OF all the functions that ornament the calendar of the English social and sporting year, surely the Cowes week may claim to rank as one of the greatest, or at least the most enjoyable. So thought Simon Carne as he sat on the deck of Lord Tremorden’s yacht, anchored off the mouth of the Medina River, smoking his cigarette and whispering soft nothings into the little shell-like ear of Lady Mabel Madderley, the lady of all others who had won the right to be considered the beauty of the past season. It was a perfect afternoon, and, as if to fill his flagon of enjoyment to the very brim, he had won the Queen's Cup with his yacht, The Unknown Quantity, only half an hour before. Small wonder, therefore, that he was contented with his lot in life, and his good fortune of that afternoon in particular.
The tiny harbour was crowded with shipping of all sorts, shapes, and sizes, including the guardship, his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Westphalia's yacht the Hohenzollern, the English Royal yachts, steam yachts, schooners, cutters, and all the various craft taking part in England's greatest water carnival. Steam launches darted hither and thither, smartly equipped gigs conveyed gaily-dressed parties from vessel to vessel, while, ashore, the little town itself was alive with bunting, and echoed to the strains of almost continuous music.
"Surely you ought to consider yourself a very happy man, Mr. Carne," said Lady Mabel Madderley, with a smile, in reply to a speech of the other's. "You won the Derby in June, and to-day you have appropriated the Queen's Cup."
"If such things constitute happiness, I suppose I must be in the seventh heaven of delight," answered Carne, as he took another cigarette from his case and lit it. "All the same, I am insatiable enough to desire still greater fortune. When one has set one's heart upon winning something, beside which the Derby and the Queen's Cup are items scarcely worth considering, one is rather apt to feel that fortune has still much to give."
"I am afraid I do not quite grasp your meaning," she said. But there was a look in her face that told him that, if she did not understand, she could at least make a very good guess. According to the world's reckoning, he was quite the best fish then swimming in the matrimonial pond, and some people, for the past few weeks, had even gone so far as to say that she had hooked him. It could not be denied that he had been paying her unmistakable attention of late.
What answer he would have vouchsafed to her speech it is impossible to say, for at that moment their host came along the deck towards them. He carried a note in his hand.
"I have just received a message to say that his Imperial Majesty is going to honour us with a visit," he said, when he reached them. "If I mistake not, that is his launch coming towards us now."
Lady Mabel and Simon Carne rose and accompanied him to the starboard bulwarks. A smart white launch, with the Westphalian flag flying at her stern, had left the Royal yacht and was steaming quickly towards them. A few minutes later it had reached the companion ladder, and Lord Tremorden had descended to welcome his Royal guest. When they reached the deck together, his Majesty shook hands with Lady Tremorden, and afterwards with Lady Mabel and Simon Carne.
"I must congratulate you most heartily, Mr. Carne," he said, "on your victory to-day. You gave us an excellent race, and though I had the misfortune to be beaten by thirty seconds, still I have the satisfaction of knowing that the winner was a better boat in every way than my own."
"Your Majesty adds to the sweets of victory by your generous acceptance of defeat," Carne replied. "But I must confess that I owe my success in no way to my own ability. The boat was chosen for me by another, and I have not even the satisfaction of saying that I sailed her myself."
"Nevertheless she is your property, and you will go down to posterity famous in yachting annals as the winner of the Queen's Cup in this justly celebrated year."
With this compliment his Majesty turned to his hostess and entered into conversation with her, leaving his aide-de-camp free to discuss the events of the day with Lady Mabel. When he took his departure half an hour later, Carne also bade his friends good-bye, and, descending to his boat, was rowed away to his own beautiful steam yacht, which was anchored a few cables' length away from the Imperial craft. He was to dine on board the latter vessel that evening.
ON gaining the deck he was met by Belton, his valet, who carried a telegram in his hand. As soon as he received it, Carne opened it and glanced at the contents, without, however, betraying very much interest.
An instant later the expression upon his face changed like magic. Still holding the message in his hand, he turned to Belton.
"Come below," he said quickly. "There is news enough here to give us something to think of for hours to come."
Reaching the saloon, which was decorated with all the daintiness of the upholsterer's art, he led the way to the cabin he had arranged as a study. Having entered it, he shut and locked the door.
"It's all up, Belton," he said. "The comedy has lasted long enough, and now it only remains for us to speak the tag, and after that to ring the curtain down as speedily as may be."
"I am afraid, sir, I do not quite take your meaning," said Belton. "Would you mind telling me what has happened?"
"I can do that in a very few words," the other answered. "This cablegram is from Trincomalee Liz, and was dispatched from Bombay yesterday. Read it for yourself."
