or was that something else? And where was Gillingham? Water, water everywhere⁠ ⁠…

“Tony? Oh, he’s about somewhere. We’re just going down to the village. They aren’t finding anything at the pond, are they?”

“No. But they like doing it. Something off their minds when they can say they’ve done it.”

Bill, deep in his book, looked up and said “Yes,” and went back to it again. He was just getting to the place.

“What’s the book?” said Cayley, coming up to him. Out of the corner of his eye he glanced at the shelf of sermons as he came. Bill saw that glance and wondered. Was there anything there to give away the secret?

“I was just looking up a quotation,” he drawled. “Tony and I had a bet about it. You know that thing about⁠—er⁠—water, water everywhere, and⁠—er⁠—not a drop to drink.” (But what on earth, he wondered to himself, were they betting about?)

“ ‘Nor any drop to drink,’ to be accurate.”

Bill looked at him in surprise. Then a happy smile came on his face.

“Quite sure?” he said.

“Of course.”

“Then you’ve saved me a lot of trouble. That’s what the bet was about.” He closed the book with a slam, put it back in its shelf, and began to feel for his pipe and tobacco. “I was a fool to bet with Tony,” he added. “He always knows that sort of thing.”

So far, so good. But here was Cayley still in the library, and there was Antony, all unsuspecting, in the passage. When Antony came back he would not be surprised to find the door closed, because the whole object of his going had been to see if he could open it easily from the inside. At any moment, then, the bookshelf might swing back and show Antony’s head in the gap. A nice surprise for Cayley!

“Come with us?” he said casually, as he struck a match. He pulled vigorously at the flame as he waited for the answer, hoping to hide his anxiety, for if Cayley assented, he was done.

“I’ve got to go into Stanton.”

Bill blew out a great cloud of smoke with an expiration which covered also a heartfelt sigh of relief.

“Oh, a pity. You’re driving, I suppose?”

“Yes. The car will be here directly. There’s a letter I must write first.” He sat down at a writing table, and took out a sheet of notepaper.

He was facing the secret door; if it opened he would see it. At any moment now it might open.

Bill dropped into a chair and thought. Antony must be warned. Obviously. But how? How did one signal to anybody? By code. Morse code. Did Antony know it? Did Bill know it himself, if it came to that? He had picked up a bit in the Army⁠—not enough to send a message, of course. But a message was impossible, anyhow; Cayley would hear him tapping it out. It wouldn’t do to send more than a single letter. What letters did he know? And what letter would convey anything to Antony?⁠ ⁠… He pulled at his pipe, his eyes wandering from Cayley at his desk to the Reverend Theodore Ussher in his shelf. What letter?

C for Cayley. Would Antony understand? Probably not, but it was just worth trying. What was C? Long, short, long, short. Umpty-iddy-umpty-iddy. Was that right? C⁠—yes, that was C. He was sure of that. C. Umpty-iddy-umpty-iddy.

Hands in pockets, he got up and wandered across the room, humming vaguely to himself, the picture of a man waiting for another man (as it might be his friend Gillingham) to come in and take him away for a walk or something. He wandered across to the books at the back of Cayley, and began to tap absentmindedly on the shelves, as he looked at the titles. Umpty-iddy-umpty-iddy. Not that it was much like that at first; he couldn’t get the rhythm of it.⁠ ⁠…

Umpt-y-iddy-umpt-y-iddy. That was better. He was back at Samuel Taylor Coleridge now. Antony would begin to hear him soon. Umpt-y-iddy-umpt-y-iddy; just the aimless tapping of a man who is wondering what book he will take out with him to read on the lawn. Would Antony hear? One always heard the man in the next flat knocking out his pipe. Would Antony understand? Umpt-y-iddy-umpt-y-iddy. C for Cayley, Antony. Cayley’s here. For God’s sake, wait.

“Good Lord! Sermons!” said Bill, with a loud laugh. (Umpt-y-iddy-umpt-y-iddy) “Ever read ’em, Cayley?”

“What?” Cayley looked up suddenly. Bill’s back moved slowly along, his fingers beating a tattoo on the shelves as he walked.

“Er⁠—no,” said Cayley, with a little laugh. An awkward, uncomfortable little laugh, it seemed to Bill.

“Nor do I.” He was past the sermons now⁠—past the secret door⁠—but still tapping in the same aimless way.

“Oh, for God’s sake sit down,” burst out Cayley. “Or go outside if you want to walk about.”

Bill turned round in astonishment.

“Hallo, what’s the matter?”

Cayley was slightly ashamed of his outburst.

“Sorry, Bill,” he apologized. “My nerves are on edge. Your constant tapping and fidgeting about⁠—”

“Tapping?” said Bill with an air of complete surprise.

“Tapping on the shelves, and humming. Sorry. It got on my nerves.”

