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TILL THE CLOCK STOPS

BY J. J. BELL

AUTHOR OF "WEE MACGREEGOR," ETC.

1917







THE PROLOGUE


On a certain brilliant Spring morning in London's City the seed of the
Story was lightly sown. Within the directors' room of the Aasvogel
Syndicate, Manchester House, New Broad Street, was done and hidden away a
deed, simple and commonplace, which in due season was fated to yield a
weighty crop of consequences complex and extraordinary.

At the table, pen in hand, sat a young man, slight of build, but of fresh
complexion, and attractive, eager countenance, neither definitely fair
nor definitely dark. He was silently reading over a document engrossed on
bluish hand-made folio; not a lengthy document - nineteen lines, to be
precise. And he was reading very slowly and carefully, chiefly to oblige
the man standing behind his chair.

This man, whose age might have been anything between forty and fifty, and
whose colouring was dark and a trifle florid, would probably have evoked
the epithet of "handsome" on the operatic stage, and in any city but
London that of "distinguished." In London, however, you could hardly fail
to find his like in one or other of the west-end restaurants about 8 p.m.

Francis Bullard, standing erect in the sunshine, a shade over-fed
looking, but perfectly groomed in his regulation city garb, an enigmatic
smile under his neat black moustache as he watched the reader, suggested
nothing ugly or mean, nothing worse, indeed, than worldly prosperity and
a frank enjoyment thereof. His well-kept fingers toyed with a little gold
nugget depending from his watch chain - his only ornament.

The third man was seated in a capacious leather-covered, easy chair by
the hearth. Leaning forward, he held his palms to the fire, though not
near enough for them to have derived much warmth. He was extremely tall
and thin. The head was long and rather narrow, the oval countenance had
singularly refined features. The hair, once reddish, now almost grey, was
parted in the middle and very smoothly brushed; the beard was clipped
close to the cheeks and trimmed to a point. Bluish-grey eyes, deepset,
gave an impression of weariness and sadness; indeed the whole face hinted
at melancholy. Its attractive kindliness was marred by a certain
furtiveness. He was as stylishly dressed as his co-director, Bullard, but
in light grey tweed; and he wore a pearl of price on his tie and a fine
diamond on his little finger. His name was Robert Lancaster, and no man
ever started life with loftier ideals and cleaner intentions.

At last the young man at the table, with a brisk motion, dipped his pen.

"One moment, Alan," said Bullard, and touched a bell-button.

A couple of clerks entered.

"Rose and Ferguson, you will witness Mr. Alan Craig's signature. All
right now, Alan!"

The young man dashed down his name and got up smiling.

Never was last will and testament more eagerly, more cheerfully signed.
The clerks performed their parts and retired.

Alan Craig seized Bullard's hand. "I'm more than obliged to you," he said
heartily, "and to you, too, Mr. Lancaster." He darted over to the hearth.

The oldish man seemed to rouse himself for the handshake. "Of course,
it's merely a matter of form, Alan," he said, and cleared his throat;
"merely a matter of form. In ordinary times you would have been welcome
to the money without - a - anything of the sort, but at present it so
happens - "

"Alan quite understands," Bullard interrupted genially, "that in present
circumstances it was not possible for us to advance even a trifle like
three thousand without something in the way of security - merely as a
matter of form, as you have put it. We might have asked him to sign a
bill or bond; but that method would have been repugnant to you,
Lancaster, as it was to me. As we have arranged it, Alan can start for
the Arctic without feeling a penny in debt - "

"Hardly that," the young man quickly put in. "But I shall go without
feeling I must meet grasping creditors the moment I return. Upon my word,
you have treated me magnificently. When the chance came, so unexpectedly,
of taking over Garnet's share and place in the expedition, and when my
Uncle Christopher flatly refused to advance the money, I felt hopelessly
knocked out, for such a trip had been the ambition of my life. Why, I had
studied for it, on the off-chance, for years! I didn't go into a
geographical publisher's business just to deal in maps, you know. And
then you both came to the rescue - why I can't think, unless it was just
because you knew my poor father in South Africa. Well, I wish he and my
mother were alive to add their thanks - "

"Don't say another word, old chap," said Bullard.

"I will say just this much: if I don't come back, I honestly hope that
will of mine may some day bring you the fortune I've been told I shall
inherit, though, candidly, I don't believe in it."