He handed the paper to his servant, who read it carefully, aloud:
TO CARNE, PORCHESTER HOUSE, PARK LANE, LONDON.—BRADFIELD LEFT FORTNIGHT SINCE. HAVE ASCERTAINED THAT YOU ARE THE OBJECT. TRINCOMALEE.
"This is very serious, sir," said the other, when he had finished.
"As you say, it is very serious indeed," Carne replied. "Bradfield thinks he has caught me at last, I suppose; but he seems to forget that it is possible for me to be as clever as himself. Let me look at the message again. Left a fortnight ago, did he? Then I've still a little respite. By Jove, if that's the case, I'll see that I make the most of it."
"But surely, sir, you will leave at once," said Belton quickly. "If this man, who has been after us so long, is now more than half way to England, coming with the deliberate intention of running you to earth, surely, sir, you'll see the advisability of making your escape while you have time."
Carne smiled indulgently.
"Of course I shall escape, my good Belton," he said. "You have never known me neglect to take proper precautions yet; but before I go I must do one more piece of business. It must be something by the light of which all I have hitherto accomplished will look like nothing. Something really great, that will make England open its eyes as it has not done yet."
Belton stared at him, this time in undisguised amazement.
"Do you mean to tell me, sir," he said with the freedom of a privileged servant, "that you intend to run another risk, when the only man who knows sufficient of your career to bring you to book is certain to be in England in less than a fortnight? I cannot believe that you would be so foolish, sir. I beg of you to think what you are doing."
Carne, however, paid but small attention to his servant's entreaties.
"The difficulty," he said to himself, speaking his thoughts aloud, "is to understand quite what to do. I seem to have used up all my big chances. However, I'll think it over, and it will be strange if I don't hit upon something. In the meantime, Belton, you had better see that preparations are made for leaving England on Friday next. Tell the skipper to have everything ready. We shall have done our work by that time; then head for the open sea and freedom from the trammels of a society life once more. You might drop a hint or two to certain people that I am going, but be more than careful what you say. Write to the agents about Porchester House, and attend to all the other necessary details. You may leave me now."
Belton bowed, and left the cabin without another word. He knew his master sufficiently well to feel certain that neither entreaties nor expostulations would make him abandon the course he had mapped out for himself. That being so, he bowed to the inevitable with a grace which had now become a habit to him.
WHEN he was alone, Carne once more sat for upwards of an hour in earnest thought. He then ordered his gig, and, when it was ready, set out for the shore. Making his way to the telegraph office, he dispatched a message which at any other, and less busy, time, would have caused the operator some astonishment. It was addressed to a Mahommedan dealer in precious stones in Bombay, and contained only two words in addition to the signature. They were:
He knew that they would reach the person for whom they were intended, and that she would understand their meaning and act accordingly.
THE dinner that night on board the Imperial yacht Hohenzollern was a gorgeous affair in every sense of the word. All the principal yacht owners were present, and, at the conclusion of the banquet, Carne's health, as winner of the great event of the regatta, was proposed by the Emperor himself, and drunk amid enthusiastic applause. It was a proud moment for the individual in question, but he bore his honours with that quiet dignity that had stood him in such good stead on so many similar occasions. In his speech he referred to his approaching departure from England, and this, the first inkling of such news, came upon his audience like a thunder-clap. When they had taken leave of his Majesty soon after midnight, and were standing on deck, waiting for their respective boats to draw up to the accommodation ladder, Lord Orpington made his way to where Simon Carne was standing.
"Is it really true that you intend leaving us so soon?" he asked.
"Quite true, unfortunately," Carne replied. "I had hoped to have remained longer, but circumstances over which I have no control make it imperative that I should return to India without delay. Business that exercises a vital influence upon my fortunes compels me. I am therefore obliged to leave without fail on Friday next. I have given orders to that effect this afternoon."
"I am extremely sorry to hear it, that's all I can say," said Lord Amberley, who had just come up. "I assure you we shall all miss you very much indeed."
"You have all been extremely kind," said Carne, "and I have to thank you for an exceedingly pleasant time. But, there, let us postpone consideration of the matter for as long as possible. I think this is my boat. Won't you let me take you as far as your own yacht?"
"Many thanks, but I don't think we need trouble you," said Lord Orpington. "I see my gig is just behind yours."
"In that case, good-night," said Carne. "I shall see you as arranged, to-morrow morning, I suppose?"
"At eleven," said Lord Amberley. "We'll call for you and go ashore together. Good-night."
