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IN VIEW of the many curious adventures for which his unique appointment was largely responsible, Louis has asked me once again to explain exactly how it came to pass that he was first placed in that very exceptional position.
In 1914, after seven years of service in the one and only Grill Room which London seems ever likely to possess, he threw up his very lucrative position and departed for France. In 1919 he limped back from the war with two crutches and many medals. He presented himself at the Milan.
"I have called because you asked me to, sir," he said to Sir Edward Rastall, chairman of the directors. "There is nothing I can do for you, though. A maître d'hôtel on crutches could scarcely get through an hour's work a week."
Sir Edward took him by the arm and led him across the Court to the Grill Room entrance. It was five o'clock in the afternoon and the place was empty. Louis, who had turned his head away as he had driven up in his taxi to the front entrance of the hotel, looked sorrowfully at that fascinating wilderness of white linen and sparkling glass. Every one of those private corners, vantage places from which one could see and not be seen, and those other more flamboyant tables plumped down in full view of everybody, mostly in demand by the fair sex, brought its own peculiar memories. If he had been alone his eyes would soon have been dim.
"Louis," his companion said, "do you know why we thought you worth two thousand a year to us before the war?"
"Because I was reasonably good at my job, I hope, sir," the maître d'hôtel suggested.
"That, of course, but there are hundreds of others who are good at their jobs. You had what we thought a flair for placing your patrons. You see all those tables? It would take a diplomat to deal with the streams of people you had to deal with, to offend no one and please those who were worth pleasing. You did it, Louis. I have watched you sometimes—the plan in your hand, a speculative look in your eyes, a welcoming smile always there. You never made a mistake. Then, of course, just before the war the other thing came. You began "to. be a useful man for your adopted country, long before the first shot of the war was fired."
"Strange things have happened here," Louis reflected.
"And stranger things may come," Sir Edward commented gravely. "If you will turn your head you will see that we have done away with that ridiculous little bar and made what seems to be a low pulpit just inside the revolving doors."
"I was wondering what that was for, Sir Edward," Louis acknowledged.
"It is for you, my lad."
"What on earth could I do there?"
"Go on earning your two thousand a year, of course," was the prompt reply. "Every day you will have a fresh plan of the room and all correspondence with regard to the ordering of tables will be handed to you. You know the weaknesses of every one of our habitués. You will study them and you will know exactly what clients to encourage and which we are better without. You will sit in your easy chair there, watch the people come in, and seat them at your discretion. They will be satisfied—that is if we want them to be satisfied—and you will continue to draw your two thousand a year. A few more details later on. You start on Monday."
Sir Edward waved his hand and hurried away to avoid what he hated most in life—thanks. Monday morning found Louis ensconced in the easy chair that later on was to become historic.
IT WAS José, the maître d'hôtel and supervisor of the tables at my end of the Milan Grill Room, who brought me the little scribbled note from Louis, who was occupying his usual place upon the raised and enclosed dais generally called "The Pulpit." I untwisted the scrap of paper and read:
Please come to me for a moment.
I had only just sat down—I had not as yet even ordered my luncheon—so I rose at once and went to Louis's desk. He held out his left hand with a little gesture for me to wait whilst he continued his conversation with two young people immediately in front of him. To my surprise he summoned José and calmly directed them to my table.
"Here, what are you up to, Louis?" I protested.
"Isn't José making a mistake?"
"Major Lyson," he replied, "I beg you to remain where you are for a moment. You see, I purposely keep my head turned away but I wish you to look carefully at the third table down the main aisle."
"It is occupied," I observed, "by a young man who sits alone."
"Quite true," Louis assented, his pencil making idle marks upon the paper. "Do you notice anything unusual about him?"
I glanced down the room again. The prospective luncher was harmless enough in appearance but in a sense I understood Louis's suggestion. He seemed to belong to an ordinary type of well-born young Englishman, very freckled, fair and good-looking, but just at this moment he appeared to be suffering from the jitters. I passed on my impressions to my companion.
"Jitters," he murmured, "is not a word with which I am familiar but I will tell you, Major, how he looks to me. You see that his eyes never leave the door. He is watching for someone to come in. Give him your whole attention for one moment. I shall he occupied with this menu."
I did as was suggested. I visualized that young man in a few seconds quite differently. He was no longer the harmless, good-looking Englishman awaiting the service of his luncheon. He was like a man who was either in fear of his life or who had designs upon someone else's. His eyes were hard and glacial. He watched the door with an attention that was altogether unnatural. The fingers that held the menu card were shaking. His lips moved—perhaps he was giving an order. It might have been so, for the waiter presently withdrew. The young man's eyes, however, were still fixed upon the door.
"You are quite right," I admitted. "There is something wrong with that fellow."
"I shall ask you of your kindness," Louis said, "to oblige me. That is why I have given your table away. I want you to make your approach and ask to be allowed to share his."
I hesitated. Louis himself knew how unusual such a request would be from a perfect stranger.
"Supposing he refuses?"
Louis stroked his chin thoughtfully.
"In that case," he decided, "take the small table on the other side. It is the nearest from which you can observe him. It is promised to Mr. Thomson of the Star Film Company but I will arrange that."
It was a barren overture to one of those little incidents in the famous Milan Grill Room which had developed now and then into full-blown adventures. Nevertheless, I had learned to recognize Louis as the leading spirit in these enterprises and also to understand the wisdom of asking no more questions than necessary. I strolled down the room as though looking for a table and paused at the one occupied by the freckled young man. He started violently when he saw me standing there, shrunk a little away and his hand went into the pocket of his jacket; His eyes were full of dumb terror as he looked up at me.
"I'm very sorry to intrude," I said, smiling at him as though I recognized nothing unusual in his manner. "The fact is that Louis has unintentionally given away my table. The place is very full, as you can see. I wondered if you would allow me the vacant seat at yours?"
The young man's voice might under ordinary conditions have been a pleasant one, but all its natural qualities seemed drawn from it by the fear which was consuming him. I was not particularly enamoured, either, of the shaking hand, the fingers of which were grasping some article in his pocket.
"The place is already taken," was the hoarsely spoken reply. "I am expecting a guest. Sorry. Please go away."
I tried my best to behave as though my request were a usual one and my persistence perfectly natural.
"Couldn't I sit here for a few minutes?" I suggested. "My own table will probably be free then."
He was looking past me towards the door and there were beads of perspiration upon his forehead. The freckles which would have been becoming enough upon a sunburnt skin were ghastly blotches by reason of his unnatural pallor.
"Go away at once, please," he insisted. "My—my friend is coming."
I accepted my defeat, left him with a good-humoured nod and made my way to the small table on the other side of the gangway. There I sat and watched with curiosity the approach of my neighbour's prospective guest. She was coming down the carpeted way—a very small, very young girl, walking with the insolent grace and wearing the clothes of a gamine from the boulevards who had suddenly inherited a fortune. Everything about her was of the latest and the most extreme fashion and she presented without a doubt a striking picture. The young man staggered rather than rose to his feet and grasped the back of his chair with his left hand. She sank into the place opposite him and her black eyes flashed with mingled contempt and amusement. She crossed her legs, leaned back in her chair and summoned a waiter.
"I starve," she announced in a voice which was perfectly audible from where I sat. "Bring the hors d'oeuvres and an apéritif—Pernod or Dubonnet glacé."
The waiter looked at her in surprise but bowed and hurried away. She leaned forward and patted her companion's hand. It was impossible to hear what she said but I gathered that she was endeavouring to infuse a little courage into his tortured apprehensions, He interrupted her with a fiercely asked question. He spoke in bad but easily comprehended French in a voice which must have carried it good deal farther than my table a few yards off.
"He will come here, you believe, this loathsome fellow whom I detest?" he demanded. "Smile no longer, Marie Louise. You make me furious. He will follow you here? You believe that?"
She became a little graver and nodded a good many times. The young man was speechless. She leaned over the table, continued to pat his hand and dropped her voice so that I heard none of their conversation. All the time, though, I could see that right hand moving restlessly in his pocket. Whatever she was saying to him produced no soothing effect. Others besides myself were noticing his abject state. I rose to my feet and strolled back to Louis's desk.
"Mon ami," I warned him, "there will arrive a tragedy at that table."
Louis nodded and waited for me to continue.
"The young man refused me a place. He was evidently awaiting the arrival of this French flapper from the streets. She seems to be trying to give him courage, but alas I cannot hear their conversation."
"Difficult!" Louis murmured.
"Yes, but one thing is certain to happen," I declared. "He has one of those small revolvers in his right-hand pocket and he is twiddling it about with fingers that are shaking all the time. He will either shoot himself or someone else in a few minutes."
"Alas," he regretted, "I place you this morning, my dear fellow-confederate—if I may call you so—in an unpleasant situation. I beg you once more to interfere. Explain yourself as one associated with the place. Explain that you have seen the shape of the weapon in his pocket. Insist that he hand it over."
"I will do this," I agreed, "but I shouldn't be at all surprised if I got a knife in my side from that young woman. I have seen some of her type in Marseilles. "
"I watched her come in and I, too, am acquainted with the type," Louis confessed. "I do not think that she will attack you. Her companion is not her sort. At any rate, you know my weakness. It is to keep all scandal from my restaurant. No more shall that young English aristocrat be permitted to enter, but I wish to get rid of him before tragedy arrives. That it will arrive before long I do not doubt, but I pray that it be not here."
"You know who he is?"
"Yes, I know. His name is Cumberley—the Honourable Charles Cumberley." .
"Any connection with our man in Paris?"
Louis held up his hand.
"That will do," he begged. "You see how more than necessary it is for us
to escape scandal. I myself have the idea that tragedy is very close at hand.
Listen, Major. I ask a great deal, I know, but a
murder in my Grill Room would break my heart. Wait for a few moments, if you will, but if again you see that right hand find its way into his pocket make your intervention. Afterwards you may divest yourself of your official position, resume your scat and behave as you would if you were a normal guest of the restaurant. It is understood?"
I turned away. It was useless to argue with Louis.
"It is understood," I assured him.
I resumed my seat and gave an order to the waiter. Then I glanced across the aisle as carelessly as I could. The argument between the two was still in progress. The condition of the young man was if anything still more abject. The girl showed signs of losing her temper. Every now and then her companion broke off to watch some newcomer enter through the revolving door, watch always with that strained look of fear in his eyes. Again the time came when his hand sought his pocket and I dared wait no longer. I rose to my feet, crossed the aisle and stood by the side of their table. The girl looked up at me with a half-impudent, half-friendly smile. The man, with difficulty, found courage to be rude.
"What the devil are you doing here again?" he demanded. "I told you this table was engaged."
"And if I am permitted to leave out the expletive," I rejoined, "what are you doing sitting there in a partial state of collapse with your right hand in your coat pocket playing with a weapon of some sort? Be so good as to take your hand out and show me what you have there."
I had spoken to him without any pretence at courtesy as I might have spoken to an insubordinate youngster in the drill hall. He stared at me and weakened.
"What business is it of yours?" he retorted irritably. "Get back—"
"Don't try that on me," I interrupted. "I have an official position here and no one is allowed in this country to carry loaded firearms. Give me what you have in that pocket."
He withdrew his hand slowly, raised his napkin to cover it and laid a very small revolver of the latest type upon the table. I lifted the edge of the napkin and slipped the safety catch into its place.
"You have no right to come in here," I told him severely, "with a loaded revolver in your pocket."
The weapon was safely in my possession by this time. The young man leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and looked at me fixedly. For the first time he showed some gleam of spirit in his rescntment.
"Now that you have taken my only means of protection away," he said, "you had better get back to your table and watch me murdered."
I did my best to impart a reasonable amount of sympathy into my tone.
"I don't think I have done you any harm," I assured him. "If you tried to make use of this weapon with your hand shaking as it was you wouldn't have hit a haystack. Very delicately tempered things, these small revolvers. You might even have injured Mademoiselle."
"I was telling him," she said, smiling up at me, "how foolish he was. There is a man who would kill him if he could. That is nothing. It happens always in my country. But a crowded restaurant like this is the safest hiding-place one could choose. He has given me nothing to eat and I starve. Help me to convince him, Monsieur," she begged, "that here at least he is in no danger."
"I don't know anything about the facts of the case, of course," I pointed out, "but the young lady shows common sense. I should think there is no place in London where you would be safer than here at the present moment."
"That is all very well," the man, who was really beginning to present a
more reasonable appearance, declared, "but the fact remains that there is a
ing lunatic on his way to London who will certainly try to kill me on sight— probably Marie Louise also," he added, looking across the table at her.
She threw herself back in her chair and laughed mockingly.
"Oh, la la!" she exclaimed. "If he comes Von Hutt might pick me up from my chair and carry me away but he would not kill me. Never believe that, my dear Charles! He has the same passion for me as you have."
"Well, if you both place yourselves in my hands," I intervened, "I will promise you safety from this ferocious gentleman."
Cumberley shook his head helplessly,
"If he doesn't force his way in here he will be lurking just outside," he declared. "If he is not there he will be hiding in my rooms. There is no safety from a man who hates as this man hates."
"Tu es fou!" the girl cried, opening her vanity case and taking out her lipstick. "Why should he hate like that? He has lost me—for a time—but you have paid a great price, dear Charles. He has brains, that one. He will wait his time."
"You don't understand everything," Cumberley muttered.
Her eyes flashed as she leaned towards him, the lipstick still held between her fingers. There was doubt in her eyes as well as anger.
"What is it that I do not understand?" she demanded.
He hesitated. Afterwards I felt that if he had spoken at that moment the tragedy might never have happened. He lacked the courage, however.
"You don't understand how men feel when she-devils like you stir their blood," he groaned.
The doubt passed from the girl's eyes. She leaned back in her chair and laughed. There was music in her laughter, music but also sorcery. She finished with her lipstick and looked towards me.
"Monsieur has perhaps a proposition?" she asked. "Well, here's one for a
start. Give this poor starving young lady her luncheon," I suggested,
touching his shoulder lightly. "Eat something yourself
and drink a glass or two of wine. You can see everyone who enters, can't you?"
"Everyone," he admitted'. "That's why I chose this table."
"And if anyone comes in by the hotel entrance?" I asked.
"Mademoiselle will see him," he pointed out. "She knows whom to look for better than I do."
"Very well, then," I continued. "Eat your lunch and I promise that you have only to make a sign to me and I will stop anyone coming anywhere near your table. When you have finished I will take you to Louis, the famous maître d'hôtel here, who has a small apartment on this floor, and if you care to tell your story we both have influence enough to offer you adequate police protection, or if it is something in which the police cannot interfere we can help you to get into a safer neighbourhood."
The young man was impressed. At her request I repeated what I had said in French to the girl. She clutched my hand with feverish delight.
"You are a friend!" she exclaimed. "You are a wonderful man. Please beckon to that waiter. We will eat. If Charles is in danger of being murdered I am in danger of being starved! You hear, Charles? We eat."
It was the girl who ordered the meal, which she did fluently and adequately. I returned to my table only a yard or two away and proceeded with my own interrupted luncheon.
Whether it was because I was seated at a strange table or because my mind was already fully occupied with watching my two neighbours, I was never quite sure, but it is a fact that not until I lit my cigarette and commenced to sip my coffee did I become aware of a peculiar change in the little company of lunchers by whom I was surrounded. Two men whom I knew well, although we never recognized each other in public, from a certain department of the War Office, were lunching at an adjoining table and at the very next one were three plainclothes officials from Scotland Yard. Then on the other side, within a few yards of young Cumberley and his companion, was a man from the Foreign Office, one of our own ex-King's Messengers, who I knew was in the habit of still taking secret journeys in foreign countries, and a third younger man about whose doings there was also a certain amount of mystery. I realized at once that Louis had probably been justified in forcing me into a somewhat difficult position. There was something in the background concerning these two of infinitely greater importance than I had as yet comprehended. I glanced at my watch. A reasonable time for lunch had elapsed and Louis had already left his desk. I signed my bill and crossed the aisle.
"If you are ready," I said, addressing Cumberley, "I think I can promise to escort you to a place of safety."
The young man rose slowly to his feet. The girl lit another cigarette and followed his example. The bottle of Burgundy in its cradle was empty, as were also their brandy glasses. The two had evidently lunched well notwithstanding the agitation of which there were still traces in Cumberley's bearing. He looked restlessly up and down the room.
"Queer lot of people here," he muttered.
"A barrage," I assured him lightly.
The girl glanced up at me and laughed. Her lips were a flaming scarlet but her cheeks remained deathly pale. Her eyes, with their beautiful lashes and extraordinary brilliance, were untouched. She was abnormal in every possible way and I was not altogether at my ease when she clutched my arm and we passed down towards the door. The young man walked so close to me that more than once he trod on my toes. He walked, too, with an unsteadiness for which the Burgundy was not altogether to blame. When we reached the door he made us precede him. From the foyer I led them both into Louis's private room and closed the door. Louis was seated at his desk waiting for us. He swung round and pointed to chairs. He offered no further courtesies to anyone and it was very clear to me, who knew him so well, that he was disturbed.
"Y ou will forgive my asking a question or two?" he begged. "You, young lady, I think are known in Paris by the name of Marie Louise Négrine?"
The girl blew out a little volume of smoke from between her lips. She was evidently surprised.
"Is this a police station?" she enquired.
Louis replied in her own language.
"This is my private office," he explained, "and I am only the manager of the Grill Room, but I possess certain privileges. You, sir, I believe are Charles Cumberley, the second son of Lord Cumberley?"
"Does it matter who I am?" the young man asked.
"To tell you the truth, it does," was the dry rejoinder. " A certain person will be arriving in a few minutes who desires to cross-question you. I offer you a word of advice. Tell the truth."
"Is that meant to be an insult?" he demanded.
"It is exceedingly good advice," Louis assured him. "You will do well, sir, to follow it."
Mademoiselle, who had been gazing into the mirror which she had drawn from her vanity case, added a further splash of colour to her lips and closed the bag with a snap. Of the little company she was without a doubt the only one who was entirely at her ease.
"For me," she declared, "I tell the truth always. It is a foolish habit but I do it —except to my lovers, of course," she added. "To tell the truth always to them would make life impossible."
The young man looked at her fiercely. She remained indifferent. There was a knock at the door.
A well-known figure entered. I rose to my feet respectfully. The newcomer, my direct Chief, General Fitzhaven, who was head of the little liaison staff between two great institutions, took a seat.
Obeying a gesture from Louis I locked the door.
"So this is the young couple you and I have been discussing, Louis," the General remarked. "Mademoiselle seems pretty well true to type. You appear to have crumbled away a bit, Cumberley, since you made your last century at Lords."
The young man was a little shamefaced.
"I had fever out East, sir," he explained. "That is why, when my father went to Paris, I was transferred there."
Fitzhaven sat for a moment in thoughtful silence.
"So you had an uncomfortable luncheon, I hear," he observed abruptly.
"How did you hear that, sir?" was the startled reply.
"Oh, my old friend Louis sends me some peculiar messages now and then," the other confided. "A very observant fellow, Louis. If he had continued in the service I expect he would have been occupying my position by now."
"May I enquire what that position is?" Cumberley asked.
"You may enquire," was the polite rejoinder. "I shall not answer your question. It is I who have a few queries to put to you."
"I don't quite see what all this is about," Cumberley began.
"For a young man who was in abject fear of his life a short while ago you are beginning to pick up spirit," the General remarked. "Well, we proceed. I shall begin with you, young lady. It was to you that Charles Cumberley in Paris handed over this amazing document, or was it a map? I must confess that I have not seen it myself but it has been reported to the department of which I am the head that the documents in question were passed over by you to a Captain Von Hutt—a German agent living in Paris."
There was an almost deathlike stillness in the room. The girl was staring at the General in blank and stupefied silence. It was impossible for her to have gone any whiter but in her almost childish face there was a haggard expression. Her small bosom was rising, and falling quickly. She seemed to have lost her breath. The General watched her for a moment with a sardonic smile, then he turned enquiringly to Cumberley but Cumberley was without words.
"Yours was a terrible story, young man," he said sternly.
"I—I don't understand," Cumberley gasped. "What story?"
"The story which in your own handwriting was pinned to the map and handed over to Von Hutt."
"To Von Hutt," the listener breathed, and the words seemed to be drawn from his trembling lips by some unseen force.
"You claimed," the General continued in an icy tone, "that on a certain day in October—the date and hour were given—you were secreted in an ante-room of the British Embassy and overheard a conversation between a prominent Englishman and a certain Frenchman of distinction. The latter confided to the Englishman that a vital portion of one of the world's greatest systems of fortification situated—shall we say?—in France had suffered one of those silent earthquakes which sometimes arise in vicinities where a good deal of subterranean work has been done. What this meant was not dwelt upon. It was not necessary. But the Frenchman had come to beg that at all costs hostilities with any invading country should be postponed until the fortifications were restored, as a certain dangerously vulnerable spot would give an enemy attack an enormous advantage. The information was passed on as desired to London. Whether it had any effect there no one outside Downing Street will ever know."
I think we were all a little bewildered. To me the story was amazing. Louis himself was clutching at the sides of his chair. Cumberley was entirely incapable of speech. The General looked thoughtfully at the fire for several moments.
"That was the story," he went on, "which an imaginary Frenchman was supposed to have told to an imaginary Englishman. A marvellous piece of secret history. Charles Cumberley wrote it down. Tell us again, young man, what did you do with those notes of yours and that roughly sketched map?"
Cumberley glared across the room. He had staggered to his feet. He seemed to be on the brink of lunacy.
"She knows!" he muttered, pointing across at the girl.
"Quite so," the General observed calmly. "You gave them to her. Why?"
"Because I was mad!" Cumberley cried, suddenly raising his voice. "I cannot see her with your eyes. To you she is a common little thing of the streets with a queer call in her eyes—eyes which call and call to men until they, poor devils, scarcely know whether they are sane or not. To me she was compelling. I would have given my life and soul for her. Those written words of mine and the map were the price she asked—something that would make her famous with the underground world she loved. Curse them all!"
"You know what she did with them, I suppose?" the General asked.
"Did with them?" Cumberley shouted, shaking with excitement. "She sold or gave them to the man she was crazy about—the German, Von Hutt."
"Quite true," General Fitzhaven agreed sombrely. "She gave them to Von Hutt. You got what you wanted for them, I suppose?"
"What is it worth?" Cumberley cried fiercely. "I suppose she played up to her code. What is it worth? She is driving me mad every second I spend with her. Any slut in the street would be as good in your arms as a girl who thinks all the time of nothing but another man!"
The General sighed.
"Dear me," he said, "you don't either of you seem to have got much out of this little transaction. You, Cumberley, although you are still alive with the girl in your keeping—Von Hutt because he is dead."
Very slowly the girl turned her head. I remeber that during those few seconds the stillness in the room was an awful thing.
"C' est pas vrai!" she cried. "Captain Von Hutt, he left France without trouble. He is in Berlin to-day."
General Fitzhaven shook his head.
"My dear young lady," he confided, speaking in her own language, "you are very much mistaken. Cumberley here seems to have been unnecessarily terrified about this fellow. He has been living in a state of panic, afraid that he might follow him to London and snatch you away. Perhaps he might have done but you see he never had the chance. He was shot the day he got to Berlin."
The girl's shriek was a ghastly sound in the small room. Suddenly it was broken off.
"Why was he shot?" she demanded. "Explain."
This time the General smiled.
"I thought Frenchwomen of your type were less credulous," he confessed. "Did you really think that Cumberley was telling you the truth, did you really think that that map represented something which had actually occurred? Did you really believe that the conversation he wrote about ever took place? The poor fellow—he was crazy for you, I suppose. It was the only price you would accept, so he set his brain to work and he produced this ingenious concoction of falsehood."
She rose to her feet. All her contemptuous insolence of manner seemed to have gone. She had changed places with Cumberley. It was she now who was trembling from head to foot. She faced her late companion and her eyes were ablaze.
"Is this true?" she gasped. "Did you deceive me?"
"You let him go back to his country with a falsely drawn map and a lie upon his lips?"
"Serve him right!" Cumberley replied savagely. "I couldn't get you any other way but I didn't think they would tumble to it so quickly.'"
It was a queer thing that not one of us, even though the murderous fire was aflame in her eyes and her features were twitching with ferocious passion, not one of us foresaw what might happen. She moved a yard or two towards Cumberley, so slowly that we were not even alarmed. Her final leap was an amazing effort. There was something in her hand—she had been feeling at her knee even before she moved—something bright and glittering. Before we could reach her it was in Cumberley's side and she was gripping his throat, tearing at his face, shouting furious abuse at him in an argot which no one understood. I was the nearest but when I tore her away the affair was finished.
Many hours, even days, passed and there existed between Louis and myself a curious, almost an inexplicable, silence. At last one evening he sent me one of his twisted-up messages and I called in to have a glass of his famous Armagnac after I had finished a lonely dinner. Even then I had smoked a couple of cigarettes and Louis was half-way through his cigar before the harrier was raised. Louis was holding his cigar well away from him and gazing into the fire.
"Some of your British institutions, Major," he began, "are indeed admirable."
He nodded gravely.
"Consider for a moment the events of the other day," he continued. "You and I were ordered out of our own premises. The General took command. In the morning this room showed no signs of that little visitation. Three lines in various newspapers have recorded the sad death of young Cumberley in a shooting accident on the family estate in Northumberland, where, by the by, he was buried yesterday. As for the girl—"
Louis seemed to have fears that his cigar might go out. He smoked for a few seconds and then once more removed it from his mouth.
"The girl?" I queried softly.
"Spirited away," he went on. "Somewhere in France—alive but dumb, I believe, as to all that happened. There are hospitals of that sort."
"Nevertheless," I ventured after a somewhat prolonged pause, "I shall always believe that one day, if I walk down the Canebière in Marseilles or pass the Taverne Noire in Montmartre I shall see her lounging there with a cigarette in a long holder between her fingers and that diabolically insolent smile upon her lips."
"Maybe," Louis concluded enigmatically.
I DROVE my car into the members' garage at Woking, handed my clubs to a caddie and, as was my custom, strolled into Dyman's—the professional's—shed. I found him engaged in conversation with one of the quaintest-looking individuals I have ever encountered upon a golf course. Dyman greeted me in his usual respectful fashion.
"Half-a-dozen Stamford Flyers," I ordered. "And what about a round?"
"I'm very sorry, sir," the professional replied. "I'm afraid that I'm engaged this morning."
The man's answer was a surprise to me. Tuesday is a very quiet morning at most of the Golf Clubs round London, especially at Woking where the majority of the members are engaged in legal pursuits. Besides, Dyman was in a way engaged to play with me every Tuesday morning unless I telephoned to the contrary.
"I'm very sorry, sir," he apologized. "It just happens that something unexpected has turned up. If you would care for a game, this gentleman was asking me to find him one if possible."
I turned towards the other occupant of the professional's shop and hesitated.
"The gentleman's name is Mr. Stavert, sir," Dyman continued. "He came down with a card from Sir William Pollock. This is Major Lyson, sir."
"I shall be happy to play a round with you, Major Lyson," the stranger remarked simply.
I'm afraid my reply was not quite as spontaneous as courtesy demanded. Mr. Stavert was pale and thin and possessed a distinct stoop of the shoulders. He was dressed in dark clothes which bore no relation to any game or sport, he wore a stiff collar and a bowler hat. The only thing about him that suggested golf was a pair of black suede shoes with rubber soles. He carried in his hand a most extraordinary brown-leather case of the shape of a fire-extinguisher. His tout ensemble was unlike anything I had ever seen before on any known golf links. However, Pollock was all right so I pulled myself together.
"I shall be very pleased," I agreed. "Are you ready to start?"
"Any time," was the polite reply. "As the morning is warm I will take off my coat. Perhaps Dyman will send it into the dressing room."
He divested himself of the garment in question, under which he wore a plain black sweater. His linen collar and tie remained. He opened the extraordinary leather affair which he was carrying and drew out the shaft of a golf club with no head. The case was fitted with what seemed to be six different-shaped heads belonging to a driver, a brassie, a cleek, a putter; a spoon and a mashie. They were all brilliantly polished and the wooden heads carefully wrapped in woollen mittens. He selected the cleek head and screwed it on.
"God bless my soul!" I exclaimed, bending over it. "You will forgive me but what on earth have you got there?"
"This," Mr. Stavert replied, "is my complete golfing outfit. I make a rule, however, to leave the whole paraphernalia in the club house after I have decided which head to use."
"You play with one club all the way round?" I asked incredulously.
"That is my custom."
I looked at Dyman. Dyman was carefully gazing out of the window.
"You play with balls, I suppose?" I enquired idiotically.
Mr. Stavert justifiably ignored my remark. He handed two boxes of balls, which he had evidently just selected, and a packet of tees to Dyman.
'Please give these to the caddie," he said.
"You surely won't require two boxes of balls!" I ventured.
Mr. Stavert smiled.
"I hope not," he said. "As a matter of fact, it is very rarely that I lose a ball, but as you see I have queer golfing habits. I like a new ball on every tee."
There was nothing more to be said about it. I led the way outside to where my boy was waiting and Dyman handed the balls to the other caddie.
"Is this all I've got to carry?" the latter asked perplexed.
"And the tees," my opponent put in.
We started off. Mr. Stavert, to my relief, left his bowler hat behind him. He had very neatly brushed black hair faintly streaked with grey. He carried his single club under his arm.
"It is a custom of mine," he said on the way to the first tee, "to play for some trifle."
I looked at his one club. I glanced at his costume—and I had hard work to refrain from smiling.
"What is your handicap?" I asked.
Mr. Stavert was slightly embarrassed.
"I play a great deal," he admitted, "but seldom in competitions. My last registered handicap was fourteen. And yourself, Major Lyson?"
"I am six here," I told him. "That means six strokes for you. What do you wish to play for? I would suggest half-a-crown."
We had reached the first tee. Mr. Stavert was swinging his club in somewhat stiff fashion.
"Will you humour me if I ask for what may appear a Quixotic wager?" he begged. "I should like to wager ten pounds to be given to any golfing charity you prefer, if you should happen to win, against a luncheon."
"A luncheon?" I repeated, somewhat startled. "The odds don't seem quite even, do they? A luncheon where—here?"
Mr. Stavert shook his head.
"Oh no," he answered. "If I should by chance win I will ask you to give me lunch at the Milan Grill Room on any day I might select next week."
I began to think that I had come across a lunatic.
Then I wondered. The man knew who I was. There might be some method in his peculiar suggestion.
"As far as I remember," I told him, "I am engaged next week only for Friday. If you will strike out Friday I will play you for lunch with pleasure, but if you will forgive my suggesting it, I think if you really propose to play with only one club you should permit me to offer you a little more in the way of handicap."
"Thank you,"Mr. Stavert said, "I am quite satisfied."
"But what about bunkers?" I asked, glancing at his cleek.
"I seldom visit a bunker," was the calm reply.
"Your putting, then?"
