Herbert Jenkins.

Bindle: Some Chapters in the Life of Joseph Bindle



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The foreman eyed him indifferently. The tears were streaming from the sergeant's eyes, for he had sat with considerable force upon one of the coasters. When he had picked himself up and replaced the bicycle the foreman spoke.

"If you've come 'ere to show me that trick, you've bloomin' well wasted yer time. You ain't no Cinquevalli, ole son! If, 'owever, you're a-lookin' for a bald little man with a green apron and a red nose" – the sergeant's eyes brightened beneath the tears – "well, 'e's bin took ill, an' 'is mother's took 'im 'ome.

"Now you'd better go, cockie, 'fore I set the dog on yer. I'm pretty damn well sick of the 'sight of yer, comin' 'ere with yer bicycle tricks, interruptin' o' the day's work. 'Ere, Bindle – where's Bindle?" he shouted into the house.

But the sergeant did not wait. He mounted his machine and disappeared down the drive. Before Bindle came – and Bindle was uneager to respond – he was a quarter of a mile up the road.

Sergeant Wrannock was stunned at the treatment he had received. From such men he was accustomed to respect, deference, and blind obedience. To be called "cockie" by a workman astonished him. Soon he became annoyed, in time his annoyance crystallised into anger, and eventually, passing through the alembic of professional discretion, it became distilled into a determination to teach this man a lesson.

He had no intention of letting him know that it was a police sergeant whom he had thus rudely treated, as if he were some ordinary person. He could not quite understand the reference to the "bald little man with a green apron and a red nose." The particulars seemed, however, to tally with the description of the man of whom Sir Charles had spoken.

At six o'clock he presented himself at The Towers, told his story, and was bidden by Sir Charles to leave the matter until the morning, when it would probably be better to report the whole affair to the superintendent at Lowestoft. Sir Charles had his reasons for suggesting delay.

CHAPTER XVI
THE AMATEUR DETECTIVES

I

By nine o'clock the last pantechnicon that was going back that night had rumbled off to Lowestoft, there to be entrained for London. One still remained on the drive, waiting to be taken back by the horses that would bring the first van in the morning.

With the last van went Bindle, much to his regret.

"It's like not goin' to yer own funeral," he grumbled.

Holmleigh was shut up and in darkness, save for a slit of light that could be seen beneath the Venetian blind of the dining-room. Inside the room sat the foreman.

He was smoking a meditative pipe, and cursing the luck that left him at Holmleigh to play night-watchman. He was not a nervous man, but his mind instinctively travelled back to the events of the day. Why had so many people been desirous of seeing Bindle? He had subjected Bindle himself to a very thorough and picturesque cross-examination. He had told him what he thought of him, and of those responsible for his being.

He had coaxed him and threatened him, but without result. Bindle had expressed the utmost astonishment at his sudden popularity, and professed himself utterly unable to account for it.

Once or twice the foreman thought he saw the shadow of a grin flit across Bindle's face, especially when Bindle suggested that he should act as night-watchman, adding as an excuse the obvious fatigue of his superior. It was this that had terminated the interview with great suddenness.

Thus meditating upon the curious occurrences of the day, the foreman dropped off to sleep, for he was tired, and the armchair, in which he half lay, half sat, was extremely comfortable.

As he slept a dark form moved stealthily up the drive towards the house. Keeping well within the shadow of the trees, it paused to listen, then moved on for a dozen yards and stopped again. When it reached the top of the drive it crept off to the left in the direction of the tradesmen's entrance.

Displaying great caution, the figure finally reached the scullery window, which by a curious chance was unfastened. After great deliberation, and much listening, it opened the window, and inserting itself feet foremost disappeared.

Three minutes later the back door was noiselessly unbolted and opened. The figure looked out cautiously, then retreated within, leaving the door open to its fullest extent.

The first figure had scarcely disappeared before another approached the back door from the opposite direction. It must have come through the hedge and crept along in its shadow from the main entrance. The second figure paused, as if astonished at finding the back door open. For some minutes it stood in the shadow of the water-butt, listening. Finally, with a quiet, insidious motion, it slid through the doorway.

The first figure, passing cautiously through the servants' quarters, had reached the hall. Finding all the doors shut, it proceeded stealthily upstairs to the large drawing-room that overlooked the drive. The door was open! Groping its way with great care, the figure for one second allowed the light of a dark lantern to show. The effect was startling. The whole room was piled up with long narrow wooden cases. On several tables, formed by boards on trestles, were laid out what appeared to be dozens of rifles. The figure gasped. The place was apparently nothing less than a huge arsenal. The long narrow cases contained guns! guns!! guns!!!

