Left on Guard

Stafford was back at Scarhaven before breakfast time next morning, bringing with him a roll of copies of the Norcaster Daily Chronicle, one of which he immediately displayed to Copplestone and Mrs. Wooler, who met him at the inn door. He pointed with great pride to certain staring headlines.

“I engineered that!” he exclaimed. “Went round to the newspaper office last night and put them up to everything. Nothing like publicity in these cases. There you are!

Mysterious Disappearance of Famous Actor! Bassett Oliver Missing! Interview with Man Who Saw Him Last!

That’s the style, Copplestone!⁠—every human being along this coast’ll be reading that by now!”

“So there was no news of him last night?” asked Copplestone.

“Neither last night nor this morning, my boy,” replied Stafford. “Of course not! No⁠—he never left here, not he! Now then, let Mrs. Wooler serve us that nice breakfast which I’m sure she has in readiness, and then we’re going to plunge into business, hot and strong. There’s a couple of detectives coming on by the nine o’clock train, and we’re going to do the whole thing thoroughly.”

“What about his brother?” inquired Copplestone.

“I wired him last night to his London address, and got a reply first thing this morning,” said Stafford. “He’s coming along by the 5:15 a.m. from King’s Cross⁠—he’ll be here before noon. I want to get things to work before he arrives, though. And the first thing to do, of course, is to make sympathetic inquiry, and to search the shore, and the cliffs, and these woods⁠—and that Keep. All that we’ll attend to at once.”

But on going round to the village police station they found that Stafford’s ideas had already been largely anticipated. The news of the strange gentleman’s mysterious disappearance had spread like wildfire through Scarhaven and the immediate district during the previous evening, and at daybreak parties of fisherfolk had begun a systematic search. These parties kept coming in to report progress all the morning: by noon they had all returned. They had searched the famous rocks, the woods, the park, the Keep, and its adjacent ruins, and the cliffs and shore for some considerable distance north and south of the bay, and there was no result. Not a trace, not a sign of the missing man was to be found anywhere. And when, at one o’clock, Stafford and Copplestone walked up to the little station to meet Sir Cresswell Oliver, it was with the disappointing consciousness that they had no news to give him.

Copplestone, who nourished a natural taste for celebrities of any sort, born of his artistic leanings and tendencies, had looked forward with interest to meeting Sir Cresswell Oliver, who, only a few months previously, had made himself famous by a remarkable feat of seamanship in which great personal bravery and courage had been displayed. He had a vague expectation of seeing a bluff, stalwart, sea dog type of man; instead, he presently found himself shaking hands with a very quiet-looking, elderly gentleman, who might have been a barrister or a doctor, of pleasant and kindly manners. With him was another gentleman of a similar type, and of about the same age, whom he introduced as the family solicitor, Mr. Petherton. And to these two, in a private sitting room at the Admiral’s Arms, Stafford, as Bassett Oliver’s business representative, and Copplestone, as having remained on the spot since the day before, told all and every detail of what had transpired since it was definitely established that the famous actor was missing. Both listened in silence and with deep attention; when all the facts had been put before them, they went aside and talked together; then they returned and Sir Cresswell besought Stafford and Copplestone’s attention.

“I want to tell you young gentlemen precisely what Mr. Petherton and I think it best to do,” he said in the mild and bland accents which had so much astonished Copplestone. “We have listened, as you will admit, with our best attention. Mr. Petherton, as you know, is a man of law; I myself, when I have the good luck to be ashore, am a Chairman of Quarter Sessions, so I’m accustomed to hearing and weighing evidence. We don’t think there’s any doubt that my poor brother has met with some curious mishap which has resulted in his death. It seems impossible, going on what you tell us from the evidence you’ve collected, that he could ever have approached that Devil’s Spout place unseen; it also seems impossible that he could have had a fatal fall over the cliffs, since his body has not been found. No⁠—we think something befell him in the neighbourhood of Scarhaven Keep. But what? Foul play? Possibly! If it was⁠—why? And there are three people Mr. Petherton and I would like to speak to, privately⁠—the fisherman, Ewbank, Mr. Marston Greyle, and Mrs. Valentine Greyle. We should like to hear Ewbank’s story for ourselves; we certainly want to see the Squire; and I, personally, wish to see Mrs. Greyle because, from what Mr. Copplestone there has told us, I am quite sure that I, too, knew her a good many years ago, when she was acquainted with my brother Bassett. So we propose, Mr. Stafford, to go and see these three people⁠—and when we have seen them, I will tell you and Mr. Copplestone exactly what I, as my brother’s representative, wish to be done.”