"I putt very well with a cleek. Your honour, Major Lyson."
My caddie teed my ball and after a practice swing with my driver—it was a one-shot hole—I played and sliced it a little but was only a few feet to the right of the green. My companion pointed carelessly to a spot on the tee and watched his ball being placed. He omitted the formality of a practice swing and laid a three- quarter shot within the boundary of the green about ten yards the other side of the hole. I am sorry to say that my expletive savoured a little of rudeness.
"You really must excuse me," I begged as I fell into step with him, "but that was an extraordinarily good shot for a cleek, especially one manufactured on the premises, as it were. Straight as a die, too."
"I thank you," Mr. Stavert said. "I am seldom off the line with my cleek. You had the idea, perhaps, that the screwing on of the heads affects the quality of the club itself. I can assure you that it is not so. I have a driver head which I use on longer courses which possesses as much resilience as any club I can buy. Of course," he went on modestly, "physique makes a difference and I must always be behind the powerfully built man. Otherwise, as far my clubs are concerned I can hold my own."
"But where on earth did you get the idea from?" I asked. "I have never heard of anything of the sort. One shaft and six heads."
"I never use more than one head during the match," he explained. "I have to make up my mind which according to the nature of the course. I have found that the concentration entailed and engendered by that method results in a greater amount of accuracy."
I lit a cigarette and held my peace. I had yet to make up my mind whether I was playing with a sane man or a lunatic. I chipped on to the green about three feet from the hole. My companion took up an orthodox and completely correct stance, shortened his hold of his club and hit a ball cleanly and sweetly to about the same distance from the hole. It was just my play and to my delight I holed out. My companion gravely took the line of his putt and hit his ball without faltering to the bottom of the tin. There was something to my mind almost fatalistic about that first putt of his. I felt that if there had been a worm-cast in the way or any obstacle of any sort the ball was hit so accurately that it would have ended exactly where it had ended.
"A half," Mr. Stavert observed. "An excellent commencement."
We walked to the next tee. This, too, unlike the conditions upon most well-known golf courses, was a possible one-shot hole. I laid my ball on the far corner of the green. Mr. Stavert lengthened his swing a little and without the slightest effort placed his ball two yards from the pin. I failed to get dead. Mr. Stavert hit an excellent putt to the edge of the hole. I missed my attempt at a half and we walked on to the third tee. I was one down.
This is not a golf story and I will be content with saying that my companion displayed a skill in the handling of his one club which was little short of
uncanny. On the few occasions when such a thing was necessary, he laid the face back and lofted as though he were using a mashie. When a longer shot was required from the tee he simply lengthened his swing, followed through to the extreme extent and kept his line with deadly accuracy. Playing as well as I knew how, I was beaten three up and two. A harmless bet—the drinks at the bar—I succeeded in winning. I hurried over my wash and stole a word or two with Dyman before my companion was ready for lunch.
"What demon of a fellow is this you have picked up, Dyman?" I asked him. "Where did he come from? Who is he? Who did he get to make that extraordinary outfit?"
"Major," the professional said earnestly, "I know no more about him than you do. I can only tell you this. He was down here one day last week but he didn't play. He talked for a time with the steward and he came out to see me. All that he wanted to know was what day he could be sure of finding you here. We both told him Tuesday. Here he is."
"Do you know that he plays scratch golf?"
Dyman smiled a little incredulously.
"I saw his first shot, sir," he remarked, "and that was a fine one."
"You know nothing about him?" I persisted.
"Not one single thing in the world, sir," Dyman assured me, "except that he came down here with one intention only in his mind and that was to play a round of golf with you."
And with that I went in to lunch.
I found Mr. Stavert, although not conversational, by no means secretive and in his calm way an inoffensive companion. He was an American, it seemed, born near Pittsburgh. He had studied engineering in every branch and his great hobby in life was the personal manipulation of metals in any shape or form. His education seemed to have been a varied one. He had studied at Harvard, at Heidelberg and taken a degree at Oxford, but he spoke most enthusiastically of the time he had spent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I gathered that his interests had been chiefly commercial and he was without a doubt a man of means. He appeared to have no remarkable affection for games of any sort but he had invented his curious system of playing golf entirely as a whim, purely—as he described it—the reactionary aversion of a man of common sense against the transport round the golf links of the world of several millions of golf clubs every Saturday and Sunday. He had patented his system but never put it on the market. Apparently few things which he did were attempted in normal fashion. He was driving a car which had no gear box, the secrets of which he would tell to no one. He was absolutely indifferent to money and of what his main occupation in life was he gave me no possible clue. He ate and drank temperately and he bade me farewell immediately the meal was over. He offered me not the slightest explanation of his peculiar wager but when we shook hands at parting he looked at me for a moment keenly.
"You will find a note from me on Monday morning at the Milan Grill Room, Major Lyson," he said. "It will tell you on which day I shall require the settlement of your debt. I shall avoid Friday. I think that the day will be a week to-day —Tuesday. I have taken the liberty, by arrangement with the steward, of making you my guest for lunch to-day."
"I would like to see your car," I told him.
"You would find nothing remarkable externally," he said. "Internally it is sealed to everyone. Some day, if I need money, you may meet a million of them upon the streets."
With which little prophecy Mr. Stavert took his leave of me and of the Woking Golf Club.
At one o'clock on Tuesday, which was precisely the hour mentioned in the note which I had received on the previous day, Mr. Stavert entered the Grill Room Lounge and Cocktail Bar. The guest, however, with whom he had threatened me in his hasty note, turned out to my surprise to be a woman. Nothing in Mr. Stavert's conversation during our round of golf or at lunch had suggested any preoccupation with the other. sex. He looked more like a mute at a funeral than ever in his dark clothes, black hat and dark grey suede gloves. His companion, however, who wore magnificent sables and, notwithstanding a slightly bored air, was distinctly attractive, seemed to belong to another world.
"I have taken the liberty, Major Lyson, of including my daughter in your invitation," he said. "Stella, this is Major Lyson."
I shook hands and she favoured me with a languid smile.
"I hear you played golf with my father," she remarked as we strolled towards the entrance of the Grill Room. "What did you think of his outfit?"
"Marvellous," I replied. "So was his game. You know that he beat me?"
"He mentioned it."
"I regret it no more," I said with a feeble attempt at gallantry, "since I gained the pleasure of this luncheon."
"Very nicely spoken," she acknowledged. "I hope that you meant it."
We established ourselves at my usual table, which had been slightly enlarged. The girl looked about her with lazy curiosity. Her father's eyes dwelt for some moments upon the manager of the Grill Room's commanding form.
"So that," he reflected, "is Louis."
I had already ordered luncheon, a fact which my guests seemed to appreciate. They preferred vodka with their caviar to cocktails beforehand so we commenced the meal at once. Almost as soon as we had begun Mr. Stavert astonished me.
"You know who I am, Major Lyson?" he asked.
I looked at him in surprise.
"I only know what you tell me and that your name is Stavert," I replied. "I certainly did not know that you were married or that you had such a charming daughter."
She made a little grimace at me. The expression on Stavert's hard face remained changeless.
"My real name," he, said with a glance around, "is Peter Stavert Jardine."
"Yes, Peter Jardine, as I am known by everyone. The richest man in the world! A melancholy inconvenience, I can assure you."
"Very few people would think so."
"Americans would not be so keen," he assured me. "You probably never read American items of news or you might remember that I have been kidnapped three times and the last time narrowly escaped with my life."
"A most unpleasant experience," I murmured.
"I believe Father. rather enjoyed it," his daughter observed. "He came back and ate an enormous supper and by some chicanery or other he avoided paying his ransom."
Mr. Jardine stroked his chin thoughtfully,
"I am not sure that that was wise," he reflected.
"The Mulloy gang have got it in for me. Things, I might confess to you, Major Lyson, became very difficult for me in the States. I came over to England as a last resource. I have been staying at the Ritz Hotel with every room on the floor taken up by my own private detectives and a few other little precautions against surprises, with which I will not burden you. Did you notice how many cars there were in the garage at the Golf Club?"
"Five beyond my own," I said.
"One of those five was mine, the other four were occupied by my bodyguard. You must have noticed them bobbing up at odd times on the round."
"I should have noticed that more at any other place than Woking," I told him. "There are several rights of way across the course."
"Well, two nights ago the Mulloy gang nearly got me," Mr. Jardine continued. "I gave notice to leave the Ritz. If they got at me once they can get at me twice. I shall come to the Milan."
I said nothing. Both Louis and I were on intimate terms with the small board of management and I was not at all sure that the presence of such a client as Mr. Peter Jardine would be welcome.
"Do you approve of the change, Miss Jardine?"
I asked her, across the table.
"I really don't care," she replied. "On the whole, though, I think it would be better to get much farther away if one could."
"What made you choose the Milan?" I asked her father.
"'Because during the last few years," he explained, "from what one hears this place has been very well directed. Foreigners are not welcomed here as they are at every other hotel and I am told rhat your head man—Louis—is wonderfully quick at detecting criminals and people of doubtful character. To-day, for the first time, I am enjoying my lunch because I look around and I see no one in the least suspicious. Everyone seems to have affairs of their own and to be looking after them."
"That may be," I told him, "but you would receive no sort of protection here, I am afraid. The number of tables is limited and Louis is a martinet as to overcrowding the place. I doubt whether he would knowingly reserve a table for anyone of your bodyguard, for instance. He wants to keep the place for his regular clients and if there is anything he dreads it is disturbance of any sort in the restaurant."
"They're sorry enough to part with me at the Ritz," Mr. Jardine observed. "Still, we must see what the manager has to say. You lunch here most days yourself, don't you, Major Lyson?"
"As a matter of fact I do," I admitted, "but I have no definite connection with the establishment."
"I have heard you are a clever fellow," Mr. Jardine said bluntly. "I will give you a hundred pounds a week to keep an eye on me whilst I am here."
I shook my head.
"Couldn't be done, sir," I regretted. "I have already an official post in one of the public services."
"Chuck it, then. I'll double the hundred a week."
I shook my head again.
"I'm afraid money doesn't count in this case," I explained. "You had better make your own arrangements with the management, Mr. Jardine. I will introduce you to Louis, if you like, but I should not say a word about requiring protection."
Mr. Jardine scowled at me. Stella, who, since she had raised her veil, was recognizable as an exceedingly good-looking young woman, leaned across the table.
"Why can't you help look after Father?" she asked. "It's a man's way of earning money, anyhow, and he is a sportsman all right even though he did bilk that last lot of kidnappers."
"I have, alas, other obligations," I told her.
"Are you married?"
She smiled at me and I liked the little glint of humour in her eyes.
"You wouldn't like to marry possibly the richest woman in the world and look after your father-in-law, would you?"
"It is an exciting notion," I admitted, "but I should be no good in a battle against thugs."
"What is more important," she murmured, "is whether you would make a good husband."
For almost the first time her father smiled.
"Nothing in the world is so selfish," he remarked, "as the modern daughter."
After that the tension of the conversation seemed somewhat broken. At the conclusion of the meal I introduced Louis, who adopted a very guarded attitude and, although he scoffed at the idea of anyone meeting with harm in his beloved Grill Room, committed himself in no way. Afterwards I accompanied Mr. Jardine and his daughter to the manager's office and left them there. As far as I was concerned the matter was at an end.
Rather to my surprise the proposals of Mr. Peter Jardine were enthusiastically received by the management of the hotel. In' a few days Mr. Jardine and his daughter became habitués of the Grill Room, where they were allotted a table in the window some little distance from my own. By degrees we noticed, too, the drifting into the room always to the same places of several strangers, obviously American, all of a certain type—which proved to us the continued existence of Mr. Jardine's bodyguard. Louis heard and passed the information on to me that the gentleman in question had taken the whole of the fourth floor overlooking the Embankment, an enterprise which had never been attempted before by even the wealthiest of Indian Princes. I paid my respects to the two one morning a few days after their appearance at luncheon but although they were pleasant it seemed to me that I was not received with any great enthusiasm. Mr, Jardine, like many wealthy men, objected to having an offer of his declined and the girl herself seemed in some way also to resent it. I left them alone and turned my mind to other matters. Several new habitués of the place were giving us a little trouble and Louis was continually seeking my advice on matters which it seemed to me were of minor importance. Towards the end of the second week after Mr. Peter Jardine's arrival, I lunched at my club with a special purpose in my mind. I found Sir William Pollock there and drew him on one side.
"Sir William," I began, "you will find yourself in disgrace with the committee at Woking Golf Club, I'm afraid. You have introduced a member there under a false name."
"Nothing of the sort," the distinguished lawyer replied. "He has a perfect right to use only his first name if he wants to."
"He rather denies his real identity by doing so, doesn't he?" I argued.
"Young fellow," was the grim rejoinder, "I hear that you played with the old man and he gave you a beating. No need for you to be sore about it. He told me once that he had spent nearly a million dollars on golf. We can't compete with that, you know."
"What do you suppose he's living over here for?" I asked.
Sir William looked grave.
"I can only tell you what my staff and a few others know," he said. "The affairs of a client like Jardine are scarcely for discussion. He is afraid of being kidnapped and from what he tells me he certainly would have been before long in the States. Here he is much safer. But if you want to know what he has been here for I can tell you one thing. He has drawn up and carried into effect the most elaborate and ingenious scheme I could ever have conceived for dealing with his estate if they had got hold of him, or if they do in the future. Not one penny is to be paid as ransom under any conditions, none of his enormous holdings in industrials all over the world are to be thrown upon the market, his family and charities are all looked after and yet his daughter will be the richest woman alive. It is beautifully done. He could be kidnapped to-morrow and with the help of his lawyers in New York we could carry on every one of his undertakings without a hitch."
"A Trust Company or something of that sort, I suppose?"
Sir William nodded.
"A mighty brain, that man," he said. "Pity you didn't get on better with him."
I was willing to grant Mr. Jardine the mighty brain but it seemed to me that he was not very much enjoying life considering his position. There was always some gossip floating about concerning his doings. If he went to the theatre he practically booked every box in the place and lined the streets and corridors with plainclothes watchmen. How he managed to keep it all so quiet astonished me, although I was told later on that the sums he spent upon the Press were enormous. He went to no public dinners, he seldom left the hotel after dusk. The strain, however, it seemed to me, was beginning to tell upon him. One day when he didn't arrive for lunch to my surprise José brought me a message. Miss Jardine would be glad if I would take coffee with her at her table.
I made my way there at once.
"Father has gone off with his army to Sunningdale," she announced. "Why don't you come and see us sometime?"
"You never invited me," I reminded her. "Besides, you cannot have much time to spare. I seem to read your name in the paper as having been at one of these big shows or the opera every night."
"I have been going out a good deal," she admitted. I have a very competent chaperon and a companion, both chosen from the inner circles of your aristocracy and both terribly dull. I should like to invite you to take me to another sort of party some day."
"Delighted," I replied with a reasonable amount of enthusiasm. "By-the-by, I don't think this place agrees altogether with your father. He doesn't look nearly so well lately and he seems to be losing weight."
"I don't think he's terribly fit," she acknowledged. "Who could be, living his sort of life? I really think he would enjoy being kidnapped and having a game of poker at night with his jailers."
"He has some friends over here, I suppose?"
"Very few," she answered, "and those he has he seems to avoid. What would really have done him good would have been if you had taken him on. It might have made things a little livelier for me, too."
"Not my sort of job, alas," I told her. "Extremes always turn my head. I am managing this coffee all right but I cannot see myself inviting the richest girl in the world to have a second cocktail or to do the Lambeth Walk with me."
She laughed light-heartedly. Her chaperon, a Lady Coningsby, arrived soon after and I was presented and took my leave. . . .
About a week after that she sent for me again.
"I am doing a rash thing," she confessed. "Father seems to have settled down into a groove. I am going down to the Riviera with Lady Coningsby for a week or two."
"I think you are very wise," I told her. "You really ought to take your father with you."
"He would not move," she answered. "He wants me to go, though. We are off to-morrow at eleven o'clock."
I sent some flowers and once or twice I paused at the table where Mr. Jardine was seated to wish him good-morning. He took very little notice of me, however, and afterwards I left him alone. Then one day, glancing down the room, a sudden idea came to me. I rose from my place and approached the solitary luncher.
"What about a game of golf to-morrow, Mr. Jardine?" I suggested.
He looked up at me and shook his head.
"Too damp for me," he said. "I will play later on."
I stood for a moment without moving and Mr. Jardine vanished behind his newspaper. I turned away with a little grimace of farewell and made my way between the tables where his bodyguard were spread out. A tough-looking crowd they were, though in civilized clothes. One or two were accompanied by young ladies of showy appearance and l noticed that not a single one seemed to be paying the least attention to the table which I had just quitted. I made my way into the hotel and straight to the private office of the managing director, Mr. Simpson. He looked at me in surprise.
"Sorry, sir," I apologized, "my business is too urgent to wait for an interview."
"What's wrong?" he demanded.
"Peter Jardine," I told him, "has been kidnapped."
Mr. Simpson sprang to his feet. He was like a man demented. He pressed down a whole row of bells, he shouted through the telephone. Then he called out to me.
"It is impossible! I was in the Grill Room myself a few minutes ago. He was at his table then and I counted sixteen of his bodyguard lunching within a few yards of him."
"Within a few yards of his double," I answered scornfully. "Heaven knows when it happened. The kidnapping might have taken place a fortnight ago, because I have scarcely spoken to him since. To-day there was something unusual in the way he was reading his newspaper, bending over the table. I went up to him and asked him to play golf with me. Not he! I bet that fellow never handled a golf club in his life. It is a remarkable likeness. He is wearing Jardine's clothes all right but he is no more Peter Jardine than I am. He no sooner saw that look in my face—a gleam of non-recognition, I suppose—than he got up and strolled out through the Grill Room door and not one of his famous bodyguard even turned their heads. He has just driven off in a taxi cab. I shouldn't bother about him. What you want to find out is—where is Peter Jardine?"
It was true enough, as they all discovered in a few minutes. By early evening the papers were selling in thousands. The richest man in the world had been kidnapped from the Milan Hotel in the heart of London.
It was within hearing of the long drawn-out but musical welcome of a lone Mohammedan priest to the rising of the sun from a bank of rose-pink filmy clouds that I met Peter Jardine again. He was dressed in a white silk singlet, white trousers, white shoes and a toupee, and he had grown a beard which, considering it was only four months since he had left London, was a marvellous sight. He was seated on a beautiful white Arab pony, he had a golf club under his arm and a couple of golf balls in his hand. His welcome was not warm.
"What the hell brought you here?" he demanded.
"Curiosity," I replied, "and an offer of a million dollars reward from the Anglo-American Peter Jardine Trust, chairman Sir William Pollock, for any news whatever of Peter Jardine of Pittsburgh."
"Say, did that old Scotsman offer as much as that?" he asked incredulously.
"He did indeed."
"Well," he meditated, "I suppose a million dollars is worth a risk, but what put you on the track?"
I slipped from the saddle and stretched myself. I had been riding since midnight by the light of the moon and countless stars across the ghostly desert and I needed a rest. Mr. Jardine laid his hand upon my shoulder and pointed to the oasis barely a mile distant, to the white buildings in the background and to the hill with its palm trees still farther behind.
"I have made a new club," he confided. "We will talk about that later, though. You want some breakfast. You had better mount again."
We rode for a mile, my little caravan close in the rear, through the oasis into a far-stretching compound of dazzling white buildings.
"Behind on the hill is where I sleep at night. At the top you see my observatory with all sorts of telescopes. I watched you come an hour ago. We have guns of every calibre there. We could have blown your little lot to pieces ten miles away but at heart I am a man of peace. I mean to be left in peace."
There was something grim about the sound of those words but I only smiled. In the shadow of the oasis servants brought us canvas chairs, a table, ice pails, coffee and a vast variety of fruits.
"Will you have your bath first or breakfast?" my host asked.
The night had been cool and the smell of coffee was heavenly.
"Breakfast," I decided.
There was the soft padded stir of a horse's hoofs on the sand, a sound which came from the other side of the oasis. With a little cloud of dust about her a woman in a long white flowing habit, riding side-saddle a beautiful Arab mare, a figure of complete grace and loveliness, galloped to within a few yards of us and sprang lightly to the ground. I scarcely recognized Stella but it was indeed she. She came laughing towards us with outstretched hands.
"I always said," she declared, "that if anyone found us it would be you."
"It may be his good fortune," her father said idly, with already something of Oriental languor in his tone. "It may not. There is no civilization here, Major Lyson, there is no Scotland Yard, no shadow of authority save the authority of the Sultan from whom I have bought my rights."
"Dad's a sheik or something," the girl explained, pointing to his white robe which a servant had wrapped around him.
Peter Jardine was not in the least embarrassed.
"I have made for myself a place in a strange country," he said. "It is a place of great power and where I dwell I rule. That is nothing. I have learnt one thing at any rate from the desert, and that is the true value of life and the inconsequence of death."
After breakfast we moved into the shade of a palm tree whose huge waxy leaves were fluttering in the morning breeze. Here the heat was joyous but invigorating. We lay on low couches and smoked. I found myself revelling in the renewed joy of pure Turkish tobacco. The hours passed on. With an escort of armed servants in the floating white robes and with the dusky brown complexion of the Arab we wandered along the wide corridors and into the exquisitely beflowered places of an Oriental palace. We dipped our fingers into the cool waters of the oasis springs. All the strange perfumes of the desert seemed to be floating lazily on the still air. I bathed in the clear waters of a marvellous swimming pool. I replaced my soiled riding kit—we had been a fortnight en route from the banks of the Nile—with white riding clothes of the finest drill. Time passed in a sort of effortless ease. In due course we lunched off strange dishes which reminded me of the tales of the Arabian Nights. To talk of ordinary places outside this dreamy Paradise seemed impossible. One just drifted through the glamour of the day till the desert breeze stole up. The sun with its huge fiery rim passed behind the straight line of the horizon and everything sprang into life. There was the tinkling of musical instruments all around us, delicious cool drinks appeared, there was the sound of falling water as the miniature swimming pools one after the other were filled. Mr. Jardine sat up and talked.
"You will eat and drink when the lamps are lit, my friend Lyson," he said. "You need no guide on your homeward trek for the Nile calls to everyone who knows the desert. Your head man has filled up with stores and you have water enough for many days. Your beasts we have changed for fresh ones."
Stella's soft voice complained through the violet stillness.
"Are you sending him away so soon?"
"I must," her father answered. "I have the right to dispose as I will of any intruder here and if I thought he was going back to publish my whereabouts in return for a million dollars he would never leave the shadow of our buildings. What do you say, Lyson?"
We had spoken odd words during the day and I confirmed, them.
"Mr. Jardine is one of the few fortunate men in the world," I told Stella. "He has found a new mode of existence whilst life is still in his veins. There is no fear that I shall disturb it. I left England in secrecy as to my real errand and I shall return after I have finished my journey to Khartoum where I have Government affairs."
"Y ou are going to leave me to marry one of these lordly young princes who come wooing from mysterious places?" she asked.
It was Mr. Jardine who answered.
"My daughter is free to leave when she will," he said. "I think she will probably stay until the next moon comes and passes but I know that when she goes back to what you call life but I find torture there will be a seal upon her lips as there will be upon yours. It will be a seal of honour . Words are of no value."
We dined off more strange foods, the flesh of many birds, and we drank light yellow wine slightly perfumed in flavour like a Moselle might be from the odour of the grape. I cannot remember that during the whole of the meal or my few remaining hours in the desert Peter Jardine asked me a single question concerning the life he had left. Once and once only I alluded to it and his shiver seemed like the real emotional thrill of horror of a man who was being tortured.
At ten o'clock we left for our night ride. Mr. Jardine and his daughter accompanied me for the first mile. The former reined in his horse at the top of the sandy ridge which formed the outside line of his marvellously protected home. He leaned over and thrust a piece of paper into my hand.
"In a strange sort of way," he said, "it is relief to me to know that there is one human being in whom I have faith who knows of my whereabouts. If you feel any kindliness towards me, Lyson, never let me be disturbed. I have lived a dreary life in the crowded places. I have passed into an existence concerning which I have nothing to say which would not sound like sacrilege."
I believe, although I am not quite certain, that Peter Jardine and I shook hands. I know that after his departure I lifted Stella's fingers, ghostly white in the moonlight, to my lips.
"So my knight came and rode away," she murmured. "He had the heart and the courage to leave the captive maiden behind."
"I have become one of your father's disciples," I confided. "I find words useless things."
In the soft radiance of the moonlight she was amazingly beautiful although all the time a little gleam of mockery was in her eyes. I leaned down from the saddle. It seemed to me that something of the mystery of the East was in those soft but glowing eyes, in the fullness of her lips. Behind me as I rode away a few moments later I left a little trail of torn paper. Only once I turned round. Stella was sitting on her white pony at the highest point of the sandy ridge, a marvellously beautiful study of serene immobility. From behind her came the haunting music of the night hymn of the priest drifting up to the star-strewn vault of heaven.
Months later, under a misty grey sky in the raw cold of a November morning, I was reminded of the last time I had played with a stranger over Woking Golf Links. The secretary came up to me as I entered the club house.
"Want a game, Lyson?" he asked. "Pollock's man has failed him. He's a steady twelve, a trifle slow through the green, perhaps, but he will give you a game."
"I'll play with him with pleasure," I replied.
From the first tee to the last green we played sober golf and no word of any outside subject passed our lips. When we had finished he drew me into a corner of the bar.
"Lyson," he said, "you possess a gift everyone in my profession admires—the gift of reticence."
I looked at him and waited.
"I respect that gift so much," he went on, "that although you have not asked me a single question, if there is any particular, thing you want to know about the most extraordinary client I ever had in my life I will answer it."
"The double of Jardine," I said. "How was that arranged?"
"My client brought him from the States, where he had been trained to play the part he played for three weeks in London. When all was ready for my client's disappearance he took his place. All was well until you recognized him and went to the hotel manager. That was bound to come. The double went back to his own cubby hole but not one of my client's seventeen bodyguards ever found him. He is living on a farm somewhere in Connecticut, a very contented man."
"Thank you," I said.
"You have no more to ask?"
"Then I'll tell you something," Pollock concluded after a glance round the empty bar. "Those torn strips of paper you left on the sands of the desert have materialized in this country. You may escape a gift from a living man but you cannot refuse a legacy which your discretion has earned. Let it remain there, Lyson. You have nothing more to say?"
"I think," I remarked, "that a November morning as raw as this might justify another cocktail before lunch."
Sir William rang the bell.
I FANCY that I must have appeared blankly astonished. There was a queer smile upon the Sub-Commissioner's lips and a puzzled expression in his eyes.
"Do you mind repeating that, sir?" I asked.
"Certainly," he assented. "I was simply expressing my surprise that in your report you should have omitted to add all mention of your act of gallantry towards a lady who is upon our Continental Suspect List, and I should imagine upon yours."
I sat up and began to take a great deal of notice. "You don't mean the lady whose bag I picked up from the floor at luncheon time?"
"No other," was the terse rejoinder.
"Who was she?"
The Sub-Commissioner looked at me steadily for a moment; then he shrugged his shoulders. We were engaged in one of our weekly conferences in his office at Scotland Yard.
"Not to know that, Major," he said pleasantly enough, but with a faint note of reproof in his tone, "is to earn the first black mark I have ever had occasion to put against your name."
"For a moment," I reflected, "she reminded me of someone or of a photograph I had seen. It was not striking enough to make a deep impression. She dropped her bag passing my table and I helped to pick up a queer collection of expensive oddments. She was curiously upset, now that I come to think of it."
"Shall I help your memory?" my vis-à-vis asked. "I wish you would," I answered. "Louis didn't know her or he would have mentioned her to me."
"She figures on your list, as well as mine, as Yvonne Blount."
I was a little incredulous but not greatly interested.
"She is on my list," I admitted, "photograph and all complete, but Yvonne Blount is hopelessly out of date. This woman had most attractive grey hair, was as slim as one of Madame Renouf's mannequins and whereas Yvonne Blount dealt freely in cosmetics, the lady who stumbled against my table appeared to be innocent even of lip salve."
The Sub-Commissioner smiled.
"Capital," he said. "Your memory is vindicated.
The only thing you seem to have ignored is the coiffeur's art and the prevalence of these slimming academies in Paris as well as London. The woman was Yvonne Blount."
"That accounts, I suppose, for Brunton being in the Grill Room," I reflected.
"Precisely. We are keeping an eye upon the lady ourselves but she is more in your line than ours."
"I wonder the department didn't let me know," I remarked.
"I can set your mind at rest even about that mild speculation," Colonel Heywood observed. "Tuesday is the day you don't lunch in the Grill Room of the Milan. You wander off somewhere to play golf. You will find that Brunton rang up but left no name, and by the way if you had known the owner of that bag, the contents of which were scattered at your feet, you would have examined them a little more closely, I expect."
"I'll tell you one extraordinary thing about this affair, sir," I confided. "This morning I did what I don't do once in a dozen times. I came into the Milan Grill Room late and ravenous. I didn't change my clothes and I didn't have my usual shower, because I was not even warm."
"When I got to my room after the little incident we have been speaking of I kicked off my shoes and I found on the sole of one of them a queer little keep-sake from the lady. I thought it worth preserving, even though I never put her down as being of any particular interest."
"What was it?" the Sub-Commissioner asked curiously.
I opened my pocketbook and drew out what was certainly a rather peculiar object—a visiting card of some gelatinous substance with the letters ACMX in the right-hand corner. Underneath the letters was an utterly illegible signature.
"Where did you say you found this card?" Heywood demanded.
"My rubber-soled shoes must have been damper than I thought," I explained, "and I suppose I put all my weight on my foot stooping down, and this card must have adhered to the sole."
Colonel Heywood took it between his fingers, held it gingerly by the edges and studied it for a moment in silence. Then he laid it down upon the table.
"I have always contended," he said impressively, "that whereas in your various adventures you and Louis have met with a great many undoubted successes, you are also the two luckiest men who ever dabbled in our profession."
"Precisely. You had not tumbled to the fact that a very dangerous young woman was seated in your immediate neighbourhood, you were not watching her, yet she must drop her bag at your feet and allow you, without the slightest effort or knowledge of what you were doing, to walk away with the one thing all your department and all Scotland Yard would have been looking for if they had known that it was missing."
"That card?" I asked.
"That card," the Sub-Commissioner repeated a little irritably. "What did you think it was?"
"To tell you the truth," I answered, "I thought it was the somewhat flamboyant attempt to impress her personality and whereabouts adopted by a lady of easy virtue. It made me think of the last time I was in Montmartre when a jet-black lady from Harlem offered me a black visiting card inscribed with red characters."
Colonel Heywood looked at me for a moment a little sadly, placed the card in an envelope, sealed it and thrust it into the inner pocket of his coat. He rose to his feet.
"You will have to follow this up, Lyson," he said. "I'Il see you later in the day."
"And meanwhile?" I asked.
