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This electronic edition of A Pulpit in the Grill Room was compiled from two sources.
Eight of the ten stories were extracted by Colin Choat from digital image files of the issues of The Australian Women's Weekly in which they were published in 1938 and 1939. These files are available at Trove, the web site of the National Library of Australia. Digitally-restored covers of, and illustrations from, these issues of the magazine have been included. The first story in the series begins with an introductory text which appeared as a separate foreword in the print edition of the book.
Thanks and credit for supplying the remaining two stories go to Gary Meller, Florida, who made digital image files from his first-edition copy of A Pulpit in the Grill Room and donated them for inclusion in the present PGA and RGL editions.
IN view of the many curious adventures for which his unique appointment was largely responsible, Louis has asked me to explain exactly how it came to pass that he was first placed in that very exceptional position.
In 1914, after seven years' service in London's most famous Grill Room, 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 limped as far as Paris and looked enviously at the gay scenes in the cafés, and thought that for him all that was ended. Later he returned to England and presented himself at the Milan.
"I have called because you asked me to, sir," he said to Sir Edward Rastall, chairman of the company. "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 drove 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 their 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. "Ii 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 habitues. You will study them and you will know exactly which 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 historical.
I SUPPOSE that I, Charles Lyson, late of His Majesty's Army, and now a freelance journalist, with still more serious interests, was one of the most regular patrons of the famous Grill Room at the Milan Hotel, and I had grown, after the first few days, just as accustomed to seeing Louis in his new position inside the room as I was to receiving that cheerful good morning of the concierge in the hall. This particular morning, however, was the first time that I had ever seen him show signs of agitation.
He held out his hand and arrested my progress into the room.
"You have chanced to notice who is lunching here to-day, Captain Lyson?" he asked in that peculiarly distinct, clear voice of his. It dropped almost to a whisper sometimes, yet it was always audible.
"The usual crowd." I answered. "Indications also that the boat-train from Southampton was in early. Another all-conquering film party, I think."
Louis smiled. It always astonished me that a man with so waxen a complexion and such set features should yet possess so sensitive an expression. Notwithstanding the smile. I knew that trouble was in the air.
"Will you do me a kindness?" he begged. "Walk from here the whole length of the Grill Room and then return, casting a glance, perhaps, at the table set against the far wall on the left-hand side."
Mystified, but with too much confidence in Louis to hesitate for a moment, I obeyed his suggestion. On my return I loitered by his chair. He knew at once that my journey had not been fruitless.
"If you could pay me a brief visit in my room at five o'clock, it would give me great pleasure," he invited.
I nodded acquiescence.
"More like the old wolf than ever." I remarked in an undertone.
"I was looking elsewhere when he entered," Louis confided. "I think that I must have smelt the gunpowder as he passed. I lifted my head and behold—it was he!"
"And the whole outfit." Louis murmured under his breath. "At five o'clock then."
I took the hint and moved on. I knew now what had brought the frown to Louis' face, and the look of trouble into his eyes.
The Administration of the Milan Hotel and Restaurant owed much to Louis, the Guardian Angel of the Grill Room, and did their best to prove their grateful appreciation. In addition to his large salary and very considerable benefices, always the recognised blood money of the man who wields the table plan of a famous restaurant—as well as being entrusted with the buying of the choice wines and specialities offered by the establishment—Louis possessed the only small flat on the ground floor of the court, the outside door of which, although few ever knew of its existence, was barely a dozen yards from his daily post of vantage.
It was there that I sought him at five minutes to five that afternoon and found, to my great satisfaction, his only daughter, Mademoiselle Julie Duchesne, just returned from a matinee, smoking a cigarette, and sipping a glass of vermouth.
"Never tell me again that Friday the thirteenth is an unlucky day!" I exclaimed, taking off my gloves and making for the divan upon which she was seated.
"Monsieur Charles," she said, waving me away with a little grimace, "to-day there are to be no frivolities. That dear father of mine awaits you impatiently. I am not to detain you for a single moment."
I obeyed her gesture and passed at once into the inner room. Louis was seated before his desk, and motioned me to the chair by his side.
"Sit down, please, Captain Lyson," he invited. "We were right this morning. The old wolf has come to life. You saw him for yourself."
"There is no other word," Louis acquiesced. "For months he lies in his chaise-longue like a lizard aching for the sunshine, breathing feebly, like one for whom life is passing, pale as a ghost, with those hollow eyes of his empty of all light. Then suddenly, where it comes from Heaven only knows, but he hears something. The rustling of a torn treaty destroyed by angry fingers, a cry of triumph from a savant in his laboratory, the clash of threatening voices or perhaps the dull booming of a new gun across an empty plain.
"He raises his tired old head and sniffs. Battle is coming! War is at hand. Thousands may be leaving their homes and marching to fill the cemeteries. His laden ships in this port or that—Heaven knows where—wake to life. His agents are at work. The cheques roll into his bank. The great snowball has started. A few more millions for the old man, a few more thousands of stone crosses in the cemetery."
I listened to Louis in amazement. Never in the fifteen years of our acquaintance had I heard him speak quite so bitterly. Apparently he regretted his emotion, for he shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigarette.
"A waste of time, this," he concluded. "Forgive me. He has come to life again, but he goes still with a price upon his head...Would you mind glancing at this for a moment?"
I stood by his side, looking down upon the plan of the Grill Room.
"The Chevalier has demanded the same table to-night for dinner, and we are to arrange for three people, one, we are given to understand, a most important guest. To that, of course, we have acquiesced with pleasure. He wishes also, however, to reserve the table on either side of him. Our reply has been that number eight, which is the one nearer the main passageway, is at his service, but number six is engaged by a most particular client."
"The particular client?"
"With a companion?"
"With the most attractive of the many young ladies of your acquaintance. Understand me, please. You refuse to give up your table. It is a matter of sentiment. I shall have to rely upon you, Jules the wine waiter and Antoine the maître d'hotel, who can only pass backwards and forwards at intervals, to bring me the scraps of information I desire—not for myself, naturally, but to pass on to Whitehall."
I must confess that I felt a lack of inspiration about the affair. A few chance words picked up at a feast presided over by the Chevalier were scarcely likely to lead one far. Louis smiled reassuringly.
"No one expects impossibilities," he assured me. "You have to listen for two things, and two things only—the names of steamers and the names of ports. We have certain information that the Chevalier, during the last twelve months, has purchased and paid cash for three steamers—each one of which has been secretly loaded with guns and ammunition. He is over here now to dispose of them. It is our Job, Captain Lyson, to make his task as difficult as possible."
I helped myself to a cigarette from Louis' box.
"It depends, of course, where they are lying at the present moment," I observed, "otherwise I think it would be difficult for him to move those ships into any port if war were threatened."
"Threatened—no. Declared yes," was the somewhat cryptic answer. "The Chevalier knows every move in the game. He knows every law and by-law. He knows the easiest ports and the impossible ones. There are harbor masters who live upon his dole."
"I will tell you another thing about him if you like," I remarked.
"He has a voice which one can only describe as flutelike. He seldom raises it above a whisper, and yet If you are near enough you hear everything. I think you are expecting a great deal, Louis, if you believe that what I shall overhear of any conversation to-night will be of practical use."
"It is not only words that speak," he pointed out, leaning back in his chair. "At that dinner there will be the Chevalier, the Comtesse de Roussilon his niece, and a stranger. The stranger will be the man who may buy. Bien. You will remark whether the Chevalier is a man for whom things are going well or whether he is disappointed. You will make your own comments, too, upon Madame's attitude. Something may be learnt from the stranger, who, if he is of the nationality I suspect, is not likely to be so skilled as the other two in concealing his feelings. In addition, do not forget that the name of a port, the name of a ship, the make of a gun—any one of those—may serve to light the way. It is only by piecing together small things that one is able to attempt the great coup."
"You are a genius, Louis," I acknowledged. "Dinner will be?"
"At eight o'clock."
"But wait," I begged him, as he stretched out his hand for one of his crutch-like sticks. "I have not an unlimited acquaintance among trustworthy young women with personal attractions. How do I know—"
"I thought that would be it," he interrupted with a pleasant smile. "Fortunately, you are one of the few men in the world whom I can trust. I think that if you approach Julie you will find that she has no engagement for this evening. She has also very good ears and a sound idea of the game."
"The affair," I admitted cheerfully, "begins to present a more attractive appearance."
The service of dinner that evening was rather more than half accomplished when my high spirits and my appetite simultaneously waned. The sickly coils of a grim suspicion had strangled both. I waited for a safe moment, then I leaned across towards my vis-à-vis.
"Julie," I confided, "I have a fear."
"And I, too," she agreed. "They suspect us. The Comtesse has twice turned her head. The old man broke off just now in the middle of a sentence."
I took up the wine card and discussed for some minutes with our attentive sommelier the relative merits of a Berncastler Doctor a trifle too young and an older, mellower Piesporter. While I waited for the man's opinion, I glanced once more, casually, but still with an interest I found it Impossible altogether to conceal, at that small party of three at the next table. The heavy, pale-faced man with the black moustache and restless manner, the obvious guest, had glanced suspiciously more than once in our direction. He held his fat white hand too often at the side of his lips when he addressed his host. Madame said nothing unless she leaned right across the table, yet their voices now and then were almost unduly raised. I sighed as I handed back the wine list, and decided in favor of the Piesporter...After all, what did it matter? For once I had failed Louis. All that could be said in our favor was that we had learnt when to close our eyes and ears to a great deal of very tempting misguidance. Avonmouth, Poole—at least half a dozen times I heard the names of these ports whispered. Yet the mist of unreality hung over it all. We were listening for truths that never came...
"Be the holy, but it's himself himself that's found his way to the great city!"
There was a sudden, almost violent change in the atmosphere of artificiality by which we had been surrounded. The voice of the man who had paused at the next table was full of genuine surprise, his heartiness a real thing.
"It's meself that's glad to see ye," he went on, addressing the Chevalier. "'Tis a pity the young lady can't bring a little color into her cheeks down in them hot countries."
There was no necessity for any further disguise on our parts. A dozen people besides ourselves had turned round at the sound of that rolling voice with its not unmusical brogue and, to be honest, mellowed by just the slightest trace of alcoholism.
"Shure, ye never paid us the visit ye promised," the newcomer went on, shaking his head reproachfully at the Comtesse. "We've had a hearty wilcome waitin' for ye but niver a sign o' ye or the ould gintle man. It's threatin' us badly, ye've been."
The Chevalier had shrunk back a little against the wall. The cold fury in his eyes would certainly have driven away any ordinary intruder. The Comtesse began to talk. She laid her hand upon the visitor's sleeve, and his swing round towards her gave us a better view. The man was a stranger to me, but without doubt an original. He must have been six foot three at least and broad—large everywhere—in proportion. His cheeks were crimson, his deep-set blue eyes moist. There were spots of perspiration upon his forehead. He was wearing a roughly made suit of grey tweed, out of shape as though he had been travelling in it all night, and his hair was of that dull shade of flaming red which defies all efforts of tonsorial restraint. The coldness of his reception seemed to astonish him.
"But what's the mather wid me having a word wid the ould gintle man?" he demanded of the Comtesse. "He had plinty to say that last time in Paris, and when he rode round me own bit of a harbor in a motor launch. We have had important doings togither great business that maybe he has niver told ye anything about, Countess. Ye wouldn't have me pass him by without a word?"
"My uncle," the lady explained eagerly, "is Just recovering from a severe illness. He is not allowed to hold conversations with anyone about business.
"Leave this to me, Mr. O'Grady," she begged. "We will go into the hall and listen to the music for a few minutes."
An immense smile broke across the man's face. He looked down at the Comtesse in undisguised admiration. For the first time he lowered his voice and we gathered only the sense of what he said. He passed willingly away, however, with the fingers of his companion resting upon his arm. They turned to the left and made their way towards the foyer. Julie leaned across the table and whispered in my ear.
"I think if I could only change places with the Comtesse for a few moments he would tell me all we want to know," she confided, gazing wistfully after the two departing figures.
I had to be content with frowning my disapproval. The opportune moment for my own intervention had arrived. I pushed back my chair and approached the table which had been the centre of the disturbance. The Chevalier, his face a white arid wan mask, expressionless except for those deep-set steely eyes, in themselves a sea of trouble, had shrunk a little back in his chair, his hands folded in front of him, his long fingers fidgeting nervously with the marvellous black opal, strangely set, in his famous signet-ring. Opposite him, the man whom we had put down as the possible buyer of armaments was tugging furiously at his black moustache and brandishing an oblong strip of paper in his hand. There was a queer, abrupt silence as I presented myself. I addressed the Chevalier.