BY the time Carne had reached his yacht he had made up his mind. He had also hit upon a scheme, the daring of which almost frightened himself. If only he could bring it off, he told himself, it would be indeed a fitting climax to all he had accomplished since he had arrived in England. Retiring to his cabin, he allowed Belton to assist him in his preparations for the night almost without speaking. It was not until the other was about to leave the cabin that he broached the subject that was occupying his mind to the exclusion of all else.
"Belton," he said, "I have decided upon the greatest scheme that has come into my mind yet. If Simon Carne is going to say farewell to the English people on Friday next, and it succeeds, he will leave them a legacy to think about for some time after he has gone."
"You are surely not going to attempt anything further, sir," said Belton in alarm. "I did hope, sir, that you would have listened to my entreaties this afternoon."
"It was impossible for me to do so," said Carne. "I am afraid, Belton, you are a little lacking in ambition. I have noticed that on the last three occasions you have endeavoured to dissuade me from my endeavours to promote the healthy excitement of the English reading public. On this occasion fortunately I am able to withstand you. To-morrow morning you will commence preparations for the biggest piece of work to which I have yet put my hand."
"If you have set your mind upon doing it, sir, I am quite aware that it is hopeless for me to say anything," said Belton resignedly. "May I know, however, what it is going to be?"
Carne paused for a moment before he replied.
"I happen to know that the Emperor of Westphalia, whose friendship I have the honour to claim," he said, "has a magnificent collection of gold plate on board his yacht. It is my intention, if possible, to become the possessor of it."
"Surely that will be impossible, sir," said Belton. "Clever as you undoubtedly are in arranging these things, I do not see how you can do it. A ship at the best of times is such a public place, and they will be certain to guard it very closely."
"I must confess that at first glance I do not quite see how it is to be managed, but I have a scheme in my head which I think may possibly enable me to effect my purpose. At any rate, I shall be able to tell you more about it to-morrow. First, let us try a little experiment."
As he spoke he seated himself at his dressing-table, and bade Belton bring him a box which had hitherto been standing in a corner. When he opened it, it proved to be a pretty little cedar- wood affair divided into a number of small compartments, each of which contained crêpe hair of a different colour. Selecting a small portion from one particular compartment, he unraveled it until he had obtained the length he wanted, and then with dexterous fingers constructed a moustache, which he attached with spirit gum to his upper lip. Two or three twirls gave it the necessary curl, then with a pair of ivory-backed brushes taken from the dressing-table he brushed his hair back in a peculiar manner, placed a hat of uncommon shape upon his head, took a heavy boat cloak from a cupboard near at hand, threw it round his shoulders, and, assuming an almost defiant expression, faced Belton, and desired him to tell him whom he resembled.
Familiar as he was with his master's marvellous power of disguise and his extraordinary faculty of imitation, the latter could not refrain from expressing his astonishment.
"His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Westphalia," he said. "The likeness is perfect."
"Good," said Carne. "From that exhibition you will gather something of my plan. To-morrow evening, as you are aware, I am invited to meet his Majesty, who is to dine ashore accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Count Von Walzburg. Here is the latter's photograph. He possesses, as you know, a very decided personality, which is all in our favour. Study it carefully."
So saying, he took from a drawer a photograph, which he propped against the looking-glass on the dressing-table before him. It represented a tall, military-looking individual, with bristling eyebrows, a large nose, a heavy grey moustache, and hair of the same colour. Belton examined it carefully.
"I can only suppose, sir," he said, "that, as you are telling me this, you intend me to represent Count Von Walzburg."
"Exactly," said Carne. "That is my intention. It should not be at all difficult. The Count is just your height and build. You will only need the moustache, the eyebrows, the grey hair, and the large nose, to look the part exactly. To-morrow will be a dark night, and, if only I can control circumstances sufficiently to obtain the chance I want, detection, in the first part of our scheme at any rate, should be most unlikely, if not almost impossible."
"You'll excuse my saying so, I hope, sir," said Belton, "but it seems a very risky game to play when we have done so well up to the present."
"You must admit that the glory will be the greater, my friend, if we succeed."
"But surely, sir, as I said just now, they keep the plate, you mention in a secure place, and have it properly guarded."
"I have made the fullest inquiries, you may be sure. It is kept in a safe in the chief steward's cabin, and, while it is on board, a sentry is always on duty at the door. Yes, all things considered, I should say it is kept in a remarkably secure place."
"Then, sir, I'm still at a loss to see how you are going to obtain possession of it."
Carne smiled indulgently. It pleased him to see how perplexed his servant was.