"I am off to our cipher department," he explained.
"Are we really on to anything?" I queried curiously.
"Maybe," was the evasive reply.
"Nothing I could do, I suppose?"
"Well, you might call in at M3B2. You know Hubblethorpe, don't you?"
I nodded. Everyone who was doing our sort of job just then knew Hubblethorpe.
"Just ask him what time the four-fifteen train to Camberley goes."
"And when I have received that amazing piece of information?"
"I'm afraid it won't do you much good so long as you don't present the card," he admitted, "but we will talk it over later in the day. Out you go, Major!"
Out I went—a man thoroughly confused, if ever there was one.
From three to five, Louis, manager of the Milan Grill Room, friend of statesmen, cinema magnates, artists and millionaires, sported his oak.* It was very seldom that even I, his partner in many queer enterprises, ventured to disturb him. This afternoon, however, was an exception. He was reading a volume of French memories with a cup of strong tea by his side and smoking a cigar. He put down the book and waved me to a chair.
To sport one's oak: A rather dated expression, mainly from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. College rooms of the older sort usually had two doors, an inner one for ordinary use and an outer, more massive wooden door, called the oak, which was normally folded back against the outside wall. By convention, if you closed the outer door you indicated that you wanted to be left undisturbed. — RG
"Louis," I said, "why did you give that lady who dropped her bag opposite me the window a seat at a table for one in Gregory's corner?"
"Because she asked for that particular table and because I knew Gregory was in Paris," Louis answered.
"Had you no idea who she was?"
Louis withdrew the cigar from his mouth, knocked off the ash reluctantly and shook his head.
"It would intrigue me to know, Major," he confided. "I have a medley of memories concerning her. Nothing definite. I allowed her to have that table because I could watch her."
"You remember Yvonne Blount?"
Louis replaced his cigar between his teeth and smoked thoughtfully for a moment or two. I could tell by the way he was looking into the fire that he was remembering things.
"Yvonne Blount," he murmured. "Chestnut-coloured hair, the figure of a Dido. I expect you are right, Charles Brunton was there just the other side of the pillar and he was watching her all the time. It is a wonderful transformation. What is she after, I wonder?"
I shook my head.
"We may hear later on in the day," I said. "They have her marked down."
"Do you know that?"
"The Sub was being a little sarcastic with me," I confided. "I saved my bacon by the merest fluke."
"As how?" Louis enquired.
I told him the incident. There was a slight frown on his fine forehead when I had finished.
"Brunton," he said to himself. "One of the most trusted men in the department, I should have thought."
"Have you any doubt about it?" I asked.
Louis glanced around the room. It was purely a mechanical impulse for the apartment was sound-proof and we were alone.
"I was wondering," he confessed, "whether the card you speak of, in which the Sub-Commissioner was so interested, was enclosed in the envelope which Brunton sent to her."
"Brunton sent to her?" I repeated incredulously. Louis nodded.
"Just before she rose to her feet and upset her bag," he confided, "I saw Brunton call José, slip something into an envelope and indicate Gregory's table. José took her the envelope all right. Brunton got up and marched out without a glance in her direction. The card which he had sent her, however, she glanced at for a moment and slipped into her bag. Two minutes afterwards she stumbled against your table on her way out."
I was thoughtful for a moment.
"We had better go slow with this, Louis," I said. "Brunton has been in the service ever since he was wounded twenty-four years ago. He is the most trusted man in his department."
"The incident will perhaps lend itself to explanation," Louis observed. "On the face of it it is strange. If they were friends he would have spoken to her, waved as he left, but we know they were not friends. He was there to watch her."
"The Sub told me that," I pointed out.
There was a knock at the door twice repeated.
Louis nodded so I opened it. The hall porter stood there.
"Sorry if I have disturbed you, sir," he said, "but there's a lady here who wishes to see you very particularly."
"Did she give her name?" I asked.
"No, sir, but she lunched in the Grill Room somewhere near your table."
I glanced back at Louis.
"You had better go and see what she wants," he suggested. "We will have a few words together later on.
I followed the porter out into the hall. The woman who was seated upon the cushioned seat rose to her feet at once. Directly she smiled I recognized her. It was Yvonne Blount without a doubt, her smile as delightful as in the old days and her eyes even more radiant.
"Forgive me," she begged, "but you are the gentleman who helped me with my bag at luncheon time."
"That is so."
"May I speak to you for a moment quite privately?"
"You would like to come to my room?" I proposed. "I have an apartment here."
"If you would be so kind," she begged.
We entered the lift and mounted in silence. We made our way along the corridor, I opened the door of my rooms, closed it again and offered her my most comfortable chair.
"What can I do for you, Madam?" I asked.
"I will tell you," she answered. "Please do not treat this too lightly. It is for me an important affair. You were very kind in picking up the trifles that fell from my bag as I was passing your table after lunch. There is one slight article which is missing. I have been back to my own table and to the one at which you were seated. The waiters there seem so confident. Nothing else has been found. Yet there is something missing. It seems unimportant but it means a great deal to me."
"But what is it?" I enquired. "As far as I remember there was loose money, cigarettes, a most elegant little powder box and a ruby brooch with a broken clasp. I can think of nothing else that I myself collected."
"It is a card," she told me, "a strange-looking card of white ivory. It had some letters upon it and an initialled signature."
I shook my head.
"You have it not?" she exclaimed.
"I certainly have not," I assured her. "Nor do I remember seeing it amongst the other articles."
She looked at me steadily for several moments. I think that I must have sounded convincing.
"Then where can that card be?" she demanded. "Only a minute or two before I had taken it from an envelope and placed it in my bag. It has disappeared."
"I am sorry, Madam," I said, "but I can see no way in which I can possibly be of assistance to you. Was the card of any particular value?"
She made me no answer. From that moment, however, I believe that she ceased to trust me.
"You are Major Lyson?" she asked abruptly.
"That is my name."
"You are in the British Intelligence Department?"
"At one time I was," I admitted. "At present I am practically retired."
Then I knew for certain that she suspected me.
She had the look upon her face of one who listens to statements in which she has no credence.
"I must trust you," she said. "I have no other alternative. It is my only hope. You have been, or are, connected with the British Intelligence. I have been in the French service all my life, Major Lyson. I served them during the war. I served them with perfect fidelity and a certain amount of success."
"It is a well-known fact, Madam," I ventured. "Your decoration was a well-earned distinction."
"My mission over here is not an official one," she insisted firmly.
I made no remark. She watched me as though to see what effect her statement had had.
"There are many sources of information," she continued presently, "still open to me here. Through one of them I heard not long ago a curious rumour. It was to test the truth of it that I came back to my old profession. I came back on behalf of France but unknown to the authorities. I came to try and find out, if I could, the secret of what is known privately by only a few people and spoken of with bated breath—the Calais Gun."
I smiled and played my first card.
"I think I know to what you refer, Madam," I said, "but curiously enough I have never heard it called by that name."
Again she subjected me to that mercilessly searching gaze. I could tell from her look of disappointment that she learnt nothing.
"Well," she went on, "I discovered that the fantastic tales which are reaching the French War Office have a basis of truth. There is such a thing as the Calais Gun."
"Madam," I begged, "do not, if you please, allude to it by that name. The authorities whom I serve over here have vigorously protested against its use."
She smiled slightly.
"I can understand that. England and France are firm allies. It would certainly be disconcerting to our people to discover that England had worked out a great invention and that the machine connected with it had become known as the Calais Gun."
"There is no sense in the name," I repeated.
"There is considerable sense in it," she persisted. "Calais is distant from the Fort of Dover precisely twenty-two miles. This gun has been prepared to do its marvellous work at precisely that range."
"I cannot discuss this matter with you, Madam," I regretted. "I was in the army but I was not a gunner—I was in a cavalry regiment—and I can only repeat that if such an invention as you describe has been made over here there is no earthly reason why it should have been called the Calais Gun."
"We will pass that," she said. "The first serious trial of the machine in question is to be made in the north of Scotland next Sunday. A mere handful of people have been invited to witness it. No French artillery officer has been bidden to join the company."
"Are you sure of that, Madam?"
"Is it the custom," I asked, "when your country is making experiments with an entirely new invention to invite representatives, even of your allies, to witness them?"
"This is something unusual," she proceeded doggedly, "and there remains the fact that the gun has been christened 'The Calais Gun' and its range is precisely twenty-two miles."
"Madam," I said, "you must excuse me but you are wasting your time. The only possible service I could have rendered you I have already offered. I have assured you that the gun has not been christened 'The Calais Gun' and if some misguided individuals have alluded to it in that way it is simply because it must have a name of some sort and the distance happens to coincide."
"With the utmost difficulty," she went on, rather as though she had not heard me, "I procured a card which would have permitted me to witness the trial. It is the card I dropped before your table."
"A woman," I told her, "would never be permitted to witness the trial."
"It is not a woman who would have attempted such a thing," she replied. "It would have been a French artillery officer."
"If France so much wished to have witnessed the trial," I said, "why did she not apply to the British War Office for a permit?"
"It would have been beneath her dignity."
"Yet she would have made use of a permission gained—pardon me, Madam—by underground methods. That does not seem to me the likely reaction of the French military staff."
This time Yvonne Blount was angry and took no pains to hide it.
"We are playing with words," she declared. "I have been very straightforward with you. I have told you the importance of that card. I beg of you to return it to me."
"There is nothing more certain in the world," I replied, "than the fact that I do not possess it."
"You have parted with it already?"
"I do not possess it," I repeated.
"That means that the source from which I obtained it will be discovered and the donor of the card—"
"Will get what he deserves," I interrupted coldly. "I have to repeat once more, Madam, that you are wasting time. Can you expect me to sympathize with a person who without authority has parted with a permit of such importance to witness the trial of what may turn out to be the greatest inven tion of the century? I am a British official myself. I should regard the action of any Englishman who obtained and passed on to you that card as traitorous."
"You have no pity, no sympathy," she murmured.
"In a case like this, none whatever, Madam," I replied.
"My appeal to you is in vain?"
She rose to her feet. Her ungloved hands agleam with jewels hung limply by her side. Her eyes sought mine urgently. Although we were so entirely alone her voice became a whisper.
"I have not ventured," she began, "to tell you what that card would be worth to me."
"The only tolerable part of your attitude in this matter, Madam," I rejoined, "has been that you have refrained from insulting me."
She made her way towards the door. I passed her and held it open.
"You intend to use my card yourself, perhaps, Major Lyson?"
I made no reply. I only held the door a little farther open.
"If I have ruined a friend," she said, "I shall have paid a terrible price. Do not be too sure, however, that the price will have been paid in vain. Do not be too sure that this is the last you will see of me. My room number is sixty-three."
I was not to be provoked into questions. She lingered for a moment and then left me.
There was nothing more to be done for the moment but make a further visit to the Sub-Commissioner. To my surprise I found already in conference with him a very great person indeed, General Fitzhaven—the head of the department in which I held a sort of roving commission. I paused upon the threshold but Heywood summoned me to take the vacant chair at his desk. I saluted the General and did as I was bidden.
"I have just been telling the General the story of the card that stuck to the rubber sole of your golf shoe," the Sub-Commissioner remarked with a twinkle in his eyes. "Have you had any trouble with Madam?"
"I have just left her, sir," I told him. "She is very angry. She believes I have the card and will not give it to her."
"You can make your peace with the lady, then," Colonel Heywood said, withdrawing the envelope in which he had placed the ticket from his pocket and handing it over to me. "There it is. The bearer has to report to General Hubblethorpe and ask him at what time the four-fifteen for Camberley leaves. Stupid sort of password but the answer will tell him how to arrive at the rendezvous. It is rather a long journey, by-the-by."
"I am to give this card to Yvonne Blount?" I asked in surprise.
The Colonel nodded. "That is our idea," he said.
"But what about General Hubblethorpe? Will he expect to have one of these tickets presented by a woman?"
"The matter," Colonel Heywood replied, "is unimportant. Just hand it to her. That is if you know where to find her."
"I know where to find her all right," I told him, "because she is staying in the Milan and warned me that she might be coming back."
Colonel Heywood nodded gravely. "Just so," he said.
He glanced towards the General who inclined his head in assent.
"It is quite all right, Major," the Sub-Commissioner assured me. "We have come to the conclusion that the lady cannot do much harm. Good French woman and all that, you know. Did a lot of good work in the war and decorated several times. Furthermore, as you seem to have had a certain amount of trouble to put up with, Lyson," he added, "we are going to send you a card for our little picnic party. I suppose you would like to come?"
"Nothing on earth I should like more, sir," I confessed with a sigh of relief.
I made my way back to the Milan Court and rang up the number which Yvonne Blount had given me. In less than five minutes she was in my room.
"You have changed your mind?" she exclaimed eagerly.
"I am acting under orders," I told her. "Here is the card."
"A miracle!" she murmured, clutching the envelope I handed to her.
"If you will take my advice," I said, "you will get into touch at once with the French artillery officer who will make use of the card. You can tell him exactly—"
"I know all about that," she interrupted. "But it is necessary that I get the card for myself. I know what to do. I go to General Hubblethorpe, I ask him a silly question, I get the particulars and pass them on to my friend. He is a General and a man of great distinction."
"They will welcome him at the War Office, I can assure you. Already the question of inviting a French artillery officer—"
"No, no, no! The General does not wish to go to your War Office. He is being followed over here. Others besides France are interested. It is better as I say."
"I leave the matter entirely to you, Madam," I replied.
She rose from her place and smiled up at me as she held out her hand.
"I was not too rude, I hope, Major Lyson?" she enquired timidly. "I was in a terrible state when I feared that I had lost this pass. You will forgive me?"
"Certainly," I answered. "One has to go through vicissitudes sometimes for one's country's sake."
"You will perhaps meet my friend?" she asked, and this time her eyes were seeking for mine eagerly.
"It may be," I admitted. "I am not an artillery officer, however, so it is very unlikely that there will be a place for me."
She drew a little sigh. It might have been intended as a gesture of regret but to my mind it was very certainly a sigh of relief. I opened the door. She passed out. I sat down and began to wonder again what it was all about.
Four days passed before I was to know. The smooth, even progress of a perfectly balanced northward bound train-deluxe in which I and a score or so of others were distributed was brought suddenly to a standstill. I woke up and looked out of the window. Dawn was breaking and we were somewhere in the midst of the Scotch hills. There were men outside on the permanent way talking together and through the early twilight a blaze of lights on the neighbouring hills. I leaned out of the window and spoke to one of the guards.
"Where are we?" I asked. "What town is that?"
He came close up to the side of the carriage.
"We are not answering questions, sir, but I will tell you this: It's no town at all as you've ever heard of."
"Then what are the lights?" I demanded.
He was suddenly deaf and moved off. I washed and put on some clothes. I was sharing a sleeping car with twelve other men but not one of them seemed to be awake. Soon we began to back, then we went forward again and after many jolts I discovered that we were moving along a single track. The train attendant came with some tea and I wiped the mist from the windows and looked out once more.
"My God!" I exclaimed. "What sort of place is this?"
"Looks queer, don't it, sir?"
"It looks more like Hollywood than anything else I have ever seen."
"I suppose those people do build up them sort of towns, sir," he remarked.
For that was just what it was - a stucco-built town erected in the loneliest part of Scotland, up in the region where even the heather is stunted and hard and the grim rocks show themselves every few feet jutting out of the hillside. There, spread out to such a degree that looking to the right and to the left one could scarcely measure its extent, was the complete panorama of a town built around a genuine and magnificent ruin of one of the old fastnesses of the country, the tower of which still remained with walls many feet thick and almost intact. While I was staring at it in amazement an attendant came through ringing a bell.
"Will gentlemen all please descend," he announced. "General Hubblethorpe desires everyone to meet him in ten minutes on the right-hand side of the permanent way."
There was a general scramble. We stood there in all sorts of attire, doing our best to defy the cold of the drifting mists. What seemed to be a conspiracy of silence reigned. No one spoke to anyone else. There were twenty-three human beings in the little crowd and, as it occurred to me afterwards, not a single strange face. Talking to General Hubblethorpe was the man who had been pointed out to me on the platform as the inventor. We were a compact little group but glancing farther afield as the light increased I could see that the rough country all around us was unexpectedly peopled. There were several hundreds of plainclothesmen of army or police type, some carrying heavy sticks and others rifles. They might have been beaters in some sort of a game expedition except that they as well as everyone else seemed out on far more serious business.
General Hubblethorpe held up his hand and spoke.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I have to introduce to you John Marston, the inventor, who will give you a demonstration of what this new instrument, as yet without a name, is capable of doing. The buildings you see are of course not particularly formidable but the centre one is of solid granite and the walls of that tower are built of the same material as the old castles a thousand years ago. He wants you to see the place and to take particular notice of the tower because it is to be the target of his experiment. As soon as you have formed a general idea of the lay-out you will please return to the train."
We made a more or less cursory examination of what was undoubtedly the very ingeniously laid out effigy of a small town. We wandered around for a short time, then the railwayman rang his bell and the General turned to us all.
"You will please now resume your seats in the train. This collection of buildings, some of which are flimsy, I admit, but one or two of which, as you may have observed, are of different structure, you will examine again during the course of the morning from a different point of view. We shall be starting off at once to a harbour. The name of this I shall not mention, and this you had better, as a matter of fact, forget. On the way breakfast will be served."
We clambered back to our seats. We dealt with the porridge, eggs and bacon, hot tea and coffee, sausages and cold meats that were served in abundance. All the time we were travelling slowly backwards upon a single track which one could gather was only a temporary one. Soon we began to catch glimpses of the sea. The harbour town into which we presently descended was at best a fishing port and had been practically evacuated. The few people who were about were kept well in the background.
We drifted alongside, the dock and then, after the train had come to a standstill, we trooped on board the strangest craft I have ever seen. It was more like a glorified raft than anything else. One part of it was barred and soldiers in uniform with drawn bayonets were standing on guard outside the wheel-house. General Hubblethorpe addressed us briefly once more. After him the inventor spoke only a few words.
"We are going into the deeper waters," he announced, "but even that is not necessary. I shall re main in the wheelhouse alone, and presently you will hear the firing of a single gun. There will be only one discharge. It will be quite enough. But I may tell you now and prove to you in a few minutes that I have succeeded in doing what has puzzled the whole world of inventors for many years. I am launching a shell from a gun mounted upon a gyroscopic carriage, the passage of which I shall control from the wheelhouse so that it descends exactly when and where I choose."
He stepped back. There was a little murmur of voices. Then we put off with a slow lopping movement towards the centre of the harbour. There was a strong swell and a heavy sea coming in but we seemed practically immovable when a bell rang and we slowed down. Once more the inventor showed himself. He was very pale but his voice was as clear as ever.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I am about to give proof of the great claim I have made. I have been trusted by the military and naval authorities. I hope to justify that trust."
He disappeared. Five minutes afterwards there was the report of a gun. I have heard heavy-calibre guns fired with much less reverberation and sound. It might have been the firing of an ordinary eighteen-inch gun. We stood there gazing towards that phantom town on the hillside. Four minutes passed, then suddenly smoke began to rise from the centre of the spot we were watching. There was a terrific explosion which seemed as though it would split open the hills. John Marston showed himself outside the wheelhouse. He held on with both hands to a rail. He had the appearance of a madman.
"Gentlemen," he cried, "I have done all that I promised! You will please go back to the train and revisit the spot we have just left."
In due course the three coaches of the train slowly mounted that single track back towards the main line. The excitement was beginning to grow and swell. When we turned the last curve there was a murmur of half-choked voices rising to a crescendo which might have been heard many miles off. There was nothing to be seen but an expanse of grey ashes where the phantom town had been, nothing but grey dust and split boulders where the central tower of the castle had stood. We looked around us in amazement. The air seemed unexpectedly warm but there was no particular odour. There was nothing—no flames—no signs of conflagration, but the eleven-hundred-year-old castle had vanished as completely as though it had subsided into the earth. Not a square foot of it was anywhere visible. Beyond, the early morning sun was shining upon the moors and peacefully down upon the bleak but picturesque country.
I saw General Hubblethorpe walk up to Marston, grip him by the hand and throw his other arm around his shoulder. We awoke gradually from our stupefaction. We crowded round Marston. He held up his hands and turned towards us.
"All I can tell you gentlemen," he said, "is that the secret of my invention is its simplicity. I control that shell for four minutes by an apparatus from the wheelhouse. If I had wished to divert its course I could have done so. It struck the castle which was its objective twenty-two miles from where we were and I watched the result depicted in a mirror only a few inches in circumference. The gun is easy to build, the mechanism which I have devised and made use of has its secret, but it is a simple affair. I can apply the principle and guide my missiles as well in a rough sea as a calm one. General Hubblethorpe has just told me that I should be a proud man. I have given eighteen of the best years of my life to this one task. I shall be a proud man if, as I hope, this invention will make war more difficult." .
That was the end of that grey morning on the Scotch moors.
The Sub-Commissioner was a little superior when I called to see him the following afternoon.
"Have a nice time, Major?" he asked.
I dragged the chair to which he had pointed nearer to his desk.
"Why did you make me give that card back again to Yvonne Blount?"
"Orders from Whitehall," was the taciturn reply. "But she did not go," I said. "There was not a single spectator there amongst ourselves whom I failed to recognize."
"No, she didn't go," Colonel Heywood observed thoughtfully. "I only heard all the truth myself this morning, Lyson. You see, there was another country and another inventor hard on the track of Marston. That man has lived for seven years with everything except one part of the secret in his brain. He got hold of Yvonne Blount. He offered her a million pounds to get a certain accomplice into the wheelhouse just to take note of two small details of the subsidiary machines there. A lot of money, a million pounds."
"Well, go on."
"She couldn't do it herself, of course, but she got a card from Brunton for this accomplice. When she offered Brunton a hundred thousand pounds cash for it, like the wise old dog he is he went to the Chief and the Chief told him to let her have it. When you were clever enough to get the card away from her she very nearly went mad. She made such a fuss that at last Brunton and the Chief put their heads together. They decided to let her have the ticket if she promised to keep well away from the place herself. Not for ten millions, they said, would they allow a woman there. We got the ticket back from you and, as I say, she sent someone else."
"But the French Military Attaché was there himself," I said. "I spoke to him two or three times on the train."
The Sub-Commissioner smiled.
"But not in the wheelhouse," he pointed out. "The moment that horrible name—The Calais Gun—got about we took jolly good care to set ourselves straight with the French authorities. The Attaché was the first man asked."
"Then why was Yvonne Blount so crazy?"
"This night travelling, I suppose, has dulled your apprehensions," Heywood remarked with a grin. "Don't you understand that Yvonne Blount was a traitress? She is an elderly woman now and the million pounds tempted her. She wanted the card not for any French officer but for the representative of that other country. She got it all right. Clever fellow he must have been, too. As soon as he got to know the rendezvous from Hubblethorpe he made straight for the spot by aeroplane."
"What happened to him then?" I asked, a little breathless.
"That sort of thing was all arranged for," the Sub-Commissioner said grimly. "He was buried at sea."
"And Yvonne Blount?"
"There I think we were wrong," Heywood wound up. "We handed her over to the French and they are not very lenient to any of their own people who take the wrong turning. Let it go at that, Lyson. What I should really like to know, and so would Brunton, is how you got that card away from her."
"I've told you the whole silly story," I replied.
"All right, don't tell me if you don't want to," the Sub-Commissioner remarked with a shrug of the shoulders. "Don't ask me to believe a cock-and-bull story like that, though."
"You don't believe that I left the Grill Room with that thing sticking to the sole of my foot?"
"I don't—neither does Brunton—neither would anyone else in the world."
I sat quite still for a moment.
"Well," I said, "I don't know that it really matters."
"Not a damn," the Sub-Commissioner agreed.
I WAS perfectly content to wait for a few moments before offering Louis, manager of the Milan Grill Room, my usual morning greetings, for the woman with whom he was engaged in sympathetic conversation attracted me curiously. She was beautifully but simply dressed in a grey costume, evidently the production of an expensive dressmaker, and she wore a chinchilla wrap which rested gracefully upon her shoulders. She was paler than any woman I had ever met in my life; the expression in her beautiful eyes was almost the saddest I had ever seen. Without breaking off his conversation, Louis laid his fingers upon my arm. I understood that he wished me to wait, so I lingered on, struggling against a morbid desire to overhear what he was saying. Presently he brought the conversation to an end and turned to me.
"Would you allow me, Madame," he asked, "to present to you a friend who is a constant visitor here—Major Lyson? Mrs. Vallency."
She inclined her head very slightly but her features remained expressionless.
"Mrs. Vallency," Louis added, "shares a hobby with you, Major. Although, as far as I know, she is not an authoress, it is one of her great pleasures to study the faces of the men and women she meets in crowded places. I am giving her Mr. Gregory's table until he returns, so you and she will be neighbours."
This time there was the shadow of a smile parting her beautiful lips, but it was the smile of an unhappy woman.
"Pleasure, perhaps, is not quite the right word, Louis," she remonstrated. "I have no pleasures. It is just a hobby, and that may pass if ever I succeed in my search."
José bustled up and took charge. He led her towards the little corner table for one. My eyes followed her retreating figure and for a moment I was engrossed.
"That," Louis remarked, "is one of the most beautiful women living."
"I have seen her or her picture somewhere but I have never even heard her name," I admitted.
"Vallency is not her name," Louis acknowledged with a sigh. "She has done
what many women do who have had to pass through a crisis in life. She
use of her maiden name. She is really Mrs. Anne Holden."
"She looks," I observed, "as though she had gone through some great trouble."
"She has passed through what I always think, for a sensitive woman, must be one of the most poignant agonies of existence. Six months ago she was tried at the Old Bailey on a charge of murder. The trial lasted three days and the jury were absent twelve hours. She was carried from the Court to a nursing home. I believe she was there until a few weeks ago."
"She was found Not Guilty, then?"
"Naturally," Louis assented.
"I remember the case, of course," I reflected. "Why on earth does she stay in London now that it's all over?"
A famous client demanded Louis's attention and I walked slowly to my table. Mrs. Vallency's face was hidden behind the menu she was holding. Her table was about half a dozen yards from mine, where I lunched four or five days a week when I was in town, but it seemed to me that there was a new atmosphere of tragedy which for the moment transformed the place. I ordered a cocktail and my usual lunch. Already I was beginning to face the problem of how to sit where I was for three quarters of an hour or so and keep my eyes from wandering across that small gulf of space to where the woman whom many of those present in the restaurant must have seen between two wardresses in the dock of the Old Bailey was seated.
After all, I succeeded chiefly because of the woman's superb lack of self-consciousness. If her eyes were ever turned in my direction they passed through me or by me without the slightest sense of recognition. Yet they were the eyes of a searcher. It was a busy day and the door opened and closed continually. At first it appeared to me that she was really what she seemed—utterly indifferent as to her surroundings. Later on I changed my mind. I felt that if the person she desired or hoped to see passed into the Grill Room there would be a different woman in her place. This was all surmise, though, for nothing happened. Without consciously watching her, I know that she had an omelette aux fines herbes, an apple carefully prepared by José, and drank one small glass of sherry. She relaxed a little with her coffee and lit a cigarette. Afterwards she paid her bill, rose to her feet and departed. As she passed my table she vouchsafed me the slightest token of recognition possible. Before his desk she paused for a moment to say good-morning to Louis. There was a look of enquiry in his eyes. She shook her head very gently and passed on. Her empty table remained and the memory of her presence there had left a tingling in my nerves. I listened against my will to the conversation between two men at the next table—a stockbroker and his client—with both of whom I had some slight acquaintance.
"She must be pretty hard-boiled," the stockbroker was saying, "to be seen about here knowing that half the people in the room recognize her."
"What does she do it for, do you suppose?" his companion queried. "She can't get much fun out of it."
"Never saw a more unhappy-looking woman in my life," the stockbroker agreed. "Why she doesn't clear out to the South of France and forget it all I can't imagine. She has plenty of money. Read the case?"
"Every word of it. She was guilty, of course."
"I should think so," the other assented. "The only thing is there doesn't seem to have been a shadow of motive. Holden drank a great deal, they say, and he was certainly an uncouth lout of a fellow but he can't be said to have altogether neglected his wife. They were about together fairly often and even in the Court the prosecution could not produce a single man with whom she had ever been seen alone. A cold woman, if ever there was one—beautiful as a saint and as mercilessly virtuous."
"Not in the least the ordinary type of murderess."
"Of that," the stockbroker pronounced, "I am not so sure."
I loitered over my lunch and as soon as Louis had left "The Pulpit" I followed him into his little salon.
"Louis," I said, "I should like to have a few words with you about Mrs. Vallency."
"I thought you would," he remarked as he waved me to a chair. "She is, I honestly believe, one of the few women I have ever met who has grown more beautiful with misfortune."
"There are two things I cannot understand," I confessed. "One is why, after the ordeal she has been through, does she show herself about here where everyone must know her by sight; the other has to do with the crime itself. I was in Egypt, as you know, when it all happened and I seldom read the newspapers when I am abroad. There must have been some reason for her being so strongly suspected."
Louis, who had begun his after-luncheon cigar, laid it down and stirred his coffee.
"I think the real reason everyone came to the conclusion that she must
have been guilty was because there seemed to be no one else," he explained.
"She lived outwardly on fairly good terms with her husband but they were of
entirely different types. Like most artists, he was slovenly in his habits,
he drank too much and he had twice been in the usual sort of trouble with his
models. On the other hand Mrs. Vallency, as we will still call her, never
showed any signs of jealousy. To come to the crime itself, there was no one
else in the house at the time and it was Madame herself who rang up the
police and gave information. She asked them to send someone immediately as
her husband was lying dead in the studio. Inspector Croom, I think it was,
and two policemen went round at once. The door of the studio was ajar, with
latchkey still in the lock outside which belonged neither to the dead man nor to Mrs. Vallency. Holden had been shot through the head and the medical evidence proved from the slant of the wound that it was almost an impossibility that it should have been self-inflicted. A revolver was lying in a corner of the room with Madame's finger-prints clearly upon it. Her story was that she thought she heard a sound in the studio and the opening and shutting of the gate leading out into the street. She went to the studio and found her husband dead and the revolver, which she foolishly picked up, lying on the floor. The policeman on duty outside had seen no one enter. Someone, according to Madame's story, must have come in by the tradesmen's entrance, passed the tradesmen's door, gone to the studio, opened it with a latchkey of which she knew nothing, and shot her husband at fairly close quarters. Her own latchkey, by the way, was in her desk and the dead man's key was attached to the chain in his pocket. He appears to have had no particular friends and although any one of his models might have possessed a latchkey they all strongly denied having one and each was able to produce a cast-iron alibi. All the circumstantial evidence pointed to the murder having been committed by Mrs. Vallency. She pleaded Not Guilty, was coldly emphatic as to the fact that there had been no dispute or any possible dispute between her and her husband and declared that she had never fired a revolver in her life. Still, as you know, she had a narrow shave of it. Two of the cleverest men at the Yard worked on the case. Not a scrap of any other evidence was ever forthcoming. The medical evidence rules out suicide and even if it did not there was not the slightest reason why a man like Holden should have taken his own life. He had no debts, enjoyed a comfortable life and was off for a three-or-four-days' tour to Brittany in a few days to do some work."