"But the will is only a matter of - " began Lancaster.

Bullard interposed. "You will repay us from the profits of the big book
you are going to write. I must say your publisher mentioned pretty decent
terms. However, let's finish the business and go to lunch. Here you are,
Alan! - our cheques for £1500 each."

Alan took the slips of tinted paper with a gesture in place of uttered
thanks. He was intensely grateful to these two men, who had made possible
the desire of years. The expedition was no great national affair; simply
the adventure of a few enthusiasts whose main object was to prove or
disprove the existence of land which a famous explorer had believed his
eyes had seen in the far distance. But the expedition would find much
that it did not seek for, and its success would mean reputation for its
members, and reputation would, sooner or later, mean money, which this
young man was by no means above desiring, especially as the money would
mean independence and - well, he was not yet absolutely sure of himself
with respect to matrimony.

He regretfully declined Bullard's invitation to lunch. There were so many
things to be done, for the expedition was to start only eight days later,
and he had promised to take a bite with his friend Teddy France.

"Then you will dine with us to-night," Lancaster said, rising. "You must
give us all the time you can possibly spare before you go. My wife and
Doris bade me say so."

"I will come with pleasure," he replied, flushing slightly. Of late he
had had passages bordering on the tender with Doris Lancaster, and but
for the sudden filling of his mind with thoughts of this great adventure
in the Arctic he might have slipped into the folly of a declaration.
Folly, indeed! - for well he was aware that he was outside any plans which
Mrs. Lancaster may have had for her charming and very loveable daughter.
And yet the mention of her name, the prospect of seeing her, stirred him
at the moment when the great adventure was looming its largest. Well, he
was only four-and-twenty, and who can follow to their origins the
tangling dreams of youth? One excitement begets another. Romance calls to
romance. He was going to the Arctic in spite of all sorts of
difficulties, therefore he would surely win through to other
desires - however remote, however guarded. As a matter of fact, he wanted
to be in love with Doris, if only to suffer all manner of pains for her
sake, and gain her in the end.

He shook hands again with his benefactors.

"You'll be going to Scotland to see your uncle before you start, I
suppose?" said Lancaster.

"Yes; I'll travel on Sunday night, and spend Monday at Grey House. You
must not think that he and I have quarrelled," Alan said, with a smile.
"It takes two to make a quarrel, you know, and I owe him far too much to
be one of them. I'd have given in to his wishes had it been anything but
an Arctic Expedition. But we shall part good friends, you may be sure."

"It's understood," Bullard remarked, "that he is not to be told of this
little business of ours. As you know, Lancaster and I are his oldest
friends, and he might not regard the business as we should like him to
regard it."

"You may count on my discretion," returned the young man, "and I fancy
Uncle Christopher will be too proud to ask questions. Well, I must
really go."

When the door had closed, Bullard took up the document, folded it, and
placed it in a long envelope.

"Lancaster!"

Lancaster did not seem to hear. He had dropped back into the easy-chair,
his hands to the fire.

Bullard went over and tapped him on the shoulder, and he started.

"What's the matter, Lancaster?"

"Oh, nothing - nothing!" Lancaster sat up. "I feel a bit fagged to-day.
I - I'm rather glad that bit of business is over. I didn't like it, though
it was only a matter of - "

"Perhaps nothing; perhaps half a million - "

"'Sh, Bullard! We must not think of such a thing. Christopher may live
for many years, and - "

"He won't do that! The attacks are becoming more frequent."

" - And with all my heart I hope the boy will return safely."

"And so say we all of us!" returned Bullard. "Only I like to be prepared
for emergencies. After all, we can't be positive that Christopher will do
the friendly to us when the time comes, and Alan being the only relative
is certain to benefit, more or less. Our own prospects are not so bright
as they were. Of course, you've run through a pile - at least, Mrs.
Lancaster has done it for you - "

"If you please, Bullard - "

"Come in!"

A clerk entered, handed a telegram to Lancaster, and withdrew.

Bullard lounged over to one of the windows, and lit a cigarette.
Presently a queer sound caused him to turn sharply. Lancaster was lying
back, his face chalky.