“My dear old chap, I’m awfully sorry. I’ll go out in the hall.”

“It’s all right,” said Cayley, and went on with his letter. Bill sat down in his chair again. Had Antony understood? Well, anyhow, there was nothing to do now but wait for Cayley to go. “And if you ask me,” said Bill to himself, much pleased, “I ought to be on the stage. That’s where I ought to be. The complete actor.”

A minute, two minutes, three minutes⁠ ⁠… five minutes. It was safe now. Antony had guessed.

“Is the car there?” asked Cayley, as he sealed up his letter.

Bill strolled into the hall, called back “Yes,” and went out to talk to the chauffeur. Cayley joined him, and they stood there for a moment.

“Hallo,” said a pleasant voice behind them. They turned round and saw Antony.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Bill.”

With a tremendous effort Bill restrained his feelings, and said casually enough that it was all right.

“Well, I must be off,” said Cayley. “You’re going down to the village?”

“That’s the idea.”

“I wonder if you’d take this letter to Jallands for me?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks very much. Well, I shall see you later.”

He nodded and got into the car.

As soon as they were alone Bill turned eagerly to his friend.

“Well?” he said excitedly.

“Come into the library.”

They went in, and Tony sank down into a chair.

“You must give me a moment,” he panted. “I’ve been running.”


“Well, of course. How do you think I got back here?”

“You don’t mean you went out at the other end?”

Antony nodded.

“I say, did you hear me tapping?”

“I did, indeed. Bill, you’re a genius.”

Bill blushed.

“I knew you’d understand,” he said. “You guessed that I meant Cayley?”

“I did. It was the least I could do after you had been so brilliant. You must have had rather an exciting time.”

“Exciting? Good Lord, I should think it was.”

“Tell me about it.”

As modestly as possible, Mr. Beverley explained his qualifications for a life on the stage.

“Good man,” said Antony at the end of it. “You are the most perfect Watson that ever lived. Bill, my lad,” he went on dramatically, rising and taking Bill’s hand in both of his, “There is nothing that you and I could not accomplish together, if we gave our minds to it.”

“Silly old ass.”

“That’s what you always say when I’m being serious. Well, anyway, thanks awfully. You really saved us this time.”

“Were you coming back?”

“Yes. At least I think I was. I was just wondering when I heard you tapping. The fact of the door being shut was rather surprising. Of course the whole idea was to see if it could be opened easily from the other side, but I felt somehow that you wouldn’t shut it until the last possible moment⁠—until you saw me coming back. Well, then I heard the taps, and I knew it must mean something, so I sat tight. Then when C began to come along I said, ‘Cayley, b’Jove’⁠—bright, aren’t I?⁠—and I simply hared to the other end of the passage for all I was worth. And hared back again. Because I thought you might be getting rather involved in explanations⁠—about where I was, and so on.”

“You didn’t see Mark, then?”

“No. Nor his⁠—No, I didn’t see anything.”

“Nor what?”

Antony was silent for a moment.

“I didn’t see anything, Bill. Or rather, I did see something; I saw a door in the wall, a cupboard. And it’s locked. So if there’s anything we want to find, that’s where it is.”

“Could Mark be hiding there?”

“I called through the keyhole⁠—in a whisper⁠—‘Mark, are you there?’⁠—he would have thought it was Cayley. There was no answer.

“Well, let’s go down and try again. We might be able to get the door open.”

Antony shook his head.

“Aren’t I going at all?” said Bill in great disappointment.

When Antony spoke, it was to ask another question:

“Can Cayley drive a car?”

“Yes, of course. Why?”

“Then he might easily drop the chauffeur at his lodge and go off to Stanton, or wherever he wanted to, on his own?”

“I suppose so⁠—if he wanted to.”

“Yes.” Antony got up. “Well, look here, as we said we were going into the village, and as we promised to leave that letter, I almost think we’d better do it.”

“Oh!⁠ ⁠… Oh, very well.”

“Jallands. What were you telling me about that? Oh, yes; the Widow Norbury.”

“That’s right. Cayley used to be rather keen on the daughter. The letter’s for her.”

“Yes; well, let’s take it. Just to be on the safe side.”

“Am I going to be done out of that secret passage altogether?” asked Bill fretfully.

“There’s nothing to see, really, I promise you.”

“You’re very mysterious. What’s upset you? You did see something down there, I’m certain of it.”

“I did and I’ve told you about it.”

“No, you haven’t. You only told me about the door in the wall.”

“That’s it, Bill. And it’s locked. And I’m frightened of what’s behind it.”

“But then we shall never know what’s there if we aren’t going to look.”

“We shall know tonight,” said Antony, taking Bill’s arm and leading him to the hall, “when we watch our dear friend Cayley dropping it into the pond.”