Till the Clock Stops

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TILL THE CLOCK STOPS

BY J. J. BELL
AUTHOR OF “WEE MACGREEGOR,” ETC.

1917

THE PROLOGUE

On a certain brilliant Spring morning in London’s City the seed of the
Story was lightly sown. Within the directors’ room of the Aasvogel
Syndicate, Manchester House, New Broad Street, was done and hidden away a
deed, simple and commonplace, which in due season was fated to yield a
weighty crop of consequences complex and extraordinary.

At the table, pen in hand, sat a young man, slight of build, but of fresh
complexion, and attractive, eager countenance, neither definitely fair
nor definitely dark. He was silently reading over a document engrossed on
bluish hand-made folio; not a lengthy document—nineteen lines, to be
precise. And he was reading very slowly and carefully, chiefly to oblige
the man standing behind his chair.

This man, whose age might have been anything between forty and fifty, and
whose colouring was dark and a trifle florid, would probably have evoked
the epithet of “handsome” on the operatic stage, and in any city but
London that of “distinguished.” In London, however, you could hardly fail
to find his like in one or other of the west-end restaurants about 8 p.m.

Francis Bullard, standing erect in the sunshine, a shade over-fed
looking, but perfectly groomed in his regulation city garb, an enigmatic
smile under his neat black moustache as he watched the reader, suggested
nothing ugly or mean, nothing worse, indeed, than worldly prosperity and
a frank enjoyment thereof. His well-kept fingers toyed with a little gold
nugget depending from his watch chain—his only ornament.

The third man was seated in a capacious leather-covered, easy chair by
the hearth. Leaning forward, he held his palms to the fire, though not
near enough for them to have derived much warmth. He was extremely tall
and thin. The head was long and rather narrow, the oval countenance had
singularly refined features. The hair, once reddish, now almost grey, was
parted in the middle and very smoothly brushed; the beard was clipped
close to the cheeks and trimmed to a point. Bluish-grey eyes, deepset,
gave an impression of weariness and sadness; indeed the whole face hinted
at melancholy. Its attractive kindliness was marred by a certain
furtiveness. He was as stylishly dressed as his co-director, Bullard, but
in light grey tweed; and he wore a pearl of price on his tie and a fine
diamond on his little finger. His name was Robert Lancaster, and no man
ever started life with loftier ideals and cleaner intentions.

At last the young man at the table, with a brisk motion, dipped his pen.

“One moment, Alan,” said Bullard, and touched a bell-button.

A couple of clerks entered.

“Rose and Ferguson, you will witness Mr. Alan Craig’s signature. All
right now, Alan!”

The young man dashed down his name and got up smiling.

Never was last will and testament more eagerly, more cheerfully signed.

The clerks performed their parts and retired.

Alan Craig seized Bullard’s hand. “I’m more than obliged to you,” he said
heartily, “and to you, too, Mr. Lancaster.” He darted over to the hearth.

The oldish man seemed to rouse himself for the handshake. “Of course,
it’s merely a matter of form, Alan,” he said, and cleared his throat;
“merely a matter of form. In ordinary times you would have been welcome
to the money without—a—anything of the sort, but at present it so
happens—”

“Alan quite understands,” Bullard interrupted genially, “that in present
circumstances it was not possible for us to advance even a trifle like
three thousand without something in the way of security—merely as a
matter of form, as you have put it. We might have asked him to sign a
bill or bond; but that method would have been repugnant to you,
Lancaster, as it was to me. As we have arranged it, Alan can start for
the Arctic without feeling a penny in debt—”

“Hardly that,” the young man quickly put in. “But I shall go without
feeling I must meet grasping creditors the moment I return. Upon my word,
you have treated me magnificently. When the chance came, so unexpectedly,
of taking over Garnet’s share and place in the expedition, and when my
Uncle Christopher flatly refused to advance the money, I felt hopelessly
knocked out, for such a trip had been the ambition of my life. Why, I had
studied for it, on the off-chance, for years! I didn’t go into a
geographical publisher’s business just to deal in maps, you know. And
then you both came to the rescue—why I can’t think, unless it was just
because you knew my poor father in South Africa. Well, I wish he and my
mother were alive to add their thanks—”

“Don’t say another word, old chap,” said Bullard.

“I will say just this much: if I don’t come back, I honestly hope that
will of mine may some day bring you the fortune I’ve been told I shall
inherit, though, candidly, I don’t believe in it.”

“But the will is only a matter of—” began Lancaster.

Bullard interposed. “You will repay us from the profits of the big book
you are going to write. I must say your publisher mentioned pretty decent
terms. However, let’s finish the business and go to lunch. Here you are,
Alan!—our cheques for £1500 each.”

Alan took the slips of tinted paper with a gesture in place of uttered
thanks. He was intensely grateful to these two men, who had made possible
the desire of years. The expedition was no great national affair; simply
the adventure of a few enthusiasts whose main object was to prove or
disprove the existence of land which a famous explorer had believed his
eyes had seen in the far distance. But the expedition would find much
that it did not seek for, and its success would mean reputation for its
members, and reputation would, sooner or later, mean money, which this
young man was by no means above desiring, especially as the money would
mean independence and—well, he was not yet absolutely sure of himself
with respect to matrimony.

He regretfully declined Bullard’s invitation to lunch. There were so many
things to be done, for the expedition was to start only eight days later,
and he had promised to take a bite with his friend Teddy France.

“Then you will dine with us to-night,” Lancaster said, rising. “You must
give us all the time you can possibly spare before you go. My wife and
Doris bade me say so.”

“I will come with pleasure,” he replied, flushing slightly. Of late he
had had passages bordering on the tender with Doris Lancaster, and but
for the sudden filling of his mind with thoughts of this great adventure
in the Arctic he might have slipped into the folly of a declaration.
Folly, indeed!—for well he was aware that he was outside any plans which
Mrs. Lancaster may have had for her charming and very loveable daughter.
And yet the mention of her name, the prospect of seeing her, stirred him
at the moment when the great adventure was looming its largest. Well, he
was only four-and-twenty, and who can follow to their origins the
tangling dreams of youth? One excitement begets another. Romance calls to
romance. He was going to the Arctic in spite of all sorts of
difficulties, therefore he would surely win through to other
desires—however remote, however guarded. As a matter of fact, he wanted
to be in love with Doris, if only to suffer all manner of pains for her
sake, and gain her in the end.

He shook hands again with his benefactors.

“You’ll be going to Scotland to see your uncle before you start, I
suppose?” said Lancaster.

“Yes; I’ll travel on Sunday night, and spend Monday at Grey House. You
must not think that he and I have quarrelled,” Alan said, with a smile.
“It takes two to make a quarrel, you know, and I owe him far too much to
be one of them. I’d have given in to his wishes had it been anything but
an Arctic Expedition. But we shall part good friends, you may be sure.”

“It’s understood,” Bullard remarked, “that he is not to be told of this

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