"In the simplest manner possible," he said, "provided always that I can get on board the yacht without my identity being questioned. The manner in which we are to leave the vessel will be rather more dangerous, but not sufficiently so to cause us any great uneasiness. You are a good swimmer, I know, so that a hundred yards should not hurt you. You must also have a number of stout canvas sacks, say six, prepared, and securely attached to each the same number of strong lines; the latter must be fifty fathoms long, and have at the end of each a stout swivel hook. The rest is only a matter of detail. Now, what have you arranged with regard to matters in town?"
"I have fulfilled your instructions, sir, to the letter," said Belton. "I have communicated with the agents who act for the owner of Porchester House. I have caused an advertisement to be inserted in all the papers to-morrow morning to the effect that the renowned detective, Klimo, will be unable to meet his clients for at least a month, owing to the fact that he has accepted an important engagement upon the Continent, which will take him from home for that length of time. I have negotiated the sale of the various horses you have in training, and I have also arranged for the disposal of the animals and carriages you have now in use in London. Ram Gafur and the other native servants at Porchester House will come down by the midday train to-morrow, but before they do so, they will fulfil your instructions and repair the hole in the wall between the two houses. I cannot think of any more, sir."
"You have succeeded admirably, my dear Belton," said Carne, "and I am very pleased. To-morrow you had better see that a paragraph is inserted in all the daily papers announcing the fact that it is my intention to leave England for India immediately, on important private business. I think that will do for tonight."
Belton tidied the cabin, and, having done so, bade his master good-night. It was plain that he was exceedingly nervous about the success of the enterprise upon which Carne was embarking so confidently. The latter, on the other hand, retired to rest and slept as peacefully as if he had not a care or an anxiety upon his mind.
NEXT morning he was up by sunrise, and, by the time his friends Lords Orpington and Amberley were thinking about breakfast, had put the finishing touches to the scheme which was to bring his career in England to such a fitting termination.
According to the arrangement entered into on the previous day, his friends called for him at eleven o'clock, when they went ashore together. It was a lovely morning, and Carne was in the highest spirits. They visited the Castle together, made some purchases in the town, and then went off to lunch on board Lord Orpington's yacht. It was well-nigh three o'clock before Carne bade his host and hostess farewell, and descended the gangway in order to return to his own vessel. A brisk sea was running, and for this reason to step into the boat was an exceedingly difficult, if not a dangerous, matter. Either he miscalculated his distance, or he must have jumped at the wrong moment; at any rate, he missed his footing, and fell heavily on to the bottom. Scarcely a second, however, had elapsed before his coxswain had sprung to his assistance, and had lifted him up on to the seat in the stern. It was then discovered that he had been unfortunate enough to once more give a nasty twist to the ankle which had brought him to such grief when he had been staying at Greenthorpe Park on the occasion of the famous wedding.
"My dear fellow, I am so sorry," said Lord Orpington, who had witnessed the accident. "Won't you come on board again? If you can't walk up the ladder we can easily hoist you over the side."
"Many thanks," replied Carne, "but I think I can manage to get back to my own boat. It is better I should do so. My man has had experience of my little ailments, and knows exactly what is best to be done under such circumstances; but it is a terrible nuisance, all the same. I'm afraid it will be impossible for me now to be present at his Royal Highness's dinner this evening, and I have been looking forward to it so much."
"We shall all be exceedingly sorry," said Lord Amberley. "I shall come across in the afternoon to see how you are."
"You are very kind," said Carne, "and I shall be immensely glad to see you if you can spare the time."
With that he gave the signal to his men to push off. By the time he reached his own yacht his foot was so painful that it was necessary for him to be lifted on board—a circumstance which was duly noticed by the occupants of all the surrounding yachts, who had brought their glasses to bear upon him. Once below in his saloon, he was placed in a comfortable chair and left to Belton's careful attention.
"I trust you have not hurt yourself very much, sir," said that faithful individual, who, however, could not prevent a look of satisfaction coming into his face, which seemed to say that he was not ill-pleased that his master would, after all, be prevented from carrying out the hazardous scheme he had proposed to him the previous evening.
In reply, Carne sprang to his feet without showing a trace of lameness.
"My dear Belton, how peculiarly dense you are to-day," he said, with a smile, as he noticed the other's amazement. "Cannot you see that I have only been acting as you yourself wished I should do early this morning—namely, taking precautions? Surely you must see that, if I am laid up on board my yacht with a sprained ankle, society will say that is quite impossible for me to be doing any mischief elsewhere. Now, tell me, is everything prepared for tonight?"
