Once Aboard the Lugger Part 66

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George felt that something very dreadful indeed was at hand. "How did you find out where I was?" he asked.

"From old Marrapit."

"Marrapit? Why, but my uncle won't let you come within a mile of him."

"Ah! that's all over now." A very beautiful look came into Bill's eyes; tenderness shaded his voice: "George, old man, if I can track down the hound who has stolen this cat your uncle has practically said that he will agree to my engagement with Margaret."

George tottered across the room; pressed his head against the cold window-pane. Here was the calamity. He had thought of taking Bill into his confidence--how do so now?

"I say, you do look bad, old man," Bill told him.

"I'm all right. Tell me all about it."

"Well, it's too good--too wonderful to be true. Everything is going simply splendidly with me. I'm running this cat business for the _Daily_--my paper, you know. It's made a most frightful splash and the editor is awfully bucked up with me. I'm on the permanent staff, six quid a week--eight quid a week if I find this cat. I'm working it from Herons' Holt, you know. I'm--"

George turned upon him. "Are you 'Our Special Commissioner at Paltley Hill'?"

"Rather! Have you been reading it? Pretty hot stuff, isn't it? I say, George, wasn't it lucky I chucked medicine! I told you I was cut out for this kind of thing if only I could get my chance. Well, I've got my chance; and by Gad, old man, if I don't track down this swine who's got the cat, or help to get him tracked down, I'll--I'll--" The enthusiastic young man broke off--"Isn't it great, George?"

My miserable George paced the room. "Great!" he forced out. "Great!"

This was the infernal Special Commissioner whom daily he had yearned to strangle. "Great! By Gad, there are no words for it!"

"I knew you'd be pleased. Thanks awfully--_awfully_. Well, I was telling you. Being down there for the paper I simply had to interview Marrapit. I plucked up courage and bearded him. He's half crazy about this wretched cat. I found him as meek as a lamb. Bit snarly at first, but when he found how keen I was, quite affectingly pleasant. I've seen him every day for the last four days, and yesterday he said what I told you--I came out with all about Margaret and about my splendid prospects, and, as I say, he practically said that if I could find the cat he'd be willing to think of our engagement."

"But about finding out where I was? How did you discover that?"

"Well, he told me. Told me this morning." Bill shuffled his legs uncomfortably for a moment, then plunged ahead. "Fact is, old man, he's a bit sick with you. Said he'd only had one telegram from you from Dippleford Admiral and one letter from here. Said it was unsatisfactory--that it was clear you were incapable of following up this clue of yours by yourself. You don't mind my telling you this, do you, old man? You know what he is."

George gave the bitter laugh of one who is misunderstood, unappreciated. "Go on," he said, "go on." He was trembling to see the precipice over which the end of Bill's story would hurl him.

"Well, as I said--that it was clear you could not carry through your clue by yourself. So I was to come down and help you. That was about ten o'clock, and I caught the mid-day train--I've been here since two.

Well, Brunger--the detective chap, you know--Marrapit was going to send him on here at once--"

This was the precipice. George went hurtling over the edge with whirling brain: "Brunger coming down here?" he cried.

"Rather! Now, we three together, old man--"

"When's he coming?" George asked. He could not hear his own voice--the old nightmares danced before his eyes, roared their horrors in his ears.

Bill looked at the clock. "He ought to be here by now. He ought to have arrived--"

The roaring confusion in George's brain went to a tingling silence; through it there came footsteps and a man's voice upon the stairs.

As the tracked criminal who hears his pursuer upon the threshold, as the fugitive from justice who feels upon his shoulder the sudden hand of arrest, as the poor wretch in the condemned cell when the hangman enters--as the feelings of these, so, at this sound, the emotions of my miserable George.

A dash must be made to flatten this hideous doom. Upon a sudden impulse he started forward. "Bill! Bill, old man, I want to tell you something. You don't know what the finding of this cat means to me.

It--"

"I do know, old man," Bill earnestly a.s.sured him. "You're splendid, old man, splendid. I never dreamt you were so fond of your uncle. Old man, it means even more to me--it means Margaret and success. Here's Brunger. We three together, George. Nothing shall stop us."

IV.

The sagacious detective entered. George gave him a limp, damp hand.

"You don't look well," Mr. Brunger told him, after greetings.

"Just what I was saying," Bill joined.

Indeed, George looked far from well. Round-shouldered he sat upon the sofa, head in hands--a pallid face beneath a beaded brow staring out between them.

"It's the strain of this clue, Mr. Brunger," Bill continued. "He's on the track!"

"You are?" cried the detective.

"Right on," George said dully. "Right on the track."

"Is it a gang?"

"Two," George answered in the same voice. "Two gangs."

The sagacious detective thumped the table. "I said so. I knew it. I told you so, Mr. Wyvern. But _two_, eh? _Two_ gangs. That's tough. One got the cat and the other after it, I presume?"

"No," said George. He was wildly thinking; to the conversation paying no attention.

"No? But, my dear sir, one of 'em _must_ have the cat?"

George started to the necessities of the immediate situation; wondered what he had said; caught at Mr. Brunger's last word. "The cat? Another gang has got the cat."

"What, three gangs!" the detective cried.

"Three gangs," George affirmed.

"Two gangs you said at first," Mr. Brunger sharply reminded him.

My miserable George dug his fingers into his hair. "I meant three--I'd forgotten the other."

"Don't see how a man can forget a whole _gang_," objected the detective. He stared at George; frowned; produced his note-book. "Let us have the facts, sir."

As if drawn by the glare fixed upon him, George moved from the sofa to the table.

"Now, the facts," Mr. Brunger repeated. "Let's get these gangs settled first."

George took a chair. He had no plan. He plunged wildly. "Gang A, gang B, gang C, gang D--"

Mr. Brunger stopped short in the midst of his note.

Once Aboard the Lugger Part 66

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Once Aboard the Lugger Part 66 summary

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