"Monsieur," I said, "may I beg to recall myself to your recollection? My name is Lyson—Captain Lyson. We met several times in Monte Carlo."
To my surprise, he recognised me at once. No words of description could adequately convey the frigidity of his tone.
"I remember perfectly well," he acknowledged. "What I do not understand is your impertinent interest in myself and my niece."
I felt a momentary sensation of panic, but I crushed it so far as I was able.
"You would have the whole world crowding round your table if they knew who 'you were," I reminded him.
"Why?" he demanded icily.
"I can only repeat what the newspapers have been saying for many years. You are a man of mystery—just the type the man in the street wants to know about. You are supposed to be worth countless millions, and to have sunk nearly the whole of it year by year in buying guns, rifles and the appurtenances of war. War is the great dramatic force of the world.
"Foul melodrama," the Chevalier said, with a thin quiver in his voice.
"Maybe," I assented. "I am a brave man, however, when I am in search of news, and I have the instinct for anything which will attract the masses—the millions who read the Sunday papers. For the last few weeks there have been rumors of war. Here are you away from your beloved villa, out of your invalid chair—here waiting, listening for something or other. Grant me an interview, Chevalier, and you will soon be free of me."
"Very slowly, very gracefully, her eyebrows raised in faint curiosity, the tremor of a smile upon her lips, Madame la Comtesse returned alone.
"So you have ventured to come and talk to this most unsociable uncle of mine, Captain Lyson," she remarked.
"I wanted him to give me an interview for my paper," I told her frankly. "I am afraid I've only succeeded in making him angry."
"Your continued presence," the Chevalier said coldly, "is of course a matter of taste. I have never willingly given an interview to a Journalist in my life, and I never shall. When I leave this room it will be to make a formal complaint to the manager."
"I shouldn't if I were you," I advised him.
"What do you mean by that?" he asked grimly.
"Retaliation," I pointed out, "would be so easy. One, at least, of the newspapers to-morrow morning would be wondering why, with all these mutterings of coming war, you should be found in the grill-room of an hotel—which, although it may be the best in the world, is also a hotbed of intrigue—entertaining the Prime Minister," I added with a little bow to the sallow gentleman with the black moustache, "of a country which is aching to make war, but starving at the same time for the means of making it. And why the sudden appearance of that red faced, smooth-tongued Irishman should have broken up your party—"
There was in the Chevalier's grim visage, as he looked for a few seconds steadily at me, the one desire in life which is unmistakable—the desire to kill. I knew very well that there were corners of the world into which we both had penetrated where hundreds would have been ready to obey his will, and my life would not have been worth a moment's purchase.
"I think," the Comtesse whispered, "you had better go. My uncle is not strong, and he has had enough excitement for this evening."
"My niece is right," the Chevalier assented. "You had better go, young man. You may take your melodramatic trash to any newspaper you like, but I promise you this—the paper that prints it will not last another week. Tell them that when you hand in your copy, if you have the courage. One week. It takes men of courage to go to war; but newspapers can be bought. As for Journalists—"
The Chevalier went suddenly dumb. His lips for a few seconds seemed glued together. The Comtesse touched my hand with icy fingers.
"Please go," she whispered.
Julie greeted me on my return to our table with a smile half amused, half sympathetic. We drank to one another across the table.
"What did you say to make him so furious?" she asked.
I sampled the last glass of the Piesporter and found it as good as the first. I allowed myself one more glance at the adjoining table whilst I was signing my bill.
"I was giving him the Journalistic point of view," I explained. "I am just beginning to realise what that little party means. The arch-butcher of the world, the man who has sunk millions in the purchase of every sort of weapon of destruction, his vis-à-vis the Prime Minister of a country whose rulers are groaning for the means to arm their troops, the most beautiful woman who was ever born in Provence, and a red-haired vulgarian who came and went like an exotic thunderstorm."
Julie laughed gaily, yet underneath it all I knew that she was thinking. Those little lines on her delicate forehead meant inspiration. The sparkle in her eyes remained after the laugh itself had passed.
"I have the great idea, Charles," she exclaimed, rising to her feet. "We leave now. We report progress. You are clever, my friend, but even you have not the brain of the old one. All worth knowing that has passed at that table against the wall attaches itself to the coming and going of the large man with the untidy clothes and red hair. What has she done with him, I wonder, that little Comtesse?"
"We will consult the old one," I agreed.
The pulpit, as everyone called Louis' high-backed easy-chair, was empty. A maître d'hôtel, who had evidently been on the look out for us, hurried up.
"Monsieur Louis has left us for the evening," he announced. "He would be glad to see Monsieur in his room."
We made our way there. Louis was seated at his desk, his crutches leaning against its side, and the small carriage which he used for longer journeys was up against the wall. A directory with a green cover was open in front of him. He closed it hastily on our arrival and replaced it in his drawer.
"Well?" he exclaimed.
"A bad night, Louis," I confessed. "I don't know quite where we went wrong, but somehow or other we gave ourselves away."
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"Alas," Julie intervened, "it was unmistakable. All the time we spoke softly, I made the google eyes at Charles here and he did his best, poor man, to respond. It was not a very good best!"
"I am too sincere," I ventured. Louis frowned slightly.
"I only want facts Just now," he reminded us. "Something gave you away. What happened then?"
"They seemed to change the whole tone of their conversation. They pretended to be whispering, but it was a whisper we were meant to hear. They pretended never to look at us, and all the time we could scarcely fail to see their stealthy glances. The Comtesse would touch the Chevalier's elbow and move her head slightly in our direction. Once she touched her lips with her fingers. It all became too obvious. They wrote down the names of the places and then whispered others so that we could hear. Avonmouth they spoke of oftenest. Plymouth, Poole, Guernsey and Lowestoft now and then. All that we could gather was that there were some ships somewhere which could be moved If the money were forthcoming."
"There was no interruption?" Louis asked. "No visitor to their table?"
"But certainly there was—a queer one, too," Julie replied.
He motioned her to keep silent. His eyes were still fixed upon mine.
"They were accosted by a man," I confided, "whose presence I believe was a great embarrassment to them. This time I do not think they were acting. They hated his coming, and finally the Comtesse took him off."
"You know who he was?"
"I have no idea," I confessed. "He was a big man, dressed in ill-fitting grey clothes and indifferent linen. He had a tousled mass of red hair, a typical South of Ireland face, and a mouth like a bulldog's. Incidentally, he spoke with a strong Irish brogue."
"What was your impression," Louis asked softly, "of the relations existing between this unwelcome visitor and the other three?"
"The guest at the table seemed simply surprised. The Chevalier was furious. The Comtesse a little afraid at first—afterwards all over the fellow. It was she who took him away."
"I have no idea," I admitted. "They just turned to the left and made their way towards the grand foyer. She had the air of one who was humoring a person whom it was necessary to get rid of. I am inclined to think that his Irish accent and his excitable state were neither of them assumed."
Louis nodded thoughtfully. For some reason or other his attention seemed to have wandered. Even I, who was used to his moods, found his present one incomprehensible. He had the appearance of one who had precipitated his thoughts almost into another world. When at last I broke the silence, he seemed for a moment dazed, surprised to find me waiting by his side.
"I am afraid some way or other, Louis," I confessed, "we made a mess of things. I'm sorry, but there it is. Our little effort at espionage was a failure."
Louis pulled himself together.
"Perhaps not entirely," he began hesitatingly.
"Then let us find out where the Comtesse has taken the man with the red hair," Julie broke in. "We can easily discover that."
I looked expectantly at Louis. There was never anything more definite in the world than his shake of the head.
"For to-night it is finished, Julie," he pronounced. "We will even ask for your adieux, little one. You must leave us quickly, please."
With a fascinating whisk of her draperies, she left the room. Louis motioned to the chair over which I had been leaning.
"Monsieur le Capitaine," he said, "I am sorry if I disappoint you, but this affair to which I have introduced you is finished."
"Have I made such a mess of it as all that?" I complained.
"I will not pay you compliments," Louis replied, "because it is by chance that you have become the man who has moved the mountain. You have involved yourself in a business, however, which is too great for you, and too dangerous. I have been in communication with our Chief. He is on his way down here."
"You mean that you are going to chuck me?" I asked in astonishment. "I have a theory—"
"Keep it to yourself," Louis advised earnestly. "The next step is not far away, but men will lose their lives before it is taken. You are not a militant, nowadays, Lyson. You are one of the most useful members of our circle; but this affair which approaches is one of life and death, and the chances are something like five to one in favor of death. The Chief will know how to deal with it."
This was the time I became obstinate.
"Louis," I argued, "wherever this enterprise may lead, I have a great advantage over anyone else who might be handling it. I am a genuine newspaper man. I am working for my Journal. I am seeking news. If the Chief sends any of his ordinary staff—even the Scotland Yard branch—if they are discovered they have no motive but one, and you know what will happen to them if this is such an affair as I believe it is. I am about the only person who can walk into it without serious risk."
I had given Louis matter for thought. He made no immediate answer.
"You shall plead your own case," he decided. "The Chief is on his way here."
"What—through the hotel—here?" I asked in astonishment.
"Not quite. We have several private ways into this room, and there is one by which no one ever travels except the Chief. Do me a service quickly, please. Slip through and close the entrance door to the flat and, If Julie is still about, tell her to go at once to her room—as quickly as possible, if you please."
Within sixty seconds I had passed through the adjoining salon and bolted the door, pushed back the curtain leading to the domestic side of the flat, pointed along it, kissed Julie good-night, and was back again in Louis' study in time to see the left door of the dummy fire-escape open and the real mystery man of the English Secret Service make his unobtrusive entrance.
The newcomer waved his hand and motioned Louis to resume his seat. He looked at me searchingly, but offered no greeting—a fact which caused me no embarrassment because I knew his habits.
"You are Lyson, aren't you?" he said quietly. "I have your record. What about this effort of yours in Journalism?"
"I have found it of the greatest assistance to me in two cases," I replied. "It gives me a definite entree into places where my interference might otherwise cause suspicion."
"It remains in the background as compared with your other activities?" he asked.
"Entirely," I answered.
"Very well," he said. "I understand from Louis' message that you saw something of the Chevalier tonight. Tell me what happened."
I repeated as briefly as possible what I had confided to Louis.
"Did you take particular notice of the man with the tousled red hair?" he asked.
"I did, sir.'
"Do you know who he was?"
"Not yet, sir."
My questioner smiled faintly, then he glanced at his watch.
"You live upon the premises, I understand. Captain Lyson," he said. "Go and pack your bag and return here in twenty minutes. Louis will then hand you your instructions."
"Passport?" I asked.
"You will be crossing to Ireland," was the brief reply. "I always like to encourage the young, Captain Lyson," my Chief went on, with a slight smile. "Your observations of this evening have helped us to decide a very knotty point. You will know all about it a little later on."
He made the smallest possible gesture of his head towards the door. I hurried out. An hour and a half later I was seated in a comfortable corner of a first-class carriage in the Irish Mall on my way to Holyhead.
The man with the tousled red hair and the exuberant manner, who had accosted the Chevalier in the grill room of the Milan, appeared to be a very different person when I made my bow to him about a Week later in the audience chamber of ms official residence in the City of Ballydaghan. He eyed me ungraciously when his secretary ushered me into the room, and merely pointed with his penholder to a chair opposite to him.
"An' what can I be do for ye?" the man whom I had come to visit asked abruptly.
"I sent in my card, sir," I reminded him. "My name is Lyson. I believe I have the honor of addressing Mr. Michael O'Grady, Lord Mayor of Ballydaghan."
"Ye have. What about it?"
"Also," I went on, "Mayor of the Harbor City of Daghan."
He looked at me penetratingly. His eyes were a great deal clearer than when I had last seen him, and his whole appearance was more formidable.
"As Mayor of the Harbor City," I continued, "Your Worship has the right to admit any craft you choose into the special moorings, wharves and docks belonging to the city."
"An' what business is that of yours?"
"I am coming to that," I promised. "You have already admitted and given special moorings to three freight steamers—one English, the Idona, and two Norwegian, the Nordicka and the Katarette. They lie in the inner basin of wharf number fifteen."
There was a dangerous glint in the eyes of the Mayor of the Harbor City of Daghan as he looked across the table. His right hand had strayed into a half open drawer. I knew perfectly well what he was feeling, but I was confident that he would not shoot me until he had discovered what my business was.
"So ye have been spying around me docks?"
I shook my head.
"I found them too closely guarded," I told him. "What I have seen of the interior of wharf number fifteen I saw from a small Moth yesterday afternoon."
The Mayor sighed regretfully.
"I saw ye," he' grunted, "an' if I had had an anti-aircraft gun, it's in the basin ye would have been by now."
"Pity you didn't know," I observed. "The Katarette—one of the Norwegian boats—is full of them."