"Everything, sir," Belton replied. "The dresses and wigs are ready. The canvas sacks, and the lines to which the spring hooks are attached, are in your cabin awaiting your inspection. As far as I can see, everything is prepared, and I hope will meet with your satisfaction."
"If you are as careful as usual, I feel sure it will," said Carne. "Now get some bandages and make this foot of mine up into as artistic a bundle as you possibly can. After that help me on deck and prop me up in a chair. As soon as my accident gets known there will be certain to be shoals of callers on board, and I must play my part as carefully as possible."
AS Carne had predicted, this proved to be true. From half-past three until well after six o'clock a succession of boats drew up at his accommodation ladder, and the sufferer on deck was the recipient of as much attention as would have flattered the vainest of men. He had been careful to send a letter of apology to the illustrious individual who was to have been his host, expressing his sincere regrets that the accident which had so unfortunately befallen him would prevent the possibility of his being able to be present at the dinner he was giving that evening.
Day closed in and found the sky covered with heavy clouds. Towards eight o'clock a violent storm of rain fell, and when Carne heard it beating upon the deck above his cabin, and reflected that in consequence the night would in all probability be dark, he felt that his lucky star was indeed in the ascendant.
At half-past eight he retired to his cabin with Belton, in order to prepare for the events of the evening. Never before had he paid such careful attention to his make-up. He knew that on this occasion the least carelessness might lead to detection, and he had no desire that his last and greatest exploit should prove his undoing.
It was half-past nine before he and his servant had dressed and were ready to set off. Then, placing broad-brimmed hats upon their heads, and carrying a portmanteau containing the cloaks and headgear which they were to wear later in the evening, they went on deck and descended into the dinghy which was waiting for them alongside. In something under a quarter of an hour they had been put ashore in a secluded spot, had changed their costumes, and were walking boldly down beside the water towards the steps where they could see the Imperial launch still waiting. Her crew were lolling about, joking and laughing, secure in the knowledge that it would be some hours at least before their Sovereign would be likely to require their services again.
Their astonishment, therefore, may well be imagined when they saw approaching them the two men whom they had only half an hour before brought ashore. Stepping in and taking his seat under the shelter, his Majesty ordered them to convey him back to the yacht with all speed. The accent and voice were perfect, and it never for an instant struck any one on board the boat that a deception was being practised. Carne, however, was aware that this was only a preliminary; the most dangerous portion of the business was yet to come.
On reaching the yacht, he sprang out on the ladder, followed by his aide-de-camp, Von Walzburg, and mounted the steps. His disguise must have been perfect indeed, for when he reached the deck he found himself face to face with the first lieutenant, who, on seeing him, saluted respectfully. For a moment Carne's presence of mind almost deserted him; then, seeing that he was not discovered, he determined upon a bold piece of bluff. Returning the officer's salute with just the air he had seen the Emperor use, he led him to suppose that he had important reasons for coming on board so soon, and, as if to back this assertion up, bade him send the chief steward to his cabin, and at the same time have the sentry removed from his door and placed at the end of the large saloon, with instructions to allow no one to pass until he was communicated with again.
The officer saluted and went off on his errand, while Carne, signing to Belton to follow him, made his way down the companion ladder to the Royal cabins. To both the next few minutes seemed like hours. Reaching the Imperial state room, they entered it and closed the door behind. Provided the sentry obeyed his orders, which there was no reason to doubt he would do, and the Emperor himself did not return until they were safely off the vessel again, there seemed every probability of their being able to carry out their scheme without a hitch.
"Put those bags under the table, and unwind the lines and place them in the gallery outside the window. They won't be seen there," said Carne to Belton, who was watching him from the doorway. "Then stand by, for in a few minutes the chief steward will be here. As soon as he enters you must manage to get between him and the door, and, while I am engaging him in conversation, spring on him, clutch him by the throat, and hold him until I can force this gag into his mouth. After that we shall be safe for some time at least, for not a soul will come this way until they discover their mistake. It seems to me we ought to thank our stars that the chief steward's cabin was placed in such a convenient position. But hush, here comes the individual we want. Be ready to collar him as soon as I hold up my hand. If he makes a sound we are lost."
He had scarcely spoken before there was a knock at the door. When it opened, the chief steward entered the cabin, closing the door behind him.
"Schmidt," said his Majesty, who was standing at the further end of the cabin, "I have sent for you in order that I may question you on a matter of the utmost importance. Draw nearer."
The man came forward as he was ordered, and, having done so, looked his master full and fair in the face. Something he saw there seemed to stagger him. He glanced at him a second time, and was immediately confirmed in his belief.
"You are not the Emperor," he cried. "There is some treachery in this. I shall call for assistance."
