Roy Glashan's Library
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Hearst's Magazine published the first six stories in this series under the general title Algernon Knox, Accidental Detective in 1913, beginning in April and ending in September. The seventh and eighth stories in the series appeared in Nash's Magazine in April and August 1914. No record of magazine publication of the last four stories in the series could be found under the titles used in the collection published in book form by Hodder & Stoughton in 1920, raising the possibility that they were written especially for the book.
The electronic resources used to build the present edition of The Honourable Algernon Knox, Detective include digital images files of the print edition of the book and of the issues of Hearst's Magazine with the first six stories. Editorial blurbs and enhanced versions of the illustrations that accompanied the stories in Hearst's Magazine have been included.
Thanks and credit for making this work available for publication at RGL go to Gary Meller, Florida, who made and donated image files of his personal copy of the book. —RG, April 2016.
The Honourable Algernon Knox motored from Piccadilly right into a mystery. When he came to, he found himself in a room with Vera Custeneiff. danseuse, Russian spy perhaps, alluring even to brilliant men with secrets—like his uncle, cabinet minister. Later he had to play highway robber for his uncle's sake. Pretty good story, this—mystery-detective sort, the beginning of a new series by E. Phillips Oppenheim, that English author who sells more of his novels in this country than any other living Englishman
THE Honourable Algernon Knox strolled from his uncle's house in Grosvenor Square to Piccadilly, and entered his club in a very bad temper. He summoned one of his friends to join him at the small luncheon-table which he had selected, with a gesture which was almost peremptory.
"Hullo, Algy!" his friend remarked, as he seated himself. "What's wrong? I perceive a cloud upon your seraphic countenance."
The Honourable Algernon laid down the menu which he had been studying. "Everything is wrong," he declared firmly. "Look at me."
His friend obeyed him literally. An expression of gentle sympathy overspread his features. "I am doing it, old chap," he said. "Tell me when I can leave off. What is it you want to know?"
"Do I or do I not look like a fool?" the Honourable Algernon Knox demanded portentously.
His vis-à-vis sighed. "Without going so far as to make a definite statement, Algy," he said, "I would yet feel inclined to swear upon my oath—that you're not such a fool as you look."
Algernon Knox rose deliberately to his feet and walked to a mirror at the further end of the room, where he stood for a moment as though his object were to rearrange his tie. He was a young man of not uncommon type—tall, inclined to be pale, with rather large, blue eyes, a budding brown mustache, and a forehead which certainly did recede a little, an effect which was perhaps heightened by his carefully brushed-back hair. His features might have been called pleasant, but they might also have been called vapid. There was nothing about him which denoted intellectuality.
He returned to his seat.
"Sammy," he announced, "I am about sick of it!"
His friend, who was hungry and whose mouth was full, nodded sympathetically.
"We all feel like that sometimes," he remarked, as soon as circumstances permitted him.
"Every one of my asinine relatives," Algernon Knox continued, "seems to have his knife into me. I begin to think that it must be my unfortunate appearance. I have been down, as you know, into Staffordshire. Tried to get into Parliament. Not an earthly chance! Got the knock from the first start."
"Had to read a newspaper one day in the train," Sammy Forde confessed. "I read you weren't exactly a hit there."
"Nature," Algernon Knox insisted firmly, "never meant me to stand up and address a lot of yokels and tradespeople. It never gave me the knack of explaining to them things I don't understand myself, nor any other fellow. I suppose I made a mull of it. But what knocked me was that the newspapers on the other side, instead of attacking my politics, all the time made fun of me. They ridiculed my clothes, although I tried them in everything except my pyjamas and evening kit. They ridiculed my speeches, although I never said a word that the agent hadn't written out for me. Then when I came back, my venerated uncle goes for me. I've just had it out with him. 'In our younger days,' he said pompously, 'the fool of the family entered the Church. Nowadays, we can't even get him into Parliament!'"
"Oh, that was nasty!" his friend admitted, shaking his head. "Cheerful old bluffer, your uncle."
"I have made up my mind," Algernon Knox declared firmly, "to treat my family—for the present, at any rate—coolly. I will take no more advice from any of them. I will not enter Parliament; I shall think no more of the diplomatic service, and if I am a fool, I am not bally fool enough to go among the sharks on the stock exchange. I will not sell wine or cigarettes, nor will I engage myself out as a gentleman chauffeur."
Sammy Forde nodded sympathetically.
"Quite right to take a firm stand, Algy," he agreed, "but what about your allowance? Isn't that in your uncle's hands until you are twenty-five?"
"It is," Algernon Knox assented. "Furthermore, the silly old ass declared his intention this morning of reducing it by half."
"Then what will you do?" Sammy Forde asked.
"If we should happen to meet this evening," Algernon Knox replied, "I may tell you. I am going a little way into the country, and I am going to think."
Samuel Forde whistled softly.
"Milan Grill-Room for supper, I suppose?"
"I am not sure," Algernon Knox answered. "Some of these habits of ours become almost a tyranny. I may go to Imano's."
His friend stared at him blankly. "By Jove, Algy," he remarked, "you are in earnest! New leaf altogether, eh?"
"You wait!" was the significant reply. . . .
"HALF an hour later, in his small one-seated motor-car, shaped like a torpedo, grey, and close-hung to the ground, Algernon Knox sped off into the country. Mile after mile the machine seemed to eat up, and all the time he sat with the steering-wheel in his hand, thinking.
"Damned hard luck on anyone," he muttered more than once, "to have all these silly professions shoved down one's throat because one happens to have an uncle who's an earl and a cabinet minister, and a father who led the House of Lords! I hate politics, anyway."
The remainder of his reflections were obscured by an incident for which he was scarcely to blame. It was on his homeward way, when he was still about thirty-five miles from London and the light was beginning to fail, that he crashed into a motor-car emerging from an avenue on the wrong side of the road. His next recollection was of coming to himself in a most charmingly furnished sitting-room, with the strangest-looking woman he had ever seen in his life bending over the easy-chair in which he was reclining.
"You are better?" she asked anxiously, speaking very slowly and with a distinctly foreign accent.
He sat up and looked around him in dazed fashion.
"You ran into my motor-car," she explained. "My man admits that he was on the wrong side. Please do not worry. Sit here quietly for a little time. If you would like to let your friends know, there is the telephone."
"Awfully good of you," he said. "I don't think I'm hurt at all."
"I do not think that you are," she agreed. "Perhaps—do you think that in half an hour you would be well enough to go? Your car is uninjured."
It was not only her words but a strange sort of anxiety, traces of which he seemed to see in her face, which puzzled him. He looked at her more closely. She was intensely pale, with eyes which at first had seemed black, but which now he saw to be blue. Her eyelashes were very long, her eyebrows black and silky. Her hair was arranged in an unusual manner. At first he had thought her too thin. Now, as she bent over the easy-chair a little, he found her figure perfection. But her face puzzled him. It was like a painting he had seen somewhere.
"I'm awfully sorry if I'm in the way at all," he faltered. "I am quite sure I'll be able to leave in half an hour."
She seemed a little troubled.
"It isn't that I don't want you to stop," she murmured softly. "It's really only for your own sake. I have some people coming down shortly. The house will be full—they might make a noise. You ought to be quiet."
"Say the word," he begged, "and I'll go. Queer thing how my head buzzes. Could I have a brandy and soda, do you think?"
She pointed to a table. "You see, I had heaps of things brought in. I will mix one for you."
He watched her at her task. Her fingers were slim and white, but, to his mind, overmanicured and overloaded with rings. As she handed him the tumbler, he suddenly changed his mind about her, as many others in the world had done before him. She was beautiful. Her lips, even if they were thin, were scarlet and shapely. Yet he knew that she was no ordinary woman. She was either very cruel or—she caught him looking at her and smiled. He decided that she was not cruel at all, and rose to his feet.
"You would like to telephone?" she asked, pointing to the instrument.
He shook his head. "May I ask your name?" he suggested.
She hesitated. "Tell me yours first?" she suggested.
"Knox—Algernon Knox. By the bye," he added suddenly, "do you think that I look like a fool?"
She was a little startled. Then she laughed at him. When she laughed, she was charming. "Why do you ask me so foolish a question?"
"It's like this," he explained, sitting up. "My uncle's got some clever sons and he's awfully proud of them—bar, army, and Parliament, you know—all doing well. I've just tried to get into Parliament, and failed. They said I couldn't speak and that I lacked intelligence. When I tried for the diplomatic service, it was about the same. They told me my appearance was against me. Seems to me there's nothing you can do in this world unless you've got what they call a thoughtful face and piercing eyes."
She laughed heartily.
"If only you had brains," she remarked, "you could certainly make your fortune as a diplomatist. Those beautiful eyes of yours, and that gently inquiring expression...."
"Then you do think I look a fool?" he interrupted.
"To be candid," she declared, "you do not look as though you were over-burdened with brains. You look as though you could ride and shoot, and make love to theatrical young ladies like a great many other young English gentlemen. But—"
"You needn't go on," he interrupted again, this time a little huffily. "By the bye, I've told you my name. What about yours?"
She had drawn a little back. She raised her hands suddenly above her head, her lips parted. Her poise seemed suddenly familiar. She glanced at him expectantly.
"Vera Custeneiff!" he exclaimed.
"The Princess Vera Custeneiff," she corrected.
He made her a little bow. "Madame," he said, "I have worshiped from a distance for a long time. I offer you my homage. Every opera-goer in London is your slave."
She smiled. "For a foolish young man," she murmured, "you express yourself rather well. Hush!"
Her fingers had suddenly gripped his arm. There was the sound of a motor-horn in the avenue. Something very much like fear blanched her face.
"It is my uncle, Baron Ernstoff!" she exclaimed. "He is bringing a friend down with him."
"You wish me to go?" he suggested.
"Do you mind?" she begged. "My uncle is very sensitive about my being on the stage. He visits here only occasionally. He would dislike very much to be seen here."
"Tell me exactly what you would like me to do and I will do it," he promised.
There was a loud ringing at the front-door bell. Her fingers tightened upon his arm. Her agitation was unmistakable.
"Wait here, please," she begged. "Wait here until you hear us all in the next room. Then leave the house by the front door. You will find your car in the stable-yard. And farewell!"
"It is permitted, then, never to return?" he asked, a little ruefully.
She shook her head. "I do not receive visitors, sir!"
She flashed a farewell glance at him from the door. Then she passed out into the hall. The young man steadied himself for a moment against a piece of furniture. He was still feeling a little shaken and giddy. He heard a deep voice welcoming Vera Custeneiff, a few words in a language which was strange to him, and then some reference, apparently, to a Mr. Smith, who seemed also to be present. Knox was scarcely conscious of listening. It was simply that standing there, waiting for his opportunity to depart, it was almost impossible to avoid having his attention attracted by the voices in the hall. Then suddenly he received what was certainly one of the greatest surprises he had ever had in his life. Mr. Smith spoke, and his voice was the voice of the Earl of Tamworth, cabinet minister, who, among many other social and religious distinctions, enjoyed also the privilege of being the uncle and guardian of the Honourable Algernon Knox! He was for a moment stupefied. The sense of the words he heard failed to reach him. And then, only a few feet away, the telephone bell began to ring. Almost unconsciously he took off the receiver. He had scarcely raised it to his ear, however, before the door was hastily pushed open and Vera Custeneiff entered. She reached his side with what seemed to be a single movement. She snatched the receiver from his hand.
"What do you mean?" she demanded, her eyes flashing. "How dare you!"
Knox felt the back of his head. He was still a little dizzy.
"I'm awfully sorry," he said, "if I've done wrong. The beastly thing was ringing, and I was just going to answer it as though I were a servant—say I'd fetch you and that sort of thing."
She looked at him fixedly, and her face relaxed. She smiled—he seemed so like a frightened boy.
"Close the door," she directed. "I was an idiot."
He obeyed promptly. It was quite impossible to avoid overhearing her conversation. After the first sentence she spoke in French, but although his accomplishments were few indeed. French had always been one of the necessities of his existence.
"Ah, yes!... At Dover, then.... Yes, I understand. You are at Dover.... No, you must not come! It is impossible.... To-night? Dear friend, how could I?"
She was silent for a moment.
"But, dear," she said, "this is not Paris. Whom could I ask? Whom, indeed, could I trust to perform such a service? There is no one—"
She broke off in the middle of her sentence. Her eyes were fixed upon the young man, who was vainly endeavouring to appear unconscious. She looked at him fixedly, her lips parted, her eyes bright. Compared with the men whom she had in her mind, he represented the typical nincompoop. Perhaps, after all, heaven had been kind to her!
"Supposing I can," she went on, "supposing it were possible—how could you reach Paris?... Yes?... Ah!"
She nodded several times. Once more she looked at Knox as though fascinated by something in his expression.
"Very well," she said at last, "I will do my best.... Yes, I understand. Not the Lord Warden; the George the Third, High Street.... Very well. If it can be done, it shall be."
She replaced the receiver. Then she turned to Knox. "Do you understand French?" she asked.
He sighed. "Jolly little," he replied. "Queer thing, I never seemed to be any good at languages at school, and they're no use afterwards, nowadays. One never speaks anything but English abroad."
She laughed softly. Then she stood, for a moment, listening. She moved across the room and held open the door. From the other side of the hall came the sound of a piano.
"I have sent them into the music-room," she whispered. "Mr. Knox, I am going to ask you a great thing. Dare I, I wonder? She looked at him strangely. Knox was conscious that her demeanor toward him had changed. She was leaning a little forward. It was the alluring Vera Custeneiff, première danseuse in the great ballet, who smiled upon him. He played swiftly up to her altered attitude.
"Dear lady," he declared, "there isn't anything—upon my word, there isn't anything in the world I wouldn't do for you. I have admired you since the first moment—"
"Yes, yes!" she interrupted. "But listen. Are you just one of these empty-headed young men who admire a woman because she has gifts; because, perhaps, she is beautiful; because she is, in her way, a personage? Or have you more character? Would you do something? Would you really do something—not easy, not pleasant—for my sake?"
"Try me," he begged.
Once more she held open the door, for a moment, and listened. The music was still audible. "I have a friend at Dover," she continued quickly, "a friend who, not for criminal but for political reasons, is in hiding. There is a package I want to send to him. I want him to get it to-night—or rather during the night—before morning. I want a messenger."
"I'm your man," he declared.
"But are you strong enough? I want some one to go quite independently, some one to go alone."
"If my car's all right," he assured her, "I'll do it."
She held out her hands. "You mean it?"
"Upon my honour," he promised. "When shall I start?"
"Not yet," she whispered. "It isn't ready yet. You must stay here and rest—not in this room. Hush!"
Once more she held open the door. The piano was silent. They could hear distinctly the voices of two men talking.
"Perhaps you had better stay here," she decided, a little reluctantly. "There are all sorts of things to drink on the table, and cigarettes. Before you start, I will give you some dinner."
"Couldn't be getting along now, could I?" he suggested.
"Impossible!" she declared. "The packet isn't ready. I want you to stay here. If you don't mind, I want to lock the door."
"The deuce!" he exclaimed uneasily.
"Simply that I don't want either of my visitors to discover you unexpectedly," she explained. "My uncle is very suspicious, and the friend he has brought with him pays me many attentions. He does me the honour to be jealous! If either of them found you here, they would think—they would think—"
Once more she was Vera Custeneiff, the great actress. Her eyes laughed understandingly into his.
She passed out, and he heard the key turn on the outside of the lock. Her last look was not for him. It was directed toward a little curtained alcove at the corner of the room. Knox stretched himself out. He was feeling a little dazed.
"Seems to me," he murmured, "I'm in for a bit of an adventure. I wonder!"
He walked round the room—a very pleasant morning-room, with water-colours on the wall, a cottage piano in the corner, many easy-chairs, photographs of very distinguished people, quaint knick-knacks and ornaments, great bowls of flowers. The little recess in the corner he left till the last. He listened at the door—there was no one crossing the hall. Then he hesitated.
"I think," he said to himself, "that in a house where my uncle poses as Mr. Smith, a little latitude is allowable."
He pushed the screen of the recess to one side. A little mahogany instrument, with a mouthpiece which seemed to disappear through the wall into the next room stood there. He looked at it, for a moment, puzzled. Then he replaced the screen.
"Queer place, this," he sighed, mixing a mild brandy and soda. "My head's still buzzy. I'll sit down for a bit."
He threw himself into an easy-chair. Soon he heard the sound of footsteps crossing the hall. The door of the adjoining room was opened. A slight grin came into his face as he recognized Mr. Smith's impressive voice. The words themselves were inaudible, but the tone and pitch were everything.
"Old Nunky's going it strong!" he muttered to himself.
The voices died away and then became more distinct. Vera Custeneiff's uncle was taking his departure. Knox heard some brief farewells. Then the great danseuse and his uncle entered the room on the other side of the folding doors. They seemed to have seated themselves close to the screened recess. Presently Knox started. A queer little purring noise, just faintly audible, reached him from behind the screen. He whistled softly. Half an hour passed, most of which time Knox spent studying the illustrated papers which he found on the table. Then he heard the opening of the door in the next room, footsteps in the hall. Almost immediately afterward, the key was turned in the door of his room. Vera Custeneiff entered quickly.
"It has seemed a long time?" she asked, with a glance toward the screen.
"Naturally," he replied. "Do you know, I am dying of curiosity."
"Queer sort of noise now and then from behind that screen," he remarked—"sort of little purr. I couldn't make out what it was."
She laughed. "It's a little electric massage affair," she explained carelessly. "It's connected with the electric wires, and very often when the lights are lit in the next room, it starts. Do you mean to tell me," she added, "that you really were not sufficiently curious to look behind and discover for yourself what it was?"
"So jolly comfortable here," he told her. "I was feeling a bit chippy, and with a brandy and soda and a cigarette and a paper—well, I thought I'd wait till you came."
She smiled. "I don't believe you're a bit enterprising," she declared. "You are the most typical young Englishman I ever knew."
"Suppose we are slow starters," he confessed, sighing.
She came over to his side. "I am not going to admit anything that isn't nice about you," she asserted. "As a matter of fact, I am really a little sick of clever men. Now I want you to come with me I am going to give you some dinner. Afterwards, I must start for London, and you, if you really mean it—"
"I for Dover," he interrupted cheerfully. She led him across the hall into a small room on the other side, where a dinner-table was laid for one. A dark-faced man-servant was standing by the sideboard.
"You do not dine yourself?" Knox asked.
She shook her head. "How can one? I never eat for five hours before I dance. I have supper served in my room before I come down here. While you have your dinner, I am going to prepare the packet and change myself for town. Au revoir!"
She glided away. Knox was served with a very excellent dinner and some very wonderful wine. He was just sipping his coffee when his hostess reappeared. She was dressed from head to foot now in sables. She carried in her hand a small brown paper parcel about a foot long, tied up with string and sealed. She had become paler again. The servant, at a sign from her, disappeared.
"Mr. Knox," she said, "I have been so uneasy. I do not know why I trust you with this."
He looked at the parcel. "Of course," he began, "if it's anything frightfully valuable, or anything that goes off—"
She shook her head impatiently. "No, it isn't that!" she interrupted. "Only, so much depends upon whether it reaches the hands of the person for whom it is intended, safely."
"Oh, he'll get it all right," Knox declared cheerfully. "Don't you be nervous about that."
Again she looked at him, and as she looked she seemed to be reassured. "Believe me," she said, "it is nothing which will get you into trouble, nothing in any way compromising. I shall trust you. Now I leave. You will follow me?"
He rose to his feet. "Had the dinner of my life," he assured her. "I am feeling fit for a hundred-mile ride, if necessary."
She held out her hands. Suddenly she paused to listen. The front-door bell was ringing. She held up her finger. They heard the butler's leisurely footsteps across the hall, heard the door open and the sound of voices. She gave a little exclamation.
"Wait!" she cried. She hurried out, leaving the door open. Knox remained with the brown paper parcel a few feet away from him. In the hall he could hear the voices of the newcomers—there seemed to be two of them—excited, explanatory, amicable. All three were talking together in French. Presently Vera Custeneiff swept into the room. Her eyes were sparkling.
"Ah!" she exclaimed. "Dear friend, I shall no longer require from you that service. Two of my trusted friends are here. They feared that it might embarrass me to send the packet. They will see to it. It is finished."
She picked up the brown paper parcel from the table before him. Knox's face was expressionless. His eyes, however, followed it, rested upon it still as she stood there with it under her arm.
"They came down in a taxicab from town," she explained. "My dear friend, you must come and see me at the theater some day. I will write to you. And now, good-by! Your car is at the door. I am so thankful that your accident was not more serious."
Knox was helped into his coat by the butler. His small torpedo-shaped car was waiting outside. In front of it was Vera Custeneiff's huge limousine, the electric lights lit inside and out, piled with white cushions, a bowl of flowers upon the table, a little temple of luxury. A few yards away was a taxicab. Vera Custeneiff had paused to speak to her two visitors.
"It is best," Knox heard her say, "that you do not come with me. Mr. Smith is not in the least suspicious, but one never knows. One need chance nothing."
"Best, without a doubt, dear Vera," one of the two men replied. "You are sure—you are quite sure that there is no mistake this time about our little enterprise?"
Her reply was in a distinctly lower tone. Knox could only just catch the words. "He was absolutely unsuspicious," she assured them. "I have always professed to take no interest at all in these matters. It was he himself who provided the opening. He believes, even now, that I am taking an interest in the situation chiefly because I read his speeches and follow his policy."
One of the men laughed softly. "You women," he exclaimed; "you find your way through the chinks somehow! In Paris and St. Petersburg they believe in the man—an astute and great diplomatist!"
"Hush!" she whispered. "I must go back to him now. He is impatient to start."
Knox took his place in his car and drove very slowly down the avenue. A moment or two later, Vera Custeneiff, with his uncle by her side, shot past him and turned into the London Road, traveling at a great speed. Knox followed in her wake for a little over a mile. Then he slowed down and finally came to a standstill at the cross-roads. Straight on was the main road to London; on the left, the Canterbury and Dover Road. He carefully extinguished all his lights, and leaving his car, with the engine still going, on the extreme left-hand side of the road, stood for a moment and listened. There was no sound of any approaching vehicle. It seemed curious to him afterwards that without any conscious making up his mind, without any definite idea, even, as to his ultimate object, he was completely obsessed with one idea—the brown paper packet was to be obtained at all costs. There seemed to be no room in his mind for any other thought. The fact that he was about to commit a highway robbery never occurred to him. He walked slowly a few yards down the Dover Road and deliberately turned his short fur coat inside out. With an electric torch in his hand, which he carried always in the tool-box of his car, he stood waiting. Even in those few moments when he had nothing to do but think; it never occurred to him that his action was in any way preposterous.
The sound of the approaching taxicab became audible at last. The driver blew his horn as he reached the cross-roads. Knox stood in the middle of the road, about twenty paces down, his electric torch blazing.
"Hi!" he shouted. "Stop!"
With an exclamation from the driver and a grinding of the brakes, the taxicab came to a standstill. Knox sprang lightly to the side of the vehicle. The window was hastily pulled down. One of the two men leaned out.
"What is the matter?" he asked sharply. "What has happened? Why do you stop us like this?"
"My car's broken down," Knox replied. "Sorry, but I want some help."
The man who had spoken stepped at once out on to the road. His manner was courteous but peremptory. "We are sorry," he declared, "but it is quite impossible for us to offer you any assistance. Get on at once, driver. We will take you to Canterbury or anywhere upon the Dover Road, if you like to sit outside with the driver, but we are in a hurry."
"So am I," Knox replied, "so here goes!"
He tripped the man up, who had been on the point of re-entering the taxicab, and threw him rather heavily. Then, as he thrust his head and shoulders into the cab, he felt his cheek suddenly scorched and his eardrum almost broken as the fire from a pistol flashed past him. His right hand reached the throat of his assailant, however, while with his left he knocked the pistol up. In that moment of absolute confusion, he saw the brown paper packet upon the vacant seat. With a sudden movement he seized it and sprang back, just as the chauffeur, who had tumbled down from his box, intervened.
"Don't let him get away with that!" the man called from the road, as he staggered up. "Do you hear?"
The chauffeur did his best, but he was heavy on his feet, and Knox, who had been considered a dodgy forward in his not too far distant football days, shot past him and leaped into his car. All three men were now in pursuit of him. He slipped in his second speed, and his car glided off down the hill. His pursuers gained at first. The taller man was almost within reach. He seized the back of the car. Knox, turning around, dealt his fingers a tremendous blow with the electric torch. A bullet whistled past him in the darkness, and he was more than ever thankful that he was running without lights. Another struck the back of the car, which by this time was gathering speed, and a moment later a perfect volley whizzed past him. Then, apparently, they abandoned the pursuit and returned to the taxicab. He heard the shout of one of the men.
"Fifty pounds, driver, if you catch that car!"
Knox smiled as he slipped in his fourth speed. The idea of catching him was absurd. His only trouble was that before very long he absolutely must stop to light his lamps. He slipped through the first village, which was fairly empty, surprising only one or two wayfarers by his noiseless approach. At the top of the hill on the other side he paused and sprang out. He lit his lamps with trembling fingers. In the distance he could hear the beating of the engine from the taxicab, and behind he could see it coming down the hill, the twin lights swaying from side to side of the road in dangerous fashion. He breathed a satisfied smile as he climbed once more into the driving seat. His flaring headlights showed him the road clean and bright before him. He glided smoothly off, and slackened speed only when he reached the suburbs of London.
He drove straight to the lordly mansion of his uncle, the Earl of Tamworth.
"His lordship is not in at present," the butler told him.
Knox nodded. "I'll wait," he said. Knox was ushered into the library and, drawing an easy-chair up to the fire, opened the evening paper. As soon as the man had departed, however, he threw it down and undid the parcel. Its contents were soon disclosed—a brown tube of some hard, waxen material. Knox held it in his hands for a moment, a very slight smile upon his lips. Then he made his way to a corner of the study, where stood his uncle's latest toy, a phonograph. After some time he succeeded in starting the instrument. He slipped on the cylinder he had brought, adjusted the reproducer, and waited. At first there was only a slight buzzing. Then he gave a little start. The conversation which began to unfold itself was almost uncanny in its distinctness. His uncle's voice was quite unmistakable.
"My dear young lady—my dear Vera, since you permit it—I am glad, believe me I am glad to find that you are beginning to take some interest in my work and the problems with which we are associated day by day. In a general way, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to discuss these with you, but there are things which in my official position it is better for me to discuss with no one."
Her little laugh was amazingly natural.
"You are so wise, so cautious. All great statesmen are like that, I know. Yet with me, how different it is. It is so little I ask. It is you who have made me curious."
There was an inaudible sentence, and her soft laugh, then Lord Tamworth's voice again, a trifle reluctant.
"It is true, my dear child, as you say, that we are alone, and that within a week the whole world will know the policy upon which we decided last night. Very well, I will give you its outline. Then you can follow everything which happens. You will understand my speech to-morrow night. The policy of the cabinet is to prevent France, at all costs, from joining with Russia if the latter should move against Austria. France is bound to her ally, but she is also, in a sense, dependent upon England. Our understanding with Russia is apparently a cordial one, but it is not the policy of the government to allow France to be drawn into this war, or to be drawn in herself. The reply to be given to the French ambassador on Thursday—"
Knox stopped the machine and leaned back in his chair. He heard his uncle's ponderous footsteps outside. A moment or two later, Lord Tamworth came in, frowning slightly.
"What, here again, Algernon?" he exclaimed. "May I ask what business you can have of sufficient importance to keep you waiting around here for me? I am due at Westminster almost at once."
Algernon Knox surveyed his uncle through his eyeglass with mild intentness. Without doubt, Lord Tamworth was a very intelligent-looking man. His nephew sighed.
"My dear uncle," he said, "I have called round to know if you will be good enough to give me a brief exposition of our political attitude toward Russia, apropos of the threatened war between Austria and Russia?"
Lord Tamworth was for a moment dumbfounded. "Have you lost your senses?" he demanded roughly.
Knox shook his head. "Not entirely. Just listen to this. I was amusing myself with it when you came in."
"What the dickens are you doing with my phonograph?" Lord Tamworth exclaimed.
Knox calmly started the instrument. He held up his finger. "Just listen," he begged, soothingly. "I never before appreciated how delightfully supplicating a woman's voice could be. Listen."
There was a little pause, a click, and once more the conversation commenced. At the end of the first sentence, Lord Tamworth's face was a most amazing study.
"What the—" he began frantically.
"Hush!" Knox interrupted. "Better hear it all."
The conversation unfolded itself. With every word Lord Tamworth's condition seemed to approach a little nearer to imbecility. Incredulity, anger, and terror in turn distorted his features. When at last Knox, with, a little cough, stopped the instrument abruptly, his uncle was incoherent.
"Now if you will just compose yourself," the former said calmly, leaning back in the easy-chair and tapping a cigarette upon the case from which he had just withdrawn it, "I will explain. I was in the back room at Vera Custeneiff's this afternoon. I was there entirely by accident—I've never seen her in my life off the stage. Got pitched out of my car at the bottom of her drive. She was very decent, but I could see that she was worrying all the time to get me out of the way. While I was there, some one rang her up on the telephone about something she was to send to Dover. A special messenger was wanted to motor down there. Well, to cut a long story short, she made up her mind that I should take on the job. Just as she was explaining it, all very mysterious and terrifically important and all that sort of thing, she was called away. I heard her talking in the next room, and I heard you both come and sit down in the corner. There was a little curtained recess, and the moment you began to talk I heard a slight buzzing. I knew the sound at once—a phonograph. Seemed queer, didn't it?"
Lord Tamworth wiped the perspiration from his forehead. "My God!" he exclaimed. "That woman—what a fiend! She has always pretended that she hated politics—wouldn't even discuss them at all. Yes, she would have me sit in that particular corner. There was a blue curtain with large black dots. One of them might easily have been the mouth of the phonograph. She wouldn't let me wear my glasses. Go on—go on, Algernon."
"Presently," Knox continued, "I was given the chuck. Two other chaps turned up to fetch that precious parcel. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. but I had an idea. That phonograph wasn't ticking there for nothing, and I felt pretty certain you'd been giving yourself away. Anyway, I played the stand-and-deliver game, sneaked the cylinder from the two men who were taking it down to Dover, and pretty nearly got a bullet through my head for my pains. Now let's hear the end, shall we?" he added, turning toward the instrument. "There was something about a little sup-"
Lord Tamworth's fist struck the table.
"Hush!" he cried out hoarsely. "Your aunt is in the next room! Give me the cylinder, Algernon. Give it me at once."
Knox shook his head. He laid his hand upon the instrument. "I'll spare your blushes, uncle," he said, "but you know I am, as you admitted this afternoon, too big a fool to earn my own living. You docked my allowance to-day to five hundred a year until I come in for my own tin in four years' time. Sit down, please, and write me a note. Say you've reconsidered the matter and that I am to have a thousand until my twenty-sixth birthday."
"You are bribing me!" Lord Tamworth spluttered. "It is an imposition!"
"Dash it all," Knox sighed, "it's the cheapest get-out you ever had in your life!"
Lord Tamworth sat down and wrote the letter. His nephew glanced it through and thrust it into his waistcoat pocket.
"I'll leave you the cylinder, uncle," he remarked, stepping on one side.
Lord Tamworth was already busy at the machine. Wrenching the cylinder from the bar, he held it high over his head and dashed it on to the hearthstone. Not till he saw it there in a thousand pieces did his face lose that expression of tense anxiety. Then he turned once more to his nephew.
"So long as I've got to give you the thousand a year, Algernon," he said resignedly, "for heaven's sake find something to do with yourself!"
The young man nodded. "I have discovered," he announced, "the one profession in which I feel sure that I shall shine. I am such a fool myself that I am going to devote my days to helping people who are bigger fools—people who get into trouble with blackmailers, dancing ladies, and other dangerous persons."
Algernon took up his hat.
"I mean it, uncle," he continued pleasantly. "I sha'n't put a brass plate up, but there are always ways of butting in. It takes a fool to help a fool, you know. Which reminds me—I think that little supper party—"
Lord Tamworth rang the bell. "If at any time I discover that I have been mistaken in you, Algernon," he said stiffly, "I shall admit it. For the present—" He nodded meaningly toward the door.
The young man smiled. "By all means," he said. "My love to aunt."
Editor's Note.—Should a man—above all, should a priest—break a law for the sake of a woman, though she be lovely and in distress? This man thought so, and mystified and startled all London. Algernon Knox wagered he would find the murderer, and he did—but nevertheless he paid the bet. That's a way E. Phillips Oppenheim has—he writes the unexpected story always—and has more American readers than any other British author.
FROM the easy life of a young man about town the Honourable Algernon Knox, who had just left a remarkably cheerful dinner party, found himself, in the matter of a few seconds, confronted by one of the grimmest tragedies of existence. Before him on the wet pavement was stretched the figure of a man, writhing in pain, sobbing and moaning, clutching at the air with empty hands. Barely twenty paces away, another man, who had been hurrying off, disturbed by the sound of Knox's approaching footsteps, had turned deliberately around and, reckless of the adjacent gas-lamp, stood with a still smoking revolver extended toward the newcomer. On the other side of the way Knox was dimly conscious of a third disappearing figure vanishing like a shadow amidst the dark spaces.
Knox, for those first few seconds, was too amazed to speak or move. Only a dozen yards or so around the corner was the house at which he had been dining. The drizzling rain and a scarcity of taxicabs had sent him out under the shelter of a friendly umbrella to find a vehicle of some sort in one of the more crowded thoroughfares. The faint report which he had heard had scarcely even disturbed his meditations. He had come so suddenly upon this strange little tableau that for the moment his brain refused to work. It was really only a matter of seconds, but it seemed to him afterwards, when he thought of it, an incalculably longer measure of time during which he stood there, the cigarette still burning between his lips, the umbrella still held over his head, gazing from the twitching figure at his feet to the threatening vision which confronted him a few yards away. Even his impulses, when they came, were mixed. He hesitated whether to bend over the suffering victim or to spring forward in pursuit of the presupposed assassin. It was the latter who by speech changed the tableau into a living drama.
"Stay where you are, sir," he ordered sternly. "This affair concerns no one save those who have taken part in it. If you attempt to follow me, you do so at your own peril."
The voice was calm and well-bred; the face of the man was pale, clean-shaven, resolute; the hand which held that small revolver was like a line of steel. Nevertheless, Knox, released from the momentary paralysis of amazement, threw his umbrella and cigarette, and started to spring forward. His leg, however, was caught by the convulsive fingers of the man upon the pavement.
"Don't leave me!" he sobbed. "Don't leave me!"
Knox stooped downward. His own words sounded to him ridiculous. "What has happened?" he demanded. "Has that fellow shot you?"
The man's lips parted. His face was distorted with pain. He struggled for speech and failed. Knox looked up once more but the street was empty. He drew a small whistle from his chain, and blew it.
"Take me home, if you can," the wounded man faltered, opening his eyes once more,—"17 Donchester Gardens."
As though the effort of speech had been too much for him, he swooned away. Knox, supporting the prostrate figure across his knee, blew his whistle furiously. The man was in evening dress, apparently just under middle-age, florid, and heavily built. His clothes seemed good, although they were almost unrecognizable now by reason of the mud in which he had lain. A few yards away a silk hat had rolled into the gutter. Once more he opened his eyes. "I'm done," he muttered, a little vaguely. "1238"
The words seemed to flicker away upon his lips. Knox bent closer over him.
"You'll be all right," he said, encouragingly. "Hold on a few minutes. There's some one coming."
Help arrived at last. Three policemen appeared, hurrying from different parts of the Square. A taxicab, too, drew up by the curb. One of the policemen relieved Knox of his burden. Rapidly he stood up and told them what he knew of the affair. An inspector took charge of the proceedings. The wounded man, from whom there came now no signs of life, was taken off in the taxicab with one of the policemen to St. George's Hospital. The inspector and the other policeman searched the neighborhood fruitlessly. They then drove off to the nearest police-station, where Knox made his statement. At his own suggestion, an inspector was sent back with him to the house where he had been dining, and where he was readily identified. The same man then left him at his rooms, where the evidences of Knox's respectability and the quality of his whisky proved alike convincing. As soon as he was alone, Knox rang up the hospital. After a few moments' delay he received a reply. The gentleman who had been brought in with a wound in his chest had died immediately after his arrival, without having recovered consciousness.
Knox put down the receiver with trembling fingers. He found himself curiously affected by the result of this strange adventure. It was easy enough to read of these things—a very different matter to have borne a part, however small, in such a tragedy. He glanced at the clock. It was a quarter past one. After a few moments' hesitation he descended into the street, called a taxicab, and was driven back to Culmore Square. A small crowd of people had collected upon the pavement, close to where the affair had happened.
Knox, with a small electric torch in his hand, crossed the road and walked slowly along a path which bordered some gardens, toward the spot where he had fancied that he had seen a third figure disappear. He walked backward and forward twice, for the distance of about fifty paces. The third time he caught sight of something gleaming in the gutter and picked it up. It was a rather worn manicure file with an ivory handle. He thrust it into his pocket and, satisfied that there was nothing else to be discovered, returned to his rooms.
"SORT of puzzle a brainy chap like you, Knox, ought to turn inside out in no time," Sammy Forde declared, leaning back in his chair. "Besides, you were on the spot. Why don't you set to and give Scotland Yard a lesson, Algy?"
Knox yawned slightly. The four young men were seated in a box at the Gaiety. It was the second interval, and no one wanted a drink. Their conversation had drifted almost inevitably to the Culmore Square murder.
"That's all very well," Knox replied, as he straightened his white tie in front of a mirror, "but Scotland Yard wouldn't stand my butting in."
"You should do it on the quiet, old chap," one of the others remarked,—"prowl around like a sleuth-hound until you have a clue, and then follow it to the bitter end. You've got the pull, you know. You're the only one who saw the chap who did it. You'd know him again, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, I should know him again," Knox admitted. "Clear, deep-set eyes he's got, and fair skin."
"How shall you feel when you march up against him some day?" Sammy Forde asked. "Queer sensation it will give you if you pass him in Bond Street, or come face to face with him in the promenade at the Empire."
Knox polished his eye-glass industriously.
"To tell you the truth, you fellows," he confessed, "I begin to wish I could find him. You see, he vanished without leaving a single trace, and I rather fancy the detective who's got the matter in hand down at Scotland Yard has some queer notion at the back of his head that the chap never existed at all. They cross-examined me at the inquest as though I were a criminal; wanted to know whether I didn't think it strange that the fellow didn't run away instead of stopping to talk."
"He certainly," Sammy Forde remarked, "didn't behave like an ordinary criminal. He didn't attempt to rob his victim. One can't even guess at a motive."
"Quite so," Knox agreed. "You see, the fellow was such a commonplace sort of Johnny—a hop factor called Behal, with a business in Southwark; living in a private hotel in Kensington of dull and highly respectable pattern; forty-two years old; no family, prosperous, with plenty of business friends; a commonplace, easy-going, easy-living person, who doesn't seem to have had an enemy in the world, or to have done anything in his life to have deserved an enemy. There doesn't appear to have been a spark of romance about his life or any of his actions, and yet, there he is, shot through the heart by a man who meant to do it, too; shot by a man who has sufficient wits to walk, apparently, off the face of the earth."
"A regular teaser," one of the young men yawned, looking down at the stalls. "Wonder what was the matter with Milly this evening. She seemed to dance as though she were sick of the whole show."
"Your over-sensitive fancy, my dear boy," Sammy Forde declared. "You can't expect these girls to be on springs all the time, or to have their eyes glued upon you just because you're a pal. A truce to frivolous matters. Tell us, Knox, have you any ideas about this affair beyond what you have told us?"