"Do you think there are any facts concerning the affair which she is concealing?" I asked.
"If there had been why did she not make use of them at the trial?" Louis remarked dryly. "She knew perfectly well that it was touch and go for her.... Nothing more to tell you, Major. If you will excuse me I think I will have my nap."
The hint was broad enough so I took my leave.
From Anne Vallency's own statement, from Louis, from the scrappy but very
natural conversation I overheard between the stockbroker and his client, and
from a copy of the judge's summing up I came across, a deadly piece of work,
I seemed to be in possession of a clear-cut history of the Vallency—or
rather Holden—case, and I asked myself more than once how on earth she
managed to get that verdict of Not Guilty from the jury. Then I asked
myself another question. If she was guilty, what fascination was it that kept her hanging around so close to the scene of that horrible trial? One would have imagined her hurrying away to the most remote spot in the world to escape from the hateful memories of her past. Yet there she was most days in the week seated at that small table, still with that exquisite but unhealthy clearness of the complexion, still with those deep-framed marvellous eyes, and day by day as it seemed to me growing thinner. At luncheon one day I distinctly saw one of the rings from her wasted fingers slip from its place on to the table cloth. She was like a woman devastated by some internal torment. That morning I could bear it no longer. I rose to my feet as she passed and spoke to her.
"Mrs. Vallency," I said, "I wonder if you would spare me five minutes of your time."
"Why?" she asked icily.
"It is not idle curiosity, believe me," I assured her. "It is a real desire to help you in a certain way which I can scarcely explain here. I have an apartment in the building, as I think you know. Will you pay me a very short visit?"
She was evidently perturbed.
"I do not wish for new friends or acquaintances," she said.
"I shall not obtrude myself upon you in any way but I should like to talk to you for a few minutes upon a subject in which we are both interested."
"You are going to your apartment now? If so, I will accompany you."
She came against her will—I am convinced of that. She accepted coffee, however, in my salon although she neglected to drink it. She smoked a cigarette but all the time her eyes, burning eyes they were, scarcely left mine.
"Please explain," she begged at last.
"Very, very plain words I am about to use, Mrs. Vallency," I began. "You are tormented by something connected with the past, connected with your rial. I have arrived at a certain conclusion."
"It is no affair of yours," she insisted breathlessly.
"But it is," I told her as kindly as possible. "I am a human being, something of a criminologist, a little of a detective. You did not commit that crime, Mrs. Vallency, but the shadow of it is ruining your life. What is there about it that torments you all the time?"
I flatter myself that I struck exactly the right note. She did not hesitate.
"Three quarters of the world believes me guilty," she said. "I am not guilty. Someone is going about the world who did commit that crime. I want to discover who it is."
"So I imagined. Now, tell me, please, why you visit this place regularly. Tell me why—this is hearsay—you visit another famous restaurant later in the day and sit in a well-known cafe in Regent Street for hours at a time—always watching. If you could describe the person whom you believe is guilty, why did you not speak of him in Court? If there is no one whom you have in your mind, what are you looking for all the time?"
She hesitated before making up her mind to answer me but in the end she did.
"I caught a glimpse," she confided, "of someone who opened the garden gate and passed down to the studio. There was just some little peculiarity in his appearance. I believe that I should recognize him again if I saw him."
"Why did you keep this to yourself?" I asked.
"Because," she replied after a moment's deliberation, "at first it would have sounded just as though I were inventing a servant girl's idea of a murderer. Afterwards it was too late. The man of whom I caught a momentary glimpse was ghastly pale, he had black hair, he wore a black cape which he was holding around him at the throat and a broad-brimmed black hat pulled down over his eyes. I don't think that anyone would have believed me if I had said that I saw a man like that passing down to the studio."
"You may be right," I admitted thoughtfully. "Still, you might have confided it to your lawyer."
"I did," she answered. "It was his blank look of incredulity that made me keep it to myself forever afterwards. But you remember that table I have in the Grill Room: From it I can watch everyone pass down the lounge after they have been to the cloakroom for their coats and hats. If ever a man went by dressed like that I should follow him. Now you see what foolish ideas a woman can have sometimes, Major Lyson," she concluded a little pitifully.
"Not at all," I replied... "I think it was a very reasonable thing to do. Have you ever seen anyone who answered to the description in the least?"
She shook her head. "Never."
"And how long shall you go on watching?"
"Until I find him."
I was silent for a moment. I believe, though, that the ice was in a way broken between us. She helped herself to another cigarette. She remembered her coffee.
"You will keep this to yourself?" she begged.
"Of course," I answered. "But—forgive me, Mrs. Vallency—is it worth while dwelling upon it? It is like continually turning a knife in the wound which you ought to be allowing to heal."
"You have forgotten one thing," she said. "You are thinking only of the situation that the whole world knows. Remember to-day you have to look upon it differently. You have to remember, if you believe my story, that there was a man who passed down the garden path to my husband's studio. I saw him."
She was right. Accepting her story as being a true one there was another side to the affair.
"I am inclined to think," I decided, "although I thoroughly sympathize with your impulse not to mention this somewhat melodramatic figure, that when things became desperate afterwards it would have been better to have spoken out."
"It was too late," she sighed. "I told my lawyer. It was written in his face that he did not believe me. You are a very kind man but I am not sure that even you believe me."
It was very certain that I did not, but I made no protestation.
"Even if I do not," I assured her, "I should look upon it as one of those fancies that come sometimes and stay in our memory until they actually register themselves as facts. At any rate, you have explained what I wanted to know."
"And I may go now, please?" she asked with something that was almost like a smile.
"If you must," I answered reluctantly. "I suppose your friends—"
"I have no friends," she interrupted.
"Well, someone must have told you that you are killing yourself."
"I need no one to tell me that," she said. "This knowledge that somewhere the man lives who killed that poor fool of a husband of mine is killing me. That is why I cannot leave off the search."
"Couldn't you think of yourself and your own future just a little?" I pleaded.
"If ever I become human again," she promised, "if ever I slacken in my conviction and that idea fades from my mind, you shall be the first whom I will tell."
"You will come and dine with me one night and do a theatre?"
"I will even do that," she agreed.
She gave me her hand when she left. She even smiled again, not the ghost of a gesture but a real smile. I saw her into the lift and went back to study the problem of Mrs. Vallency from a different point of view.
It was she who chose the play one night about a week later and I am convinced that her choice was entirely accidental. We sent for a theatre list when we were about half-way through dinner and she glanced at it without any particular interest.
"There is this new man's Hamlet," she remarked, passing me back the list, "and there's that play of Pirandello's that has been running such a time. Either one of those I should think would be interesting—unless you prefer musical comedy?"
We decided upon Hamlet. The boy returned, however, in a short time, shaking his head.
"Not a seat in the house, sir."
We sent him back to see if he could get anything for Pirandello's play, The Secret Avenue I think it was called. He returned with two gangway stalls. She looked at them without any particular enthusiasm.
"I think to dine out at a restaurant with a pleasant companion is quite enough excitement for one night," she remarked, handling the vouchers listlessly.
"The play is a great success," I said. "As long as we have the tickets I shall insist upon your coming."
"You are a very kind man. It shall be as you say."
Our little festival was in its way quite a success.
I had a car waiting and when we arrived at the theatre and found ourselves in comfortable stalls there was even a faint dash of colour in my companion's face. The first act of the play I feel sure that she enjoyed. The curtain went up on the second act before we had had time to regain our seats—she had begged for a cigarette in the lounge. We had only a few yards to walk, however, from the entrance to our gangway seats, and Mrs. Vallency laid her fingers upon my arm while we descended the two low steps.
Suddenly I felt those fingers clutching me desperately, I felt the weight of her whole body, caught a glimpse of such horror flashing out of her fixed eyes as I had never seen expressed on any human face before, The scene upon which the curtain had risen was apparently a garden and with his hand upon the gate leading to the paved walk was a man holding in its place at his throat a long black cape and wearing a broad-brimmed black hat. Mrs. Vallency gave one little moan and collapsed. I carried her up the short flight of stairs and into the now empty lounge. She sank upon the divan and one of the young women from the bar came hurrying up with a carafe of water in her hand. For a single moment I feared terrible things. She recovered from the fainting fit, however, almost immediately. At the first touch of the water on her forehead she opened her eyes.
"I am being foolish," she whispered. "Outside—home, please."
They fetched a taxi cab and made way for us. She half-walked, half-staggered, leaning on my arm. We drove to her flat. I took the key from her bag and she sank into the first easy chair we came to in her sitting room.
"Hold my hand, please," she begged. "I shall be better in a second, then you can ring for my maid."
Again she made a wonderful rally. The next time she opened her eyes they were filled with an almost triumphant light. She smiled as she pushed away the brandy I was holding to her lips.
"Now ring, please."
I obeyed. The maid was in the room immediately.
Not only was her mistress able to rise to her feet but there was a look of life in her face, a strength in her tone, which were new to me.
"I was taken a little faint in the theatre, Mary," she told the maid. "I shall undress and go to bed. Wait for me upstairs one minute. Major Lyson," she went on, turning to me as soon as the door was closed, "I have seen the man who killed my husband."
I shook my head gently.
"You must not be too greatly disappointed if you find that you are making a mistake," I said.
"I am quite calm," she insisted. "My brain is quite clear. I am going to bed now. Please come to me to-morrow morning at eleven o'clock. You may find my lawyer here but I shall see you first. Do you mind, please?"
She held out her hand.
"Remember, I have warned you," I said.
Her smile was almost dazzling.
"We shall see."
I committed that night what was probably an unjustifiable action. It was an impulse which came over me when the chauffeur of the taxi which I had summoned asked for the address and I reflected that I should have to return to the theatre to collect my car. Anyway, I embraced the idea eagerly. I returned to the theatre, I made my way into the lounge and scribbled a line to Philip Lincoln, the well-known actor who had worn the long black cloak and broad-brimmed black hat upon the stage earlier in the evening. He was a club acquaintance, almost a friend, of my own. The messenger brought a reply immediately.
"Mr. Lincoln will be delighted to see you, sir," he announced. "The curtain will be going down in half an hour. I will fetch you here, if you will allow me, and take you to his room."
Too late to retreat now. I drank a double whisky and soda which tasted like water and lit a cigarette. I could not face returning to my seat, however, and fortunately my hat and coat were in the car. In due course the usher arrived and took me round to where Lincoln was busy removing his make-up after a fourth or fifth call before the curtain. He glanced round and waved his hand to me.
"I shan't be a moment, old chap," he said. "Help yourself to a whisky and soda, It's there on the table. I caught a glimpse of you in front, didn't I?"
"I was there," I replied. "Great show."
"It's a good play," he agreed. "Are you going to the club afterwards?"
"I don't think so," I told him. "If I could have just like a word with you here before you go I should be glad, though."
"Suits me," Lincoln answered. "I have to turn up at a supper party sometime. Give me a cigarette," he told his dresser. "Now I'm pretty well ready, Lyson. Out you go, John. Close the door after you."
The man disappeared. We were alone and I didn't fancy the situation.
"Lincoln," I began, "a fortnight ago I attended a dinner they gave you at the Sheridan at which the man who proposed your health said that you had given five hundred representations of this play and never once called upon your understudy."
He was holding a cigarette in one hand and his whisky and soda in the other. He stood for a moment perfectly rigid.
"Is that true?"
Silently he set down the tumbler and began to stub out the cigarette in an ashtray.
"So it has come," he said quietly. "I almost fancied that I recognized the woman."
"It's a hateful question, I know," I muttered, "but a lot depends upon it."
"Oh, I wouldn't let Hayes perjure himself if it comes to that. It's been kept a secret, though. My understudy was on for about three minutes only one night in August."
"August the seventeenth."
"I very nearly got to Templemore Gardens and back in the time," he said, speaking quite calmly still. "I got into these outlandish togs like a flash of lightning at the end of the first act and I was back here just as the curtain was going up for the second. Hayes had only to make a short speech before he went off again, then of course I went on and took my place. I was only absent from my job for three minutes. How the hell do you know anything about it, Lyson?"
"I was at the theatre to-night with a woman who saw you pass up a path to the studio in just the clothes you were wearing in the second act, the woman who was tried for her life for murdering her husband."
"She would never have lost her life," Lincoln said.
I made no reply. He was seated now on the edge of his desk with folded arms.
"Has the woman sent for her lawyers and that sort of thing yet?" he asked.
"Her lawyer is coming to see her at eleven o'clock to-morrow morning."
"You know her well?"
"Only very slightly."
"Could you take me there for a moment first?"
"I am afraid it would be very painful for both of you," I said.
There was a queer turn of his lips but it never developed into a smile.
"Take me, Lyson. Nothing will come of it very likely, but take me."
"I will," I promised. "I will fetch you at half past ten."
"You know where I live?"
"Half past ten, then. Go away now, there's a good fellow. I have to pull myself together."
I had no idea what was in Lincoln's mind when I stood with him waiting in Anne Vallency's sitting room the following morning. I am sure of one thing, however. For once in his life he was not acting. The only melodramatic touch in the room was perhaps unconsciously supplied by the woman herself. She made her entrance dressed in black from head to foot. She did not invite us to sit down. She remained standing herself.
"You are the man, Mr. Lincoln," she said, "whom I saw pass down to the studio of the house I was occupying in Templemore Gardens one night in August."
"Quite true," he admitted.
"You entered the studio and shot my husband."
"Why did you do it?"
Lincoln produced a packet of letters from his pocket and handed them to her.
"You may look upon me as a dying man," he said. "Do me the favour to read those."
She read the first letter after a moment's hesitation; then she turned her back upon us while she read the others. The gesture with which she returned them was again almost theatrical. She wrapped her handkerchief around them as though their very touch was contaminating.
"They are terrible letters," she said. "But that I recognize my husband's handwriting I should not have believed him capable of writing them."
"He did write them—and he wrote them to my wife. She was a good woman before she met him, most of the time. She is a good woman again now, but she and I have been through hell-fire before I could forgive her."
"You have forgiven her, then?" Mrs. Vallency asked.
"I have forgiven her," he replied. "In the old-fashioned way I loved her and if I had not forgiven her, if I had not kept her in her place by my side, she would have been damned body and soul."
"You are living together?"
"You would have sent me to the scaffold for a crime that you committed?" she demanded.
"Never," he answered.
She lifted her eyebrows very slightly. Lincoln turned to me.
"Show her what you have."
I handed her the sealed letter which Lincoln had entrusted to me that morning. The letter was addressed to his lawyer and in firm, unmistakable characters there was written, underneath the lawyer's name: "To be opened at once by you and acted upon in case Mrs. Holden should be found guilty of her husband's murder."
"It is a confession?" she asked. "Read it."
She tore it open, drew out the half sheet of paper and read the few words aloud.
"This is to acknowledge that I, Philip Lincoln, killed Maurice Holden on the night of August seventeenth. The cause of our quarrel was an entirely personal one.
She laid the letter down.
"I did not come here," Lincoln told her, "to plead for mercy, but I think you should know the truth. I killed your husband because he did me a grievous wrong and because he was a beast who was not fit to live. I made it a certainty that nothing worse could happen to you than what you had to go through."
"Nothing worse could," she said bitterly.
"The only atonement I can make," he pointed out, "I now offer to you. I will give myself up to-day. You hold my confession and your name will be clear."
Mrs. Vallency smiled. At that moment I think she looked more like an ordinary human being than at any time since I had first seen her. She pointed to the blazing fire.
"Destroy those letters."
Lincoln threw them at once into the flames. I think he saw the gates of release opening.
"If you should denounce me," he said, "they would have saved my life."
"Burn also that confession," she directed.
He obeyed. We all three watched the flames curling round the papers.
"Your life is in no danger, Mr. Lincoln," she said. "If on your way out, Major Lyson, You would tell my lawyer that I have no need of his services, I should be glad. And now, please, will you both leave me—at once—without words?"
I have always thought that our mute departure was a strange ending to those fantastic minutes. Lincoln, I think, came as near expressing our feelings as was possible when we reached the pavement and stood there with our hands clasped.
"'There are moments,'" he quoted, from that same play in which he had been acting, his voice broken, his eyes travelling over the elm trees in the gardens opposite, "'when words would draw not tears from the eyes but blood from the heart.'"
IT WAS the first time to the best of my belief that during our long friendship anything in the shape of a misunderstanding had arisen between the manager of the Milan Grill Room and myself. I was a little hurt. I was even more surprised.
"You surely don't attempt, Louis," I ventured, "to keep up a clientèle which would compare in any way with the habitués of, say, the Ritz?"
"I have no such ideas, Major," he said. "I must draw the line somewhere, however. I draw it at Mr. Nickerson and his lady friend."
"But surely those two," I persisted, "represent fairly well the kaleidoscopic character of your frequenters here?"
"Your adjective defeats me, Major," he said obstinately, "but I do not approve of the two people you mention and it annoys me to see them in my Grill Room."
"Are they any worse than the occasional criminals and international rogues we see here most days?"
"They are more flamboyant," was the somewhat cold reply.
"They don't satisfy you sartorially, perhaps?"
Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"The lady is a very obvious frequenter of the Shaftesbury Avenue emporiums," he pointed out, "and I do rather object to a man with a neck which his collar does not succeed in encompassing and whose tie leaves one with the impression of a stroke of lightning. Nevertheless, it is not wholly for their appearance that I have refused them a table."
"You cannot pretend—"
"My dear Major," Louis interrupted coldly, "is it worth while discussing this? These people are an eyesore to me, but if you and the Colonel wish me to receive them I will. I shall warn my maîtres d'hôtel, however, that they are not to look upon them as habitués."
"A gracious compromise," I yielded with a smile.
"They are sitting in the outside wilderness now, Louis. Let José tell them that they can have that disagreeable table behind the pillar for to-day only and I am content."
"It shall be as you wish, Major Lyson," was the slightly stiff acquiescence.
"It is not as I wish," I assured him. "I am acting on the instructions of Colonel Heywood. He has begged me particularly to keep an eye on the man Nickerson and report my impressions."
So I had my way. Ten minutes later Mr. Nickerson from New York and his female companion-a lady, indeed, of all too amiable appearance-whose ample figure seemed on the point of breaking through the restraint of her ill-cut gown and who was without a doubt obsessed with the art in which she was so sadly deficient—that of making-up-were ushered to that particular table a very short distance from my own. From where they sat, indeed, I could hear every word they said.
"If this is a dump where all the guys with the big sugar eat, all I can say is that they'd better have a look around New York before they call this a swell place. I could show them a dozen joints on Broadway where they serve a dollar-a-head luncheon I'd rather eat in than this, anyway."
"They do seem a quaint lot, these folks," the woman remarked, looking round with bold, free eyes. "They dress, kind of queer, too."
I smiled to myself. After all, Louis had been right in his judgement as he generally was in such cases. Just then, Colonel Heywood passed through the revolving doors, lingered to say a word or two to Louis and, with a friendly pat on the shoulder, sank into the vacant place at my table. We exchanged a few words of casual greeting. I asked after the Chief, who was laid low with influenza. The Sub-Commissioner enquired as to the identities of several of the men and women in our immediate neighbourhood. He declined any of the Plats du Jour on the menu but elected to wait for a grilled cutlet. Meanwhile he lit a cigarette and insisted upon my breaking my customary regime by drinking a second cocktail while I waited for my own luncheon.
"Your correspondent has let us down pretty badly this time, Colonel," I said. "Nearly got me into hot water with Louis, too. Behold Mr. Nickerson and his lady friend by the pillar opposite."
Heywood glanced at them casually, received one of the lady's roving glances, fingered his moustache for a moment and looked over his shoulder at Louis. It seemed to me that there was a gleam of understanding in that swift and apparently careless gesture.
"Don't quite fill the bill, do they?" he remarked.
"They do not," I agreed with a certain amount of emphasis.
"Anyway, it's a change for me to get away from the shop," the Sub-Commissioner continued with apparent irrelevance. "We have a new chef, Lyson. You should drop in and see us sometime. A good many strange faces here. Do you know that nice-looking couple at the table in the window just opposite?"
I looked at the table in question with interest.
The man was very much the type of a well-known frequenter of the place—tall, with thin features, a horn-rimmed eyeglass and a mass of dark hair. His companion was petite, piquant and graceful, dressed as he was in half-mourning.
"They are complete strangers to me," I said. "Never saw them here or anywhere else before that I can remember."
"They possess," Heywood went on a few seconds later, "what the novelists call 'an air of distinction.' Now come, you are something of a physiognomist, Lyson: What should you say was their walk in life?"
"I should say that they were brother and sister," I decided, "although perhaps that is suggested by the fact that they are both wearing mourning. I should say that the man was an actor or a writer by profession and of good birth. They are not of the usual type or I should put them down as Americans, because they have the appearance of possessing a definite place in life, but as far as I know I have never seen either of them before."
Colonel Heywood smiled. He glanced over his shoulder for a moment and I noticed that a quietly dressed but attractive young woman who had been seated on the other side of the glass window which separated us from the lounge rose at once to her feet.
"Very interesting," my companion murmured, "and I should think very nearly right. Let me see...."
He tore off a scrap from the newspaper which he had been carrying and scribbled on the margin. The girl at whom he had glanced was just passing our table as he finished. He rose to his feet.
"Miss Bernardine!" he said, holding out his hand.
"Colonel Heywood!" she exclaimed.
I was introduced. The two exchanged a few remarks to which I paid no attention; then the Colonel folded up the scrap of paper upon which he had scribbled and gave it to her.
"Read that carefully," he enjoined.
She nodded and passed on. A maître d'hôtel to whom she spoke took charge of her and she disappeared. My companion sat tapping the table thoughtfully with his pencil. He made no reference to the young woman who had just taken her leave.
"Well, your conclusions are pretty well what I should have arrived at myself, Lyson," he said, "if I had not happened to know otherwise. It is true that the two are brother and sister, it is true that the man has once been on the stage for a brief period, but unless the information which I have been given this morning is entirely false, he has been following a very different avocation during the last ten years. Tell me—is he looking at us just now, Lyson?"
I glanced across the room. I had a better view of the table than Heywood.
"No, he's talking to his companion."
"Good. It is unlikely, of course, but he is one of those clever fellows who have mastered a great many accomplishments and reading the lips might be one of them. If my information is worth anything at all the man is a murderer."
"A murderer!" I exclaimed incredulously.
My companion nodded.
"Not only a murderer, but one who has attained the dignity of a nickname," he continued. "He is not, as a matter of fact, in our line of country at all, for everything that concerns him happened in New York, but if he is the man they are hunting from over the other side he is the famous Black Peter, head of the most extraordinary band of gentlemen gangsters who ever paralyzed New York."
"Then why on earth is he allowed to wander in here?"
Heywood grinned at me pleasantly as he rose to take his leave.
"You will know more about it later in the day," he confided. "I don't like to tell you all that I suspect just now as half of it is guesswork. By-the-by, don't go out till after five o'clock. There may be a message for you. Cancel any appointment you may have for the evening."
He lounged out of the place in his usual nonchalant manner without even another glance at the reputed Emperor of All Criminals. He nodded casually at Louis and disappeared. A moment or two later I followed his example but not before I had had a word or two with Louis.
"I apologize, Major," he said with one of his most genial smiles.
So peace reigned between us though no further word was spoken.
Up till a few minutes to five that afternoon there was no message from Colonel Heywood, no word from Scotland Yard of any sort nor any summons to the telephone. At five minutes to the hour, however, just as I was on the point of ringing up Heywood, there was an abrupt tap at my door and almost before I could reply it was opened and closed again behind the back of the man who had made somewhat precipitate entrance. He was curiously changed since the luncheon hour but I considered it very much to my credit that I recognized him at once. Notwithstanding a complete metamorphosis of stature, figure and bearing, I realized immediately that this was the companion of the lady with the bold, roving eyes. He was a little out of breath as though from hurrying. There was a sense of urgency about the situation which prompted my direct question.
"What do you want with me?" I demanded.
"I am Nickerson of Police Headquarters, New York," he replied in a tone which was absolutely free from any American accent. "I dare say Colonel Heywood told you that. I showed you round when you were over there five years ago and took you to the morning line-up. I was in to see the Colonel at Scotland Yard this morning. I told him the job I was on and he said if I wanted any help to come to you."
"That's all right," I agreed. "Colonel Heywood was not very talkative at luncheon time but he did ring up before to ask me to see that you had a table. What can I do?"
"You have heard of Black Peter in New York? 'Black' we generally call him for short."
"Who hasn't? What about him?"
"He was lunching with a young lady in the Grill Room this morning. It was the Colonel who told me where I should find him. Back in the bosom of his family after ten years in New York. Ten years of bloody murder and ten million to show for it!"
"If you recognized him why on earth didn't you do something about it?" I asked.
"I shall do plenty about it later on, now that I have seen him face to face. They won't let me touch him yet—your people. I haven't a warrant. They insist upon my waiting."
"Our man—Superintendent Dryden—with the warrant and the extradition papers is on the Bremen. They have had a bad voyage but we have a plane waiting for him at Cherbourg. He will be here at ten o'clock to-night. He will be coming straight to this hotel. Black will be here downstairs, where we were for lunch, at ten o'clock. We shall take him then."
"How do you know that the man you call 'Black' will be there?"
"Dryden sent him a wireless from the steamer in the name of one of the gang—his pet chum. He has made a rendezvous here at ten o'clock urgent. Black will come all right. He is not afraid of police or devils or anything else. Why should he be? There's no tabulation of him—not even fingerprints. I am the only man breathing who can fix anything on him."
"I can't imagine why you didn't take him this morning, then," I remarked rather foolishly.
There was a gleam of justifiable contempt in his clear eyes.
"Do you think I would be hanging about like this if I hadn't got to? Haven't I explained already that your Sub-Commissioner won't let me touch him unless I produce a warrant or papers? Anyhow, they will both be here to-night and from the moment he left the Grill Room Scotland Yard have had their men on him."
"What is the charge on the warrant?" I asked.
"The charge of being Black Peter. That's quite enough," Nickerson answered dryly. "There are half a dozen murders against him. Which one he will go to the chair for is not certain yet. It will have to be the one where we can get all the proofs we need. All I can tell you people is that the moment he knows he is spotted he will fight his way out if he can. He won't wait for anything formal. He will have a getaway already arranged and he will make for it. Colonel Heywood knows all about that. He has a dozen men detailed who will be occupying tables round about the one they are giving Black."
"And what about me?" I asked. "Where do I come in?"
"You will have nothing to do but act as the producer of this drama," he assured me. "The Sub-Commissioner doesn't want me to go near Louis since I left off my make-up, kicked those awful clothes away and got rid of the woman who was with me. It's just a question of the tables. You are to go to Louis and arrange that. Same table in the window for Black and the tables on either side for the men Colonel Heywood is sending from the Yard—particulars in this envelope."
He handed me an envelope which he drew from his pocket. I glanced through its contents and nodded.
"I'll see to that," I promised. "No objection to my occupying my usual table, I suppose?"
"I shouldn't advise you to," was the somewhat grim rejoinder. "Taking Black Peter is not going to be any child's play even with Dryden and myself on the job. There may be a few stray bullets flying about. He's the very devil in a tight corner, Black is, or he would not have gone through these last few years and kept outside Sing Sing."
"I think I'll risk it," I decided. "Anything more?"
"Nothing that I can think of."
"Supposing I want to see you again—are you staying here?"
Nickerson shook his head.
"Never mind where I'm staying, Major," he said. "I'm taking your Sub-Commissioner's advice. I'm lying low till the last minute. Dryden will know where to find me. He is the only one who will. I don't mind confessing," he wound up, "that taking Black is one of the most nervous jobs anyone in our profession could tackle and I shall be darn glad when it's over. See you later."
The door slammed to after him. I waited for a few minutes and then made my way down to see Louis. I produced the envelope which Nickerson had left with me and drew out the sheet of paper.
"More trouble for you, I'm afraid, Louis," I told him. "You are to reserve the table in the window, number five, for supper this evening at ten o'clock in the name of Dryden. You are to keep the tables on either side of it for—I'm sorry, Louis, but you have to know—for plainclothes Scotland Yard men."
Louis buried his face in his hands.
"So my Grill Room is to be made into a shambles!"
"Can't be helped," I said. "If all one hears is the truth the man they have run down is one of the worst criminals in the world."
"I don't like it," Louis cried stubbornly.
"Neither do I," I agreed.
"If you take my advice, Major, you will stay out of this show."
"I am more than half inclined to," I confided. "Still, you had better keep my table in case I change my mind."
There was a knock at the door. The hall porter entered with a sealed envelope marked "Immediate" which he handed to me. I broke the seal and drew out the stiff card and the half sheet of notepaper on which Heywood had scrawled a few lines.
"There's nothing alarming about this, anyway," I announced as I glanced at the card. "A cocktail party to-night at Number 7a, Bruton Street which the Colonel wishes me to attend."
"Is your hostess' name there?" Louis asked.
"Lady Adela Grimston," I told him. "I don't think I have ever met her."
Louis groaned but remained silent. It was rather a tribute to our professional sincerity that during that brief interview we each kept something from the other.
I met a good many acquaintances at the very cheerful gathering which was going on in Bruton Street, but the one in whom I was most interested was the young lady who had been sitting at table number five in the Milan Grill that morning. Directly she caught sight of me she crossed the room and greeted me with the intimacy of an old acquaintance. At her request we accepted some cocktails which were being passed round and made our way into a retired corner of the apartment.
"Major Lyson," she said, "I dare say you know who I am. In case you don't, let me tell you that I am Adela's younger sister Sybil, and I am helping her entertain this evening."
"You were in the Milan Grill Room for luncheon to-day," I ventured.
"I was there with my brother," she assented. "He insisted on taking me to that particular place and I think he recognized someone there whom he did not wish to see. You know that Mark has been away for a great many years?"
I shook my head.
"To tell you the truth I know very little about your brother," I confessed.
"He has been away from England for more than ten years," she told me. "He has been in South America part of the time, I believe, then he went to New York and we heard nothing of him for some time. He landed in London last week."
She hesitated and I realized that she was finding her task difficult.
"Please go on," I begged. "I may seem a little unsympathetic, I fear, but that is really because I don't properly understand the situation."
"Mark came back perfectly happy," she continued. "He does a little exploring, you know, and in his way he is a great traveller. I have never known him to be so well or so cheerful as he was when he returned, although he told us that he had been in a nursing home in New York for some weeks before he sailed. Last night he had a telephone message and he has not been the same person since. He is in some sort of trouble but he won't tell any of us what it is."
"Is he here this evening?" The girl shook her head.