He had half turned, and was about to give the alarm, when Carne held up his hand, and Belton, who had been creeping stealthily up behind him, threw himself upon him and had clutched him by the throat before he could utter a sound. The fictitious Emperor immediately produced a cleverly constructed gag and forced it into the terrified man's mouth, who in another second was lying upon the floor bound hand and foot.
"There, my friend," said Carne quietly, as he rose to his feet a few moments later, "I don't think you will give us any further trouble. Let me just see that those straps are tight enough, and then we'll place you on this settee, and afterwards get to business with all possible dispatch."
Having satisfied himself on these points, he signed to Belton, and between them they placed the man upon the couch.
"Let me see, I think, if I remember rightly, you carry the key of the safe in this pocket."
So saying, he turned the man's pocket inside out and appropriated the bunch of keys he found therein. Choosing one from it, he gave a final look at the bonds which secured the prostrate figure, and then turned to Belton.
"I think he'll do," he said. "Now for business. Bring the bags, and come with me."
So saying, he crossed the cabin, and, having assured himself that there was no one about to pry upon them, passed along the luxuriously carpeted alley way until he arrived at the door of the cabin, assigned to the use of the chief steward, and in which was the safe containing the magnificent gold plate, the obtaining of which was the reason of his being there. To his surprise and chagrin, the door was closed and locked. In his plans he had omitted to allow for this contingency. In all probability, however, the key was in the man's pocket, so, turning to Belton, he bade him return to the state room and bring him the keys he had thrown upon the table.
The latter did as he was ordered, and, when he had disappeared, Carne stood alone in the alley way waiting and listening to the various noises of the great vessel. On the deck overhead he could hear some one tramping heavily up and down, and then, in an interval of silence, the sound of pouring rain. Good reason as he had to be anxious, he could not help smiling as he thought of the incongruity of his position. He wondered what his aristocratic friends would say if he were captured and his story came to light. In his time he had impersonated a good many people, but never before had he had the honour of occupying such an exalted station. This was the last and most daring of all his adventures.
MINUTES went by, and as Belton did not return, Carne found himself growing nervous. What could have become of him? He was in the act of going in search of him, when he appeared carrying in his hand the bunch of keys for which he had been sent . His master seized them eagerly.
"Why have you been so long?" he asked in a whisper. "I began to think something had gone wrong with you."
"I stayed to make our friend secure," the other answered. "He had well-nigh managed to get one of his hands free. Had he done so, he would have had the gag out of his mouth in no time, and have given the alarm. Then we should have been caught like rats in a trap."
"Are you quite sure he is secure now?" asked Carne anxiously.
"Quite," replied Belton. "I took good care of that."
"In that case we had better get to work on the safe without further delay. We have wasted too much time already, and every moment is an added danger."
Without more ado, Carne placed the most likely key in the lock and turned it. The bolt shot back, and the treasure chamber lay at his mercy.
The cabin was not a large one, but it was plain that every precaution had been taken to render it secure. The large safe which contained the Imperial plate, and which it was Carne's intention to rifle, occupied one entire side. It was of the latest design, and when Carne saw it he had to confess to himself that, expert craftsman as he was, it was one that would have required all his time and skill to open.
With the master key, however, it was the work of only a few seconds. The key was turned, the lever depressed, and then, with a slight pull, the heavy door swung forward. This done, it was seen that the interior was full to overflowing. Gold and silver plate of all sorts and descriptions, inclosed in bags of wash- leather and green baize, were neatly arranged inside. It was a haul such as even Carne had never had at his mercy before, and, now that he had got it, he was determined to make the most of it.
"Come, Belton," he said, "get these things out as quickly as possible and lay them on the floor. We can only carry away a certain portion of the plunder, so let us make sure that that portion is the best."
A few moments later the entire cabin was strewn with salvers, goblets, bowls, épergnes, gold and silver dishes, plates, cups, knives, forks, and almost every example of the goldsmith's art. In his choice Carne was not guided by what was handsomest or most delicate in workmanship or shape. Weight was his only standard. Silver he discarded altogether, for it was of less than no account. In something under ten minutes he had made his selection, and the stout canvas bags they had brought with them for that purpose were full to their utmost holding capacity.
"We can carry no more," said Carne to his faithful retainer, as they made the mouth of the last bag secure. "Pick up yours, and let us get back to the Emperor's state room.
Having locked the door of the cabin, they returned to the place whence they had started. There they found the unfortunate steward lying just as they had left him on the settee. Placing the bags he carried upon the ground, Carne crossed to him, and, before doing anything else, carefully examined the bonds with which he was secured.