"Will ye be givin' me a chance to say a few words before the funeral?" the Mayor of the Harbor City of Daghan demanded.
"I certainly shall," I assured him "I want to arrive first at a clear understanding. You have given free harborage, Your Worship, to at least two steamers laden to their utmost capacity with rifles, guns and ammunition, the property of a world-famous speculator, who is gambling with his millions on the probability of a war in a country where a revolution is already in progress."
"An' why not?" the Mayor demanded. "Why should we be botherin' what sort of a cockpit the armament speculators may make of Europe? I am the ruler of these parts, an' I have the right to admit what craft I choose into me harbor."
"Who denies it?" I answered. "I may not come here as a philanthropist, but I am certainly not a critic. If you will listen to me, Mr Mayor, I can save you from a very bitter disappointment."
He looked at me as though I were something he particularly disliked. I knew perfectly well that he would rather throw me out of the room than listen. What saved him and me was a vein of natural shrewdness which triumphed over his prejudices.
"Get on with it," he invited.
So I went on with it. In a very few minutes I had made a full disclosure of that curious array of facts passed on to me by my Chief and the head of M17B in Louis' flat, during those few breathless moments before my rush to Euston.
With every word I uttered, the excitement of my auditor increased. I had finished and he was standing up, with a look of fury on his face and his thumb pressed to a bell-push, when he let me know my fate in a few blasphemous but convincing words.
"If it's the truth ye've bin tell in' me, me lad, it's the high spots ye'll be reaching. But if it's a lie, ye'll be at the bottom of the harbor to-night, and yer own mother wouldn't recognise ye when ye're dragged out."
"It will be the high spots," I assured him.
An hour later,—side by side in a very sinister-looking motor boat, flying an exceedingly official flag, we made our way in and out of the crowded waterways of the harbor to where a single freight steamer—the Nordicka—flying the Norwegian flag, was lying anchored some quarter of a mile from the nearest wharf. I was seated between the Mayor of the Harbor City of Daghan and the Harbor-master. Three of the Harbor Police occupied the cabin.
"Will you refer to your papers, Mr. Mayor?" I asked.
"It's not necessary at all," was the gruff reply. "That's the Nordicka right enough. Well go aboard her."
We shot round her hull to the port side. The gangway had been pulled up. The Harbor-master blew his whistle and the captain, struggling into his coat, made his appearance.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
"I'm the Mayor o' the City," the red-haired man called out. "This is the Harbor-master and those three are guards. We're comin' aboard Let down yer gangway."
The evidences of authority were irresistible. The man did as he was told.
"What's all this?" he asked suspiciously.
"I'm goin' to examine yer cargo," the Mayor said. "It's me property, as ye're well aware. Where do ye suggest we begin?" he added, glowering at me.
I glanced at a packet of papers I was carrying, and we descended into the hold. The place was piled with cases. The Mayor pointed to one.
"Open that," he ordered.
The Captain shook his head doubtfully.
"I am not allowed to meddle with the cargo," he declared.
"Ye'll be in prison in an hour it ye don't," was the savage reply. "Them three men are Civic Guards and they'll give ye hell if ye don't do as ye're told. Here's me Harbor-master, too. Ye won't be disobeying his orders. Whatever's inside them cases is my property. Git on wid the job."
The Captain hesitated no longer. He blew his whistle. The boatswain and two seamen arrived, and in a few minutes several carpenters were at work. The lids of a dozen cases were soon prised off. The contents of every case consisted of a heterogeneous mass of scrap-iron.
"Try the other side," I suggested. The Mayor, who was getting very red in the face, led the way. The same result was arrived at. He held up his hand.
"That's be all," he declared savagely. "Show us the way to yer cabin, Captain."
The cabin was a wooden fracture on the forward deck. The Captain led us there, placed a battle of whisky and some glasses upon the table and indicated seats. The others remained outside in a little bunch. The Mayor helped himself to whisky and pushed the bottle in my direction.
"Did ye know the nature o' yer cargo?" he asked the Captain.
"I did," the other answered. "I am not responsible."
"Ye have yer sailing orders?"
"Got them last night. I am Commodore, and my orders are to swap places with the captain of the Idona and to take her and the Katarette out to sea to-night, at the flow of the tide, on a certain course southward. I am to open papers for further orders at midnight."
"An' what will ye be doin' wid this craft here?"
"She's just got to stop where she is until you have unloaded what may belong to you."
For about five minutes we were entertained by a volume of the most fluent and furious swearing I ever heard in my life. As its conclusion, the Mayor of the Harbor City of Daghan finished all the whisky that remained in the bottle, and called for the launch.
"And where might the Idona be lying?" he demanded.
"On our starboard beam. Shes getting up steam."
The Mayor nodded.
"What might her cargo be?"
"Where was she loaded?"
"Now listen to me, unless yere lookin' for throuble and the devil of a lot of it," the Mayor said. "The man that sint ye those orders has no authority in these waters. I have. The Nordicka will stay where she is. The rest o' ye can git to hell out o' here!"
The Captain saluted.
"I'm puttin' a guard on this old hulk," the Mayor went on, rising to his feet. "The rest o' ye quit. That's clear? Come on, me lad," he wound up, turning to me. "That was a blazin' good idea ye whispered into me ear an hour or so ago. We'll see how it works."
We boarded the Idona, which was lying barely fifty yards away. The Master of the Nordicka led us down to the Captain's cabin. The latter, who was an Englishman, gazed at us in amazement.
"I'll be havin' ye know who we are, Captain," the man with the red tousled hair said, belligerently. "I am the Mayor of the Harbor City of Daghan. That's the Harbormaster behind me and we've the Harbor Police there, too. I hear, ye're puttin' out to sea to-night."
The Captain glanced at the Master of the Nordicka in amazement. The latter shook his head helplessly.
"That's true, sir," he admitted. "I am changing over to the Nordicka myself, but the Katarette and the Idona are sailing."
"Hand over the ship's papers," the Mayor demanded. "I am takin' them over to the Customs House me self."
"The ship's papers?"
"Hand them over and no palaver. Yell get them back when I've done wid them," the Mayor promised. "Come on, you lads."
We made our way to the Katarette and went through the same programme. The Captain handed over his papers with obvious reluctance.
"But at midnight," he protested, "they must be here. We're to sail with the tide."
The Mayor, leading the way into the launch, turned round to the Captain, who followed him protesting.
"Here's your Commodore," he pointed out. "He'll lead ye out of the harbor all right, and hell git your papers when the Customs officers have done wid them; but if yell take my advice, yell not hang around here five minutes after mid-night."
We stepped into the launch.
"Git back to the Idona," the Mayor ordered the man at the wheel.
"But what will you do with our papers?" the Commodore demanded.
"Don't ye be wondering about that, me lad," the Mayor told him, as we drew up by the gangway of the Idona. "Here's yer ship. Git ye aboard and git ye out of this—ye and the Katarette—by midnight, according to orders given, and by the divil himself, if ye're here a quarter of an hour after the time, 111 have ye blown out of the water. Come along, me lad." he added, turning to me.
I shook my head.
"I'm going to make a passage on this old tub," I said. "I wouldn't miss the fun for anything."
"'Tis a pity—that. I might git to like ye a thrifle better if ye stopped the night wid me," he added, with something like a grin on his face. "I don't suppose ye've ever had a real drink of whisky."
We shook hands heartily, but I bade him farewell.
I told my story to Louis and the Chief some six or seven nights later. The latter, to whom some of the facts were already known, smiled with grim approval. Louis was a little bewildered.
"Don't you understand, Louis," I explained. "The Mayor of Ballydaghan was to have received the Nordicka laden to the brim with machine-guns, the possession of which would have made him easily the most popular man in the country, as a reward for sheltering the Katarette and the Idona in his harbor until the time when they could have been safely delivered over to the gentleman who was dining the other night. The Chevalier tried to be too clever, however, and though the Idona and the Katarette carried a full cargo of machine guns, the Nordicka had nothing packed away in her hold but a lot of scrap-iron. It is not my place to suggest where the information came from, but M17B has agents, of course, in the Harbor City of Daghan and it was through one of them I suppose, that I received word of what had happened."
Louis was still perplexed.
"But tell me," he asked, "why would a cargo of arms and ammunition be of such value to the Mayor of Ballydaghan?"
"Don't you understand, Louis," I told him, a little impatiently perhaps, "that the Irish are born fighters? Ballydaghan is a city of fighting men. The city is rapidly becoming a harborage for Communists. The increase of their influence in the city is a terrible menace, and the possession of that shipload of arms would mean just the difference between security and danger."
"Ah, but now I understand." Louis said. "But there is one thing more. How did the other two boats put out to sea without their papers?'
"Well, as soon as His Worship realised that he had been sold," I explained, "he went completely mad. He not only ordered the other two vessels out of the harbor they were leaving anyway at midnight—but he carried out a little idea of my own and he made derelicts of them. He confiscated their papers, forced them to leave and, curiously enough, they steamed right into the jaws of a British gunboat, the Hero, who took us into Plymouth."
The Chief smiled.
"I think," he decided, "this young friend of ours almost deserves a pat on the back."
Louis pressed a bell by his side.
"I will give him something which I think we shall all appreciate better," he remarked. "One of the last bottles of my 1899 Veuve Clicquot Rosee."
THERE was no doubt but that I owed to Louis, the presiding genius over the Milan Grill Room, my participation in a great many of the adventures which have made the place famous. In the matter of Paul La Fallaise, however, the reverse was the case. It was I who went out of my way to pause at Louis' seat of honour and present him to the celebrated Frenchman.
"You know Monsieur La Fallaise by name and reputation beyond a doubt, Louis," I said. "He comes to London so seldom, though, that he tells me you have never met."
"I have scarcely ever been able to induce Monsieur La Fallaise to lunch anywhere with me except at my club," Nesbit, my editor, and the host of our small party observed.
Louis' little bow was as usual almost perfect. He rose a few inches from his place and his smile of welcome was obviously genuine.
"It is a great honour and a great pleasure to meet Monsieur La Fallaise," he said, "Your usual table is reserved, Mr. Nesbit," he added. "If I might make a recommendation, I would suggest our ortelans with a banana and grape salad, a bottle of our Romanée Conté '21 and a peach omelette with Sauce vieux Armagnac to follow."
We passed on to our table situated in a discreet corner which still commanded an excellent view of the room. Nesbit busied himself in ordering the lunch. Our guest looked about him with interest as he toyed with an apéritif. He was an unusual type for a Frenchman—fair, tall and slim, with a slight brown moustache, pale sensitive face, a delightful expression and a reserved yet very agreeable manner. It was hard to believe that this was the man who, from that bare, sparsely furnished room on the topmost floor of the huge building in which were situated the offices of the great newspaper for which he worked, could be the author of those fierce and brilliantly written articles, a long succession of which had made him almost the dominant figure in French political journalism.
"This meeting pleases me very much, Capitaine," he told me. "I am not quite the hermit Monsieur Nesbit would make me out but I think I have very fixed habits. I frequent only two restaurants in Paris and I come to London so seldom that I feel almost a stranger. Your Louis though— what a type! I hear that he knows more about food and wine than any other man in Europe—"
"And a few other things," I put in.
Nesbit laid down the menu.
"With a melon to start, I followed Louis' advice," he announced. "If he takes the trouble to recommend he is generally worth following."
"Curiously interesting personality," La Fallaise observed. "He seems to have succeeded in preserving the intimacies of the small exclusive restaurant even in this huge place."
"The fellow always was a genius," Nesbit remarked. "Seems a queer idea of the directors to give him that quaint sort of desk and put him in command here but they tell me that he had not been at his job for a month before the whole place was back again as it used to be before the war."
"I shall recall my visit here with pleasure, I am sure," La Fallaise declared. "It is not often in Paris that one eats with such a crowd— such an agreeable crowd, too. These young ladies—they are not so chic perhaps as our Frenchwomen but they seem so happy and carefree."
"Mostly on the stage or films," Nesbit explained. "This is a regular meeting house for everyone in the profession."
La Fallaise smiled. Notwithstanding his silence I knew Paris well enough to guess the trend of his thoughts. Nesbit was busy nodding to acquaintances right and left. La Fallaise, who seemed to be much entertained by the novelty of his environment, talked to me in his pleasant, almost shy manner.
"I have been during the last few weeks," he confided, "to conferences at Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome. It is very seldom that I go so far afield, but the times make it difficult for the sincere writer nowadays. More and more I think we grow selfish for our country's sake. It is well to travel and catch something, if one can, of the spirit of other countries. ... I see very few of my own people here. Americans in plenty. What a benefit for your nation, Captain Lyson, that you have a great twin brother with whom to exchange sympathies."