Knox opened his lips to reply, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. An attendant entered, followed by a man in morning dress, at the sight of whom Knox rose with a sigh. "You want me, inspector?"
"Sorry to trouble you, sir," was the civil reply. "We've a man at Bow Street whom we must ask you to have a look at. We haven't much against him, and the chief's just keeping him hanging about."
"You mean that you want me to come at once?" Knox asked, resignedly.
"Sorry to break up your party, sir, but the chief would take it as a great favour." Knox put on his hat and overcoat. "See you fellows later," he remarked, as he took his departure.
They walked up to Bow Street, and there, after a few minutes' waiting, Knox was confronted by a man totally unlike the wanted person. He turned away with a little exclamation of disgust.
"Take him away," the inspector directed. "Sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Knox," he added, "but we're at our wit's end about this affair down at the Yard."
"That's all very well," Knox expostulated, "but I don't quite see why you should try me with such impossible people. I tell you that the murderer was a gentleman."
"How do you know that, sir?"
"I know it by his voice, and by his manner," Knox answered. "He was a gentleman, and he was a man, too, of splendid nerve. I can assure you that the pistol which he held out toward me—and it was after he had killed this man, mind—was just as steady as though his arm had been a bar of steel."
The inspector sighed. "I'm bound to confess, Mr. Knox," he said, "that why a gentleman, and a gentleman of such courage as you describe, should have had anything to do with a fellow like William Behal, fairly does me in. He had no friends of that order that we can hear of. If you stick to it that the man you saw was as you described him, we haven't even got the thin end of a clue to work from."
Knox shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry, Mr. Inspector," he replied, "for your sake and for mine. Only I must tell you that my memory is perfectly clear. The man stood almost underneath a gas-lamp, and it isn't the slightest use your sending for me in the hope of my identifying ruffians like this last fellow. Good-night!"
Knox did not return to the theatre. He took a taxicab instead to his rooms, and spent an hour or more with a telephone book upon his knee. About twelve o'clock he sauntered into the Milan grill-room and joined his friends. He shook his head at once in reply to their eager questions.
"I have given up the police," he announced, as he seated himself at the table. "I'm going to take Sammy's advice. I am going to look into this affair myself."
There was a little ripple of laughter. As he sat there in his immaculately-worn evening clothes, studying the menu through his eyeglass, Algernon Knox certainly did not present to any of them, any more than he did to the world at large, the last word in intelligence.
"Tell you what I'll do, old chap," Sammy Forde declared. "I'll bet you a pony that you don't spot the winner within—say, a couple of months."
"You're on," Knox agreed. "Kidneys and bacon and lager beer.... I say, Dick," he continued, to the man next to him, "where do you have your nails done? I like the subtlety of your polish."
"Errington's, in Bond Street," the young man replied, glancing at them.
"Nice girls?" Knox inquired.
"You bet! There's one!"
"Oh, chuck it!" Sammy Forde interrupted. "This place reeks of girls, as it is. Let's talk about the football match."
MR. ALGERNON KNOX made a highly successful first appearance at Errington's Manicure Parlor. His clothes and his manners were alike the subject of much favourable comment. His chaff was delicate and up-to-date, and there was just a sufficient amount of earnestness in his attentions to excite interest. He chatted for several minutes with three or four of the young ladies before he retired with one to a small recess and submitted his hands to her care. The young lady whom he had honored with his preference, and whose name he had discovered was Rose, although distinctly pretty and very talkative was not the one in whom he was most interested. More than once he glanced across the room to where a girl with dark brown hair, strikingly pale, and dressed in severe black, was seated a little apart from the others. He pointed her out to his own attendant.
"Young lady over there seems to find time hang rather heavy on her hands," he remarked. "What's the matter with her, eh? Love troubles?"
Miss Rose glanced over her shoulder and back again. "Poor Louise," she murmured. "She hasn't been well lately. She never talks much to any of us, but I think that she has lost a friend."
"Not bad looking," Knox ventured.
The girl laughed up at him. "Are you going to make me jealous so soon?" she sighed.
Knox proceeded to reassure her. Just before his departure she left him to procure some hot water. When she returned, he was sitting with the file in his hand which he had picked up in Culmore Square.
"Wonder whether this belongs to any of you girls?" he enquired.
Miss Rose examined it casually. Then she called across to the girl who had attracted her customer's notice. "Louise, come here a moment."
The girl rose from her place and crossed the room. She was not so tall as she had seemed sitting down, but her figure was delightful. Her face, however, remained expressionless. Miss Rose held out the file.
"Isn't this yours, Louise?" she asked. There was a few moments' silence. Knox's attitude was one of almost fatuous unconcern, yet he, as well as the girl who had been waiting upon him, saw a sudden straining at the lips, a gleam of something like fear, which shone for a moment in those expressive eyes.
"No," she declared, "it is not mine."
"Not yours?" her friend repeated in some surprise. "Look at it, Louise. There's your little scratch on the handle. I remember your showing it to me."
"It is not mine," was the reply. "I tell you that it is net mine."
This time the tremble in her tone was apparent. Even Knox felt justified in dropping his eyeglass and assuming an expression of well-bred surprise.
"Awfully sorry I mentioned it," he apologized, thrusting it back into his waistcoat pocket.
The girl whose name was Louise looked at him intently. She was struggling with some nameless agitation. "Where did you find it?" she asked.
"Can't for the life of me remember," Knox replied. "It doesn't matter, does it? so long as it isn't yours," he added.
The girl hesitated for a moment, as though she had something else to say. Then she turned abruptly away and went back to her seat.
"Isn't she queer?" Knox's new friend exclaimed, as she concluded her task. "What's come over her I can't imagine. She used to be just the same as all the rest of us—always ready for a little fun. Even if she has lost a friend, I don't see why she need fret about it. I'm sure you men never think of being constant to a girl."
"My one failing in life, constancy!" Knox declared, firmly. "Funny thing, I can't do like some fellows and think of two girls at once. Now what would be the best time to find you free—say, on Thursday?"
"About three o'clock," she replied,—"not before. I go to lunch late next week."
Knox paid his bill, and presented his little offering with the requisite delicacy. Nevertheless, when he next appeared, a few days later, it was a full hour before the time which had been mentioned.
"Rose isn't here yet," one of the girls told him, as he entered.
"Bad luck!" he answered. "Never mind, I'm going to keep my word—going to try every one of you, one by one. Start with the sad young lady, I think," he decided, crossing the room to where Louise was sitting. "Will you do my nails, please?"
She looked at him for a moment. It was a strange look, half fearful, a look which he returned with bland amiability.
"You're the young lady, aren't you, whose file I didn't find?" He remarked, his eyes resting upon the perfectly new one which she was wielding.
She glanced up at him, but said nothing. She continued her task, indeed, in absolute silence. Knox made the usual efforts at light conversation. She answered him only in dull and spiritless fashion. Then for some time he said nothing. Just as she was polishing his nails, however, he leaned forward.
"Will you come out to dinner with me one evening, Miss Louise?" he asked. Again her eyes seemed to seek for something in his face which she failed to find there. "Thank you," she replied, "I never go out with any one."
"I am not engaged."
"You are not engaged, and yet you never go out," he persisted. "Come, come; how do you amuse yourself?"
"I have my own ways," she answered quietly. "They would not appeal, I am sure to you. Is there anything more to-day, sir?"
Knox paid his bill and departed a little thoughtfully. Notwithstanding the lack of encouragement he had received, however, he was waiting on the other side of the road when the young ladies left Errington's that night. There was no mistaking Louise, who came out alone and walked rapidly away, northward. Knox caught up to her in South Molton Street.
"Good evening, Miss Louise," he said, accosting her.
She started, and again her eyes seemed filled with terror. "What do you want?" she asked quickly.
He fell into step by her side. "Oh! I say, you know," he began, "you don't really mean to be so unkind, do you? I was wondering whether I couldn't get you to change your mind about dining with me. Little place I know quite close here, where they do you tophole."
She looked at him steadily. "Is that all you want? I told you before that I dined out with no one."
"But you can't keep that up forever," he objected. "A pretty girl like you—"
She stopped short on the pavement.
"Tell me precisely why you have followed me?" she demanded, trembling.
"Because," he replied, "I think that you are the only person living, except one, who can clear up the mystery of the Culmore Square murder."
For a full moment she stood quite still. Then she swayed, and he was only just in time to catch her. White as her face had been before, it was ghastly now. She was evidently on the brink of fainting.
"I am awfully sorry," Knox said humbly. "It was rather brutal of me, I know. Come, we won't talk about it again just now. Pull yourself together. If you can hold on for a moment, there's a chemist's at the corner, and I'll get you some sal volatile."
She leaned heavily upon his arm, and he got her into the shop. After a dose of sal volatile she rose to her feet. "I am quite well now," she announced. "It was very stupid of me."
They stood at the entrance to the shop. Knox felt curiously ill-at-ease. The girl was so fragile, so pretty, so terrified.
"Look here," he said, "let me put you in a taxicab and send you home. I won't bother you any more about this affair tonight."
She shook her head a little sadly. "No," she answered. "I will accept your invitation. I will have dinner with you. Afterwards, there is something I will say."
"Capital!" he exclaimed. "I'll take you to a very quiet place I know of."
He called a taxicab, and they drove to a small but select restaurant in the neighborhood. He gave her champagne and the best dishes he could think of, but she ate and drank mechanically. They talked almost in monosyllables, but her voice gradually grew stronger. When dinner was finished, she leaned across the table.
"Tell me," she begged, "where did you find that manicure file?"
"In Culmore Square," he replied, "just where you disappeared round the corner."
"You are the Mr. Algernon Knox," she asked, "who came up just too late and who had to appear at the inquest?"
"Tell me how you found me out?"
"Half by accident," he explained. "The man Behal, just when he was dying, muttered '1238.' I fancied that it must be a telephone number, and I found out that it was the telephone number of your manicure rooms."
"So that was it," she murmured, half to herself. "Well, what now?"
"Can't you guess?" he replied gravely. "I want to discover the murderer. Tell me his name?"
She looked at him steadily across the table. "You can ask me that question," she said, "a million times. You could put me, if you had the power, through the most hideous tortures that were ever invented. You could kill me a hundred times over. But never—never," she repeated, with ringing emphasis, "would I tell you or any one else a single word!"
Knox poured himself out some more coffee. "What was Mr. Behal to you?" he asked.
"He was a client at Errington's, and I had been foolish enough to go out with him—too often. That I do not mind telling you, because it concerns no one save myself. He is dead now. I have nothing more to say about him or against him. But as regards the person who killed him. If I thought that there was any chance of your discovering who he was, I think that God would give me strength enough to plunge this knife into your heart!"
Her nervous fingers had clenched for a moment the knife upon the tablecloth. Watching her intently, Knox realized the extraordinary tension under which she was suffering; realized, too, that he might as well attempt to summon the murdered man before him, as to move her. He made no further effort.
"I wish you would allow me to say," he remarked, as they parted at the door of the restaurant, "that I am very, very sorry for you."
She faced him under the gas-light and there was a curious glow in her eyes. "You need not be," she assured him. "Indeed, you need not be...."
KNOX for a few days was distrait. He met Sammy Forde one night at the Milan and came in for a good deal of chaff.
"Hot on the scent, eh, my Sherlock Holmes?" the latter exclaimed cheerfully. "What mighty schemes are hatching in your brain, I wonder? Is the rope tightening, eh?"
"It's a deuced difficult affair," Knox declared.
"Not for you," his friend insisted confidently. "Not for a brain like yours, dear old chap. You are only hesitating, I know, for the dramatic moment. When that comes, you will stretch out your hand and the criminal will shrink, cowering, into the arms of your waiting detective. Will it be long, Algy? Because I tell you, frankly, that I find it awful hard work to rake up a pony at the end of the month."
"It will not be long," Knox promised him.
Nevertheless, there were times when Knox hated himself and his self-imposed task. Four times he followed Louise from her work, and on each occasion she went alone to her lodgings, only to reappear shortly and make her way to a great church near the Marylebone Road. Each time he left her here without having discovered a thing. One evening, however, he followed her inside.
Always afterwards he remembered the little thrill with which he entered the building; the close, damp odor, mingled with some faint waft of what seemed to him like incense; the little patches of fog or mist which seemed to hang about the gloomy spaces; the dimly burning gas-jets; and in the distance the low pealing of the organ. He took his place in one of the back seats. It was long since he had been in a church, and the faces of the congregation puzzled him. They were mostly young—young men and women—and whatever cares of the world they had brought with them they seemed, in a sense, to have cast away as they crossed the threshold. He listened to the subdued murmur of their voices as they joined in the responses. There was a peculiar quality of eagerness in their faces as they looked up the church toward the cross at the end of the chancel, an expression which reminded him instantly of Louise. He felt that in the midst of a life which he had thought to be all-comprehensive he had come upon something outside his experience, something half mystical and half beautiful, altogether incomprehensible. Then suddenly the lights grew brighter. A tall figure in flowing white, unseen at first from where Knox was sitting, came slowly down the chancel steps and made his way into the pulpit. The lights flashed up above his head, and Knox felt his hands grip the worn oak pew. The face was the face of the man for whom he had sought throughout London, and the voice was his voice!....
What followed seemed to him almost like a dream. He heard a sermon against sin—a strange, fantastic outpouring, in its way, which finished in a storm of fervent and impassioned pleading. Curiously enough, it was the effect of the preacher's words upon the people which stirred him most. From where he sat he could see row upon row of the white, upturned faces, shop-girls and young men, the toilers of the world, the adolescence of the city. It was curious how their faces lit up with some answering fire to the call of the priest's passionate words. Knox, too, felt constrained into a half unwilling yet wholly intense admiration. The man who had leveled the pistol at his heart fell into the background of his memory. He saw only the great enthusiast, pleading for things he loved.
"Life is so beautiful, love is so beautiful, and both are so short," were the preacher's last words. "Rich and poor travel the same path. It is as easy for you with a pound a week to climb as your neighbors in Mayfair whose feet must press the same rungs of the same ladder. Remember that the glory of a well-lived life, the peace which passeth all understanding, can be yours day by day, in the warehouse and the factory, not in the next life alone, but in this."
Knox sat there almost as though dazed. It was only the swelling of the organ and the passing out of the people which told him that the service was over. Then he rose to his feet and made his way toward the vestry. There were four or five people waiting outside. He took his place in fine and waited. One by one they disappeared and came out, each with something of the same expression in their faces, the expression which once had baffled St. Paul. And then his turn came. He was the last. He pushed open the door and stepped into a barely-furnished room with plain, whitewashed walls. At first it seemed to be empty. Then, in the distant corner, he saw the figure of a man on his knees before a small crucifix. The lights in the place were dim, the floor of uncovered stone. At the sound of his footsteps the priest rose slowly to his feet.
"I am sorry," he said pleasantly. "I thought that the last of my friends had gone. Tell me, what can I do for you?"
The two had drawn a little nearer together. The priest stopped short. The gentle smile faded from his lips; his face was suddenly still and waxen. He recognized Knox. "So you have found me out!" he exclaimed softly.
"I have found you out," Knox echoed, wondering in his heart at the absence of any fear or consternation in the other's tone.
The priest stood, for a moment, motionless. His head was upturned; his eyes seemed to be looking through the ceiling of the room, up into some far-distant world. His lips moved as though in prayer.
"Well," he said at last, "lam here. You have business with me? Perhaps, even, you have brought a policeman into pry sanctuary. I cannot complain. I am ready."
Knox shook his head. "I came here by accident," he explained. "I came—in truth, I followed Miss Louise."
"Nevertheless," the priest insisted, "you are here to accuse me. Is it not so?"
Knox inclined his head. "It is not I who accuse you," he replied. "Yet you are the man who murdered William Behal—why, I cannot imagine."
"For what I did," the preacher declared, "I am willing to pay. But let me try, first, to lighten your understanding. I will make your task easy. I will confess to you, as I am willing to confess to the world, that it was I who killed that man."
"You—a clergyman!" Knox murmured. "What have you to do with the taking of life?"
The priest bowed his head. He made the sign of the cross upon his cassock. "The Lord I serve," he said, "is the Lord of forgiveness and mercy. So is the doctrine I preach. But there are times when sin is so black that it cries aloud to heaven. The man I slew took one of the children from my fold. It was not the first time. He was an evil-living man, a man of appetites and passions which he never resisted. And when she came to me, the child who had been one of my flock, and sobbed out the truth, there was only one thing in my mind. I meant to rid the world of him, as I would set my heel upon a poisonous reptile. There is no difference. It is no sin to kill those who, filled with their own licentiousness and lust, crawl about the earth always following the evil ways. I, a Christian, tell you that."
"But, you know, that's all very well," Knox objected, "but there are laws."
"There are human laws, it is true," the preacher assented, "whose penalty I am prepared to pay. Go and fetch the police officers, my friend, or if you will, I will come with you as I am. Another can take my place here well enough."
Knox remained motionless. He was filled with an unreasoning doubt. A strange bewilderment confused his brain. He thought of that great, bare church, filled with its crowd of pale-faced, earnest worshipers. He was puzzled, confused by a sense of conflicting issues. This man was a murderer. The law demanded, and justly demanded, its victim. And then his thoughts slipped away again. He saw that long stream of people silently leaving the church, going back to their daily life with that curious warmth in their hearts, that something which shone from their faces, something which, however it might have been kindled, was certainly spiritual. Was this man's place upon the gallows? He tried to speak, but he felt almost tongue-tied.
"Look here, you know," he said at last, "you must realize, after all, that however great a blackguard the fellow may have been, nothing could justify you in taking the law into your own hands. Besides, it was stretching it a bit, wasn't it?" he added awkwardly.
"It was the life of a man for the soul of a woman," was the calm reply. "To me, it seemed like that at the time. In a sense it must always seem so. And yet, although, believe me, I do not flinch from my punishment for one moment; to you I will admit, as I daily do to my Master, that I was wrong. The power was not mine."
It came to Knox then like a flash of light that, after all, his way was clear. He spoke with greater firmness. "If I had not come to-night," he asked, "tell me what your course would have been?"
"I do penance night and day," the priest replied, "and if you had not come, I should have done it night and day for the rest of my life. But for the sake of those others, as well as for my own, I should have kept silent."
Knox moved a step forward. There was a sob in his throat. Something queer seemed to have taken possession of him. Scarcely knowing what he did, he held out his hand and felt it gripped by the man's long fingers.
"Sir," he said, "this is no matter which I can judge, but your face to me now is and forever will be the face of a stranger."
HALF-AN-HOUR later Knox resigned his coat and hat to the smiling vestiaire and crossed the threshold of the Milan Grill-Room. The usual crowd was there—young ladies from every musical comedy in London, very much behatted, very seductive, very happy. There were a score or more of cheerful supper-parties, and many smaller ones where the heads nearly met by the side of the carefully shaded lights. The young man about town was there in all his glory. It was the shrine, indeed, of the goddess whom he worshipped.
Already little clouds of blue cigarette and cigar smoke hung about the place. The laughter, even if restrained, was insistent, mingled with the popping of champagne corks, the greetings of friends from table to table. Knox stood, for a moment, quite still upon the threshold. The sight of these things passed suddenly away from him.
He saw again that bare, vault-like church, with its dreary, empty spaces only faintly reached by the crude gas-jets. He saw the faces of the men and the women, he heard their last "Amen," the roll of the organ....
"Your friends are all here, sir, at your usual table."
Knox came to himself with a little start. Before him was the bowing maître d'hôtel. He followed him slowly down the room and was received with half-a-dozen chaffing greetings.
"What on earth are you moonstruck about, Algy?" Sammy Forde demanded.
"We were all watching you. You stood there—well, just as if you'd gone to sleep."
Knox seated himself with a sigh and drew his check-book from his pocket.
"I was probably thinking of the bet I am going to pay you now," he declared. "Fetch me a pen, Gustave."
"The time's not up yet," one of them reminded him.
"No good my going on," Knox replied gloomily, as he began to write. "I've forgotten the fellow's face."
THE three young men sat together in a private box at the fashionable skating-rink. It was Sunday afternoon; the music was inspiring; the ice was not too crowded. Yet all three seemed content to remain onlookers. They sat and watched one of their little coterie, and their faces grew gloomier. Only Knox, who had been over in Paris for a fortnight, sipped his tea in contentment and remained unimbued by the general depression.
"You fellows don't seem very gay," he remarked presently.
"How can we be gay," Sammy Forde replied, motioning with his head towards a passing couple, "with that to look at? Poor old Len!"
Knox put up his eyeglass and followed the direction of his friend's gesture.
"I admit," he sighed, "that it is a somewhat depressing sight to see one of our own pals guilty of such a shocking breach of taste. Why do you allow it, you fellows? Dash it all, a supper-room would be bad enough, but here on Sunday afternoon! Has Leonard gone out of his senses?"
They all began to talk at once, but Sammy silenced them.
"Come," he said, "for the moment I had forgotten that Algy knows nothing of this. At the back of my head," he went on slowly, "I still have an idea— don't laugh you chaps—that Algy has brains. We will put him in possession of the facts. Who knows that an elucidation which has escaped us may not present itself to his mightier intellect?"
"Not at your best, Sammy," Knox remarked, shaking his head.
"You know the young woman?"
Knox nodded. "Miss Rose Montressor, back row of the Hilarity, and not too sure of her place even there. A loud, bold-looking young woman whom none of us excepting Len have ever spoken to, that I know of. I heard her talking once. Her name may be Montressor, but I should say that she was born Whitechapel way."
"Your estimate of the young woman," Sammy Forde declared, "brings you into line with us. No doubt you are asking yourself, then, the same questions which are driving us almost crazy. Firstly—why, in the name of all that's reasonable, is Leonard advertising himself here on Sunday afternoon and at every other place you can think of, with such a person? Secondly, what in heaven's name is the matter with the fellow? He looks frightened to death."
"Have any of you fellows tackled him about it?" Knox asked.
"Done our best," Sammy Forde replied. "He only mumbled something about her being a jolly decent sort of girl, and ran off. He's given us the go-by altogether. Comes in with her late to supper, and hangs about the theatre purposely instead of coming on first with us. Just a trick of his to avoid us. And all the time, as you know, he is engaged to Lily Huntingdon, one of the nicest little girls in London. If she or any of her people come across him with a caricature like this, he's done for."
They relapsed into silence for a time, a silence broken a little abruptly by Knox.
"Is Leonard short of money, or anything of that sort?"
"Not he!" Sammy Forde answered. "He is up to his eyes in it, though that wretched little hussy must have cost him a bit. Her clothes weren't fit to look at a month ago. Now she's got sables like a duchess, hats like lamp-shades, and she reeks of all the perfumes of the Burlington Arcade."
"Mighty queer business," Knox remarked thoughtfully. "I'll tackle Len first opportunity. Haven't seen him since I got back from Paris, so I shall have an excuse."
The couple whom they were discussing swung by at that moment. The girl was dark, gold-visaged, over-dressed, and her unpleasant voice and shrill laughter reached them like a jarring note. She skated badly, and clung to her companion, a tall, thin youth whose boyish and rather pleasant expression was marred just now by a curious tightening of all the lines of his face. His eyes seemed to have sunk. He looked, as Sammy Forde had recently declared, like the ghost of himself.
"Something wrong there, without a doubt," Knox decided finally. "It must be investigated."
KNOX presented himself at Leonard Spendler's rooms about half-past seven that evening. He brushed past the somewhat doubtful man-servant and strolled into the bedroom, where his friend was struggling with a white tie in front of a looking-glass.
"Thought this would be a safe time to run you down, old chap," he remarked. "How are you?"
"Rotten!" Leonard replied shortly. "Have a drink?"
"Presently, thanks. Is your man coming back?"
"Not for a few minutes."
Knox seated himself on the edge of the bed. "What's wrong, Len?" he demanded. Through the looking-glass he saw the boy's face harden.
"Rot!" Knox replied. "You're making a thundering ass of yourself with a silly, underbred girl. It's beastly form. You're engaged to marry Lily Huntingdon, and you've no right to advertise yourself in the way you are doing. There must be some explanation. Out with it."
For a moment there was a stony silence. Then, without a word, Leonard crossed the room to the door, turned the key, and came back. His lips were quivering. He spoke with a sob.
"Algy, old man I will out with it. Swore I wouldn't. Got to break my word. I can't stick it out any longer. Look at me. You've known me all your life. I'll tell you something:—I'm a murderer!"
Knox stared at his friend fixedly. His face remained entirely expressionless. Leonard sat down by his side upon the bed.
"You take it very quietly," he went on, "but the thing's like a nightmare to me. It was all my own fault. I drove Rose Montressor home one night. She lives quite respectably down with her people in Hendon Street, West Kensington. I went in and was introduced to her father and mother. You may as well know the truth. They're shocking, both of 'em. The mother's been on the stage all her life—cheap parts in country melodramas. The father's a sort of stage hanger-on—a bit of acting, a bit of stage-managing, and a good deal of loafing. Of course, they made a fuss over me, and Rose wouldn't let me go. There was a beast of a chap there who kept on trying to come and talk to her. Wretched bounder he was, and no end of a nuisance. To escape from him, Rose and I went into the back-room. He followed us there and kicked up a row. I was a bit 'lit,' and I couldn't stand the chap. I called him a cad, and he came for me. There was a brass candlestick on the mantelpiece, and I struck him with it right across the head. He went down, Algy, just like a log—never moved. Rose got frightened, and we called someone. Fortunately, only the old man came in. They found I'd—I'd killed him!"
"But how on earth has a thing like this been kept quiet?" Knox asked.
"Have you read of the disappearance of Robert Jules, stock-broker's clerk?"
Knox nodded. "I saw something about it in the newspapers," he admitted.
"That's the chap," Leonard went on. "Rose's people have certainly behaved like bricks. They got the fellow into a hospital, mixed up with the victims of the railway accident that night at Earl's Court station."
Knox shook his head slowly. "You're a silly ass, Leonard," he pronounced. "You ought to have owned up right away. The thing was only a brawl. You would have got a sentence, of course, for manslaughter, but it would have been a light one, and the thing would have been finished with. What made Miss Montressor's people behave so decently about it? The fellow must have been a friend of theirs."
"They thought I was engaged to Rose," Leonard explained slowly.
"Hm!" Knox remarked. "And now you've got to marry the girl?"
"And now," Leonard assented gloomily, "as you say, I have to marry her. Of course, she behaved jolly decently, and all that, and I can't help feeling grateful to her, but it's hell!"
"Told Miss Huntingdon yet?"
"I can't bluff it," Leonard groaned. "I'll have to in a day or two. Because Rose insists upon having our engagement announced."
"Has her father put the screw on at all?" Knox enquired.
Leonard shook his head. "He says he leaves everything to Rose."
"Any objection to my interviewing the old man?"
"I don't see what good it can do," Leonard replied. "It isn't he who's urging the thing on."
"Who is, then?" Knox asked. "You're not in love with Rose Montressor, are you?"
"Of course I'm not," Leonard declared indignantly. "But—well, she expects it herself. She told her father the lie before he got me out of the mess."
"I'll go and have a chat with the old fellow, anyhow," Knox decided.
"If you do," Leonard begged him, "just let him know that you're a particular friend, and that I am not telling any one else. He is rather scared about the whole thing now that it's over. He got it managed through a doctor friend who almost lives with them—rather a low-down sort of beggar, but he's a doctor all right. They're a bit scared about conspiracy."
"I'll be careful," Knox promised.
KNOX paid his visit to number 16, Hendon Street, West Kensington, on the following afternoon. He found the neighborhood, as he had expected, a little unsavory. The door of the house was opened to him, after some delay, by Mrs. Montressor—an aged and awful replica of her daughter. She listened to Knox's enquiry suspiciously.
"I am not sure that Mr. Montressor is in," she said. "What might your business be?"
Knox gently insinuated himself into the passage.
"My dear Mrs. Montressor," he explained, "I am a great friend of Leonard Spendler's. Need I say any more? I should like to have just a word or two with your husband, if I might be permitted."
Mrs. Montressor drew back and closed the door. The passage was very narrow, and Mrs. Montressor was very large. It was necessary for Knox to squeeze himself against the wall in order that Mrs. Montressor might precede him.
"Henry," she called up the dingy linoleum-covered stairs, "there's a friend here of Mr. Spendler's, wants to see you."
There was an inarticulate sound and silence. Mrs. Montressor threw open the door of a little room hung with cheap tapestry, Indian fans, and other awful adornments. There was an odor as though the windows had never been opened, a gas-stove in the place of fire, a piano laden with torn and smudgy music and sprinkled with cigar ash.
"Mr. Montressor will be down in one moment," his wife announced. "Any friend of Mr. Spendler's is always most welcome. Take a seat, sir. You know my daughter, I dare say?"
"I have the pleasure of knowing her by sight very well," Knox admitted.
"And a dear good girl she is," Mrs. Montressor continued emphatically. "Never a moment's trouble to me since she was born. I was on the stage myself, Mr.—?"
"Knox," he told her.
"Mr. Knox. You wouldn't think it, to look at me now, but I've been on at most of the halls round London in my time."
"Why not?" Knox replied. "Such gifts as your daughter possesses are generally inherited. Ah! this, I suppose, is Mr. Montressor?"
Mr. Montressor, who turned out to be elderly, with a dyed moustache and bags under his furtive eyes, entered the room with an air of marked anxiety. The sight of Knox, who was looking very pink and white, and seemed to be a little nervous, appeared however, to console him.
"Mr. Montressor," Knox said, holding out his hand. "Very good of you to give me a few minutes. My name is Knox."
Mr. Montressor breathed more freely. There was certainly nothing alarming about his visitor's appearance.
"Sit 'ee down, sir," he invited. "My wife called up that you were a friend of Mr. Spendler's. Therefore, you are welcome."
Mrs. Montressor seated herself in a cane chair which seemed pitifully inadequate for the purpose. Mr. Montressor stood upon the hearth-rug and folded his arms.
"You are the first of Mr. Spendler's friends, sir," he remarked, "who has found us out. You are welcome."
"Very kind of you, I am sure," Knox declared. "You are wondering, I dare say, why I have come. I'll try and explain."
Mr. Montressor nodded gravely.
"If your visit has a serious purpose, sir," he said, "we should be glad to hear it."
"I do not know that it has exactly," Knox replied, "but I couldn't help coming to see you. Poor old Len is fairly knocked over by this little affair."
"My wife and I," Mr. Montressor declared solemnly, "have known no sleep since that awful moment. Even now a ring at the bell makes us shiver. I have run a risk, Mr. Knox, which I would run for few men's sakes. I liked young Mr. Spendler. I know very well—none better—that whatever happened was unpremeditated, but still, sir, it is my opinion that the law of this country would have fallen hardly upon him. I ask for your sympathy, Mr. Knox, in what I did. I have broken the laws. I have made myself a conspirator. I did it for your friend's sake. I ask confidently for your sympathy."
"You have it," Knox assured him. "You have it, without a doubt. It was splendidly done. But forgive me, Mr. Montressor. Neither Leonard nor I can feel quite satisfied in our minds. It seems too wonderful to think that a man can be spirited off the face of the earth and all trace of him be lost."
Mr. Montressor nodded self-approvingly.
"I take no credit to myself, sir," he said, "but I will tell you the truth. I achieved a wonderful performance. I have a friend, a doctor, a gentleman, pecuniarily unfortunate, yet a gentleman. He is addicted to habits which have unfortunately shattered his career. His name is Boulder. I took him into my confidence. I said—'You have an opportunity here of doing a great deed.' It was he who managed it. There was one of the victims of that shocking railway accident at the end of the street, whom no one could identify, whom no one claimed. In his grave lies my friend Jules."
"The papers are making rather a fuss about his disappearance, I notice," Knox remarked.
"Why not? Why not, indeed?" Mr. Montressor replied. "From their point of view—from every one's point of view—it was a most amazing disappearance. A young man, sober, well-to-do, holding a responsible position, a young man whose accounts are in perfect order and whose life hitherto has been regular, passes from the face of the earth. No wonder great interest is taken in his disappearance. Fortunately, though, he had no near relatives or friends."
"If it isn't asking too much," Knox said, "I really should like to know a few more particulars about how the whole affair was managed."
Mr. Montressor shook his head. "Don't, Mr. Knox!" he begged. "I must tell you that my friend Dr. Boulder is exceedingly nervous. I persuaded him to undertake it, but he knows that he has done so at the risk of his career. He stands liable to be arrested for conspiracy. So, for that matter, do I. Under those circumstances, you can very well imagine that the quieter the affair is kept, the better we like it."
"Very lucky for Leonard," Knox remarked, "that a man with a shrewd brain was about that night, Mr. Montressor."
"You are right," Mr. Montressor confessed, "right indeed! I flatter myself—Hello, who's that?"
The outside door was heard to open. A moment later, the door of the sitting-room was pushed back. A little man with red cheeks and watery eyes, entered. His clothes were of rusty black, he wore a rusty black silk hat. He bowed to Mrs. Montressor, nodded to her husband, whom his entrance seemed somewhat to disturb, and gazed at Knox with an air of bland interest.
"Most particularly engaged for a few minutes," Mr. Montressor declared, moving towards him. "You won't mind, my dear fellow, I am sure. So glad to see you a little later on."
The newcomer apparently did mind. His eyes were fixed upon Knox.
"One moment," he begged, as Montressor's hand fell upon his shoulder. "One moment, if you please. Am I right in supposing that this gentleman is a friend of Mr. Spendler's?"
"I am," Knox assented briskly. "And you, I am sure, are the doctor who has been so kind as to help in this unfortunate little matter? A pleasure, my dear sir,—a great pleasure, I assure you."
The newcomer drew off his worn glove and shook hands with Knox impressively. He exhaled a mild odor of spirits, his eyes grew more watery. He glanced around the room with an air of mystery.
"I am delighted to find you here, Mr. Knox," he said, setting down his silk hat upon the table. "Delighted! It will relieve my mind very greatly to have a little chat about this matter. No, no, Montressor!" he went on, as the latter showed signs of interfering. "You will forgive my saying that it would be more satisfactory for me to discuss this matter with one of Mr. Spendler's intimate friends."
"Naturally," Knox agreed warmly. "Leonard is one of the best, and I can assure you we all of us feel tremendously indebted to you both—to you, Mr. Montressor, and Dr. Boulder here—for what you did. The law sometimes is a hard thing."
"You are right," the doctor declared portentously. "The law takes too little account of extenuating circumstances. That has always been my experience. When one considers what might have happened to a young man in your friend's position, simply through that act of self-defence, why—why, it gives one fits!" he broke off.
Mr. Montressor, who had been looking from one to another impatiently, and was evidently in a state of great irritability, intervened. "There is one thing very certain," he said firmly, "and that is, the less an affair of this sort is discussed, the better. Mr. Knox has paid me a visit for which I am obliged to him. Let us drop the matter there. Perhaps you gentlemen will both join me in a little drop of the usual, eh, doctor?"
He opened a cupboard and produced a bottle of whisky and some glasses. The doctor's eyes followed his movements greedily. Mr. Montressor solemnly poured out three portions of whisky and held the water jug poised in his hand.
"Say when! Good health, Mr. Knox—good health, doctor! A little farewell drink, eh? We mustn't keep Mr. Knox any longer."
The doctor set down his glass empty.
"You will forgive me," he said, "but I should like a word or two's conversation with Mr. Knox in the presence of our friend Mr. Montressor here."
"Quite unnecessary," Mr. Montressor interrupted brusquely.
"Pardon me," the doctor went on, "I think otherwise. What I should like Mr. Knox to understand, as a friend of Mr. Spendler's, is that I have, for Mr. Spendler's sake, run a very grave risk of impelling my professional reputation."
Mr. Montressor watched his visitor's face curiously, but Knox appeared duly impressed.
"My conscience," the doctor continued, "is clear enough upon the matter, but at the same time the risk to my professional status is immense. Our friend Montressor here has made me certain promises which, however, he is not at present in a position to fulfil. It is my desire to come into contact personally with Mr. Spendler. I feel that he would like to recognize my services in some instantaneous and substantial manner."
"Perfectly reasonable that sounds, I am sure," Knox agreed. "If you will give me your name and address, doctor, I think Leonard ought to come and see you."
Mr. Montressor's face was twitching with anger. "Look here," he said, "this is my affair. The suggestion was mine; the risk, if there is any, is mine. You know quite well, Boulder, you'll get what's fair out of it."
"Thank you," the doctor replied, with an attempt at dignity, "in this case I think I may be permitted to deal with principals. It was not for your sake, after all, that I risked my reputation. It was for the sake of Mr. Spendler. My fee should come from him. It will give me great pleasure to discuss this matter with the young gentleman at any time."
"I wash my hands of the affair," Mr. Montressor declared savagely. "If the police once get an inkling of it, and there are many who may have seen Jules come that night, a visit of Mr. Spendler's to your surgery will just about clinch matters."
"It will give me equal pleasure," the doctor decided, buttoning up his coat and taking his hat from the table, "to see Mr. Knox on Mr. Spendler's behalf. I can say no more. I am always reasonable. On the other hand, the services I have rendered deserve a considerable fee, promptly paid. Mr. Montressor's prospects depend, he will forgive my saying so, upon Mr. Spendler. Why should I not transact my little share of the business with that gentleman direct? Good morning, Mrs. Montressor! Good morning, Mr. Knox! So long, Montressor!"
Knox, after a brief but apparently cordial farewell from Mr. and Mrs. Montressor, caught the doctor up in the next street.
The latter welcomed him warmly. "My surgery," he remarked, "is scarcely a private place at this time of the day. My assistant will be there, and there will be patients waiting. If I might suggest it, this hotel opposite, although it is not much to look at, is very comfortable, and I am well known there. We can find a quiet corner and discuss this matter."
They entered and chose a secluded corner.
"Your friend Mr. Spendler is pretty well off, I suppose?" the doctor began.
"Leonard will be very rich indeed," Knox replied, "and he has plenty of money now. You will, I am sure, not find him ungrateful."
"There are very few men," the doctor declared, sipping his whisky, "who could have done what I did."
"Beats all the novels I ever read," Knox confessed. "How you could convey a dead man from Mr. Montressor's house to a hospital, and get him mixed up with the Earl's Court railway accident people; get him buried, too, under a different name—where was he buried, doctor?"
"Putney Cemetery," the latter replied curtly. "We will let the details of that little business alone, if you don't mind, Mr. Knox. I risked, as you can imagine, everything—my whole professional career—to save your friend. I think, therefore, that you won't consider I am overdoing it if I say that I expect a substantial fee. I feel," he went on, "that my remuneration ought not to depend upon Mr. Spendler's matrimonial arrangements. You follow me?"
"Entirely," Knox agreed. "If you will name a sum, I will put the matter fairly before Leonard."
The doctor called for another drink.
"Between you and me, sir," he said, "I should consider myself not overpaid with a fee of two hundred pounds."
"Nor I," Knox asserted. "Poor old Len, he'd give a great deal more than that never to have had the affair happen at all."
"Not entirely that," Knox continued, with a sigh. "You see, doctor, I can talk to you as a man of the world. Mr. Montressor isn't—well, not quite—"
"I understand—I understand," the doctor interrupted, with great gravity. "I suppose your young friend must be very much in love with Rose?"
"The unfortunate part of it is," Knox replied, "that he isn't."
The doctor was a little startled. "I understood that they were engaged."
"They are engaged," Knox said bluntly, "because Mr. Montressor insists upon it. It's blackmail, doctor—that's what it is."
"Disgraceful!" the little man declared.
"I felt sure you would agree with me," Knox went on, soothingly. "Naturally, you and I look at the matter from the same point of view. A matter of a few hundred pounds to get out of such a scrape is nothing to Leonard, but to be tied down for life to Montressor's daughter is a tragedy! Shall we say one more drink?"
"Certainly," the doctor agreed. "By all means! Most interesting conversation!"