"Fainted, good Lord!" muttered Bullard, and took a step towards a
cabinet in the corner. He checked himself, came back and picked up the
message. He read:

"Just arrived with valuable goods to sell. Shall I give first offer to
Christopher or to you and Bullard? Reply c/o P.O., Tilbury. Edwin
Marvel."

"Damnation!" said Bullard.




CHAPTER I


Despite its handsome and costly old furnishings, the room gave one a
sense of space and comfort; its agreeable warmth was too equable to have
been derived solely from the cheerful blaze in the veritable Adam's
fireplace, which seemed to have provided the keynote to the general
scheme of decoration. The great bay-window overlooked a long, gently
sloping lawn, bounded on either side by shrubbery, trees, and hedges,
terminated by shrubbery and hedges alone, the trees originally there
having been long since removed to admit of a clear view of the loch, the
Argyllshire hills, and the stretch of Firth of Clyde right down to Bute
and the Lesser Cumbrae. Even in summer the garden, while scrupulously
tidy, would have offered but little colour display; its few flower beds
were as stiff in form and conventional in arrangement as a jobbing
gardener on contract to an uninterested proprietor could make them. And
on this autumn afternoon, when the sun seemed to rejoice coldly over the
havoc of yesterday's gale and the passing of things spared to die a
natural death, the eye was fain to look beyond to the beauty of the
eternal waters and the glory of the everlasting hills.

Turning from the window, one noticed that the brown walls harboured but
four pictures, a couple of Bone etchings and a couple by Laguilérmie
after Orchardson. There were three doors, that in the left wall being the
entrance; the other two, in the right and back walls, near the angle,
suggested presses, being without handles. In the middle of the back wall,
a yard's distance from the floor, was a niche, four feet in height by one
in breadth by the latter in depth, a plain oblong, at present unoccupied.
Close inspection would have revealed signs of its recent construction.

Near the centre of the room a writing-table stood at such an angle that
the man seated at it, in the invalid's wheeled chair, could look from the
window to the fire with the least possible movement of the head. You
would have called him an old man, though his age was barely sixty. Hair
and short beard were white. He was thin to fragility, yet his hand,
fingering some documents, was steady, and his eyes, while sunken, were
astonishingly bright. His mobile pale lips hinted at a nature kindly, if
not positively tender, yet they could smile grimly, bitterly, in secret.
Such was Christopher Craig, a person of no importance publicly or
socially, yet the man who, to the knowledge of those two individuals now
sitting at his hearth, had left the Cape, five years ago, with a moderate
fortune in cash and shares, and half a million pounds in diamonds. And he
had just told those two, his favoured friends and trusted associates of
the old South African days, that he was about to die.

Robert Lancaster and Francis Bullard, summoned by telegraph from London
the previous afternoon, had not been unprepared for such an announcement.
As a matter of fact, they had been anticipating the end itself for
months - long, weary months, one may venture to say. Yet Lancaster, who
had been unfortunate in getting the easy-chair which compelled its
occupant to face the strong, clear light, suffered an emotion that
constricted his throat and brought tears to his eyes. But Lancaster had
ever been half-hearted, whether for good or evil. He looked less
unhealthy than on that spring morning, eighteen months ago, but the
furtiveness had increased so much that a stranger would have pitied him
as a man with nerves. To his host's calmly delivered intimation he had no
response ready.

Bullard, on the other hand, was at no loss for words, though he allowed a
few seconds - a decent interval, as they say - to elapse ere he uttered
them. He was not the sort of fool who tosses a light protest in the face
of a grave statement. If his dark face showed no more feeling than usual,
his voice was kind, sympathetic, sincere.

"My dear Christopher," he said, "you have hit us hard, for you never were
a man to make idle assertions, and we know you have suffered much these
last few years. Nevertheless, for our own sakes as well as your own, we
must take leave to hope that your medical man is mistaken. For one thing,
your eyes are not those of a man who is done with life."

Christopher Craig smiled faintly. "Unfortunately, Bullard, life is
done - or nearly done - with me."

Said Lancaster, as if forced - "Have you seen a specialist?"

The host's hand made a slightly impatient movement. "Let us not discuss
the point further. I did not bring you both from London to listen to
medical details. By the way, I must thank you for coming so promptly."

"We could not have done otherwise," said Bullard, fingering his cigar.
"It is nearly two years since we saw you - but, as you know, that has been
hardly our fault."

"Indeed no," Lancaster murmured.