There were many subjects I would have preferred to discuss with my distinguished acquaintance but already I had come under the charm of his easy manner of speech and compelling personality. I was content to listen to whatever he chose to talk about so long as he went on talking. I listened and I watched him with an equal fascination. He was quietly dressed but with perfect taste. He had succeeded, too, where so many failed. He was wearing a tie of a deep violet shade with his morning clothes, a tie which blended perfectly with his shirt and seemed to indicate a queer aestheticism about the man. I permitted myself to watch his face and his expression as he talked and I found it hard to believe that he was not indeed a practised orator. Yet in the first few minutes of our conversation he had mentioned the fact that he had only three times in his life spoken in public. In France, he told me, nothing is more important than for a journalist to write behind a pseudonym and to preserve his incognito.
"I never go into society," he confided. "I attend no parties or public functions. I belong to no clubs. My circle of intimate friends is as limited as an archbishop's. The advantage of all that, of course, is that I preserve absolutely my independence. I can let the hurricane of our too excitable politics rage around me and then I can write what I feel to be the truth."
"But making so few contacts with outer life," I ventured, "does not that make the task of handing out the truth more difficult?"
He dissented with a faint, thoughtful smile which gave to his face for a moment even a touch of spirituality.
"I know men instinctively," he said quietly. "I have no need to converse with them or exchange ideas. This is in effect one of the few professional visits I have ever paid. I came to see your Lord Blunt at his own request and the request of our President. He has invited me to dine with him to-night. I go with reluctance. It is contrary to my habit and my fixed ideas."
Nesbit moved uneasily in his place. I was perhaps monopolising the conversation or he had some reason for not wishing me to hear the great French writer talk so frankly. I withdrew from the conversation for a time but La Fallaise—it may have been his perfect manners or he may perhaps have been overwhelmed by Nesbit's ceaseless flow of small talk—towards the end of luncheon turned suddenly in my direction.
"To-night with Lord Blunt," he asked. "We meet—yes?"
I shook my head.
"Our great men in the newspaper world," I told him, "are wise in that respect. They keep their underlings away from them. Nesbit has dined in Curzon Street once I think. I have scarcely even met our chief."
"A clever man in his dogged way," La Fallaise remarked, "but prejudiced. He has neither the finesse nor the honesty to become a great politician."
"He doesn't seem to be able to hit it off with your country somehow," Nesbit observed. "He has it firmly fixed in his mind that you all hate us."
La Fallaise took up the subject seriously.
"The average Frenchman," he said, "does not dislike England, If he fails to trust you it is because he does not understand. I ask you as cosmopolitans, not as Englishmen," he went on with a whimsical smile, "is that so wonderful after all? There is not one England, but three. There is the England—the House of Commons—that is to say, the England as she is represented by your statesmen. There is the England which Lord Blunt represents—the England of your press. And there is the England behind it all which really exists—the man in the street, you call it, the little man—yes?—who sometimes I think is inadequately represented in either the parliament or the press. Which is the England who will speak with his country's authority when the moment comes?"
"It is pertinently put," Nesbit admitted. "It is a question you should ask His Lordship to-night. I know what his answer will be because he tore up my last editorial!"
"Nothing could prove better what I always say," La Fallaise declared. "Your press is in the hands of bullies. You will understand both of you I am sure, I do not say this from an egoistic point of view, but if the owner of the great journal to which I chiefly contribute were to alter a single sentence in anything I wrote, it would be the end. The beginning for me, perhaps, of a new life."
"You mean that you would retire?" I asked.
"I have a little boat," our guest confided, "a hamper of books and a small cellar. You would find me a hermit drifting about the waterways of the world. I should be very happy."
"But that time," Nesbit remarked with a smile, "will never arrive."
It seemed to me that during the next few seconds I had a glimpse of another La Fallaise, perhaps the real one.
"Who knows?" he answered a little wearily. "Peace is the one thing most difficult to gather into our lives. Peace—rest without responsibility. It is too much to hope for."
Jules, who had been hovering about, touched me on the shoulder. Nesbit had paid the bill and we were showing signs of leaving. The maître d'hôtel whispered in my ear.
"Monsieur Louis begs that you will not leave without seeing him. It is an affair of urgency."
"In five minutes," I promised.
It was a day, this, of curious irregularities, of slight disturbances suddenly inflated into sinister possibilities. I frankly failed to understand Louis' attitude when I sought him in his room. The cognac, which was his great after-luncheon weakness, stood untasted upon his desk. There were already the stumps of many cigarettes in his ash-tray. His manner seemed to me to be lacking altogether in his usual poise.
"Sit down, Lyson," he invited. "I want just a word with you. To tell you the truth it gave me quite a shock when I saw your companion at luncheon."
"Paul La Fallaise?"
"He was Nesbit's guest, you know, not mine," I explained.
"I doubt whether any Englishman," Louis reflected, "can appreciate what La Fallaise is to France."
"I am prepared to believe anything," I replied. "I never met such an impressive personality."
"He is the underground ruler of my country," Louis continued. "He can make or unmake governments at will. He is never ruthless, never a destructive critic. Every statesman whom he thinks a patriot and deserving of his support can command it and when he gives his support that statesman has nothing to fear."
"I have talked with the man and I believe it. Et puis?"
"I am not happy that La Fallaise should have brought his pen of gold and all his brilliancy to London to the galère in which he appears," Louis confessed frankly. "I have ventured to make an enquiry. I understand that he has come over to confer with Lord Blunt, your great newspaper millionaire."
"And incidentally my master and Nesbit's master."
Louis shook his head.
"It cannot be a good meeting," he said. "If La Fallaise and Blunt meet and La Fallaise convinces himself that the press of this country is governed as it partly is by Blunt, harm will come of it."
I shrugged my shoulders. It seemed to me that Louis was rather wide of the mark.
"How can we help it?" I asked. "It is only by a miracle that La Fallaise and Blunt have not met years ago. Of course your man is an idealist. He has his place amongst the gods, and Blunt—well, we know all about him. But what harm can come of their meeting? If I am any judge of mankind I should say that Paul La Fallaise was above prejudices. He may dislike and despise Blunt. I don't believe it will make any difference. One of the greatest gifts he possesses is the gift of tolerance."
Louis was thoughtful for a moment.
"Tell me," he went on, "I am not intruding into secrets, I trust? Does Blunt give a dinner or a reception for La Fallaise to-night or are they meeting tête-à-tête?"
"It is a dinner of three," I confided, "to take place at Curzon Street. Steele, our foreign editor, is flying back from Hungary."
"Steele is an apparently clever man," he said, "and there is no one who understands better the political situation in Europe, but all the same, compared to La Fallaise, he is the knave in the pack."
The telephone at Louis' elbow rang. He took off the receiver and passed it at once to me.
"A call for you, Lyson, put through from your rooms."
An unfamiliar voice addressed me.
"This is Desmond speaking—Lord Blunt's private secretary. You are Captain Lyson?"
"Yes," I admitted. "But are you sure it is I whom you want? Mr. Nesbit and Monsieur La Fallaise have just left."
"I have a message for you, Captain Lyson, from the chief," the secretary continued. "We were expecting Mr. Steele to dine to-night with his lordship and Monsieur La Fallaise. Mr. Steele's plane has met with a slight accident and he has wirelessed that he will not be here in time. His lordship desires you to take his place."
"I shall be delighted, of course," I answered hesitatingly. "But are you sure—"
"Dinner will be at eight o'clock," the secretary concluded calmly. "His lordship wishes you to wear a short coat and a black tie and to arrive a little before that hour at 26 Curzon Street. That is understood?"
"Perfectly," I assured him. "I shall be there."
Louis quite frankly had been listening. As I replaced the receiver he spoke eagerly.
"You are dining instead of Steele?" he exclaimed.
"It seems so," I replied. "I can't imagine why. I scarcely know Blunt to nod to and I have never been inside his house in my life."
"Nevertheless," Louis said with a benevolent smile, "it is the best thing, this, which could have happened."
"Perhaps you will tell me why," I begged. "I call myself a journalist adventurer. There are half a dozen sub-editors who know more about politics than I do."
Louis smiled inscrutably.
"I hope that I am wrong," he said, "but there is just the possibility, a very regrettable possibility, that other matters than politics may come up for discussion before your dinner is over."
At five minutes to eight that evening I found myself drinking a tête-à-tête cocktail in the palatial library of the man whose newspapers just at that time might have been said to dominate the entire English press. I had barely exchanged a half dozen words with him in my life and I was still full of curiosity as to why it had fallen to my lot to fill the vacant place at his momentous dinner party. He hastened to enlighten me.
"My people telephoned to Nesbit for advice," he said, "as soon as we found that Steele was delayed. Nesbit told me that you got on very well with this autocratic gentleman at luncheon so I thought you might carry on the good work—eh?"
"I am only too delighted to be here, sir," I said. "I have never talked to a more interesting man."
"H'm. I call him a bit difficult myself," Blunt observed. "Not that I have had much to do with him. I hate personal contacts but this one could not be avoided. How did you find him? Is he really the bomb-slinger they say he is?"
"In my opinion, sir," I ventured, "there is no living Frenchman who could speak for his country more authoritatively and more honestly and if it comes to that more eloquently than La Fallaise. There are hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, especially amongst the educated classes, who are content to follow him blindly."
"Inclined to be anti-British, isn't he?"
"I should not say so. I don't think he has that fanatical faith in us as a seafaring and military race that a great many of his countrymen have. Otherwise I think he is just as anxious for our friendship as any of the present government."
That was the end of my tête-à-tête with my august chief, for a few moments later La Fallaise was announced. As he came smiling across the room with outstretched hand I found myself relapsing once more into a state almost of hero worship. His poise and carriage were so perfect, his English so pleasantly spoken, the little gleam of humour in his deep-set eyes so appealing that even our gruff and rather prejudiced host was impressed.
"I am glad you thought it worth the trouble to come over, Monsieur La Fallaise," the latter said, as they raised their glasses to one another. "I was just telling my young friend here that I have never been a great believer in personal contacts but there are times when they do good—clear away a lot of misunderstandings and that sort of thing. So many of your people seem to think that we are a race of hypocrites and so many of our own educated people—before we lowered the price of our newspapers, eh? and got to the masses—used to think of France as a timid nation shivering with imaginary fears."
"A certain amount of hypocrisy," La Fallaise observed, "is inseparable from the tenets of any school of diplomacy just as a certain amount of nervousness is the tribute which our soldiers have to pay for the confidence reposed in them. Take us all round, Lord Blunt, I think we are quite well-meaning and honest, which is just what I imagine you would believe about us if you spent a little more time in our midst,"
The two men were standing side by side and it was in a way a sad contrast. La Fallaise, apart from his intellectual gifts, was of aristocratic stock and showed it. Blunt was an opportunist, shrewd and intelligent, but lacking sadly in tact and poise.
"I spend several months of every year in France," the latter pointed out.
"In our pleasure gardens," La Fallaise reminded him smiling. "We would like to see more of you in Paris, to have you an occasional visitor at the Quai d'Orsay."
"I don't know about that," Blunt said, dragging out a thin platinum watch. "I'm not quite sure that representatives of the press do much good by fussing around too much. Five minutes past eight. What's the meaning of this, I wonder?"
A young man in plain morning clothes came into the room, crossed the floor swiftly and handed a slip of paper to his chief. Blunt read the few lines upon it with a frown.
"All right, Desmond," he said. "Tell them to serve dinner. Gentlemen, I had a surprise for you, a fourth guest who is staying in the house. Detained or something of the sort. We won't wait. We are informal to-night, you see, La Fallaise—dining in my snuggery here."
Two footmen had drawn aside the heavy curtains and we followed Blunt into a smaller room where a round table, beautifully arranged with choice flowers and almost a superfluity of cut glass and silver, stood in the center of the apartment. La Fallaise murmured a compliment upon the scheme of colouring—yellow shades and bowls of yellow roses.
"My housekeeper is rather clever at that sort of thing," our host remarked. "I am—like you, I believe—a bachelor. A nuisance if one entertains much but then I don't go in for that. I like to have a friend or two now and then but that is scarcely what is meant by entertaining nowadays."