He drained his tumbler of whisky. Knox watched him finish it. Then he drew a little closer. "Doctor," he said, "two hundred pounds is a good deal of money, but I think my friend would give twice as much to find that there was some little mistake about that night."
The doctor stared at him for a moment, blinking hard. "Some little mistake," he repeated.
"Let me speak plainly," Knox continued, in an undertone. "Is this a true story of Mr. Montressor's? Was Jules really taken to the hospital? Come, I am not asking these things out of curiosity. It's four hundred instead of two, if you can help us out."
The doctor rose slowly to his feet. He took his hat from the table and jammed it on to his head with trembling fingers. He struck the table in front of Knox an angry blow with his shabby umbrella. "Sir," he said, "I consider your question an insult! Good morning!"
He walked out of the place firmly, with some show even of dignity, banging the door behind him. Knox, gradually recovering from his astonishment, rose and went to the bar to pay for the drinks.
KNOX returned to his rooms that afternoon in a somewhat gloomy frame of mind. He had called first at the hospital, where he discovered that, without a doubt, the unidentified body of a dead man had been brought there, presumably from the Earl's Court railway accident, every particular of whose arrival coincided with Mr. Montressor's statements. It certainly seemed as though that gentleman's claim were founded upon services rendered. He had carried his inquiries a little further and had ascertained one more significant fact, namely, that the man Jules was an ardent admirer of Miss Montressor and, before the appearance of Leonard had considered himself her fiance. Knox had scarcely been in his rooms half-an-hour before the telephone bell rang.
"Mr. Spendler to speak to you, sir," his man announced. "Wants to know if you can go round."
"I'll be there in five minutes," Knox promised.
He found Leonard exceedingly ill-at-ease, doing the honours of his apartments to Mr. Montressor and his daughter. Mr. Montressor was dressed from head to foot in new clothes. A silk hat, with a pair of lemon-coloured kid gloves, reposed upon the table. His dyed moustache had been given an upward tilt. He smelt more than ever of cheap scent and strong whisky. Rose was stretched in Leonard's most comfortable easy chair, her legs crossed with the apparent object of displaying as much as possible of her silk stockings, a cigarette between her fingers. Leonard's glance at Knox, as he entered, was almost pathetic. Mr. Montressor's greeting was tentative; the young lady's a trifle haughty.
"Algy," his friend exclaimed, "I thought you'd better come round as you're the only person who knows about this muddle! Mr. Montressor has come up on a little matter, or rather a big matter—"
"A very weighty matter," Mr. Montressor interrupted, "a very weighty matter indeed! I feel sure that Mr. Knox cannot but agree with my point of view. It has come to my ears, sir," he continued, addressing himself to Knox, "that for many evenings past my daughter has been in the habit of supping with Mr. Spendler in a public restaurant, and accepting presents from him of considerable value. On charging her with these things, she denies nothing. Mr. Spendler's intentions, she assures me, are honourable. I am here, therefore, to demand a formal announcement of their engagement to be inserted in the Morning Post to-morrow morning."
There was a dead silence, broken at last by Leonard. "I have explained to Mr. Montressor," he said,—"Rose knew it all the time—that I am already engaged. I want him to give me a little time. I want him to give me time to see Lil—Miss Huntingdon—and break it off properly."
"My interests are on behalf of my own daughter only," Mr. Montressor insisted, clearing his throat. "I have heard, to my deep regret, that she has been made the subject of unprincipled gossip. An announcement of the engagement must appear in to-morrow morning's paper."
There was another silence. Leonard looked across at Knox.
"I must say," Knox declared quietly, "that I agree with Mr. Montressor."
Leonard's expression was one of blank surprise. Mr. Montressor was taken aback, his daughter sat up in the chair.
"Good old Algy," she murmured. "I always knew you were all right," she added, smiling at him.
Mr. Montressor recovered himself quickly.
"Mr. Knox," he said, "I am obliged to you. Mr. Spendler, I presume, will have no further objections?"
"Oh, I suppose not!" Leonard answered. "Have it your own way, then."
He sat down and wrote the few lines which Mr. Montressor dictated. The latter then took up his hat.
"Perhaps we had better leave the young people together, eh, Mr. Knox?" he suggested. "I'll just call round at the newspaper offices myself with this."
"I'll follow you directly," Knox promised, as he paused to say good-bye to Leonard on the threshold of his rooms. "Look here, old chap," he added, in an undertone, "I'm sorry, but so far as I can see—it's the only chance."
"I suppose you know," Leonard replied. "Seems to me the end of everything."
"Not at all," Knox whispered. "I shall have a contradiction put in every paper the day afterwards. Lucky that Lily's in Cannes!"
"Hanged if I can see this!" Leonard muttered.
"It's a bit far-fetched, perhaps," Knox admitted, "and yet, I honestly believe it's the only chance. Cut it short with the young woman, Len. We'll meet later."
THE announcement of Leonard's engagement appeared in the Morning Post on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, Knox, who had slept soundly after an exceedingly busy day, was disturbed as he sat at his late breakfast by a prolonged ringing of the telephone bell.
"Mr. Spendler to speak to you, sir," his servant announced.
Knox took up the receiver. It was Leonard's voice at the other end. "For heaven's sake, Algy, come round! Old Montressor's just rung up. I've never heard such language in my life. He's on his way here with his daughter and a lawyer. Did you put that contradiction in this morning—'not the slightest foundation'?"
"That's all right," Knox replied. "You may think you're engaged to the hussy, but you ain't. I'll be round in ten minutes."
Knox finished his breakfast, lit a cigarette, and strolled into St. James Street. Leonard, who was walking up and down the room, welcomed him with a little cry of relief.
"Algy, old chap," he remonstrated, "it isn't right to keep me in suspense like this. First of all you agree to those people shoving in an announcement of my engagement to Rose, and then you go and stick in a flat contradiction the day afterwards, without a word of explanation. What's it all mean?"
"Calm yourself, Leonard," Knox begged him. "I agreed to old Montressor's putting that notice in the paper because it seemed to me to be the only chance of finding out whether the whole thing was a fake or not. Of course, I felt sure from the first that it was, but I didn't seem very successful when I tried to get at the bottom of it. Old Montressor was an adventurer, right enough, and you know what I think of the girl. The doctor, when I tried to get at him, rode the high horse and left me, as we say, planté là. That bothered me for a bit, and the only really interesting thing I discovered, when I set about making a few more inquiries, was that the fellow Jules was really madly in love with Rose. That's why I let you insert the engagement notice."
"Go on—go on!" Leonard implored.
The door was suddenly thrown open. Mr. Montressor, with a newspaper in his hand, burst in. He was followed by his daughter and a legal-looking personage.
"Now, sir," Mr. Montressor exclaimed, with his finger upon a certain paragraph, "be so good as to explain this at once, and in the presence of my solicitor. Did you or did you not authorize me, two days ago, to announce the engagement of yourself to my daughter?"
Leonard glanced at Knox. "I did," he admitted.
"And is this contradiction also on your authority?" Mr. Montressor demanded fiercely.
"You hear that, sir?" Montressor shouted, turning to the lawyer. "You hear that? You have my instructions to proceed with the case at once. You shall pay such damages for this, Mr.—"
"Stop a minute," Knox interrupted. "I'm glad you've brought your lawyer with you. Pity you didn't bring a policeman, too."
"What do you mean, sir?" Mr. Montressor demanded.
"I mean that I can now prove," Knox said, "what was absolutely apparent from the first. The whole thing was a fake. The man Jules is in lodgings in Camberwell Street, waiting for his share of the plunder. It just happens he won't get it. I'm glad you've brought a lawyer, Montressor. There never was a clearer case of conspiracy."
Mr. Montressor swayed upon his feet. His face had gone a most unhealthy colour.
"The one weak point in your scheme," Knox continued, "was that you didn't dare tell Jules that you meant to marry your daughter here to Leonard. You let him think it was only hush money you were going for. That is where you were wrong. That is also why I advised Mr. Spendler to allow that announcement of his engagement to be inserted in the newspapers. Yesterday your house was watched for telegrams or callers. You received a telegram fairly early, Mr. Montressor, and afterwards you went to the Camberwell Road. A pretty lively interview you had with Mr. Jules, I dare say. You managed to keep him quiet, but I saw him later, and he had a good deal to say. Then your little doctor, too, he wasn't quite such a blackguard as you'd like to make out. He came to me last night. He'd been worrying. He confessed that when the thing occurred he was dead drunk. He had no idea what happened. He had nothing to do with your little scheme. The fellow's been a gentleman, and when he began to see through all that it meant, he came and told me the truth. Mind you, I don't say that he wasn't in the conspiracy to a certain extent, but he certainly never understood that you were exacting blackmail from Mr. Spendler in the shape of forcing him to marry your daughter. Now, Mr. Montressor," Knox concluded, standing up, "out of this room within thirty seconds, you and your daughter and your lawyer, and never let any of us see your faces again. That's all I or my friend Spendler have got to say to you. If there's the least trouble, mind, I touch this bell for a policeman. There's one outside."
Mr. Montressor turned slowly away. The girl gave one look at Leonard. Even at that moment an appalling thought crossed her brain.
"My sables!" she gasped.
"You can keep 'em," Leonard said shortly, "and everything else I've given you."
The door slammed behind them. It was an awkward moment. Knox glanced at his watch with a slight yawn.
"No idea it was so nearly lunch-time," he remarked. "Put on your hat and come along, Len. We'll have a bite at the club."
Editor's Note.—In this, the fourth complete story of "Algernon Knox, Accidental Detective" Mr. Oppenheim favours his readers with a peep into some of the methods underlying Anglo-French diplomacy, methods which never get into the newspapers and which never make themselves known to the casual observer. With Mr. Oppenheim, however, the entire romantic fabric of international politics is familiar material, and he exerts no more apparent effort in making his points than does the Hon. Algernon Knox in scoring his surprising victories.
LORD TAMWORTH received his nephew with unusual consideration. He motioned him towards an easy chair and indicated the whereabouts of the cigarettes.
"I trust that my message did not disturb you upon a busy morning?" the Cabinet Minister asked, with faint sarcasm.
"I had a few little matters on hand," Knox replied. "Nothing I couldn't put off very easily, though."
"Could you go to Paris this afternoon?"
"Certainly," Knox answered promptly. "Why?"
Lord Tamworth coughed. "Last Tuesday a Secret Service officer who divides his time between here and Paris, left London by the two-twenty train with a copy of the first part of our new cipher to be delivered personally at the Embassy at Paris. The train arrived at the Gare du Nord punctually, and within half-an-hour, Neville—the man's name was Neville—called at the Embassy and delivered over his packet to one of the secretaries. Since then not a word has been heard of him, either on this side or that."
"Was he supposed to have remained in Paris or to have returned?"
"He was supposed to have remained for that night in Paris and to have returned here by the ten o'clock train on the following morning to report."
"Sounds interesting," Knox admitted. "Tell me about Neville?"
"He has been with us for fifteen years," Lord Tamworth replied, "and was originally a Queen's Messenger. He was one of the Hampshire people. His sister married Lord Sonnington, you know."
"I knew him quite well by sight," Knox remarked. "Saw him only a few weeks ago at the Ritz. So he was in the Secret Service, was he?"
"He was not a very prominent member," Lord Tamworth replied. "On the other hand, he was, we are all convinced, absolutely and entirely trustworthy."
Knox was dangling his eye-glass backwards and forwards. His expression was almost fatuous, nor did his questions seem to his uncle entirely relevant.
"Was there any special reason for changing the cipher?" he asked.
"We do change it continually," Lord Tamworth answered, after a moment's hesitation. "I won't say that we have had cause to suspect any leakage, but certain facts do seem to have become remarkably well known in France just lately. In a few days we shall have a series of instructions to convey to the Embassy there of great importance. This was really the reason why we changed the cipher. When we make a change, we always send one part at a time. The remaining portion will be ready in a few days."
"Queer thing," Knox remarked, "that he should have disappeared after executing his commission. Did he stay long at the Embassy?"
"For a couple of minutes only. He saw Percival, the second secretary."
"Percival make any remark about his appearance?"
"I understand," Lord Tamworth replied, "that Neville complained of a slight chill—nothing else."
"You know where he used to stay in Paris?"
"Certainly! Hôtel de l'Univers—a small, quiet place in the Rue Dachet. Inquiries have been made there, of course. He had wired for a room but did not appear."
"Did he go straight to the station from the Foreign office?" Knox asked, with some apparent irrelevance.
"So far as I can remember," Lord Tamworth told his nephew, "he left Downing Street about one o'clock. His intention was to have some lunch at his club, call at his rooms in Old Burlington Street for his luggage, and catch the two-twenty train. We did not trouble to make inquiries at the club, but there is no doubt that he called at his rooms and took away his luggage. His servant there has heard nothing from him since. The position is that, so far as we know, he left the Embassy in Paris at about twenty past ten last Tuesday evening, and walked off the face of the earth.
"You see exactly how we stand now Algernon. We do not wish to send any well-known person over to make inquiries about Neville. You go to Paris occasionally as a young man of pleasure. Leave this afternoon on one of your accustomed trips. Neville is an acquaintance of yours. Make such inquiries as you can without kicking up too much fuss. If you discover that Neville has met with any misfortune, keep it quiet. One last word of warning. When I say keep anything quiet which you may discover, I mean it. You are not acting now against criminals. You are taking part in a game where the cards are played differently."
"I understand," Knox said thoughtfully. "I'll do my best."....
KNOX started on his quest with an effort at reconstruction. With his bag ready packed, he drove in his taxicab to the Foreign office and, leaving there exactly at one o'clock, called at the club to which Neville belonged, where he made some casual inquiry, and was driven from there to the house in Old Burlington Street where Neville lived. He found this to be the last one on the left-hand side. The street ended in a cul-de-sac, and for the middle of London was extraordinarily quiet and retired. He rang the brightly-polished bell, and was admitted after only a moment or two's delay by a smooth-faced, dark-complexioned servant.
"Mr. Neville in?" Knox asked.
"Mr. Neville is on the Continent, sir," was the prompt reply. "He went last Tuesday."
The man was apparently unaware that anything unusual had happened. He was neatly and primly dressed, the little hall was spotlessly bright and clean, there were fresh flowers in a bowl upon the small table, and a pile of waiting letters there. Knox stood for several seconds, pensive. The man fell a little back from the door. His manners proclaimed him the perfectly trained French servant. "Monsieur would like, perhaps," he suggested, "to write a note? It shall be given to Mr. Neville immediately on his return."
"Have you any idea when that will be?"
The man shook his head regretfully.
"Monsieur Neville," he explained, "is often upon the Continent. He never troubles to let us know when he returns. Everything is always ready. He might walk in at any moment."
"Thank you very much," Knox replied. "I won't trouble to write a note. Sorry to have found him away."
The man bowed and stood with the door open until Knox had retraced his steps to where his taxicab was waiting. He drove from there to Charing-Cross and caught the two-twenty train to Paris, where for twenty-four hours he pursued the obvious course of inquiries. He called at Neville's hotel and spoke of him at the cafés which he was accustomed to frequent. He paid his respects at the Embassy, where he found the ambassador out, but renewed his acquaintance with Percival, the second secretary.
"Queerest thing I ever heard of about Neville," the latter remarked. "I didn't know him very well myself, but he was almost like one of the staff here. 'Old Clockwork' they used to call him."
"If he is ill or anything," Knox remarked, "it's rather lucky that he finished his business here first."
"More than lucky," Percival agreed. "It's a big thing to change our cipher, and this new one has taken an awful time to prepare. How long are you staying in Paris?"
"I'm off at once."
"Better stay to-morrow and have a round of golf at La Boulie. You used to be rather hot stuff."
Knox sighed. "I've been a bit off it lately," he remarked. "By-the-bye, are you really keen?"
"I should think I am," the young man declared heartily. "Thundering good links, La Boulie."
"Tell you what I will do," Knox promised as he buttoned up his coat. "I am interested in some new golf balls, absolutely the best thing on the market. If I send you out a dozen within the next few days, will you promise me to try them at once?"
"Rather!" Percival promised. . . .
KNOX arrived in London on the following morning and made his way at once to Grosvenor Square. His uncle received him with a grim smile.
"No luck, eh, young man?"
"No luck," Knox admitted.
"It was trying you rather high, I dare say," Lord Tamworth remarked. "Still, I don't see why you should give up the thing as hopeless in twenty-four hours."
Knox sighed. "I tried so many places," he murmured. "It didn't seem to me the least use staying there."
"Well, well," Lord Tamworth said, "you must let me know what I owe you for expenses. Smyth will be back from St. Petersburg in a few days. Quite our best man, Smyth. I expect he will get at the secret of Neville's disappearance fast enough."
Knox nodded affably. "Very intelligent fellow, Smyth, I should think, from what I have heard," he remarked. "He'll find Neville all right; that will be a trifle."
"Will it indeed!" Lord Tamworth exclaimed sarcastically. "Then why didn't you do it?"
Knox stared at him blandly. "But I did," he replied. "I knew where Neville was half-an-hour before I left you the day before yesterday."
Lord Tamworth stood perfectly still for a moment. Knox's expression was innocent enough, but there was nothing there to denote that he was not in earnest.
"You discovered Neville?" he gasped.
"Where? In Paris?"
Knox shook his head. "I knew where he was before I left London, sir," he replied. "I only went over to Paris as a matter of form, and to make a little inquiry of the butler at the Embassy. Neville is in his own house in Old Burlington Street. He has been there ever since he left you."
"Don't be an idiot!" Lord Tamworth exclaimed. "He delivered the first portion of the cipher at the Embassy on Tuesday night."
Knox shook his head gently. "Some one else delivered it. He didn't!"
Lord Tamworth threw out his hands—a little gesture of despair. "For heaven's sake, speak out, Algernon," he begged.
"The affair is simple enough," Knox replied,—"at least it seems so to me. I am relying to a certain extent, of course, upon presumption. I called at Neville's house, as you know, on my way to the station. The servant who opened the door was a Frenchman of a very superior type. Everything was in the pink of condition. I wasn't kept waiting at the door a second, but there were several things which looked queer to me. There was a pile of letters obtrusively placed upon the hall-table. At least half of them had been opened and roughly folded together again. Then, as I dare say you may remember, the day upon which Neville was supposed to have started for Paris was a particularly cold one, and yet on the hall rack were hanging his traveling coat and his fur coat, one of which I ascertained he was wearing when he left there, and the other one was in the cab with him. I felt perfectly certain that I could have walked straight into the house and found Neville. Naturally I didn't."
"But if there is any truth in this idea of yours, they may be murdering the poor fellow!" Lord Tamworth exclaimed excitedly.
Knox shook his head. "I don't think they would go so far as that. In any case, I am quite sure that Neville would prefer us to play the game. They have got hold of the first portion of the cipher—there was plenty of time, I suppose, to copy it in the train between London and Paris—and everything depends now upon their securing possession of the other portion. When is that to be sent over?"
Lord Tamworth frowned heavily.
"That's the mischief of it," he replied. "It simply must go over to-night. From to-morrow we shall be sending confidential communications of great importance to Paris. It is really because of them that we changed the cipher."
"The portion they already have, I suppose," Knox asked, "is of no use without the sequel?"
"Not the slightest! The first part really consisted of the cipher itself, and the second part is the key."
"Quite interesting!" Knox murmured thoughtfully. "They will be frightfully keen to get hold of the messenger whom you send to-night. By-the-bye, whom did you think of sending?"
Lord Tamworth shook his head. "I am going round to the office presently. We shall discuss the matter then. Several suggestions have been made. I am rather in favour myself of borrowing from Scotland Yard."
"I can suggest something better," Knox said calmly. "Try me."
Lord Tamworth stroked his chin doubtfully. "Very plucky of you, I am sure, Algernon," he remarked, "but you've had no experience in this sort of thing. I know it seems simple enough to carry a few pages of writing across the Channel, but I can assure you that many a man has lost his life in the attempt. Even during the last few years, I can remember half-a-dozen fatal accidents which have never been properly explained, but which we could tell you something about at the Foreign office."
"I don't think," Knox replied, "that I should be running very much risk. If they really do spot me as the messenger, they'll think they have a soft thing, and they're just as likely as not to overreach themselves."
Lord Tamworth paced the room for a few minutes, deep in thought. "This is a matter," he decided, "which I could not arrange on my own responsibility. You had better come down with me to the office. We'll see Sir Henry. No, on second thoughts don't come with me. I'll go down and explain how the matter stands. You can return here in an hour."
"If, by any chance," Knox said, as he prepared to depart, "Sir Henry should give me the job, will you ask if I can have the sheets loose? Nothing like a sealed packet for giving you away."
Lord Tamworth nodded. "I shall expect you back in an hour." . . .
KNOX strolled down Pall Mall, where at an athletic outfitter's he purchased two boxes of golf balls of a particular make and took them round to his rooms. Here he ordered his bags packed and gave certain instructions to his servant. At the expiration of the time agreed upon, he presented himself again at his uncle's house in Grosvenor Square. Lord Tamworth received him at once, but he was evidently worried.
"It's all right," he declared, a little testily. "Come along, and I'll take you round to the Foreign office."
They started off in Lord Tamworth's automobile.
"I am awfully obliged to you, uncle," Knox said, "for letting me have this chance."
Lord Tamworth was not enthusiastic.
"To tell you the truth," he confessed, "we couldn't make up our mind what to do. No one's very pleased about the whole affair. Smyth won't be here for three days, two other men, whom we might have sent, are away, and we have private information that all the men we fear most in the French Secret Service are on the look-out. You seem to be really our only chance. All our regulars are marked men!"
Just then they drew up at the Foreign office. "You'd better come in with me," he directed. "Sir Henry would like to speak to you himself."
Knox followed his uncle into the private room of the Cabinet Minister whom they had come to visit. The latter shook hands with Knox, whom he regarded for a moment in thoughtful silence.
"Your uncle tells me that you believe Neville to be held up in London," he remarked.
"I am sure of it, sir," Knox replied. "I know exactly where he is."
"Kept it to yourself, haven't you?"
"Entirely, sir. Seemed to me the best thing, for the present."
"Quite so," the minister agreed. "I suppose you know that they'll go for you, too, if they have any idea that you're in the game?"
"Shouldn't be surprised, sir," Knox admitted cheerfully.
Sir Henry took a few sheets of loose tissue-paper from his waistcoat pocket.
"There you are," he said. "I won't ask you what you are going to do with them. My compliments over the other side—if you get there—and good-night."
Knox stood with his uncle upon the doorstep. "Will you take my car to Victoria?" the latter invited.
"Not to Victoria," Knox replied. "If you'll drop me at my rooms, I'll be glad. I'll find my own way from there."
Lord Tamworth did as he was asked. During the short drive, he became more and more despondent. Never had his nephew seemed to him so pink and white and vacuous! Knox lit a cigarette and was whistling a popular musical comedy tune. He seemed quite incapable of grasping the seriousness of the situation.
"Sure you wouldn't like to keep the car?" Lord Tamworth persisted, as they drew up in Peter Street.
"Rather not, thanks," Knox answered. "The sooner these fellows get to work, the better. Au revoir!"
He stepped lightly out and crossed the pavement quickly. Lord Tamworth groaned. It was impossible that his nephew's looks could belie him so utterly. The cipher was already lost!
A FEW minutes after eight o'clock, Knox's servant, with a rather formidable collection of luggage, was driven off in a passing taxicab to Charing-Cross. Directly afterwards, Knox, with no luggage save his overcoat and a square brown paper package, himself strolled out on to the pavement and stepped into a taxicab which drew up immediately in front of him.
"Where to, sir?" the man asked.
"Charing-Cross," Knox directed.
They swung off into the stream of traffic, down St. James's Street, past Marlborough House into St. James's Park, and turned to the left along the broad new thoroughfare. The speed of the cab was at once reduced. The man was driving in the middle of the road, very slowly—almost crawling along, in fact. Suddenly he lifted the speaking tube from its place by his side, and stooped down. Almost immediately Knox was conscious of a sickly and terrible odor pervading the interior of the cab. He leaned quickly over to the window but found it fastened. He tried to plug up the speaking tube with his handkerchief, but it was too late. His head seemed to be bursting. A feeling of deadly nausea had seized upon him. He sprang at the window and thrust his elbow through it. His last conscious thought was a crash of glass. Then it seemed to him that he was in the sea. There were strange noises, a roaring in his ears. . . .
Knox opened his eyes. He was lying upon a sofa in a pleasantly-furnished sitting-room. Two men were bending together over a table in the middle of the room, upon which stood a heavily shaded lamp, an empty cardboard box, and a number of golf balls. One of the men was busy collecting a quantity of thin sheets, which he placed in his pocketbook. Knox recognized him as Neville's French servant.
"And now," he heard the latter say "for Paris! I must leave, my friend, at once. I shall just catch the train."
"I shall come with you," the other declared. "The affair is finished here." His companion looked doubtfully across at Knox.
"He comes to his senses," he muttered. "What are you going to do with him?"
The reply was inaudible. A moment or two later, the two men left the room. Knox heard the front door close, heard the taxicab drive away. Then gradually he relapsed into his state of semi-stupor. The waves seemed once more to be around him.
When next he opened his eyes, although he was still feeling sick, he was certainly stronger. He tried to move and gave a little cry. His hands and feet were tied. He was conscious of an intolerable thirst. He looked around the room. The silence of the house told him that it was no use ringing the bell, if even he could reach it. Suddenly his eyes fell upon the telephone which stood upon a side table. He rolled over on to the floor, saving himself from the fall as much as possible. Then he dragged himself to the table on which the telephone stood. All his attempts to reach the instrument, however, were futile. As a last resource he upset the table. The instrument fell on to the floor but remained undamaged. With great difficulty he managed to get the receiver to his ear.
"1382 Mayfair," he said, surprised at the weakness of his own voice.
Presently there came an answer. It was his uncle's secretary. Then, after a brief silence, Lord Tamworth himself was heard at the other end.
"Who is it?" he demanded.
"Algernon Knox," was the faint reply. "Come at once to 72 Old Burlington Street. You'll probably have to break in. I am tied up."
Lord Tamworth's language for the moment became a subtle mixture of disgust and profanity. "I did think you'd get as far as the railway station!" he wound up. "Yes, I'll come."
Knox dropped the receiver and lay still, From the sounds in the street, he could tell that the morning now was well advanced. The sunshine came in one long, thin line through the shuttered window. Presently he heard a car stop outside. There was the sound of voices, the trying of latch-keys, and finally the opening of the door and footsteps in the hall. Lord Tamworth, followed by Sir Henry and a couple of strangers, entered the room hurriedly. One of the men, who behaved as though he were used to the task, rapidly cut the cords which bound Knox. The latter staggered weakly to his feet. On the table before them lay his empty note-book, his dispatch box turned inside out. Lord Tamworth looked at them and bit his lip.
"I must confess," he said, "that I had my doubts about you, Algernon, from the first, but I certainly thought you might have got a little nearer to Paris than Old Burlington Street!"
"They didn't give me much of a chance, did they?" Knox remarked feebly. "Hadn't we better look for poor old Neville?"
They hurried up-stairs. Knox tried to follow but gave it up. Presently they came down again. One of their number went to the telephone and rang up a doctor.
"You were right so far as Neville was concerned," Lord Tamworth declared grudgingly. "He is up-stairs in bed, ghastly weak, but all right in other respects, I should say. He has been drugged or something."
"They dosed me," Knox groaned, "with chloroform! Gave it me in a horrid sort of way, too, down the tube of the taxicab."
Lord Tamworth sighed. He began to talk on one side with Sir Henry. Their faces were very grave. "By-the-bye," Knox inquired presently, "is there a telegram for me?"
Lord Tamworth drew one from his pocket and threw it upon the table.
"Sorry I opened it," he explained. "As it was addressed to you at Grosvenor Square, I thought it might have something to do with our present business.
"Hasn't it?" Knox asked simply.
Lord Tamworth frowned. He withdrew the thin sheet from the envelope and read the message aloud with poignant sarcasm:
"MANY THANKS FOR GOLF BALLS DULY RECEIVED."
"It is a pity," he remarked grimly, "that you were not so successful with your mission as you were in sending golf balls to Percival!"
Knox smiled a little weakly. "You don't really suppose, do you," he demanded, "you and Sir Henry, that those fellows have actually got the cipher?"
Sir Henry turned suddenly around. A curious silence seemed to have fallen upon them. They all looked at Knox.
"Not got the cipher?" Sir Henry gasped.
"Of course they haven't," Knox replied. "Do you suppose I didn't know that I was going to be nobbled? The twelve pages of the cipher were wrapped around those golf balls. My man took them over last night. That's the telegram I told Percival to send directly he received them."
Again the silence was almost phenomenal. Lord Tamworth tried to speak but remained inarticulate. It was Sir Henry who first found words.
"What about these golf balls on the table, then?" he asked.
"I bought two boxes, in case I was watched," Knox explained. "The box with the cipher sheets wrapped around the balls has got through to Paris. These I carried under my arm, in case they'd seen me go into the shop and had tumbled to the idea."
Sir Henry held out his hand. "Mr. Knox," he said, "I congratulate you. I see that we have gained a worthy and a useful recruit in times of need."
Lord Tamworth was still speechless.
"Golf balls!" he muttered.
Knox sat up a little farther in his chair.
"You see," he continued, "they won't find out for hours that they haven't got the proper key to the cipher. The dummy sheets are rubbish, of course, but they look all right."
Sir Henry's eyes were lit with humour.
"It's one on us this time, young man, thanks to you!" he exclaimed, patting him on the shoulder. "Here comes the doctor. Mind, you're to be patched up in time to lunch with us at Downing Street at half-past one."
"I'll be there," Knox promised.
Editor's Note. The fact that Mr. E. Phillips Oppenheim is the English author whose books have the largest sale in this country of all British-made fiction, is largely explanatory of Mr. Oppenheim's appearance between the covers of Hearst's Magazine. But the real explanation of his priority, so to speak, must be found in Mr. Oppenheim's stories themselves. There are about his tales that joyousness, that hit or miss, touch-and-go spirit which we Americans love and which we demand in our fiction. Note, for instance, the spirit in which Knox enters, almost blindly, upon his adventure in this, the fifth complete narrative of the affairs of "Algernon Knox, Accidental Detective."
KNOX'S visit to Charing-Cross on that particular evening was almost casual. He had found himself in the vicinity at about nine forty-five, and had remembered suddenly that Percival was expected on leave from Paris either that evening or the following morning. He reached the platform just as the train arrived, and having satisfied himself that Percival was not amongst the passengers, was on the point of departing when his attention was attracted by a man who was obviously suffering from some sort of illness. The person in question was young, well-dressed, evidently a foreigner. He had apparently been on his way toward the exit, but was clutching now at one of the wooden rails Warding that portion of the platform set aside for the customs' examination. His face was ghastly pale, and although the night was cold, there were drops of perspiration upon his forehead. His teeth were clenched as though he were making a fierce effort to retain consciousness. Knox stepped over to his side.
"I'm afraid you're rather ill," he said. "Take my arm, if you like, and I'll help you into a taxi."
The man looked at him swiftly. Notwithstanding his desperate state, his first instinct seemed to be one of suspicion. Knox's appearance, however, once more stood him in good stead. The man almost clutched at his arm.
"You are very good," he muttered. "Get me into a taxicab, if you can, and tell the driver to take me to the nearest hospital. And—there is something else. Listen! There is something else."
"Wait till you are sitting down in the taxi," Knox suggested soothingly. "Sure you wouldn't like a drop of brandy first?"
The young man shuddered. "It was the brandy—they gave me in the smoking-room—that did it. The pigs! Listen! 17, Berkeley Square—you heard that—Miss de Hagon. You go there for me. You tell her what you have seen—where I am. You promise?"
"With pleasure!" Knox replied cheerfully. "Here's a taxi. I'll take you across the way to the Charing-Cross Hospital. They'll soon put you to rights."
He opened the door and almost lifted his companion into the vehicle. Then, before following himself, he turned sharply around. He was conscious that two men had been almost treading upon their heels down the platform. The face of one was familiar, although for a moment it puzzled Knox. He gave the driver the address and, stepping in, seated himself by the side of the young man, who seemed already half unconscious.
"It is very kind of you," the latter murmured in French. "Tell them I have plenty of money. I can pay for a private room. And remember—Miss de Hagon, 17, Berkeley Square."
Knox took his charge to the hospital and waited for a report. The young man, he was told presently, seemed to be suffering from a sort of ptomaine poisoning. There were no immediate dangerous symptoms, and he was quite comfortable. Knox stepped back into the taxicab and drove to 17, Berkeley Square.
He found the house small, with a circular white front, spotlessly clean and bright—a most fascinating-looking maisonette. The door flew open almost as he touched the bell, and a butler in quiet livery received his inquiry.
"Miss de Hagon is not receiving to-night, sir," he announced doubtfully.
"I have a special message for her," Knox explained. "The matter is really urgent. I am unknown to Miss de Hagon, but my name is Knox."
The butler accepted his card, and opening the door of a small sitting-room, ushered the visitor in. Knox stood by the fire, looking around him with some curiosity. Suddenly the door opened. Without announcement, a young woman had stepped in and was looking at him inquiringly. She was unusually slim and not very tall. She wore a grey dress of some very soft and very thin material, fastened at the throat with a brooch which contained one pearl of enormous size. She had the bluest eyes he had ever seen. Her hair was unfashionably arranged in a manner strange to him. She wore a fringe upon her forehead, and long earrings. His first impressions of her were that she was clever, eccentric, fascinating.
"You are Miss de Hagon?" Knox asked.
"I am," she answered. "I am told that you wish to speak to me urgently."
Knox rapidly explained his errand. Her expression became entirely inscrutable. Before he had finished, her finger was upon the bell.
"I am exceedingly obliged to you—Mr. Knox," she said. "I will go to my friend at once."
The butler was standing in the doorway. "Send Annette with my cloak," she ordered quickly, "and whistle for a taxicab. Good evening, Mr. Knox," she added, with a little nod of dismissal. "I really thank you very much for your kindness."
Knox bowed low and passed out into the street.
"An interesting little episode," he thought as he strolled toward Pall Mall. "But—I wish I could remember that man's face!"
The hall-porter handed him a telegram immediately he entered his club. He tore it open. It was from Sir George Hanover, a distant connection of his:
"BEG YOU JOIN HOUSE-PARTY HERE TO-MORROW. SHOOTING WOODS. MOTOR DOWN EARLY, IF POSSIBLE. TWO GUNS SHORT. RELY ON YOU. HANOVER."
Knox struggled once more into the overcoat from which he had begun to divest himself.
"Phone through on long-distance to Corpusty, Harwood," he directed his man. "Tell Sir George Hanover that Mr. Knox is delighted to accept."
KNOX rose at six o'clock the next morning, and, after a three hours' journey, arrived at his destination just as his host was engaged in arranging the field for the first shoot. He advanced to greet his early visitor with much satisfaction.
"Now this is what I call really sporting of you, Algy! Cold ride it must have been, too. I only hope you'll get good sport."
Knox detained his host as he was in the act of hurrying off. "Can you tell me the name of my right-hand neighbor, Sir George?" he asked.
Sir George Hanover looked down the avenue to where, a dozen yards or so away, a tall, slim man was standing—dark, good-looking in a way, but with a somewhat peculiar cast of countenance.
"The Marquis de Brinault," he replied. "He's Emmie's cousin, you know. A devilish good shot, they tell me."
Sir George bustled off, and Knox, after eating a sandwich and taking a drink from his flask, fell to stirring the pools of his memory. It was not until the drive was over, however, that he suddenly remembered. When memory did come, it was double-barrelled. He looked back not only into that little sitting-room in Old Burlington Street, but down the platform at Charing-Cross. The man who had fallen into step by his side smiled.
"I trust that you have quite recovered from your slight indisposition, Mr. Knox?" he said.
"And you, I hope," Knox replied, "from your disappointment."
De Brinault laughed softly. "An apt retort, my young friend," he remarked. "It is true that we were caught. We trusted too much to appearances."
Knox changed his gun from one shoulder to the other. "Thanks!" he murmured.
His companion paused to light a cigarette.
"To us," he continued, "you seemed to be just the type of young English nincompoop with whom we like most to deal. The nephew of Lord Tamworth, too! It was all so wonderful that we were deceived."
"Poor old nunky!" Knox sighed.
They went off to their places. The drive was a long one, and Knox shot badly. All the time his brain was at work. De Brinault was a spy. He was staying here in Sir George Hanover's house, staying here with a purpose. Why? . . .
KNOX was introduced at luncheon-time to the other members of the house-party at Corpusty, some of whom he had not yet met, as he had only called at the house in passing. There were five men, including de Brinault, all of whom he knew; and only two women. One was his hostess, Lady Hanover, fat, fifty, and frivolous. The other was—Miss de Hagon. Notwithstanding her altered attire—her trim, tailor-made gown, her smart little toque and heavy veil—he recognized her at once. She shook hands without the slightest sign of ever having seen him before. Knox sat down to lunch more puzzled than ever. He was on the outskirts of a mystery in which were linked together De Brinault, the sick man at Charing-Cross, and Miss de Hagon.
They lunched in a great barn attached to an old-fashioned farm-house. Knox found himself placed next Miss de Hagon and did his best to make himself agreeable. He found her personally even more attractive than he had imagined. Her pale, oval face, her wonderful blue eyes, her masses of brown hair, and her quaintly combed little fringe gave her a piquant originality which he found entirely charming. She spoke with a slightly foreign accent, save for which he would have judged her to be an American. She talked throughout luncheon-time with delightful spirit and an abandon which was not without its peculiar attractiveness. She treated Knox with especial favour. De Brinault, on her other side, although he made frequent advances, was almost neglected.
"An affair of a challenge, without a doubt," the latter remarked, a little irritably, as the two men walked out together. "Do you know that you have monopolized Miss de Hagon disgracefully?"
"Think so?" Knox asked.
"My friend," de Brinault replied, "I have come to a decision. You are here on account of Miss de Hagon. So am I. Let us join forces. This time we are natural allies. We can help one another."
"It is perhaps excusable," Knox remarked drily, "if the suggestion reminds me somewhat unfortunately of certain circumstances connected with our last meeting."
"Rubbish!" De Brinault exclaimed. "To a man of common-sense, all is clear. On our last meeting you stood for the secret service of England and I for the secret service of France. There was a little duel. The odds would certainly seem to have been in my favour. I had experience, and I held the stronger position. Nevertheless, I lost. You see that I have no false shame. I admit that I lost. I made the one unpardonable mistake—I underrated my opponent. I am not likely to repeat it."
The whistle sounded, and they strolled apart to their places. It was not, indeed, until the late afternoon, on their way back to the house, that they came together again. The women had left them almost immediately after lunch, owing to a drizzling rain. De Brinault, who had been shooting magnificently and had seemed in the highest spirits, was now depressed and silent. His face, as they walked up the avenue in the grey twilight, seemed strangely set and drawn. Suddenly they heard the sound of a horn. A car passed by on its way to the house. Its single occupant was an elderly man—stout, and with a short, iron-grey beard. A little exclamation broke from de Brinault's lips.
"Already!" he muttered.
"Who is that?" Knox asked.
"His Excellency Prince Melinoff," de Brinault answered bitterly.
"The Russian Ambassador?"
De Brinault nodded. "The man with the greatest brain in Europe—and one weakness—Adele de Hagon. He follows her as a moth does the candle, even here at a country house in the middle of November, whilst the lights are flaring in Downing Street by night and day, and Pall Mall is alive with war rumours."
"Any truth in them, do you think?" Knox questioned.
"Ask Melinoff," De Brinault replied. "It is he who can make or avert war."
"Wish I understood more about politics," Knox sighed.
De Brinault looked at him long and searchingly through the gathering gloom.
