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- Once Aboard The Lugger - 60/75 -


"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.

"Why, that's _four_ gangs!"

The twisting of George's legs beneath the table was sympathetic with the struggles of his bewildered mind. He said desperately, "Well, there _are_ four gangs."

The detective threw down his pencil. "You're making a fool of me!" he cried. "First you said two gangs, then three gangs--"

"You're making a fool of yourself," George answered hotly. "If you knew anything about gangs you'd know they're always breaking up-- quarrelling, and then rejoining, and then splitting again. If you can't follow, don't follow. Find the damned gangs yourself. You're a detective--I'm not. At least you say you are. You're a precious poor one, seems to me. You've not done much."

In his bewilderment and fear my unfortunate George had unwittingly hit upon an admirable policy. Since first Mr. Marrapit had called Mr. Brunger it had sunk in upon the Confidential Inquiry Agent that indeed he was a precious poor detective. In the five days that had passed he had not struck upon the glimmer of a notion regarding the whereabouts of the missing cat. This was no hiding in cupboard work, no marked coin work, no following the skittish wife of a greengrocer work. It was the real thing--real detective work, and it had found Mr. Brunger most lamentably wanting. Till now, however, none had suspected his perplexity. He had impressed his client--had bounced, noted, cross- examined, measured; and during every bounce, note, cross-examination and measurement fervently had prayed that luck--or the reward--would help him stumble upon something he could claim as outcome of his skill. George's violent attack alarmed him; he drew in his horns.

"Ah! don't be 'ot," he protested. "Don't be 'ot. Little misunderstanding, that's all. I follow you completely. Four gangs-- _I_ see. _Four_ gangs. Now, sir."

It was George's turn for fear. "Four gangs--quite so. Well, what do you want me to tell you?"

"Start from the beginning, sir."

George started--plunged head-first. For five minutes he desperately gabbled while Mr. Brunger's pencil bounded along behind his splashing; words. Every time the pencil seemed to slacken, away again George would fly and away in pursuit the pencil would laboriously toil.

"Four gangs," George plunged along. "Gang A, gang B, gang C, gang D. Gang A breaks into the house and steals the cat. Gang B finds it gone and tracks down gang C."

"Tracks gang A, surely," panted Mr. Brunger. "Gang A had the cat."

"Gang B didn't know that. I tell you this is a devil of a complicated affair. Gang B tracks down gang C and finds gang D. They join. Call 'em gang B-D. Gang A loses the cat and gang C finds it. Gang C sells it to gang B-D, which is run by an American, as I said."

"Did you?" gasped Mr. Brunger without looking up.

"Certainly. Gang B-D hands it over to gang A by mistake, and gang A makes off with it. Gang C, very furious because it is gang A's great rival, starts in pursuit and gets it back again. Then gang B-D demands it, but gang A refuses to give it up."

"Gang C!" Mr. Brunger panted. "Gang C had got it from gang A."

"Yes, but gang A got it back again. Gang B-D--Look here," George broke off, "that's perfectly clear about the gangs, isn't it?"

"Perfectly," said Mr. Brunger, feeling that his reputation was gone unless he said so. "Wants a little studying, that's all. Most extraordinary story I ever heard of."

"I'm dashed if I understand a word of it," Bill put in. "Who _are_ these gangs?"

George rose: "Bill, old man, I'll explain that another time. The fact is, we're wasting time by sitting here. I was very near the end when you two arrived. The cat is here--quite near here."

The detective and Bill sprang to their feet. George continued: "It's going to change hands either tonight or to-morrow. If you two will do just as I tell you and leave the rest to me, we shall bring off a capture. To-morrow evening I will explain everything."

The detective asked eagerly; "Is it a certainty?"

"Almost. It will be touch and go; but if we miss it this time it is a certainty for the immediate future. I swear this, that if you keep in touch with me you will be nearer the cat than you will ever get by yourselves."

Sincerity shone in his eyes from these words. The detective and Bill were fired with zeal.

"Take command, sir!" said Mr. Brunger.

"All right. Come with me. I will post you for the night. We have some distance to go. Don't question me. I must think."

"Not a question," said the detective: he was, indeed, too utterly bewildered.

George murmured "Thank heaven!"; took his hat; led the way into the street. In dogged silence the three tramped through the rain.

V.

George led for the Clifford Arms, some two miles distant. For the present he had but one object in view. He must get rid of Bill and this infernal detective; then he must speed the cat from Temple Colney.

As he walked he pushed out beyond the primary object of ridding himself of his companions; sought the future. In the first half-mile he decided that the game was up. He must deliver the Rose to his uncle immediately without waiting for the reward to be further raised. To hang on for the shadow would be, he felt, to lose the substance that would stand represented by Mr. Marrapit's gratitude.

But this preposterous buoyancy of youth! The rain that beat upon his face cooled his brow; seemed to cool his brain. Before the first mile was crossed he had vacillated from his purpose. When he said to his followers "Only another half-mile," his purpose was changed.

This preposterous corkiness of youth! It had lifted him up from the sea of misfortune in which he had nigh been drowned, and now he was assuring himself that, given he could hide the Rose where a sudden glimmering idea suggested, he would be safer than ever before. The two men who were most dangerous to him--the detective and the _Daily's_ Special Commissioner at Paltley Hill, now slushing through the mud behind--were beneath his thumb. If he could keep them goose-chasing for a few days or so--!

The turn of a corner brought them in view of the Clifford Arms. George pointed: "I want you to spend the night there and to stay there till I come to-morrow. A man is there whom you must watch--the landlord."

"One of the gangs?" Mr. Brunger asked, hoarse excitement in his voice.

"Gang B--leader. Don't let him suspect you. Just watch him."

"Has he got the cat?"

With great impressiveness George looked at the detective, looked at Bill. Volumes of meaning in his tone: "_Not yet!_" he said.

Bill cried: "By Gad!" The detective rubbed his hands in keen anticipation.

They entered the inn. Bill gave a story of belated tourists. A room was engaged. In a quarter of an hour George was speeding back to Temple Colney.

At the post-office he stopped; purchased a letter-card; held his pen a while as he polished the glimmering idea that now had taken form; then wrote to his Mary:--

"My dearest girl in all the world,--You've never had a line from me all this time, but you can guess what a time I've been having. Dearest darling, listen and attend. This is most important. Our future depends upon it. Meet me to-morrow at 12.0 at that tumbled-down hut in the copse on the Shipley Road where we went that day just before my exam. Make any excuse to get away. You must be there. And don't tell a soul.


Once Aboard The Lugger - 60/75

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