"Gone!" Lady Agatha, who had emerged from her stateroom, turned pale and caught at her heart.
They rushed on deck. The young Doctor was right; the box, which had stood on the larboard side of the cabin, had disappeared.
"It might have been blown into the canal during the storm," suggested the Rev. Mr. Calthrop. All of the crew of the Jasper B. knew Lady Agatha's story, and were aware of the importance of the box.
"It was on the lee side of the cabin," objected Dr. Farnsworth, "and while it might have been blown flat to the deck, in spite of its protected position, it would scarcely have been picked up by the wind again and wafted over the port bulwarks."
"If you was to ask me," said Cap'n Abernethy, who had joined in the discussion, "I'd give it as MY opinion it's a good riddance of bad rubbish."
"Rubbish?" said Miss Pringle. "Rubbish, indeed! I am confident that that box contained my plum preserves!"
"It has been stolen!" cried Cleggett, with conviction. "Fool that I was, not to have taken it into the cabin!"
"But, if you had, you know," said Lady Agatha, "one would scarcely have cared to stay in there with it."
"Loge has outgeneraled me," murmured Cleggett, well-nigh frantic with self-reproach. "While he made the attack in front, he sent some of his men to the rear of the vessel and it was quietly made off with while we were fighting." Had the disappearance of the box concerned himself alone Cleggett's sense of disaster might have been less poignant. But the thought that his own carelessness had enabled the enemy to get possession of a thing likely to involve Lady Agatha in further trouble was nearly insupportable. He gritted his teeth and clenched his hands in impotent rage.
"No doubt Loge caught sight of it during the early part of the skirmish, by a flash of lightning," said Dr. Farnsworth, "and acted as you suggest, Mr. Cleggett. But does he believe it to be the box which contains the evidence against him? Or can he, by any chance, be aware of its real contents?"
"No matter which," groaned Cleggett, "no matter which! For when he opens it, he will learn what is in it. Don't you see that he has us now? If he offers to trade it back to us for the other oblong box, how can I refuse? If we have his secret, Loge has ours!"
But Dr. Farnsworth was not listening. He had suddenly leaned over the port rail and was staring down the canal. The others followed his gaze.
The house boat Annabel Lee, they perceived, had got under weigh, and was slowly approaching the Jasper B. in the moonlight. They watched her gradual approach in silence. She stopped within a few yards of the Jasper B., and a voice which Cleggett recognized as that of Wilton Barnstable, the great detective, sang out:
"Jasper B., ahoy!"
"Aye, aye!" shouted Cleggett.
"Is Mr. Cleggett on board?"
"He is speaking."
"Mr. Cleggett, have you lost anything from your canal boat?"
Cleggett did not answer, and for a moment he did not move. Then, tightening his sword belt, and cocking his hat a trifle, he climbed over the starboard rail and walked along the bank of the canal a few yards until he was opposite the Annabel Lee. The great detective, on his part, also stepped ashore. They stood and faced each other in the moonlight, silently, and their followers, also in silence, gathered in the bows of the respective vessels and watched them.
Finally, Cleggett, with one hand on his hip, and standing with his feet wide apart, said very incisively:
"Sir, the Jasper B. is NOT a canal boat."
"Eh?" Wilton Barnstable started at the emphasis. "The Jasper B.," pursued Cleggett, staring steadily at Wilton Barnstable, "is a schooner."
"Ah!" said the other. "Indeed?"
"A schooner," repeated Cleggett, "indeed, sir! Indeed, sir, a schooner!"
There was another silence, in which neither man would look aside; they held each other with their eyes; the nervous strain communicated itself to the crews of the two vessels. At last, however, the detective, although he did not lower his gaze, and although he strove to give his new attitude an effect of ease and jauntiness by twisting the end of his mustache as he spoke, said to Cleggett:
"A schooner, then, Mr. Cleggett, a schooner! No offense, I hope?"
"None at all," said Cleggett, heartily enough, now that the point had been established. And the tension relaxed on both ships.
"You have lost an oblong box, Mr. Cleggett." The great detective affirmed it rather than interrogated.
"How did you know that?"
The other laughed. "We know a great many things--it is our business to know things," he said. Then he dropped his voice to a whisper, and said rapidly, "Mr. Cleggett, do you know who I am?" Before Cleggett could reply he continued, "Brace yourself--do not make an outcry when I tell you who I am. I am Wilton Barnstable."
"I knew you," said Cleggett. The other appeared disappointed for a moment. And then he inquired anxiously, "How did you know me?"
"Why, from your pictures in the magazines," said Cleggett.
The detective brightened perceptibly. "Ah, yes--the magazines! Yes, yes, indeed! publicity is unavoidable, unavoidable, Mr. Cleggett! But this box, now----"
The great detective interrupted himself to laugh again, a trifle complacently, Cleggett thought.