"My young friend of the ingenuous countenance," he said, "come to my room when you have had your bath, or as soon as you have changed, and I will give you a little lesson."
AT a quarter past seven, Knox presented himself at de Brinault's rooms and was admitted by his valet, who instantly withdrew. De Brinault, already dressed, welcomed his guest with a little wave of the hand, and poured the contents of a cocktail-shaker into two wine-glasses.
"Mr. Knox," he said, "I am glad to see you. Will you drink with me to our better acquaintance?"
Knox took the wine-glass with a little bow. He gazed at the amber liquid meditatively.
"There is nothing, I presume," he began, with some hesitation.
De Brinault changed glasses with him and promptly drained the contents. "I do not blame you," he said, "but remember this. We were on opposite sides last time we met. To-night we are allies."
"We are allies so far as this," de Brinault continued. "Under this roof—perhaps to-night, perhaps to-morrow—they are hatching treason, these two, treason against my country and yours, treason against the balance of power which alone keeps Europe at peace."
"By 'these two'," Knox murmured, "you mean?"
"Adele de Hagon and the Russian. You may be no politician, Mr. Knox, but you have some measure of common-sense. You know, like every one else, that it is the question of Russia which makes the balance of power in Europe. If Germany and Austria, with Italy, could rely upon the neutrality of Russia, what have they to fear from France and England? Nothing! Now I will tell you a thing which is known to but four men in Europe, including the President of France and your own Prime Minister. An Austrian envoy left Vienna for London thirty-six hours ago, on a secret mission. Not for St. Petersburg, mind you. We could deal with him there readily enough. Besides, his errand would be fruitless. Russia does nothing without Prince Melinoff's sanction. Melinoff, your ambassador, is the brains of Russia. What he says is Law. They know that well enough at Vienna and in Berlin. We know it, too, in Paris. When the danger signals are hoisted, it isn't to St Petersburg we look. It is around Melinoff, wherever he may be. Austria wants Serbia. Germany desires the humiliation of Great Britain and to check the growing strength of France. Russia can help her to both—at a price."
"And the price?"
"Constantinople! Now, my young friend, you know more than the man in the street, more than the well-informed diplomatist. You are within the inner councils. If I thought that I had made a mistake, it would be the end of your career. But I have made no mistake."
"Go on," Knox begged, impassively.
"The man whom you helped into a taxicab at Charing-Cross was Count Etzfeld, the Austrian envoy of whom I have spoken. The doctors at the hospital called it, I believe, ptomaine poisoning. What does it matter? He lies between life and death, but sufficiently near life, worse luck, to have passed on his mission to Adele de Hagon."
"My fault, lam afraid," Knox sighed.
"Your fault, indeed, but your unwitting fault. Certainly, if you had not been there, Etzfeld would never have reached Charing-Cross Hospital. Anyhow, let us waste no time talking of the unpreventable. For many years, Adele de Hagon has had connections with the secret service of Austria. She lives in London but she hates England. She is, perhaps, so far as personal feeling is concerned, the most dangerous enemy your country has. She is, too, the dear friend, the adviser, the inspiration of Melinoff. She has withdrawn herself down here only to bring him to her feet. She is here to win him over to the side of Austria. If she succeeds, then, my friend, the clouds are gathering fast over both our heads."
"Again," Knox interrupted, "I must ask—what can we do?"
De Brinault threw away his cigarette and lit another. "I had a scheme, my friend," he declared, "a scheme arranged to perfection. It was a chef d'oeuvre, it has cost me sleepless nights. It has broken down," he added, with a faint twirl of his moustache, "broken down in a manner most inexplicable. Listen. Melinoff, like all great men, has his weakness. He is fiercely, incurably jealous. Conscious of his physical imperfections, he is immensely, inordinately sensitive about them. My scheme had for its very basis this weakness of his. It is destroyed by a woman's caprice, or else her subtlety. Who can tell which? Yet the fact remains. You yourself were a witness of what passed at luncheon time. Adele de Hagon has taken, for some unaccountable reason, a violent dislike to me. That is where my scheme fails before it is begun. For its success, it was absolutely necessary that she should treat me before people with at any rate a little more than civility. She treats me instead with a great deal less. That, my friend Algernon Knox, is where you come in."
Knox sipped his cocktail thoughtfully.
"Do I!" he murmured.
"Adele, for some reason or other, regards you with favour. Perhaps she is suspicious of me. Who can tell? She regards you with favour, and, like all women, she loves to play with fire. That is to say, up to a mild point she loves to make Melinoff jealous. She will continue, therefore, if you are attentive, if you play the part I design for you, to show you favour. Very good! That is all that is necessary. You play my part, and my scheme goes on."
"Unless," Knox remarked, "there is a little more in your scheme than a mere attempt to create jealousy between a shrewd far-seeing man like Melinoff, and a clever, calculating young woman like Adele de Hagon, I am very much afraid you will find it inadequate."
"There is more in it," de Brinault said quietly. "The question is, are you with me in this?"
"I am," Knox replied steadfastly.
The roll of a gong reverberated through the house. De Brinault's valet knocked at the inner door.
"After dinner to-night," de Brinault whispered, "stroll out of the room with me. Every one leaves the table together, and there is music in the hall, where coffee and liqueurs are served. At dinner-time you are to take in Miss de Hagon. Remember your role. She is clever, but where men are concerned she is insatiable."
"I will remember," Knox promised. . . .
KNOX, a few minutes afterward, by his hostess' instructions, carried Adele de Hagon away from Melinoff's side.
"For once in my life," he murmured, "I am glad that I am not an ambassador!"
"You would have found your hostess," she laughed, "a most entertaining woman."
Knox lowered his voice a little. He was certainly acting his part very well. Before dinner his admiration, notwithstanding his apparent efforts to conceal it, had been obvious. Now that he was seated by Miss de Hagon's side, he found his tongue readily enough. From the passing of the hors d'oeuvres to the coming of the ices, he made love respectfully but ardently in the light parlance of the day, and his companion accepted his homage with a laughing tolerance, accompanied now and then by a flash of the eyes or a softer word. From the other side of the table, Melinoff occasionally glowered at them. Adele de Hagon affected to disregard his ill-humour.
"I wonder why," Knox remarked once, "that stout old gentleman opposite seems trying to transfix me. Arrived this evening, didn't he?"
"What an ignorant person you are!" she whispered, lowering her voice a little. "That is Prince Melinoff, the Russian Ambassador."
"Is it!" Knox replied, unmoved.
"If he only heard," she continued mischievously, "half of what you have been saying to me!"
"I'll raise my voice, if you like."
She flashed a warning glance at him. "If you want to-be friends with me," she advised, "please be careful. There are reasons—I can't explain just now—but Prince Melinoff is very friendly with my relations. He is almost my guardian."
"May I come and talk with you in the hall, please?" Knox begged.
She shook her head reluctantly. There was, nevertheless, a provocative gleam in her eyes. "Perhaps—a little later," she murmured, as she rose to her feet. "Don't come out with me now. I know that Prince Melinoff wants to speak to me."
Some folding doors were thrown open, and the company of guests strolled out into the great hall, where tables were set for coffee, and a small company of musicians were playing softly up in a balcony.
"Rather like a hotel," his hostess remarked to Knox, as she passed, "but George loves music with his coffee and hates it with his dinner."
De Brinault came up, and a moment or two later he and Knox strolled towards the billiard room. On the way, Knox stopped short. His eyes were fixed upon the gallery. Just behind the musicians a woman was leaning over, gazing intently down upon the little company.
"What is it?" de Brinault demanded. Knox motioned with his head, but the woman, as though conscious of his observation, had flitted away. "Adele de Hagon—up there!" Knox exclaimed. "I saw her distinctly, behind the violinist. And only a second ago she was talking to old Melinoff! What the mischief is she doing up there?"
"I can't see anyone at all except the musicians," de Brinault declared.
"I tell you that she vanished almost as I was looking at her, and—good heavens!—he's down there with Melinoff again! Is the place enchanted, or is there a secret stairway?"
De Brinault shrugged his shoulders.
"The lady has bewitched you, dear friend. Come with me now. At dinner-time, let me tell you, you were magnificent. I watched the old bear bristle all over. Our hostess—did you know that she was my cousin?—is on our side. Everything is arranged. Now listen."
AT twelve o'clock precisely, Knox turned the handle of a sitting-room door upon the second floor, and, closing the door behind him quickly, stood for a moment upon the threshold, listening intently. The room was lit only by the flames of the wood fire, and by a single heavily-shaded reading lamp.
"Adele, is that you?" he whispered softly.
A slim feminine figure rose slowly from the sofa. The sequins glittered from her gold and white dress as she rose to her feet. She pushed back her fringe a little with one hand.
"But this is so rash of you!" she faltered. "I did not mean it. Indeed, I never meant you to come. You must have known that."
He crossed the room swiftly to where she was standing, fell on one knee and seized her hands.
"But, Adele," he protested, "I can't help it. All this evening you have been torturing me—torturing me because you smiled and whispered with that Russia."
The door leading into the bedroom behind, which had been half open at his entrance, creaked a little. They neither of them seemed to notice it.
"Why are you jealous of him, you stupid person?" she murmured. "He is old enough to be my father."
"And ugly enough for Caliban?" Knox assented. "And yet, you see how foolish I am. He speaks with an air of proprietorship. It maddens me!"
"Absurd!" she laughed. "Why, it is scarcely twenty-four hours since we met."
"But all my life worth living lies inside that twenty-four hours!" Knox insisted. She wrenched one of her hands away.
Knox rose to his feet. His arm was around her waist, he drew her closer to him.
"There is no one of whom you need be jealous," she assured him softly. "As for that old man, I will let you into a secret. There is a plot just now to catch him tripping. He has been so hard on others, so brutal all his life. He believes that I bear a message for him from Aust—from a country I will not mention. You know nothing about politics, Algernon, but Melinoff thinks himself a heaven-sent diplomat. We are just teaching him that it is possible even for the cleverest to make a slip. In less than a fortnight's time, he will be in such disgrace with his country that the chances are he will be recalled. But did you come here," she added, dropping her voice, "to talk politics with me?"
His arms were around her, her head fell a little back. Suddenly the inner door was thrown open. They sprang apart. Prince Melinoff stood there, looking at them. His face was white with anger, his voice shook. After that first moment's stare of horror, Adele covered her face with her hands.
"So I have to thank an honest serving woman for my escape, have I?" he exclaimed. "You—"
He broke into Russian, speaking rapidly and with fierce diction. Adele sank on to her knees. She held out one hand imploringly towards him. He spurned her contemptuously. Finally he departed. They were left alone. She rose to her feet slowly and pointed to the door. "Go," she whispered.
LADY HANOVER was almost bad-tempered as she wished Knox and De Brinault good-bye on the following morning.
"I really don't know whether to apologize to you or to scold you both," she declared with a glance at the footman who was standing at a discreet distance. "Twenty-four hours ago, my house-party promised to be a complete success. Now everything seems to have gone wrong. Do you know that at one o'clock this morning Prince Melinoff ordered his motor-car and drove up to London, with scarcely a word of explanation. Miss de Hagon's maid has just come down to say that her mistress has a headache and will not be down until luncheon-time. Something has happened."
De Brinault raised his cousin's hand to his lips. "Dear Emmie," he affirmed earnestly, "something indeed has happened which you do not understand, but nevertheless, for all our sakes, do not regret it. You have obeyed a few simple requests, and given shelter for the night to a very talented young lady. Incidentally, you have preserved the peace of Europe."
De Brinault and Knox drove to the station, talking most of the way a little excitedly. On the platform they were joined by a young lady in a long grey traveling coat and a very smart French hat. Knox looked at her in amazement.
"Upon my word," he exclaimed breathlessly, "no wonder that old beast was taken in! Good morning, mademoiselle!"
She greeted them with a charming smile.
"Success. I trust?" she inquired.
De Brinault handed her into a carriage of the train which had just drawn up.
"Mademoiselle," he replied, "we pray so. Till the evening newspapers are out, we cannot tell for certain. So far as your part was concerned, success was absolute."
"For the rest of my life," Knox sighed regretfully, "I shall not know whether I am really in love with Miss Adele de Hagon or Mademoiselle Dulche of the Comédie Française, and temporarily of the Palace, London. Your fringe, your eyes, your figure, your tone—"
She shrugged her shoulders. "But, monsieur, I am famous throughout the world! I had but to study Miss de Hagon from the balcony behind the musicians for ten minutes, and the thing was done."
"What I cannot quite understand," Knox remarked, "is where was Miss de Hagon from twelve till half-past?"
"Impressed into a rubber of bridge by her hostess," de Brinault explained. "Her waiting-maid—our dear but very expensive friend Marie—whispered in her ear three minutes before that the time for Melinoff's little visit was to be one o'clock."
"But now?" Knox exclaimed. "And last night—afterwards?"
De Brinault shook his head. "An affair of Marie and a sleeping powder," he remarked. "She will not wake until mid-day and the luncheon is at the Mansion House at one o'clock." . . .
DE BRINAULT and Knox met early that evening by appointment at the latter's club. De Brinault entered, carrying an evening paper. Knox was already studying it. The face of the former was wreathed in smiles.
"My friend," he exclaimed, "you have read? In Paris they will be jubilant; on the continent aghast. Melinoff, in his speech this morning at the Mansion House—at the very luncheon where it was stated that he would not be present—reaffirmed, as it had never been affirmed before, the unchanging alliance between France and Russia and the Triple Entente. He spoke for his country and declared that no bribe or favour from any other nation could disturb it."
Knox rang the bell for a waiter. "Two cocktails," he ordered—"Martini—dry."
Editor's Note:—Another complete story of the Accidental Detective, the Honourable Algernon Knox, the man who didn't look it. Daisy Maynard thought it was murder, but it wasn't; it was money. Here is a clever story—a literary cocktail, if you like—one part mystery, one part high finance, a little higher than usual, with a dash of the romance of a loyal woman, and then a good deal of naive satisfaction on the part of Lord Tamworth, who never could make sure of Algy's looks. A good beginning is half the story; and a better ending is the other half—that's the way Mr. E. Phillips Oppenheim builds his stories. His style, too, is delightful; something you will remember and appreciate.
THE Honourable Algernon Knox glanced around impatiently as he felt the touch upon his shoulder. His impatience deepened into annoyance as he surveyed the young man standing at his elbow—a young man with high-coloured complexion. Semitic, gorgeously but illy dressed.
"Well?" he demanded.
"You're Mr. Knox, aren't you?" the young man enquired eagerly.
"If I am, you have the advantage of me," Knox replied curtly.
"My name is Kohn," the unconscious offender explained, "Eugene Kohn. You wouldn't know anything about me, but Miss Maynard sent me over. We've got a table at the side there."
Knox declined to show the slightest interest in the information.
"What is it you want with me? " he asked.
"Miss Maynard wants to speak to you. She saw you sitting here, and she sent me over. She is very much bothered about a little matter, and she thought you might be able to advise her."
One of Knox's companions leaned across the table. "Daisy Maynard was John Grinen's pal," he volunteered.
The young man nodded. "That's so," he admitted. "Daisy's in a great state about his disappearance. I had hard work to get her out to-night at all. Since she saw Mr. Knox, she's been bothering me all the time to come across and fetch him."
Knox rose slowly to his feet. The affair now was on a different footing. Any friend of John Grinen's was worth talking to. Only a moment or two ago, their conversation had been of this man and his marvelous disappearance. There probably wasn't a table in the room at which the subject had not been discussed, not an evening paper which had not added its quota to the fund of sensationalism connected with the wholly unexplained disappearance of a great financier at a critical moment in the history of the Anaguta Tin Mine.
"Where is Miss Maynard?" Knox asked.
Mr. Eugene Kohn led the way to the somewhat remote table to which he had been relegated.
The girl was eagerly awaiting their coming. She was, in her way, pretty, but would have remained unnoticeable but for her fashionable clothes and a pallor which was something more than mere pastiness.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Knox," she said quickly. "You must sit down here for a moment, please. I have something to say to you."
There was only one other chair at the table, and Knox took it without hesitation. Mr. Eugene Kohn, after a word of protest which nobody heeded, drifted away into the background. The girl leaned across the table so that her cheek brushed against the pink-shaded lamp. It was obvious that for her Mr. Eugene Kohn no longer existed.
"You can guess why I sent for you," she whispered eagerly. "It is. about Mr: Grinen. You knew that he was a friend of mine?"
"I heard it a few minutes ago," Knox admitted slowly.
"He was a dear friend. I have been worried to death by all this. Even the reporters and a man from Scotland Yard. And now—" Her voice choked for a moment.
Knox spoke to her kindly. "If you have any information about the affair," he said, "which has not been made known, I think that you ought to hand it over at once to the authorities. You see, this isn't my show at all. I only got back from the country this morning, and I have scarcely even read the case from the newspaper standpoint."
"Authorities!" she repeated, in a whisper of hoarse disdain. "There aren't any here in the room, are there? And it is now—this moment—that I've something to say, something to tell. That is why I sent for you quickly. At any rate, I know that you have your wits about you. Nothing else matters."
"Go on, then!"
The breath seemed to be drawn back between her teeth. She spoke not exactly in a whisper but in an undertone, monotonous yet emotional.
"There is someone here—within a few yards of us—who knows all about the disappearance of John Grinen—or is perhaps his murderer! Don't look up. He may be watching us at this instant."
Knox did not remove his eyes from the girl's face. He nodded thoughtfully. "Be careful," he whispered. "Your voice is just a little hysterical, you know. I see you have some chicken upon your plate. Please eat two mouthfuls and take a sip of your wine. Then go on."
She obeyed him, and meanwhile Knox talked lightly of the show in which she was engaged, the new songs and music, and the latest gossip about the leading lady. Presently she set down her wine-glass empty. Once more she leaned across the table. "The big man to my right—at the table against the wall."
Their conversation, for a few moments, dealt once more with inanities. Then, as it dwindled away, Knox glanced across at the man whom she had indicated. He was largely-built, with a smooth pink and white face, perfectly beardless, yet with the corpulent stature of a man past middle-age. He was in evening dress, with a great expanse of white shirt-front, elaborate studs and buttons, and he wore pumps with silk bows upon his small feet, which seemed, somehow, ridiculously inadequate to sustain his weight. His neck bulged out behind his collar; he wore his light yet scanty hair brushed smoothly back from his forehead. In his right hand he held a pencil with a jeweled top.
"Well?" Knox asked.
"The pencil in his hand—you see it? It has an amethyst at the top. I gave it to John Grinen myself—on his birthday."
"It is of a common type," Knox remarked doubtfully. "I have seen many others like it."
"Not exactly," she insisted. "There wasn't another like it at Asprey's. You see what a queer Berman the stone is? Besides that—it's bent at the top. I couldn't mistake it. John Grinen gave me some dinner in the Carlton Grill-room the evening he disappeared, and drove me to the theater afterwards. He had that pencil in his possession then."
Knox lit a cigarette carefully. All the time his brain was working. The girl was in earnest, he decided, and was telling the truth. Without a doubt, the pencil was bent at the top in a noticeable manner, and the stone, after all, was uncommon. The conviction seized him that he was actually within a few feet of the one man who could solve the mystery which was puzzling all London.
"Do I understand you," he asked beneath his breath, "that you do not know who the man is? That you have never seen him with John Grinen?"
"I have never seen him before in my life," she murmured.
"He is a stranger here," Knox continued. "That goes for nothing He is a man of unusual appearance, easily enough traced. Listen now, Miss Maynard. While I am here, since you have broached this subject at all—do you know anything else about John Grinen's disappearance?"
The girl looked at her questioner quite steadily for a moment. All around them was the soft rise and fall of voices, little peals of laughter, the popping of corks, the subdued clatter of crockery. And in front of Knox the girl's face, lifted for once in her life from the commonplace, transfigured by some nerve-tearing emotion. Knox leaned closer toward her. "You know," he declared.with his eyes fixed upon hers, "you know where John Grinen is!"
His words, or rather their effect upon her, seemed electrical. She came down to earth again. The suggestion seemed absurd; it sounded so. indeed, to Knox, a moment after be had uttered the words.
"Don't be ridiculous!" she exclaimed. "If I knew, what do you suppose I sent Eugene for you for?"
The veneer of her unnatural culture, the stage veneer acquired by the slavish copying of inadequate models, fell completely from her in that illuminating moment. Her voice was raised. Subdued though it still was, it sounded almost shrill. For the first time the big man glanced toward them.
"There is no need," Knox remarked coolly, as he rose to his feet, "to make Mr. Kohn jealous. Perhaps on your way out you will stop and say good-night. I may have something else to tell you."
She accepted his departure, and the young man, who had been hovering close at hand, took his place. Knox sent for his friend the director of the rooms, and engaged him in conversation. All that Alphonse, best informed of maitres d'hôtel, could tell, however, was on this occasion slight. The name of the large gentleman was Fields. He was either an American or a South American. He had a suite in the residential portion of the hotel, and he was of the order of those who understood—which from the maître d'hôtel's point of view meant that he understood how to order food and wine, and the proper manner in which those who dispensed these things should be approached. Nothing more! Presently, just as the lights were lowered, the person in question departed—large, opulent, well turned out, passing the round table near the door without a glance, carrying himself, notwithstanding his size, with a certain distinction. Through the glass door, Knox watched him accept his overcoat and hat from the vestiaire and finally disappear.
The moment he was out of sight Knox rose and walked swiftly to the table which he had just vacated. A waiter was already commencing to clear away. Knox slipped half-a-crown into his hand.
"Pick up those scraps of paper from the floor," he ordered swiftly. "Quick!"
The waiter stooped to obey. Knox himself commenced to collect some fragments which still remained upon the table. Suddenly he paused. The interruption was unexpected—hateful.
"What the devil are you doing, sir?"
Notwithstanding the expletive, the tone of the large man was measured and self-contained. Knox's expression of abject embarrassment as he drew himself upright was not wholly assumed. He was, as a matter of fact, not in the least in love with the situation. The :waiter was dumbfounded.
"May I ask," the large man continued, "the nature of your interest in my affairs?"
"What do you mean?" Knox enquired coolly.
"I mean, sir," the other replied, "that I shall be glad of an immediate explanation as to your presence here at the table which I have just vacated, and what the mischief you mean by gathering up the scraps of paper I left behind?"
Knox dropped his eyeglass. He looked very young and very foolish. His drawl was more pronounced than usual. "Sorry," he said briefly. "Your fault, all the same, you know. You shouldn't flirt in a public place with a girl who is a stranger to you."
"I don't think you are quite well, young man," Mr. Fields declared slowly.
"Oh, I'm all right!" Knox retorted, with the air of one to whom a righteous cause gives confidence. "I saw you looking at the young lady to your left whenever you thought I wasn't noticing. You were looking at her all the time I was sitting at the table. Rotten bad form, I call it! Then, directly I got back to my place, you both brought out pencils and began scribbling. I just want proof, that's all—just a scrap of her handwriting. I've had enough. I'm not going to be made a fool—"
The large man interrupted him. "Do I understand you to say that you believe these scraps of paper are the remains of a note from that young lady?"
"I do indeed," Knox declared, with the air of one who was not easily to be deceived, "and—"
Once more the large man interrupted. His tone now was almost compassionate. He signed to the waiter to lay the scraps of paper which he had collected on the table before Knox. The only recognizable handwriting was distinctly a man's, and there were more figures than anything else. Knox gazed at them blankly.
"Seems to me I have made a bit of an ass of myself," he remarked, uncomfortably.
Mr. Fields occupied himself for a moment or two in tearing the fragments of paper into still smaller pieces. Then he turned away. "Good-night to you, young man," he said, a little contemptuously. "Try and get rid of that hot blood of yours. Jealousy's no use, anyway. If the girl isn't worth trusting, let her go."
He passed down the restaurant and disappeared once more. Knox, as though unconsciously, stuffed those still more minute scraps of paper into his trousers pocket.
Daisy Maynard leaned across from her table. "What does it all mean?"-she demanded, breathlessly. "Why did you two keep on looking towards me?"
Knox stood with his hands upon her table, leaning down. His expression seemed somehow to have changed. "It means," he said, "that you were right. The large gentleman who has just gone out is probably the one person in London who knows all about the disappearance of John Grinen."
AT a comparatively early hour the next morning, Knox, having made a toilet a little more immaculate than usual, descended upon the financial district of London called the city. In a morning coat, check trousers, white spats, and glossy hat, he presented with tolerable success the prototype of a wanderer from the ornamental west, drifting in strange waters. He addressed himself in somewhat peremptory terms to one of the officials of the Great Anaguta Tin Mine Company, Limited, who came forward to accost him.
"Look here, you know," he began, tapping the mahogany counter with his cane, "this sort of thing isn't done, really. What's it all mean, eh?"
The official was too busy to bandy words. He proceeded to get down to business as quickly as possible.
"Are you referring to the drop in Anaguta Tins, sir?" he enquired.
"Well, I should say so," Knox replied. "Do you think that I came down here to talk about the weather? I mean the fall of nearly fifteen shillings a share in the Anaguta Tin Mines."
"We have no information warranting any fall at all, sir," the man assured Knox, with parrot-like ease.
"Can you explain to me, then," Knox persisted, "why John Grinen, the original vendor of the mine to the present company, should disappear like this the day after he returned from Chile, where I understand he had been sent by you to collect some special information concerning the mine?"
"No one can explain Mr. Grinen's disappearance, sir," the official replied.
"Is he keeping, or being kept, out of the way?" Knox demanded.
"Why should he be?" the man argued smoothly. "From all the accounts we have received, the report he was bringing home was an excellent one."
"Then why doesn't he show himself? He must realize how this absence is upsetting the bally market," Knox continued. "There's the General Meeting coming on, and no one knows where he's at."
The official smiled a patient smile and glanced at the clock. There were other enquirers waiting. "The disappearance of Mr. Grinen is worrying the directors as much as you, sir," he remarked. "We have detectives all over England, searching for him."
"That's all very well," Knox continued; "but what about my shares—five thousand of 'em. I gave forty-one, and the price to-day is twenty-seven."
"You have only to hold on to them, sir," the official assured him. "We have every confidence in the mine. It is the conviction of the directors that before many weeks have passed the shares will be back at their old price."
"All right, old boy!" Knox threatened, as he took his leave. "You wait till the General Meeting on Thursday! I've got a few shares registered in my name, and I'll ask your Mr. Leverston some questions then that'll make him sit up."
The man smiled. He seemed unalarmed. Nevertheless, Knox, who spent the rest of that morning in the city, turned out a very obnoxious person indeed when the time for the General Meeting of the Anaguta Tin Mine Company, Limited, arrived. The large room at the Cannon Street Hotel was packed and the proceedings from the first were interrupted.
There were a dozen people on their feet, prepared to ask questions at the same moment. The chairman selected Knox as the most harmless-looking, and very soon regretted it. Knox, with a pile of figures before him, began to attack the subject of John Grinen's disappearance from just that point of view which the directors had wished to avoid.
"Gentlemen," he began, "I intend to show that John Grinen was either ill-treated or considered himself ill-treated, not to say swindled, by the company. He may or may not have been honest in his first statements as regards the mine, but I submit that it was his intention to-day to give certain information inimical to the interests of the mine, and therefore I say that the onus of his disappearance rests entirely with you, sir, and with the directors of the company."
"The gentleman is out of order," the chairman ruled.
Something like pandemonium ensued. They shouted the chairman down, they pushed Knox up onto a chair. The former at last held up his hand.
"In view of the obvious feeling of the meeting," he said, "the gentleman can continue."
"I won't waste your time, gentlemen," Knox.said, as soon as silence had been obtained. "I submit these points. First, that John Grinen was paid for the Anaguta Mine not a hundred and thirty thousand pounds, as has been generally understood, but fifty-five thousand pounds only, nearly the whole of which was necessary to redeem existing mortgages. Secondly, that John Grinen, whether rightfully or not, considered himself ill-used, and announced his intention of placing facts of a startling nature before this meeting. Thirdly, that John Grinen, on his return from Chile on Wednesday last, sold by telephone on Thursday morning every share he possessed in the Anaguta Mine. And finally," Knox concluded, "I wish to point out to the directors that the disappearance of John Grinen on the eve of this meeting, to which he was coming as an avowed enemy of the company, lays certain obligations upon them, and I beg to move that a reward of a thousand pounds be offered for the discovery of John Grinen, and that this meeting be adjourned for a week to await the result."
There was scarcely a shareholder in the room who was not anxious to second the resolution, which was carried uproariously. Knox slipped quietly out and took a taxicab back to his rooms, where he packed a bag and drove to the Milan. Presently he was installed in a suite upon the sixth floor, where he spent half-an-hour or so making a few inquiries of the valet who came in to put away his clothes. As he opened the door of his room to descend to dinner, he came face to face with the large man. Knox stared at him blandly. Mr. Fields stood perfectly still. By reason of his size and the immobility of his features, he was in his way an imposing object.
"My curious friend," he remarked at last, in a somewhat strained tone. "Still curious, eh?"
Knox fingered his necktie. "I have already apologized for that mistake," he said, a little stiffly.
Mr. Fields laughed good-humouredly.
"Come, that's so," he admitted. "I ought not to have mentioned it, but seeing you so suddenly it sort of slipped out. Supposing we have a cocktail and forget it?"
Here Knox made one of those mistakes which humanize the careers of great men in every walk of life. He accepted—and the two had scarcely clinked glasses together cheerfully at the American bar before a young stock-broker, with whom he had a slight acquaintance, entered the room and greeted him vociferously.
"I say, Knox," he exclaimed, "you're a nice chap to come down to the city and break up a company meeting like that! I can't think how you found the nerve. I think old Leverston would have wrung your neck if he could have got at you!"
Knox looked at the speaker steadily.
"Making a mistake, aren't you, Carleton? I haven't been down in the city for months."
The newcomer was lacking in perceptions. He only chuckled. "Get out!" he exclaimed. "You were at the Anaguta Tin meeting, and you kidded the directors into offering a thousand pounds reward for the discovery of John Grinen. You managed to keep your name to yourself, shy boy, but seeing's believing! Between you and me, they don't want Grinen found. Shouldn't wonder if they hadn't sandbagged him."
The large man drank his cocktail and set down the glass. He touched Knox on the shoulder.
"A word with you, young fellow, before we part," he said grimly.
He led the way through a door, out into a small vestibule, from which a lift ascended to the flats. The place was quite deserted, and the large man looked very large and very fierce.
"See here," he began, "it isn't often my first impressions are wrong. When I saw you fiddling about with those scraps of paper I left upon the supper table, I had my suspicions. You looked such a damned fool that you kidded me into swallowing 'em! But... never mind! We'll cut that out. We're up against it now. Let me ask you this question as one man to another. What the devil are you in this game for?"
"What I can make out of it," Knox answered serenely. "A thousand pounds isn't to be sneezed at."
Mr. Fields rang for the lift. "We'll have this out in my rooms," he declared. "Come on."
They stepped into the lift and went up to the sixth floor.
Mr. Fields sighed as he led the way into a comfortably-furnished sitting-room.
"Say," he asked confidentially, as he pointed to an easy-chair, "how in the name of all that's mysterious did you tumble to me?"
"A B C," Knox replied. "The young lady at the next table to you was a pal of Grinen's. She came and told me that you were using his pencil. You'll find the amethyst at the top is rather a curious Berman, and it's a trifle bent. Then that little sum you were doing and tore up; it seemed to be a series of variations on two hundred and fifty thousand pounds—that was the amount of the capital of the Anaguta Tin Mine."
"Write me down a boob," Mr. Fields insisted. "You've got me both times. Now listen to a few plain sentences. These are facts I am going to put before you. Know anything about mining?"
"No!" Knox admitted.
"Then you'll have to take a bit for granted. What's it matter? Two years ago John Grinen came to London to sell the Anaguta Tin Mine. He got in with the wrong crowd. Leverston's as shrewd as any man in the city, but he makes one mistake—he's too grasping, too much on the make. They got to know the terms of a mortgage upon the mine, bought it up, fairly cornered Grinen, and instead of a hundred and thirty thousand pounds, all he got for the mine was a matter of fifty-five thousand, less the mortgage—practically nothing."
"What did Grinen do?" Knox asked.
"Swallowed it like a lamb," the large man replied promptly. "Never kicked, never showed a sign of kicking. Cleverest thing he's ever done. The consequence was, so as to keep right with the public, they made him a director. Certain things about the mine cropped up, and Leverston was puzzled. He became suspicious. He believed in the mine, but, granted that it was really good, he couldn't understand Grinen's attitude. He sent out a private expert. The expert was a pal of Grinen's. Now the mine was just at that stage of development when it was possible to see it from two different points of view. The expert dined with Grinen the night before he left England, and very soon after he arrived on the spot he cabled for Grinen—there were things about the mine which he did not understand. Grinen obeyed the call of duty. They bullied and badgered him to death, but he kept his mouth shut. The pound shares stood then at forty-two, and Leverston began to sell when Grinen was on the water. The shares fell five shillings like a stone. Then the market waited for a report. After a time, all they got was a cable from the expert to say that Grinen was on the way home with a private letter. Leverston and his crowd spent a small fortune in cabling, but not a word in reply did he get. Leverston began to sell again. Result, another five shillings drop. By this time the market was almost panicky. Grinen came home by the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, having previously cabled that he was on the Mauretania. He reached London and was seen about for twenty-four hours, looking very grave and worried. Leverston, who had gone to Liverpool to meet him, rushed back. The next morning Grinen had disappeared.... Keeping the hang of it in your head, eh?"
"I think so," Knox admitted.
"Leverston's three-parts of a maniac. He and his crowd believe now that the mine is a swindle, and that the reason Grinen took his plucking so coolly was that he knew that he was getting a jolly sight more than it was worth. They think that Grinen daren't face 'em. The whole of the Leverston interest is going on the market to-morrow. You'll be able to buy Anagutas for seven and sixpence."
"What are they really worth?" Knox asked.
"Five pounds," the large man replied.
Knox lit another cigarette. "How do we stand?" he enquired.
A gentle smile of admiration spread itself over the capacious features of Mr. Fields.
"Exactly like this," he replied, beating time to his words with his forefinger upon the palm of his hand. "You may discover John Grinen on an Embankment seat to-morrow night, any time after the House is closed. Result, one thousand pounds. Temporary loss of memory is our cue, and the details are all arranged. You may buy five thousand Anagutas for yourself, and you may tip your friends to the extent of another five thousand. Follow me?"
"As to the ethics of the case, remember this. You're simply in with a man who's trying to get a bit of his own back from a shark. Does it go?"
"It does," Knox agreed, holding out his hand.
They gripped in silence. Then the large man moved to the sideboard, on which were various bottles and a cocktail shaker. "That cocktail down-stairs was spoilt for me," he declared. "When that young fellow came in and tackled you, I wasn't sure that you weren't one of Leverston's lot. This one's going to taste good."
"How many are you making?" Knox wondered.
"What about Grinen? " he asked blandly.
Mr. Fields set down the shaker and stared at his questioner. "Well, I'm jiggered!" he gasped.
"Seems selfish to leave him out," Knox murmured.
"William!" the large man bawled.
The door of the connecting room was opened, and a tall, pale-faced man with a coat upon his arm, appeared. "Chuck that thing away and shake hands with the Honourable Algernon Knox," Mr. Fields directed. "The valeting is finished. It's all serene."
TOWARD the close of a busy morning, Knox found time to telephone to Lord Tamworth.
"Uncle," he asked, "do you want to make a bit?"
Lord Tamworth cleared his throat—a proceeding entirely audible down the telephone.
"Your way of putting it is crude, Algernon," he said.
"Buy a thousand Anaguta Tins," Knox told him. "So long!"
A FORTNIGHT later, Lord Tamworth entertained his nephew at his very august club in Pall Mall. After a somewhat prolonged dinner—his lordship had certainly done the thing remarkably well—he referred briefly to the event which was the cause of their celebration.
"I wish, my dear Algernon," he said, fingering his wine-glass delicately, "to give you every credit for this, your most recent enterprise. Your discovery of Grinen practically starving in the streets of London reflects immense credit upon you. But the affair itself—this affair of the Anaguta Tin Mine—seems to me still encompassed with a considerable amount of mystery. By-the-by, what are the shares to-night?"
"Six pounds," Knox replied. "Lucky you didn't listen to your stick-in-the-mud old broker, sir, and bought as I suggested."
Lord Tamworth coughed deprecatingly.
"I will not conceal the fact," he continued, "that the five thousand pounds I have made has been a boon, an immense boon to me. I owe you my thanks, Algernon, and I trust that my political position may afford me the opportunity before long of giving practical expression to my gratitude. At the same time, as I was about to say, bearing in mind my position as a Cabinet Minister, I should really value some statement from you to the effect that the information you received, and upon which we both acted, was obtained in—shall I say a straightforward manner?"
Knox smiled reflectively. He recognized his uncle's mental attitude, and appreciated it.
"My dear uncle," he said, "whenever money is made in the city, there are two classes of people concerned—the sharks and the honest men. In nine cases out of ten the shark makes the money, and the honest man loses it. We have been just the exception which proves the rule. We were the honest men and we made that money out of the sharks."
Lord Tamworth breathed a little sigh of content.
"You see it's all right, sir," Knox continued, "and thank you for a thundering good dinner. I am going to drop in at the Empire, and afterward have supper with—whom do you think?"
His lordship looked politely interested.
"John Grinen, the poor fellow I found on the Embankment, and Daisy Maynard, the girl he's going to marry."
THE Right Honourable the Earl of Tamworth stood at the corner of St. James's Street waiting for a taxi-cab. Suddenly, amongst the passers-by on the other side of the way, he recognised his nephew. He waved his stick. Knox crossed the road obediently.
"A most opportune meeting, my dear Algernon," his uncle declared. "Only last night I was entrusted with a message to you from a very charming young lady."
"Sounds hopeful," Knox remarked blithely. "Name, please?"
"The young lady's name," his uncle continued, "was Miss de Hagon! I found her a particularly charming young person."
Knox looked at his relative for a moment with inscrutable countenance.
"Where did you meet her?" he inquired.
"At the Austrian Embassy," Lord Tamworth replied. "She asked me at once if you were not my nephew."
"Did you talk to her for long, sir?"
"For some considerable time," Lord Tamworth admitted, with an air of self-satisfaction. "I found her most attractive, not to say intelligent."
"Do you know anything about her?"
"You mean her family and antecedents? Nothing! I must confess that I felt some slight curiosity. I understand that she lives alone in Berkeley-Square."
"Talk politics at all?" Knox asked.
"We skirted the outside edge of various topical questions," Lord Tamworth confessed. "I found her very anxious to learn my opinion upon certain questions of international politics. A very intelligent young woman, with a distinct craving for information."
"That's her profession," Knox remarked grimly. "You see, she's an Austrian spy."
Lord Tamworth frowned at his nephew. "You are joking, Algernon!"
"Word of honour," Knox declared. "To tell you the truth, I have had one little bout with her already. What was the message?"
"Nothing unfriendly," Lord Tamworth hastened to assure him. "On the contrary, she begged me to say that she wished particularly to see you. She said that she would be at home any afternoon this week from four till six."
"To see me?" Knox repeated thoughtfully. "Now I wonder what that may mean."
"She did not explain. But, Algernon," Lord Tamworth continued, a little uneasily, "apropos of your—er—charge against this young lady, are you certain of what you say? She seems intimate with many notable people. Don't you think that there is a certain amount of exaggeration in your statement?"
"Not in the least," Knox asserted. "I don't know much about her myself, but I am told that she hates England and English people. She has been concerned in one little plot that I know of, which, if it had come off, would have left us in a nasty mess. I can't understand what she wants to see me for."