"He has locked himself up in his room—writing letters, he says, but he won't see anyone. He won't come down although there are heaps of his old friends here who are longing to meet him again."
"Have you any idea," I continued gravely, "what sort of trouble this is?"
"Not the slightest."
I reflected for a few moments in ever-growing apprehension.
"Has your brother ever given you any hint," I enquired, "of his being mixed up with rather a dangerous crowd in New York?"
"He has not spoken a word about New York," she said.
"What made you send for me, Lady Sybil?" I asked bluntly.
"I don't know whether I ought to tell you this but Mark had a sudden idea that he must see the Chief Commissioner of Scotland Yard and he went there this morning. He told me when he got back that the Chief Commissioner was laid up with influenza but that he had had an interview with Colonel Heywood, whom we all know quite well. I begged him to tell me what about but he refused to say a word. Then a few hours ago I had a note from Colonel Heywood suggesting that I ask you to come here this afternoon. I think the idea was hat you might be able to give Mark some good advice which the police authorities themselves are unable to do. Your position there is not exactly an official one, is it?"
"Not exactly," I admitted. "Have you approached your brother about this in any way, Lady Sybil? Does he wish to talk to me?"
"I think he would be more likely to talk to you than anyone in the family," she answered.
"Well, of course, I should be glad to do anything I can," I assured her. "Would he see me if I sent up my card, do you think?"
She smiled apologetically.
"I'm afraid he would not," she confessed. "Still, he situation is worrying us all so much that we must take a chance. It was Colonel Heywood's own suggestion that you might be helpful. What I should like to do would be to put you in another room and bring him down to you. Would you mind?"
"Of course not. I am very much in the dark as to what it is all about but perhaps your brother himself might make things a little clearer."
She passed her arm through mine. "Come this way, please," she said.
At close quarters Mark Grimston, who a few minutes later entered the small sitting room in which I was awaiting him, seemed a much younger man than I had imagined. There was no doubt, however, that he was in a very disturbed state. There was a troubled, almost tortured look in his eyes. He was nervous and the hand which he offered me was distinctly shaking.
"I don't altogether understand the object of your visit, Major Lyson," he began. "I had an interview this morning with Colonel Heywood, it is true. Am I to understand that you have come from him?"
"I have come at his suggestion," I admitted. "He gave me no idea of what the object of my visit was to be but I think I can see his point. You wanted to make some sort of a statement to him officially which he hesitated to accept. With me it is different. I am not, strictly speaking, under the control of Scotland Yard. If there is any advice I could give you—I'm a semi-civilian—about any sort of trouble you may he in I could give it without any sense of responsibility."
The young man looked at the closed door and glanced round the room.
"Well, here goes, then," he said with the air of one making a desperate effort. "You know that I have been absent from England for over ten years."
"Your sister has told me so."
"I am supposed by my family to have been travelling in the Argentine and Chile. I have sent them letters posted from all parts of the Southern Hemisphere, As a matter of fact I have been the whole of that time in New York."
"Does your sister know that?"
"Not an idea. Nor any of the rest of them. Not that I care about my family but I do care about my sisters Adela and Sybil."
"What have you been doing in New York all that time?" I asked.
"I shall tell you facts," he replied, moving over to the sideboard and helping himself to a whisky and soda. "I have been practically one of a gang of the most highly educated, the most scientific, the most ruthless and at the same time the most dangerous criminals in the world. I have been their associate. Indirectly I have helped in some of their exploits. It has been a life which satisfied in me all that desire for adventure which I have had since I was a boy. Time after time I have risked my life, time after time I have watched a killing and grown almost callous. All the while I have never felt that I was in any real danger. Shall I tell you why?"
"The head of this body of evil-doers was the most superb artist in crime the world can ever have seen. The earliest study of my life was criminology. From a hobby it became a passion. That is why I worshipped the man who directed their operations. That is why he made me a shadow member of the association. I joined in the excitement. I took none of the profits. Many nights I sat in a box at the opera at the Metropolitan with my friend, the head of the gang, and some of the most prominent and cultured citizens of the States—bankers, social leaders, Army men, Navy men, great politicians. I have known them all. I know them now."
"Tell me some more about this man," I begged, looking at him steadfastly, "your friend—the dictator of the underworld."
It seemed to me that he shivered for a moment. Certainly when he continued his voice was not so steady.
"His position as a leading socialite in New York has never once been questioned," he assured me. "He has charm. He is the son of a wealthy banker of old family. He maintains what seems to be an impossible position simply because he belongs so easily and thoroughly to the most exclusive set in the country. I was a privileged member of the same. He is an acknowledged leader. He makes fashions and breaks them. He is prominent in every sort of sport, is adored by women, trusted and believed in by men. His real name is a household word in Washington, in Palm Beach, in Paris and in Cannes. I won't tell you what it is just now. I will only tell you that behind a great curtain of secrecy he is known in the strangest circle which has ever existed in civilized times as Black Peter."
I followed his example. I helped myself to a whisky and soda and lit a cigarette. He himself picked up an already filled pipe and lit it. He seemed to have become more completely a human being during the last few minutes.
"I must tell you," I ventured after a moment's silent thought, "that I don't in the least understand your position in the present development of this affair."
There was a most extraordinary expression for a moment in my companion's eyes. He seemed to be half laughing at me, half jeering at my question.
"You don't understand," he rejoined, leaning forward, "because I have not told you the truth. I am the man who has committed the murders and shot the banker Adams three months ago and who has amassed altogether something like ten millions in bank robberies. I am the man whom Police Headquarters in New York and Scotland Yard believe they have brought to bay at last. I am Black Peter."
For several minutes it was more than physical incapacity for speech which kept me silent. It was blank and complete incredulity.
"I don't believe you," I said.
He darted a sudden queer look at me. It is going a little too far, perhaps, to say that I was afraid, but I certainly realized in those few seconds that this was another man whose eyes held mine for a moment, a different man from the tired, worried-looking young aristocrat to whom I had been talking. He moved to the door and opened it.
"Then perhaps you had better wait until ten o'clock this evening."
There are times when the end of that—the strangest day I ever spent in the precincts of the Milan—seemed a little lacking in the drama of the preceding hours. There are other times when I realize that for a certain number of seconds life had never seemed so distorted and impossible. At a few minutes to ten o'clock the Grill Room was comparatively empty. The diners had mostly departed. It was early for the supper crowd. Contrary to his custom at such an hour, Louis was seated in the chair behind his desk. Heywood and I were occupying my usual table. At the same table which he had occupied for luncheon Grimston was seated, a bottle of wine before him and a cigar in his mouth. Close at hand were two other tables at which strangers were seated. It was two minutes to ten when Heywood brought out his watch and studied it for a moment. Then he shut it with a click and turned towards the entrance.
"Ten o'clock," he muttered.
Almost at that moment the revolving door was pushed open. Inspector Nickerson, in absolutely altered attire and looking really quite a distinguished personage, entered accompanied by a fair, thin man who was a complete stranger to me and looked as though he had just arrived from a long journey. A page-boy who had followed him into the room relieved him of his coat and hat. Louis stood by and bowed to Nickerson. The Inspector nodded, laid his hand upon his companion's shoulder, led him without a word past our table to where Grimston was seated alone. The latter shrank back as he recognized Nickerson, whose appearance at luncheon had been very different. His voice now was that of a well-bred and travelled American.
"This is the young gentleman you are looking for," he told his companion. "Sorry, Black," he added, turning to Grimston. "The game's up."
The events of the next few seconds were so swift, so amazingly mechanical that they almost lacked the drama which they certainly should have contained. Grimston rose slowly to his feet. He was staring incredulously at the last speaker. The light in his dark sunken eyes was illuminating. He raised his hands as though in horror, yet when he spoke his voice was soft and natural. It was almost affectionate, yet blended with his simple words he seemed to be throwing away a great load of horrible imaginings.
"Black," he said softly, "Black Peter. I have been wrong all the time. When I was in hospital I dreamt that I was Black Peter. I have believed it ever since. What are you doing here, Black? Be careful. Get away while you can."
Nickerson's face was ghastly pale. He seemed suddenly conscious of the atmosphere by which he was surrounded. His eyes were filled with the glare of the human tiger at bay.
"You lying fool!" he shouted savagely. "Take him, Dryden."
But Superintendent Dryden, who had been slowly tightening his clasp upon his companion's shoulder, suddenly threw his arm around his neck. The two men who had been seated at the table on my left leapt to their feet and held him in a grip of iron from behind. He seemed to grow absolutely rigid in their grasp. I could only see his profile but I saw his teeth bite through his lip and the colour leave his cheeks. One of his two captors tossed the revolver he had drawn from Nickerson's pocket to a third man who was waiting near by. Then for the first time Superintendent Dryden spoke.
"I guess I've been fooled once or twice," he said, "but not this time, Black Peter, or Van Doren, or whatever you like to call yourself. You are right, Black. The handcuffs are on and the game's up. You'd better take it quietly."
The captured man glanced downwards at his manacled wrists but for a moment or two there was silence. Then Grimston began to laugh and the tone of his laughter explained a great deal.
"What a silly mistake," he said. "Why did I ever think that I was Black Peter? It was after that wild night in New York when they took me to hospital. I was never anything but 'The Shadow Man.'"
He threw himself back in his chair. A sense of strain seemed to have passed from his features.
There was genuine relief although there was still something uncanny about the laughter in which he was once more indulging. They led the handcuffed man towards the door quite quietly. As he passed my table he threw a savage glance at me and half halted.
"Perhaps, Major," he muttered, "you are not quite the dummy I thought you."
I made no reply. The clasp of his captors tightened on his arms and they led him on. We watched them, through the glass which separated us from the lounge, pass through the outside door and disappear. When we turned round, Grimston's table was empty. We saw him leaving the place with his sister on one side and Miss Bernardine, in the uniform of a hospital nurse, on the other. There seemed to have been so little action, yet I put my hand to my forehead and found it suddenly wet. Louis—wonderful man—beckoned to a sommelier.
"I'm licked," I confessed a few moments later as I set down my half-empty glass.
Heywood fingered his slight moustache thoughtfully. He inclined his head towards the door at the other end of the room through which Grimston and his two companions had disappeared.
"Simpson, our police surgeon, gave me a line on it," he confided. "He was with me when Grimston called this morning. Afterwards he came back. 'Look out for that fellow who's just left you,' he warned me. He will either be in a nursing home or a lunatic asylum within twenty-four hours.' That was why we sent for Miss Bernardine, who is a clever mental nurse, and gave her instructions not to let Grimston out of her sight until we called her off. I ought to have been a little more communicative with you, Lyson, I know, but really I was badly puzzled myself. I could not imagine how the thing would work out."
"That's quite all right," I assured him. "I can see your difficulty, of course. But Dryden—he came straight here from Cherbourg, didn't he?"
"Yes, but one of our men met him at Cherbourg," Colonel Heywood explained. "He telephoned to us from the flying ground. It seems that Grimston gave the whole show away in the New York hospital without knowing what he was talking about. While they were piecing things together, though, he caught the Queen Mary for home and that idea that he was Black Peter was all the time in his head. There's no doubt that he had played about with the gang to some extent but he was never more than what he called himself—'The Shadow Man.'"
Louis came up to us a little distressed.
"Colonel," he said, "and Major Lyson—my supper guests are arriving. There will be a stream of them in a minute or two. Should I be asking too much if I begged you to let the waiters clear up round here?"
We glanced around and saw that the supper guests were indeed streaming in. We rose to our feet and Heywood passed his arm through mine. "We must humour Louis," he declared as he led me away.
I HAVE always felt a certain amount of self-satisfaction with my deportment during those few seconds of what was undoubtedly an unusual happening. Awakened suddenly from a light sleep either by a noise or by an uncomfortable feeling that someone was in the room, I touched the button above my head and flooded the room with light. Instantaneously I stretched out my hand towards the bell. When my fingers were within an inch or two of it, however, a voice, crisp and authoritative, from the foot of the bed addressed plain words to me.
"Leave the bell alone!"
I stiffened almost to rigidity. Lounging over the wooden end of my bedstead was the large sprawling figure of a strange man, his features concealed by a sinister-looking mask. The thing which I disliked most about the situation was a short, stubby but disagreeable-looking weapon held by perfectly steady fingers and pointing with deadly immobility at my head. I left the bell alone.
"What do you want with me?" I asked, dropping my hand upon the bedclothes.
"A moment or two's conversation."
"Conversations with a stranger who is wearing a mask and holding a gun do not very much appeal to me," I said.
"There are worse things," was the even response.
"The conversation not being of my seeking I suggest that you begin it."
"I have always been told," was the amiably spoken reply, "that the reason for your success as a man of adventures has been your common sense. You are displaying it at the present moment. Perhaps you will commence by telling me why you have chosen to go to bed at this unusual hour."
"It is not an unusual hour for me. If I have no engagements I am as often as not asleep before eleven o'clock."
"A pity," he remarked.
"Because you will have to get up again."
All this time I was trying to make up my mind what sort of a man this was who had found his way into my room, but except that he was wearing a dinner jacket, that his voice had quality and that the eyes through the two slits of the mask were obviously those of a man of action, I could glean nothing from my observation. There was nothing about him in the least familiar. I sat a little higher up in the bed, unpleasantly conscious that even my slight movement had resulted in a corresponding change of position of that ugly pointing weapon.
"I don't mind getting up, particularly," I told him, "but I should do so with more enthusiasm if I had any idea as to why I was getting up."
"You have forgotten," the voice from the end of the bed said reproachfully, "that to-night is the reception of the Princess Bennaro de Fantany."
"You are in error. I had not forgotten it but I had simply decided not to go. How on earth did you know that I was invited?"
Something that sounded like a sigh escaped through the narrow slit in the mask where the lips should have been.
"These things get about," he remarked. "You will need your tails and full evening kit. Decorations being optional you need not bother about them."
I looked steadily at that weapon.
"May I ask," I ventured, "if some sort of a parole is possible? I have no particular objection to leaving my bed—in fact it would be rather a relief—but I should be exceedingly uncomfortable dressing with the end of that gun a few feet away from me all the time. For instance, when I put on my trousers—"
"Have no fear," my visitor interrupted. "I will accept your parole to this extent: I will put away my weapon if you will promise to make no effort to communicate with anyone outside the room and will attire yourself for the evening to attend the reception."
I thought over the situation.
"You would not like," I suggested, "to give me some idea as to why you are adopting the position of director of my social movements? I had decided that for me the reception would be a very dull affair. I have few acquaintances amongst the haut monde."
"Your presence there is required," was the firm reply. "Are you willing to give your parole?"
"I suppose so," I answered a little sulkily.
The gun was lowered and disappeared altogether.
My companion drew himself up to his full height. He was a very tall man, loosely but powerfully built, and as far as I could judge a complete stranger to me. I threw off the bed-clothes, thrust my feet into my slippers and confronted him.
"I shall require your word," he pronounced, "that you will not ring any bell, that you will not call anyone, that you will dress in the manner I said and join me in the next room as soon as you are ready."
I yawned and looked at my clock. It was as yet only twenty past ten.
"Very well," I agreed.
"In that case," my visitor concluded, drawing away from the end of the bed and picking up a black overcoat and a silk hat from a chair, "I shall await you in your sitting room."
As near as I can remember I was about twenty minutes in completing my change from pyjamas to evening clothes. I took a silk hat from my closet, hung a black overcoat upon my arm, turned the handle of the door of the adjoining apartment and entered. I was confronted by a very bewildering surprise. My visitor, still wearing his black mask, was sitting straddle-legged upon the high-backed chair drawn up to the dining-table. The easy chair was occupied by a woman whom I have always declared to be the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. She was young, she was elegantly dressed and her toilette was the toilette of a woman who was about to attend such a reception as the one to which I was bidden. Her hair, beautifully coiffured, was of the colour of fine spun gold; her eyes were a little darker in shade; her complexion was faultless. If my first impressions in those few seconds were correct there was not a touch of make-up of any sort about her. Her beautiful lips with their slightly voluptuous curve were untouched.
"Let me introduce you, Major," the man upon the chair said with a courteous wave of the hand. "Major Lyson—my sister, Miss Henrietta."
I bowed to the young lady, who smiled pleasantly; then I glanced back at her soi-disant brother.
"Miss Henrietta?" I murmured questioningly.
"An embarrassing moment, I admit," was his calm reply. "I am anxious not to part just yet with my incognito. It might occur to you, Major, with your almost superhuman intelligence, that my sister's name would probably be my own."
"The idea had occurred to me," I assented. "May I ask whether your sister is aware of the present situation?"
"I know something about it," she admitted with a smile. "I can understand my brother's hesitation, Major Lyson. Would not your ignorance of my surname be atoned for by the obvious necessity of addressing me by the name you have heard? Only do not, if you please, as our acquaintance ripens, call me Hettie. It is an abbreviation which I detest."
"Am I to gather," I enquired, "that our acquaintance is likely to be prolonged?"
"For a matter of two or three hours," the man told me. "You are to have the honour, I hope I may add the pleasure, of being my sister's escort to the Princess' reception to-night."
I laid down my coat and hat.
"Is this a new game?" I asked. "Forgive me if I am a little behind the times but they tell me mad things are being done nowadays by people who are weary of the ordinary round of society functions."
"It is not a game at all," he replied. "It is a piece of very deadly reality."
"Then I am to take your sister to the Princess' reception?"
"Has she a card of invitation?"
My mysterious visitor sighed.
"For some time," he confessed, "the fact that she has no card has stood in our way. It is very important indeed that she should attend this reception, but as you know the Princess is an exacting hostess with a strictly limited circle of friends. However, the difficulty has been overcome. She will enter upon your invitation."
I still considered that the young woman with the Victorian name was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen in my life, and even though I claim to be a little critical upon the minor points of some of the ladies whom one meets, I could not find a single fault in her toilette, her voice or her bearing. Nevertheless, I shook my head.
"That is an absolute impossibility," I declared. "My card of invitation is distinctly made out in my name. It would be out of the question for me to introduce anyone to a gathering such as this, especially a stranger."
"But your card," he remarked, "permits you the privilege—"
"It does nothing of the sort," I interrupted. "My invitation card says 'Major Lyson.' I know a great many Bohemian parties are given nowadays where it is possible to take friends. This is not one of them. I could not venture to introduce even so charming a person as your sister to a woman who is reputed to be the greatest stickler for the proprieties in society, and with whom my own acquaintance is of the slightest."
"But your card," the other persisted, "permits you to take a lady."
"It does nothing of the sort," I repeated. "My own name is the only thing that appears upon it."
He rose slowly to his feet and made his way to the mirror over my mantelpiece, the frame of which I had followed the old-fashioned custom of decorating with my various cards of invitation in the correct order of dates. He leaned forward and studied them until he came to the one which referred to that night's entertainment.
"The Princess Bennaro de Fantany requests the pleasure of the company of Major Lyson, D.S.O., M.C. and Miss Lyson—" he began.
"That is absurd," I interrupted. "The card is made out in my name only."
He tapped it with his finger nail.
"My sight," he murmured, "even through these slits is good."
"I'll bet you five pounds," I offered, "that no other name than that of Major Lyson appears on that card."
"I don't bet on certainties," was the confident reply. "Won't you look for yourself, Major?"
I stood by his side upon the hearthrug. I looked at the card. I blinked and looked at it again. I adjusted my glass and stared at it. The "Miss Lyson" must have been subsequently added but it was there beyond a doubt.
"That is not the card of invitation as I received it," I declared at last.
"My dear Major," the man at my side remonstrated, "there are not two Major Lysons, are there? The card is correct in every detail. The 'Major Lyson' and 'Miss Lyson' are absolutely apparent. You have no excuse for refusing the simple request which I am making. You can carry the card with you in your pocket. Nowadays it is sometimes, I believe, asked that you: do so. Your right to take my sister could never be questioned."
I took the card in my hand. There was no doubt that the addition was perfectly unrecognizable as such. I replaced it upon the chimney-piece.
"It is true," I acknowledged, "that I have a sister, but she lives in Devonshire and she never attends any such function as this. She has her own friends, but the Princess is not one of them. She is not even in London."
"Is it worthwhile making such a fuss?" the other asked coldly. "It will be time for you to start in a few minutes."
"I posted my letter of regret an hour ago," I confided.
"But your first reply was an acceptance, without a doubt."
"How do you know that?"
"Surmise—sheer surmise. Listen," my visitor went on and for the first time there was a note of real seriousness in his voice. "It is of the greatest importance to my sister and myself that you attend this reception and that she does. I happen to know that unescorted women will be subject to the most careful and critical surveillance. In your company there will not be the slightest difficulty. And listen—she must be there."
"Why?" I demanded. "It is not a Royal command. It is an important party, I know, but there are several others during the season which rank with it. Why should your sister's presence at this one be of such importance?"
There was a moment's silence in the room. The after-theatre traffic in the Strand was commencing and the honking of horns from the motor vehicles of every description was beginning. I closed the window; then I came back and faced my problem.
"Look here," I said. "You want me to take your sister to this party. Why have you come here and threatened me with my life in this melodramatic fashion if I do not agree to being her escort? You behave as though it were a matter of life and death that your sister should be there and that I am the only man who can take her. Why?"
"It is a matter of life or death," the man said quietly. "Your life or your death, Lyson. That is the long and short of it."
Again there was a brief silence. The girl said nothing. I began to realize that however astounding it might seem, the speaker was really in earnest.
"I had an idea, Major," he went on, "that you were too much of a man of the world to make a fuss about a trifle like this. You have been in tight corners before—I have heard of some of them. You are in one now. You can evade all trouble by granting my simple request. Do that and I will make you a present of my revolver and throw my mask into the flames. If you are going to be stubborn, my sister will take the card and she will go to the reception. If there is any question she will say that she missed her brother coming in, that he will be there in a moment and she will pass on into the crowd. With that card there will be nothing to stop her."
"And what should I be doing?"
"You would not be in a position to do anything."
"Do you mean that you would commit murder because I refused?" I demanded incredulously.
"You will oblige me very much by not asking that question, sir."
The girl rose to her feet and came suddenly to where we were standing face to face. She laid her fingers upon my arm.
"Major Lyson," she pleaded. "Take me to the reception, please. I will be no trouble; I will bring no shadow of disgrace upon you; I will do my best to be an agreeable companion. When the time has passed and you know all about it we may still be good friends and you will laugh with me at the memory. My brother is too ridiculously in earnest but it is a vital matter, after all. Take me to the party, please."
I looked from one to the other.
"Look here," I cried, "what is to prevent my leaving your sister at any moment in the proceedings?"
"It is a thing which you could not do, Major. If you agree to take my sister to the party you will do it."
Probably that was where he won. I picked up my hat and coat.
"I'll ring for a taxi," I said.
"There is no necessity," the man replied. "The car is at the door. For the rest I keep my word."
He opened the drawer of my chiffonier and threw the revolver into it. He tore the mask from his face. It was the face of a stranger, a good-looking enough fellow if a trifle undistinguished.
"Coming our way?" I asked as I opened the door of the apartment for his sister.
"Thank you, no," he said. "I'll take a taxi from the Court."
My unknown visitor descended in the lift with us and himself fetched the automobile, which turned out to be a hired Daimler. He stood for a moment on the pavement bare-headed as we drove off. My companion leaned back in the corner.
"Episode number one is now concluded," she observed. "I think Malcolm was quite good in his part, don't you? I wonder if I shall be as successful.",
"So Malcolm is your brother's Christian name," I remarked.
"A very nice one, too, I think. Major Lyson, I am terrified to death."
"Not half so terrified as I am," I assured her. "Are we really going to Doncaster House?"
"We certainly are."
"And afterwards? Shall we dance, sup and all the rest of it?"
"Afterwards lies in the lap of the gods," she sighed. "After we have passed through the reception rooms and we have greeted our hostess, your actual responsibilities will have ended. Mine will begin, although I warn you that I may still need your help."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "I don't like these big shows as a rule but this one has commenced in such an unusual fashion that I was beginning to hope—"
"That it might go on being unusual."
"Perhaps it will."
"You will dance with me, I hope?"
"And what about supper? I cannot be dragged from my bed at this hour of the night for nothing."
"Is my society nothing?"
"Everything in the world," I assured her, "if you will only enter heart and soul into it."
"Shouldn't I love to! Anyway, I shall keep you with me as long as I dare."
I suddenly felt her fingers in mine. At first it gave me a start; then I realized that it was purely an instinctive gesture. She was afraid.
"Do I look like a brave woman?" she continued.
"You have courage, I'm sure," I told her.
"I thought so. Now I am afraid. You do not mind my holding your hand? You seem so—do you mind if I say it?—level-headed, so determined in everything you do. You are not in the least like my irresponsible brother."
"Am I not? I rather fancied he was a pretty determined person," I remarked with a little grimace. "I shan't easily forget waking up and looking down the yawning muzzle of his beastly revolver."
"Thank God he didn't use it," she murmured. "You wouldn't have had my hand to hold, would you?"
She shivered and held it a little tighter.
"Do not take any notice of what I do or say, please, in these few minutes," she begged, leaning slightly towards me. "Please kiss me."
I obeyed at once. She let her head rest for a moment or so upon my shoulder. Somehow or other she seemed to grow more composed.
"You are very nice, Major Lyson," she whispered. "Are you married?"
"Not till next year," I told her.
"I have heard of you once or twice, seen you at the Milan now and then. You are fond of adventures, aren't you?"
"Well, I seem to tumble into them somehow," I admitted. "I wouldn't mind if they all ended like this one."
She laughed softly. She was becoming quite herself again.
"This one may not be over yet," she warned me.
"I hope not," I said.
She drew away with another queer little laugh. She pointed to the window.
"Our destination," she murmured.
The reception of the Princess Bennaro de Fantany was a very magnificent affair but it differed in no degree from the many similar entertainments given during the season. Our hostess greeted us with a charming smile and accepted the presence of my hypothetical sister with the most complete equanimity. We passed into the crowd, regaled ourselves with champagne cocktails, danced twice and were preparing to do so the third time when my companion, with a glance at her wrist-watch, led me firmly away from the ballroom.
"Major Lyson," she confided, "the serious business of the evening is at hand."
"I have not come here for serious business," I replied.
"You may not realize it but you have," she assured me. "Will you please come this way."
Her fingers were upon my coat sleeve. I had no alternative but to obey. I followed her along what appeared to be interminable corridors and up one flight of stairs. We ended up in a rather dimly-lit part of the enormous house. Opposite us in the passage where she brought me to a halt was the shaft of a small lift.
"How on earth," I asked, "do you happen to know your way about this house so perfectly?"
"I lived here once before the Princess leased it," she replied, glancing again at her wrist-watch. "No more questions, please. I'll tell you what you have to do in a minute."
She was a little breathless. It seemed to me that her whole attention was concentrated upon the lift.
"Supper," she told me, "as I suppose you know, is being served on the roof-garden. This is the private lift used by the Princess and anyone of her immediate household. To-night she is leading the way up by the main lift and staircase."
"Then who is coming up here?" I asked.
"Two other persons only—unless they change their minds."
"A young man and Mrs. Stanley Flower."
"Heavens!" I exclaimed. "And what are we to do with them?"
Once more the girl glanced at her wrist-watch.
Listening intently, it seemed to me that the music had ceased below but was beginning again on the roof, and that the great volume of sound now rising was that of human voices.
"Mrs. Stanley Flower," I continued, "is the woman who wears a million pounds' worth of jewels."
"You know as much as that, do you?" my companion said feverishly. "Well, anyhow you are well informed. I think the woman ought to be stripped of all of them and locked up."
The Babel of voices below was decreasing.
"Because, especially in these days of adventure and poverty," she answered passionately, "no one has the right to offer such a temptation. She wears only diamonds. Think how easily they are disposed of, think how many poor men there must be in the world, men of her own social station and higher to whom a tenth part of the value of those jewels would be heaven!"
I had conceived many ideas of the end of my adventure but I must confess that a jewel robbery had never entered into my mind.
"Is anyone going to try and steal Mrs. Stanley Flower's jewels to-night?" I asked.
"Are we concerned in the theft? Is that why we are loitering about here in an unexplored part of the house and listening?"
I should have been furiously angry but for that quaint yet fascinating sensation of adventure which seemed to have taken hold of me. Besides, my companion was so thrillingly beautiful! I found myself, like her, leaning forward listening for the sound of the lift. Nevertheless, I kept my senses to some extent.
"Which side of the fence are we?" I demanded. "Are you trying to make a super-detective of me or a super-thief?"
Suddenly down below we heard the clanging of an iron gate. Almost immediately the lift bell rang twice. The girl grabbed my arm and drew me on one side.
"You may know in a few seconds," she whispered. "Listen, the lift is coming up. If it stops here act according to your impulse. If it passes up nothing is going to happen. Just a chance, a tenÂto-one chance, Major. If it stops here—"
She probably miscalculated the time that it took to reach our floor. Before she had finished her sentence there was a click, and the lift stopped level with us. For a moment no one appeared. I stepped forward. Very cautiously, with wild, terrified eyes, a young man dressed in a magnificent foreign uniform, his breast covered with medals and decorations, pushed open the gate and stepped out. He saw me standing there and he was speechless. So was I. There was a smashed bottle upon the floor of the lift, an over-powering odour of anaesthetic and a woman lying doubled up as though she had slipped from the seat—a woman with bare neck and arms, ghastly pale, her eyes closed, her fingers clutching at the air—a woman without a doubt suffering from some sudden and violently applied narcotic. I stood face to face with her escort a foot or so away from the fumes which were escaping from that broken bottle—fumes which were beginning to stupefy me and were, I could see, having a ghastly effect upon him.
"What's wrong?" I demanded. "Don't try to pass me. I must know first what has happened."
"A damn silly business," the man gasped. "Badly managed, badly thought out. Rotten stuff that—My God!"
He swayed on his feet and I saw the projections from his pocket.
"Give me the jewels!" I ordered.
For one moment he seemed as though courage bad flared up within him. He made a spring forward but I caught him and swung him round. He was, after all, only a youth. I gripped him by the throat and emptied his pockets. Such diamonds as I had never seen before in my life streamed through my fingers. There was still no one in sight, there was still the increasing roar of voices as people ascended by the lifts and staircases on the other side of the mansion to the roof-garden. Then the girl caught hold of my shoulders and plucked ineffectually at the arm which held the young man.
"Do as I tell you!" she begged.
I turned my head away from the poisonous fumes.
"Throw the diamonds back into the lift," she said.
"Take them out of my pockets yourself," I directed, retaining my clutch.
She emptied my pockets and threw the jewels in a glittering shower onto the half-unconscious woman.
"Now let him go!" the girl cried. I looked at her stupefied.
"The fellow nearly committed murder," I protested. "God knows when that woman will recover her senses—if ever she does."
"Let him go," she repeated.
I relaxed my grasp of him. After all, it was not my affair. He staggered away. We saw him open a door a few yards down the corridor and disappear. The girl leaned forward and looked into the lift.
"Are all the jewels there?" she asked.