The figure had just picked up one of the guns to make sure that its eyes were telling the truth, when there was the sound of a footfall on the landing.

The figure turned quickly, and the rifle dropped with a crash to the floor. For some time it stood as if petrified with horror, then with a swift, stealthy movement reached the door. Here it turned sharply to the left and ran into something small and soft. With a yell the something turned. In a moment two forms were locked together. With a thud they fell, and lay a writhing, wriggling mass at the top of the stairs.

II

The foreman had no idea how long he had slept, or what it was that awakened him; but suddenly he found himself wide awake with a feeling that something was happening. The lamp had gone out, there was no moon, and he felt cold, although he knew it to be July.

For a minute he listened intently. Not a sound broke the stillness, save the rustle of the trees as the wind sighed through them. He went to the window and looked out under the blind. It was quite dark. He shook himself, then pinched his leg. Yes, he was awake.

Then he heard a creak overhead, and it suddenly came home to him that the house was being burgled. A passionate anger seemed to grip hold of him. Silently and swiftly he opened the door that led into the hall. He had not moved three steps before he was brought to a standstill by a yell that echoed through the whole place. It was followed a moment later by what appeared to be an avalanche descending the stairs. From stair to stair it bumped through the darkness, and finally lay heaving and grunting almost at his feet. There were muttered exclamations, curses, threats, and the dull sound of blows.

The foreman sprang forward and clutched with his right hand a human ear. Feeling about with his left hand, he secured a handful of hair. Then he brought two heads together with a crack. The muttering and movement ceased, and the foreman pantechnicon-man struck a match.

"Crikey!" The exclamation burst involuntarily from his lips. He rummaged in his pockets and presently produced about two inches of candle; this he lighted and held over the recumbent mass at his feet.

"Well, I'm – I'm blowed!" he stuttered, conscious of the inadequacy of his words. There at his feet lay Mr. Greenhales and Sergeant Wrannock, whom the foreman recognised only as two of the afternoon's visitors. For fully two minutes he stood regarding his captives; then, with a grin of delight, he blew out the candle, carefully opening the front door.

There was nothing to be seen save the trees and the empty pantechnicon-van. The great black shape appeared to give him an idea. The doors were open, and without hesitation he stepped back into the hall, picked up one of the prostrate figures, and carried it into the van; a moment later he did the same with the other. Closing the doors, he barred and padlocked them and re-entered the hall.

Later he returned to the pantechnicon, unfastened the padlock, and left the doors merely barred. Still grinning to himself he once more entered the house, picking up an old-fashioned pistol from many that lay upon the dining-room table. Next he opened the dining-room windows at the bottom, performing the same operation with those in the morning-room.

Finally, locking the doors of both rooms from the outside, he made a tour of the whole house, and, having satisfied himself that no one was secreted within, he slipped out of the front door and closed it behind him, unaware that a pair of terrified eyes were watching him from the head of the stairs.

"There's two still to come," he muttered, and waited. At the end of an hour he heard a grind as of gravel beneath a boot. He listened eagerly. After fully five minutes of silence he heard another grind, and a dark shape approached the dining-room window. The foreman still waited. It took a quarter of an hour for the shape to make up its mind to raise the window higher and enter. The sound of suppressed wheezing could be distinctly heard. When the figure had with difficulty forced itself upon the window-sill, the foreman leapt out, grasped its leg, and pulled. There was a wheezy shout, and the foreman was kneeling on the path, with a figure between his knees and the gravel.

Again he struck a match, which disclosed the ashen features of the landlord of the Dove and Easel. Without hesitation the foreman picked him up and bundled him into the pantechnicon and once more barred the door. As he turned back he saw the hall door open slightly. At first he thought it was his imagination. As he watched, however, the door continued to open stealthily, inch by inch, until finally a figure appeared.

Dawn was breaking, and in the half-light he saw a small man slide out and creep along by the side of the house. At first the foreman watched; then, seeing that his man was likely to escape, he sprang out. The figure ran, the foreman ran, and ran the faster. Then the fugitive stopped, and facing round caught the foreman a blow in the chest as he came on unable to stop.

With a yell of rage the foreman lifted his pistol and brought it down with a crash upon his opponent's head. In a grey heap the trespasser dropped. Another match was struck, revealing Sir Charles Custance's rubicund features, down which a slow trickle of blood wound its way.

"That's the 'ole bloomin' bag, I take it," commented the victor grimly, as he bundled the portly frame of the magistrate into the van, taking every precaution against a possible rush for freedom on the part of the other captives. He then addressed the interior at large.