"Well, you had better go and find out," Lord Tamworth suggested. "Present my respectful compliments and assure her that before many days are passed I shall myself venture to pay my respects."
"I'll tell her," Knox promised, "but you be careful, Uncle. You're too much of a ladies' man to trust yourself with these fascinating foreigners."
Lord Tamworth fingered his tie for a moment and altered slightly the angle of his hat.
"Rubbish, Algernon!" he retorted. "Rubbish! A spy, is she, eh? Well, she won't get much out of me."
He stepped into the taxi-cab which had drawn up at the side of the kerb, and was driven off. Knox glanced at his watch and turned up St. James's Street. In a few minutes he was ringing the bell at No. 17 Berkeley Square, and almost immediately afterwards was shown into the presence of Adele de Hagon. She was alone in a wonderfully furnished little boudoir hung with light, blue silk, and faintly redolent of the perfume which he already associated with her. She was dressed very simply, and she had apparently been resting. She did not rise from the sofa as he entered, but held out her hand.
"How very nice of you, Mr. Knox!" she said softly. "You have seen your uncle, then?"
"I met him ten minutes ago," Knox replied, "and here I am."
"It is positively gallant of you," she declared, drawing herself up to a sitting position. "Please sit down, won't you? There are cigarettes at your elbow, and they will bring some tea directly. What a dear, ingenuous old gentleman your uncle is!"
"I thought you'd like him," Knox remarked, a little grimly.
"Not quite such a subtle person as his nephew," she continued, smiling faintly. "No, you needn't look at me so curiously. I really don't bear you the slightest grudge. You were horribly clever, and I was completely outwitted."
"It was De Brinault who was clever," Knox replied. "I simply did as I was bidden."
"You made love to my substitute extremely well," Miss de Hagon murmured.
"Her likeness to you," Knox pointed out, "was sufficiently inspiring."
Miss de Hagon laughed softly.
"I don't think," she said, "that I could ever trust a man who paid compliments with such facility."
"Compliments imply exaggeration," Knox protested. "I was speaking the truth."
She was silent for a moment. Her blue eyes rested a little curiously upon his.
"Well," she said, "you broke up a very wonderful friendship. Do you know that up to this day Prince Melinoff does not trust me? He listened to my story of what really happened, and his behaviour was perfect, but he didn't believe a word of it."
"Then he deserves," Knox declared, "to lose your friendship."
A servant entered with tea, and they talked lightly during its arrangement. When they were alone, however, she motioned him to sit a little nearer to her.
"Mr. Knox," she said, "I have sent for you because I am in possession of a piece of information which I think you might find interesting. You remember Nidisky?"
"He prefers to call himself a nihilist."
"What about him?"
She leaned a little forward.
"He is in London now."
"How do you know?" Knox asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I have advices from the Austrian police," she replied. "I have had them quite privately. I scarcely know how to act. It is really my duty to pass on the information to Scotland Yard. I thought it might amuse you to take a hand in the game."
Knox was suddenly thoughtful. The expression upon his face was totally blank. He polished his eyeglass assiduously. All the time he was thinking.
"Every evening at five o'clock," she continued slowly, "at one of the tables against the wall on the right-hand side as you enter, Nidisky goes to Monico's Café. He drinks mixed vermouth and plays dominoes generally by himself. You cannot fail to recognise him if you have ever seen any of his portraits. He is slim, very pale, with a slight black moustache, large brown eyes, and the hands and feet almost of a woman."
"He's a nice sort of fellow to be going about the streets of London!" Knox remarked. "If all that they say about him is true, he is one of the most bloodthirsty ruffians in Europe. He ought to have: been hung a dozen times over."
"It is my opinion," she said quietly, "that before very long he will have deserved it more than ever. You know he has always escaped absolute condemnation on any criminal charge, and as a political refugee they won't give him up here. But if what I hear is true, he is planning something at the present moment, something terrible. You know how clever he is. It is no good having him shadowed by the English police. He is so clever that he would discover instantly if he were being watched by any official person. That is why I thought of you, Mr. Knox. I know nothing more than I have told you, but there is a man who is worth watching. You know where to find him. They tell me that he never misses his visit to the Monico. Where he spends the rest of his time, no one knows."
"Very good of you to put me on to this, I am sure," Knox observed, a little doubtfully.
"You see that I bear you no grudge," she murmured.
He looked at her again. There was nothing to be learned from his expression, which was blank enough, nothing to put her on her guard. Yet, as a matter of fact, he was studying her earnestly. Somehow or other he seemed to scent danger in this little room with its exquisite adornments, in the blue eyes of the girl who watched him so steadfastly.
"Remember," she said, "that you are the only man in London who knows of Nidisky's presence here. He has been quiet enough lately, but the feeling is that he is engaged upon some new scheme. You couldn't turn your talents to a more splendid purpose, Mr. Knox, than by running this man to earth. He has successfully defied the police of three countries, Perhaps your less orthodox methods may bring him to book where others have failed."
"No harm in having a look at the fellow, anyway," Knox remarked, glancing at the clock. "I think I'll stroll on to Monico's now."
She slipped to her feet and touched the bell. Then she gave him her hand and withdrew it only as a servant entered. She smiled at him delightfully as he turned to go.
"Good luck, Mr. Knox!" she whispered softly. "Come back again soon, please."
KNOX walked along Piccadilly a little perturbed. There was something about this interview which he could not understand. Adele de Hagon bore him no goodwill—that much was certain. Through him a very amazing plot, in which she was interested had been foiled. Through him she had lost her greatest friend. It was scarcely to be supposed that she had given him this information out of kindly feeling. Yet what motive could she have had? He walked along, trying to remember all that he had heard of Nidisky. The fellow had served six years in prison for complicity in a dynamite conspiracy. There was nothing more definite that he could recall.
He glanced at his watch. It was barely past five o'clock. He called a taxi and ordered the man to drive him to the Café Monico.
The table to which he directed his steps was on the right-hand side and near the wall. He looked neither to the right nor to the left, however, until he had taken his seat, handed his hat and stick to a waiter, hitched up his trousers, and picked up the menu, which he scrutinised through his eyeglass. Consciously or unconsciously, there is no doubt whatever that the Honourable Algernon Knox was an actor. At that moment the wrinkles of thought had passed from his forehead. He was the young man with whom the electors of West Lancashire would have nothing to do. Even his drawl, when he spoke, was more pronounced.
"Bring me some tea," he directed, "a well-toasted muffin, and a finger-glass."
The waiter withdrew, and Knox buried himself at once in an evening paper. It was some few minutes before he even glanced around him—not, in fact, until his tea arrived. Then he began a comprehensive survey of his surroundings. The place had a curious atmosphere—bourgeois, in a sense; and yet redeemed somewhat by its thorough cosmopolitanism. There were a good many foreigners seated at the marble tables. The atmosphere was thick with smoke. A band was playing lively music. There was also a considerable sprinkling of the fair sex. Finally, Knox realised that at the very next table to him on his right was the man of whom he was in search. His head was turned away, and Knox ventured to scrutinise him for a moment through his eyeglass. He was slim, dark, with the sleepy brown eyes of which Miss de Hagon had spoken, dressed very carefully and with a certain foppishness. He wore several rings upon his fingers and a bow with loose ends. His black hair was brushed straight back. His boots were of a light shade of brown, almost yellow. Yet, watching him for a moment or two with all the concentration of which he was capable, Knox observed other things. He observed the hand of poverty pressing hard upon the man. The seams of his coat were ink-blacked. His trousers, though carefully pressed, had long since lost their shape. His shoes were patched in several places. His cuffs had been carefully cut to hide the fray-marks. A single small glass of vermouth stood before him. He was talking in Austrian [sic] to a woman who had stopped to speak to him on her way down the room. Knox looked down at his plate and concentrated himself in an effort of listening.
"You have no money!" the woman exclaimed. "You are no good. Why should I waste my time with you? It was the same yesterday. It will be the same to-morrow,"
"But indeed it will only be the same for a few more days," the man protested earnestly. "I tell you that there is a fortune close to my hand.. Those who are kind to me now will benefit. I work so many hours a day. For these few moments of relaxation I need sympathy, a little kindness—"
"And some one to pay for your drinks!" the woman interrupted, with a little laugh. "Some one with whom you can flirt, eh, and give nothing .. No, my dear! When times are better I will sit with you, and you shall pay for my vermouth if you like. But now—oh, la, la!"
She passed on. The man sat back in his seat. He was quivering with anger. Knox buried himself in his paper. Presently his neighbour called for the dominoes. Knox, drinking his tea, watched the man play a game with an imaginary opponent Once he leaned over and ventured to point out a move. The man, after a quick glance of suspicion, smiled and thanked him affably.
"You play, perhaps?" he asked.
"A little," Knox replied. "I will play you a game, with pleasure."
The man made room by his side. Knox lit a cigarette and moved up. His companion glanced at him furtively.
"Would you care," he suggested, "to play for a shilling?"
"Half a crown, if you like," Knox assented; "but I must tell you I have played a good deal. I know the game thoroughly."
"We play for half a crown," the foreigner agreed, with emphasis. "If I lose, what does it matter? It is sport,"
It was obvious, however, that there was not the slightest chance of his losing. He played with rare skill and won three games in rapid succession. Knox counted out three half-crowns, which his neighbour received with disproportionate satisfaction.
"You will take a glass of vermouth with me?" he begged.
Knox agreed with pleasure. He had seemed a little ruffled by his losses, but soon recovered his good-humour. Presently he glanced at his watch and rose.
"Play you another game to-morrow, if I'm in," he said.
The man, with his hand upon the three half-crowns, assented with enthusiasm. Knox paid his bill and departed. Outside he paused to light a cigarette, crossed the road, and stopped a taxi-cab.
"Wait up here by the kerb," he directed, "until I tell you to start."
The driver nodded. Knox, leaning back, watched the door of the café. In about twenty minutes the man appeared. He, too, stood for a moment in the doorway, looking up and down the street Then he walked rapidly away towards Leicester Square. Knox whispered a direction or two to the driver: and his taxi-cab followed. The foreigner disappeared into the Leicester Square Tube Station, and Knox, as soon as he was out of sight, gave a new order to the chauffeur:
"Drive to New Scotland Yard."
Arrived at his destination, Knox presented a letter which he had been carrying about with him for some time, and was conducted to an office on the ground floor. The superintendent there glanced through the note and shook hands with him.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Knox?" he asked. "I am Inspector Hobson."
"I understand," Knox replied, "that you are in charge of the finger-print department. If I could have the system explained to me, I should find it very interesting."
For half an hour Knox was inducted into the principles of the system which had become almost a science. At the end of that time he produced a domino from his waistcoat pocket.
"Could the finger-print upon this, for instance," he inquired, "be reproduced?"
"Certainly," was the prompt reply. "To be of any service to us, though, it would have to be photographed and enlarged."
"The domino was handled a few minutes ago," Knox continued, "by a man who I was told was a famous anarchist. I will tell you, if you like, his name—Stephen Nidisky."
"We have his finger-prints," the inspector asserted quickly, "but we have no information of his being in London, that I know of."
"If those are Nidisky's finger-marks," Knox said, "I will tell you where to find him. When shall I call?"
"To-morrow," Inspector Hobson begged him. . .
A LITTLE later than on the previous day, Knox entered the Café Monico. The man for whom he looked was in his usual place, and his smile of welcome as Knox arrived was, without doubt, genuine. They exchanged civilities, played three games of dominoes, two of which Knox lost, and parted. This time they left the café at the same moment.
"Going my way?" Knox asked. "I am off to the Tube."
The man hesitated. He glanced once more at his companion. Then he smiled slightly. Could any one be more harmless?
"I am going there myself," he agreed.
They walked along Coventry Street together, presenting rather a queer contrast to any one who might have chanced to notice them. Knox's companion talked to him in very correct English, with a slight foreign accent. Arrived at the booking-office, he hesitated for a moment. Then, with a little shrug of the shoulders, he took his ticket to Aldgate. Knox booked to Covent Garden.
"You could walk it in the time," his companion remarked, as they went down in the lift
"I do not like to walk," Knox yawned. "Never walk anywhere if I can help it."
They parted a few minutes later. Knox drove to Scotland Yard. He was received by Inspector Hobson with a smile.
"We have had the impression which you brought enlarged and compared," he announced. "Perhaps you'd like to see for yourself. However, I may as well tell you at once that we haven't two specimens in the place which differ more radically than the one you brought us, and Nidisky's."
The inspector laid two photographic slips upon the desk and explained them at some length.
"I am very sorry to have troubled you," Knox regretted. "Very many thanks for explaining the system to me, though. Most interesting."
He departed a few minutes later. He was face to face now with something of a problem. The man was not Nidisky, a fact of which Miss de Hagon was, without doubt, perfectly well aware. What, then, was her object in starting him upon this false quest?
THREE days later, Knox walked into the mission-house of a famous public school in the neighbourhood of Poplar. The young man in charge greeted him with some surprise.
"Aren't you Knox?" he asked.
Knox acknowledged his identity.
"You did me out of a place in the eleven, my second year," he said. "You're Ramsay, aren't you?"
"Ramsay it is! Come down to help us?" he added, a little doubtfully.
Knox shook his head.
"Come to ask you to help me!"
Ramsay laughed breezily.
"You don't look an utter outcast!"
"I'm not," Knox assured him. "Do you want the truth?"
"Nothing else any use here."
"I am after a man—want to find out all about him. I believe he is a criminal. He is living in George Street. There are four or five rooms to let in the house. I want to get hold of one of your protegés who hasn't got a job, and put him in one of these rooms. I'll pay him well."
Ramsay looked doubtful.
"I won't go so far as to say," he declared, "that we're on the side of crime, but we make no war here against criminals. People in these parts would have no use for us if they thought we were in league with the police. Sorry, Knox, but I am afraid we can't be of any use to you. Besides, George Street is a bit out of our beat. We don't go there, and I shouldn't advise you to. I should say that it is absolutely the worst street in London—chock-full of foreigners."
"You see, old chap," he explained, "it isn't your people at all that come into this matter. The man I'm after is a foreigner. Everyone connected with him would be a foreigner. They are the pest of the place. Find me the chap I want and fall in with the rest of my scheme, and I'll spring a fifty-pound note, for the funds, apart from what I give the man you find for me. And if the thing comes off, you shall have another fifty."
The young clergyman hesitated.
"We want money like the dickens—" he began.
"Then do as I ask," Knox persisted. "I won't get you into any trouble."
"There's a fellow named Jacks here," Ramsay said slowly. "He has been a pretty bad lot, but he's got consumption, and he isn't strong enough to work, but—"
"That's the very man I want," Knox interrupted. "I want a chap who's ill, if possible."
"You are sure that there isn't an English person concerned in this affair?"
Ramsay looked at his old schoolfellow once more with some curiosity.
"You're a rum sort of chap, Knox," he remarked, "to be playing around like this. Are you one of these new-fashioned crime experts? I suppose you're: not in the regular profession? We know all the Scotland Yard men by sight who come down here."
"I am on a special job," Knox answered evasively.
Ramsay threw open the door.
"Jacks!" he called out.
An unkempt-looking little man, with hollow cheeks and clothes much too large for him, shambled into the room. Notwithstanding the marks of disease in his face, there was still a certain briskness about his voice and manner.
"Job for me, sir?" he asked quickly.
"Kind of a job," the young superintendent replied doubtfully, "if you care to take it on."
"Take on anything, sir," Jacks declared, looking expectantly towards Knox.
"I'll tell you what it is in a few words," Knox intervened. "I'm not exactly a detective, but I am watching a foreigner who lives in a room in George Street. I want to know what he's up to there. The house is half empty. It's a beastly hole, anyhow. I want you to go and take a room in it, as near as you can to his, and report to me anything you can discover. Further than that, I want you to sham being ill, so that I can come and see you, either as a doctor or a clergyman."
"I'm on to it, sir," Jacks decided cheerfully. "Sure he's a foreigner?"
"I am to go and engage a room, eh?"
Knox wrote the address upon a piece of paper, and handed the man a couple of sovereigns.
"Here you are," he said. "You go and take a lodging in that house. Keep your eyes open and find some fault with your room, and move about until you get as near as possible to a young foreigner, an Austrian, I think, who goes by the name of Rintoul. He's a smartly-dressed young fellow for these parts, and you'll find he always goes up west from about four o'clock until eight. That's all I can tell you. I am going to keep away for a day or so. You come down and tell Mr. Ramsay here if you've anything to say to me. Understand?"
"Right enough, sir," the man replied. "There's just one word I'd wish to say, feeling as it's my duty. I don't care a scrap about myself—I'm too thankful to earn a bit. But George Street is a little bit of blazing hell. If you get into a mess down there, I doubt whether your pals would ever see you again. Those blasted foreigners live there like vermin, and they stick by one another, too. They come out of their holes in hundreds if they're called, long before a bobby can get anywhere near. A 'tec there alone wouldn't stand one chance in a thousand. They'd tear him bit from bit."
"You look after yourself, Jacks," Knox advised. "I shan't run much of a risk." . . .
KNOX pursued his regular life for two or three days. Then he received a message from Ramsay and made his way down to the mission-house. Jacks was there waiting for him.
"Got on fust class, sir," he announced. "There were four empty rooms in the house. The first one was no good—the next room was crammed full of Russian families, doing tailoring. Then I tried another. That wasn't much better, but I waited there for a bit so as not to make 'em suspicious. I soon tumbled on to the chap you told me about I'm in the next room to him now—moved in yesterday."
"Good!" Knox exclaimed. "Anything else?"
"Few odd bits, sir," Jacks continued. "There's two men with him, and they used to have the room I'm in as well. They had to give it up because they couldn't afford to pay for it, but they tried to get the landlord to keep it empty. They seem just about as poor as rats, and every time the young fellow comes back, they curse and growl at him."
"Two other men, eh?" Knox remarked. "Have you seen them?"
"Only once. One's a great grey-headed Polish Jew they call the Doctor—looks as though he hadn't taken his clothes off or washed for a year. The other's a smaller edition of himself. They lie there in their room like dogs all day long. I can't make out what they do, but they've blocked out all the light, even in the daytime. You can see the lamp shining underneath the doorway."
"Keep your eyes open," Knox directed. "Tomorrow evening, at about eight o'clock, send some one to the mission here. Say you want to see Mr. Ramsay or Mr. Ambrose. I shall be Mr. Ambrose. See? Make yourself seem as ill as you can—lie in bed."
"I'm on to it," Jacks agreed.
Ramsay, who had strolled in smoking a pipe, frowned a little.
"I am not at all sure, Knox—" he began.
Knox drew a handful of notes from his pocket and passed them over.
"Look here, Ramsay, old chap," he said, "how much good can you do amongst the people who are worth helping, with that, eh? You leave these foreign rats alone."
"You've got me," Ramsay sighed. "Keep us out of this if you can." . . .
AT a quarter to nine that evening, an unfamiliar Algernon Knox left the mission-house in Poplar and plunged a few minutes later into the street which had been described to him as the worst in London. It was narrow and not particularly populous. The houses on either side were grimy, the pavements narrow, one or two stalls stood in the street. There was not the slightest indication of anybody or anything English. The signs above the few filthy-looking shops were Yiddish or Russian. The men and women who passed up and down were narrow, shrunken human beings, blinking a little as though they had come from the dark places of the world, furtive, in a sense uncanny. They looked at Knox, as he passed along, curiously. One man paused and seemed half-inclined to follow him. Another's hand stole into his coat pocket as he slunk into an entry. Knox was wearing the unfamiliar garb of a clergyman, with short jacket, semi-clerical hat, grey trousers, and thick boots. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles, and with a certain histrionic ability his expression was entirely changed into that of a hard-worked east-end curate. He paused before No. 16 as though to assure himself of the number. It was a house of three storeys, which had once been built of red brick but which was now encrusted with soot and time. The windows were devoid of curtain or blind—blank, unseeing eyes. The area railings were broken, the door stood ajar. He walked in. Almost immediately a strange-looking head, unkempt, unwashed, with a powerful throat and malicious eyes, was poked out from a room in the back.
"I have called to see a poor fellow named Jacks," Knox said clearly. "His room, I believe, is on the next floor."
The man, or was it a woman—Knox could scarcely tell—surveyed his questioner from head to foot, deliberately spat upon the floor, and returned to the obscurity from which he had issued. Knox climbed the crazy stairs, knocked at the door of the room which Jacks had carefully indicated to him, and entered. Jacks raised a weary head from his bed, but directly he saw who his visitor was, he jumped up and advanced on tiptoe.
"Shut the door and then feel with your hand all along this wall," he whispered.
Knox obeyed him. There came a point when his fingers slipped through the worn paper on to a lower level. This continued for about a yard.
"A door," Knox murmured.
"A door covered over with a little plaster and paper," Jacks explained, "This afternoon the big man went out. The other one went to sleep. I could hear him snore. I pulled the paper off there, see, and I widened the crack a little with my penknife. You can see in now just a little of the room."
Knox peered through the crack. At first he was almost dazzled. The room was in black darkness save for a powerfully shaded lamp which stood upon a small table nearly opposite to him. The window seemed to be boarded up. The only light permitted to enter the room was from the lamp. Standing upright over the table, with some fine instrument in his, hand, was his friend of the Café Monico. He had taken off his coat and waistcoat and was wearing heavy glasses. He seem to be engaged in making various touches upon an oblong piece of white paper. Presently he stood upright, passed it into the filthy hand of the man who went by the name of the Doctor, and was at once handed another. There was a little ominous rustle. Knox stepped back. He walked with Jacks to the farther end of the room.
"Get back to bed," he directed. "You've plenty to eat and drink here?"
"Plenty," Jacks replied. "What's the game in there, mister?"
"Not my job, unfortunately," Knox sighed. "Are you going to keep straight, Jacks?—just lie where you are until anything happens? It will be later on to-night, and there will be a tenner for you at the end of it All you have to do is to lie tight."
"Of course I'm game, guv'nor," Jacks answered. "If there's going to be a scrap, I'm sorry I can't be in it. I hate these blasted foreigners, taking the bread out of your mouth! They've made the bobbies twice as savage as they used to be. Left no openin' at all for a chap as meant no real harm."
"Sit tight," he directed, "and wait."
KNOX returned to the mission-room, changed his clothes in Ramsay's room, telephoned for a taxi-cab, and drove at once to Scotland Yard. He was ushered almost with haste into the presence of the man he had asked for. Inspector Hobson welcomed him eagerly.
"You got my letter, then?" he exclaimed.
Knox shook his head.
"No, I haven't heard from you at all!"
"Good heavens! I sent for you early this afternoon."
"I haven't been at my rooms," Knox explained.
"Great Scot! Well, listen! You know those fingerprints you brought me?"
"Can you find us the man?"
"I can," Knox answered. "I am here to do it Who is he?"
The inspector took him by the arm and led him into an inner room. It was little more than a cupboard, but he closed the door.
"You don't know who he is?" he asked.
"Not an idea," Knox replied.
"Have you ever heard of Griste?"
Knox repeated the name.
"Sounds quite familiar," he said. "Why—"
"He's the only one of the motor bandits they didn't catch," the inspector went, on quickly. "He shot four policemen himself. Don't you remember he wrote a letter to the Matin. He said he was only larking in Paris—he had a better job than robbing banks. He was cornered once in a small town in Galicia. They'd sent sixty thousand pounds worth of bank-notes into circulation, every one of them absolutely perfect Griste had a bodyguard. They killed the detective and two of the police, and Griste got away. He was hunted all over Europe, but for six months no one has had an idea where he was."
"Well, I can tell you where he is now," Knox asserted. "I can do more. I can tell you how to get at him. He is living at number 16 George Street, and in the room next to where he's at work touching up bank-notes at the present moment, is in empty room, at least empty except for a man I put in there to watch. I've come straight from there myself. There's a crack in the wall. I saw him at work."
The inspector gripped him by the arm. They hurried through the outer room, into the corridor, and along towards the chief's office
"What put you on to the game?" the inspector inquired.
"A woman," Knox answered.
"Was she a friend of yours?" the man asked curiously.
"I am not sure that she was," Knox replied. Inspector Hobson grunted.
"You'd better leave the job with us now," he advised. "Griste will never be taken alive, and he'll never be taken without loss of life."
"As soon as I saw what his game was," he said, "I came straight to you. I don't presume to interfere in your business. If you'll allow me, though, I'd like to see the thing through. You'll need me to take you down there."
"Wait a moment," the other begged. "Wait here, if you don't mind."
He was gone about five minutes. When he returned, there was commotion in the corridor. Several men's names were being called in a sort of waiting-room. The inspector came out to Knox.
"Look here," he said, "this will be a desperate affair. If you take my advice you'll go quietly home and read the papers to-morrow morning. You can tell us exactly where this room is." Knox shook his head.
"I don't want to interfere with the police," he declared. "It's their duty and their risk. I'll keep in the background, but I'd like to come along."
The inspector nodded.
"Very well," he consented; "you must come in and tell me all about it afterwards. It's not in my line, worse luck! I'll hand you over to Inspector Dumbell here."
TEN minutes later, two taxi-cabs turned out of the Yard, with four men in each. Knox found himself with a Service revolver in his pocket, explaining to the superintendent, who sat by his side coolly smoking a cigarette, the position of the room and the staircase. They were in the leading taxi-cab, and the detective made his plans as they went. They drove straight to George Street and entered the house in single file. Once more a man's head appeared like a jack-in-the-box from the door at the side, of which Knox had spoken. The inspector, who was prepared, wasted not a second. The man was seized and gagged before he could make a single inquiry. They left him alone and ran up the stairs on tiptoe. Knox pointed to the door of the room in which the men were. Three of the police stood on the threshold, revolvers in their hands. The others entered the room where Jacks was lying in bed. He sat up at once.
"It's all serene," he whispered. "Not a sound."
Knox took the inspector to the paper-covered door and showed him the crack. The latter looked through but drew back almost at once. He called the other man to him and whispered. What followed seemed to Knox almost like a dream. The plan was one of instantaneous action. All five men threw themselves against the door. One tripped and fell. The others went through into the room like an avalanche. There was a shrill cry. Knox, notwithstanding his promise, was through after the last of the policemen. Griste was seized at his work, and was borne, struggling and biting like a wild cat, into the back room by two policemen. The younger man snatched up a long automatic pistol, but it was knocked from his hand, and he, too, was collared. The Doctor, who was a little farther off, was the only one who was able to resist. A bullet whistled past the first policeman, past Knox's head, through the next room, and crashed through the window. Before he could pull the trigger a second time, however, he was on his back and a policeman had gripped him by the throat. Even then, successful though the assault had been, the affair was not concluded. Griste, in the farther room, fought and struggled like a madman. Once he very nearly wrenched himself loose. Knox, however, who was on the outskirts, stooped down, and seizing him by the leg, frustrated his efforts. Griste recognised him and spat at him viciously.
"If I could get loose," he yelled, his eyes almost starting from his head, "I'd swing for you!"
The three men were at last secured. The place was wrapped in an ominous silence. From all corners of the house men were stealing away into the shadows. There was no thought of rescue. The whisper that the police were in the house was sending the people out like frightened rats. Downstairs a huge police van had just driven up. Even then there was trouble. Handcuffed and gagged, both the Doctor and Griste fought like wild animals the whole of the way down the stairs, and were at last thrown into the van by their exhausted guards. Inspector Dumbell heard the door bang behind them, examined the lock carefully, and, taking off his peaked hat, wiped the perspiration from his forehead. He held out his hand to Knox.
"A clean, good job, sir," he declared, "and not a man lost Now that it's all over, I don't mind telling you that that chap Griste has boasted more than once that it would take the lives of a dozen policemen to secure him. Fortunately, they hadn't got a bob, or they'd have had their usual gang of cut-throats around. Next week they would have been living like princes."
Knox turned back to speak to Jacks, who was waiting on the pavement, and put some gold into his hand.
"Come and see me at my rooms to-morrow morning," he directed, "and I'll find you a job."
"You couldn't get me out of this, could you, sir?" Jacks asked, looking a little nervously around. "It seems quiet enough now, but they're all waiting rounds the corners."
Knox placed him in the taxi-cab which Inspector Dumbell had left for his use, and they drove off. He carefully avoided the mission-house and left his charge at the far end of Soho.
"Blow me, guv'nor," Jacks said, as he descended from the cab, "if this ain't been the night of my life! I hate them dirty foreigners! See you to-morrow, sir, and many thanks. I'm going to give myself a good blow out."
He vanished inside the portals of a little restaurant Knox called back at his rooms, bathed, changed his clothes, and drove to Berkeley Square. Miss de Hagon was just leaving for a supper-party, he was told, and even at that moment she swept into the hall.
"I won't keep you," Knox said, as he stepped forward to greet her. "I see you are just going out."
She threw open the door of a little room, and he followed her in.
"Well," she exclaimed curiously, "what is it?"
"I have come," Knox continued, "o thank you very much for the information you gave me. The man has been arrested to-night."
She stopped buttoning her gloves and looked at him questioningly. She said never a word. She seemed to be trying to read his thoughts.
"I found that it wasn't exactly my job," Knox went on, "so I handed it over to the police."
Miss de Hagon bent once more over her gloves. When she looked up, there was a forced smile upon her lips.
"So it was really Nidisky, the anarchist?" she asked.
"Nidisky—-oh no!" Knox replied. "It was a much more interesting person. It was Griste, the forger, the man who wrote that letter to the Matin you know, in which he swore that it would take the lives of twelve men to arrest him, the man who had the reputation of shooting at sight anyone he suspected, and who somehow or other always succeeded in making his escape. I shall feel indebted to you all my life, Miss de Hagon, for your very valuable information."
She moved towards the door. Knox followed her and held it open. She glanced up at him curiously.
"I see no halo around your head, Mr. Knox," she said, "but you evidently have what a great writer of my country once called the 'atmosphere of fortune' shining around you."
Knox answered her challenge frankly.
"When one is unhappy enough," he rejoined, "to have incurred the anger of such an omnipotent—"
She held out her hand. They were in the hall now. She flashed a little laugh at him as she lifted her skirts and passed down the druggeted way.
"Life is only a game, you know, Mr. Knox," she reminded him, "and one cannot always triumph over even the simplest adversary at the first move. Can I drop you anywhere? No? Then, au revoir!"
THE Honourable Algernon Knox had, on the whole, enjoyed his ten days' stay at Sheringham very much indeed. He admitted the same to Laurence Chesham, his friend, as they lunched together at a small table in the dining-room of the Royal Hotel.
"Ripping little place, I call it," he declared. "The links may not be quite first class, but they're good enough."
"All very well for you," his friend grumbled, "but I've piped every mashie shot since I've been here."
"Give me half an hour after our round this afternoon and I'll cure you," Knox promised.
"That's what the little pro said last night," Chesham sighed, "but I was as bad as ever this morning. Queer thing you should like it down here," he added.
"Why?" Knox asked. "I'm all for the simple life."
"I never knew you very enthusiastic about it before," his friend remarked. "It's generally the crowded places for you. Now there isn't a single soul here whom one would look at twice. Except, of course—" he added, lowering his tone.
"The Unhappy Lady," Knox murmured. Chesham nodded,
"She hasn't come in yet," he said. "Is it a sin to be curious, Knox, I wonder, or merely an impertinence? If I don't find out exactly who she is before very long, I shall risk being snubbed and go and talk to her."
"And probably," Knox observed, "you'll be very much disappointed. Faces aren't always a correct index, you know. I agree with you that she's the loveliest and the saddest thing I've ever seen, and yet if one were to inquire—"
"You aren't curious yourself?" Chesham interrupted.
"Not a bit," Knox replied. "I don't think I am naturally curious at all—not vaguely curious, I mean. She isn't, after all, connected with any set of circumstances in which I am interested. I don't hold a warrant to inquire into her griefs. She is just one of those shadowy figures that leave an impression as they pass, but only a negative one."
"Queer thing," his friend remarked, as he looked out across the sea. "The woman's face suggests all sorts of exciting things to me, and yet you, who seem to have made a profession of probing these exciting things, are not even curious about her. Come on, if you're ready. We'll start early this afternoon, and then I shall have time for that half-hour's tuition."
Knox's state of passivity, however, was not to last. That evening, on the edge of the cliffs, where he had wandered in search of a missing golf ball, he came face to face with the woman of whom they had spoken, returning from a walk. She was slim, almost tall, and she walked with a natural grace which had in it yet something both un-English and unathletic. Almost for the first time out of doors she was wearing no veil. Yet the wind, stinging though it was, had brought no trace of colour to her ivory cheeks. Her eyes were as sad as ever, but they had lost for a moment their unseeing gaze. Knox, taking into rapid consideration the fact that they sat at the next table at the hotel, ventured so far as to raise his cap. She, however, went further still. She deviated a little from her course and came towards him. It was obviously her wish to address him.
"You are Mr. Knox, are you not" she asked.
He was a little surprised, but he admitted the fact.
"I must ask you a question," she said. "It has been in my mind to ask it since I heard your name. You are the Honourable Algernon Knox, are you not, of whom I have heard Miss de Hagon speak"
"That is my name," Knox admitted. "Are you a friend of Miss de Hagon?"
"Not at all," she answered; "only it was through her that I happened to hear of your—do you call it your profession or only your hobby? I must ask you a question, Mr. Knox. You are a gentleman. You will tell me the truth. Are you here on my account?"
Knox started a little.
"On your account?" he repeated, "Most certainly not, madam. I came here for a fortnight's quiet golf with my friend Chesham. He hasn't been well, and the doctor ordered him to the east coast."
"You are sure" she persisted feverishly. "You don't even know who I am"
"I have not the faintest idea." Knox assured her.
She seemed to some extent relieved, yet not altogether convinced.
"You and your friend," she remarked, "were talking of me when I came into the room at luncheon-time."
"That, I am afraid, is true," Knox confessed; "but we were speaking of you only as two people might speak of a fellow-guest at an hotel. Your appearance, if you will forgive my saying so, excites interest."
"In what way?" she asked quickly. "Please answer me truthfully. I am not vain. I simply want you to tell me the truth."
"You have the appearance," Knox told her, "of being in great trouble. My friend has christened you," he added, "'the Unhappy Lady.'"
For the first time her lips curved into something which was almost like a smile—a very mournful smile, though.
"Your friend has perceptions," she said. "I am a most unhappy lady. However, I have asked you my question. I thank you for your answer, Mr. Knox. I am greatly, very greatly relieved by it."
She passed on with a little bow. Knox strolled back to the place from which he was playing practice iron shots on to the fourth green. Chesham came up to him presently.
"Didn't I see you talking to her?" he asked. "Wasn't that the Unhappy Lady?"
"We only exchanged a few ordinary words," he said. "I could scarcely help speaking, coming face to face with her on the edge of the cliff, could I?"
Chesham glanced around to where the slim figure was disappearing in the distance.
"Wish I'd sliced my shot!" he grumbled....
THAT evening Knox watched their neighbour enter the room and take her place at the next table with more curiosity than he had as yet felt in her. The slight interest necessarily created by a very beautiful woman of obvious culture in an hotel dining-room was added to now by a stronger and more personal feeling. She knew Miss de Hagon. The very fact, however, that she had mentioned her name seemed to indicate that her presence here was in no sense minatory to himself. She was herself afraid of espionage. Why? He watched her as she sank into her place and gazed purposelessly out of the window across the sea. Her face was almost too perfect—the violet eyes and the way she had of wearing her hair rather low on the forehead, her intense pallor, her very sensitive mouth, her wonderfully graceful figure and general air of distinction would have made her noticeable anywhere. It seemed odd to come across her in the dining-room of an ordinary seaside hotel like the Royal at Sheringham. She was obviously wrapped in thought, and Knox permitted himself to study her more carefully than as yet he had done. He was watching her, therefore, at the time when a sudden change stole into her face. She had glanced away from the sea quite carelessly at the figure of a man who was passing the asphalt walk in front of the hotel. Gradually her eyes seemed to grow larger, her lips convulsively parted. If she was colourless before, she was almost ghastly in that slight gesture of drawing back, the clutch at the tablecloth, the terrified look of a woman filled with mortal fear. Knox glanced from her to the man. He was looking in through the window, but his face was expressionless. He was of middle height, rather thick-set, with carefully twirled brown moustache, and he was dressed in somewhat urban fashion for a seaside resort Something about him suggested the foreigner. If he had recognised the Unhappy Lady, he gave no sign of it.
The service of dinner proceeded. Their neighbour, who had missed several courses, rose from her place long before either Knox or his companion had finished the meal. Before they left the table, indeed, Knox saw her pass down the steps of the hotel. He watched her lift her black lace skirts with both hands to cross the road, watched the sparkle of the buckles upon her high-heeled evening shoes. She reached the little grass plot opposite and turned at once to the cliffs. She walked swiftly in the direction taken by the man whom she had watched from the hotel window. Soon she disappeared from view. Knox withdrew his eyes from the window.
"By the bye," he said, "I wonder what our neighbour's name is. I have never thought of calling her anything else except that very appropriate sobriquet which you bestowed upon her."
"I looked in the visitors' book," Chesham admitted. "Her name is Mrs. Meriam, 'Mrs. Meriam and maid,' the entry is."
"There is a maid, then" Knox remarked, carefully selecting a cigarette.
"A Frenchwoman, ugly as sin," Chesham replied. "She looks about fifty, and she has eyebrows as thick as a man's. There she goes—look!"
Knox glanced out of the window. The woman was just crossing the road. She was everything that Chesham described—a typical French peasant woman. Knox watched her with interest. He knew the type.
"A Provençal," he murmured. "Comes from the vine-growers' stock, from the region which slopes down to the sea in the south—a fine, strong race."
"Personally," Chesham declared, smiling, "I am more interested in her wonderful mistress. Don't let's go into the lounge. Some one or other will want us to play bridge. We'll smoke out of doors, if you like."
They walked up and down, on the little grass plot which almost overhung the sea. Below them were many rows of bathing huts, a full sea falling with a gentle, monotonous murmur upon the pebbly beach. Once, when in their promenade they reached the wire fence which bordered the golf links, Knox paused and looked thoughtfully onward to where the cliffs reared themselves in strange shapes across the empty space of the links, wrapped now in a mantle of curiously impenetrable darkness. Somewhere amongst those shadows the woman had vanished on her evening walk; somewhere, too, the unfamiliar man.
"Shouldn't wonder if we didn't have some thunder," Chesham remarked. "Good job if we do. The air wants clearing, anyhow."
"It has that feeling," Knox agreed, as they strolled back to the hotel. "Listen!"
He had stopped suddenly. Was it his fancy, or from somewhere back in the shadows did he indeed hear a tangled murmur of sounds, something which seemed to end in a woman's sob? Then a longer wave than usual dragged the pebbles scrunching down the beach.
"What's the matter?" Chesham asked.
Knox still listened. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
"The sea, I suppose," he replied. "I fancied I heard something."....
"THEY may call us lunatics," Chesham declared blithely, as he drove off the fourth tee at a little after six on the following morning, "but to my mind this is the finest round of the day. Not a soul on the links, not even the flags out. We get the first gulps of this wonderful air and the first touch of the sunshine. I don't know how it is, but I always play my best golf, too. Two up, Algy, and I haven't had a stroke yet."
"It's all very well," Knox replied, "but I don't sleep as well as you do on these hotel beds, and I can scarcely drive for yawning. Besides, that last putt of yours was a beastly fluke."
"That brassy wasn't, though," Chesham retorted, as he hit a fine second, carried the intervening bunker, and ran gently through the opening on to the green.
"If we could only induce a couple of these lazy caddies to get up!" Knox remarked, as he made a somewhat similar stroke and stooped to pick up his bag. "I don't mind carrying my clubs, but I hate groveling for them every time after I've played a shot."
Chesham stifled a yawn.
"At this hour of the morning I am an optimist," he declared. "Did you ever hear larks sing like it? They seem to get up from your feet every moment And did you ever see diamonds that shone like this dew?"