The two younger men waited impatiently in and about the hotel while their elders went on their self-appointed mission. Stafford, essentially a man of activity, speculated on their reasons for seeing the three people whom Sir Cresswell Oliver had specifically mentioned: Copplestone was meanwhile wondering if he could with propriety pay another visit to Mrs. Greyle’s cottage that night. It was drawing near to dusk when the two quiet-looking, elderly gentlemen returned and summoned the younger ones to another conference. Both looked as reserved and bland as when they had set out, and the old seaman’s voice was just as suave as ever when he addressed them.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “we have paid our visits, and I suppose I had better tell you at once that we are no wiser as to actual facts than we were when we left you earlier in the afternoon. The man Ewbank stands emphatically by his story; Mr. Marston Greyle says that he cannot remember any meeting with my brother in America, and that he certainly did not call on him here on Sunday; Mrs. Valentine Greyle has not met Bassett for a great many years. Now⁠—there the matter stands. Of course, it cannot rest there. Further inquiries will have to be made. Mr. Petherton and I are going on to Norcaster this evening, and we shall have a very substantial reward offered to any person who can give any information about my brother. That may result in something⁠—or in nothing. As to my brother’s business arrangements, I will go fully into that matter with you, Mr. Stafford, at Norcaster, tomorrow. Now, Mr. Copplestone, will you have a word or two with me in private?”

Copplestone followed the old seaman into a quiet corner of the room, where Sir Cresswell turned on him with a smile.

“I take it,” he said, “that you are a young gentleman of leisure, and that you can abide wherever you like, eh?”

“Yes, you may take that as granted,” answered Copplestone, wondering what was coming.

“Doesn’t much matter if you write your plays in Jermyn Street or⁠—anywhere else, eh?” questioned Sir Cresswell with a humorous smile.

“Practically, no,” replied Copplestone.

Sir Cresswell tapped him on the shoulder.

“I want you to do me a favour,” he said. “I shall take it as a kindness if you will. I don’t want to talk about certain ideas which Petherton and I have about this affair, yet, anyway⁠—not even to you⁠—but we have formed some ideas this afternoon. Now, do you think you could manage to stay where you are for a week or two?”

“Here?” exclaimed Copplestone.

“This seems very comfortable,” said Sir Cresswell, looking round. “The landlady is a nice, motherly person; she gave me a very well-cooked lunch; this is a quiet room in which to do your writing, eh?”

“Of course I can stay here,” answered Copplestone, who was a good deal bewildered. “But⁠—mayn’t I know why⁠—and in what capacity?”

“Just to keep your eyes and your ears open,” said Sir Cresswell. “Don’t seem to make inquiries⁠—in fact, don’t make any inquiry⁠—do nothing. I don’t want you to do any private detective work⁠—not I! Just stop here a bit⁠—amuse yourself⁠—write⁠—read⁠—and watch things quietly. And⁠—don’t be cross⁠—I’ve an elderly man’s privilege, you know⁠—you’ll send your bills to me.”

“Oh, that’s all right, thanks!” said Copplestone, hurriedly. “I’m pretty well off as regards this world’s goods.”

“So I guessed when I found that you lived in the expensive atmosphere of Jermyn Street,” said Sir Cresswell, with a sly laugh. “But all the same, you’ll let me be paymaster here, you know⁠—that’s only fair.”

“All right⁠—certainly, if you wish it,” agreed Copplestone. “But look here⁠—won’t you trust me? I assure you I’m to be trusted. You suspect somebody! Hadn’t you better give me your confidence? I won’t tell a soul⁠—and when I say that, I mean it literally. I won’t tell one single soul!”

Sir Cresswell waited a moment or two, looking quietly at Copplestone. Then he clapped a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“All right, my lad,” he said. “Yes!⁠—we do suspect somebody. Marston Greyle! Now you know it.”

“I expected that,” answered Copplestone. “All right, sir. And my orders are⁠—just what you said.”

“Just what I said,” agreed Sir Cresswell. “Carry on at that⁠—eyes and ears open; no fuss; everything quiet, unobtrusive, silent. Meanwhile⁠—Petherton will be at work. And I say⁠—if you want company, you know⁠—I think you’ll find it across the bay there at Mrs. Greyle’s⁠—eh?”

“I was there last night,” said Copplestone. “I liked both of them very much. You knew Mrs. Greyle once upon a time, I think; you and your brother?”

“We did!” replied Sir Cresswell, with a sigh. “Um!⁠—the fact is, both Bassett and I were in love with her at that time. She married another man instead. That’s all!”