"I'm a-watchin' outside, and if yer so much as cough or blow yer noses I'll shoot through the sides with this 'ere ole blunderbuss. D' ye 'ear, cockies?"

With that he banged the doors to, barred and padlocked them, and sat on the tail-board watching the greyness of the dawn steal through the trees, as he struggled to keep awake.

He was so occupied when, at half-past seven, a distant rumble announced the arrival of the expected pantechnicon from Lowestoft. As it slowly lumbered up the drive the foreman grinned, and he grinned more broadly when he saw Bindle slip from the tail-board, followed by Ginger and two other men.

"Mornin', Bindle; mornin', Ginger," he called out politely. "Slep' well?"

Bindle grinned, and Ginger grumbled something inaudible.

"Now, one o' you two go an' get my breakfast, and the other telephone for the perlice."

The men stared at him.

"Ginger," he continued complacently, "you'll find two eggs and some bacon in the 'all, an' a stove in the kitchen, an' a pot of coffee wot only wants warmin' up. I'm 'ungry, Ginger – as 'ungry as 'ell is for you, Ginger. Bindle, give my compliments to the perlice at Lowestoft, and arst them to send a few peelers over 'ere at once to take charge o' what I caught last night."

Bindle scratched his head, uncertain whether or no it was all a joke.

"Yes, Bindle," continued the foreman, "I've got 'em all – all in Black Maria," and he jerked his thumb in the direction of the pantechnicon. "All yer very dear ole pals, cockie. Like to see 'em?"

Bindle still looked puzzled; but when the foreman had explained his grin transcended in its breadth and good-humour that of his superior. Then the foreman changed the style of his idiom, and his subordinates went their ways as he had intended and directed that they should.

The foreman was just finishing his breakfast by sopping up the bacon-fat with a piece of bread, when there reached him the sound of a motor-car chunking its way along in the distance.

The news of the night's doings had spread rapidly, and a small crowd was collected round the gates of Holmleigh. Bindle grinned through the bars, and occasionally threw to the curious neighbours bits of information.

The car approached and drew up. In it was a tall, spare man of about thirty-eight or forty, with thin, angular features. He seemed surprised to see the crowd; but turning the car through the open gates drove slowly up to the house.

The crowd recognised the stranger as Mr. Richard Miller, the new tenant of Holmleigh. He nodded to the foreman, who immediately descended from the tail-board and approached.

"Good-mornin', sir," he said. "You're earlier than wot I 'ad 'oped, sir; but that's on the lucky side. I been 'avin' rather a lively night, sir."

At this moment there was a loud and continuous pounding from within the pantechnicon that he had just left.

"If you're not quiet I'll shoot – God forgive me, but I will," he shouted over his shoulder. Then turning to Mr. Miller he winked jocosely. "Gettin' a bit impatient, sir. They 'eard you come, I s'pose. I've 'ad 'em there for several hours now. Ah! 'ere's the perlice!"

As he spoke another car appeared round the bend of the drive, and an inspector in uniform and three plain-clothes men got out.

"Now there's goin' to be some fun," the foreman chuckled to himself as, addressing Mr. Miller, he told of the happenings of the night before.

When he had finished, the features of Bindle, who had been relieved by Ginger, were suffused with a grin so broad and good-humoured that it contrasted strangely with the astonishment written on the faces of the others.

"That's the story, gentlemen, and there's my bag," jerking his thumb in the direction of the pantechnicon. "Four of 'em there are, I counted 'em carefully, an' every one a Charles Peace. You'd better be careful as you let 'em out," he added. "I 'adn't time to search 'em. They came so quick, like flies in summer."

The inspector breathed hard, Mr. Miller looked grave and concerned, the plain-clothes men looked blank, Bindle looked cheerful, whilst the foreman looked as a man looks only once in a lifetime. Deliberately he approached the tail of the van, undid the lock, removed the bar, threw open the doors, and stood quietly aside. For fully half a minute nothing happened; then the portly form of Sergeant Wrannock emerged.

"Wrannock!" gasped the inspector from Lowestoft. The sergeant forgot to salute his superior officer. He was humiliated. His collar was torn, one eye was blackened, and his nose was swollen.

Closely following him came Sir Charles Custance and Mr. Greenhales, who between them supported the inert form of Mr. Gandy, wheezing pitifully. All were much battered. Sir Charles's face was covered with blood, Mr. Greenhales had lost his wig and his false teeth, whilst Mr. Gandy had lost the power to move.

"What in heaven's name is the meaning of this?" asked the inspector.

"It means," thundered Sir Charles, who was the first to find his voice, "that we have been brutally and murderously assaulted by a band of ruffians."