"Go on smoking," said the host. "Yes; I'm afraid I became a bit of a
recluse latterly. I had to take such confounded care of myself. Well, I
didn't want to go out of the world before I could help it, and I was
enjoying the quiet here after the strenuous years in Africa - Africa
South, East, West. What years they were!" He sighed. "Only the luck came
too late to save my brother." He was gazing at the loch, and could hardly
have noticed Lancaster's wince which called up Bullard's frown.

Bullard threw his cold cigar into the fire and lit a fresh one with care.
With smoke coming from his lips he said softly, "Your brother was
devilishly badly treated in that land deal, Christopher. Lancaster and I
would have helped him out, had it been possible - wouldn't we, Lancaster?"

Lancaster cleared his throat. "Oh, surely!"

"Thanks," said Christopher. "Of course we've gone over all that before,
and I'd thought I had spoken of it for the last time. Only now I feel I'd
die a bit happier if I could bring to book the man or men who ruined him.
But that cannot be, so let us change the subject with these words, 'They
shall have their reward.'"

"Amen!" said Bullard, in clear tones.

Lancaster took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.

Still gazing at the loch, Christopher continued -

"I will speak of the living - my nephew, Alan." He lifted his hand as
though to check a contradiction. "I am well aware that you believe him
dead, and I cannot get away from the fact that the wretched
twopence-ha'penny expedition came home without him. But no member could
assert that he was dead - only that he was lost, missing; and though I
shall not live to see it, I will die in the firm belief of his return
within a year."

For once Bullard seemed to have nothing to say, and doubtless he was
surprised to hear his colleague's voice stammer -

"If you could give me any grounds for your belief, Christopher - "

"Men have been lost in the Arctic before now, and have not died."

"But Alan, poor fellow, was alone."

"He had his gun and some food. As you know, he was hunting with a man
named Flitch when they got separated in a sudden fog."

"And all search proved vain," said Bullard.

"True. But there was an Eskimo encampment within a day's march," retorted
Christopher, mildly.

"It had been broken up - "

"Yes; by the time the search party reached it. I may tell you that I have
seen and questioned every member of the expedition excepting the man
Flitch, who seems to have disappeared, and several admitted the
possibility which is my belief." The pale cheeks had flushed, the calm
voice had risen.

Bullard gave Lancaster a warning glance, and there was a pause.

"I must not excite myself," resumed Christopher, his pallor back again.
"But the boy grew dear to me when, like other happenings in my life, it
was too late. I was angry when he went, though I had done little enough
to attach him to myself, and I cursed whomever it was that supplied him
with the necessary funds. He had friends, I suppose, whom I did not know
of. Served me right! But once he was gone my feelings changed. He had a
right to make his own life. He had as much right to his ambitions as
I" - a faint smile - "to my diamonds. Well, I'm always thankful for the few
hours he spent here before his departure. The Arctic was not mentioned,
but we parted in peace."

The speaker halted to measure five drops from a tiny phial into a
wine-glass of water ready on his desk.

"You're overtaxing yourself," said Bullard compassionately.

"I'll rest presently."

With a grimace at the bitterness of the draught, Christopher Craig
proceeded: "The day after he went I signed a deed of gift by which Alan
became possessed of this house and all I possess" - he paused, turning
towards his visitors - "in the way of cash and securities, less a small
sum reserved for my own use. I wanted the boy to know my feeling towards
him in a way that a mere will could not show them. However, it is no
great fortune - a matter of fifty thousand pounds."

"Much may be done with fifty thousand pounds," remarked Bullard, as if
rousing himself. "It is a generous gift, Christopher," he went on. "With
the house, I presume you include all it contains." Bullard knew that his
voice was growing eager in spite of him. "Naturally," he said, with a
frank laugh, "we are curious to know what is going to become of the
diamonds - eh, Lancaster?"

The man addressed smiled in sickly fashion.

"In what, I still trust, is the distant future," Bullard quickly added.

"Ah, the diamonds!" said Christopher tenderly. "I shall be sorry to leave
them. A man who is not a brute must worship beauty in some form, and I
have worshipped diamonds." He leaned over to the right, opened a deep
drawer, and brought up an oval steel box enamelled olive green. It was
fifteen inches long, twelve across, and nine deep. He laid it before him
and opened it with an odd-looking key. It contained shallow trays,
divided into compartments, each a blaze of light.

