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"No!" he exclaimed. "It isn't what I expected. Guess-work will never help you in this solution. You might try for a hundred years to decipher it, but will fail, if you do not discover the key. Indeed, so much ingenuity is shown in it that a writer in the last century estimated that in such a pack of cards as this, with such a cipher upon them, there are at least fully fifty-two millions of possible arrangements."
"But how is the cipher written?" I inquired much interested, yet with heart-sinking at his inability to a.s.sist me.
"It is done in this way," he said. "The writer of the secret settles what he wishes to record and he then arranges the thirty-two cards in what order he wishes. He then writes the first thirty-two letters of his message record, or whatever it may be, on the face or on the back of the thirty-two cards, one letter upon each card consecutively, commencing with the first column, and going on with columns two and three, working down each column, until he has written the last letter of the cipher. In the writing, however, certain prearranged letters are used in place of s.p.a.ces, and sometimes the cipher is made still more difficult or a chance finder of the cards to decipher by the introduction of a specially arranged shuffle of the cards half way through the writing of the record."
"Very ingenious!" I remarked, utterly bewildered by the extraordinary complication of Burton Blair's secret. "And yet the letters are so plainly written!"
"That's just it," he laughed. "To the eye it is the plainest of all ciphers, and yet one that is utterly unintelligible unless the exact formula in its writing be known. When that is ascertained the solution becomes easy. The cards are rearranged in the order in which they were written upon, and the record or message spelt off, one letter on each card in succession, reading down one column after another and omitting the letter arranged as s.p.a.ces."
"Ah!" I exclaimed fervently. "How I wish I knew the key."
"Is this a very important secret, then?" asked Boyle.
"Very," I replied. "A confidential matter which has been placed in my hands, and one which I am bound to solve."
"I fear you will never do so unless the key is in existence," was his answer. "It is far too difficult for me to attempt. The complications which are so simply effected in the writing, shield it effectually from any chance solution. Therefore, all endeavours to decipher it without knowledge of the pre-arrangement of the pack must necessarily prove futile."
He replaced the cards in the envelope and handed them back to me, regretting that he could not render me a.s.sistance.
"You might try every day for years and years," he declared, "and you would be no nearer the truth. It is too well protected for chance discovery, and is, indeed, the safest and most ingenious cipher ever devised by man's ingenuity."
I remained and took a cup of tea with him, then at half-past four entered the express and returned to London, disappointed at my utterly fruitless errand. What he had explained to me rendered the secret more impenetrable and inscrutable than ever.
CERTAIN THINGS WE FOUND AT MAYVILL.
"Miss Blair, sir," announced Glave next day just before noon, while I was sitting alone in my room in Great Russell Street, smoking vigorously, and utterly bewildered over the problem of the dead man's pack of cards.
I sprang to my feet to welcome Mabel, who in her rich warm furs was looking very dainty and charming.
"I suppose if Mrs. Percival knew I had come here alone, she'd give me a sound lecture against visiting a man's rooms," she said, laughing after I had greeted her and closed the door.
"Well," I said, "it's scarcely the first time you've honoured me with a visit, is it? And surely you need not trouble very much about Mrs.
"Oh, she really grows more straight-backed every day," Mabel pouted. "I mustn't go here, and I mustn't go there, and she's afraid of me speaking with this man, and the other man is not to be known, and so on. I'm really growing rather sick of it, I can tell you," she declared, seating herself in the chair I had just vacated, unloosing her heavy sable cape, and stretching a neat ankle to the fire.
"But she's been an awfully good friend to you," I argued. "As far as I can see, she's been the most easy-going of chaperons."
"The perfect chaperon is the one who can utterly and effectually efface herself five minutes after entering the room," Mabel declared. "And I will give Mrs. Percival her due, she's never clung on to me at dances, and if she's found me sitting out in a dim corner she has always made it a point to have an urgent call in an opposite direction. Yes," she sighed, "I suppose I oughtn't to grumble when I recollect the snappy old tabbies in whose hands some girls are. There's Lady Anetta Gordon, for instance, and Vi Drummond, both pretty girls out last season, but whose lives are rendered perfect tortures by those two ugly old hags who cart them about. Why, they've both told me they dare not raise their eyes to a man without a snappy lecture next day on polite manners and maiden modesty."
"Well," I said frankly, standing on the hearthrug, and looking down at her handsome figure: "I really don't think you have had much to complain about up to the present. Your poor father was most indulgent, and I'm sure Mrs. Percival, although she may seem rather harsh at times, is only speaking for your own benefit."
"Oh, I know I'm a very wilful girl in your eyes," she exclaimed, with a smile. "You always used to say so when I was at school."
"Well, to tell the truth, you were," I answered quite openly.
"Of course. You men never make allowance for a girl. You a.s.sume your freedom with your first long trousers, while we unfortunate girls are not allowed a single moment alone, either inside the house or out of it.