"I will not mystify you, Mr. Cleggett, about the box. Mystification is one of the tricks of the older schools of detection. I never practice it, Mr. Cleggett. With me, the detection of crime is a business--yes, a business. I will tell you presently how the box came into my possession."
"It IS in your possession?" Cleggett felt a dull pang of the heart. If the box of Reginal Maltravers were in the hands of Logan Black he could at least trade the other oblong box to Loge for it, and thus save Lady Agatha. But in the possession of Wilton Barnstable, the great detective----! Cleggett pulled himself together; he thought rapidly; he recognized that the situation called, above all things else, for diplomacy and adroitness. He went on, nonchalantly:
"I suppose you are aware of the contents of the box?"
The other laughed again as if Cleggett had made an excellent jest; there was something urbane and benign in his manner; it appeared as if he regarded the contents of the box of Reginald Maltravers as anything but serious; his tone puzzled Cleggett.
"Suppose I bring the box on board the Jasper B.," suggested the great detective. "It interests me, that box. I have no doubt it has its story. And perhaps, while you are telling me some things about it, I may be able to give you some information in turn."
There was no mistaking the fact that the man, whether genuinely friendly or no, wished to appear so.
"Have it brought into my cabin," said Cleggett, "and we will discuss it."
A few minutes later Wilton Barnstable, Cleggett, Lady Agatha, Miss Pringle, and two of Wilton Barnstable's men sat in the cabin of the Jasper B., with the two oblong boxes before them--the one which had contained Loge's incriminating diary, and the one which had caused Lady Agatha so much trouble.
In the light of the cabin the three detectives were revealed as startlingly alike. Barton Ward and Watson Bard, Barnstable's two assistants, might, indeed, almost have been taken for Barnstable himself, at a casual glance. In height, in bulk, in dress, in facial expression, they seemed Wilton Barnstable all over again. But, looking intently at the three men, Cleggett began to perceive a difference between the real Wilton Barnstable and his two counterfeits. It was the difference between the face which is informed of genius, and the countenance which is indicative of mere talent.
"Mr. Cleggett," began Wilton Barnstable, "as I said before, I will make no attempt to mystify you. I was a witness to the attack upon your vessel. Mr. Ward, Mr. Bard, and myself, in fact, had determined to assist you, had we seen that the combat was going against you. We lay, during the struggle, in the lee of your--your--er, schooner!--in the lee of your schooner, armed, and ready to bear a hand. We have our own little matter to settle with Logan Black. Why Logan Black should desire possession of this particular box, I am unable to state. Nevertheless, at the moment when he was leading his assault upon your starboard bow, two of his men, who had made a detour to the stern of your vessel, had clambered stealthily aboard, and were quietly pushing the box over the side into the canal. They let themselves down into the water, and swam towards the mouth of the canal, pushing it ahead of them. We followed in our rowboat, Mr. Ward, Mr. Bard, and myself, at a discreet distance. We let them push the box as far south as the Annabel Lee. And then----"
He paused a moment, and smiled reminiscently. Barton Ward and Watson Bard also smiled reminiscently, and the three detectives exchanged crafty glances.
"Then, to be brief, we took the box away from them. They were so ill-advised as to struggle. They are in irons, now, on board the Annabel Lee.
"But what I cannot understand, Mr. Cleggett, is why these men should risk so much to make off with an empty box."
"An empty box!" cried Cleggett.
"Empty!" echoed Lady Agatha and Miss Pringle, in concert.
The detective wrenched the cover from the box of Reginald Maltravers.
"Practically empty, at any rate," he said.
And, indeed, except for a few wads of wet excelsior, there was nothing in the box of Reginald Maltravers.
"Where, then," cried Lady Agatha, "is Reginald Maltravers?"
"Where, indeed," said Wilton Barnstable, "is Reginald Maltravers?"
"Where, then," cried Miss Pringle, "are my plum preserves?"
"Where, indeed?" repeated Wilton Barnstable. And Barton Ward and Watson Bard, although they did not speak aloud, stroked their mustaches and their lips formed the ejaculation, "Where, indeed?"
"We will tell you everything," said Cleggett. And beginning with his purchase of the Jasper B. he recounted rapidly, but with sufficient detail, all the facts with which the reader is already familiar, weaving into his story the tale of Lady Agatha and the adventures of Miss Pringle. Wilton Barnstable listened attentively. So did Barton Ward and Watson Bard. The benign smile which was so characteristic of Wilton Barnstable never left the three faces, but it was evident to Cleggett that these trained intelligences grasped and weighed and ticketed every detail.
While Cleggett narrates, and Wilton Barnstable and his men listen, a word to the reader concerning this great detective.