It seemed to me at first that La Fallaise was slightly bewildered. His conversation had little of the brilliancy and humour which had made our luncheon memorable. Soon, however, he resigned himself. He listened respectfully to his host's rather trite monologue, maintained a judicious silence whilst Blunt opened up moot points in present-day politics and discussed with flamboyant candour the mistakes of the statesmen of whom he disapproved. . . . The dinner was too perfect to be altogether ignored even by a man of apparently ascetic tastes and La Fallaise, approving of the flavour of his wines and the chef's culinary efforts, had the air of a man settling down to make the best show possible. As a rendezvous for discussion the feast was a failure. As it drew towards its end I felt that Blunt retained exactly his former views as to the one or two vexed questions which had arisen and La Fallaise, dragged into an alien and unsympathetic environment, was simply a dummy at the feast, making no effort whatever to arrive at a closer understanding with his host. I put in a word or two whenever it seemed necessary or advisable, but mostly I occupied myself in studying La Fallaise. He seemed to me to be a little distrait. There were times when he seemed to be looking through the picture-hung walls, afterwards to be listening to the deadened sounds outside with a queer sense of anticipation as though some gift of second sight were warning him of the drama to come. Curiously enough I, too, began to share this spirit of uneasiness. I felt a sudden thrill of apprehension as the dark figure of the somberly clad major domo solemnly parted the heavy curtains and stood respectfully on one side. The woman whom he was silently announcing swept into the room with something of that quiet but incomparable grace which had made her movements famous throughout the world. After the first flutter of surprise, she was easily recognisable and just as easily there flashed into my consciousness a swift, deadly pang of memory. I turned towards La Fallaise. We had both risen to our feet, he stricken with a sudden cold rigidity, I filled with an emotion utterly unanalysable. The woman was smiling at our host. He remained in his chair and motioned to the place opposite to him.
"You have missed Hector at his best, Josephine," he said. "Knew he was making the cuisine for a fellow countryman, I expect. Take your place and we will try and forgive you. Monsieur La Fallaise of your beloved Paris, whom without a doubt you know. Captain Lyson—Mademoiselle Josephine Tabaret. Monsieur La Fallaise is, I hope, a surprise for you, Josephine. They say he hides away from the limelight, but his pen is a match for all my printing presses."
Blunt finished his speech leaning back in his chair, a trifle flushed, a good-humoured proprietary smile upon his face. I, in ignorance, could do nothing but watch La Fallaise in grave discomfiture. The woman was standing perfectly still. The jeweled bag she had been carrying clattered to the floor. Her eyes seemed to have grown larger since she had recognised La Fallaise. I had been through the war and turned over many unhappy pages in the book of life, but I had never seen such an expression of horror as suddenly drained the colour from her cheeks and set her limbs shivering. "Paul!" she gasped.
He was facing her now, apparently perfectly calm but still indisposed for speech. She took a step forward, swayed as though she were in the act of falling, but before I could reach her she had caught at the back of the high chair which the footman was holding for her.
"What the devil is the meaning of all this?" Blunt asked, rising to his feet. "Can't you speak, Josephine? What's wrong?"
I poured out some water and tried to press the tumbler into her hand. It was quite useless. Her icy fingers could have held nothing. She was absolutely deaf and her eyes remained fixed upon La Fallaise.
"You two—seem to know one another," Blunt stuttered.
"I have had the honour," La Fallaise said calmly, "of occupying the position of husband to Madame for some years."
"Lover, I suppose you mean!" Blunt scowled.
There was a brief pause—a pause of cold, frozen silence. No one moved. One of the footmen had stolen from the room. The major domo, who had always presented the appearance of an executioner, was standing in the background. The butler, who had been serving the wines, was still at the sideboard. The woman had buried her face in her hands. One heard the stifled sobs which the rise and fall of her bosom indicated. We were all in those few seconds like posturing models.
"I imagined my wife on her way to America," La Fallaise said. "I learn that she is a guest in your house. In your country, I think, Lord Blunt, you do not fight duels. You will permit me?"
All the time, he had been fingering a ring upon his right hand. He drew it off, leaned towards Blunt and struck him across the cheek. I do not know whether it was abject cowardice or astonishment which kept the latter lying there half out of his chair, his arm raised as though he expected another attack. La Fallaise turned on his heel.
"If there is any answer," he said, "I am to be found at the Milan Hotel."
Louis, too, when he had heard my story, seemed like a stricken man. I found him in his little dining room smoking endless cigarettes, with the half dozen oysters and pint of Sauterne which was his customary supper at this season of the year untouched before him.
"You knew what was likely to happen?" I asked him.
"There was nothing I could do," he said sadly. "I sent to every hotel in London but it was hopeless. She was actually staying in the man's house. La Fallaise had a telegram from Cherbourg. She was supposed to be singing at the Metropolitan in New York next week. She must have flown instead to London."
"It has been an affair of a long time?" I asked.
"Two years. La Fallaise would never have known but for this unholy chance. He lives the life of a hermit. She was with him buried in the country somewhere a fortnight ago. Then see what arrives," he went on with a sudden hopeless gesture. "She passes unseen by La Fallaise or any of you within a few feet of your table at luncheon time. You know nothing. You see nothing. I could count the times La Fallaise has visited London since the war. He chooses this one night to give in to the President's wishes and come across to meet Blunt, and Blunt, who might so easily have told her of the coming guest, kept it for a surprise. Fate!"
"Meanwhile, you had better get on with your oysters and drink your Sauterne, Louis," I told him. "There will be a crowd here from the Opera tonight."
Louis poured himself out a glass of wine and moved a little nearer to the table.
"C'est raisonnable," he sighed. "Mais, mon ami, ce n'est pas encore fini, cette affaire là!"
Curiously enough those words of Louis' were in my mind the whole of the next day. They came repeatedly between me and my work. I found myself wondering what a man of La Fallaise's temperament would do, faced with this situation so essentially a part of the drama of modern life. What was there he could do? I tried to place myself in the same position. Physical force was so impossible. The invocation of the law by a man of La Fallaise's temperament and outlook ridiculous. The subject was still in my mind when in response to an urgent message from Louis I looked in to see him on my return early in the evening.
"La Fallaise has been here," he announced. "He came to see you. I am entrusted with a message."
"He is still in London?" I exclaimed.
"He is still here. He wishes to see you. He is in number 128."
"He took you into his confidence?" I asked.
"To some extent," Louis admitted. "You see, I knew Mademoiselle Josephine Tabaret long before she or the world realised that she had the voice of a goddess, long before the world was at her feet. However, I must not keep you. I told La Fallaise that this was your usual hour for returning and he begged that you would visit him at once."
"I will go, of course," I agreed. "But honestly, Louis, I don't know what to say to him. All day long I have been asking myself that one question—what does a man like La Fallaise do in such a position?"
Louis made no reply. I left him and mounted to number 128 in the Court. La Fallaise opened the door to me himself. He greeted me pleasantly and ushered me into his modest apartment, very little larger than my own. Already, however, with a few flowers and books and a couple of water colours, which I knew that he must have purchased from an exhibition that afternoon, he seemed to have given the place a touch of his own personality. He rang for cocktails and waved me to an easy chair.
"Captain Lyson," he said, "I have very few friends in London or if it comes to that—in the world. There is no one of whom I could ask the service I am asking of you."
"I am all the more flattered," I murmured.
"Will you be the bearer of a message from me to Lord Blunt?"
"Of course I will," I promised.
He unlocked a despatch box which was lying upon his writing table and drew out a letter. He passed it over to me.
"Do you recognise the handwriting?" he asked.
"Without a doubt," I replied. "It is the handwriting of Lord Blunt."
"Read it," he enjoined.
I obeyed. When I had finished, my cheeks were burning. Blunt was after all an Englishman and by some means or other had found his way into a dominant position.
"I have read it," I said. "You cannot expect me to understand."
La Fallaise shrugged his shoulders.
"That letter," he confided, "has reposed in the archives of the inner sanctuary of the French political secret service headquarters for four years. It cost the man who secured possession of it four millions, the lives of three men, the reputation of a dozen others and ultimately his own life. It tells its own story. It accounts for that long series of bitter attacks with which the Blunt press has done its best to destroy the entente between our two countries. What do you suppose, my friend Capitaine Lyson, will be the result if I publish that letter and write my next week's article around it?"
"I should think you would ruin the whole of the Blunt press," I replied, "and Blunt himself will commit suicide if he has the courage. In any case he will have to resign from every official position. Of course he would dispute its authenticity."
"That," La Fallaise assured me, "he could not do. He was staying secretly at the hotel from which the letter was written and the messenger who took it is still alive. His handwriting is unmistakable and the change in the tone of his newspapers from that period is absolute confirmation of his wretched bargain. The bankers, too, can testify that over a million pounds went into Blunt's account that month. Truth may lie deep at the bottom of the well, my friend, but when the morning of fate dawns it is there as clear as crystal."
He returned the letter to the place from which he had produced it and locked the despatch box. There was a knock at the door. A very obvious French manservant, carrying his hat in his hand but dressed for a journey, presented himself.
"The car awaits Monsieur," he announced.
"I am coming," La Fallaise said. "Go and take your place, Jean. See that the bags are down."
"Everything is prepared, Monsieur."
The man obeyed his master's wave of the hand and disappeared. La Fallaise threw his overcoat over his arm and held out his hand.
"Good-bye, my new friend Capitaine Lyson," he said. "If any evil chance should bring me again to this country we will foregather."
"But—but what is it you wish me to do?" I asked.
La Fallaise shook his head. "Nothing."
WITH my hairbrushes still poised in mid-air, I listened for a moment to the timid yet imperative knock at my closed door. As the flat which I occupied in the Milan Court was on the topmost story and one of the smallest in the building, it was very seldom that I received unannounced visits.
"You wish to see me?" I asked the young woman whom I found in the corridor.
"If you please, Captain Lyson."
She looked nervously over her shoulder. She was breathing quickly and gave me the impression of having hurried from the lift, which came no higher than the floor below. I ushered her into the sitting-room.
"Would you think me crazy if I asked you to lock the door?" she ventured.
"No—only indiscreet," I answered, smiling. "Don't ask me to do that. Miss Hansom. I can assure you that you will be perfectly safe here."
"You know who I am?" I nodded.
"You are Miss Christine Hansom, aren't you?"
She produced a letter which, at her request. I opened and read. It was from a well-known Scandinavian in New York.
"My Dear Lyson,
"The bearer is Miss Christine Hansom, an acquaintance of mine, but well known to several of my friends in the Nordic Embassy here. She is going over to play in a film in England where she has no friends. If you can do anything for her, you can rest assured of my gratitude.
I glanced up at her curiously. She was very good looking in a statuesque northern European fashion, with large blue eyes deeply set, a profusion of golden hair, and a graceful figure, rather on the flowing side.
"I see you with all your people in the Grill Room sometimes," I remarked. "I don't think I have met anyone in your show, though."
"They are all strangers to me," he confided. "Some of them—Phillip Dean, for instance—are quite well known, but none of them was at Hollywood when I was there."
"Tell me," I ventured, "are you in trouble of any sort? How, can I help you?"
"Just by talking pleasantly, and looking human," she replied "I have lost my balance. I have nerves. I am frightened."
"But what of."
"I shall tell you, perhaps. Not now—but soon. This is the strangest show I have ever been in. The author has put a great deal of money in it and he does all the direction himself."
"Who is he?" I asked.
"His name is Osmond Lann," she confided. "We are doing a film version of his novel 'The Great World.'"
"Very clever," she admitted doubtfully. "Very difficult to understand. especially the way we are doing it—like pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. Captain Lyson, I do not think that I like authors."
"No great catch, are they?" I agreed.
"I think," she went on, "that Mr. Lann tries to be kind, but half the time is so vague. He treats us as though we were all school-children living in another world."
"Sounds as though he were inclined to be a poseur," I suggested. "Now, tell me why you were trembling when you came in—why you still look so frightened. If you need my help in any way, I must know a little more about it."
She sat quite still for a few moments.
"You will think I am silly, I know," she said presently. "I am beginning to have a sort of nervous dread of Mr. Osmond Lann."
"Well—go on." I invited.
"Mr. Lann is his own director, producer, and everything. It is he who hired the studio. It is he who engaged everyone—even the cameramen. Nearly all the scenes are indoor ones, and when we begin a set every door in the studio is locked."
"I don't know much about the making of films," I observed, "but is that unusual?"
"It has never been done before in any picture I have made," she assured me. "Then there are other things. We have all had to take an oath of secrecy that we will divulge nothing of the character or the plot of the scenario and, besides that, there is a clause in our contracts that anyone whose work is disapproved of by Mr. Lann can be dismissed at once with a month's salary."
"Sounds a little arbitrary."
"It is wicked. We signed because we never dreamed that it would ever happen, and the salaries are quite good. Now I come to the great trouble. Pour days ago I was called on the set to do a scene with Phillip Dean. When it was finished. Mr. Lann asked Phillip to drive home with him as he wished to discuss his rendering of the part. That was four days ago. We have never seen Mr. Dean since."
"For incapacity, Mr. Lann told us. Worse still—he is going to play the part himself."
"I don't think I like your author director," I admitted, offering her a cigarette.
She helped herself gratefully. Her manner was becoming more normal.