"I believe so," I answered. "All that were in his pockets are there."
She slammed the gate and gripped at my arm.
"Come!" she ordered.
The lift, with the closing of the gate, glided upwards, the carpeted floor strewn with jewels, the woman lying there unconscious. My companion led me away. We passed along passages and up stairways until we came in sight of the seething mob of guests crowding into the roof-garden. She handed me a bottle of perfume.
"Never mind—swamp yourself in it," she said.
"Rub your hands and your forehead and your hair. There are toilette rooms on your left. I go to the right. One minute—that's all you can have."
There was no one in the toilette room. I obeyed orders. I plunged my head first into cold water, then used the perfume freely. I found her waiting for me. She passed her arm through mine.
"ThatÂ· was the Princess' private lift," she said, looking backwards. "Now we have to make our way along this corridor."
"Why?" I asked.
"We are going to have supper."
It was perhaps a tame ending. It was what happened, anyway. We drank champagne—as much champagne as ever I remember drinking before at a sitting. We ate delicious food and we watched the electric thrill which in a few minutes seemed to pass around the room, listened to the hubbub of voices which brought people's heads together, which set everyone talking loudly. We heard fragments of many disconnected phrases and announcements.
"His Majesty the King of Morania and Mrs. Stanley Flower have been attacked while entering the lift," a young man shouted to some friends at a neighbouring table.
"The whole of Mrs. Stanley Flower's jewels have been stolen!"
"The King has been killed, they say, fighting with the thieves," came from another breathless entrant of the room.
"Rubbish! The whole of the jewels were lying about in the lift and have been recovered," the latest arrival reported to some friends a few yards away.
I had eaten and drunk, I smelt like a scent factory but I was feeling a man again.
"Do you mind telling me your idea of what happened?" I asked Henrietta.
She patted my hand, leaned across to me a dropped her voice.
"You were marvellous," she whispered. "Listen, I was once a governess in this house. I know every inch of it. The man whom you thought was the King of Morania was an impostor. Never mind. Don't ask me any questions as to who he was and how I got to know about what was going to happen. Malcolm—you remember Malcolm?"
"Do I?" I asked feebly.
"Silly! Malcolm is my elder brother who frightened you into coming here with me to-night. He is one of Lloyds' Underwriters—only started business three weeks ago. They took one hundred thousand pounds' risk on the insurance of Mrs. Stanley Flower's jewels. If they had been stolen his firm would have been bankrupt."
"Well, they were not stolen," I ventured. "Don't you hear everyone saying so?"
She held my hand for a moment shamelessly.
"Thanks to you, my dear friend," she said, and her eyes were more wonderful than ever.
"But why?" I asked. "Why come to me? What made your brother pay me that extraordinary visit? Why did he pack me off here with you? Why the mischief, if you knew anything about it, didn't you go to Scotland Yard?"
She waited until the sommelier at our table had filled our glasses, she even sent the waiter away for more chicken pie. All the time she was listening intently to the murmur of talk around. Presently he leaned forward.
"Dear Major Lyson," she began. "Charles Lyson, isn't it?"
"Yes," I admitted.
"Well, dear Charles, then. I have two brothers. One is good—Malcolm—and he has been saved from ruin. One is bad and he was a secretary in this house and our hostess' great favourite for years. He is the bad brother. Do not ask me how we got to know at the last moment what was going to happen. I cannot tell you that. The dénouement you saw. Look across the room."
I obeyed and there, to my surprise, I saw a young man in a magnificent uniform and many medals, a young man whom I would have sworn that I had held by the throat a few minutes before, sitting between his hostess and a rather pale but still very much alive Mrs. Stanley Flower.
"You see, Guy has the misfortune to resemble one of our continental
royalties. You hear what everyone is saying, though. The impostor got
and at the Princess' and Mrs. Stanley Flower's urgent wish the affair is to be hushed up. That leaves us all happy, doesn't it?"
Her eyes were pleading with mine, her fingers were still resting upon my hand. I reflected that I had not a shadow of tangible evidence against anyone. Henrietta was, as I have said in the beginning, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. The memory of that brief embrace in the car was still with me.
"If you say so," I answered.
IT was just before midday on one of the wettest March mornings I ever remember that Louis, manager of the Milan Grill Room and my associate in many recorded and unrecorded enterprises, rang me up in my apartment.
"Major Lyson?" he asked.
"The weather being unpropitious," Louis went on, "I had hopes of finding you in. Will you do me the favour of stepping down and taking an aperitif in my room with an old friend from Marseilles who has just arrived?"
"With great pleasure," I assented.
"I am not disturbing your work?"
"On the contrary," I assured him, "I am reading the midday Standard with my eyes upon the clock."
I descended by the lift and knocked at the door of Louis's apartment. I found him seated in his favourite easy chair and opposite to him a middle-aged man of fair complexion wearing rather heavy spectacles; very neat, very alert, exceedingly polite.
"Monsieur Raynal," Louis added to his formal introduction, "was for many years Chef de Sûreté in Marseilles. After the war he established himself in Paris. I think, except for an American concern which seems to be run with the sole idea of providing evidence for American divorces, Monsieur Raynal is the principal of the only respectable and reliable detective agency in France."
Monsieur Raynal bowed.
"My friend is too kind," he said, "yet in a sense his words are true. My work in Marseilles was connected with crime and crime only, Major, and I wearied of it. I desired a larger field of operations. I flatter myself that I have found one."
"Monsieur," Louis confided, "receives frequent commissions from the French Government."
"I am delighted to meet him," I said. "I have often heard of his establishment."
José entered with a tray of cocktails. We raised our glasses and drank to one another.
"Your position, Major Lyson," the visitor declared as we settled down in our chairs, "has always moved me to envy. A liaison between the police and the military is a thing that is sadly lacking in our country. Monsieur Louis, with a finger so often in the pie, must find life full of interest."
"I have never found life dull," Louis meditated. "Just lately, however, there has been very little stirring. Sinners seem to have repented, criminals to have deserted us for the provinces. Even a continental spy is a rarity."
Monsieur Raynal took off his spectacles and rubbed them with the corner of his silk handkerchief. He blinked a little and readjusted them.
"Perhaps," he suggested cautiously, "my visit over here may stir things up for you. I could give you the dossier of a man and a woman living in this hotel which I think would prove interesting reading. What might interest you still more would be my possession of certain evidence concerning these two which would seem to denote that they are over here on business."
"Can you tell us their names?" I asked. Monsieur Raynal reached forward for a piece of paper and scribbled upon it for a moment. He passed it to Louis who then handed it to me.
Monsieur et Madame Tegnier,
17, Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, Paris
"I know nothing whatever about them," Louis confessed in reply to an enquiring gaze.
"You may possibly recall the fact that Madame Tegnier was once known as Claire Montigny."
"I seem to find the name familiar," I said thoughtfully. "It was a Claire Montigny, was it not, who was tried for espionage towards the end of the war?"
"Claire Montigny was involved in two other causes célêbres besides her trial for espionage," Monsieur Raynal remarked. "I did not come here, however, to talk of the lady's past. I am here to speak of the present. We have received a commission to investigate the negotiations which we suspect are now being carried on between Monsieur and Madame Tegnier and the representative of a foreign nation. It is in connection with this commission that I pay my call upon Monsieur Louis."
"Any assistance we could offer—" Louis murmured.
"You will understand the difficulties of my position," Monsieur Raynal interrupted. "As the Chef de la Sûreté of Marseilles I was a sufficiently well known figure in Paris. As the head of a famous detective agency I have become, alas, the victim of the caricaturist and the paragraphist. I have lost the one inevitable quality my position demands—the quality of anonymity. Wherever I go I am known. More or less this applies to the principal member of my staff. That is why I make my appeal to my old friend—I ask him to help—and because your department, Major, is, we believe, concerned in the present movements of the Tegniers, we beg also for your co-operation. Here in the hotel I hide myself. I can do nothing. I cannot even lunch or dine in public. A single glance at me and away would go the two people I have followed here. Mind you, from my rooms, which I seldom quit except when I know that our friends have plans for the evening, I direct the operations of certain of my staff who keep a constant guard upon the Teigniers. I have brought two men over who are strangers to them and who report to me daily. But it is not enough. I need something more definate."
"We should require more evidence than we now possess," Louis pointed out, "to be of any practical use. For instance, upon what criminal exploit do you suspect these two people to be engaged at present?"
"Whole-hearted espionage on behalf of a foreign Power," Raynal replied. "They have just arrived from Toulon, where we have discovered they have been in communication with a naval man from across the North Sea."
Louis stroked his small black imperial thoughtfully.
"Mon ami," he observed, "it appears to me that you are too guarded in your confidences. Major Lyson and I are your very good allies but the road for interference in the matters you speak of would be hard for us to find or follow."
"In plain words," I ventured, "you will have to part with a little more of the information you have already collected."
Monsieur Raynal assented cheerfully.
"I do not expect impossibilities," he said. "All I can do is to pave the way. A maître d'hôtel of the restaurant who is in my confidence has given them quite casually a hint that a distinguished French official has engaged one of his tables. They naturally do not wish to be in his immediate vicinity twice during every day and they have announced their intention of moving up into the Grill Room. That, at any rate, will bring you into closer contact with them."
"It is a step in that direction," Louis agreed.
"Furthermore," Raynal continued, "I have a letter to the Chief Commissioner of Scotland Yard and another to a department of the Secret Service with which you are connected, Major Lyson. These letters shall be presented this afternoon. They are not, strictly speaking, official, but they will carry weight—of that I assure you, gentlemen. Indeed they will carry weight."
"Are you staying here in your own name, Monsieur?" I asked.
"I have a suite on the eighth floor in the Court in the name of Delisser," Raynal replied. "My visiting card announces me as an Importer of French, Spanish and African Wines. It is from my rooms in the Court that any information I can pass on to you will emanate and where my helpers over here report."
Louis finished his aperitif and rose to his feet. "I take it, cher Monsieur," he said, "that our little conference is at an end."
"For the moment," the other answered, also rising to his feet. "With you and me, Monsieur Louis, things are different. We have been friends for many years. You will permit me, I trust, now and then to pay you a visit."
We all three shook hands. Monsieur Raynal expressed the happiness he had gained from making my acquaintance. Nevertheless, in the lobby of the Grill Room half an hour later, he glanced at me with the idle curiosity of a stranger. A man, I decided, who was at least thorough in his methods.
Without a doubt the two most distinguished-looking people in the Grill Room that day were Monsieur and Madame Tegnier. Monsieur was a man somewhere between forty and fifty years of age, carefully if somewhat sombrely dressed, with a deep purple tie arranged in the old-fashioned four-in-hand style and fastened by a beautiful pearl pin. His hair was grey, he was clean-shaven and he displayed a great deal of animation in his conversation with his beautiful wife. Claire Tegnier wore one of those black tailored suits at which the French couturier excels. Her hat was becoming, her short veil chic. For a Frenchwoman she was very little made up and her expression was all the time charming, her manner as she chattered away to her husband most agreeable. The greatest of French dramatists and the only French actor who has ever had any success in England lingered at their table for a few minutes to indulge in the pleasantries of intimates. They were over to arrange for the production of a play now running in Paris which Madame praised most eloquently. It was hard for me to associate these two with their distinguished acquaintances; it was hard to reconcile their whole-hearted devotion to their elaborately ordered luncheon and to one another with any of the sinister things hinted at by Monsieur Raynal. If indeed they were playing a part they were the cleverest dissemblers I had ever come across. I was just commencing my sole when my immediate superior, Sub-Commissioner Colonel Heywood, with an afternoon paper under his arm, strolled down and, with a little nod of greeting, took the vacant place at my table.
"So you have been giving the old mariners a scare this morning," he remarked.
"All that I have been doing," I replied, "was to ring up on the private line and ask for an interview with Hudson of the Intelligence for this afternoon."
"Well, that is not an everyday occurrence, is it?"
"I suppose not," I admitted. "Just a moment, colonel, before I go on. What do you think of those two at the next table but one?"
Heywood ordered his luncheon before he replied, studying the menu carefully. When he put it down he glanced casually across at the table I had indicated.
"Very best type of French people, I should say. The woman's face seems a little familiar. Anything going on here?"
"Raynal is over," I confided. "Came to see Louis."
"You mean the man who is head of the Raynal Detective Agency?"
"He is over on some Government business."
"Espionage, I suppose?"
"And those two are in it."
Heywood poured himself out a glass from the half bottle of white wine which he had ordered and sipped it deliberately.
"I'm sick of espionage," he confided.
"So, I should imagine, is the lady whom you admire," I told him. "I have just been reading a copy of her dossier which Raynal sent round to my rooms. She was once tried for her life. She got off—famous case, if you remember it. There were rumours about the judge. Anyway, he never sat again and the woman disappeared. Now she is married to her present companion Tegnier—a mysterious millionaire. They think in Paris that they have something on the pair and they have sent Raynal over. Poor chap, he doesn't know where to move. As he complains, he cannot function here. All these people know who he is. He has a couple of men at work and he is off into hiding somewhere to receive their reports."
"I don't see," Heywood reflected, "why he came to you."
"Louis is an old friend of his. Knew him before the war when he was Chief Constable in Marseilles. He has had an inkling from somewhere of the show we put up now and then and he thought we might help."
"It's a curious situation," Colonel Heywood remarked. "The possible criminals, anyway the suspects, come out into the open. The forces of law and order whose object it is to bring them to justice go into hiding. To tell you the truth, Lyson, I think that the authorities who engaged Raynal and sent him over here made a mistake."
"So do I."
The telephone boy came from the small lounge outside and made his way to our table. He handed a slip of paper to Heywood, who glanced at it and rose to his feet.
"Office calling me," he remarked. "I'll be back directly, Lyson."
I saw no more of Colonel Heywood until late in the day, however. The boy returned and delivered a message.
"Colonel's very sorry, sir. He had to hurry off," he reported. "Will you pay his bill and he'll settle up to-morrow."
"Has he gone already?" I asked.
"It was an urgent call, sir," the youth confided. I signed Heywood's bill with my own and left the table. Neither Madame nor Monsieur even glanced up at my departure. They seemed both to be enjoying a story which Madame had just told.
Admiral Hudson, who was chief of a certain branch of our Secret Service, kept me waiting for a few minutes before I was passed into his sanctum. He looked up at my entrance, nodded and motioned me to a chair. I noticed that he had been writing with his own hand on a sheet of paper in front of him and that three code books lay open by his elbow as though he had been studying them. He was a small man with rather a wizened face,—very sunburnt,—a humorous mouth and black searching eyes.
"Well, Major, what can we do for you?" he asked. "Not often are we troubled with anyone in your profession."
He listened to what I had to say, which really was not very much.
"I know who you mean by Raynal, of course," he said, "although I have never met him. What's the trouble?"
"I have no definite information," I acknowledged, "but I expect you remember the trial of Claire Montigny?"
"Of course I do," the Admiral replied. "Supposed to have got round the judge and escaped being shot."
"She has been down at Toulon with the man to whom she is now married," I told him. "A man named Tegnier. There's some mystery about what they were doing there but the French authorities got on to it that she was up to no good and had her watched. Nothing happened. She's too clever. Knows everyone of the French Naval Police. She disappeared with her husband just as they were making a pounce on her. The next thing they knew she was in London at the Milan Hotel. They had the idea of employing Raynal to watch her here. Not a bit of good. He was an old pal of Louis's—Louis is manager of the Milan Grill Room, you know—and he came to ask if we could help in getting a line on what the woman was up to. At the present moment she has Raynal's two men, an understudy of Heywood's from Scotland Yard, Louis and myself all watching her."
"What is it she is dealing in—plans, correspondence, maps or what?" the Admiral demanded.
"No one knows," I told him. "They got away from Toulon and they turned up in London. The French authorities have not told even Raynal, the man they are employing, what it is they are afraid of, but those two—Claire Montigny and the man she has married—have got hold of something useful and they are just waiting their opportunity to slip it on to its destination."
"Nervous work, that," the Admiral reflected. "Went through it once myself towards the end of the war at the time when I had lost all my best men. One gets to fancy that everyone is watching you. They aren't, of course, but the feeling's just as bad. You have your suspicions about me at this moment, haven't you, Major?"
"I think you know more than you feel like telling, sir," I answered.
"I thought so," he chuckled. "Well, I dare say you will know the whole truth before I shall. If so you must return good for evil and come and tell me all about it."
He touched a bell. I rose to my feet.
"You are wondering why I don't tell you a little more, aren't you, Major?" he asked as he held out his hand.
"Jealousy between the services, sir?" I suggested.
"Go to hell!" Was the Admiral's farewell.
"You know, Louis, it isn't fair," I said when I went in to see him for a minute before dinner. "That damned French detective comes here and asks for our help and tells us nothing."
Louis stroked his chin for a moment.
"Is that your impression, Major?"
"I'm sure of it. They know more about this affair at the Admiralty than you and I. We are simply being asked to work in the dark."
"Not altogether," Louis disagreed. "We are only asked to watch. At any moment we may be asked to do more than watch and when that moment comes we shall understand what it's all about."
"I hate all this secrecy," I declared, shaking myself a cocktail.
"Then you should have chosen a different branch of your profession," Louis observed with a twinkle in his eyes....
I was supposed to be dining with some friends at Ranelagh that evening but the sight of Claire Tegnier and her husband seated at the same table they had occupied for luncheon was too much for me. I took my accustomed place and very soon I was glad of it. The Tegniers were entertaining the famous couple who had spoken to them at luncheon time and also a popular French actress whom I knew quite well by sight. To all appearance they were a carefree, happy and brilliant little party and no one contributed more to the conversation than Claire Tegnier, no one seemed more thoroughly at his ease than her husband. They were not in evening clothes, but in the Grill Room and especially amongst French people there was nothing remarkable about that. I chose my dinner carefully and ate slowly. The scraps of conversation which I overheard, however, were absolutely uninteresting. Over my coffee I reassembled in my mind my ideas concerning these few people. There was Claire Tegnier and her husband engaged to our certain knowledge upon a work of espionage, their operations with regard to which being conducted in a subtle and original way. There was Raynal, a very astute French detective. There was Scotland Yard working under the direction of Colonel Heywood, willing to go to almost any lengths in answer to our ally's appeal. There was Admiral Hudson who probably knew more than any of the rest of us but not enough to formulate a plan. There was Louis and there was myself. The Tegniers were too clever not to know that they were being watched, too clever to attempt any concealment about their movements, playing a waiting game apparently perfectly secure and entirely free from anxiety. What was the secret of their confidence? I became so absorbed with my own thoughts and speculations that I scarcely noticed Heywood's entry. He sank into his usual chair and waved the waiter away.
"I had a sandwich before I came out," he explained to me as he cut and lit a cigar. "I see that our friends are as brazen as ever, facing the world with clear consciences and brave hearts!"
"And even contemplating an evening's amusement," I muttered, pointing to the messenger with a theatre plan who was standing at Tegnier's elbow. Heywood rose to his feet.
"I imagine we are as safe up in your room as we are likely to be anywhere," he said. "I have a 'word or two to say to you."
I signed my bill and we made our way to my apartment.
"Every new thing that comes to light," Heywood remarked as he threw himself into an easy chair, "seems to make the affair more confusing. The most highly trained and most expert searchers we possess have been through their rooms and every one of their belongings since luncheon time. Not one sign of papers, maps, documents or correspondence of the slightest interest have they discovered and yet not half an hour ago Hudson confided to me that he had received a telephone message from Paris assuring him that these two are in possession of certain information with regard to the disposition of the French Eastern Defence Army which a certain foreign Power has been trying to get hold of for a long time."
"Do you suppose," I asked, "that they have already passed the information on?"
"From what Hudson told me, they have not had a chance," Heywood assured me. "They have been watched from the moment they left Toulon until they entered this hotel. There is an official censorship at work here now. Every letter that leaves addressed to a certain country is opened. These people write no letters, they are making no arrangements to leave the country. Everything that they do is absolutely ordinary except that every night they visit music-halls."
"Music-halls?" I repeated. "Just what do you mean by that nowadays?"
"Well, a certain type of entertainment," Heywood explained. "They were at the Holborn Empire last night, the Victoria Palace every night the week before and Shepherd's Bush Empire several times. They always take a box, they don't hide themselves and they sit through the entertainment. You heard me speak to the head porter just before we came up. I asked him about the theatre plan. Tonight they are going to the Holborn Empire again. That will be for the second or third time."
"It sounds odd," I admitted, "but I don't see how it can have any bearing upon the question."
"They are both people of taste," Heywood Continued. "What can they find in vaudevilIe worth their attention?"
"Where did you say they are going to-night?" I asked.
"The Holborn Empire."
I picked up the evening paper. I ran through the list of entertainers—all old-stagers, not a foreigner amongst them except some wrestlers.
"Any light, my young friend?" Heywood enquired.
"Not a vestige," I answered. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do, though, Colonel. I'm going to change into an old suit, get a cap and buy a half-crown place in the pit of the Holborn Empire."
"Won't do you any good," my companion sighed. "Raynal's two men have watched their entrance and watched them come out at every place of entertainment they have visited."
That was rather a facer. I carried out my idea, however. Heywood took his leave, I changed my clothes, left the Milan by the service entrance, made my way to the Holborn Empire and struggled through to the front row of the pit. From here I watched wrestlers and gymnasts; I listened to manly baritones singing about warriors of past days; I watched, and worse still listened to, arch little coquettes lifting their legs and singing out their souls to earn a supper from their admirers at the back of the orchestra. A magician bored me stiff, a girl who remembered the dates of battles drove me to despair and then I looked towards the box where Monsieur and Madame Tegnier had been seated and I saw that Monsieur Tegnier was still there but Madame had gone. I pushed my way out as ruthlessly as I had butted my way in. I walked up and down the promenade, visited the bars and pulled aside a curtain and glanced across the crowded house. Madame Tegnier was still absent. I think it was just as I dropped the curtain that the idea came to me. It was illuminating. It took my breath away. It staggered me. I went round to the front of the house and made my way to the manager's office. The manager was none too pleased to see me. I did not particularly fancy myself at that hour in the evening in a shabby blue serge suit and a tweed cap.
"Howlett," I said. "You remember me?"
"I'm damned if I do!" he answered.
"Why, it's Lyson!" he exclaimed. "I beg your pardon, I'm sure, Major, but what the dickens are you doing masquerading in those clothes?"
"Never mind," I said. "I want you to take me round to the back."
"Business or pleasure?" he asked.
"Strictly, absolutely business," I assured him. We made our way through the usual turmoil at the back of the stage and in due course we reached the region of the dressing-rooms.
"Who do you want to see?" the manager asked.
"I want to stroll about a bit," I confided. "You have some people in front in whom I am interested. The lady has just left her box. She is not in the theatre. I'm wondering whether she has a friend behind."
"Madame Claire Tegnier?"
"That's the lady."
He took me by the arm.
"That woman is foolish," he said. "She has a wild fancy for Ada Green."
"The girl with the memory?" I asked.
"Is Madame in her room?"
"She generally is. Seems to me she follows the girl around."
"You couldn't take me somewhere where I could overhear what they are talking about?" I begged. "It is Government business, you know, Howlett. I'm not doing this for amusement."
"A shabby, sloppy little girl like Ada Green," he murmured. "Well, come along."
He led me past a line of dressing-rooms. Arrived at a certain number he paused, drew a pass-key from his pocket and entered. The room was empty. He raised his finger to his lips.
"If it interests you to know what a woman like Claire Tegnier has to say to a shabby little slut like Ada Green you can listen," he said. "I'll be back before long."
He closed the door softly. I crept near to the partition. I heard a tired, sleepy voice—I had heard it a few minutes before from the stage—repeating what seemed to be an endless rigmarole of figures. Suddenly I stiffened to attention. The recital of figures had come to an end. The same voice continued:
"From here to the village of La Tollière is two kilometres and a quarter. The control of this whole district is from the Mill House. Here there are instruments so arranged that the Mill House itself, with the asphalt walk leading to it, recedes and space is left for the egress of the plane."
"That will do, Ada," I heard a charming voice say. "You are absolutely perfect. You have not made a single mistake."
"I never make mistakes," was the tired response.
"You are sure you know what you have to do?"
There was a note of scorn in the brief reply.
"Madame, you have had reason to discover for yourself that I forget nothing. Give me half of the thousand pounds."
I listened to the rustling sound of bank-notes and afterwards to the tearing up of many sheets of paper. Then I heard Claire Tegnier's voice again.
"From beginning to end your recital to-night is perfect. Now we have finished. You take the 'Golden Arrow' to-morrow morning at eleven o'clock from Victoria. At Calais you will be met and conducted by aeroplane to your destination, where you will be met again. The man who shows you a photograph of me with three crosses in the left-hand corner is the man you may trust. You go with him; you recite all that I have told you."
"And the other five hundred pounds, Madame?"
"He will hand it over to you."
I was back at the Milan Court at eleven o'clock.
It took me a quarter of an hour to change and appear downstairs decently clad. All the time half a dozen telephones were ringing furiously with messages from me to Heywood and Admiral Hudson. They were there when I descended into the Grill Room. Raynal I had not ventured to summon.
"Admiral," I said, "and Colonel Heywood—I am going to brag."
"Go ahead," the Admiral invited. "You military fellows can't help it."
"I have discovered exactly how Claire Tegnier proposes to communicate secret information of enormous importance to the person who is willing to pay for it on the other side of the North Sea."
"Then you beat me," the Admiral said, sipping his cocktail. "I know what the information is but that is as far as I have got."
"And I know this," Heywood announced. "It consists of a multiplicity of figures and measurements and I know that there is not a scrap of written matter anywhere about the Tegniers' luggage or anywhere about their room. They have a safety vault in the hotel. There is not a line of writing anywhere in any one of the compartments. They neither of them have a banking account under any name. How is it that you, my dear Lyson, have learnt this thing?"
I unrolled the program I had brought from the theatre.
"You will observe," I pointed out, "that one of the minor star turns to-night at the Holborn Empire, last week at the Victoria Palace, the week before at Shepherd's Bush Empire, is Ada Green, the niece of the man with the eternal memory."
"What in hell has that got to do with it?" the Admiral demanded.
"I know that night after night Claire Tegnier has recited to this young woman in her dressing-room, in whatever theatre she has performed, the plan which I have definite information exists for concealing 884 aeroplanes in secret hiding places behind the Maginot Line. That is what Claire Tegnier and her husband found in Toulon. The papers now are destroyed. Their substance remains in the brain of one shabbily-dressed, miserable-looking monkey of a girl, the girl with the inherited brain of an uncle who was a star of the music-halls thirty years ago."
"My God!" the Admiral murmured.
"It is up to you two," I continued, "to finish this business. The girl is there and she can recite from beginning to end every geographical and mathematical detail that is required to enable an enemy to destroy a secondary force behind the greatest line of defence in the world. She leaves Victoria at eleven to-morrow morning. She is met at Calais and escorted to a foreign capital. She will then recite everything that she has been told and having listened to her I do not think that she will make a single mistake. To deal with the matter further is not in my province."
There was a brief interlude. Within a few yards of us the Tegniers, who had come in late, the great playwright, the great actor and two more lady friends were seated at the round table laughing and talking. For a moment or two I envied Heywood. I could see the little smile at the corners of his lips. I knew that he was planning things. The Admiral was leaning back in his chair with both hands in his pockets and a scowl upon his forehead. Heywood turned gently towards me.
"Have you the girl's address?" he asked. I looked at him reproachfully.
"Colonel," I remonstrated, "the girl is staying at number 7, Gloucester Place on the third floor. Her name is written on a card and pinned on the outside panel. She reached home three quarters of an hour ago and shut herself up for the night. She has ordered a taxi at ten to-morrow morning and at the present moment I should imagine is engaged in packing her belongings."
Heywood laid his hand upon my shoulder.
"Our heads are a little turned," he said. "Forgive me. I have a plan."
I will give them their due—they stood me a dinner the following night. We went almost brazenly into Louis's room to shake hands. We promised him a later visit and we sat round my own particular table in the Grill Room.
"The English Press," I declared, "is a rotten institution: There is not a single word of the dramatic happenings of to-day in any edition."
My two companions smiled.
"Even the Press," Heywood pointed out, "has its limitations. A little story that it dare not print is here in a few simple words for you, my dear Lyson, At ten o'clock this morning a taxi cab left number 7, Gloucester Place. Inside was a plain, sallow-faced little girl. It was not an uneventful journey. At a certain point in the road towards Victoria the taxi cab lost a wheel, skidded violently and the young lady in some mysterious way hit her head against the side of the vehicle. Very quickly she was transferred to a car which happened to be in the vicinity. She was taken to a hospital. The doctor who examined her gave her a hypodermic injection. Afterwards, she was allowed to leave and continue her journey. She reached Victoria in time for her train. Her kind lady patroness was there to assist her into her carriage. The lady was perhaps a little alarmed by the girl's appearance and by a certain change in her manner. In the coupé of the Pullman she took her hand.
"Ada," she said. "Let me hear the first part."
Ada shook her head.
"Since I came out of the hospital," she said, "I can remember nothing."
"Would I be asking too much," I interrupted, "if I asked how you two know what took place in a coupé of the Pullman car between Miss Ada Green and the lady in question?"
"You will ask other questions, I dare say," Colonel Heywood said smiling. "We shall answer them. The coupé was prepared for Madame and Mademoiselle, and neither the Admiral nor I nor two other of our friends were very far away."
"I am satisfied. Go on, please."
"Madame Tegnier was thunderstruck.
"'Tell me precisely what has happened to you, Ada,' she insisted.
"The young woman told her. It was by that time ten minutes to eleven. Claire Tegnier rose to her feet. She had no word of farewell for the girl. She herself knew what she was facing. She stepped out of the coupé, she stepped out of the Pullman. Then there was that familiar tap upon her arm.
"'If Madame could spare us a few minutes—'"
"We may conclude," I said, "that that is the end for the moment of Madame Tegnier, but what about Miss Ada Green?"
"She will receive," Heywood told me, "a pension of a thousand a year. She will never recover her memory fully but she will have enough left of vitality and intelligence to pass through life contentedly. Anything else you would like to know?"
We raised our glasses which the sommelier had just refilled.
"We will drink," the Admiral proposed, "to the one profession in the world."
So we drank. There was nothing more to be said.
L'affaire Tegnier was ended. Afterwards we went in and told Louis all about it.
ANGUS CARTHEW, who had been mixed up perhaps in more dramatic enterprises than any man in London, marshalled his guests, who must have numbered at least a score, to their places at the round table in the window of the Milan Grill Room. Then he crossed the floor to where I was seated and vouchsafed me one of his usual hearty greetings.
"Hello, Lyson, old chap! All alone?"
"It looks like it," I said. "You seem to have a gay enough party."
"Half the Russian Ballet," he replied. "We're having a great time. Best ballet that's been on in London since the musical intelligentsia got the frenzy. Come and join us."
