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- The Devil's Paw - 2/44 -


"What on earth have you kept your shooting kit on for?" the latter asked, with lazy curiosity.

Furley glanced down at his incongruous attire and seemed for a moment ill at ease.

"I've got to go out presently," he announced.

Julian raised his eyebrows.

"Got to go out?" he repeated. "On a night like this? Why, my dear fellow--"

He paused abruptly. He was a man of quick perceptions, and he realised his host's embarrassment. Nevertheless, there was an awkward pause in the conversation. Furley rose to his feet and frowned. He fetched a jar of tobacco from a shelf and filled his pouch deliberately:

"Sorry to seem mysterious, old chap," he said. "I've just a bit of a job to do. It doesn't amount to anything, but--well, it's the sort of affair we don't talk about much."

"Well, you're welcome to all the amusement you'll get out of it, a night like this."

Furley laid down his pipe, ready-filled, and drank off his port.

"There isn't much amusement left in the world, is there, just now?" he remarked gravely.

"Very little indeed. It's three years since I handled a shotgun before to-night."

"You've really chucked the censoring?"

"Last week. I've had a solid year at it."

"Fed up?"

"Not exactly that. My own work accumulated so."

"Briefs coming along, eh?"

"I'm a sort of hack journalist as well, as you reminded me just now," Julian explained a little evasively.

"I wonder you stuck at the censoring so long. Isn't it terribly tedious?"

"Sometimes. Now and then we come across interesting things, though. For instance, I discovered a most original cipher the other day."

"Did it lead to anything?" Furley asked curiously.

"Not at present. I discovered it, studying a telegram from Norway. It was addressed to a perfectly respectable firm of English timber merchants who have an office in the city. This was the original: `Fir planks too narrow by half.' Sounds harmless enough, doesn't it?"

"Absolutely. What's the hidden meaning?"

"There I am still at a loss," Julian confessed, "but treated with the cipher it comes out as `Thirty-eight steeple on barn.'"

Furley stared for a moment, then he lit his pipe.

"Well, of the two," he declared, "I should prefer the first rendering for intelligibility."

"So would most people," Julian assented, smiling, "yet I am sure there is something in it--some meaning, of course, that needs a context to grasp it."

"Have you interviewed the firm of timber merchants?"

"Not personally. That doesn't come into my department. The name of the man who manages the London office, though, is Fenn-- Nicholas Fenn."

Furley withdrew the pipe from his mouth. His eyebrows had come together in a slight frown.

"Nicholas Fenn, the Labour M.P.?"

"That's the fellow. You know him, of course?"

"Yes, I know him," Furley replied thoughtfully. "He is secretary of the Timber Trades Union and got in for one of the divisions of Hull last year."

"I understand that there is nothing whatever against him personally," Julian continued, "although as a politician he is of course beneath contempt. He started life as a village schoolmaster and has worked his way up most creditably. He professed to understand the cable as it appeared in its original form. All the same, it's very odd that, treated by a cipher which I got on the track of a few days previously, this same message should work out as I told you."

"Of course," Furley observed, "ciphers can lead you--"

He stopped short. Julian, who had been leaning over towards the cigarette bog, glanced around at his friend. There was a frown on Furley's forehead. He withdrew his pipe from between his teeth.

"What did you say you made of it?" he demanded.

"`Thirty-eight steeple on barn.'"

"Thirty-eight! That's queer!"

"Why is it queer?"

There was a moment's silence. Furley glanced at the little clock upon the mantelpiece. It was five and twenty minutes past nine.

"I don't know whether you have ever heard, Julian," he said, "that our enemies on the other side of the North Sea are supposed to have divided the whole of the eastern coast of Great Britain into small, rectangular districts, each about a couple of miles square. One of our secret service chaps got hold of a map some time ago."

"No, I never heard this," Julian acknowledged. "Well?"

"It's only a coincidence, of course," Furley went on, "but number thirty-eight happens to be the two-mile block of seacoast of which this cottage is just about the centre. It stretches to Cley on one side and Salthouse on the other, and inland as far as Dutchman's Common. I am not suggesting that there is any real connection between your cable and this fact, but that you should mention it at this particular moment--well, as I said, it's a coincidence."

"Why?"

Furley had risen to his feet. He threw open the door and listened for a moment in the passage. When he came back he was carrying some oilskins.

"Julian," he said, "I know you area bit of a cynic about espionage and that sort of thing. Of course, there has been a terrible lot of exaggeration, and heaps of fellows go gassing about secret service jobs, all the way up the coast from here to Scotland, who haven't the least idea what the thing means. But there is a little bit of it done, and in my humble way they find me an occasional job or two down here. I won't say that anything ever comes of our efforts--we're rather like the special constables of the secret service--but just occasionally we come across something suspicious."

"So that's why you're going out again to-night, is it?"

Furley nodded.

"This is my last night. I am off up to town on Monday and sha'n't be able to get down again this season."

"Had any adventures?"

"Not the ghost of one. I don't mind admitting that I've had a good many wettings and a few scares on that stretch of marshland, but I've never seen or heard anything yet to send in a report about. It just happens, though, that to-night there's a special vigilance whip out."

"What does that mean?" Julian enquired curiously.

"Something supposed to be up," was the dubious reply. "We've a very imaginative chief, I might tell you."

"But what sort of thing could happen?" Julian persisted. "What are you out to prevent, anyway?"

Furley relit his pipe, thrust a flask into his pocket, and picked up a thick stick from a corner of the room.

"Can't tell," he replied laconically. "There's an idea, of course, that communications are carried on with the enemy from somewhere down this coast. Sorry to leave you, old fellow," he added. "Don't sit up. I never fasten the door here. Remember to look after your fire upstairs, and the whisky is on the sideboard here."

"I shall be all right, thanks," Julian assured his host. "No use my offering to come with you, I suppose?"

"Not allowed," was the brief response.

"Thank heavens!" Julian exclaimed piously, as a storm of rain blew in through the half-open door. "Good night and good luck, old chap!"

Furley's reply was drowned in the roar of wind. Julian secured the door, underneath which a little stream of rain was creeping in. Then he returned to the sitting room, threw a log upon the fire, and drew one of the ancient easy-chairs close up to the blaze.


The Devil's Paw - 2/44

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