"His behaviour to the rest of us," she went on, "is kindness itself, but that does not alter the fact that we are all terribly afraid of him. There seems to be no escape at any hour of the day. He engaged that large round table you may have noticed in the Grill Room on the day we started, and everyone is expected to dine there at night and discuss progress."
"When exactly was Phillip Dean sent away?" I asked.
The fear was back again in those great eyes. Her voice shook as she answered me.
"Last Tuesday, after we had finished at the studio. Mr Lann took him off in his own car and we have not seen or heard of him since."
"Do you mean to say that he hasn't come to say good-bye to any of you?"
"He has not been near one of us." she assured me.
"Has Lann referred to his disappearance in any way?"
"Mr. Lann came by very late for dinner that night. He just said that he had made arrangements with Mr Dean to relinquish the part, that Mr. Dean was going back to America, and that he intended to take over his part and play it himself."
"Is he capable of doing that?"
"I suppose so. He is an actor."
"I hate to seem inquisitive," I ventured after a moment's pause, "but if you have come here with any idea of asking my help, I must understand a little more about the situation. What is your role in the film?"
She half closed her eyes and moved uneasily in her chair.
"A horrible one. The spirit of sexual evil brooding over the world: a sort of unconverted Mary Magdalene. That is all I can tell you."
I could feel her eyes studying me furtively. I think that at that moment we both had the same thought. Whatever faults Osmond Lann might have possessed, he had shown at least a flair for one part of his profession.
"Have you an agent at all?" I asked her.
"Not now. Mr. Lann will not deal with agents. He drew up the contracts himself."
"He pays good salaries?"
"He pays me two hundred and fifty pounds a week," she confided. "I do not know what the others are getting, but they seem quite satisfied. My salary would be all right," she went on, "but I am kept here as a prisoner. I am not allowed to see even a newspaper man. Mr. Lann possesses the most charming manners in the world, but is rude to anyone who comes down wanting to interview me. How can he possibly expect to produce a film in the West End and defy the Press?"
"It does seem rather a problem," I admitted. "May I think it over for a day or two? I will make a few inquiries about your chief, and see if I can discover what has become of Phillip Dean."
"That is just what I want you to do." she agreed eagerly.
"There is just one more question I must ask. When you came in here you were shockingly nervous. You even wanted me to lock the door. Nothing that you have told me about the situation could account for this."
"Captain Lyson," she confessed, "it all comes from one thing. I am frightened of Mr. Lann."
I looked at her thoughtfully.
"What are you frightened of?"
"The way he got rid of Phillip Dean, for one thing."
"There may be a reasonable explanation for that," I pointed out. "What else?"
She was clutching the arms of the chair and I could see where her knuckles were white with the tension. Her eyes almost frightened me.
"Look here," I said, "I will put it bluntly. Does he pay you attentions?"
"He is all the time." she answered feverishly, "on the borderline. In our work, Captain Lyson, we gain experience. We learn how to ward off that sort of thing. I am all the time on my guard, but I never know. Sometimes he is just as kind and thoughtful as a man could be, and he does not seem to have a wrong idea in his head; at other times he seems torn—distracted. I am afraid to be in the room with him. He looks at me as though he were battling with hideous temptations. When he has left me sometimes, I have almost had hysterics, and I do not want to lose this job. I have never had a chance to save a penny before, and here I spend nothing. I want to finish the film, Captain Lyson. After that, if I can get work from anyone else in the world. I never want to see Mr. Lann again. Listen!...is not that—someone outside?"
She leaned forward shivering in her chair. There was a distinct rap at the door.
"Do not answer it!" she begged. "Perhaps he will go away."
"Please don't be absurd," I remonstrated. "It is probably my evening paper—a telegram—anything. Of course I must answer it."
I threw the door open and found myself confronted by the man whom I was expecting to find there.
"Captain Lyson?" he inquired pleasantly.
"That is my name," I admitted.
"My name is Lann," he told me. "Osmond Lann. I am running a small film company over here and I have come in search of one of my lost treasures."
Christine Hansom seemed to have quite recovered her self-possession. She picked up her bag and fur and came across the room.
"I have not strayed very far," she said. "I was just coming down. I am not late, am I?"
"Only a few minutes," he assured her.
"Miss Hansom brought me a letter from a friend in New York," I observed. "Charlie Korvald. You know him, I expect."
Lann was standing now full in the light. I found him younger than I had expected, and without the slightest trace of anything sinister in his manner or speech. I could scarcely keep a smile from my lips when I thought of Miss Hansom's apprehensions.
"By name only. A very clever writer, I believe, and an excellent critic."
"Will you both have a cocktail with me before you go in for dinner?" I invited. "I should like to hear something about your film, Mr. Lann."
He accepted my invitation without demur. We descended to the Grill Room lounge and sat at a round table.
"I am very happy to have met you. Captain Lyson." he said, "but I would rather not talk about the film. When I am ready. I will invite you gentlemen of the Press to come and see it, and you can make me happy or miserable as you choose; but what they term the gossiping sort of publicity—little paragraphs, hints at the plot—doesn't interest me. Most of my company think I am mad! I suppose that is because they want to see their photographs in the papers."
He indulged in a humorous but not altogether pleasing grimace.
"Well. I shan't be able to stop it for very long." he observed.
The cocktails were brought, the clock struck eight soon afterwards, and Lann, with a glance at Christine, rose to his feet. He turned to me with an apologetic smile.
"You will excuse us if we hurry off, Captain Lyson. We shall meet again, I hope..."
They left me with an uneasy sense of her condition. She seemed to me either like an over-worked genius on the point of a breakdown, or a woman who was walking hand in hand all the time with a mortal terror. As usual, when thoroughly puzzled, I made my way across towards the armchair at the Grill Room entrance where Louis, the presiding genius of the place, was installed.
"Louis," I asked, "do you know anything about Mr. Osmond Lann's film company?"
"Nothing personal," he answered. "Here is one of my most distinguished patrons, however, who does. Captain Lyson—Mr. Norman Slay..."
A small man, pale but with the face and expression of a world conqueror, shook hands with me.
"You want to know about Osmond Lann and his film?" he inquired crisply.
I pleaded guilty to a certain amount of curiosity. He plunged at once into speech.
"Osmond Lann," he declared, "is a brilliant writer, if anything a little too imaginative for our job. He showed me the script of a film not long ago. I couldn't touch it, but then I buy and produce films to make money. This had all the gifts except the money touch. He always threatened to produce it himself. That's what I believe he is doing. He may make a great success. He works on original lines. He keeps his company locked up. He has contrived to create an atmosphere of mystery around everything he does.
"What I saw of his manuscript was beautiful—but blasphemous. He is capable of making it the greatest film that has ever been shown. He is up to all sorts of funny stunts and he changes his cameramen continually. He works at all manner of odd times. If he makes the huge success he may, he is capable of dividing the whole of the profits—and they might be millions—amongst his cast. If he fails, he is just as capable of shooting the lot of them!"
"One more question," I begged. "The girl—Christine Hansom, is he the sort of man—"
"For heaven's sake, no!" Slay interrupted. "Never heard of him looking at a woman in my life. Lives in the clouds. That's why he will either make the greatest triumph that was ever known, or come the greatest cropper."
He moved on with a farewell nod. Louis was welcoming some new arrivals. I turned away rather reluctantly, summoned a taxi and drove to my club. I was just cutting in for my second rubber when the page-boy called me to the phone. It was a message from Julie, the charming daughter of my friend Louis. Her father wished to see me before he retired for the night. No more bridge for me! I was in his sitting-room just in time to join him in a final whisky-and-soda and cigarette. He waved Julie away.
"I have myself," he confided, "developed a slight interest in that strange film party of whom you spoke. My friend Monsieur Bland, from the reception office, came across to see me this evening. He was somewhat perturbed at the sudden and unannounced departure of the leading man in the company."
"So was Mademoiselle Christine," I observed. "The whole thing seems most extraordinary.'
"That he had rushed away to catch a boat without taking his clothes with him, or returning at all to the hotel after he had the studio, was in itself barely credible." Louis went on, "but that he should have left behind him, of all things in the world, his passport that one fails wholly to understand."
"It determines the situation, anyway," I replied, genuinely startled.
"Fortunately," Louis continued, "the young man seemed to have a passion for being photographed. A dozen of his pictures are in a neat packet in your room. It would be advisable if you spoke with your friends at Scotland Yard...Something is wrong with those people, Captain Lyson. They dine together night after night, but they never laugh. I have had my eye on them for some time. I do not trust a company of people who never even smile."
I rose at once to my feet.
"Sharnbrook?" I suggested.
"It would be as well." Louis agreed, as we shook hands.
I discovered that Inspector Sharnbrook, who was responsible for the department at Scotland Yard dealing with disappearances, was on night duty, and within an hour the photographs and particulars of Phillip Dean's departure from the studio, in company with Osmond Lann, were in his hands. Afterwards, I returned to my apartment, read for a time in my sitting-room, and went unwillingly to bed. Three times I woke in the night fancying I heard once more that timid rap at the door. Each time I looked out on to an empty corridor.
Morning arrived. There was no news. From the concierge I learned that the whole of the Osmond Lann film company had started out for the studio at eight o'clock. Louis was a hopeless person until luncheon-time, so I left him alone. I had some work to do, but I neglected it. I went round to my club and played squash for an hour and a half with the professional; then I came back, had a shower-bath, changed for lunch, and descended to invite Julie for an aperitif. I found her almost dancing with excitement. She pressed her autograph-book into my hands.
"Last night," she exclaimed. "I had the courage! That strange film company! I only knew yesterday that it was Christine Hansom and Osmond Lann. I was talking to father when they came out and I had the courage." she repeated "I asked for their autographs. Mr. Lann—oh, how handsome he is! He signed his name.
"You shall see it here. Afterwards he stood talking with father, and Miss Hansom pretended that the light was bad and she made me follow her back into the room. Her fingers were trembling so that she could scarcely hold the pen. 'Please do this for me,' she begged. 'Tell Captain Lyson to wait in his apartment for a message from me all to-morrow afternoon. He must not leave—all the afternoon and evening, mind.' You will stay, will you not? I promised that you would."
"I shall stay," I agreed.
"Is she ill?" Julie inquired. "She is so beautiful—those great blue eyes. I could look into them for hours. And that gorgeous hair! She is the most exquisite thing I ever saw, but she shivers all the time. I think she is ill. Why does she want to see you? Of course, I think she is marvellous but—I am jealous! ..."
Louis had nothing to add to his earlier report, but I could tell from his manner that he was taking the affair seriously. I abandoned my intention of inviting Julie for lunch, and mounted once more to my room. I lunched there, I took my coffee and smoked innumerable cigarettes. I lit a pipe and read a novel, only to throw the latter away in a few minutes. I searched the newspapers. There was nothing. I tried to write letters—tried and failed. I spent most of the time listening.
Then at last it came—towards late evening—the message for which I had been waiting. Even the telephone instrument itself seemed to reflect the grim forebodings of crisis. Her voice—a rather pleasant voice—seemed utterly changed. Her throat was hoarse like the throat of one exhausted with undue efforts of speech.
"Captain Lyson—you are there?"
"I'm here," I answered. "What has happened? Do you want me to come to the studio?"
"Oh, please—as quickly as you can! I do not know how you will get in. Everyone else has gone. Mr. Lann has just been round and locked all the doors. He is setting a scene. I am afraid—"
"There's nothing to be afraid of," I told her. "I'm coming. I shall be with you in twenty minutes."
"Oh, how wonderful!" I heard her say. "And you must bring—bring help. I think something terrible is going to happen. I am sure that—"
The sound of her voice ended abruptly. There was a stifled cry. I heard a sound as though a door had been slammed. Then her voice once more—very faint.
"Oh—I am afraid!"
In two minutes I was prepared to leave the place. Once more the telephone rang. I hesitated whether or not to answer it. The seconds might be precious. Reluctantly, however, I snatched at the receiver.
"Lyson speaking. What is it?"
"Inspector Sharnbrook," came the prompt reply.
"Thank heaven!" I gasped. "I was just coming round. Miss Hansom has rung me up from the studio. There's trouble out there. You had better bring men. I'm off to see what I can do."
"But I am up at Epping," Sharnbrook groaned. "Just found Phillip Dean, or what's left of him, poor fellow, tied to a tree in the wood. A horrible business. Ring up Marlow at the Yard, Captain Lyson. Tell him to take a squad along and meet you. I will go straight there myself."
Everything I did, I did mechanically. Marlow was to start within five minutes. I had the idea of taking the stairs in one quick burst, but pulled myself together in time. I might need all the breath I had presently. I took the lift down and hurried to the place where I was allowed to leave my car on the other side of the Court.