Having done this, he went to the stern windows, and, throwing one open, stepped into the gallery outside. Fortunately for what he intended to do, it was still raining heavily, and in consequence the night was as dark as the most consummate conspirator could have desired. Returning to the room, he bade Belton help him carry the bags into the gallery, and, when this had been done, made fast the swivel hooks to the rings in the mouth of each.
"Take up your bags as quietly as possible," he said, "and lower them one by one into the water, but take care that they don't get entangled in the propeller. When you've done that, slip the rings at the other end of the lines through your belt, and buckle the latter tightly."
Belton did as he was ordered, and in a few moments the six bags were lying at the bottom of the sea.
"Now off with these wigs and things, and say when you're ready for a swim."
Their disguises having been discarded and thrown overboard, Carne and Belton clambered over the rails of the gallery and lowered themselves until their feet touched the water. Next moment they had both let go, and were swimming in the direction of Carne's own yacht.
It was at this period of their adventure that the darkness proved of such real service to them. By the time they had swum half a dozen strokes it would have needed a sharp pair of eyes to distinguish them as they rose and fell among the foam-crested waves. If, however, the storm had done them a good turn in saving them from notice, it came within an ace of doing them an ill service in another direction. Good swimmers though both Carne and Belton were, and they had proved it to each other's satisfaction in the seas of almost every known quarter of the globe, they soon found that it took all their strength to make headway now. By the time they reached their own craft, they were both completely exhausted. As Belton declared afterwards, he felt as if he could not have managed another twenty strokes even had his life depended on it.
At last, however, they reached the yacht's stern and clutched at the rope ladder which Carne had himself placed there before he had set out on the evening's excursion. In less time than it takes to tell, he had mounted it and gained the deck, followed by his faithful servant. They presented a sorry spectacle as they stood side by side at the taffrail, the water dripping from their clothes and pattering upon the deck.
"Thank goodness we are here at last," said Carne, as soon as he had recovered his breath sufficiently to speak. "Now slip off your belt, and hang it over this cleat with mine."
Belton did as he was directed, and then followed his master to the saloon companion ladder. Once below, they changed their clothes as quickly as possible, and having donned mackintoshes, returned to the deck, where it was still raining hard.
"Now," said Carne, "for the last and most important part of our evening's work. Let us hope the lines will prove equal to the demands we are about to make upon them."
As he said this, he took one of the belts from the cleat upon which he had placed it, and, having detached a line, began to pull it in, Belton following his example with another. Their hopes that they would prove equal to the confidence placed in them proved well founded, for, in something less than a quarter of an hour, the six bags, containing the Emperor of Westphalia's magnificent gold plate, were lying upon the deck, ready to be carried below and stowed away in the secret place in which Carne had arranged to hide his treasure.
"Now, Belton," said Carne, as he pushed the panel back into its place, and pressed the secret spring that locked it, "I hope you're satisfied with what we have done. We've made a splendid haul, and you shall have your share of it. In the meantime, just get me to bed as quickly as you can, for I'm dead tired. When you've done so, be off to your own. To-morrow morning you will have to go up to town to arrange with the bank authorities about my account."
Belton did as he was ordered, and half an hour later his master was safely in bed and asleep.
IT was late next morning when he woke. He had scarcely breakfasted before the Earl of Amberley and Lord Orpington made their appearance over the side. To carry out the part he had arranged to play, he received them seated in his deck chair, his swaddled up right foot reclining on a cushion before him. On seeing his guests, he made as if he would rise, but they begged him to remain seated.
"I hope your ankle is better this morning," said Lord Orpington politely, as he took a chair beside his friend.
"Much better, thank you," Carne replied. "It was not nearly so serious as I feared. I hope to be able to hobble about a little this afternoon. And now tell me the news, if there is any."
"Do you mean to say that you have not heard the great news?" asked Lord Amberley, in a tone of astonishment.
"I have heard nothing," Carne replied. "Remember, I have not been ashore this morning, and I have been so busily engaged with the preparations for my departure tomorrow that I have not had time to look at my papers. Pray what is this news of which you speak with such bated breath?"
"Listen, and I'll tell you," Lord Orpington answered. "As you are aware, last night his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Westphalia dined ashore, taking with him his aide-de-camp, Count Von Walzburg. They had not been gone from the launch more than half an hour when, to all intents and purposes, they reappeared, and the Emperor, who seemed much perturbed about something, gave the order to return to the yacht with all possible speed. It was very dark and raining hard at the time, and whoever the men may have been who did the thing, they were, at any rate, past masters in the art of disguise.