"I've got my feet beastly wet," Knox grumbled, "and I hate not having the flags out. One doesn't know what to aim at."
"If you won't admire nature" Chesham observed, "think of the bacon and eggs you are going to eat when we get back!"
They strolled towards the opening which led on to the fourth green. On either side was a deep bunker. Chesham, who was walking on the right, suddenly altered his course a little.
"What the devil's that?" he exclaimed, pointing ahead to the bunker. "Looks as though a man had gone to sleep there."
Knox looked in the direction to which his companion was pointing. Suddenly he felt a little thrill. This holiday of his, at the quietest seaside place he could find upon the map, was going to be no such complete holiday after all. It was the figure of a man lying in the bunker, and the attitude was not one of sleep.
"Why, he looks—" Chesham began. "Why, Algy, he must be ill or something!"
They both dropped their clubs, and their quickened walk became a run. They stood on the edge of the bunker, and even Knox, who in the last few months had become used to the thrills of life, felt himself suddenly a little sick. A man lay there upon his back, with his hands stretched out, his eyes wide open, but that the man was dead no one could look at him and doubt for a single moment. In the middle of his chest, or a little to the left, something was shining in the sunshine. They both looked at it; they both looked at the man. Chesham opened his lips and closed them again.
"Damn it, I'm faint!" he muttered at last, and sat down suddenly upon the grass with his back turned to the object.
Knox, although he too was suffering from the shock of this unexpected spectacle, took firm hold; of himself. He moved half a step nearer. The man who lay before him was stabbed through the heart, and the weapon with which the deed had been done was still quivering there—nothing more nor less than a woman's hatpin with a green jade head. A few feet away, in the long grass bordering the bunker, was something else which glittered. Knox stepped forward and picked it up. He glanced behind. Chesham's back was still turned towards him. He thrust it into his pocket—the buckle of a woman's evening shoe. His quick eye ransacked the rest of the place. So far as he could see there were no footsteps in the bunker. The struggle, if there had been one, had taken place on the outside. He turned back to his friend.
"Pull yourself together, old chap," he said. "How are you feeling now?"
Chesham staggered to his feet.
"Oh, all right, I suppose," he replied. "Gave me a nasty jar for a moment, though."
"Look here," Knox directed, "you run down to the club there. Find the steward and ask him what time the green-men come to work. They must be here directly. Bring a couple of them up and don't let any one touch a thing. I'll hurry back to the hotel, ring up the police station, and get a doctor."
"All right," Chesham agreed. "I'll be off at once."
The two men separated. Knox was back at the hotel in less than five minutes, woke up a sleepy telephone operator, and in less than a quarter of an hour was joined by a hastily-attired policeman and a young doctor who came round the corner putting on his collar. They started out towards the fourth bunker, Knox telling them his story as he went. He said nothing and knew nothing save one thing only—a man, a stranger, was lying dead there. When they arrived at the place, a little crowd was beginning to assemble. Knox and Chesham collected their golf clubs and turned away. The doctor had just risen from his knees in the bunker.
"The man is dead, of course," he pronounced. "He must have been dead for six or seven hours, at least The body had better not be disturbed until the inspector comes."
Knox handed his card to the policeman.
"We are staying at the Royal Hotel," he said. "You can give my card to the inspector, as we were the first to find the body. My friend and I were having an early round at golf."
The man saluted.
"Very good, sir."
Knox and Chesham walked back towards the hotel. They were both silent.
"I wonder who the fellow can be," Chesham remarked. "I never saw him before. Looks rather like a foreigner."
"Beastly thing to happen here, of all places in the world," Knox declared. "Let's go and have a swim."
AT breakfast-time the news was just being discussed. Knox and Chesham were the recipients of many questions.
"Hang it!" Chesham exclaimed. "Let's get out of this for a time, Knox. They are going to close the first four holes for the day. What about a run over to Brancaster?"
Knox made some excuse. The quarter of a mile which separated the front of the hotel from the fourth bunker seemed to possess a curious fascination for him. He traversed it three or four times that morning, mingling with the ceaseless throng of villagers and visitors passing backwards and forwards. All manner of wild statements were abroad, but so far as actual facts were concerned, little enough was known. The man had plenty of money upon him, and cards from which it appeared that his name was Ludo Mettlemein, a manufacturer of German leather. As to the owner of the hatpin, no one had as yet hazarded a guess as to her identity. At luncheon-time it was reported that the police were still without any clue. As they reached the final courses of that meal, Knox looked up with a little quick motion of the head. He was without doubt interested.
"What's up?" Chesham, whose back was to the room, asked.
"Nothing," Knox replied. "I was looking at the Unhappy Lady. She seems to have grown younger in the night."
Chesham, too, turned his head. Mrs. Meriam was just taking her seat behind them. Her expression of settled melancholy was certainly less noticeable. She ordered her luncheon almost with interest, and leaned forward across the table to watch a sailing boat manoeuvring around some crab-pots. She caught Knox's eye and bowed gravely.
"I wonder if she has heard of the affair," Chesham remarked. "She never comes down from her room till midday."
"There are servants here," Knox answered dryly. "I don't suppose there is a man, woman, or child within half a dozen miles who doesn't know all about it by this time. The next thrill will be when the police make an arrest."....
THE police, however, seemed in no hurry to make an arrest. The days went by and they were still without any clue. The inquest was held and a verdict of murder returned against some person or persons unknown. There was still no arrest. The next sensation was a report that amongst the guests at the Royal Hotel was a detective from Scotland Yard, and a few days afterwards it leaked out that the object of his especial watch was the Unhappy Lady.
Knox begged off golf a day or two later and spent a lazy morning about the place. He sat on a seat by the hotel steps for some time, and chatted with the head porter, a very cheerful and magnificent-looking personage whom every one called Fritz.
"Why does every one call you by a German name?" Knox inquired, as he stretched himself out and relit his pipe. "You are French, are you not?"
The man smiled.
"Monsieur is correct," he said. "I suppose it is because they think that there never was such a thing as a fair Frenchman."
They talked for some time, Knox found the man exceptionally well educated.
"Tell me what you think of the new French Military Bill?" he asked, in the course of conversation.
"There is nothing to be said against it, monsieur," the man replied, a little shortly.
"You yourself," Knox persisted—"you've done your military service, of course. How should you have felt if it had applied to you?"
The man looked out towards the sea. He had the air of one who is reflecting upon some difficult subject in which he was not greatly interested.
"I should have been willing, sir," he replied at last, "to have accepted any law passed by the authorities. They should know what is best."
"I almost wonder," Knox continued, looking at the man's fine figure, "that you were never tempted to stay on in the army."
Fritz's cheerfulness seemed to have deserted him. He watched the arrival of the omnibus from the station with a frown.
"In France," he said slowly, "military service is severe, very severe indeed. Pardon, monsieur!"
He hurried out on to the pavement, in order to welcome some newcomers. Knox strolled across the road to the front and seated himself upon the low white paling. A young man who was smoking a cigarette and looking out towards the sea, presently accosted him.
"Mr. Knox, I believe?" he inquired.
Knox looked the newcomer over. He recognised him as a young man who had arrived at the hotel a few nights before, and who had spent most of his time playing golf. For some reason or other his appearance was a little puzzling. He was dressed in flannels and he was wearing the colours of a well-known cricket club. Knox, however, who had observed him before, had his own suspicions concerning his profession.
"That is my name," Knox admitted.
"Mine," the newcomer proceeded, "is Symons. I come," he added, glancing around for a moment, "from Scotland Yard."
"So I surmised," Knox murmured.
Mr. Symons coughed.
"I only realised who you were," he said, "last night. May I ask if you are here by chance or by design?"
"Entirely by chance," Knox declared.
"I am glad of that," the detective continued slowly. "This little affair is moderately simple, of course, but two men working upon it from different points of view and without an exchange of confidences might each defeat their own ends. You agree with me, I'm sure, Mr. Knox?"
"Certainly," Knox assented. "I can assure you that my presence here is quite accidental. I happened to be the first to discover the body. I am here, however, simply for the golf. May I ask if you have had any success?"
The detective shrugged his shoulders.
"So far as regards the actual discovery of the guilty person," he replied, "there can be no shadow of a doubt about that. The connecting links of evidence, however, are not, I must confess, so easy to procure as I had expected."
"I am in your hands entirely," Knox remarked, "and I do not wish to force your confidence. I must confess, however, that it would interest me to know how far you have gone?"
The detective smiled.
"I am quite sure that I can rely upon you, Mr. Knox," he said. "There is really very little secrecy about the matter, however, for I am quite sure that the woman herself is perfectly well aware that she is under surveillance. Do you happen to know anything of a Mrs. Meriam who is staying here?"
"Mrs. Meriam?" Knox repeated softly. "Yes, I know her, of course."
"Do you happen to know who she is?"
"She is a very famous person, a person whose name only a year ago was on every one's tongue. She is the Marquise Arnault, the heroine of the famous murder case."
Knox was obviously amazed, yet the moment the name had left his companion's lips some faint memories came back to him—the pictures in the illustrated papers, the description of the woman. He knew at once that the detective was speaking the truth.
"In a sense there was never a case like it," the latter continued thoughtfully. "This woman's husband and her child were discovered in a room, suffocated. The woman was known to have had a lover. She was heard by a witness to have said to her husband, only a few hours before—'If I believed this thing of you, I would kill you with my own hand, and the boy, too, lest he should grow up like you!' The words were put into her mouth and she never denied them. She refused any explanation. She never even attempted to deny the existence of the lover. Everything went against her at her trial, and everything pointed to her guilt. Yet at the last moment the judge sent up a private note to the jury and she was acquitted. You must remember what a storm there was throughout the country."
"And since then" Knox demanded eagerly.
The detective smiled.
"Since then there have been many curious rumours. One feels that the whole truth of the case was not allowed to transpire. The affair took place near Nancy, within a few miles of the German frontier. The Marquis was a major in a French regiment stationed at Nancy."
"There were rumours of military secrets sold, were there not?" Knox asked. "Isn't it supposed that that was what the woman meant?"
The detective nodded.
"It has been supposed always," he said, "that something more was known than was allowed to come into the Press, something which was contained in that note written by the judge and sent up to the jury. However, here comes the queer part of the story. I was sent down here in the ordinary way to investigate this affair. I recognised the Marquise at once. I recognised, also, the real identity of Ludo Mettlemein, manufacturer of German leather. His real name is Grisson. He was the lover of Madame la Marquise. I come here to unravel an ordinary murder case, and I find that the murdered man is Paul Grisson, and the person to whom suspicion points is the woman who has just escaped from one charge and who will certainly now have to face another."
Knox was sitting with folded arms, looking out seawards.
"For what are you waiting?" he asked. "Why do you not arrest her?"
"A mere trifle of circumstantial evidence," the detective answered carelessly. "She cannot leave the place—I have taken care of that. I should like, too, to arrive at some idea as to why she quarrelled with Grisson. However, that is less important. I am anxious to remain undiscovered for a few days longer. I can rely upon your silence, can I not, Mr. Knox?"
"Certainly," Knox assured him.
"Then I shall go and have a game of golf," the detective remarked, rising to his feet.
He strolled off. Knox, in a few moments, also rose to his feet. Issuing from the hotel was the Unhappy Lady. She, too, was walking towards the golf links. She smiled in friendly fashion when she approached Knox, but showed no inclination to speak. Knox, however, whose eyes were fixed in fascinated intentness upon her hat, stopped short in the path.
"Mrs. Meriam!" he exclaimed.
She lifted her sunshade a little and smiled upon him. It was certain that during the last few days, so far from showing any anxiety, she seemed to have grown younger and, if possible, more beautiful.
"Is anything the matter, Mr. Knox?" she asked. "You look rather terrified."
"Your hatpin!" he whispered impressively.
She put up her hand and felt it, drew it out from her hat and looked at it. It was long, strongly made, and with a green jade head.
"What about it" she asked. "Why do you look at it like that?"
"For God's sake, hide it!" he muttered. "Don't you see, he's coming back!"
"Are you mad" he exclaimed, under his breath. "Don't you know that that is the fellow of the hatpin with which Paul Grisson was stabbed to death?"
She reeled for a moment on her feet.
"How do you know that he was Paul Grisson?"
"Never mind," Knox replied. "Listen to me. I am going to break a confidence. That agreeable young fellow with whom I saw you talking yesterday, and who is coming towards us now, is a detective from Scotland Yard. He is here to discover the murderer of Paul Grisson. All that he waits for now is just such a trifle of circumstantial evidence as the buckle from your shoe, which I picked up on the edge of the bunker and have since taken the liberty of throwing into the sea; or that hatpin which you are holding now in your hand, and which, of the two, is certainly the more damning. What can you do with it?"
She slipped it suddenly into the bosom of her gown. The head disappeared under a little cluster of lace. Then Knox realised that she was indeed an extraordinary woman. She laughed softly in his face.
"You are a most delightful person, Mr. Knox," she declared. "And to think that I once doubted you! Henceforth we must be friends. If you will talk to me for a few minutes after dinner, I shall be so glad. There is something I should like to say."
She nodded and passed on, glancing sideways for a moment at the detective and acknowledging his greeting with a friendly little smile. He came on to where Knox was standing,
"I'd quite forgotten," he said slowly. "I've left my putter in my room."
Knox turned back to the hotel with him.
"I remember seeing you with it," he remarked. "An aluminium, wasn't it? Hateful things I find them. What's your handicap?"
"Three," the detective replied.
"We must have a game some day," Knox suggested....
MRS. MERIAM after dinner that night left the hotel and, strolling to the front, leaned over the white palings at the edge of the cliff. Knox, in a few minutes, prepared to follow her. In the hall he came' face to face with Symons.
"Going over to talk with Mrs. Meriam, aren't you?" the latter remarked.
"She has something to say to me."
"Just one word of advice, if you won't take it amiss," the detective continued, glancing around to be sure that they were not overheard. "There isn't another woman in the world quite like the Marquise. They say that there isn't a man alive strong enough to resist her when she makes up her mind, that she even bewitched the judge and the jury it that famous trial. She may want you on her side, want you to help her in some matter. If you will take my advice, you'll have nothing to do with her."
"Ever so much obliged," he said thoughtfully. "I'll bear in mind what you have told me."
He paused to speak for a few moments with Fritz, who was standing upon the steps.
"Tell me," he asked, as he turned away, "what were your years of service"
The man started. He looked intently at his questioner. Knox, however, in his fastidious evening clothes, his long dinner-coat, his carefully-tied tie, his green studs, and the eyeglass which at that moment he happened to be wearing, appeared anything but formidable.
"I commenced in 1904, sir," he replied.
Knox strolled on after a few more casual sentences. He crossed the road and the grass plot and greeted Mrs. Meriam with a little bow. She made room for him by her side,
"Mr. Knox," she began, "I am a friendless woman, and although my mother was English, I feel that I am in a strange country. I feel, too, that I am in danger. I want to confide in you. May I?"
"If you wish to," Knox assented. "I would rather not seek your confidence."
"Listen," she went on. "You know something of my history"
"Something," Knox confessed.
"Listen to a very brief but truthful condensation of it," she continued. "It is perfectly true that the man who was found dead on your golf links was once my lover. I make no excuses. We who live in France, perhaps, regard those things a little differently, and my husband's treatment of me had been for many years shameful. You know that my husband and his little boy were found dead, and that I was supposed to be the murderess. Well, I was not. My husband committed suicide, and included in his own death his son's. Again I will tell you why. He was ordered to do so by his superior officer. If he had not, his disgrace would have been made known. He was proved to have sold military secrets to an emissary of Germany; and that emissary of Germany—I say to my great regret, because I never knew it at the time, and I never spoke to him after I did know it—was Paul Grisson."
Knox leaned back in his chair. He was piecing things together.
"Of my trial you know," she went on. "I lost at one blow my husband and my son and my lover, for I have never spoken to Paul Grisson since. Picture to yourself the humiliation of it. He made love to me while he suborned my husband. Oh, it was hateful! Well, all during the trial he pestered me with letters. I lived as though in a fortress. The moment that it was over I escaped. Fortunately, Paul Grisson dared not show his face in France, and he believed that I had gone to Paris. I have spent the last two years in quiet places in England, always striving to forget. I came here. Then the other night I saw him pass the window. I knew that he had tracked me down. I went out into the night in search of him."
She paused. Knox remembered that night with its shadows and strange, thunderous stillness. He remembered seeing her disappear into the darkness, through the gate and along the path which Paul Grisson had taken.
"Listen," she whispered, holding his wrist. "I had scarcely gone a quarter of a mile before my courage failed me. He was on there, only a few yards ahead, smoking. I caught even the smell of his cigar. I felt suddenly helpless. After all, what could I do? I crept a few paces down the cliff and waited there—waited. Then I stole back to the hotel"
Knox looked at her doubtfully.
"You force me to remind you," he said, "that the murder was committed with a hatpin, the fellow of which you were wearing this morning. Who do you suppose murdered Paul Grisson, if you did not?"
She shivered all over.
"I will tell you the truth," she declared. "I fear that it was Annette, my maid, the one faithful person in my life. She left me the next morning. She said that she had news from France—her mother wad dying. She was the only person who knew. I told her that I had seen Paul Grisson."
"You think that she killed him?" Knox asked.
"Who else Who else" she moaned.
Knox sat quite silent for several moments.
"I think," he said presently, "that they will arrest you upon this charge."
"If they do," she replied, "I do not care. Paul Grisson is dead, and I am glad of it, but it was not I who killed him."
They were on their way back towards the hotel They had even reached the steps when Symons rose from the seat which he had been occupying, and intercepted them. He removed his hat gravely.
"Mrs. Meriam," he said, "I am afraid I must ask you whether this is not the hatpin which, after a few words, probably of warning, from Mr. Knox this morning, you removed from your hat and concealed in the bosom of your gown"
He held it out. She recognised it with a little start.
"Where did you get that from" she demanded.
"From your room, madame."
"But how dared you enter my room!"
"Madame," he replied, "I am a servant of the law and I regret very much that it is my duty to arrest you on a charge of murdering Paul Grisson last Wednesday night. Please do not say anything unless you feel compelled to. You will perhaps feel the less inclined to protest when I assure you that your identity as the Marquise Arnault is already established."
She looked him in the face without flinching, almost indifferently.
"You can do as you choose," she said, "but I did not kill Paul Grisson."
Knox, who had been standing calmly by, intervened.
"Not with the fellow to that hatpin, at any rate," he remarked quietly.
"Why not" the detective demanded.
"Because madame hadn't it with her that night."
"And how can you be sure of that?"
"Because by the merest accident in the world I saw her drop it," Knox said quietly. "Because I saw another person pick it up, because I saw that other person soon afterwards steal into the darkness with the hatpin concealed up his sleeve."
"Who was the other person?" the detective asked incredulously.
"Look out!" Knox shouted. "He's off!"
An amazing change had taken place within the last few seconds in the deportment of that model of expectant geniality, Fritz, the hall porter. Already he had reached the bottom step. Knox, with a sudden spring, intercepted and tripped him up. The detective seized him as he scrambled to his feet. Even then he struggled violently, and it was all the two men could do to hold him.
"If you must arrest some one," Knox remarked, a little breathless, when at last they had secured him, "here is your man. He passes here as Fritz, but his name, I understand, is Jean Vargot. He has served three years in prison for parting with French military secrets to the man Grisson. Rightly or wrongly, he has always attributed his arrest to Grisson. He is the man whom I saw pick up the hatpin which Mrs. Meriam had dropped, and steal out after Grisson that night. It can easily be proved that he was absent, for I happen to know that he was reprimanded for being away whilst on duty."
Several people had gathered around. The under-porter and the hotel manager now came bustling out.
"Take me somewhere quietly," Fritz muttered. "I give in. I plead guilty. But I have kept my oath!"
They led him away. The Unhappy Lady turned and placed her hands in Knox's.
"Monsieur," she said, "you are a very wonderful person, and I thank you so much. But how did you know? Even I had no idea. I—I thought that it was Annette."
"I'm afraid," he confessed, "that you will think my knowledge was obtained in rather an unworthy manner. I started by absolutely disbelieving in your guilt. One has to trust to instinct in these matters to some extent, you know. Then I overheard a conversation between Annette and Fritz which gave me the clue. I saw him pick up your hatpin, and I saw him watch Paul Grisson pass by, with an expression which I have seen on a man's face only once before—and that man was a murderer. These things are largely a matter of fortune. If I had not heard those few sentences of Fritz's, if I had not seen him stoop and pick up your hatpin—who knows? I might even have believed—"
She stopped him.
"The good fortune, then, was indeed mine, monsieur," she murmured.
THE Honourable Algernon Knox entered the stately portals of his uncle's club in Pall Mall, and with becoming reverence inquired for Lord Tamworth. That nobleman appeared a few minutes later and greeted his nephew cordially.
"You got my note, then?" he remarked.
"An hour ago. I came round here at once," Knox replied dutifully.
Lord Tamworth led the way into the smoking-room, which at that somewhat early hour in the morning was almost deserted.
"I come round here to smoke my morning cigar," Lord Tamworth explained, "as your aunt dislikes the smell of smoke anywhere in the house until after dinner-time. I presume it is too early to ask you to take anything?... Just so. You will smoke, perhaps?—one of your own, if you prefer it."
Knox made himself comfortable in an easy-chair. Lord Tamworth was a little fussy. He obviously had something to say.
"Algernon," he began at last, "I am bound to admit that you have afforded me many pleasant surprises during the last twelve months."
"Delighted to hear it," Knox murmured.
"Your essay into politics," Lord Tamworth continued, "was unfortunate, and it certainly gave me a wrong idea of your capacity. Since then you have shown yourself on several occasions possessed of brains—yes, brains!"
Knox contemplated the end of his cigarette and coughed diffidently.
"If I might venture, as your guardian," Lord Tamworth went on, "to criticise any of your doings, I should like to refer for a moment to your weakness for—er—for theatres and those connected with them. You are, I understand, one of a little party of young men who sup every night at the Milan or a similar place, generally in company with one or more of the young ladies whose mission in life it is simply to—to—er—amuse."
"If you mean that I have a good many friends who are on the stage, uncle, you are right," Knox admitted. "I am quite fond of theatrical people."
"We are talking together," Lord Tamworth said, "as guardian and ward, and please consider that I am speaking to you sympathetically and—er—with much appreciation of certain gifts which you have shown lately, and from which I myself have derived some benefit. You will not, then, resent my question if I ask you what you find in these young ladies which you do not find in the young ladies of your own social standing?"
"Quite a fair question," Knox remarked approvingly, "quite a reasonable one. Here is my answer—Friendship with young women of my own social standing is a thing which is quite out of the question. Companionship is impossible. I can't take a girl of my own set to the theatre or to luncheon, or for a day's motoring in the country, or to supper. It isn't done, you know. Some elderly relative would make a nuisance of himself or herself in ten minutes, and I should be asked my intentions. That's the long and short of it. Bright young women form the most delightful companions in the world for—may I say intelligent young men? You can't make pals in your own set because they'd think at once that you wanted to marry them. The young ladies to whom you allude look at the matter from a reasonable point of view. Some of them do marry, of course, but they are not tumbling over themselves for it like the girls in our set are, and they are clever enough to know when a man isn't looking for that sort of thing."
Lord Tamworth stroked his grey imperial thoughtfully.
"I see your point of view, Algernon," he confessed. "The pity of it is, however, that such associations procure for a young man a certain reputation of frivolity which is, to some extent, undesirable."
Knox smiled faintly for a moment but said nothing. He was thinking of his Cousin Philip, whom he had seen last night supping at the Milan with a French danseuse from the Hippodrome! He did not, however, refer to the incident.
"We all have our weaknesses, uncle," he observed. "You grow orchids and encourage missionaries."
Lord Tamworth frowned
"I see no connection between the two tastes," he replied. "We will not, however, pursue the subject. My mention of it at all was, I may remark, only incidental. It cropped up naturally enough during a conversation which I had yesterday with a very august politician whom, if you please, I will call Mr. Z."
"Quite so," Knox agreed. "I don't quite see, however, what my penchant for the young ladies of the stage has to do with old—with Mr. Z."
"I ventured," Lord Tamworth proceeded, "to mention your name in connection with a slight undertaking. Mr. Z. remembered you at once, 'You mean,' he asked, 'the clever young man who took the golf balls over to Paris?' You see, Algernon, one of your exploits, at any rate, hasn't been forgotten at headquarters."
"Delighted!" Knox murmured.
"We then discussed your fitness," Lord Tamworth continued, "for this particular enterprise. Mr. Z. was favourably enough inclined towards you. His only hesitation seemed to proceed from something which he had evidently heard as to your associations with the lighter side of life. However, I am glad to say that in the end I am permitted to offer you the commission."
"Very good of you," Knox remarked, sitting up in his chair in a more interested manner. "A little Government job, eh?"
"A little job which sounds ridiculously simple," Lord Tamworth proceeded, "but which, for certain reasons, we prefer to entrust to some one not known as one of our regular messengers. I must explain to you," he added, glancing once more portentously around the room and with visible effort lowering his voice, "that during the last few months frequent exchanges of confidences have taken place between the War Office here and the French military authorities. The opinion on the other side is that we have been unduly slack with regard to aerial matters. That was partly wiped out by the unexpected success of our hydroplanes, but only a few weeks ago the French Government went so far as to urge upon us the advisability of placing orders for a Beet of airships of a certain pattern. We answered them at first with evasions, because we did not wish them to know the whole truth. They appear to feel so strongly upon the matter, however, that with a view to preserving amicable relations we have decided to let them into our little secret. You will be the only one of the non-official persons, my dear Algernon, permitted to share it."
"Dear me!" Knox observed. "This sounds all right!"
"The reason," Lord Tamworth went on, "why we have been guilty of apparent slackness in the matter of airships is that we have a considerable number of an absolutely new and a most successful type, waiting only for the finishing touches. They are such a revelation, in fact, in the science of aeronautics, that after one trial flight on Salisbury Plain, which was kept an entire secret, it was decided to keep them entirely out of sight, and with that end in view, to go on building but to leave the finishing touches of each one. To-day, apparently, we have but a single reasonable airship, as you know, of German design. As a matter of fact, we have eighteen of far superior pattern, which could be completed within a week."
"What an ignorant ass the man in the street sometimes is!" Knox exclaimed. "The papers have been full of letters blaming us for our slackness, and not a single reply has been made. Jolly good business, I call it."
Lord Tamworth nodded.
"The Government," he said, "can afford at times to disregard their critics. This time they have them—to use a vulgar colloquialism—on toast. To avoid any ill-feeling with France, however, we have decided, as I have told you, to explain the situation to them; and, further, we have built a model of the airship so that they may be entirely convinced. That model, Algernon, it is proposed that you should take over and deliver by arrangement to a representative of the French Government. You will, I presume, not hesitate to accept the responsibility?"
"I'll take it on with pleasure," Knox decided promptly. "When shall I start?"
"The model will be ready for you on Thursday morning," Lord Tamworth replied. "It is made of aluminium and is not unduly heavy. Although large, it can be conveyed in the railway compartment with you. I think you will find the commission tolerably simple; but some rumours of this affair have got about, and it is certain that our own messengers are being very closely watched just now. You are in the habit of taking pleasure trips to Paris, and I think that there is no doubt but that you can run over quite in the ordinary way and take the model with you as part of your luggage. Probably you will be entirely unsuspected, but anything you can do, of course, to give your visit a pleasure-seeking appearance, would be advisable."
Knox was thoughtful for a moment. Then he looked up with a smile upon his lips.
"I tell you what, uncle," he said. "You've been lecturing me about my evening frivolities. I'll just show you how they come in. There's a little friend of mine at the Gaiety, resting for a week, a charming young lady—Miss Sara Martin. I'll take her over to Paris. That'll make my trip look all right, eh?"
Lord Tamworth was somewhat shocked.
"My dear Algernon," he protested, "I should look upon such an excursion as most improper. The young lady, too—do you mean that she would consent to accompany you without a chaperone? If so—"
"Oh, that's all right!" Knox interrupted. "People don't need chaperones when they know their own mind, and when they know their companion's. Sara'll come like a shot. We nearly went once before, only I was busy."
"Her presence," Lord Tamworth admitted thoughtfully, "would certainly give the right tone to your expedition."
"You come and see us off next Thursday, eleven o'clock train," Knox invited. "You'll find I've got the tone right enough."....
LORD TAMWORTH felt somewhat out of his element as he pushed his way to the front of the little party who were saying good-bye to Knox and his companion on the following Thursday morning. There were two or three very smart young ladies, Lord Chesham and another friend of Algernon's in attendance, and, somewhat to his lordship's surprise, his own son, the Honourable Philip, who was busily engaged tying something attached to a piece of white satin ribbon on to the handle of the compartment.
"Take care of her, do, dear Mr. Knox!" one of the young ladies enjoined, dabbing her handkerchief to her eyes with mock emotion.
"Lest any one should presume to intrude upon their privacy, behold!" the Honourable Philip exclaimed, stepping aside from his handiwork.
Lord Tamworth coughed. His son turned quickly around and looked remarkably foolish.
"Hullo, governor!" he murmured weakly.
"What are you doing here, may I ask?" Lord Tamworth asked, a little sternly.
"Come to see old Algy off," his son explained. "We're just having a bit of a rag with him."
Knox descended from the carriage and took his uncle's arm. They stepped for a moment on one side.
"You are doing the thing thoroughly, Algernon," his uncle observed grimly.
"Nothing like it," Knox assented. "I got Philip to help," he added, with a swift intuition of possible trouble in that direction. "It's just a bit of chaff amongst some of them. But it does impart the—er—frivolous note to our little expedition, doesn't it?"
"It certainly does," Lord Tamworth confessed. "What are your plans?"
Knox pointed to the inside of the compartment. It was laden with dressing-bags and hand-baggage.
On one of the vacant seats was a large, oblong, brown-paper package, to which were attached several seals.
"My plans are," Knox replied, "that I am not making any. Would any one, I ask you, suspect me of any other design save a pleasure trip?"
Lord Tamworth looked at the little group gathered around the carriage window; at the piquant face of the young lady who was to be his nephew's travelling companion, as she stood with her hands in her pockets and replied to the chaff which was being showered upon her. He sighed.
"I suppose it's all right, Algernon," he admitted. "I don't think that your aunt would approve, though."
"Perhaps not," Knox agreed, "but then you must remember that her experience of life isn't exactly what ours is."
Lord Tamworth grunted.
"And how about the rest of the journey?"
"I have a cabin engaged upon the steamer," Knox told him, "and a compartment engaged in the French train. I have the pass through the Customs which you were good enough to get for me, and I really don't anticipate any difficulty. Monsieur Pericot will, I understand, be at the Bristol to await our arrival."
Lord Tamworth nodded.
"He will be there without fail," Lord Tamworth said. "Well, the affair is in your hands now. So long as you keep your head, I can't see that anything is likely to go wrong. Remember, though, that if by any chance you should be in a tight corner, smash the model, if you can, rather than have it stolen. How about getting from the Gare du Nord to your hotel?"
"I shall wire for a station omnibus," Knox replied. "Much safer than any attempt to get a private vehicle."
Lord Tamworth glanced at his watch.
"You have only five minutes more," he said. "I must hurry away."
Knox hesitated for a moment and coughed slightly.
"Like to be introduced to the young lady, sir?" he suggested.
Lord Tamworth glanced towards the window of the carriage. Perhaps there was a shade of regret in his face. There was a very cheerful and wholesome atmosphere about the little group, not in the least in accordance with his ideas of musical comedy life.
"I think not, Algernon," he decided. "At my time of life I am too old to change my views. I have no doubt but that the young lady is perfectly respectable, and that she will behave herself in a most charming fashion. At the same time, the thought of a young lady being willing to accompany a young man, unchaperoned, to Paris for a few days' holiday, is not one which I can reconcile with my ideas of propriety. I am an old fogy, doubtless, but I am too old to change. A safe journey to you, Algernon, and don't forget to wire."
Lord Tamworth waved his hand and disappeared down the platform. Knox strolled back to his friends.
"Fancy the governor turning up!" the Honourable Philip muttered.
"I saw you through it all right, old chap," Knox declared. "He doesn't know that you brought Amy along. He thinks that it was just a twinge of cousinly affection on your part towards me. So long, all of you! Take care of him, Amy."
Amidst a little storm of chaff and waving of hands, the train drew slowly out of the platform. Knox pulled up the window and leaned back in his corner. His companion, who was almost exhausted with laughter, sat wiping the tears from her eyes.
"I never had such fun in my life!" she exclaimed. "Whoever made them start a rag like that?"
"To tell you the truth," Knox confessed good-humouredly, "I am afraid I rather gave them the tip. I pretended to be scared lest they should try any jokes, and of course that was enough for Chesham."
"Really," she sighed, "I am not at all sure that a honeymoon wouldn't be good fun."
"I expect you'll be idiot enough to try one some day," Knox declared pleasantly, as he sought out a paper from the little heap he had purchased.
She made a grimace at him.
"Well, when I do," she said pointedly, "my husband won't read the newspaper directly we start."
"And my wife," he retorted, looking at her over the top of it with a twinkle in his eyes, "won't have her mother and sister waiting for her on the platform of the Gare du Nord!"
THE succeeding stages of the journey were devoid for some time of any incident. At Dover, the many belongings of Mr. Knox and his companion were safely transferred to the private cabin which had been engaged. Knox himself carried the brown-paper parcel with its heavy seals, deposited it behind him in the cabin, established himself in a steamer-chair across the threshold, whilst Miss Sara Martin stretched herself out on another a few feet away. They had a fine crossing, and Knox's unusual letter rendering him immune from Customs, resulted in an easy and pleasant transference of their belongings to their compartment in the French train. It was not until they had left Calais that anything in the shape of trouble presented itself. They were scarcely out of the station before a stout old lady in horn-rimmed glasses appeared, accompanied by the train inspector.
"What I think about you and your line," the old lady said firmly, "is best kept to myself. Of all the abominably mismanaged concerns in this world, give me a French railway! And of all the hopeless imbeciles that ever grew up, give me a French train attendant I Now where do you say I sit?"
The inspector invited Knox's sympathy with a little gesture. Obviously he had not understood a word. He pointed to a seat in the compartment. Knox turned towards him quickly.
"But these seats," he protested in French, "are all engaged. I have the tickets here."
"Monsieur will permit me."
The inspector took them into his hands and scrutinised them. Then he looked at the ticket which the stout lady had given him. Finally he removed his hat.
"Monsieur," he declared, with outstretched hands, "it is an incident the most regrettable, but the fact remains that the places have been let twice over. Since monsieur is not using them, perhaps he will of his kindness permit the lady to occupy her seat."
"I am sorry," Knox told him, "but there are special reasons why I wished the whole compartment reserved."
The inspector glanced towards Miss Sara Martin, and he was very apologetic indeed. He wound up a long speech by indicating plainly that in cases of such mistakes the ticket sold upon the French side claimed precedence. He proceeded to arrange upon the racks the small articles of baggage which lay in the corridor. One or two he had to leave upon the floor, as the racks were already filled to overflowing. He lingered for a moment with his eyes upon the purse of the stout lady, but she made not the slightest response.
"Bonjour, madame!" he said, bowing low.
"Get out with you!" the lady replied irritably. "You know I don't understand a word of your language, but if you really want to know what I think of you in good English—"
The man disappeared a little precipitately. The woman, however, was not mollified.
"Sorry if I've inconvenienced you," she said crossly turning to Knox, "but what you want with a whole carriage I don't know. You've filled the racks as it is. I don't see what right people have to fill up the carriage with parcels that ought to go in the van," she added, with a meaning glance at the brown-paper package, which was in the rack exactly facing Knox—"Why, here comes that little monkey-faced man back again!"
Once more the train inspector appeared, this time followed by two men. He glanced a little nervously towards Knox as he indicated two of the vacant places.
"Look here," Knox exclaimed, rising to his feet, "you've seen my tickets for these places! I have put up with your introducing one stranger into the compartment, but I will not have any more people put here. The thing is impossible. I have shown you my tickets."
"And I have explained, monsieur," the railway official replied, "that an unfortunate mistake has occurred. The seats have been let twice over, and in a case of that sort, when there is no other vacant place in the train, the passengers must occupy the seats for which they have paid rather than have them remain empty. Monsieur would not desire it himself," he added.
"But I do desire it," Knox declared, waving the tickets. "It is my particular desire to be alone in this compartment. I have paid for it. I took my tickets on the platform at Victoria—"
"Useless, monsieur!" the railway official interrupted hauling in more small baggage and turning a deaf ear to Knox's protestations.
The two men seated themselves. One, who appeared to be an Englishman, wore spectacles and was carefully dressed, raised his hat to Knox.
"I must apologise very much," he said, "if I take a place which you have also engaged, but what am I to do? There is nothing else vacant upon the train. This ticket was issued to me at Calais."
"And mine," the other man intervened, also raising his hat, but speaking in French. "I, too, am sorry to intrude, but what would you have?"
Knox sat up, frowning. He leaned over towards his companion.
"I don't like, this," he whispered, under his breath; "I don't understand these tickets being sold twice over."
She shrugged her shoulders but said nothing. She was watching the woman.
"Well, we mustn't go to sleep, at any rate," she sighed, "and I am so drowsy."
THEY settled down to the journey. The two men went out and lunched in the dining-car, and did not return for over an hour. The old lady put up her feet upon the opposite seat and apparently slept. Knox sat with his eyes fixed upon the parcel opposite to him, and smoked an unusual number of cigarettes. The two men both returned to their places separately and made no attempt to enter into conversation. They were about forty miles from Paris when the man who was sitting next Knox, and who seemed to have some difficulty in finding room for his feet, began to grumble.
"It is absurd," he muttered, looking fixedly at the parcel on the opposite rack, "that people should be allowed to encumber a travelling compartment with packages large enough for the van. Behold on the floor my bag, because there is no place for it above."
"I might remind you," Knox said coldly, "that I have paid for the whole compartment."
The old lady in the corner suddenly opened her eyes. She looked out of the window. The Englishman seemed suddenly absorbed in the scenery.
"The compartment is overheated," the former declared. "I feel faint. Would you mind," she asked Knox, "having the window all the way down for a few minutes?"
Knox at once obeyed her request. There was a moment's pause. Both the other men seemed to be looking at the country through which they were flying. Then all of a sudden the Frenchman turned and seized Knox by the shoulders. The Englishman caught hold of Miss Martin. The old lady seized the brown-paper parcel, pushed it half-way through the window, waited for a moment, and then threw it out. Knox caught a little glimpse of several men loitering in a field below, and a motor-car in the road.
"It is abominable!" the woman shouted. "Atrocious! Never have I seen such presumption! What right have they to the whole of the racking? Bah!"
Knox, with a fierce effort, freed himself. The Frenchman sprang at him again but he was too late. Knox had pulled down the communication cord.
"Now we shall see!" he exclaimed.
There was a grinding of brakes. Several uniformed officials came hurrying down the corridor. Knox shouted to them. They crowded in. A babel of talk arose. The woman shouted in English, the Frenchman shrieked in French, the Englishman spoke a language which was indescribable. Knox vainly tried to make himself heard above the din. Meanwhile, the train came to a stop, and with the cessation of the noise Knox's voice was heard at last.
"It is a conspiracy here!" he protested. "These three people are in league. They have thrown a valuable package of mine out of the window. I demand that the train be kept here while search is made for it."
The Frenchman broke in.
"It is true," he admitted. "It is I, I who did it," tapping his chest. "These two English people they fill the whole racks with their belongings, they try to claim every seat and to keep out honest travellers who have paid for their seats. They are of a type most insolent. My card, Monsieur l'Inspecteur. I am a notary of Paris. My card and my address. I will answer for what has been done. I will admit that I was furious. I will recompense the English gentleman for the package, if necessary, but their insolent conduct moved all here to indignation."