It was the sight of one person in that curious Bohemian-looking crowd which induced my ready acceptance. It seemed rather a coincidence that the vacant seat at the table was by the side of the young woman I had been watching in discreet fashion since the entrance of the party. I was introduced en bloc, after which I took my allotted place.
"Our friend is rather sweeping," I remarked to my immediate neighbour. "May I ask your name?"
"I feel that I must be like everyone else here," she answered after some slight hesitation. "They all have stage names or names which they have adopted for political reasons. I shall offer you the name of Sabine."
I was a little puzzled. I felt sure, from the first, that she was not a dancer. The delicacy of her features—quite unfamiliar to me—and her voice with its curious foreign accent, gave me no indication as to her connection with the company.
"It is a delightful name," I said. "Tell me—what connection have you with this collection of musical geniuses?"
"I have written music," she confided, "I have arranged dances, I have painted scenery. I like to be connected with them because I am Russian and very homesick. You see, I must be almost the only Russian who is a poor linguist. I speak indifferent English."
"Let us speak French, if you prefer it," I suggested.
"I prefer it enormously," she acknowledged. "That is, when we converse at all. At present I am occupied. I am very greedy and this caviar is wonderful."
Nevertheless, we talked a good deal, although always on her part with a certain reserve. I had just the same feeling about her, as the luncheon drew to an end, as I had had when I saw her take her place at the table. I felt that she was infinitely removed from everyone of them, that she was living entirely within herself, that whatever emotions she might be capable of were harnessed entirely to her will. It was a Saturday afternoon and around the table people were making week-end plans.
"How do you spend your Sundays?" I asked.
"Indefinitely," she answered. "I seldom arrange beforehand. What I like to do if there is a chance is to get away to where there are trees and perhaps flowers, and if such a thing is possible blue sky. I am easily made happy, you see."
"No other partialities?"
"I dislike very much noise," she said. "I like good food but very little of it. I like to talk if I feel like it—to be silent if it pleases me."
"If you will give me the pleasure of lunching with me to-morrow," I proposed, "I'll promise you everything except the weather."
"You wish, perhaps, to go very far?" she queried after a moment's hesitation.
"Less than half an hour's drive from here," I assured her.
"I accept with pleasure," she murmured.
Luncheon was over. Some matinée people were leaving. A messenger summoned me to the telephone.
"Tell me at what hour to-morrow?" I enquired.
"Is twelve o'clock too early?" she asked. "I like to walk for a little."
"Twelve o'clock will suit me admirably. And your address?"
"17, Edgington Mansions, Berkeley Square," she told me. "They are new to you, perhaps."
"I will be on the step at twelve o'clock."
Sabine was waiting for me on the pavement when I brought my car to the kerbstone the following morning at twelve o'clock outside Edgington Mansions. Her slight smile of welcome was gracious but she retained during our drive down to Ranelagh, and for the greater part of the day, that strange air of aloofness which had fascinated me from the moment when I had watched her enter the Milan Grill Room. She was curiously attractive. Her cheeks were without any colour to speak of, but it was a pallor far removed from that of ill health. Her large dark eyes were filled now and then with pleasant lights. Her voice, whether she spoke in French or imperfect English, was always musical. The luncheon pleased her, she was fascinated by the trees and the sweet odours of spring seemed to make the gardens more than ever attractive when we strolled about both before and after luncheon. She seemed loath to leave the place; she breathed the pleasant air as one who has just escaped from a dungeon. She was entirely reticent both about her past and present life and we found little to talk about except a common taste in out-of-the-way music and an equal hatred of modern architecture in buildings and furniture. All the same, there was not a moment when I regretted my invitation to her and I think she must have felt likewise, for it was nearly five before she suggested that she would like to be going.
I left her in the front hall, fetched my car from its parking place, exchanged a few words with my friend the golf professional and drove round the beautiful sweep back to the club house expecting to find Sabine on the front steps. She was nowhere to be seen. I backed my Bentley a little way and entered the building to make a more complete search. I looked everywhere. I even sent a message up to the ladies' room. I went out again into the grounds and visited the places which she had found most attractive. I tried the gardens, the winter-gardens and the bar. In the end, weary of my efforts and practically convinced that she was nowhere upon the premises, I sat down in the front hall and gave myself up to calm consideration of the situation. The conclusion I came to was the only one possible. I decided that she had met with acquaintances or friends and for some reason or other had left the place with them. It was inconsiderate, it was bad taste and shocking manners to have done such a thing without leaving any sort of message, but over half an hour had elapsed since I had left her, promising to be back in five minutes, and there was not the slightest doubt that she had disappeared. I made up my mind that the only thing for me to do was to return home and avoid in future offering entertainment to young ladies of her temperamental race.
Once more I walked through the lounges to the other side of the house and looked over the lawns into the gardens. For the first time I saw something unusual. Down at the corner of the rustic bridge which spanned the lake were gathered a small crowd of people. I hurried off in their direction. Dripping wet from head to foot and apparently just regaining consciousness, Sabine was lying on the turf by the side of the lake. A man whom I knew by sight as a doctor was standing up dabbing his forehead, exhausted but triumphant. He met my enquiring look and shouted out to me. The little crowd opened to let me through.
"Lyson," he demanded; "Weren't you with this young lady at luncheon?"
Sabine glanced up at me and smiled very feebly.
"Of course I was," I answered. "I have been searching everywhere for her. What happened?"
"God knows!" my friend grunted. "I only know that she was discovered drowning in the lake here and I have had the devil of a job to bring her to. She will be all right in five or ten minutes now but I don't know whether she will be able to walk."
"But how on earth did it happen?" I asked.
"Can't tell," the doctor answered. "I wasn't here."
The worst of it is she doesn't seem to speak much English."
"But Mademoiselle," I exclaimed, "what is it that has happened?"
"I—I fell in," she stammered.
"But what were you doing here?" I demanded. "I left you on the steps."
"I know. I meant to wait for you. I did not. I came here and I fell in."
The little crowd around was dispersing. Only the doctor and two sympathetic ladies remained. One who I believe was a hospital nurse was on her knees by the girl's side still rubbing her hands. I turned to my friend.
"Is she well enough to be taken home?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he answered. "She was not in the water long enough to have come to serious harm. If you are responsible for her take her home at once and have her people put her into a hot bath."
"You hear that, Mademoiselle?" I said, turning back to her. "I am to take you home."
"I will go," she agreed.
The boatman who had been dispatched for assistance arrived with a huge coat in which we wrapped her. Another one with more foresight brought a Bath chair. We wheeled her up to the house. On the way the doctor gave me his card.
"The best thing to do is to accept her story," he said quietly, "but how anyone could slip and fall into that water I can't imagine. No one saw it happen. If there's any trouble or anything you know my address."
I thanked him heartily and gave him my own card.
"I'll ring you up, if I may," I suggested, "after I have taken the young lady back. It may be better for you to come in and see her."
"I don't think so," he replied. "She is in pretty good health, I should say. However, you know where to find me."
We arrived at the side entrance and Sabine stepped easily from the Bath chair and established herself in my coupé. By this time everyone had left us. I started off with a little sigh of relief. The pursuit of adventure is my hobby in life but not this sort.
"You are very angry with me, is it not so?" she asked as we drove out of the gates.
"Angry? My dear young lady," I remonstrated, "what I am feeling just at the moment is chiefly relief. How on earth did you manage to tumble into the water there and why on earth couldn't you wait for me?"
"Something happened," she confided. "I am sorry. I decided that I wished to drown myself."
"You are probably a little mad," I remarked irritably.
"I am probably completely mad," she admitted.
I remained silent. I think I possess the usual sympathetic regard for my fellow creatures but when I thought of that uneasy, anxious time and the shock of finding her half drowned my impulses in that direction seemed somewhat cooled.
"If you had given me a hint of what was probably in store for me—"
"Oh, you are so selfish, you men—you Englishmen!" she interrupted. "Do you think I threw myself into that ugly water for pleasure? Do you think I was happy when I decided to leave this life?"
"You might have stayed to say good-bye to your host," I told her brutally.
She turned away from me. She was so huddled up that I could not now even see her face.
"The next time that I decide to kill myself," she said, "I shall choose a more kindly companion."
"Whomever you may choose," I retorted, "I can assure you it will not be me."
She turned round then and looked at me. She was still very wet and completely spoiling the cushions of my car, but there was a little more colour in her lips and a very slight flush in her cheeks.
"I thought you were so nice at luncheon time," she sighed reproachfully.
"I am nice," I replied, "but you have tried me very high. I have no fancy for having my luncheon companion pulled out of the lake and having her returned to me in a state of collapse."
"I was all right," she explained, "until I saw Grimitri."
"What has he to do with it?"
"I shall tell you nothing! What is this bridge?"
"It is Hammersmith Bridge," I told her, "and next time you want to commit suicide let me recommend a bridge of this sort. By the time you have hit the water you won't feel like saving yourself."
"If you will stop the car," she said, "I will try."
I pressed my foot upon the accelerator.
"You will not," I assured her. "I am taking you straight back to your apartment and when you get there you are to have a hot bath and be tucked up in bed."
"You talk to me as if I were a naughty child," she complained. "Do you know that I am twenty-four years old?"
"You can be as old as the hills themselves," I replied, "but you ought not to be allowed out alone."
"I was not alone," she said. "I was with you."
"A nice way you behave," I declared, "directly my back was turned."
"It was just the contrast," she sighed. "I had had such a happy day. I did not wish to go back. Besides, there is Grimitri."
"What has he to do with it?" I asked again.
"He is my husband."
I glanced at her incredulously.
"Rubbish!" I exclaimed.
She repeated the word to herself slowly. Incidentally she made rather a mess of it.
"That word does not sound nice," she said, "but I do not know its meaning. Explain, if you please."
"Prince Grimitri cannot be your husband," I said. She gave a feeble little laugh.
"Can he not? But he is."
"Then you," I said, "are the Princess Isolda."
"How clever of you!" she murmured. "If you had listened a little more carefully at luncheon yesterday you might have heard my name."
I suddenly remembered the curious intonation in the voice of our host when he addressed her, although I had not heard his actual words. I recalled the little glances of curiosity mingled with respect which some of the people in the dining-room at Ranelagh had directed towards her at luncheon time. I suddenly realized that she was telling the truth.
"Then why," I demanded, "did you throw yourself into the lake at Ranelagh?"
"Oh, that!" she exclaimed almost indifferently.
"We are nearing my apartment now. When we arrive there I will show you and you will understand."
She was right. I understood partly if not altogether. I pointed to the figure of a young man lying sprawled across the floor.
"You did this?" I gasped.
She, too, looked downward and although the room was overpoweringly oppressive from the heat of at least six radiators, tightly closed windows and closely drawn curtains, she shivered in her wet coat.
"Yes," she admitted, "I did it. Do you understand now that I was not anxious to return?"
I leaned over a little farther. It was the figure of a slender young man with fair hair. He appeared to have been wounded just below the shoulder and there were spots of blood on the carpet. I looked round the room, saw the telephone and hastened towards it. The girl clutched at my coat sleeve.
"What are you going to do?" she asked softly but breathlessly. "To whom are you about to speak on that telephone? You ring up the police—yes?"
"Not for the moment," I answered. "I am ringing up the doctor. I have a friend who lives in the square."
"It is useless," she said.
"What made you shoot him?"
"It is my affair."
I rang up my friend Haynes, who had a steady practice less than fifty yards away. He recognized my voice but I cut short his friendly greetings.
"Number 17, Edgington Mansions, third floor," I said. "Can you be here in five minutes?"
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "Urgent?"
"Five minutes," I repeated.
"I'll be there," he promised. "You just caught me."
I set down the receiver.
The girl was looking at me with that still, fixed expression which somehow or other had attracted me the morning before.
"Why does the doctor come?" she asked. "It is too late. He can do nothing."
"He comes to save this young man's life."
"But he is dead!"
I shook my head.
"He is nothing of the sort," I replied. "I don't want to move him myself or touch anything until I am sure that it would be for his good. It is a dangerous thing to move a wounded man. You must please keep away from him, too," I enjoined, checking her impulsive movement.
"You say that he is not dead?"
"Nothing like it. And you didn't shoot him."
"What do you mean? What strange things are you saying?"
"I say that you didn't shoot him, because he was shot within the last two hours and you have already been with me for six hours. That, at least, is my impression. We shall see what the doctor has to say. Meanwhile, have you no maid here? Can't you get out of those wet things?"
She turned slowly away. Before she reached the door I stopped her.
"Listen," I said. "You must promise not to leave these premises."
"Why should I promise you anything?" she cried.
"I require that promise," I repeated. "You have told me that you shot this young man. I don't believe you, but it is quite sufficient reason for me to keep you here until after the doctor's visit."
"I give my word," she answered. "It is enough. The bathroom is on the other side of the hall. As soon as I have found some dry clothes I will return."
"In which case," I said, opening the door for her, "let me beg of you to see that the water is very hot. And if you can manage it a hot drink afterwards would be good. You are beginning to shiver again."
She lifted her eyes to mine for a moment. I could not make out whether she was relieved or not by what I had told her. Her eyes seemed to be asking for sympathy but her lips remained tightly closed.
"You are surely glad," I ventured, "whether you shot him or not, to know that he is not dead?"
She reflected, then she answered quite calmly.
"I am glad. If I leave you alone let me warn you of something."
"Grimitri may return. He is a great gentleman but he is also a violent man. It was because of what he told me in the front hall at Ranelagh that I ran away and threw myself into the lake."
"Thank you," I assured her. "I am perfectly able to take care of myself."
With the faintest possible little shrug of the shoulders she turned and left the room. I held the door open for a moment. I saw that it was indeed a bathroom across the corridor which she entered. In a few seconds I heard the water rushing into the bath, heard, too, her impatient ringing of the bell. Five minutes later Haynes was announced by the concierge from below. I met him at the lift and drew him into the room. Arrived there I closed the door, helped him off with his overcoat and laid his small black bag on a chair.
"What do you make of that?" I asked, pointing to the figure upon the floor.
"Looks like a nasty job for a Sunday afternoon," he muttered. "Get me a little hot water, please."
He set out an array of sponges and very deftly opened coat and waistcoat and ripped down the man's shirt. It was quite five minutes before he spoke again. He was looking for phials inside his bag.
"This young man," he said, "has received a bad flesh wound but there is nothing vital about it."
"How long do you suppose it is since he was shot?" I asked.
"Between one and two hours," was the deliberate reply. "He ought not to have become so entirely unconscious but I should think his constitution is not exactly of the best. Who is he?"
"I don't know."
"What are you doing here, then?" he asked, taking the liberty of an old friend.
"Well, I really don't know that," I replied. "Sheer accident. I brought a lady home who fell in the lake at Ranelagh and we found this."
Haynes's little grunt was significant. He went back to his job. In a moment or two the prostrate figure was quivering with life. The young man tried to sit up. Haynes supported his back and called to me.
"We'll put him on that couch," he directed.
We half carried, half dragged him across the room. Towards the end he was making attempts to walk, He sank back amongst the cushions, however, with a little groan of relief. Haynes emptied another of his phials into a tumbler of water, stirred it up and held it to the young man's lips.
"I don't want to ask questions, Lyson," he said, "but I think we ought to ring up the police."
"Could you wait just a minute?" I begged. "The young lady will be back directly."
Haynes nodded. He moved to the window, drew aside the curtains and let in some air. I followed his example with one of the smaller windows. The fresh air swept through the overheated apartments; the heavy odour of the flowers became supportable. Haynes looked round the room critically.
"People of taste live here," he remarked. "That's an exquisite little water colour. I saw it in Taladier's gallery only a month ago but it was far above my purse. What about your friend, Lyson? Is she very well known to you?"
"I met her yesterday at luncheon," I said. "She interested me rather and I invited her to lunch at Ranelagh to-day. I called for her at twelve and she was waiting on the doorstep."
"Then she didn't shoot this man," he reflected. "Why did she throw herself into the lake at Ranelagh?" I asked.
"If she is of the same race," he said, touching the half-conscious man's cheekbone, "she is probably Russian. No one can tell what they are going to do or why they do it."
"She is a Russian," I assented.
"I thought her so until I saw her brought out of the water like a drowned rat," I admitted.
"I am wondering about the police," the doctor remarked thoughtfully.
"Five more minutes," I begged.
In rather less than that time she came into the room.
Sabine had wandered a long way from that queerly fascinating negation of colour, voice and individuality which had attracted me so much on the previous day. She wore a gown of flaming scarlet fastened tight up to her throat—one of those strange gowns which seem to find their way on to the body of the wearer by unseen and mysterious means. She was utterly without self-consciousness. She glanced at the doctor indifferently. She looked farther across the room at the injured young man without emotion. I introduced Haynes. She made no conventional return to his stiff bow.
"I expected to find policemen here," she said. "Why do you delay in sending for them if indeed it is your duty?"
"The doctor now shares my responsibility," I replied. "I am inclined to leave the matter entirely in his hands."
"And desert me?" she asked quietly.
"You are in no trouble that I can hear of," I pointed out. "Doctor Haynes's statement relieves you of any responsibility for that young man's condition. He assures me that the wound from which he is suffering must have been inflicted within the last two hours. As you have spent the last six hours with me it is therefore impossible to hold you responsible for his condition."
"In other words," she said, "you no longer believe me to be a murderess."
"I had nothing but your own word to go by," I answered coolly.
The doctor looked at his watch.
"I hope you will agree with me, Madame," he said, "that it is better to place this matter in the hands of the police. I propose ringing up the local station and asking the Inspector to come round."
The girl turned to me.
"You must not let him do that," she begged. "Do you hear me, Major Lyson? If the young man is to recover it would be foolish to start another tragedy."
"The matter must be cleared up somehow," I reminded her.
"What happens in my apartment is my own business," she said coldly.
"The law of this country," Haynes remarked, "would not agree with you."
"Laws everywhere," she sighed. "I thought that this was a free country. Why should I be asked to account for the scratches upon this young man? I perceive that my statement will not be believed. Very well, then. I did not attempt to kill him."
"He is a friend of yours?" the doctor asked.
"One of my worst enemies," she replied. "He is also my brother. If he had died from the wound he received your English newspapers would have declared that the ballet had been deprived of one of its most brilliant ornaments."
"I was beginning to wonder," I confessed half under my breath. "It is true, then. He is Serge Balacheff."
"That is his stage name," she admitted. "For the rest it does not matter."
The doctor picked up is bag and hat.
"This is all very interesting," he said, "but it does not deal with the existing difficulty. The young man might have a collapse and die and there would be the devil to pay if I had not informed the police. I shall call round at the station myself."
Again there was that shadow of deadly fear in the girl's clear eyes. I laid my hand on Haynes's arm.
"Don't do it," I begged. "Tell us the name of a hospital or nursing home to which we can send him. The responsibility for silence is as much mine as yours. I will accept it."
"Under those conditions I will hand over the whole affair to you, Lyson. I will do just what you have asked me. I will telephone for an ambulance to the Grosvenor Hospital and take him there myself."
He sat down before the telephone and the business was speedily concluded.
"They will be here in less than five minutes," he reported.
"Supposing he regains consciousness before the ambulance comes," I enquired, looking at the now collapsed form on the couch. "Who is going to ask him questions?"
"There is no chance of that," the doctor replied. "I have given him the strongest sleeping draught his condition permitted. I should judge him to have been in a state of nervous depression before the—er—the accident occurred. With your permission I shall wait upon the pavement outside and show the men the way up."
He bowed stiffly to Sabine, who looked at him without flinching or seeming to understand that he was indulging in a gesture of farewell; then he left the room. She drew a little sigh of relief.
"I feel better," she confessed. "I do not like doctors. And you, too—you wish to go away?"
"I shall stay," I told her, "until the ambulance arrives. The men may need help and I may save you from inconvenience."
"That is kind of you," she said quietly.
"Perhaps," I suggested, "you would like to tell me the cause of your terror down at Ranelagh and why and by whom that young man was assaulted?"
"It is all very simple," she said, "but I shall not tell the story unless I am obliged."
And then something unexpected happened. We heard the stopping of the lift outside in the corridor and immediately afterwards the sound of a latchkey in the front door. We heard it open, then the sound of someone hanging up a hat on the rack. We heard a cane rattle as it was thrust into the umbrella stand.
"Who is that?" I asked.
She made no immediate reply. The slight colour that had come into her cheeks faded away.
"That is the man of whom I am so afraid," she told me. "It is Grimitri—my husband!"
It was indeed Prince Grimitri who opened the door and remained upon the threshold regarding us both with an air of puzzled insouciance. He was perfectly dressed as usual in the English tweeds which he wore with an ease and grace which seemed a part of the man. His brown shoes were wonderfully polished, he wore the regimental tie affected by the General upon whose staff he had served during the war. His repose of manner matched Sabine's as he came forward in response to her word of introduction. Then he suddenly lost his composure. His eyes glittered as they fell upon the unconscious man upon the couch and the pleasant smile faded from his lips.
"What is that fellow doing here?" he demanded.
"It is the man whom you told me down at Ranelagh that you had killed," Sabine replied. "The doctor, however, found life in him."
"Who dared to send for a doctor?" he asked.
"Major Lyson here insisted upon it," she answered. "It seems that there are many strange laws in this country."
"And many strange people," he remarked bitterly. "You have a fault, you English, Major Lyson. It is a bad fault, too. You are officious. You have always the desire to meddle in other people's business. It is a national as well as a personal fault."
"It was the business of anyone who saw the man bleeding to death to send for a physician," I told him.
"A man—yes," Grimitri said scornfully. "Not a piece of carrion flesh like that."
"My husband does not like ballet dancers," Sabine observed.
"Like them!" he repeated with inexpressible contempt. "The profession itself is bad enough but when they are also spies creeping about doing their foul work they become inhuman. That creature has lived too long," he added, drawing a revolver from his pocket and ejecting a used shell.
"You had better put that away," I said quietly. "You cannot shoot a man who is asleep or unconscious."
"Who tells me that I cannot?" Grimitri demanded with a flash in his eyes.
"I do," I replied.
"And I," Sabine said. "He may be the spy you say he is but I shall offer you a piece of information now which I am surprised you have not already found out for yourself. He is also my brother."
"A Waldenoff?" he exclaimed.
"Serge Michael Waldenoff," she said.
"He goes by the name of Serge Balacheff," the Prince murmured, momentarily staggered.
"It is the only name they know him by—the directors of the ballet and the public," she replied. "I have told you his true name."
"It was he," Grimitri went on in a dull, level voice, "who arranged the abduction of General Metchnikoff in Paris and sent him back to the butchers of Moscow."
"I have been told so."
"Professor Hollandburg was another of his victims."
"I believe that also is the truth."
The Prince looked at her and there was horror in his eyes.
"You know these things," he muttered; "Is it possible—"
She stopped him with a sudden proud gesture.
"What is at the back of your mind is not true," she said. "I had cause to suspect him only within the last twenty-four hours. I sent for him to come here. He came during my absence, which was unfortunate."
"So that was why I found him lounging in your salon," Grimitri remarked bitterly.
"If he had confessed," she said, "I might have killed him myself, but he came two hours before he was bidden. That is perhaps an unfortunate thing for you also, Paul."
"If he should die, however richly he may have deserved it, you will probably spend the rest of your days in prison," she declared. "This is a strange country with strange laws. Ask Major Lyson."
"What your wife says is perfectly true," I said. "There is no court before which you could have brought that young man to answer for his sins if what you tell us is true. Since you took the law into your own hands you may have to face the sentence of death."
"It is incredible," he muttered.
The telephone bell rang. Sabine removed the receiver and listened. She held the instrument away from her.
"It is the men from the hospital," she announced.
"They are not going to take him to hospital," Grimitri declared. "He might recover."
Sabine glanced at me. I nodded. She spoke rapidly down the telephone. I moved over and stood near the still unconscious man. Sabine disappeared into the hall and I heard her open the front door. She returned almost at once, closing the door of the salon behind her. Grimitri came deliberately towards me holding the revolver in his hand.
"Out of the way, Major Lyson," he directed.
"I shall not move," I told him, "and I swear to God that if you shoot that man I shall give evidence in court against you and you will hang."
He paused. I never saw such utter disbelief in anyone's face.
"I give you my word of honour as a soldier that I speak the truth, Prince," I continued. "You may call this a smug country with smug laws but if you kill this lump of flesh here England will take your life or your freedom to pay for it."
There was a knock at the door.
"Put your revolver away quickly," I said. "Put it away before these men enter."
Even then he hesitated. Sabine called softly to him across the room. The thrill of that cry has lingered in my memory ever since.
"Paul! Paul! We shall be lost to one another. It is Isolda who pleads!"
Two orderlies came in and there was no revolver in Grimitri's hand.
"From the Grosvenor Hospital, sir," one of the men announced, addressing me. "Is this the patient?"
I nodded. I helped them lift him on to the stretcher.
He was still breathing stertorously but all the evidences of living were there.
"I will help you down with him," I said.
They needed little help but I had a passionate desire to leave that room if it was only for a few seconds. I looked back from the threshold. Sabine had leaned forward in her chair and her arms were around her husband's neck. He was kneeling by her side, his face hidden.
"Gunshot wound," one of the orderlies remarked curiously as we entered the lift.
I shook my head.
"A trifling affair," I said. "Nervous breakdown. Alcoholic, I fancy."
The man nodded.
"That's the way half these attempted suicides come about," he observed.
"You're right," I agreed.
IT was a chance remark of my friend Major Lyson's which put the idea into my head. We had spent the greater part of the previous evening together, an evening in which the whole of the world outside seemed to have become dead and empty. The fog was so dense that scarcely a soul had crossed the portals of the Milan Grill Room and hour after hour we had gossiped away until the night came. As closing time drew near and the place was practically empty, he leaned across the small table at which we were seated and unburdened himself of a confidence which I think had more than once been on the tip of his tongue.
"Ours has been a wonderful partnership, Louis," he said.
"It is a chapter of my life which I shall always recall with pleasure, Major," I assured him.
He hesitated for a moment, then he laid his hand upon mine in kindly fashion.
"Louis, there have been times when my conscience has troubled me a little with regard to the handling and development of some of our adventures."
"Your conscience?" I repeated. "But why?"
"It is not easy to explain," he admitted after a moment's pause, "but there have been occasions, Louis, when you have pointed out to me certain possibilities about certain people, have suggested an adventure here, a history worth probing into there and I have caught hold of your idea and used it for my own profit or entertainment without even a word of acknowledgement."
I shook my head.
"You exaggerate, Major," I said. "You may have made bricks with my clay sometimes but what use would the clay have been to me chained there to my chair in the Grill Room, unable to get about in the world as you are?"
"You might have done a little more of the modelling yourself if I had encouraged you," he persisted.
"It is a vain idea," I declared. "I sit in my 'Pulpit' and it is true that I watch the faces of the men and women who pass, and occasionally my watching gives birth to an idea which I whisper in your ear. But when the day is finished my mind is a blank."
My companion seemed still dissatisfied.
"There have been times when I ought to have taken you more into my confidence as to what I was doing. You could have given me hints, too, which would have been helpful."
"Forget it, Major," I begged. "I can assure you honestly that no such idea as that has ever entered my head. My limitations are too great."
We parted a few minutes later with a hearty handshake. And I have only recalled this little incident because before many hours had passed an adventure had tapped at my desk and this time, because it was a compatriot and fellow-soldier of the old days who stood there, it was I and I alone who lit the torch.
It was shortly after half past twelve the next morning when through the swing doors of the Grill Room a tall, gaunt man came and paused for a moment at my desk. He was neatly and correctly dressed, his bearing seemed to indicate a military training and his expression was pleasing, if a little subdued. I stared at him and he returned my scrutiny. Recollection dawned slowly, but it came.
"You remember me?" he asked.
"You were number twenty-seven," I said, "in a famous company of spahis. You are also the Marquis de Valbonne--Henri, Marquis de Valbonne."
"Quite right," he admitted. "You remember other things perhaps."
I looked at his hands. I could no more have refrained from that quick glance than I could have strangled the memory which evoked it.
"You are the man," I said slowly, "who never removes his gloves."
He raised his arms. It was true. He had removed his hat and overcoat but on his hands he still wore grey suede gloves, two-button gloves, they were, covering also a portion of his wrists.
"Your memory is good, Louis," he acknowledged. "Presently we may speak a little more of the past. Meanwhile, will you find me a retired table where people will not take too much notice of my peculiarity."
So I sent him away with José to a table which was only within sight of a few in that crowded room. Directly after I had sent him a thought came into my mind, a thought without a doubt suggested by my conversation with Lyson the previous night. If anyone ever told the story of the man who never removed his gloves it would be I, Louis Duchèsne, manager of the Milan Grill Room, one-time sergeant in that most famous corps of the French North African Legion.
A few minutes later, curiously enough, my friend Major Lyson looked into the room and paused at my desk for his usual morning greeting. Always the same question rose to his lips.
"There is something of interest which has arrived," I told him. "A man is here whom I have not seen for close on twenty years."
"The mischief!" Lyson exclaimed. "And you remembered him?"
"He has not aged out of all recognition, then?"
"He has aged, but I should have recognized him anywhere," I replied. "He is known as the man who never removes his gloves."
Lyson looked puzzled.
"What--you mean that he eats and drinks and sleeps in them?" he asked.
"At any time that he is within the range of another pair of eyes," I answered, "his gloves are there. He never removes them."
"He has a reason?" Lyson asked curiously.
"The very best. He has no hands."
Lyson stared at me incredulously but I turned away. A more important person than my friend was claiming my attention--Mr. Samuel B. Banes, managing director of the world's greatest film company. Compared with this mighty magnate a man without hands was a person of no account. Mr. Samuel B. Banes himself, his film divinity of the moment, his film divinity's chaperon and her satellites, were grouped around me. I gave them the best table available and I was rewarded with a snappy little nod, a curt word of thanks and a wonderful, lingering glance from a pair of much beringed but lustrous eyes. I am a man now of mature years and the eyes of beautiful women mean little to me. But there was something familiar, something startling in the flood of memories which for a moment assailed me. I brushed it away. The association was too ridiculous. The little cortège passed on.
The stream of incoming lunchers slackened. Soon it ceased. I sat back in my chair and looked out into the courtyard. It seemed to me that a great change had come. The outlook was no longer partially obscured by yellow fog, no longer was there that ceaseless phalanx of glittering cars and tightly wedged-in taxi cabs. The burning sun was shining in a deep blue sky, the dingy front of the theatre opposite had fallen away and the yellow sands stretched even to the straight line where they met the cloudless horizon. There were tents there--tents set out in the middle of the Strand! In front of one of them floated a flag of purple silk and underneath it lounged a black-bearded, dark-skinned man in flowing white garments. On either side were huge Negro slaves, as black as ink, with naked scimitars. A sort of bier was suspended from four poles and upon it, bound with cruel cords, lay a dark-complexioned woman, beautiful even in her strained position, beautiful in the fire of her restless eyes--a woman without a stitch of clothing upon her. Negresses held a canopy over her head but her lips twitched with the agony of the burning sun. She was beautiful with a beauty which in these times seems to have left the earth, and there was something poignantly familiar about the stab of those anguished eyes. The little procession passed before me again: Banes, a mean-faced, common man with all the arrogance of the West; his great find,--a coming Cleopatra,--the woman who was to bring him more and more millions; slave girls--or were they after all only minor luminaries of the stage hot from Shaftesbury Avenue or Elstree? There was a faint confusion in my brain. My vision had become confused with real people. Behind it there was music, a strange, sobbing strain of music. There were voices stranger still.