He gave Copplestone a squeeze of the elbow, laughed, and went across to the solicitor, who was chatting to Stafford in one of the bow windows. Ten minutes later all three were off to Norcaster, and Copplestone was alone, ruminating over this sudden and extraordinary change in the hitherto even tenor of his life. Little more than twenty-four hours previously, all he had been concerned about was the production of his play by Bassett Oliver⁠—here he was now, mixed up in a drama of real life, with Bassett Oliver as its main figure, and the plot as yet unrevealed. And he himself was already committed to play in it⁠—but what part?

Now that the others had gone, Copplestone began to feel strangely alone. He had accepted Sir Cresswell Oliver’s commission readily, feeling genuinely interested in the affair, and being secretly conscious that he would be glad of the opportunity of further improving his acquaintance with Audrey Greyle. But now that he considered things quietly, he began to see that his position was a somewhat curious and possibly invidious one. He was to watch⁠—and to seem not to watch. He was to listen⁠—and appear not to listen. The task would be difficult⁠—and perhaps unpleasant. For he was very certain that Marston Greyle would resent his presence in the village, and that Chatfield would be suspicious of it. What reason could he, an utter stranger, have for taking up his quarters at the Admiral’s Arms? The tourist season was over: autumn was well set in; with autumn, on that coast, came weather which would send most southerners flying homewards. Of course, these people would say that he was left there to peep and pry⁠—and they would all know that the Squire was the object of suspicion. It was all very well, his telling Mrs. Wooler that being an idle man he had taken a fancy to Scarhaven, and would stay in her inn for a few weeks, but Mrs. Wooler, like everybody else, would see through that. However, the promise had been given, and he would keep it⁠—literally. He would do nothing in the way of active detective work⁠—he would just wait and see what, if anything, turned up.

But upon one thing Copplestone had made up his mind determinedly before that second evening came⁠—he would make no pretence to Audrey Greyle and her mother. And availing himself of their permission to call again, he went round to the cottage, and before he had been in it five minutes told them bluntly that he was going to stay at Scarhaven awhile, on the chance of learning any further news of Bassett Oliver.

“Which,” he added, with a grim smile, “seems about as likely as that I should hear that I am to be Lord Chancellor when the Woolsack is next vacant!”

“You don’t know,” remarked Mrs. Greyle. “A reward for information is to be offered, isn’t it?”

“Do you think that will do much good?” asked Copplestone.

“It depends upon the amount,” replied Mrs. Greyle. “We know these people. They are close and reserved⁠—no people could keep secrets better. For all one knows, somebody in this village may know something, and may at present feel it wisest to keep the knowledge to himself. But if money⁠—what would seem a lot of money⁠—comes into question⁠—ah!”

“Especially if the information could be given in secret,” said Audrey. “Scarhaven folk love secrecy⁠—it’s the salt of life to them: it’s in their very blood. Chatfield is an excellent specimen. He’ll watch you as a cat watches a mouse when he finds you’re going to stay here.”

“I shall be quite open,” said Copplestone. “I’m not going to indulge in any secret investigations. But I mean to have a thorough look round the place. That Keep, now?⁠—may one look round that?”

“There’s a path which leads close by the Keep, from which you can get a good outside view of it,” replied Audrey. “But the Keep itself, and the rest of the ruins round about it are in private ground.”

“But you have a key, Audrey, and you can take Mr. Copplestone in there,” said Mrs. Greyle. “And you would show him more than he would find out for himself⁠—Audrey,” she continued, turning to Copplestone, “knows every inch of the place and every stone of the walls.”

Copplestone made no attempt to conceal his delight at this suggestion. He turned to the girl with almost boyish eagerness.

“Will you?” he exclaimed. “Do! When?”

“Tomorrow morning, if you like,” replied Audrey. “Meet me on the south quay, soon after ten.”

Copplestone was down on the quay by ten o’clock. He became aware as he descended the road from the inn that the fisherfolk, who were always lounging about the seafront, were being keenly interested in something that was going on there. Drawing nearer he found that an energetic billposter was attaching his bills to various walls and doors. Sir Cresswell and his solicitor had evidently lost no time, and had set a Norcaster printer to work immediately on their arrival the previous evening. And there the bill was, and it offered a thousand pounds reward to any person who should give information which would lead to the finding of Bassett Oliver, alive or dead.

Copplestone purposely refrained from mingling with the groups of men and lads who thronged about the bills, eagerly discussing the great affair of the moment. He sauntered along the quay, waiting for Audrey. She came at last with an enigmatic smile on her lips.

“Our particular excursion is off, Mr. Copplestone,” she said. “Extraordinary events seem to be happening. Mr. Chatfield called on us an hour ago, took my key away from me, and solemnly informed us that Scarhaven Keep is strictly closed until further notice!”