Sometimes it seemed to me that I had never driven faster, at other times I was amazed that I was driving so carefully. The lights were just lit and a slight fog was hanging about, but I seemed to get into the by-ways in no time. There was very little traffic. The red lights meant nothing to me. I drove with my accelerator down, crouching over the wheel, deaf to the whistles and the angry shouts which followed me. I remembered my way entirely by instinct. I took the right corner without hesitation, when I am perfectly certain that in a saner moment I should have paused in doubt...
Arrived at my destination, I found myself face to face with a great mass of buildings. The first entrance gates were locked. The porter's lodge was empty. I went on almost to the end of the line of studios before I was able to make my way inside through a space where a fallen wall was being repaired. I passed down the broad drive and pulled up at last in a little pool of darkness under some trees opposite the studio of which I was in search.
The front door, as I expected, was locked and barred. The windows, which looked chiefly into the offices, were nothing but blank sheets of glass. I went up and down the side and the front and found no means of entrance. There was not a soul anywhere about—not a light to be seen. The studio, I knew, was on the ground floor behind these offices, but the way to it was barred by a high wall and a spiked gate.
There was only one means of access to the building that I could see, for a man in a desperate hurry, and that I made use of. I emptied the shells from my revolver, gripped it by the muzzle, and smashed the nearest window, using my coat to deaden the sound. Then I scrambled into the deserted room, and paused for a moment to listen and take breath.
The outer door into the passage was locked; but from the inner office there was a flight of stairs leading upwards. I ran up these, slipping back the shells into my gun, and with my torch in my left hand. On the landing, which I reached in half a dozen strides, was a mercifully open door. I turned down a corridor to And at the end of it only a fire escape.
Then for the first time I had evidence that I was not alone in the building. Only twenty or thirty feet below, from the large projection room of the studio, I heard the smooth, pleasant voice of Osmond Lann. I stood rigid—listening.
A curious sense of unreality crept over me. I had either gone crazy, or this was some dream. Lann's voice, scarcely raised above its usual pitch, was clearly audible. He was giving some quite ordinary stage directions. His tone was kindly and unflurried. There was no suggestion of anything unusual going on.
"Sorry to trouble you again," I heard him say, "but you must grip that goblet of wine you have there a little more naturally—greedily—so. When I put on this record, remember—you must all stop drinking and look up. The music astonishes you. Your quarrels are all forgotten. There must be a look of reverence in your eyes as you lean forward."
There was a murmur of voices from below. I crept towards the iron rail of the fire-escape and descended some dozen rungs. I was now in what seemed to be an empty loft, but with an open space in the wall. I groped towards it and in a moment found myself looking down into the main studio where, scarcely a dozen yards away, the strange business of making a film in comparative darkness seemed to be in progress.
Creeping cautiously a few inches farther forward, I could see ten or twelve men seated at a rough trestle table. Something about their grouping seemed to me curiously familiar.
It was more like a dream picture than anything I had ever seen. Every one of the men was wearing the strangely-fashioned clothes of thousands of years ago There were loaves of bread upon the table, and great earthenware jars of wine. Osmond Lann, in a long cloak of brown wool, one end of which was thrown over his shoulder, was moving up and down, changing the position of one man, rearranging the flowing robe of another, refilling the glass of a third.
Ail this I saw only by straining my eyes, for the sole illumination came from a single lamp in the middle of the room. The two great cameras on their stands were both out of use. The room seemed cold and dead The only other article of furniture in it was a wooden couch covered all over with bundles of sacking.
"Remember," I heard Lann say, "you wake from a drowsy slumber at the sound of the music. The fumes of the wine are still with you, but when you hear the music you forget...Just as you are, then."
He crossed the floor with long, graceful strides, selected a record and placed it upon an opened gramophone. While he was bending over his task, one of the figures at the table half rose to his feet.
"Mr. Lann!" he called out.
Lann swung round, and I seemed to see his frame stiffen. I had the idea that he was angry His voice was severe and stern.
"There is to be no speech." he said
"But I ask you, sir," the man continued, "what is the use of this: grouping and rehearsal, when there is no camera going and no lighting? You must forgive me if I say that it seems like waste of time We are all of the same mind."
There was an uneasy murmur from the others, and for the first time I realised that they were under the influence of some sort of dope, for their voices were thick and confused.
"You must leave all this to me," Lann begged in a tone of gentle persuasion. "I wish to have this picture in my mind. Presently we shall do it to the hiss of the cameras and with the lights burning you up. This is more the real thing we are rehearsing. That will be the artificial."
This time there was a curiously menacing note in Lann's voice.
"Silence!" he ordered.
The music had begun to steal into the place, the strangest music I had ever heard, the fervent, supplicating voices of human beings in agony, with an undernote of raw, uncouth chords melting now and then into harmony. Lann listened in the attitude of a man well pleased, then he turned towards the switch. More lights flashed out into the room I realised instantly what I had already suspected. Those eleven figures seated at the table were helpless. They were lolling in every conceivable pose of abandon. The coarse tablecloth was stained with spilt wine. Two of the jars had been overturned and from one the wine was still dripping. Lann moved his head gently as though in approval.
"That's good," he said. "It is very good indeed. Now be careful. Let there be no speech."
He turned his back upon them, moved towards the wooden couch, stooped down and flung away the coverings. It seemed to me that there was blood in my eyes as I dug my nails into the soft partition by means of which I was supporting myself. Christine Hansom was lying below me bound with cords to the side of the couch! As the lights flooded the room her cry of agony drowned even the swelling crescendo of the music.
"Let me go!" she shrieked. "Will none of you help? He means murder! Are you cowards, you others?"
The man who had spoken to Lann staggered to his feet, only to fall in a heap across the table.
"It's this beastly muck he's shoved down our throats!"
There was an uneasy sense of movement and more groaning. Two or three of the men at the table struggled up, only to collapse again. Lann looked round at them reproachfully. He was curiously and completely isolated.
"Silence!" he ordered. "This is the critical moment. Let no one interfere!"
He turned his back upon them, and thrusting his hand underneath his gown drew out a long knife. Christine's cry of horror rang through the building. I leaned forward into space, holding the partition with my left hand.
"Lann!" I cried. "If you don't drop that knife, I'll shoot!"
He turned and faced me without the slightest trace of discomposure Even at that moment there was something beautiful in his expression.
"I cannot see who you are." he said, "but this knife was put into my hand to rob the world of sin! Sin lies there bound at my mercy. Whoever you are—would you choose to have the world set free from sin, or pass on to the end in names and misery?"
"If you touch that woman," I warned him, making a fierce effort to imitate his self-possession, "I will shoot you dead where you stand. You're mad. Lann! Try to remember that's a live woman there! Just for a moment come back to earth. Listen to the truth. You're a madman in a world of sane people! If you touch her you will hang!"
He smiled at me tolerantly, with very much the air of a grown-up listening to a fractious child. I fancy myself as a shot, and I took care that my bullet was only a foot from his head. He never even winced. The echoes of the discharge seemed to fill the place. The smile remained upon his face.
"The next one will be in your heart!" I warned him.
Still that smile, but this time there was a curious gleam of cunning in his eyes. He moved to the other side of the couch, dropped on one knee and leaned over the woman by whose body he was now more or less shielded. The knife was glistening in his hand, and slowly creeping higher.
Outside the studio it seemed to me that there was a confused babel of sound. I called out at the top of my voice for help. I looked below and I was afraid. I sent another bullet through the roof. One of the men from the table had risen to his feet and struggled across the floor, but he fell to the ground groaning. The knife had reached a steady position, and it seemed to me that I could see the fire in the man's eyes, see him stiffen himself for the blow. I realised then that it was useless to wait. I must take my chance. I stretched out my arm and fired...I knew that my finger had never faltered, but a moment of madness seized me, too. I heard the sound of Lann's cry of agony and it was like music; but it came too late. I had taken the risk of my twenty-foot Jump, and the building seemed to be falling in upon me.
When I opened my eyes, Sharnbrook and I seemed to be the only people in the studio. I took a long gulp from the flask he was holding towards me.
"Where's everybody?" I gasped.
"Eleven doped men I have had to send to the hospital for the moment," he confided. "Miss Hansom is sitting in the car outside. It took Marlow and three men to get Lann out of the place. He is screaming mad—must have been coming on for years."
I looked upwards at the broken boarding.
"Pretty good jump, that, Sharnbrook," I said, struggling to my feet.
"It was a mighty good shot," he replied with a grin. "Clean through his forearm! Come along—this way."
A waft of fresh air in the passage made a new man of me. I could even wave my hand to Christine Hansom, who was leaning out of the opened window of the limousine. I still felt, however, like a man on the fringe of delirium.
"I drove down here in seventeen minutes," I told Sharnbrook, clutching at his arm. "I shall have a dozen police summonses in the morning!"
"We'll take care of those," he promised.
UNDER cover of my midday edition of the "Evening Standard," I watched the girl come sauntering up the long narrow passage between the tables to the place where I was seated. Everyone stared at her. She had the air of one who has recently arrived from a journey, but her clothes possessed cut and distinction. Her hat and veil were distinctly Fifth Avenue, and her nails had just that exotic touch of pink that only the American manicurists seem able to produce.
When she reached the end of the room, instead of swinging round to the entrance doors, she stopped in front of my table.
"How do you do. Captain Lyson?" she asked affably.
I promptly lowered my paper and rose to my feet. I realised her significance, but for the moment I was unable to place her. She was extra ordinarily young, but she had been over lavish with all those little touches which the fashions of the moment seem to demand. Her eye lashes had been tampered with, al though they would have been just as attractive untouched. Her lips were becarmined clumsily, but her beautifully shaped mouth still retained its charm. Her hair, however, remained natural, a beautiful corn color, and her sleepy eyes were just the right shade of brown.
"Yes, my name is Lyson," I admitted.
"I was at Daddy Maine's party the other night." she reminded me.
"Of course, I remember. Won't you sit down?" I invited, still secretly perplexed.
She glanced over her shoulder out into the courtyard. The waiter held a chair for her and she sank grace fully into it.
"How long does it take to get here from Southampton?" she asked.
"About two hours," I told her. "Are you expecting anyone on this boat?"
"I'm afraid so." she confided. "I had word last night some of the Rawson boys were coming along, and I'm afraid they'll make it ugly for Ed if they do. Ed's my partner, you know. He's in the show with me."
I recognised her then. She was a recent importation from the States and had drifted from Dorchester House to a well-known cabaret, where she was doing dancing and songs.
"Of course," I said. "You are Myra, aren't you, and your partner's name is Ed?"
She smiled approvingly. "That's right. Myra and Ed. Of the Café de Lyon Cabaret."
"Will you have some coffee?" I invited.
She shook her head reluctantly. "I guess I'd better not stay around just now." she said "I'm scared about the crowd that's coming over. There might be a shooting. Ed went down to Waterloo to check them off from the special. He ought to have been back an hour ago."
She had moved her chair so as to be able to see into the court; suddenly she sprang to her feet. She waved her hand desperately at a young man who had just driven up in a blue two-seater. "That's Ed!" she exclaimed. "You'll excuse me?"
A certain fear that she might return with Ed in tow led me to call for my bill. My old friend Jules looked at me curiously as I signed.
"Monsieur a bien dejeune?" he inquired.
He lingered for a moment. It was obvious there was something he would have liked to say if he had dared. In the end he made his little bow and departed. The omnipotent Louis, however, when I reached his desk, was less reticent. He glanced up and down the room and leaned forward. "May I be permitted a word of advice, my young friend?" he asked.
"Of course. Louis. Go ahead."
"The young lady—"
"Very chic," I interrupted. "Myra Grey. Dancing now at the Café de Lyon. Myra and Ed. you know."
"Monsieur is a friend." Louis said gravely, patting the back of my hand. "I give him serious advice. Do not encourage the acquaintance of Mademoiselle. Just now, at any rate, she is not a good person to know. Please remember that."
I was puzzled. Louis' advice was good to follow at any time but it seemed strangely given, in the circumstances.
"What's the matter with the child?" I asked. "She can scarcely be out of her teens."
"Perhaps not." was the grim reply. "There are two detectives in this room, though, who are doing all they can to keep her and her boy friend in sight. He is wanted in New York. They are a tough crowd. Captain. They do not belong to the places they are going. Do not be led into joining any of their parties. Keep away! Take my advice. Captain Lyson."
"From what I have seen of Ed." I observed as I turned away, "I probably shall."
I have a fancy when dining at a restaurant where dancing is a part of the evening's amusement for sitting in the background and issuing forth at reasonable intervals. Julie Louis' attractive daughter, preferred to sit at a table on the dancing floor and plunge into the thick of it the moment the music started. I gave in to her as I generally did, and we were on our feet most of the time. Julie was one of the most delightful partners in the world. The music, too, was world-famous. I enjoyed every minute of it and yet, when the signal was given from the orchestra that the cabaret was about to commence. I led her back to our table and sank into my chair with a sigh of satisfaction. She looked at me searchingly with her head on one side.