The tap upon my desk was repeated. I came back into that foggy morning with a little start of surprise.
"What is it, José?" I asked.
The man was in distress. The Grill Room was certainly not overheated that day but beads of perspiration stood out upon his forehead. The smile which so seldom left his lips had vanished and José was a very different man without it.
"It is the young woman whom Mr. Banes has brought in, sir," he explained. "She is upsetting the whole place. Never have I waited upon anyone so unreasonable, so bad-tempered, so capricious. One by one she has ordered all the waiters from the table. She has called them names which one hears only in the slums of Paris or the low quarters of Algiers. None of them will go near her table. She finds fault with everything that is put before her."
"These film people are sometimes quite unreasonable, José," I said soothingly. "They have, I hope, but a brief place in the front of life and while they are there we have to do the best we can. Mr. Banes's account for last month, as you know, was the largest of any of our clients. What is the trouble at this moment?"
"She has ordered sauerkraut with salmon," José cried in despair. "She poured vinegar over her caviar because she declared that it was sweet. She is a lunatic! Now she has insisted upon Mr. Banes sending out a messenger for a box of Turkish delight."
"Take her a mixture of green vegetables and pickled cabbage and swear that it is sauerkraut," I suggested, "or better still let Maurice take it. There are few people in his corner of the room, he is the best-looking waiter in the place and he speaks all those North African dialects. What is she?"
"Soudanese or Arabian," José replied drearily. "She might even be an Egyptian but no one can understand anything she says except now and then a word or two of her awful French."
"The newspapers insist upon it that she is Egyptian," I told him. "On the other hand she is announced as being the daughter of the Sultan of Zaroda who was the last of the independent chieftains of Morocco. Anything might be true about her, anything might be a tissue of lies as long as Banes's publicity men are at work. Keep away from her for a time. Send Maurice. Keep on serving her with plenty of food. Does she drink anything?"
"Sugar and water," José groaned. "Every now and then she changes her mind and drinks a glass of champagne."
"How is Mr. Banes bearing up?"
For the first time something almost like a smile flickered on José's lips.
"He is meek like a lamb. He has just promised her the largest emerald in London if she will eat her lunch quietly and go to the studio this afternoon."
"Go back and do what you can with her, José," I begged. "Mr. Banes is a wonderful client and he must be having a bad time of it himself. And do not forget to send Maurice to her table."
José took his leave reluctantly. I spoke to a few of my departing guests and I looked once or twice at the Marquis eating his lunch quietly in his distant corner. Then I found my attention wandering again. I seemed to be back in that burning sunlight. Slowly the picture re-formed itself in my mind. I could almost fancy that I felt the cutting of the cords on my wrists. The white tent with the purple flag was there; the lazy handsome man with the face of an angry lion was seated on the bench covered with golden cloth. He was pointing with his scimitar; at first I thought it was at me, then I knew that it was at Valbonne, who, more closely guarded than I, was standing a few feet away. One of the guards lifted his naked sword and chopped at the cords which bound his wrists. The cords fell away. Very lazily the Sultan rose to his feet and strolled to his side. He held his scimitar in his hand. The girl was shrieking. Strange how I remember the exact note of that shriek, the horror of it as it seemed to cut through the low, mournful cry of the sentinel who stood upon a rock a few feet away with his face turned westwards. Then I knew I was going to see it happen again, the sight which for years had dwelt in my mind, had filled me so often with horror. The scimitar swung through the air. I screwed my eyes up tight that I might not see those bleeding stumps or hear that dreadful cry from Valbonne's dry throat.
It was José, looking up at me in surprise.
"You are not well, sir?" he asked quickly.
"Perfectly," I answered. "Why?"
"I thought I heard you mutter something," he replied. "I came back to tell you that the young woman is calmer. She has taken a violent fancy to Maurice. She has held him by the hand each time he has come to the table."
"What about Mr. Banes?" José smiled.
"I think he will engage Maurice to go on the films," he confided. "Anything now to get her away. She has suddenly decided that she likes the place. She is shouting no longer. Her voice is like music. The papers are right--she is the most beautiful woman in the world when she smiles."
"And my friend who keeps on his gloves?" I asked.
"I gave him a seat in the corner opposite."
"He lunches well," he assured me. "He is a great one that. He has drunk half a bottle of our old Chambertin. Everything he has chosen has been of the best."
"He is not disturbed by that ill-mannered crowd?"
"On the contrary he amuses himself. He takes little notice but every now and then he smiles."
I shuddered. I talked to José for a moment on indifferent subjects. I had no mind to go back again to those pictured recollections.
"Go over to Major Lyson," I said. "Ask him to take his coffee in my room. I wish him to meet an old friend."
The Marquis de Valbonne was a man of few words, but many years had passed since the drama of that night in the desert and he told Lyson the story in a fragmentary sort of way as we sat over our coffee in my salon, sipped some Napoleon brandy and smoked one of my favourite Larranagas. Lyson, who had held for a brief time a commission in an Egyptian Camel Corps, recalled many stories of that fierce raider of the desert who had called himself the Sultan of Zaroda, and listened with a sort of fascinated horror to the story of our wanderings and the ghastly end of our adventure.
"My friend Louis and I," Valbonne confided, "were the last two Europeans who ever fell into the hands of the Sultan and even then I am not sure that I, at any rate, did not deserve my fate. I knew that the fierce laws of the Sultan's people were zealously kept and I knew that, whether it was my own fault or not, I broke the code. In a sense we were the guests of the Sultan, although he was treating us rather more as his prisoners. Anyhow, the agony of that night kept me a broken man for years. Nothing, I firmly believe, but this meeting with my old comrade-in-arms--Louis Duchèsne--could have induced me to tell the story."
"The wonder to me is that you didn't bleed to death in the desert," Lyson remarked.
"If the troops who were searching for us had arrived an hour later I probably should have done," Valbonne admitted. "They had full stores and a travelling hospital with them when they rounded up the Sultan that night. Even then it was a narrow escape. If the hospital unit had been cut off, and it very nearly was, nothing could have saved me."
"Did anyone hear what became of the Sultan?" Lyson asked.
"He was one of the last of the nomad chiefs to be dealt with," Louis replied. "He refused all terms and as far as I remember he was killed fighting with the remains of his army. Great warriors, those men, but utterly cruel and unprincipled."
"They were faithful to their code," Valbonne acknowledged grimly. "From the Sultan's point of view I had abused his hospitality even though the girl had crept into my tent and taken me into her arms. If I had called out, what good should I have done? We should both have been killed on the spot, Then, too, I was young, at an age when the blood flows fiercely. _Enfin_--I expect I should have been left to the vultures if our men had not come along."
There was an abrupt knocking at the door. I frowned, I am a martinet in my own quarters and no one is permitted to disturb me when I am entertaining friends. On this occasion, however, I was taken by storm, Mr. Samuel B. Banes made his appearance, closely followed by his secretary. With them came the very beautiful woman who had created such a commotion by her entrance into the Grill Room, and the waiter Maurice who had been sent to assist at their table. She was holding him tightly by the arm and there was a very determined light in her glorious eyes.
"Sorry, Louis," Mr. Banes apologized. "This hellcat of a woman doesn't understand any English, so we don't need to waste words. She won't go to the studio, won't go on with her contract unless this blasted waiter of yours goes on the films so that she has him under her eyes all the time. We are going to take him away. Sorry to inconvenience you, but it's got to be done."
The young man made an effort to escape from his companion but she was gripping him firmly.
"But I no wish to go!" he exclaimed. "I am an Austrian and I have my own girl. Soon she arrives. I will marry no one else."
The girl smoothed his arm gently, gazed into his face with melting eyes. It was obvious that she understood nothing of what he was saying.
"Calm yourself, my angel," she begged in halting French. "No one will hurt you. You will be very, very rich and you will be with me always. No one have I seen in this country of fogs and rain to compare with you. You shall be my husband. You are content with that--yes?"
The young man turned almost pitifully to me.
He was extraordinarily good-looking but pallid with anger and fear.
"Monsieur Louis," he pleaded. "Make her understand. I speak no French. I speak only a little English. I have my own girl in Vienna. I will not go upon the films."
"My angel," the girl murmured once more. "What is it that disturbs you? You should be happy. We shall live in a palace. The money--oh, you will have everything in life you desire. Monsieur Louis," she went on, turning to me with a pleading gesture, "he is mine. I want him. He is my man."
"He is my _maître d'hôtel_," I replied. "He does not wish to go upon the films."
"That is foolishness," she cried. "He is no _maître d'hôtel_, He is a Prince! I am sure of that. Mr. Banes here he says that anything in the world I want I may have. I want him."
"But my dear Mademoiselle," I protested, "you cannot take him away against his will. He appeals to me. He is good. He has signed to be my _maître d'hôtel_. He wishes to stay here; therefore he must. You are very beautiful, Mademoiselle. Soon you will have the whole world at your feet."
She stamped her exquisitely shaped foot upon the carpet.
"You do not understand the woman with whom you argue," she cried. "There is only one man in the world for me. This is the man. I take him. Mr. Banes he has given his word and he says anything in the world I wish for is mine. I choose him."
The film magnate, who had been struggling to speak, broke out at last.
"Look here, Louis," he insisted, "you've got to fix this thing for me. This girl is a gift of the gods. I am spending two million dollars on my film. It will paralyze the world. She is the Cleopatra of all the ages. Get it into your head, Louis, I must have her. As for the young man--tear up your contract. You can have what damages you want. I shall start him at a thousand dollars a week--to do nothing. Make him understand that. Let her take him to a Registry Office right away if she wants to. As for the other girl--we will buy her off."
I addressed myself to Maurice. My words were carefully spoken and they carried weight.
"How much money was that?" he interrupted.
"Say it again."
"More than a year's income per week," I told him dryly, "and a great present of money for your lady friend in Vienna."
Maurice's resistance collapsed. He looked languishingly into the fiery, beautiful eyes of the girl. She threw her arms around his neck and patted his cheek.
"Angel!" she murmured rapturously.
"Thank God that's settled!" Mr. Banes observed, leading the way towards the door.
The Marquis de Valbonne moved a step forward.
"Monsieur Banes," he said, "could you tell me the name and parentage of this young lady?"
"She is under contract to me," was the fiercely spoken reply.
The secretary spoke up.
"There is no harm in telling this gentleman, Mr. Banes," he pointed out. "We are just about to announce the fact in the _Publicity Gazette_. She is the only surviving daughter of the last Sultan of Zaroda, the Lion of North Africa."
The Marquis bowed.
"She takes after her mother," he said calmly, looking down at his gloves.
LOUIS and I had a mild dispute on that momentous Wednesday morning.
"Lindsay's account, at the present moment," the manager of the Milan Grill Room admitted, "amounts to four hundred and twenty-four pounds."
"That means he has lived here free, so far as luncheons and dinners are concerned and an odd supper," I pointed out, "for the last two months."
Louis stroked his chin.
"But after all," he observed, "he is a nephew of the Duke of Westchester."
"The Duke is not likely to pay his bills," I rejoined.
"He is also a cousin of Lord Powdrill."
"I have heard him say so," I remarked drily. "I can't see where the relationship can occur."
"At any rate," Louis insisted, "he was lunching here with Lady Mary Gill only last Monday."
"Lady Mary," I said, "owes bills at every restaurant in London and every milliner's in the West End. The fact of it is, Louis, you can't help it but you're just a little bit of a snob."
"The young man is personable," he pointed out. "He always carries himself pleasantly. He has a nodding acquaintance with all the best people who come here. It is very hard to refuse him when he takes his usual table and signs the bill."
"Look here, Louis," I said severely, "have you ever presented him with his account?"
"Half a dozen times."
"And he still goes on signing without paying?"
"Up to the moment," Louis confessed reluctantly.
"To-day I will enclose a note with the bill. I will say that the directors asked for a settlement."
"It would be a wise thing to do," I agreed, "but I think you will be very lucky if you get it."
I passed on to my table in the Grill Room. Coming through the swing door I almost brushed shoulders with Guy Lindsay, the young man we had been discussing. He greeted me with his usual charming smile. The table he had adopted was close to mine and we walked for a yard or two together.
"Doing anything on the Lincolnshire?" he asked casually.
I shook my head.
"Bad handicapping," I remarked. "The French horses have been let off far too lightly. Seems to me they have it all their own way."
"There's one English one," he confided, "I would back against the lot of them. If you want a real—"
"I don't," I interrupted. "To tell you the truth, Lindsay, I never bet. Keep it to yourself and don't spoil your market."
He left me with a dubious little nod and I watched him as he took his place at his table and lit a cigarette whilst he studied the menu. Presently he laid the card down and opened the note from Louis which had just been placed upon the table. He read it with unchanging expression, dropped his eyeglass and thrust it carelessly into his pocket. He unfolded a midday edition and shook it out.
"I will order presently," he told the waiter. "I'm waiting for a lady."
It amused me during the next few minutes to subject my neighbour to a closer scrutiny than I had as yet bestowed upon him. He was known to me well enough in a casual sort of way as one of a group of young men probably decently born but who were generally under some sort of a cloud and whose interests were chiefly concerned with the automobile industry, wine and cigars or the Stock Exchange. There was nothing very much against him so far as appearance went. He was wearing the right sort of clothes in the right sort of way, he was a little more pallid than a young man of fairly athletic build should have been and his eyes were a trifle weary. His face was not exactly vicious but it lacked any of the finer qualities of goodwill or benevolence. Personally, I had developed an idea of my own about Guy Lindsay and half a dozen of his companions and I had done my best to get Louis to discourage their coming to the place. So far I had been unsuccessful. A good name and appearance meant too much to Louis. As I always told him, he liked to dress his Grill Room. A tie of which he did not approve or linen of doubtful quality was as distasteful to Louis as a stumer cheque. Still, the end had to come sometime and I found myself wondering idly about that account which Lindsay had thrust so carelessly into his pocket. I could form a pretty shrewd guess as to the condition of his banking account. It was nowhere near quarter-day if he was in receipt of an allowance, and if he was expecting anything from the Lincolnshire it was still several weeks away. It amused me, by means of a casual glance now and then, to look behind those closely knitted brows and guess at the schemes over which he was brooding. Then the answer to all my speculations suddenly presented itself. A woman wearing heavy furs and malodorous with recklessly applied perfume brushed past my table. A single glance at her was enough. She was apparently between forty and fifty years of age, was florid and had a good-natured expression. She was the absolute reply of Providence to the gigolo's prayer.
"Good boy," she remarked as she took her place at Lindsay's table and threw open her coat. "I'm glad you remembered to come in and take your table. No sort of place for a respectable old lady to sit about—that small lounge with all these film hussies! No, you needn't laugh at me. Give me the menu and we will choose something to eat."
My own luncheon was served just about at this moment and although I still retained a certain amount of curiosity concerning my neighbours I made no deliberate attempt to overhear their conversation. The occasional glances I directed towards their table showed me that the lady was becoming arch and the young man was making the proper responses. The luncheon was apparently going well but that was all that could be said about it. As far as I could gather Guy Lindsay was no nearer touching four hundred pounds. I had reached the coffee stage and was tapping my cigarette when the telephone boy came briskly through the doors and approached my neighbours' table. He bowed to Lindsay's companion and evidently delivered a message. The lady appeared gratified. She shook herself a little and rose to her feet.
"Tell her Ladyship I am coming to the telephone at once," she told the boy, speaking a little louder than was necessary. "Lady Mary wants a word with me," she explained to her host with an air of fluttered interest. "You will have to excuse me for a few moments."
Lindsay rose to his feet and bowed.
"Would you like me to take the message for you?" he suggested.
"Not at all," she replied. "Her Ladyship might be offended."
He smiled ever so slightly. His companion bustled out. As she passed me I noticed that she was wearing a very beautiful ruby pendant. When she returned she was fingering it complacently.
"More bridge!" she exclaimed as she sank back in her chair. "Lady Mary wants me to pledge myself for every Wednesday. It's really too much to ask. No matinée for us this afternoon, young man."
"Where are you going to play?" he asked. "In Hill Street?"
She shook her head.
"Lady Mary has a bachelor girl's apartment in Groton Mews. Seems to me these young women go on anyhow nowadays. I know I should not have been allowed to have bachelor diggings when I was her age."
There was a gleam of steely sarcasm in the young man's eyes as he looked away. His smile, however, had other qualities.
"It is my belief," he said, "that Lady Mary could be trusted anywhere. Probably you used to give your parents a spot of anxiety now and then."
"Nothing of the sort," she declared with a little laugh and a meaning look. "I have learnt to take care of myself—that's all. I am not at all sure that I would trust myself in a bachelor flat with you."
"Perhaps you are wise," he said. "I was never very good at resisting temptation."
"You are not suggesting that I should tempt you, are you?" she demanded with a self-conscious little effort at prudery.
He dropped his voice as he answered her and I heard no more of their conversation. I did, however, hear his parting words when she rose to leave. He was escorting her to the door and from his farewell it was fairly easy to fill in the gaps of their conversation.
"Seven o'clock," he reminded her. "Just a quick cocktail. Number IIa, Clarges Street."
"Don't be disappointed if I don't turn up," she enjoined. "Even at my advanced age—"
"Rubbish!" he interrupted with a little laugh.
All the same, I still had doubts as to whether the Milan Hotel would touch that four hundred and twenty-four pounds.
Twenty-four hours later I was not quite so sure. I found the two already seated at the luncheon table when I came in and it seemed to me that the young man, at any rate, was in a somewhat hysterical state. I could not make up my mind at first whether they had commenced a love affair or were still sparring. They seemed to have ordered luncheon on a fairly generous scale, for although Lindsay had demanded only cold ham, salad and a jar of chutney, Madam was already engaged upon a useful-looking dish of caviar and sipping the vodka which accompanied it with complete satisfaction. In a certain sense her attitude towards her companion seemed to have become slightly maternal, which was a bad sign.
"Don't you eat so much of that pickled stuff, Guy," she enjoined. "Nothing worse for you."
"Nothing better for mine," he answered promptly. "Helps digestion."
"You must learn not to contradict me," she said archly.
"I don't expect I shall often want to," he replied. I moved my chair a few inches farther away and devoted myself to ordering my own luncheon. I have never felt altogether comfortable acquiring information solely by means of eavesdropping and I felt that there was nothing further to be learnt for the moment which would interest or benefit Louis, so I left them to themselves.
Presently history repeated itself. The telephone boy came hurrying into the room and bowed to the lady.
"Mrs. Masters is wanted upon the telephone," he announced.
"What, again?" she exclaimed. "Who is it?"
"I'm sorry, Madam," the boy replied, "but I couldn't catch the name."
She rose to her feet.
"Well, I suppose I'd better see who it is," she remarked. "Shan't be long, Guy. You get on with your luncheon."
He half rose to his feet, standing, I thought, a little awkwardly. She had scarcely moved a step towards the door before he sat down again. I glanced under the table and saw that one foot was resting lightly upon some concealed object. He waited till the door was closed, then he moved his foot a little farther back underneath his chair. For a second or two he sat motionless. His eyes seemed to be darting round the room. I felt him look in my direction but I was once more absorbed in my luncheon. He stooped down and picked up the napkin which had slipped from his knees. By the way he was holding it I felt certain that he was using it to cover something which he was collecting from the floor. The next few seconds he was far too clever for me. He shook out the napkin slightly and passed it to a waiter.
"Bring me a fresh one," he ordered nonchalantly. The man obeyed him at once.
Lindsay, to all appearance, continued calmly eating his luncheon. In a moment or two he paused and drew the jar of chutney towards him. His left hand held it steady. With his right he helped himself with the silver fork. Apparently he failed to find what he wanted at first but presently he was served and pushed the pot a little away. A moment later the telephone boy reappeared.
"Madam would be very glad if you would join her for a minute at the telephone," he announced. "She is talking there but she has a message."
"You mean that she wants me to go out to the telephone?" the young man asked with a slightly disturbed air.
"For a moment, sir," the boy replied. "I think she wants to ask you something about an appointment."
With an unwillingness which seemed incomprehensible he rose slowly to his feet. I noticed that he glanced back towards the pot of chutney which had been standing at his elbow. His last remark was addressed to the waiter of the table who was hovering by.
"I shall be back in three minutes," he said. "Let nothing on the table be touched."
He left the place. I summoned José.
"José," I said, "listen! Take that pot of chutney from the table, put a napkin over it so that no one sees what you are carrying, and leave it in Louis's room. You understand?"
José looked at me with wide-eyed surprise.
"If it is necessary for you to tell a lie you must tell it," I went on. "Listen carefully. If anyone asks you what has become of that pot of chutney you don't know. You understand—you do not know."
José was himself again.
"I understand perfectly, Major Lyson."
He picked up the pot in question, draped it in a napkin and hurried away. I continued my luncheon. It was fully five minutes before my neighbour reappeared. He stopped short before taking his place and stared at the table. Then he turned indignantly upon the waiter who was holding his chair.
"What has become of the chutney?" he demanded. The man looked at the table in surprise.
"I'm sure I don't know, sir," he confessed. "One of the waiters must have taken it away. He will get you another pot at once."
Lindsay was making an effort at self-control but he seemed to find it difficult.
"Listen," he said. "It was gross impertinence for anyone to remove anything from the table. Bring me the same pot of chutney and don't be long about it, either."
The waiter hurried off. He spoke to José, who shook his head in a non-committal way. He spoke to the other two waiters who were serving in the neighbourhood without result, then he disappeared.
It was several minutes before he presented himself with an unopened pot of chutney, which he placed upon the table.
"I have brought you a fresh jar," he announced.
"But I wanted the same one," Lindsay snapped. "I insist upon having the same one. No one had any right to take it away."
The waiter was beginning to feel a little aggrieved.
"I didn't take it away, sir," he repeated. "I have done the best I can. I fetched you another pot. It's all the same."
"Send the maître d'hôtel," Lindsay ordered. José came up smiling.
"Look here," Lindsay cried, "I was called to the telephone, I was away less than five minutes, I left orders that nothing on my table was to be touched. Someone has taken away the jar of chutney."
José pointed to the newly arrived jar.
"Someone asked for it, I suppose, sir," he explained, "and the waiter would naturally take it away for a moment. Your man has brought you an unopened jar of the same brand."
"No one had a right to touch anything on my table," Lindsay said furiously. "I wanted that particular jar."
José bowed regretfully.
"Monsieur," he said, "I will do the best I can to find it for you;
otherwise I hope you will be content with the same thing which is now being
He bustled away. Lindsay turned to me.
"Did you see anyone remove that pot, Major Lyson?"
"I saw a waiter at your table," I admitted. "He took something away."
"Which one?" he asked eagerly. I shook my head.
"I didn't notice," I told him.
The minutes went on. Lindsay seemed to have lost his appetite for he ate no more luncheon. The waiter only once came to his table.
"Shall I keep the cutlets warm for Madam, sir?" he asked.
"Madam will not be returning," the young man replied. "Why don't you do as you are told and bring me back what I asked for?"
The waiter opened the pot of chutney.
"This is the same in every respect, sir," he said, "and a perfectly fresh jar."
Lindsay helped himself mechanically but a moment or two later he pushed his plate away and half rose to his feet. I believe that his intention was to make a tour of the room on a very hopeless quest. I stopped him.
"Still worrying about your jar of chutney?"
"It is perhaps ridiculous of me," he admitted, "but I hate disobedience. I said that nothing on my table was to be touched."
"If you want that particular jar," I said, "I think I can help you to find it."
"Wonderful!" he exclaimed. "I do want it."
"Come with me," I invited.
He followed me—nervous, apprehensive but clinging to a last hope. As I passed Louis's desk I leaned over and whispered in his ear; then I led my companion through the doors and into the private salon. The jar of chutney was on the sideboard still draped in the napkin. I withdrew the latter and I was obliged to hold out my arm firmly or my companion would have seized the jar.
"Mr. Lindsay," I said, "you have a serious matter to face."
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
The door opened and closed. Louis had made his appearance. I turned to him.
"Louis," I confided, "I have either made a ridiculous mistake or there is a ruby pendant of considerable value in this jar. Watch this."
I picked up a plate, inverted the chutney bottle, tapped it a little and something solid came out with a chink. I wiped it with the napkin and there it was—the ruby pendant.
The young man made no attempt to possess himself of the jewel. He stared at it and then at me.
"Mr. Lindsay was lunching at the next table," I said. "I saw him playing with something with his foot which must have become detached from his companion's chain and rolled under the table. He kept his foot upon it until she was summoned to the telephone. During her absence, which I suggest was prearranged, Lindsay displayed remarkable sleight of hand. He dropped his napkin, stooped down, recovered the pendant, watched for his moment and dropped it in the chutney jar. Unfortunately for the completion of any little scheme he might have had in his mind, however, his lady companion sent for him to join her at the telephone. In the meantime I sent for José. I had the jar removed from the table and brought here. You see the result."
Lindsay had gone very white. He gripped at the edge of the sideboard for a moment; then he sank into a chair.
"Just as the first chance of my life for years had come!" he exclaimed bitterly. "Are you going to tell Mrs. Masters this story?"
"Why not?" I asked drily. "We shall have to make some explanation when we return the pendant."
The young man seemed to pull himself together with an effort. He rose to his feet.
"Listen to me for two minutes first," he begged. "I have heard that you are a good fellow, Lyson, although I don't know much of you. I have heard of Louis doing big and generous things. Listen to me! I never had a chance in my life. I have tried to make an honest living in a dozen ways. Something always seems to have happened just as I thought I had really got going. I have never stolen yet, although I have cheated at cards twice and have taken commissions from night-clubs—done half a dozen dirty things of which I'm ashamed but nothing as bad as, this. Don't stop me, please," he protested as I was about to intervene. "This woman lost her husband a few years ago. She is very lonely and she seemed to take a fancy to me. Very well, I said to myself, it has come to that. I am going to play the gigolo. If I cannot make a living honestly—and I have made many efforts—I will give in. I took her to my flat yesterday. I meant to rob her there. I couldn't do it. But I confess I loosened the pendant which she gave me to look at whilst she was examining some of my prints and that is how it fell off and rolled under the table at lunch time. I had plenty of chances of visiting her flat and stealing things. I didn't do it. She was a little stupid, of course, but she was sympathetic and I began to tell her things about myself. By the time I had finished she was crying. 'I will give you a chance, Guy,' she said. 'I have sent my third secretary away. I will take you on: five hundred a year and your board—and I don't want anything else from you, mind, not at present at any rate. I am quite fond of you and for the first time I feel that there may be some good about you somewhere if one could get at it.' I was too ashamed to say much. I accepted. I swear that I intended to turn over a new leaf altogether and to live on the five hundred a year I was to get. Then she suddenly asked me whether I had any debts. I haven't many but I owe over four hundred in the restaurant here. My tailor doesn't count because he owes me almost as much in commissions. I have paid up at my single room because I have had to. I told her I only had one large debt—between four and five hundred pounds—and she said she would think about it. Then we came out to lunch to-day. We no sooner sat down than that pendant I had loosened rolled under the table. I couldn't help it. I covered it with my foot. Then she was called away."
"Your story sounds plausible," I acknowledged, "but at the best you meant to rob the lady."
"I certainly did."
"Give me a chance," he begged. "I tell you honestly that I don't want to be a thief. I want to live a decent life amongst decent people. The chance has come just at this moment. You can take it away from me if you want to."
I looked at the pendant; I looked at Louis; I looked finally at the young man. Somehow or other I saw him differently. He had lost his cringing look; there was real purpose in his face; there was something in his eyes that looked like the truth.
"What is your proposition?" I asked.
"Give me the pendant. Let me return it to her—say that I picked it up under the table. Let me take this post that she offers me and I swear to God, Lyson, that I will play the straight game. I'll keep away from those other fellows. I won't rob that dear old thing of a penny. I will earn my living honestly looking after my job. It's the first real chance I've ever had in my life."
I looked at Louis.
"What do you say?" I asked.
He took up the pendant and rubbed it carefully with his silk handkerchief. Then he handed it to the young man.
"We will take a chance," he said. "Remember that if you let us down and bolt we shall have to pay for the pendant."
Lindsay swallowed very hard. For a moment I thought he was going to break down.
"I'll ask you both to shake hands with me a little later on. I'll go now."
He carried himself altogether differently as he left the room. What he did immediately afterwards was not our business. We sat and looked at one another. Then Louis smiled. That old irresistible grin came over his tired features and I felt an answering glow.
"I believe," I said firmly, "that he will keep his word."
All the same, when a fortnight went by and we saw nothing of Lindsay or his lady friend I began to wonder. Then one day I found them seated at the table next to mine at luncheon time. Lindsay was looking younger and yet far more of a man. Mrs. Masters had found a decent dressmaker. She had gained something. There is scarcely a word which would express it—perhaps poise might come nearest. They both turned and bowed when I took my place. Lindsay leaned over.
"May we talk to you for a few minutes afterwards?" he begged.
"With pleasure," I answered. "You must come in and shake hands with Louis."
They loitered over their luncheon. Mrs. Masters had lost all her braggadocio. The young man, without undue effusiveness, paid her many small attentions and kept her amused. They did no beating about the bush when in response to a word of invitation at the end of the meal they followed me into Louis's room. It was Mrs. Masters who spoke first and she spoke very pleasantly.
"I know all about everything," she said. "Guy told me he could not be happy until he had made a clean breast of it. I think you two were just real human beings. That is all I can say about it and I thank you for Guy's sake as well as my own."
"And I," the young man added with a rather whimsical smile, "have only one confession to make. I never had any idea of that sort of thing but during the last fortnight I have grown very fond of Mrs. Masters. The situation of secretary pleases me, the work is interesting and I am quite capable of coping with it. All the same—"
"All the same," Mrs. Masters went on, "there is really only nine years' difference in our ages, I am really very fond of Guy and we are going to be married very quietly next Thursday. You will have your card of invitation. Meanwhile, one of my wedding presents to him has been this."
She handed over an envelope. We all shook hands and they left us. The envelope contained a cheque for the exact amount of Lindsay's indebtedness. I went to the wedding. Louis came in to the reception afterwards. We drove home together. Louis laid his hand for a moment upon my shoulder.
"My friend," he said, "do you ever realize that we made ourselves liable to a charge of conspiracy?"
"I would do it again," I confessed.
"So would I," he agreed.