"It is the truth!" the Englishman shouted, with vigorous gesticulations. "They should have a special train, nothing less."
"If I could have got at them," the old woman declared fiercely, "I'd have thrown everything they had out of the window. Keeping a woman travelling alone from her proper place in the train!" she added, scowling.
Knox handed his card to the official. One of them had slipped away, and the train was already starting.
"The parcel," he said, though his face was very pale and his tone shook, "was of no particular consequence, no consequence at all. It is the disgraceful manners of these people. When does the train stop? I wish to leave it,"
"At Paris, monsieur," the man replied dryly. "The chef de gare shall be informed."
They left the compartment. The face of the Frenchman was flushed. He rose from his place.
"I go to the smoking-car," he announced. "I am glad to hear that the parcel of monsieur was of no value."
The Englishman took down his bag and followed. The old lady alone remained. She looked at the two over the tops of her horn-rimmed spectacles.
"To see the way English people, especially young English people, behave abroad," she said firmly, "makes one feel inclined to stay for ever in one's own country."
Knox stared at her through his eyeglass.
"You are a very rude old lady," he observed.
"And you are a young jackanapes!" she retorted. "Now we know what we think of one another."
THEY reached Paris a few minutes late. The stationmaster was on the platform, but notwithstanding Knox's endeavours to detain them, his travelling companions had already disappeared. The chef de gare listened politely to Knox's complaint and shrugged his shoulders. It was an unfortunate incident, but since the parcel was of little value, why should monsieur disturb himself? Certainly, he would wire at once to the stationmaster of the nearest station and have the fragments searched for and returned to monsieur at the Hotel Bristol, as desired. And what more was there that he could do? Nothing! Knox left the station and stood by the omnibus with a crestfallen air.
"Rotten luck!" he declared gloomily, as he watched the luggage piled on the roof and listened to Sara chatting to her sister and mother. "Spoilt our trip, I'm afraid."...
"I HAVE come to the conclusion," Knox declared, as he yielded up his coat and hat to a vestiaire at Henry's a few hours later, and shook hands with the black-whiskered proprietor—"I have come to the conclusion, girls, that it's no use being upset. What do you say, Sara?"
"Not a bit of it!" that young lady declared. "I've got on the smartest gown I've ever possessed, and there are no end of good-looking men in the room who are looking at me already. I love the place; it's so late that I am ravenously hungry. I am sure I'm going to enjoy my dinner, and it's delightful to see Lulu again. I am perfectly happy."
They were conducted to a corner table by the proprietor, who had welcomed Knox with the empressement showed to an old and valued client. With two of the prettiest girls in the room, one on either side of him, a delicious mixture of vermouth and other things in a thin glass at his elbow, evolved from some mysterious place by a maître d'hôtel with a memory, Knox proceeded to order the dinner.
"I am only sorry," he said, with a bow to Sara's sister, "that it isn't for four. It's too bad—Hullo!"
He stopped short.
"Look who's here!" Sara murmured, under her breath.
Lord Tamworth, resisting the efforts of the vestiaire to relieve him of his hat and coat, came hastily across the room. He was still in travelling clothes, and he was looking distinctly worried.
"Where on earth did you spring from?" Knox asked.
"I came over by the two-twenty," Lord Tamworth said, with barely a glance at the two girls. "I don't know why, but I had an uneasy sort of feeling about your mission. I heard all that had happened on the train on the way up. I drove straight to your hotel and saw you leaving—followed you here. What have you done, Algernon? Have you tried to secure the remains, at any rate, of the model?"
"Not a bit of good," Knox replied. "You see, they threw it out at a selected spot where it would fall into a field of soft grain. There were half a dozen men waiting for it, and a motor-car in the road. We were quite helpless," he went on. "There were three of them. I had booked every seat in the carriage, but it was no use—they had tickets, too."
"What on earth am I to say to Pericot!" Lord Tamworth groaned. "I shall never look the Prime Minister in the face again!"
Algernon looked at him steadfastly for a moment Then he removed his eyeglass from his eye and leaned a little across the table,
"Uncle," he exclaimed, "excuse me, but do you imagine that the parcel which those men threw out of the window contained the model I was bringing over?"
Lord Tamworth's face was a study.
"I—but—but didn't it?" he almost shouted.
"Not a bit of it," Knox answered cheerfully. "We talked it over, Sara and I, and Sara bought a toy airship at Hamlin's, had it made up in a duplicate brown-paper parcel, and we carried it about with us as though it had been a treasure indeed. The real thing we packed amongst Sara's frillies—I beg your pardon, uncle!—in her big trunk. Pericot met us at the Bristol, and we delivered it over to him before-half-past seven this evening. I have got his receipt in my pocket. He stayed talking with us for some time—that's what made us so late for dinner."
Lord Tamworth's face was a wonderful study. He held out his hand.
"Algernon," he said unsteadily, "I—I'm proud of you! I—what is that you have in the glass by your side?"
Knox handed his apéritif to his uncle without a moment's hesitation. Then he turned to the vestiaire.
"Take this gentleman's hat and coat," he directed. "Louis, make that dinner for four and bring me another apéritif. Miss Lulu, let me present my uncle, Lord Tamworth. You see, we have found you a cavalier, after all."
KNOX stood in a typical attitude, studying a picture which hung in a prominent place of the small gallery in Bond Street. His hands, clasping a malacca cane and a pair of light suede gloves, were clasped behind his back. He was leaning a little forward. His well-brushed hat was ever so slightly on the back of his head, his eyeglass was screwed in his eye. If the picture excited any interest or sensations in his mind, the fact was certainly not patent to an observer.
"Have you solved the riddle, Mr. Knox?" a still, quiet voice asked in his ear.
He turned around without undue haste. He had recognised the only other occupant of the gallery immediately on his entrance.
"Have you, Miss de Hagon?" he replied.
She shrugged her shoulders. They looked together at the picture. It appeared to represent a deserted village in flames. There was no sign of any human being; only the red, lurid tongues of flame curling upwards like destroying vandals. And in the perspective, the reflected glow of the conflagration.
"Everything has a moral here," she declared, "an inner meaning. That picture, I take it, is allegorical. Come outside," she added abruptly. "There is nothing else worth looking at."
They strolled down the room together. From the threshold she turned and looked back once more at the picture, a little lurid spot of colour against the wall.
"Do you know what I should call that picture if I had painted it?" she asked. Knox shook his head.
"'Hate.' That is what the artist meant, I am sure of it—cruel, unrelenting hate!"
"Perhaps it is as well," Knox remarked, "that in this somewhat lukewarm age there exists a school of art which recognises the existence of the primeval passions."
They passed out on to the pavement. The greyness of Bond Street was being brilliantly dispersed by the early spring sunshine. She half closed her eyes.
"Tell me," she said, "where is that diabolical-looking, steel-coloured thing, like a submarine on land, which you drive about sometimes?"
"In the garage," he answered.
"Will you take me for a drive," she asked, "out in the country, somewhere a long way away?"
"If you will come with me," he replied promptly. She nodded.
"That is the answer I expected," she confessed. "I have tried hating you. It doesn't seem to answer. I want to find out what you are really like. You are rather a puzzle to most people, aren't you? Will you stop that taxi for me? I am going home. Bring the car to Berkeley Square as quickly as you can. I shall be ready in ten minutes."
Knox did as he was bidden without hesitation, with something of the feeling, indeed, of a man who sees entertainment take the place of boredom. He slipped a small revolver into his pocket, but that was more a matter of habit than from any sense of danger. Instinct told him, and told him truthfully, that at that moment Miss de Hagon meant him no harm. Side by side they glided presently out of the hampering network of suburbs and into the cool sweetness of the Surrey lanes. Only once had she spoken.
"And sixty on the brake."
Presently the country, the real country, rolled up around them—meadows richly green, starred golden with buttercups, hedges wreathed with honeysuckle, billowy fields of yellowing corn, hills blue in the sun-hazed background. Knox slackened his speed almost to a crawl.
"Do you care to go in any particular direction?" he asked politely.
"Go on like this," she answered—"anywhere."
They lunched at an inn in a village which neither had ever heard of before. They talked most of the time a little disconnectedly. Yet Knox had an idea that his companion was making a study of him—a fact which, curiously enough, he resented. He was conscious of a certain disturbance of sensations in her presence which he also resented. They had flashes of animated conversation, but for the most part Knox resisted the stimulating effect of her presence and strove to intellectually belittle himself. All the time, however, he was possessed with the irritating conviction that he was in no way able to deceive her. She was measuring him up intellectually and in other ways, with merciless precision. And with it she was marvellously, subtly attractive. They walked to the top of a neighbouring hill after lunch and found that they were near the sea. They looked down upon a golden plain, a creek-riven stretch of sedgy pasture-land, and the English Channel unusually blue, calm as a miraged lake, dotted with white-sailed ships, with here and there a steamer whose long, level line of smoke seemed painted with unswerving hand across the sky. Not even the climb or the touch of salt in the air brought a vestige of colour into her cheeks. Yet she sped up the hill with smooth, graceful steps, without once losing breath. He looked at her a little wonderingly.
"You are quite an athlete," he remarked.
She smiled composedly.
"Does that surprise you?" she asked. "I used to do fairly well at tennis, and I fence every day. Will you listen to me for a moment, Mr. Knox?"
"I am all attention," he declared politely. He had known perfectly well that she had had something in her mind to say to him ever since they had started upon their expedition.
"Some time ago," she began, "you made an enemy of me. As a rule that is a very dangerous position for anyone. When I had secret information from Vienna that the most dangerous criminal in Europe was in London, I passed the information on to you—not entirely for your good. Don't interrupt me, please. You were cleverer than I thought. You escaped. You showed certain qualities throughout the affair which, I must admit, attracted me. Since then I have left you alone."
Knox bowed but said nothing. All his faculties were absorbed in the earnest endeavour to solve the riddle of this woman's attitude towards him.
"Since then," she continued, "you have made another enemy, whose power to do you harm is greater than mine. You have made a bitter enemy of him, because you not only outwitted him, but you made him an object of ridicule to those who knew the story. The man who threw your toy aeroplane out of the window of the French train, believing that it was the genuine model, was the great Max Hoburg, the chief of the German Secret Service in London."
"I guessed it," he remarked coolly. She shrugged her shoulders.
"If you are forewarned," she said, "so much the better; only, in return for your luncheon and your kindness in humouring my whim to-day, I offer you a word of advice. He careful of any new theatrical acquaintances, and accept no invitations from them.... Now, shall we start home? Humour me once more, if you will, Get into the nearest main road and show me what speed means. There is something in my blood to-day I want exorcised."
KNOX smiled, half an hour later, when he turned into the Portsmouth Road, and touched the accelerator with his feet. The whole ribbon of road seemed to roll up before them. Miss de Hagon raised her veil and he heard her give a little gulp as though of pleasure. The wind—a new wind—rushed by. Once they carried their lives in their hands. A waggon with a team of horses appeared from an unsuspected cross-road. The driver was asleep. There was no hand to check the onward progress of the horses. They stretched across the road. It was a moment for an instant decision, and Knox never hesitated. His foot ground down the accelerator, they raced for the narrowing opening. It was an affair of inches, but they cleared. Knox turned, a few moments later, to look at his companion. She was laughing softly. From underneath her veil her eyes glowed. Knox was conscious of a curious exaltation of feeling. He realised and was thrilled by the splendid courage which had kept her both silent and motionless.
"To Berkeley Square?" he inquired, as they neared London,
"If you please."
No other word passed between them until he slowed up before her door. Then he asked her a question.
"Why have you warned me against Max Hoburg?"
"Women do strange things," she answered calmly. "Sometimes they do not know why. Perhaps this is one of those occasions. Good-bye, and thank you."
She sprang lightly down and vanished through the door which opened at her coming. Knox drove slowly back to the garage. If indeed he had exorcised her evil spirit, it had been at his own expense. He himself was now a prey to a curious and persistent restlessness.
"Have you seen Lavola?" was almost the first question Knox was asked, as he strolled into the supper-room at the Milan that evening.
He shook his head. Chesham leaned across the round table.
"You ought to have a look at her," he said, "She only arrived this afternoon. She is going to dance three nights a week in the London Revue—a little matter of five hundred guineas, I think. She is over there with your cousin."
Knox glanced across the room to where the Honourable Philip was devoting himself with much empressement to a plainly-dressed, beautiful woman, with still white face and wonderful dark eyes.
"Philip's going it a little," he murmured. "I wonder how he got to know her."
"She very seldom sups out alone," some one remarked. "She has a great friend, a foreign prince, who never lets her out of his sight. They say that she has taken Malcolm Lodge. You don't happen to have met her by any chance, have you, Algy?"
Knox shook his head.
"No such luck," he replied. "Why?"
"Look and see," was the quiet answer.
Knox turned a little in his place. Across the restaurant the dark eyes of the great Lavola certainly seemed to be seeking his, and having found them, the faintest possible smile parted her lips. Chesham sighed.
"It Isn't fair, Knox," he grumbled. "You get all the luck, nowadays. Do you think she is another of these misguided people who imagine that you have brains?"
Presently Philip rose from his chair and came towards their table. He exchanged greetings with the other men and laid his hand upon Knox's shoulder.
"Algy, old chap," he said, "what will you give me to present you to Lavola?"
Knox was engaged in lighting a cigarette. He paused, and the match burned out in his fingers. Was his time to come so soon?
"Lavola!" he murmured. "You lucky fellow! Where did you meet her?"
"Never mind," Philip answered. "You can come along with me and I'll present you."
Knox hesitated, but only for a moment. Then he rose to his feet and crossed the room by his cousin's side. The woman watched him curiously as he approached. There was the slightest possible frown upon her forehead. She held out her fingers as Philip murmured his name.
"You are Mr. Algernon Knox—the Honourable Mr. Algernon Knox?" she asked, speaking slowly and with a great deal of accent
"That is my name," Knox replied. "It is a great honour to meet you, madame. Like all the world, I have long been one of your admirers from a distance."
"You come and see me dance to-morrow, is it so?" she asked simply.
"Without the slightest doubt," Knox assured her.
"That is very nice," she said. "Since you are so polite, I give you an invitation. I ask you to sup afterwards chez moi, with others. You agree, is that not so?"
Again Knox bowed. There was no doubt whatever in his mind. This was the invitation against which Miss de Hagon had warned him.
"With the greatest pleasure," he replied.
"At twelve-thirty, then, at Malcolm Lodge," she said. "If you would be very polite, you can fetch me from the London. I am ready at twelve. Do not bring a car. My own will be waiting. We can drive up together. The Prince may be there, and perhaps your young cousin here, but if so, all will be well. The car holds seven, I shall be glad to be assured of your company."
"You have invited me, madame," Knox answered. "Surely that is sufficient."
"Was it in this dull city of yours, Mr. Algernon Knox," she asked, "that you learnt the tricks and speech of a courtier?"
"Madame," Knox replied, "one can speak only as one feels."
She laughed, and a moment later Knox made his bow and withdrew.
"I am invited," he announced, as he resumed his seat, "to sup with Lavola to-morrow evening."
"Lucky dog!" Chesham sighed.
"I wonder!" Knox murmured....
ON the following afternoon, Knox rang up his cousin.
"About that supper-party to-night, Philip?" he asked.
"What about it?"
"Are you going?"
"Rather! It isn't going to be the regular theatrical set at all, either. Just about a dozen of us altogether; And the Prince, of course."
[*Edrestein. Presumably an error for the German name "Ederstein." — RG.]
"Sounds German," Knox remarked. "Is he?"
"No idea. Very decent fellow, whatever he is," Philip declared.
"How did you get to know Lavola?" Knox asked his cousin plainly.
Philip hesitated for a moment.
"I don't want to brag about it, Algy, old chap," he replied, "but she seems to have gone a bit out of her way to get an introduction to me. Ned Foster asked me to meet a young fellow at the Austrian Embassy and he introduced me to Prince Edrestein. Prince Edrestein took me round to Lavola's dressing-room, and there you are. The first moment we were alone she asked me to bring her to the Milan Grill-Room for supper."
"Lucky chap!" Knox sighed. "See-you all tonight, then."
KNOX spent a quiet hour that evening before dressing, thinking out the situation. That he could come to any harm at a large supper-party at a well-known house in the heart of London seemed, on the face of it, absurd. Yet he took several slight precautions when he dressed that evening. He presented himself at the stage-door of the opera house a few minutes before twelve, and was ushered without a moment's delay into Lavola's dressing-room. She was waiting for him, already dressed, a magnificent opera cloak about her shoulders. Her maid stood behind, her arms full of clustering red roses. She gave her hand to Knox to kiss.
"Is not my punctuality a compliment, monsieur?" she laughed. "The others have gone on. I chose to drive with you alone. Give me your hand, please, along these narrow passages."
Knox escorted her to the door and handed her into the magnificent motor-car which was waiting. The maid laid the roses upon one of the seats and ordered a taxi-cab from the commissionaire. They drove off together. Lavola looked at her companion curiously out of her wonderful almond-shaped black eyes.
"They tell me, Monsieur Knox, that you are a very clever man," she said.
"A joke," Knox assured her. "I have no profession. I am simply an idler in life. I had not even brains enough for Parliament."
"There are those who say otherwise," she murmured.
"Who are they?" Knox demanded—"our mutual friends, I mean, who have spoken to you of me?"
She laughed softly.
"Curious, monsieur? Ah! but what does it matter? I heard enough to excite my interest, and we are here. Alas! it is so hard for me to be alone. I had great difficulty in persuading the Prince to go direct to Malcolm Lodge. I wished, Monsieur Knox, to have this short drive with you."
Her ungloved hand—an over-manicured little white hand, glittering with wonderful rings—crept from the folds of her cloak. Underneath he could see the shimmering white of her silk-clad limbs, barely concealed by the gauzy black skirt she wore. He took her fingers in his.
"You see," she continued, "I have not changed my dress since the last dance. What did it matter? They all tell me that it is becoming. You will not be shocked, Monsieur Knox? You are not like some of the men of your country—a prude?"
"Madame!" he murmured....
FOR a large house, Malcolm Lodge seemed curiously empty when they arrived. Knox handed his coat and hat to a footman. Lavola, with a little wave of the hand, disappeared.
"I go to my room for a moment," she said. "You will find the Prince waiting, and perhaps the others."
The Prince, however, was alone in the salon to which Knox was taken. He was a tall, rather gloomy man, who welcomed Knox with a very correct bow, and with a coldness which he took no pains to conceal. There was no sign of any one else in the room. They exchanged a few formal sentences only, and the reappearance of Lavola was obviously a relief to both of them. Lavola glanced around the room as though in surprise.
"But, my dear Frederic," she exclaimed, "where are the others?"
"No one has arrived," the Prince replied.
She glanced at the clock—it was half-past twelve.
"But it is extraordinary," she murmured. "The manners of some of our English friends are scarcely beyond reproach. What do you say, Mr. Knox?"
"I do not understand it," Knox confessed. "My cousin Philip, for instance, was looking forward to the evening so much."
It might possibly have been his fancy, but there certainly seemed the ghost of a sardonic smile about the Prince's lips as he touched the bell.
"You are starved, my child!" he said, turning to Lavola. "We wait for no one."
A major-domo in plain clothes ushered them into a room on the other side of the hall. A little round table was set for supper, set, as Knox saw quickly, for ten people. The Prince glanced at the clock.
"Remove those places," he ordered the man, "and serve supper."
Lavola shrugged her shoulders but made no remark. She threw herself back in her chair and motioned Knox to her side. In brushing aside his coat-tails his fingers cautiously felt for his hip pocket. He began to understand Miss de Hagon's warning. The little revolver had disappeared. At that moment the door was thrown open. The butler stood upon the threshold.
"Mr. Max Hoburg," he announced.
A short, thickly-built man, with bushy fair moustache and close-cropped hair, entered the room briskly. Lavola gave him at once her hand. The Prince nodded.
"My dear Max," she declared, "you, at least, are not one who has deserted us. I ask ten guests for this evening, but you and Mr. Knox, whom I present to you—Mr. Max Hoburg; the Honourable Algernon Knox—are the only two who have kept their appointment."
The two men bowed, and Knox effectively concealed his recognition of the newcomer. They sat down to supper, a delicious meal served by perfectly trained servants. The Prince continued gloomy. Lavola, on the other hand, was gay. Mr. Max Hoburg was good-humoured but apparently hungry. He took small share in the conversation, but little in the way of food escaped him. Knox more than once brought the conversation round to the absentee; guests. Lavola shook her head—she failed to understand it
"Can it have been my fault?" she suggested. "Can I have said another night, by any chance? So, it does not matter. I am at home always for supper."
The meal drew to an end. With the coffee and cigarettes Lavola rose.
"For a few moments," she said, "I leave you. I await you in my salon. Prince, will you give me your arm."
The two left the room together. The door was closed. The butler remained outside as though by arrangement. Knox and his companion were alone. The latter clipped the end from a cigar and lit it.
"You do not remember me, Mr. Knox?" he remarked.
"Perfectly well," Knox replied coolly. "We travelled together, did we not, to Paris, a few weeks ago? I remember you were very irritable, and a little inclined to be rude about one of my parcels."
Max Hoburg frowned slightly, and tapped the end of his cigar upon a plate in front of him.
"Your memory, or perhaps your intuition, is better than I thought, Mr. Knox," he observed grimly. "I made up my mind, after that day, that it was just as well if we met again, and met very soon."
"It is at your instigation, then," he murmured, "that I have been invited to this little supper-party?"
"Entirely," Mr. Max Hoburg agreed.
"And the other guests?"
"Other guests were asked," Mr. Max Hoburg explained, "for fear you should be suspicious. They were all put off at eight o'clock this evening, on the excuse of Lavola's indisposition."
"Capital!" Knox exclaimed gloomily. "I can see that I am in for trouble. Even my little revolver, which I have sometimes found so useful, has, I notice, been abstracted."
Hoburg shrugged his shoulders.
"It does not do for one to run risks," he remarked. "Now we are here and alone, you are as much shut off from the world as though you were in a foreign prison. We can perhaps come to terms."
"Very well," he said. "I admit that the first move in the game has been yours. Let me hear what you propose."
Mr. Max Hoburg nodded ponderously.
"This is all in order," he agreed; "all very businesslike, in fact. I have no doubt that we shall get on very well. This house of madame's was never meant for an assassin's den, Mr. Knox. We use the weapons of extremity at times, but only when we are forced. I talk to you reasonably. I say to you this only: Three times we have found you—I speak for the Secret Service of another country—in our way Three times you have scored successes against us. The time has arrived when we feel that you must be dispensed with."
"Dear me!" Knox murmured.
"I demand from you," Hoburg said, laying the flat of his hand upon the table, "your word of honour as a gentleman that you will not at any time in the future undertake any commission from your Government, directly or indirectly. That you will, in short, confine any investigations which you may make entirely and absolutely to the criminal classes of your own country. Give me your word of honour to that effect, Mr. Knox, and we will join madame in the salon."
Knox hesitated for a moment. The terms were certainly easier than he had expected.
"Let me understand you," he begged. "You mean that if I give you my word I am free to leave the house?"
"We will pass on now, then, to the other alternative," Knox suggested.
"It is one," Hoburg declared, "which we need discuss only in the event of your declining my first proposition."
"Consider it," Knox said firmly, "absolutely and entirely refused."
Mr. Max Hoburg picked up the cigar which he had laid down and re-lit it.
"There are no half-way measures in my profession," he observed quietly. "We deal only in the big things. Either you go free from this house, Mr. Knox, with your word of honour pledged, or you leave it in the coffin which was delivered here to-day from a small undertaker's in the Hampstead Road."
"Dear me!" Knox murmured. "And how is that to be managed?"
"Madame has a consumptive footman," Hoburg proceeded calmly. "He is reported to be dying. It will be a simple matter for us to arrange his official death. A few nights afterwards, what more easy than for him to slip out by the back way and pass to his relations in Soho?"
"Precisely," Knox agreed. "But what about my disappearance? I am known to have come here for supper. I have friends and relations who may not, it is true, be greatly attached to me, but who still find my presence upon the earth desirable. They would certainly think it worth while to make inquiries."
"Precisely," Mr. Max Hoburg replied; "but you will have been seen to leave this house. You will be recognised by a taxi-cab driver at the corner. You will be recognised by the hall porter at your club, whom you will ask for letters. You will enter your own rooms and perhaps leave a little note there, before you—disappear."
"This sounds extremely clever," Knox remarked. "Are you going to hypnotise me, then, or how is it to be managed?"
"The two Frenchmen and the old lady in the railway carriage should have given you some ideas," he said; "but, after all, more wonderful things still can be done. A moment!"
He moved towards the bell and rang it. The butler appeared almost at once.
"Send in the gentleman who is waiting," he ordered. "Be careful that none of the other servants see him."
The man departed silently. In less than a minute the door was again opened. A young man entered, carrying his silk hat, and with a coat over his arm. Knox gripped at the sides of the table. The young man came nearer and nearer. Finally he stood opposite to Knox and bowed.
"My God!" Knox gasped.
Hoburg surveyed the newcomer critically.
"Yes," he declared, "it is a triumph, a veritable triumph."
"Who are you?" Knox demanded, still almost speechless.
The young man flicked his eyeglass from his eye. He looked at his questioner coldly, his voice lacked expression.
"The Honourable Algernon Knox," he replied. Knox sat quite still.
"Well," he said at last, "I'm glad I didn't meet you in the street. You are the young man who applied to me for a situation the other day, aren't you? I thought I saw you following me about this morning."
"I trust," Mr. Max Hoburg said, "that you have not been subjected to any inconvenience. It was necessary for our friend here, consummate artist though he is, to make a short study of you, face to face. I ask you now," he concluded, "for your honest opinion as to his success."
"Frankly," Knox replied, "I think he has been wonderfully successful. I am not entirely convinced whether he is myself, or, indeed, who I am."
"There are a few other little points to which I might draw your attention," Hoburg went on. "The revolver which you seem to have dropped from your pocket, is now reposing in the hip pocket of our friend. Your latchkey "—Knox felt in his waistcoat pocket and found it empty—"is also in his possession. He knows your servant's name and has some idea as to where you keep your things. He knows your club and the manner of your address to the hall porter. He can imitate your handwriting so that you would not know it yourself. Behold, then! Under certain conditions, here is the Honourable Algernon Knox, who leaves this house to-night, and disappears, it is true, from somewhere, but not from Malcolm, Lodge."
Knox stretched out his hand towards the box of cigarettes, tapped one upon the tablecloth, and lit it
"It's a thundering good scheme," he admitted.
The butler reappeared, and bowing to Hoburg, handed him a note. The latter read it through and rose to his feet.
"I will now," he said, with a grin, "leave you two together for a little time. Try and persuade our friend here," he added to the newcomer, glancing across the table, "to listen to reason. You have his revolver, so you need not fear violence. If he gives you trouble, you will know how to deal with him. It he announces himself ready to give the promise, I shall return within five minutes at the outside, to accept the same. You will excuse me, Mr. Knox? I am summoned to the telephone on a matter of some importance. Our young friend here will entertain you. I trust that you will find his eloquence convincing."
Mr. Max Hoburg bowed and left the room. Knox wheeled his chair round a little and crossed his legs. His hand played with his sock.
"Who the devil are you?" he demanded.
The other laughed.
"Never mind," he replied. "I was an actor once. I find this pays better. You'd better take my tip, Mr. Knox. These people don't know what fear is, and they're too big to tackle. When they enter upon a scheme, they think it out down to the last detail. You'll disappear, sure as fate, unless you give that promise."
"Shall I?" Knox remarked coolly. "Sit tight, man! If you move, I'll blow your brains out."
Knox's right hand had shot up from his leg, and the gleaming barrel of a small revolver flashed across the table. His double sat very still indeed.
"Your hands up, please," Knox said.
The man obeyed at once. Knox rose to his feet and came swiftly round. From one of the pockets through which he rapidly searched, he drew a small gag.
"Take my seat," he ordered.
His double obeyed promptly. "Look here—" he began.
"Silence!" Knox interrupted. "I don't want to hear you talk. You've just got to listen to me. Hands up still."
The man obeyed. Knox slipped the gag into his mouth and tied it. Then he caught his hands together and bound them up with two of the napkins. He took up the black overcoat and silk hat which the other had been carrying.
"Look here," he said deliberately, "this is my one chance, and I'm going to take it. I want you to understand this. So long as you stay quiet you can't be blamed, but I swear by Heaven that if you succeed in giving me away before I get clear, I'll let the others alone but I'll shoot you. I mean that I won't give you away. I shall tell Mr. Max Hoburg that I have been obliged to tap you on the head, and you can seem a little dazed. But if you speak before I leave the house, I'll get back here fast enough to settle accounts with you."
There was no answer—answer, in fact, was impossible. Knox placed the silk hat a little on the back of his head, threw the overcoat over his arm, and walked towards the door. Just as he reached it, it was thrown open. He came face to face with Hoburg. Knox motioned with his head towards the interior of the room, where his double still sat. He raised his voice.
"Sorry," he said, "but your friend's been a little troublesome. He swears he won't give his word, and he has been trying to get my revolver," Knox added, displaying it. "I have gagged him up and tied his hands. I'm afraid he will be a little bit quiet for a minute or two. I couldn't help it, but he caught the back of his head in the struggle."
Hoburg nodded. He glanced across the room. The double of the Honourable Algernon Knox was leaning a little over on one side. He had accepted the hint, and Knox's revolver was lowered.
"The taxi-cab is at the door," Hoburg whispered. "Direct the man yourself. You know what to do?"
"Call for the letters, show yourself where you can, let yourself into his rooms—you can get rid of the servant, if he's there. Leave a note, then double round until you get a chance of changing. You understand?"
"Simple as A B C," Knox replied coolly.
A footman opened the door. Mr. Max Hoburg watched Knox enter the taxi-cab and drive off. Then he turned slowly back to the dining-room....
ARRIVED at his club, Knox descended upon the pavement, and threw back into the cab the overcoat which he had been carrying. Then he looked at the lining of his silk hat and threw that in too.
"Make you a present of those," he announced. "You needn't wait," he added.
The man looked at him in surprise.
"I was to wait and drive you—"
"You needn't wait," Knox repeated. "You can go back to Malcolm Lodge, if you like, and tell the man who engaged you that I've no use for the overcoat, and the only hatter in London who can fit me is Scott. Good-night!"
The driver grumbled but drove off. Knox walked into the club, and the first person whom he met was his cousin.
"Hullo, Philip!" he exclaimed. "What about that supper-party to-night?"
"Awfully sorry," Philip replied. "We were all put off. You got your note, I suppose?"
"Not I!" Knox told him. "I've been—had an awfully good time. Come and have a brandy and soda. It was a very pleasant party, but somehow or other I am thirsty."
ONCE more after a long day in the country, the Honourable Algernon Knox was gliding back to London in his long, grey racing car. Spectacled and with disfiguring cap, his head and shoulders only visible, he seemed, indeed, to have gained what he desired—absolute and complete detachment from the world. From eight o'clock until now—nearly five o'clock on a November afternoon—he had spoken with no human being. He had been alone with his thoughts, and very troublesome thoughts they were. The sole object of this solitary excursion had been to ask himself one simple question—was he in love with Adele de Hagon? He was crawling back to London now with that question still unanswered. All his self-analysis had yielded no result. He was no nearer the truth than when he had left his rooms early that morning. All that he was absolutely certain of was this, that since he had known her the idlest flirtation had bored him. The women whom he knew had suddenly seemed to be without sex. The eyes into which he had looked were only beautiful or otherwise according to how they had reminded him of hers. As he passed through the streets, there was only one face he looked for. He was able to admit to himself with absolute certainty that she stood in a unique place in his thoughts, that she held a dominant control over his emotions. But was it, after all, the real thing?
He was about thirty miles from London when a loud and persistent hooting behind induced him to draw with more than usual scrupulousness to his own side of the road. He knew quite well that with a touch of his foot he could have distanced any possible pursuit, but he was in no humour just then for anything more than crawling. A large, open touring car came swinging past him, shockingly driven and swaying from side to side. He looked at it with a craftsman's contempt. The man who was driving was bending over the wheel, and he, as well as his two passengers, were, to all appearance, sober enough. Yet he was driving, notwithstanding his obvious inexperience, at a pace which was ridiculously dangerous. Knox shrugged his shoulders and followed sedately behind. Yet his first fit of anger had turned to a certain curiosity. There was something unusual about these men and their obvious desire for haste.
A mile farther on he came up with them. The car was standing by the side of the road. Two men were bending over the bonnet; the other was standing gloomily on one side. Knox threw out his clutch and glided up to their side.
"Anything wrong?" he asked calmly.
They hailed him as a deliverer. He saw then that the trio were exceedingly ill-assorted. The man who had been driving, and his present companion, looked like operatives of an inferior class in their best clothes. Their companion, who stood apart, slim and dark and with the appearance of a foreigner, belonged apparently to Knox's own class.
"Something's gone wrong with the blooming engine," the man remarked who was leaning over the bonnet. "I can just drive the thing, and that's about all. If you had a moment to spare, guv'nor," he added, looking insinuatingly towards Knox.
Knox descended and made a somewhat leisurely investigation. The three men watched him nervously. Their anxiety to be off was almost pathetic. In the tonneau of the car was a huge kit-bag, partly covered by a rug.
"Had any trouble of this sort before?" Knox inquired.
"I've only just bought the car," the driver replied quickly. "I was trying to take my pals up to town. Wish we'd taken the train now. Is there anything much wrong, do you think?"
Knox hesitated for some moments before he replied. He went round the car once more, and finally made a small adjustment.
"Yours," he pronounced finally, standing up, "is the type of car which goes better with a little petrol."
"Do you mean to say there ain't none in?" the man who had been driving gasped.
"Not a drop," Knox assured him.
The two men who had been standing by the car got to work in almost frantic haste, but even then they only delayed matters by their ignorance. Finally, Knox showed them how to unscrew the cap of the petrol tin and to pour down its contents. No sooner was this task completed than one of the men threw the empty tin over the hedge, the other rushed to the starting handle, and the third man, who seemed to wish to keep in the background as much as possible, mounted to his seat. He alone offered Knox any thanks.
"We are very much obliged to you," he cried out to Knox, raising his hat. "Good afternoon, sir; thank you."
Knox watched them disappear before he attempted to start his own car. There were several small points about the adventure which appealed to his powers of observation. Finally, after some moments' hesitation, he put his car into the reverse and drove slowly backwards until he came to some cross-roads. Then he turned round and followed the tracks of the other car about a mile and a half back. The marks were plainly to be seen—there had been a recent shower. They terminated at the closed gate of an avenue leading up to a small house set back about fifty yards from the road. Knox came to a standstill and lit a cigarette.
"I am not sure," he said softly to himself, "whether the luck I get in stumbling upon little adventures of this sort is not turning my head a little. Some day or other I shall make a bad mistake. Now I wonder whether it's worth while risking a snub."
He looked at the house, quite dark, though the hour for lamps had come. Then he drew a shilling from his pocket and tossed it up.
"Heads I go in, tails I don't," he muttered, and threw the coin into the air.
It came down heads. He descended from his car, opened the gate, and drove slowly up the avenue. About twenty yards from the little sweep in front of the front door, he pulled up, and crossing a circular plot of lawn, approached the house on foot. There were no lights, nor any sign of life. He stood for a moment at the front, listening. Then he made his way round to the back. He had still omitted to ring the bell or announce his presence. Directly he reached the back door, however, he noticed that it stood open, and he distinctly heard a long groan.
"My lucky shilling!" he murmured to himself, still listening.
There was another groan, then a voice, A man spoke quickly and harshly, but under his breath. Knox gathered the sense of his words.
"The master will not hear—they have taken care of that It is not worth while, Lucy. Half an hour more and we will release ourselves. Groan if any one comes. Until then be silent."
Knox stepped from the grass and came noisily up the path. There was instant silence. He knocked at the back door.
"Come in!" some one cried, with a loud groan. "Come in!"
"Come in, for God's sake!" a shrill woman's voice echoed. "Oh, I am in pain! The villains!"
Knox stepped into a little servants' hall and pushed his way through into the kitchen. A man was lying there with his back to the table, bound with cords and gagged. By his side was a woman in the same condition. They were obviously of the domestic class. The man wore a plain black livery, and the woman an apron over her print dress. Knox looked from one to the other. "Hullo!" he exclaimed.
The woman held out her hands. Knox produced a pocket-knife and hacked at their cords, noticing all the time their complete ineffectiveness.
"Well," he asked, "what has happened?"
"The poor master!" the man groaned. "Let me run and see."
"They drove up in a motor-car, the miscreants!" the woman exclaimed. "There were three of them—big men. It was I who opened the door. They carried me here. The others rang again and waited until William rushed out to see what it might mean. Then they tied us both up here and went upstairs. Oh, let us see what has happened! This way!"
They hurried off, wringing their hands. Knox followed them along a narrow passage leading into a hall, and into a room furnished as a study, a room which presented now an appearance of wild disorder. Upon his face on a sofa a man was lying. He, too, had been tied up, and there was a gag in his mouth. Knox, who was the first to reach him, cut him free quickly. There was a difference here, indeed. The man was almost choked with his gag, and the cords had cut into his flesh. He staggered to his feet, ghastly pale, a slim, aristocratic-looking gentleman, with thin grey imperial and the face of an artist.
"Get some brandy quickly," Knox ordered the servant. "Pull yourself together, sir, if you can," he added. "It's all right now."
The gentleman, however, was incapable of speech. Knox half carried him to an easy-chair and forced some brandy between his lips. In a moment or two the colour came back and he commenced to revive. He clutched at Knox's arm and staggered to his feet. He stretched out his arms towards the wall, but his face seemed drawn with pain.
"Gone!" he moaned. "Gone! The jewel of my life!"
Knox followed the direction of his companion's anguished gaze. Upon the wall was an empty frame, gilt and of antique workmanship. Two candlesticks of chased silver stood on brackets on either side. A tiny fragment of canvas hung down from the frame.
"I gather," Knox remarked, "that there has been a burglary here?"
"A burglary," the owner of the room assented hoarsely. "Yes, yes, but what matters? They have all of my best bronzes and my Queen Anne silver. Heavens If they should melt it! But those things are nothing. They have taken the jewel of my life. I had rather they had taken my life itself."
"Are you on the telephone?" Knox asked.
The old gentleman shook his head.
"An abomination!" he muttered.
"Very likely," Knox assented, "but I might have stopped your burglars. I know which way they went. You had better tell me what happened."
"How do I know?" was the tremulous answer. "I live here alone with a man-servant and his wife. Perhaps he can tell you better than I," he added, pointing to the butler, who was standing trembling in the background with the brandy still in his hand. "I only know that the front-door bell rang, the door was answered, but so far as I was concerned, nothing happened. Then two men entered suddenly. They tied me up and ransacked my rooms. I struggled a little and fell and hurt my head. The rest was like a dream. When I came to, you were here."
"And we all the time," the butler cried, "were bound in the kitchen until the gentleman here arrived!"
"To what do we owe your most opportune presence here, sir?" the old gentleman began courteously.
"I saw three men near here about a quarter of an hour ago, in a motor-car which they could not drive," Knox explained. "They had a heavy kit-bag in behind, covered up with a rug. They were in a state of great agitation, and their demeanour excited my suspicion. I turned back here and found that the marks of their car led up this avenue. I merely drove in to see if anything was wrong."