"That's me, and me only!" commented the foreman complacently. "I'm the band, cockie, and don't you forget it."

"It means," said Sergeant Wrannock, "that having information that this house was packed with firearms, I came to make investigation and – "

"Got caught, cockie," interrupted the foreman.

"Hold your tongue!" shouted Mr. Greenhales, in a hollow, toothless voice, dancing with fury. "Hold your tongue! You shall suffer for this."

At last, from the incoherent shoutings and reproaches in which the words "Germans," "Spies," "Herr M?ller," were bandied back and forth, Mr. Miller and the inspector pieced together the story of how four patriots had been overcome by one foreman pantechnicon-man. The inspector turned to Mr. Miller.

"As a matter of form, sir, and in the execution of my duty, I should be glad to know if it is true that your house is full of arms and ammunition?" he asked politely.

"Of arms, certainly, Inspector, most certainly," Mr. Miller replied. "I am supposed to have the finest collection of firearms in the country. Come and see them, or such as are unpacked."

And the inspector looked at Sergeant Wrannock, and the plain-clothes constables looked away from him, and Sir Charles and Mr. Greenhales looked irefully round for Bindle; but Bindle was nowhere to be seen.

"Funny none of 'em seem to see the joke!" he remarked to a clump of rhododendrons half-way down the drive.

CHAPTER XVII
BINDLE MAKES A MISTAKE

I

"Bindle there?"

"No, sir; 'e's down the yard."

"Tell him I want him."

"Right, sir."

The manager of the West London Furniture Depository, Ltd., returned to his office. A few minutes later Bindle knocked at the door and, removing the blue-and-white cricket cap from his head, entered in response to the manager's, "Come in."

"Wonder wot 'e's found out. Shouldn't be surprised if it was them guns," muttered Bindle prophetically under his breath.

Bindle had been employed by the Depository for six months, and had acquitted himself well. He was a good workman and trustworthy, and had given conclusive proof that he knew his business.

The manager looked up from a letter he held in his hand.

"I've had a very serious letter from Sir Charles Custance of Little Compton," he began.

"No bad news, I 'ope, sir," remarked Bindle cheerfully. "Brooks sort o' shook 'im up a bit, accordin' to 'is own account." Brooks was the foreman pantechnicon-man.

The manager frowned, and proceeded to read aloud Sir Charles's letter. It recapitulated the events that had taken place at Little Compton, painting Bindle and the foreman as a pair of the most desperate cut-throats conceivable, threatening, not only them, but the West London Furniture Depository with every imaginable pain and penalty.

When he had finished, the manager looked up at Bindle with great severity.

"You've heard what Sir Charles Custance writes. What have you got to say?" he asked.

Bindle scratched his head and shuffled his feet. Then he looked up with a grin.

"Yer see, sir, I wasn't to know that they was as scared as rabbits o' the Germans. I jest sort o' let an 'int drop all innocent like, an' the 'ole bloomin' place turns itself into a sort o' Scotland Yard."

"But you sought out Sir Charles and" – the manager referred to the letter – "'and laid before me an information,' he says."

"I didn't lay nothink before 'im, sir, not even a complaint, although 'is language when 'e come out o' the ark wasn't fit for Ginger to 'ear, an' Ginger's ain't exactly Sunday-school talk."

The manager was short-handed and anxious to find some means of placating so important a man as Sir Charles Custance, and, at the same time, retaining Bindle's services. He bit the top of his pen meditatively. It was Bindle who solved the problem.

"I better resign," he suggested, "and then join up again later, sir. You can write an' say I'm under notice to go."

The manager pondered awhile. He was responsible for the conduct of the affairs of the Depository, and, after all, Sir Charles Custance and the others had been mainly responsible for what had occurred.

"I'll think the matter over," he remarked. "In the meantime Brooks is away, Mr. Colter is ill, and Jameson hasn't turned up this morning, and we have that move in West Kensington to get through during the day. Do you think that you can be responsible for it?"

"Sure of it, sir. I been in the perfession, man and boy, all me life."

The West London Furniture Depository made a specialty of moving clients' furniture whilst they were holiday-making. They undertook to set out the rooms in the new house exactly as they had been in the old, with due allowance for a changed geography.

"Here is the specification," said the manager, handing to Bindle a paper. "Now how will you set to work?"

"'Five bed, two reception, one study, one kitchen, one nursery,'" read Bindle. "Two vans'll do it, sir. Best bedroom, servant's. dinin'-room, No. 1; second bedroom, drawin'-room, No. 2; two bedrooms and kitchen No. 3, and the rest No. 4. Then you see we shan't get 'em mixed."



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