No matter whether we be as ugly as Mother Shipton or as beautiful as Venus, we must all of us be tied up to some elder woman, who very often is just as fond of a mild flirtation as the simpering young miss in her charge. Forgive me for speaking so candidly, won't you, Mr. Greenwood, but my opinion is that the modern methods of society are all sham and humbug."
"You're not in a very polite mood to-day, it seems," I remarked, being unable to restrain a smile.
"No, I'm not," she admitted. "Mrs. Percival is so very aggravating. I want to go down to Mayvill this afternoon, and she won't let me go alone."
"Why do you so particularly wish to go there alone?"
She flushed slightly, and appeared for a moment to be confused.
"Oh, well, I don't want to go alone very particularly, you know," she tried to a.s.sure me. "It is the foolishness of not allowing me to travel down there like any other girl that I object to. If a maid can take a railway journey alone, why can't I?"
"Because you have the _convenances_ of society to respect--the domestic servant need not."
"Then I prefer the lot of the domestic," she declared in a manner which told me that something had annoyed her. For my own part I should have regretted very much if Mrs. Percival had consented to her going down to Herefordshire alone, while it also seemed apparent that she had some secret reason of her own for not taking her elder companion with her.
What, I wondered, could it be?
I inquired the reason why she wished to go to Mayvill without even a maid, but she made an excuse that she wanted to see the other four hunters were being properly treated by the studs-man, and also to make a search through her father's study to ascertain whether any important or confidential papers remained there. She had the keys, and intended to do this before that odious person, Dawson, a.s.sumed his office.
This suggestion, evidently made as an excuse, struck me as one that really should be acted upon without delay, yet it was so very plain that she desired to go alone that at first I hesitated to offer to accompany her. Our friendship was of such a close and intimate character that I could of course offer to do so without overstepping the bounds of propriety, nevertheless I resolved to first endeavour to learn the reason of her strong desire to travel alone.
She was a clever woman, however, and had no intention of telling me.
She had a strong and secret desire to go down alone to that fine old country house that was now her own, and did not desire that Mrs.
Percival should accompany her.
"If you are really going to search the library, Mabel, had I not better accompany and help you?" I suggested presently. "That is, of course, if you will permit me," I added apologetically.
For a moment she was silent, as though devising some means out of a dilemma, then she answered--
"If you'll come, I'll of course be only too delighted. Indeed, you really ought to a.s.sist me, for we might discover some key to the cipher on the cards. My father was down there for three days about a fortnight before his death."
"When shall we start?"
"At three-thirty from Paddington. Will that suit you? You shall come and be my guest." And she laughed mischievously at such utter break-up of the _convenances_ and the probable chagrin of the long-suffering Mrs.
"Very well," I agreed; and ten minutes later I went down with her and put her, smiling sweetly, into her smart victoria, the servants of which were now in mourning.
You perceive that I was playing a very dangerous game? And so I was; as you will afterwards see.
At the hour appointed I met her at Paddington, and putting aside her sad thoughtfulness at her bereavement we travelled together down to Dunmore Station, beyond Hereford. Here we entered the brougham awaiting us, and after a drive of nearly three miles, descended before the splendid old mansion which Burton Blair had bought two years before for the sake of the shooting and fishing surrounding it.
Standing in its fine park half-way between King's Pyon and Dilwyn, Mayvill Court was, and is still, one of the show places of the county.
It was an ideal ancestral hall. The grand old gabled house with its lofty square towers, its Jacobean entrance, gateway and dovecote, and the fantastically clipped box-trees and sun-dial of its quaint old-fashioned garden, possessed a delightful charm which few other ancient mansions could boast, and a still further interesting feature lay in its perfectly unaltered state throughout, even to the minutest detail. For close on three hundred years it had been held by its original owners, the Baddesleys, until Blair had purchased it-- furniture, pictures, armour, everything just as it stood.
It was nearly nine o'clock when Mrs. Gibbons, the elderly housekeeper, welcomed us, in tears at the death of her master, and we pa.s.sed into the great oak-panelled hall in which hung the sword and portrait of the gallant cavalier. Captain Harry Baddesley, of whom there still was told a romantic story. Narrowly escaping from the battle-field, the captain spurred homewards, with some of Cromwell's soldiers close at his heels; and his wife, a lady of great courage, had scarcely concealed him in the secret chamber when the enemy arrived to search the house. Little daunted, the lady a.s.sisted them and personally conducted them over the mansion. As in so many instances, the secret room was entered from the princ.i.p.al bedroom, and in inspecting the latter the Roundheads had their suspicions aroused. So they decided to stay the night.
The hunted man's wife sent them an ample supper and some wine which had been carefully drugged, with the result that the unwelcome visitors were very soon soundly asleep, and the gallant captain, before the effects of the wine had worn off, were far beyond their reach.