"It was a providence," the owner of the room declared. "From your voice and manner," he went on eagerly, "I know that you are a gentleman. Alas Listen If you were a man to whom money meant anything, I would say to you, 'Follow those burglars. Follow them. Present them with all they have, but bring me back my picture, and I will give you a thousand pounds.' To you I can only ask as one man to another—do this for me. I am old, but it may be that in some way I could still requite the service which words fail me to describe."
His voice shook. Knox turned briskly away.
"I can scarcely promise to be successful," he said, "but I will do my best. My name is Knox. I have the honour of speaking with?"
"The Count Guido del Butolanni," the other replied. "I live here alone, and I do no one any harm. I am just a collector of bronzes and a few pictures which take my fancy, and save for them I live with my books. Only it chanced that the one picture which is missing was of singular and amazing value in my eyes, was dearer to me, indeed, than life itself. Bring it back to me, sir, and there are no words, no deeds, nothing of mine in this world which is not at your service. If I were strong enough, I would follow myself."
"I'll do my best," Knox promised.
"I thank you, sir," the Count replied, his voice still choking.
Knox glanced once more towards him as he turned to leave the room—a man, fragile yet handsome, with a curiously delicate face, and eyes of light, faded blue, yet still soft. Then he left the house, started up his car, glided down the avenue, and turned towards London.
This time, however, his foot was pressed downwards, he sat rigid and erect, driving always with wonderful care and skill, fifty miles an hour upon the straight road and gently round the corners, his hooter shrieking its impatient summons, his eyes always upon the road. He was by the spot where he had first come up with the robbers, in an instant, through two little villages, up a hill and across a bare stretch of moorland. On the hillside opposite glittered the lights of a considerable town. If they once reached there, Knox felt that his task would be more difficult. He rushed grimly on through the shadows, his searchlight flashing, his whistle shrieking. Other motorists shouted scathing remarks at him, a policeman tried in vain to take his number. A man driving a pair of horses turned and shook his fist. Knox remained immovable. There was only one thought in his mind—how far was it possible for those men to have gone? Soon he knew. Half-way up a long hill leading into the town, he saw a dark object by the side of the road. He drew a little breath of relief and glided up to their side.
"Hullo!" he remarked. "Gone wrong again?"
They recognised him with a joy which was almost feverish. They all crowded around him.
"Make it just pull us up into the town," one of the men begged him. "We've got to get to London somehow or other. There's a train we could catch from there and leave the damned car in a garage."
Knox fetched an electric torch from the back of his car and opened the bonnet. While pretending to make an examination, he was in reality taking careful note of the three men. Two of them he relegated at once to their proper place. They were misdemeanants of the ordinary order. The third still puzzled him. He was standing a little aloof, his fingers twitching, his eyes full of malice.
"They told me, these two," he muttered between his teeth, "that they were experts, that they could manage a motor-car, and I trusted them! Is there any chance, sir, of your being able to do anything?" he added.
"I'll tell you directly," Knox replied.
He concluded the examination very speedily.
With the help of his ample mechanical knowledge, he was easily able to destroy any possibility of the car starting again. He stepped back at last and closed down the tonneau.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, pointing to the car.
"Hired it at Swindon," one of the men explained.
"You damned fool!" the other exclaimed. "My pal's ashamed to tell you that he's just bought it second-hand," he added, turning to Knox. "He forgets that he's blooming well given himself away already. Is there anything you can do?"
"Nothing," Knox replied firmly. "It would take a couple of men half a day to put your car in order. It's been thoroughly badly driven. You've forgotten to turn on the oil, and you're lucky you haven't broken your crank-shaft."
They stood, for a moment, petrified.
"The best thing to do," Knox continued, "is to walk or to beg a lift from some passing motorist up to the town there, send out a mechanician from the garage, and make up your mind to get on without your car. Have you much luggage?"
"Only one bag," one of the men answered, "but—but—my God!" he added, wiping the sweat from his forehead, "this is a nice mess we're in!"
"And what about me?" the man whom Knox had doubted exclaimed with sudden passion. "I trust myself to you two, I believe you, I think you know what you are talking about, and this is the way I am deceived. Do you know what will happen—"
"Chuck it!" one of his companions interrupted fiercely.
"Well, I am very sorry for you," Knox said, moving slowly back towards his own car. "All I can do is to offer to give one of you a lift. If you, sir," he added, turning to the man who had been standing by his side, "care to come along, I'll see what I can do. I might take the bag, too, if you like."
There was a profound silence. Then the man whom he had addressed answered firmly.
"I accept, with pleasure, sir," he said; "but as for the bag, it is of no consequence. Let it remain. There is something I will take—"
"You be damned!" the man who had acted as driver broke in. "The one who goes takes charge of the bag, and everything there is in it. We're not going to be left here with it!"
"And I—I refuse!" was the prompt reply. "You have bungled this affair, as I might have expected you would. If you will take me on, sir," he added, turning to Knox, "I shall be extremely obliged."
The man who had driven the car stepped into the middle of the road. There was violence indicated in his attitude.
"Unless you take the bag away, too, you shan't budge!"
Knox shrugged his shoulders. He was standing with one foot upon the step of his car.
"Settle it amongst yourselves, please," he begged. "Don't keep me longer than you can help. I, too, am anxious to get back to London."
They drew a little on one side. The conversation every moment became more animated, it seemed as though, indeed, it would have ended in blows, save for the fact that the two men of less prepossessing appearance and stronger physique were on the same side. Knox at last intervened.
"Look here," he said, "I've had about enough of this. After all, I am not sure that I care to be bothered with any of you all the way to London. I tell you what I'll do," he added, mounting to the driving-seat. "I'll take one of you to the nearest railway station—neither more nor less. Now you can please yourself. I'll give you exactly sixty seconds to decide."
He took his seat at the wheel. In a moment the short, dark man clambered to his side. The kit bag was hoisted in, and Knox knew then that his suspicions were correct Both men had to exert all their strength in order to lift it.
"Remember," one of them enjoined, with hidden menace in his tone, "you wait for us, whatever time we get up to-night."
Knox's companion agreed, with a little shrug of the shoulders. Knox slipped in his clutch and glided off. At the bottom of the hill, however, instead of continuing his course towards the town, he turned sharply to the left.
"Is this the way?" his companion asked doubtfully.
"It is," Knox answered. "Please don't talk to me while I am driving. My car takes a great deal of attention."
The lights of the town faded away on their right. Knox's companion became increasingly uneasy.
"I do not understand this," he muttered.
Knox brought the car to a standstill.
"If you say another word while I am driving," he said distinctly, "I shall throw you out."
"Very well, I will speak now, then," the young man retorted. "You promised to take me to the nearest railway station."
"We are on our way to a railway station at the present moment," Knox declared, pointing to a light ahead.
The young man shrugged his shoulders.
"I am in your hands," he said. "Proceed."
Knox set his teeth and slipped in the fourth speed. The man by his side caught hold of the side of the car. They swung round to the left, travelling now at a great pace. Knox was leaning a little over the wheel. The young man by his side seemed to have forgotten everything except his fear.
"My God!" he muttered to himself. "This is horrible!"
Another turn to the left. They came down a long hill and turned abruptly into a broad main road. Then, with scarcely a moment's warning, Knox swung the car abruptly round. They were in a dark avenue, skidding a little with the suddenness of the turn. The young man half sprang to his feet. Knox, with the steering-wheel in his right hand and his foot upon the brake, thrust him back with his left hand.
"Look here," he said, "it's no use making a fuss. There's been a robbery committed at this house, and I believe you're concerned in it. I am going to have the contents of that bag examined, here and in the presence of the tenant. If I have made a mistake, I'll apologise down to the ground and take you up to London or wherever you want to go."
The car had come to a standstill. The front door stood open. The man-servant was there, upon the threshold, and another very handsome car stood a little way on the other side of the grass plot. The young man by Knox's side shrugged his shoulders. Apparently he was resigned. The only really terrified person was the man-servant. Knox stepped from the car and beckoned to him. He kept one eye carefully upon his companion.
"Help me down with this bag," he ordered.
The man obeyed with shaking hands. As soon as it was in the hall, Knox took his companion by the shoulder.
"Is this one of the men who attacked you?" he asked the servant.
The man was trembling all over.
"I am not sure," he answered.
"Tell the truth, you fool!" the other said bluntly. "You were not attacked at all. I was one of the three who helped to tie you up."
The man stepped back, looking more scared than ever. Knox took his companion by the arm, pushed open the door of the Count's room, and entered. The Count was lying on the sofa—and by his side was Miss de Hagon. For a moment Knox was speechless. Then he collected himself.
"Sir," he asked, "is this one of the men concerned in the robbery?"
The Count rose slowly to a sitting position. He looked at the young man blankly. Miss de Hagon had eyes for no one but Knox. It was an amazing meeting.
"Guido!" the Count faltered. "Guido!"
"You know him?" Knox exclaimed.
"Guido! My nephew Guido!" the Count repeated. "What are you doing here?"
Knox began suddenly to feel less sure of his ground. Then, however, he remembered the quarrel in the road.
"I have brought you back this young man," he explained, "because it was my impression that he was concerned in the burglary. The matter, however, can soon be solved."
He threw open the door and dragged in the kit-bag. He undid the straps and leaned it a little on one side. Several silver articles rolled out on to the floor. Suddenly the Count rose to his feet and came staggering across the room. He fell on his knees. His hands, claw-like, dug down into the bag. Then he staggered to his feet. In his hands he held a roll of canvas.
"The picture!" he cried. "My picture! My picture!"
He held it out at arm's length, gazing at it. His face was suddenly transfigured. The tears were in his eyes, his voice was choked.
"It is the picture!" he sobbed. "My Lucrezia!"
He staggered back to the other end of the room. He held it up that every one might see.
"Behold!" he continued more calmly, "the treasure of my house The treasure of my life You see it, sir? You, Adele, you know it well. It is Andrea del Sarto, the painter himself! See, he sits with his wife before the casement. They look together upon Florence. Look at the history of his life shining from his sad eyes. I tell you," he went on, raising his voice hysterically, "there is no work of art in the world which speaks as that speaks, my one companion year by year, day by day, minute by minute—mine!"
He sank back exhausted. Miss de Hagon turned to Knox.
"I do not understand this," she said. "I do not understand how you came here. I do not understand what Guido is doing here. But this picture which you have restored to my uncle has been the joy of his life for many years. He brought it with him into exile. It has reconciled him to the dull skies and loveless life of this country. It has been his religion, his only joy."
"He had no right to bring it from Italy," the young man declared sullenly. "He had no right. It belongs to our house."
The Count sat up.
"You lie!" he cried. "It belongs to me so long as I am the head of the house. As to my right to bring it from Italy, who shall dare to gainsay it? I have brought it here not for profit, not to sell, but because it was part of my life. When I pass away it comes to you, Guido. Nothing can alter that. But while I live the picture is mine."
Miss de Hagon pointed to the open bag.
"But what," she asked, "is the meaning of this? I do not understand."
"Yet it is simple," the young man said grimly. "I came over here because they told me that there was a danger of the picture being sold. I came over here because my house is empty without it, because the soul has gone out of it, and because every day I walked to the empty space in the wall and there, was no picture. I came to him," he added, pointing to the Count. "He turned me away. But I had seen the picture. The spell was upon me. I meant to have it. I found out those two men. They were said to be burglars. I joined with them. I was told that they were experts. They were bunglers—miserable, ignorant bunglers. Yet we got away. A few hours more and I should have been on my way to Italy with the picture around my body."
Miss de Hagon turned to Knox.
"I still don't understand what you are doing here," she complained almost piteously.
"My luck again," Knox murmured, smiling. "I saw this young man and his two very obvious companions trying to drive a motor-car. They passed me along the road. The car broke down. I helped them set it to rights. A few minutes' conversation with them convinced me that something of this sort had happened. I arranged their car so that they couldn't get very far, and I returned along the road by the way they had come. I found their wheel-marks leading here. I found the man and his wife downstairs, tied up, and the Count lashed to the sofa there. I started off again in pursuit of the car, and behold Now for the end of the matter."
He threw open the door. There was a curious sense of emptiness outside. He rang a bell—it was useless. Miss de Hagon came out to join him. They wandered round the house. It was empty. The man and his wife had fled. When they returned, the young man was on his knees, his uncle's hand upon his shoulder.
"I have forgiven," the Count said. "After all, it was for the picture's sake. Guido will live with me for a little time. He shall share it with me, and when I die it is his."
"All this for a picture!" Knox murmured in Miss de Hagon's ear.
"Ah!" she sighed, "but they are of the race who feel these things. And you, my friend—"
"Do I feel nothing?" Knox asked softly.
She was suddenly silent. Her eyes failed to answer the challenge in his, and she moved a little away. Then she recovered herself and laughed at him softly.
"If you do," she murmured, "you must have great gifts of concealment."
Knox stood quite still for a moment. The riddle of his day was answered.
KNOX, who had wandered through the Roulette and Trente et Quarante Rooms of the Sporting Club, with only an occasional bet, and without any of the thrill of the habitué, was conscious, as he entered the baccarat room, of a sudden quickening of the pulses, an agitation which he found it almost impossible to wholly conceal. Seated exactly opposite to him at the first table, was Miss de Hagon, and standing behind her chair, Prince Melinoff. Knox realised fully at that moment the thing which he had been anxious to conceal from himself. He knew why he had taken this journey to Monte Carlo. He knew why he had walked the streets with a certain blitheness, a kind of anticipatory happiness which he had up till then made no attempt to define. He knew perfectly well that he had come to Monte Carlo because she was here, yet now that he had found her he had the sensations of a man who has reached the end of his quest only to find disappointment. Melinoff seemed somehow to have gained in size, to be towering over her, a dark and commanding personality. Even as he stood there watching the play, he had an air of proprietorship which was unmistakable. Miss de Hagon held out her left hand—her right was engaged with her stake. After that first quiver of the lips she gave no sign of emotion.
"I have given up being surprised at seeing anyone here," she said. "This is the rendezvous for all the wanderers and all the stay-at-homes of the world."
Knox bent over her hand and murmured some conventional phrase.
"You must let me introduce you," she went on, "to Prince Melinoff Mr. Algernon Knox—Prince Melinoff."
Melinoff, whose attitude up to the present had been one of supreme indifference, suddenly stiffened. He adjusted his horn-rimmed eyeglass and looked at Knox. So this was the young man, then, whom he had to thank for his many months' estrangement from Adele!
"We have met once before, I believe," he remarked, with grim courtesy.
"At Corpusty," Knox assented.
"You are acquainted with my dear friend De Brinault, I believe?"
Knox smiled slightly.
"I have met him once or twice."
"A very entertaining fellow," Prince Melinoff continued thoughtfully. "You are making a long stay here, Mr. Knox?"
"That depends upon circumstances," Knox replied.
A certain significance in his tone sounded almost like a challenge. Miss de Hagon appeared suddenly absorbed in the game. The Russian frowned.
"I wish you a pleasant stay," he said, with the air of one who concludes a conversation.
He bent down and whispered something in Miss de Hagon's ear. She shook her head.
"Are you staying at an hotel or with friends?" Knox asked her.
"I am staying at the Hôtel de Paris," she replied.
"May I venture to call?"
"I shall be charmed," she answered. "I am always at home from seven till eight."
She nodded her farewell, and Knox passed on. He was half stimulated and half depressed by this meeting. The invitation to visit her she had given him boldly enough, notwithstanding the grim attitude of her escort, And he had found her—that was the great thing. On the other hand, the thought of Melinoff was like a menace to him and his hopes. The man was strong and famous. Miss de Hagon and he had certainly once been on terms of intimate friendship. He hated their present appearance of familiarity....
AT a quarter-past seven that evening, Knox presented himself at the Hôtel de Paris. He was conducted at once to Miss de Hagon's suite of rooms upon the third floor. The little salon into which he was shown was empty at first, but in a few minutes Miss de Hagon entered from an inner room. She had changed her afternoon costume for a loose gown of shimmering Chinese silk. She seemed to Knox to have suddenly grown younger, to have a more childlike and ingenuous appearance. She gave him her hand and motioned him to an easy-chair.
"This is almost my favourite hour in the day," she declared, as she made herself comfortable. "One dines so late here that I need not begin to change until eight, and I always leave the rooms at half-past six, whether I am winning or losing. ... So you, too, have found your way to Monte Carlo?"
"I came," Knox said, "because you were here."
There was a brief silence. Her eyes were fixed upon him. There were many things trembling upon Knox's lips. She sat expectant—and Knox blundered.
"You have made it up with your friend Prince Melinoff?"
She paused for a moment before replying. When she spoke again it was in her old manner.
"Yes! Some wave of rationality, I suppose, brought him to his senses. He realises now that I was the victim and not the trickster. Incidentally," she added, "he knows that it was you and De Brinault who made idiots of us both."
Knox shrugged his shoulders.
"Does that matter?"
She stretched out her hand for a cigarette.
"Well," she said, "I am not sure. Prince Melinoff is a very extraordinary man. He is a man, too, who does not forgive easily."
"This time," Knox observed indifferently, "we meet on absolutely neutral ground. I am simply here for a change, and I chose Monte Carlo because when I inquired in Berkeley Square your servants told me that you were here. I have been looking for you all day."
"Have you anything to say to me, then?" she asked.
"You know quite well that I have," he answered. "It is something I have tried to get rid of, something which has been hanging around for months. I can't get rid of it. I have made up my mind to leave off trying. I have come out here to ask you to be my wife."
She flung away her cigarette. The fingers which had been holding it to her lips were shaking. She was frowning and smiling at the same time. She seemed angry and yet happy.
"It's idiotic!" she declared, slipping to her feet. "No, don't come any nearer, please, for a moment."
She was standing at the window, her face hidden from him. Presently she turned around.
"I don't know," she said, almost piteously. "You've been worrying me frightfully. I think I came here to get away from you."
"A good sign," Knox murmured. "May I go on, please? I haven't told you—why I want you to marry me."
She came a little nearer to him. Her eyes seemed larger.
"Are you going to tell me that it is because you think you care?" she murmured. "No—not yet!"
She drew back from his embrace. He held her hand, however.
"Adele," he pleaded, "I do care. I disliked you at first, wondered at you afterwards, and then the restlessness began. I found myself thinking of you all the time. The thought of you has got into my blood. Now I have found you I know. I know quite well that you are the woman I have been looking for, without knowing it, all my life."
"You don't know me," she said, once more troubled. "I have been a restless creature, a trouble to every one all my days. No guardian could control me, no relative has ever had any influence over me. I have gone my own way since the nursery, dispensed with chaperones, flouted propriety, done as I chose. I don't think—I can't bear the thought of giving it up."
"You'll have to," Knox warned her.
"Yes, and I know it!" she answered, almost fiercely. "I know very well what it would mean. You look as harmless and easy-going as any Englishman could be. And you aren't. You want to be dominant. You have the knack of winning. So have I. I won't be ruled."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't think I'm a bully," he protested.
"No, you wouldn't rule by the obvious methods," she admitted, "but you have irritated me more than any person in the world. I have measured my wits against yours and you have won. Listen."
She stood before him with flashing eyes. She was suddenly eager.
"Listen to me," she repeated. "I did not come to Monte Carlo wholly for my health, or for a change: or for the reason that other people come. I came on a little enterprise, the sort of little enterprise you indulge in. I challenge you, now. Discover it. You have won each time we have been on opposite sides Win this time and you shall have the answer you say you want."
"The answer," he murmured, bending a little towards her, "which you are so reluctant to give?"
She made a little grimace at him and looked away He kissed her fingers,
"Very well," he sighed; "I'll do my best."
KNOX spent four fully occupied but unproductive days. He gossiped with everyone he met. He made formal calls, and he plunged a little into the underworld of Monte Carlo. He watched Miss de Hagon and Melinoff as closely as he could without exciting observation, but nothing happened which afforded him the slightest hint as to the purpose at which Miss de Hagon had hinted. He sent her flowers every morning, and she came to lunch with him once at Ciro's. Knox let her go that afternoon with poignant regret. It seemed to him that she had never been more desirable.
"Any luck?" she asked him, as he left her at the door of the hotel.
He shook his head.
"I am afraid," he confessed, "that you are trying me rather high."
"Don't despair," she said lightly. "You have all the luck in these affairs."
"I know it," he replied. "That is why I am afraid it may desert me on the one occasion I need it most."
She passed slowly out of sight, and Knox watched her. She was wearing a white serge costume with a little black about it, cut In the extreme of a fashion peculiarly kind to her slim, svelte figure; a large black picture-hat, white stockings, and black patent shoes. She turned and looked at him for a moment, even after she had waved her hand in farewell. It seemed to him that there was a summons in her expression. He stepped back to her side. She leaned towards him.
"Perhaps," she whispered meaningly, "you are like all Englishmen—a little too constant to—what is it your song says—'to Eyes of Blue'?"
She passed inside, and Knox walked away. He felt suddenly a new impetus of hope. Not only were Adele's words illuminating, but the very fact that she had chosen to give him a hint—and such a hint—was inspiring. He went into a florist's, selected a great bunch of roses, and addressed them himself on the back of one of his own cards—"To the Comtesse de Guy."
"Send these at once," he ordered, "to the Villa Guy."
That night, when he was dressing for dinner, Knox received a delicately-scented little note:
"My dear Monsieur Knox—How charming of you to send me such beautiful flowers! They fill my little salon with memories sweeter even than their perfume. Shall I see you to-night at the Cercle? If so, perhaps I may express my thanks better in words.—Yours,—Sophy de Guy."
Knox met an old friend, and an habitué of Monte Carlo, on the terrace that afternoon, and gossiped with him for a few moments.
"Never saw the place so full of pretty women," he remarked.
"As I grow older," his friend pronounced, "it is a sad truism that women grow more lovely. For nineteen years I have spent two months at Monte Carlo. Each season one or two women have been pre-eminent, and each season the belles of to-day seem more beautiful than their predecessors,"
"Whom should you call the belles this year?" Knox asked.
"Without a doubt," the other replied, "the Anglo-Austrian-Italian woman—Miss de Hagon—and the Comtesse de Guy. Opposite styles, too."
"Tell me about the Comtesse de Guy. I know her, of course, but not intimately."
His friend shrugged his shoulders. He was a man half English, half French, to whom gossip was almost as the breath of life.
"What is there to say? She is perfectly charming. She gives small supper-parties here which are very popular with the men whom she honours with invitations. She is exquisitely dressed, has beautiful jewellery, and has the name of being very exclusive in her friendships. Just at present," he added, "she is scarcely living up to her reputation in that respect however."
"As, for instance?"
His friend hesitated.
"These affairs are merely matters of observation," he remarked. "I am not sure that I had any definite person in my mind."
"Is there a Comte de Guy?" Knox asked.
His friend sighed.
"There is always a Comte somewhere, but he keeps most discreetly in the background."
Knox passed on. That evening he made his way patiently through the little crowd of admirers who always were to be found in the train of the Comtesse de Guy. She welcomed him with a wonderful smile. A new admirer was always so much to be desired, and Knox had the reputation of being a little difficult where her sex was concerned. As he approached she rose to her feet
"I lose to-night," she exclaimed. "I am a little weary of it. You shall give me your escort, Mr. Knox, and some orangeade. Can we find a corner in the bar, do you think?"
They found a vacant place, and Knox did his best to amuse his brilliant little companion. He was quite sufficiently accomplished in the art to give a semblance of reality to the flirtation which the Comtesse evidently desired. Their heads came nearer and nearer together. Once Knox glanced up, impelled by some curious instinct of being watched. Miss de Hagon was standing in the doorway. She nodded to Knox and waved her hand to the Comtesse as she passed on into the baccarat room.
"It is your friend, Miss de Hagon," the Comtesse whispered. "Will she not be jealous that you sit here so long with me?"
"Jealous of me? Alas, that is not likely!" Knox replied. "But if she were, do you think that I would care to move?"
"Ah, monsieur!" she murmured.
Once more Knox pursued his self-appointed task. The Comtesse encouraged him to an extent which he found almost embarrassing. The room was sometimes full and sometimes empty. Still they kept their places, for Knox felt certain that he was on the right track. Then he became aware of an elderly man who had passed several times through the room, always looking towards them, and who had now taken a seat nearly opposite. His features were somehow familiar, although Knox could not believe that he was amongst the circle of his own friends. He had the air of being somewhat out of his element. His clothes and bearing seemed to lack the complete polish of the habitués.
"Let me show you a new admirer," Knox whispered to his companion. "Four times he has passed through the room, looking always towards you. Now he has taken a chair to watch you."
She looked up quickly and made a grimace. Then she gave a little sigh.
"Ah, my friend," she murmured, "why did you point him out to me? Do you know what he represents, that—that so uninteresting person?"
Knox shook his head.
"I can't imagine."
"My duty," she told him, with another sigh. Knox contemplated the man through his eyeglass.
"He is not, by any chance, your husband?" he asked.
She looked at him with sparkling eyes.
"Dear friend," she laughed, "I do not associate the idea of duty with my husband. And yet, it is necessary that we part for a little time. I must send you away, and I must make myself agreeable to the person opposite. You know who he is, of course?"
"Not I!" Knox answered. "Where have I seen him, I wonder? I hesitate to make suggestions, lest he should be a friend of yours."
"He is not so great a friend of mine," she replied, "as he would wish to be. To tell you the truth—but ah, I forgot! That is what I may not tell you. But you, Mr Knox, you surprise me. You would consider yourself a patriotic Englishman, and you do not know the features of one of your rulers."
Knox whistled softly to himself.
"It's Mr. Hogge!" he exclaimed.
She nodded and twirled her fan.
"I have promised," she sighed, "to be polite to him. There are friends of mine who wish it. Tomorrow, Monsieur Knox?"
"To-morrow," he echoed, with a sigh, as he rose unwillingly to his feet.
"Would you like me," she whispered, "to be very charming to you? Would you like me to say that I find it very dull to lunch alone, and that to-morrow—"
"At Ciro's?" he asked.
"Where you wish, at one o'clock," she assented "And now—duty."
KNOX strolled blithely into the baccarat room. Miss de Hagon had not yet commenced to play, and the Prince, for a wonder, was absent from her side. She greeted Knox with a little pout.
"One is always having one's ideals shattered," she declared.
"In what way?"
She opened her fan and looked at it intently for a moment.
"So the Comtesse de Guy," she said, "will drag one more heart at her chariot wheels."
"Precisely," Knox agreed. "I've hitched mine on there until I discover what there is in black eyes which can help me to win the blue ones."
She sat perfectly still for a moment.
"You are exceedingly quick," she remarked, "at accepting hints."
Melinoff towered suddenly over them.
"If you are ready at once," he announced, "I will arrange for a place."
She rose briskly.
"Ready, dear Prince!" she exclaimed. "For what else am I waiting? To-night I feel that the luck will be with me. Au revoir. Monsieur Knox, and the best of fortune go with you!"
KNOX sent his offering of flowers, reserved the best table on the terrace, and at one o'clock was waiting at the end of the arcade to hand the Comtesse de Guy from her automobile. She gave him both her hands, and her eyes spoke delightful things to him.
"For an Englishman," she declared, "you are a revelation."
"And you," he replied, "for a woman of any nationality in the world, are a miracle."
"I am afraid," she sighed, "you are going to spoil me. How shall I ever be able to—"
She paused. A bowing maître d'hôtel had intervened and was showing them their table.
"Able to what?" he whispered, as they took their places.
"To repay you," she murmured, under her breath.
"If you only knew," he said, "how easy it would be!"
She looked at him steadily, almost seriously. For once her large dark eyes, soft as ever, lacked their challenging light, and she seemed to be appraising the value of his words.
"Monsieur," she announced, "I am beginning to be afraid of you."
"It is," he declared, "an excellent sign."
They gossiped lightly during the service of luncheon. Mr. Hogge came in with a party of friends and sat at a table a little way away. He looked often in their direction. She made a little grimace once at Knox.
"You know that he is jealous of you?" she laughed across the table.
"Can't think why you encourage the fellow," Knox complained. "He is clever enough, of course, but I call it thundering cheek of him to follow you about."
She looked at her slim, delicate fingers, entwined in one another.
"There are many other considerations," she said reflectively, "which may lead a woman at any rate to be civil to a man."
"So long as you are no more than civil," Knox persisted, with a jealousy well simulated.
She laughed reassuringly.
"I ask only for your common sense," she begged. "That should help you to dismiss all such fears. But indeed," she went on, "I do not know why I tell you this, Monsieur Knox, for, alas! I fear that you are only like those others, who say these charming things, who knock so insistently at the door of a woman's heart—and pass on. Yet I feel that I wish to tell you that I am civil to Mr. Hogge because great friends of mine have desired it."
"Does he visit at your villa?" Knox asked abruptly.
She leaned across the table.
"He has called two afternoons," she said; "but at the last moment the thought of a tête-à-tête with him in my own dear little room was too much for me. I was not at home. But," she went on, "to-night he comes to the villa for supper."
"The mischief he does!" Knox muttered, frowning.
She suddenly laid her hand upon his.
"Monsieur Knox," she pleaded, "help me. I have asked, also, Prince Melinoff and Miss de Hagon. Will you come too, please?"
"If you come," she whispered, "perhaps—" Her voice faltered. She did not finish the sentence.
"You have only," Knox murmured, "to name the hour."
"At twelve o'clock, then!"
THE villa of the Comtesse was situated up amongst the mimosas, hidden on the slope of the hills which smiled down upon Monte Carlo. Knox was the first guest to be ushered by the staid, black-liveried manservant into the little salon where the Comtesse was waiting. She was dressed in white satin, with pearls around her throat. She was very sweet and petite and alluring. She took Knox's hands, and she stood very close to him while he raised them to his lips. Her face was a little upturned. Knox, with a little groan, stooped down, but she pushed him gently away.
"Afterwards," she murmured. "Monsieur Knox, you are to be my friend to-night. I have been foolish. It is you who must help me."
"With all my power, madame," he answered simply.
"Listen, then," she began.
The door was thrown open. Mademoiselle de Hagon and the Prince Melinoff were announced. The Prince smiled grimly as he saw Knox stand a little back. There was just the slightest cloud upon Miss de Hagon's face. Then Mr. Hogge was announced, another Englishman, and a famous French actress who was staying in Monte Carlo.
Prince Melinoff led his hostess a little on one side. He stooped down and whispered something in her ear. Knox saw the light suddenly fade from her face. She seemed to protest, but Melinoff only shook his head.
"Madame," Knox heard him say, "it is impossible. All has been arranged."
The servant swung open the folding-doors. They passed into the salle à manger and took their places at a little round table. Knox found himself with the actress on one side and Miss de Hagon on the other. His hostess was opposite. Melinoff sat on her right hand and the English Minister upon her left.
"You seem to have adopted my advice quite seriously," Miss de Hagon said once, under her breath.
"I am hoping," he replied, "that it will lead me to the one thing in the world I covet."
Save for these few words, no serious sentence was uttered during the whole of supper-time. Afterwards, the doors were opened once more. A piano was wheeled into the little salon from an inner room. The French actress sang. Almost for the first time Knox stood side by side with his hostess. They were close to the doorway of the inner room, and she motioned him to look inside.
"That is my own little—do not you English people call it 'den'?" she said. "You see my roses there on the table near my couch. Some day I hope that you will come and talk with me in there. It is only my dear friends who are permitted to enter."
She moved away then. Knox watched her curiously. Since those few words he had seen Melinoff address to her, there was a change in her manner. She seemed nervously excited. Her natural gaiety had gone.
Afterwards she sang to them. Then Miss de Hagon rose and made her farewells. Everyone followed suit Knox, standing a little on the outskirts and watching, saw a look of meaning pass between Hogge and the Comtesse, subtle enough on her part, clumsy on his. Knox was the last to say farewell, although Mr. Hogge had not yet left the room.
"You never finished that little sentence you began," he reminded her.
She looked at him, and her face was suddenly sad.
"I never shall now," she answered. "It was an impulse. I only wish that there had been time to finish. But now it is impossible, Good-night!"
One by one the automobiles drove off. The Prince and Miss de Hagon went together, the French actress and the other Englishman followed. Mr. Hogge was alone in a hired conveyance. Knox stood upon the steps for a moment as though expecting to be asked to accept a seat in the vehicle. Mr. Hogge, however, affected not to notice him, and hurried by.
"To the Sporting Club," he ordered loudly, as the servant closed the door.
The man turned to Knox.
"The automobile of monsieur?" he asked. Knox shook his head.
"I am walking," he said, and started off down the avenue.
For the space of a quarter of an hour all was silent in the neighbourhood of the villa. Then Mr. Hogge, who had left his conveyance in the road, hurried stealthily back up the avenue, his coat-collar turned up, his soft felt hat slouched over his eyes. He had rather the air of a musical comedy conspirator. Arrived at the front door, he knocked softly upon the panel and was at once admitted.
"If Madame la Comtesse has not retired," he mumbled, "I should—er—"
The man, who had received his orders, ushered him at once into the salon. The Comtesse was curled up upon the sofa with a novel in her hand.
"Mr. Hogge!" she exclaimed.
The door was already closed. She burst into a little peal of laughter. Mr. Hogge was looking exceedingly ill at ease.
"But why do you look so terrified?" she pouted. "It was you who begged for this. You need not stay. The doors are open. No, no! I am not sure, even, that you may sit by my side. Why do you come in looking like a frightened schoolboy?"
Mr. Hogge apparently summoned up his courage. He presented a bolder front.
"My dear lady," he said, a little solemnly, "I do not wish to dwell upon the fact more than is necessary but you must remember that I have a great and a peculiar position to keep up. A whisper of this,"—he glanced around the room,—"and the whole of my political career would tremble in the balance."
The Comtesse flung herself back in her chair.
"Oh, la, la!" she exclaimed. "Your political career! Don't you know that when men come to Monte Carlo for pleasure, they leave their careers behind them? All men are alike. Turn out those electric lights near the door, my friend. This standard lamp will be sufficient. Then you may come and sit by my side and tell me why really yon are afraid to find yourself here alone with me?"
Mr. Hogge obeyed promptly. The room was lighted now only by the small lamp which stood on a table by her side. She leaned back once more and laughed at him mockingly.
"Well," she reminded him, "for a fortnight you have whispered of the things you would say to me if ever we should find ourselves utterly and entirely alone. This is your chance."
"The servants!" he muttered, glancing towards the door.
"They have their orders," she replied. "They have gone to bed. I must let you out myself when you leave me."
He came a little nearer. He began to gather courage.
"Then we are really alone!" he said unsteadily.
"Alone," she echoed, under her breath.
He caught her hands. At the touch of his fingers her attitude seemed to undergo a sudden change, She shrieked and pushed him from her. He shrank back, amazed.
"Madame!" he exclaimed. "Sophy! For Heaven's sake!"
The door was suddenly opened. A man in travelling clothes stood upon the threshold. He was tall and dark, with olive complexion and black moustache—obviously a foreigner. He looked at Mr. Hogge and his eyes blazed.
"Who is this person?" he demanded quickly.
Mr. Hogge was speechless. The Comtesse gazed for a moment wildly at the intruder. Then she threw herself back upon the couch.
"We are discovered!" she cried. "All is lost! It is Paul—my husband!"
Mr. Hogge stood quite still for a moment. Face to face with a veritable crisis, he seemed less disturbed than he had been a few minutes back.
"Is this a trap?" he demanded.
"Trap? You shall find out what it is, sir," the newcomer declared, advancing into the room. "I am Paul, Comte de Guy. Oblige me with your card. I would know whom it is I find in my villa, alone with my wife, after midnight."
"I shall not tell you my name," Mr. Hogge replied. "I am here at your wife's invitation. I have done no wrong. Let me pass."
The Comte shrugged his shoulders. He did not move.
"Monsieur," he said, "I know very well who you are. The person who warned me of my wife's infatuation told me also your name. I give you now your choice. Will you meet me to-morrow, as in this part of the world is sometimes the custom, or do you prefer to hear from my lawyers?"
"Neither," Mr. Hogge declared furiously. "I tell you that your wife is innocent!" The Comte laughed softly.
"Monsieur," he rejoined, "your words fill me with joy, and yet the situation remains unchanged. Take your choice."
The door of the inner room, which had been standing ajar, was suddenly pushed wide open. Knox entered.
"Forgive my intervention," he said politely, "but I really cannot see that there is any necessity for these extreme measures."
The woman upon the sofa leapt to her feet. She gazed at Knox in blank amazement Her husband seemed equally taken aback. Mr. Hogge was unfeignedly relieved.
"Listen," Knox proceeded. "By the strangest coincidence I have been present during the whole of the time your wife and Mr. Hogge have been here alone together, and I am in a position to assure you, therefore, Comte, that Mr. Hogge's behaviour, and the behaviour of your wife, have been in every way exemplary."
"Will you explain what the devil you were doing in my wife's boudoir, sir?" the Comte demanded furiously.
"I owe both her and you every apology for my presence," Knox replied. "The fact of the matter is that I left my cigarette case there earlier in the evening. I returned to find it, but seeing the house in darkness I hesitated to disturb any one. As I was turning away, however, f noticed that the window stood a little open, so I stepped in, meaning to possess myself of the cigarette case and depart. I heard my friend Mr. Hogge's voice, however, and I lingered for a moment. I am only too happy, sir," he added, turning to the Comte, "that my wholly unforeseen presence here has enabled me to dispel any suspicions you may have entertained. We have your permission to leave, I hope?"
"You can both of you go to hell!" the Comte said firmly.
"This way, Mr. Hogge," Knox invited, opening the door. . . .
KNOX strolled into the Sporting Club a few minutes after three. He found Miss de Hagon sitting on a divan in a corner of the baccarat room. Prince Melinoff had taken her place at the tables for a few minutes. She was looking a little tired.
"We meet again," she murmured listlessly
He bowed over her hands.
"Adele," he whispered, "I am here to claim my promise."
She glanced up at him, startled.
"What do you mean?" she exclaimed. "You are too late. The tittle plot in which I was engaged came to fruition this evening. It was concocted under your nose. It is finished."
Knox shook his head.
"On the contrary," he assured her. "It hasn't come off at all."
She rose slowly to her feet. There was a curious tremor of excitement in her face.
"What do you mean?" she repeated.
"The plot was a very simple one," he said. "You and Melinoff were both anxious for an English Government of different politics. The best way to effect a change was to compass the removal of Mr. Hogge. You had him here in Monte Carlo, and you played upon his weakness. Either a divorce case or a duel it was to be. Isn't that so?"
"Go on," she begged breathlessly. "This is fate."
"You gave me the idea," he concluded, "when you, indirectly but obviously, bade me devote myself to the Comtesse de Guy. From her I gathered that she was engaged in a flirtation with Mr. Hogge, for which some other reason existed than her own inclination. The rest of the affair was easy. All that I had to do was to watch Mr. Hogge. Fortunately, the Comtesse honoured me with an invitation to the supper-party to-night When Mr. Hogge returned stealthily to the villa, I returned. When the furious husband broke in upon the presumably guilty wife and Mr. Hogge—I was there! In fact, I am afraid I rather spoilt the situation. I brought Mr. Hogge away. He is at the hotel now, taking his ticket for England to-morrow."
She sank back upon the divan. Knox coolly seated himself by her side. His hand closed upon hers.
"Shall we be married here or at home?" he asked. "And how do you propose to get rid of Melinoff?"
She laughed strangely. Knox looked up and found Prince Melinoff frowning down upon them.
"Prince," she said, "we have failed."
"Failed?" he echoed.
"The Comte made his inopportune arrival, as arranged, and found Mr. Hogge alone with his wife; but by a most unfortunate contretemps Mr. Knox was there also."
The Prince scowled.
"Confound Mr. Knox!" he muttered.
Miss de Hagon laid her hand upon the Prince's
"Prince," she said, "I will answer the question now which you put to me last night for the third time. I cannot marry you. I am going to marry Mr. Knox."
"Damn Mr. Knox!" the Prince exclaimed heartily.
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