"Reaching the yacht, their arrival gave rise to no suspicion, for the officers are accustomed, as you know, to his Majesty's rapid comings and goings. The first lieutenant met them at the gangway, and declares that he had no sort of doubt but that it was his Sovereign. Face, voice, and manner were alike perfect. From his Majesty's behaviour he surmised that there was some sort of trouble brewing for somebody, and, as if to carry this impression still further, the Emperor bade him send the chief steward to him at once, and, at the same time, place the sentry, who had hitherto been guarding the treasure chamber, at the end of the great saloon, with instructions to allow no one to pass him, on any pretext whatever, until the chief steward had been examined and the Emperor himself gave permission. Then he went below to his cabin.
"Soon after this the steward arrived, and was admitted. Something seems to have excited the latter's suspicions, however, and he was about to give the alarm when he was seized from behind, thrown upon the floor, and afterwards gagged and bound. It soon became apparent what object the rascals had in view. They had caused the sentry at the door of the treasure chamber to be removed and placed where not only he could not hinder them in their work, but would prevent them from being disturbed. Having obtained the key of the room and safe from the chief steward's pocket, they set off to the cabin, ransacked it completely, and stole all that was heaviest and most valuable of his Majesty's wonderful plate from the safe."
"Good gracious!" said Carne. "I never heard of such a thing. Surely it's the most impudent robbery that has taken place for many years past. To represent the Emperor of Westphalia and his aide-de-camp so closely that they could deceive even the officers of his own yacht, and to take a sentry off one post and place him in such a position as to protect them while at their own nefarious work, seems to me the very height of audacity. But how did they get their booty and themselves away again? Gold plate, under the most favourable circumstances, is by no means an easy thing to carry."
As he asked this question, Carne lit another cigar with a hand as steady as a rock.
"They must have escaped in a boat that, it is supposed, was lying under the shelter of the stern gallery," replied Lord Amberley.
"And is the chief steward able to furnish the police with no clue as to their identity?"
"None whatever," replied Orpington. "He opines to the belief, however, that they are Frenchmen, One of them, the man who impersonated the Emperor, seems to have uttered an exclamation in that tongue."
"And when was the robbery discovered?"
"Only when the real Emperor returned to the vessel shortly after midnight. There was no launch to meet him, and he had to get Tremorden to take him off. You can easily imagine the surprise his arrival occasioned. It was intensified when they went below to find his Majesty's cabin turned upside down, the chief steward lying bound and gagged upon the sofa, and all that was most valuable of the gold plate missing."
"What an extraordinary story!"
"And now, having told you the news with which the place is ringing, we must be off about our business," said Orpington. "Is it quite certain that you are going to leave us to-morrow?"
"Quite, I am sorry to say," answered Carne. "I am going to ask as many of my friends as possible to do me the honour of lunching with me at one o'clock, and at five I shall weigh anchor and bid England good-bye. I shall have the pleasure of your company, I hope."
"I shall have much pleasure," said Orpington.
"And I also," replied Amberley.
"Then good-bye for the present. It's just possible I may see you again during the afternoon."
THE luncheon next day was as brilliant a social gathering as the most fastidious in such matters could have desired. Every one then in Cowes who had any claim to distinction was present, and several had undertaken the journey from town in order to say farewell to one who had made himself so popular during his brief stay in England. When Carne rose to reply to the toast of his health, proposed by the Prime Minister, it was observable that he was genuinely moved, as, indeed, were most of his hearers.
For the remainder of the afternoon his yacht's deck was crowded with his friends, all of whom expressed the hope that it might not be very long before he was amongst them once more.
To these kind speeches Carne invariably offered a smiling reply.
"I also trust it will not be long," he answered. "I have enjoyed my visit immensely, and you may be sure I shall never forget it as long as I live."
An hour later the anchor was weighed, and his yacht was steaming out of the harbour amid a scene of intense enthusiasm. As the Prime Minister had that afternoon informed him, in the public interest, the excitement of his departure was dividing the honours with the burglary of the Emperor of Westphalia's gold plate.
Carne stood beside his captain on the bridge, watching the little fleet of yachts until his eyes could no longer distinguish them. Then he turned to Belton, who had just joined him, and, placing his hand upon his shoulder, said:
"So much for our life in England, Belton, my friend. It has been glorious fun, and no one can deny that from a business point of view it has been eminently satisfactory. You, at least, should have no regrets."
"None whatever," answered Belton. "But I must confess I should like to know what they will say when the truth comes out."
Carne smiled sweetly as he answered:
"I think they'll say that, all things considered, I have won the right to call myself 'A Prince of Swindlers.'"