Bullard half rose and sat down again; Lancaster shivered slightly.

"In times of pain and depression I have found distraction in these vain
things," said Christopher. "Give me a few sheets of wax and a handful of
these, and time ceases while I evolve my jewel schemes. You may say the
recreation costs me a good income. Well, I have preferred the recreation.
At the same time, diamonds have risen in price since I collected mine."
He shut the lid softly, locked it, and added impressively, "Six hundred
thousand pounds would not purchase them to-day."

"Great Heavens!" escaped Lancaster; Bullard ran his tongue over dry lips.

"With one exception, you are the first to see them, to hear me mention
them, since they left South Africa," said Christopher. "No, not even my
nephew knows of their existence. My servant, Caw, is the exception, but
he is ignorant of their value."

"Very handsome of you to trust us, I'm sure," Bullard said with
well-feigned lightness. "I, for one, had never guessed the greatness of
your fortune."

"I have trusted you with much in the past; why not now? And I grant that
your interest in the ultimate destination of my diamonds is the most
natural thing in the world. Incidentally, your friendship shall not go
unrewarded." He waved aside Bullard's quick protest. "But I have grown
whimsical in my old age, and you must bear with me." He smiled gently and
became grave. "Ultimately my diamonds will be divided into three
portions. But - and I emphasise this - nothing shall be done, nor will the
diamonds be available for division, till the clock stops - in, I pray God,
the presence of my nephew, Alan."

"Till the clock stops?" exclaimed Lancaster stupidly.

"The saying shall be made clear to you before long, Lancaster. And now I
must make an end or I shall be giving my doctor more trouble."

With a sigh he pressed one of three white buttons under the ledge of the
table. "You will forgive my handing you over to a servant. Caw will see
you to your car. Farewell, Lancaster; my regards to your wife, my love to
Doris. Farewell, Bullard; yet there are better things even than
diamonds."

The door was opened. A middle-aged man in black, with clean shaven
ascetic face, and hair the colour of rust, and of remarkably wiry bodily
appearance stood at attention.

There was something in Christopher's sad smile that forbade further
words, and the visitors departed. Lancaster's countenance working,
Bullard's a mask.

The door was shut noiselessly. Christopher's hand fell clenched on the
green box. His pallid lips moved.

"Traitors, hypocrites, money maniacs! Verily, they shall have their
reward!" He reopened the box, took out all the five trays, and gazed
awhile at the massed brilliance. And his smile was exceeding grim.




CHAPTER II


Within a few minutes the servant returned.

"The gentlemen have gone, sir, and Monsoor Guidet is ready," he said,
then looked hard at his master.

The master appeared to rouse himself. "Tell Guidet to go ahead. He'll
require your assistance, I expect. Stay!" He pointed to the diamonds.
"Put them in the box, Caw."

The man restored the glittering trays to their places with as much
emotion as if they had contained samples of bird-seed. When he had let
down the lid -

"Your pardon, Mr. Craig, but won't you allow me to ring for Dr.
Handyside now?"

"Confound you, Caw, do what you're told!"

"Very good, sir," said Caw sadly, moving off.

"And look here, Caw; if I'm crusty, you know why. And I shan't be
bullying you for long. That's all."

Caw bowed his head and went out. On the landing he threw up his hands.
"My God!" he said under his breath, "can nothing be done to save him?"
For here was a man who loved his master better than himself. One wonders
if Caw had ever forgot for an hour in all those twenty years that
Christopher Craig had lifted him from the gutter and given him the chance
which the world seemed to have denied him.

Shortly afterwards he entered the room with Monsieur Guidet. The two
moved slowly, cautiously, for between them they carried a heavy and
seemingly fragile object.

"Go ahead," said Christopher, "and let me know when it is finished." He
closed his eyes.

Nearly an hour passed before he opened them in response to his
servant's voice.

"Monsieur has now finished, sir."

He sat up at once. From a drawer he took a large stout envelope already
addressed and sealed with wax.

"Caw, get on your cycle and take this to the post. Have it registered.
And put a chair for Monsieur Guidet - there - no, nearer - that's right.
Order a cab to take Monsieur to the steamer. He and I will have a chat
till you return.... Monsieur, come and sit down."


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