"You like no longer to dance with me?" she demanded.
"Julie, my darling, there is nothing in the world I enjoy more," I assured her. "I thought it pleasant to sit down because I am still with you, and next to dancing with you I like to look at you. Incidentally. I have been on my feet all day."
Julie, although she loved to dance, loved also to eat, and for a time we devoted ourselves to a perfectly cooked sole colbert. A Spanish lady danced for us and met with a reasonable amount of appreciation. During the brief interval, the manager came across to pay his respects.
"You have a wonderful crowd tonight. Gustave." I observed.
He nodded. "We have a tum which is unique in all the world."
"The American couple?"
"Ed and Myra," he assented. "There has never been seen such dancing in London. But this new idea of theirs—well. I find it a little too much for me," he added deprecatingly. "They are introducing a novelty. For myself I am not so sure that it is what the people want."
"There is nothing in the changed performance. I trust, which makes it unsuitable for the young?"
Julie rapped my knuckles and Gustave smiled. "It is not that sort of affair." he assured me.
Julie heaved a delicate little sigh of disappointment.
Gustave was on the point of leaving us, but I called him back. I pointed to a very desirable table in the front row, a few yards from our own. "What fortunate couple are you keeping that for. Gustave?" I asked him.
"That table is kept for two gentlemen—strangers, but still very important people. You will see."
The cabaret continued. An attractive-looking Frenchwoman sang two or three songs. There was some freak pianoforte playing. Then the lights went up, the music crashed and dancing began again.
"All these shows," I observed to Julie as we loitered through a very slow foxtrot, "are monotonous."
"Did not Monsieur Gustave say that he had found a novelty for us?"
"He has perhaps the two most skilful dancers in the world from an acrobatic point of view," I acknowledged. "But unless they can invent a perfectly new dance they are not likely to have a very great success. The girl is extraordinarily beautiful. That might help, of course."
Julie drew a little away from me. "She is a friend of yours—yes?"
"I met her at one of those silly parties one goes to for a few minutes."
My partner looked at me severely. "I do not like it that you go to these night places alone and meet so many beautiful women."
She paused, then asked with a smile, "By the way, Just how old are you?"
"I am thirty-seven," I told her. "Eighteen years older than you."
She sighed with content. "To be thirty-seven is not to call oneself a Methuselah," she said. "I was afraid it might have been worse. It is because Father always says you are so trustworthy that I think of you as being older than you are."
"If we were in your little salon," I confided, "I should box your ears." She laughed gaily.
Just then the music paused. The familiar rattle took its place.
"Myra and Ed," I said.
The lights were growing dim. The dance orchestra had slipped away from their places. The music had changed its character. Two men glided into the vacant places at the table on the dancing floor which had I been empty all the evening. One was short and fat, with clean-shaven face, benevolent expression but a peculiar mouth. The other was thinner, a little gaunt, with high cheek bones. They both wore dinner coats and black ties. They were smoking rather over-sized cigars, and a bottle of champagne stood in the ice by their side.
"Our new neighbors," I whispered to Julie, "are scarcely worthy of their prominent position."
Julie was too occupied to take much notice of my remarks. The lowering of the lights and that clear staccato music was having its effect upon her.
Suddenly she gripped my wrist. Coming down the broad flight of stairs from the balcony floor was the strangest figure I had ever seen. It was a man—a young man—bent almost double, creeping down with long, slinking footsteps, pausing every now and then, glancing around fearfully.
His fair hair was plastered straight over his forehead, coming down almost to his eyebrows. His long fingers reached the stairs; sometimes as he paused in his descent he balanced himself leaning on the palm of one hand. As he drew nearer, one realised that he was giving an impression of a man in deadly fear. On the last few stairs his pace became slower. He hesitated before taking that last step on to the dancing floor.
There was a silence in the room which, after a few seconds, became absolutely uncanny. One could almost hear the pent-up anticipation, almost feel the excitement of the crowd. It resolved itself into a little gasping murmur—the indrawn breaths of many people.
With the spotlight focused upon her, the girl was coming slowly from the shadows behind our chairs. I had tried to tell Julie that she was beautiful, but I felt then that nothing I could have said was adequate. Her figure was the figure of a fairy. Her steps, miracles of graceful progress. She was smiling, but there was a faint expression of hunger in her eyes, a queer, stifled desire, a line almost of cruelty in that young but perfect mouth. Then, as she reached the edge of the dancing floor her arms were slowly outstretched. The man who had crawled his way down the stairs straightened himself—a long, lithe figure with greedy, deep-set eyes and satyr-like mouth.
The music suddenly changed. Even as they stood looking at one another, it became harshly passionate, with a murmuring voluptuous rhythm dying away underneath. They came together like a flash of lightning. Her arms were around his neck. He lifted her high off the floor. They were away at the other end of the room. Her feet, too, were joining in the riot of action. They danced. Such dancing.
"Ah, mais c'est ravissant!" I heard Julie's stifled whisper.
She was clutching my arm fiercely. The light of the room seemed to be coming and going, according to the movements of that frantic dance.
They passed sometimes with slow, passionate steps, sometimes in a whirl, the girl's lips parted, the light in her eyes matching the burning in his. Then the music grew slower.
When I realised that the end of the dance was coming, I felt what dozens of people told me afterwards that they, too, felt—a great relief. It was torturing to watch it was naked passion burst loose. Their footsteps were moving to a different tune. One felt that it was the end.
The music led the dancers to the last sobbing bar. Her arms were around his neck. She drew him towards the place where our two neighbors were seated. One arm unwound itself. They were preparing, as it seemed to me, to make their bow. Then from the table close to us came the sudden sound of a chair kicked away. There was the muffled report of a gun. The long arms of the dancer shot over his head. Two waiters rushed to hold him up. Myra's scream of horror rang out through the place. A pandemonium of voices beat against the ceiling. Those who were near saw the dark spot on his evening shirt slowly grow larger. They half carried, half dragged him up the stairs.
Gustave and half a dozen of his myrmidons blocked the way at the foot. There must be no rush. Gustave seemed trying to quiet the hysterical crowd. Suddenly there was again that strange rattle from somewhere behind the orchestra.
The music was playing the same staccato, elf-like harmony which had heralded the approach of the dancers. I felt my forehead and found it wet. Julie had her arms around my neck. We were both of us staring at the other flight of stairs down which, with the same slow stealthy movements, came the dancer.
A miracle had happened! The shirt he was wearing was un crumbled and unstained. Only his hair flopped about his face and almost covered his eyes. He paused for a moment to brush it away. A death-like silence seemed to have stolen throughout the place. With those strange, slinking steps once more he reached the floor.
There was a floating wave of perfume close to our chairs, a faint movement of skirts.
The girl had come out from the background. She passed our table, she passed the table where the two men had been seated—empty ever since the sound of that gun. She held out her arms She was across the floor with the same wonderful bound. She was in the air—she was being held close to his heart—she was lifted up—shaken passionately all in a few seconds. And then they danced.
The music resolved itself almost without our being able to trace the beginnings into one of the old fashioned Viennese waltzes. It grew faster and faster, became louder and louder, the dance wilder, but drowning everything else was the applause, which it seemed to me would never end even after the dance was over. Six times after they had climbed the stairs, the dancers came back.
The cheering went on. No one would go away. Gustave realised that the guests were still half-dazed. They needed an explanation.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "we have presented to you to-night a dance dramatisation of a killing. The two gangsters were part of the show; the revolver was simply a revival of an old trick; the changed shirt and collar were waiting for our male performer at the top of the stairs. I feel that these explanations are due to you because of the astonishing interpretation given by my two artists which I do not mind telling you has been a revelation to all."
No such success as was achieved by Myra and Ed in their amazing turn had ever been vouchsafed to any cabaret performance, since night snows had become established in the West End of London. The Café de Lyon, almost in self-defence, doubled their prices, and even then every table in the place was booked for weeks and weeks ahead.
I never had any desire, however, to witness the performance again. Julie, with various friends, must have gone a dozen times. Even Louis on his crutches had himself transported there one Sunday night. Curiously enough, he shared a certain shrinking which I had felt from the first at the spectacle.
"It is too near reality," Louis decided. "The girl," he went on, "well, in effect she terrifies me! She is not acting. She feels it. There is no one like her upon the stage. But for myself my heart beats too fast I cannot watch her."
"You and I are of one mind, Louis," I muttered.
"Ever look up their dossiers down at the Yard?" he asked.
"I am not interested," I said.
"There is nothing definite against the girl except associations," Louis said, "but the man has a notch on his gun. He was very lucky to escape a murder trial."
Four days later I was finishing my luncheon, when I saw Myra coming slowly up the carpeted way towards my table. I had a newspaper propped up before me, but it was a useless subterfuge. I knew the exact moment when she paused in front of the table. I lowered my paper and rose to my feet mechanically. She looked at me and smiled slightly.
"You are the only man in London," she said, "who has not sent me a message of congratulation. Most of them—more than that."
"I scarcely thought," I replied, "that I knew you well enough."
She signalled to a waiter—there were half a dozen hanging round waiting for a word or a glance from her. She accepted a chair and sat down. I had no alternative but to resume my own seat.
"Would you like to know me better, my fierce friend?" she asked.
"Thank you, no," I answered. "That may sound rude, but I have a fancy that you are like me in one respect you are truthful."
She leaned back in her chair, her fingers tapping the tablecloth, her eyes searching for mine. She seemed somehow to diffuse an atmosphere for which I could find no words. "Say, you're scared of me." she declared.
I Jumped at the by-way of excuse. "It is true," I admitted. "I sit here even now in mortal terror. Is that bullet due for my chest?"
She turned her head lazily. Ed had followed her and was standing behind her. With his long hair, his sallow complexion and displeasing expression, he seemed to belong somehow to a foreign and unfriendly world.
"Say, you'd better meet Ed," she drawled, "Captain Lyson. You've no need to go gunning with him, Ed He's not walking down my street if he can help it."
"My fault we didn't meet at the party the other night," Ed remarked. "I was canned before we got there. Somehow over here the liquor don't seem so fierce but it goes to the spot a darn sight faster."
He was reaching out for a chair heedless of the lack of any invitation, but the girl stopped him with a lazy gesture. "Wait for me in the car," she enjoined.
He obeyed without demur. Left alone with me she edged her chair a little closer.
"He's common, Ed, isn't he?" she said sorrowfully.
"He is an amazing dancer," I observed.
"He learnt that on the sidewalk," she said. "Say, I saw you at the first night of our show."
"I was there," I admitted.
"Anything to say about it?"
"It was the most wonderful show of its sort I ever saw," I told her. "You are the most beautiful dancer I have ever seen. Ed is quite the best male dancer in the world."
"And then?" She tapped with her fingers upon the tablecloth.
"I like your finger-nails," I confided. "I think you must have brought your manicurist over with you."
The smile which had parted her lips faded. They quivered, became suddenly tremulous. I remembered that it was a child against whose spell I was fighting. She was looking down at her nails.
"We don't seem to get to understand one another very well, do we?" she complained. "I guess you English are about as slow as they said you were—or are you really scared of me, Captain Lyson?"
"Terrified to breath," I confessed. "I wish you would go away."
She laughed. "Listen. Do you know why we came to London?"
"Got into trouble in New York," I replied, not too amiably.
"We sure did," she admitted. "There was a guy who took the opposite line to you. He was crazy about me. Ed turned irritable, although it was no concern of his, and they started gunning. He got his—that poor fellow—and Ed very nearly got the chair. Anyway, it ended our show in New York. I Just wondered whether you had heard of it. Perhaps you're scared of Ed?"
"Perhaps I am," I agreed. "I don't like men who go gunning."
"If a man has a girl or thinks he has, he's got to keep her some way," Myra argued. "If Ed was the sort I could marry, perhaps he'd calm down. But I couldn't. Do you know how old I am? Sixteen," she confided. "It's time I knew what I wanted, isn't it?"
She was telling the truth. I was suddenly sure of it. She was little more than a child and yet all this woman's stuff was bubbling up in her.
I rose to my feet. "Look here, Miss Myra," I said. "I don't care how old you are. I don't care whether you marry Ed or not. I want you to leave me alone."
"I never ought to have come over with Ed," she sighed. "I feel that now. It's going to be difficult for me to go on." She rose unwillingly to her feet. "Ill go if you'll promise me one thing."
"All right," I replied. "What is it?"
"When I send a card, will you come and see our show once more?"
"I will," I promised.
She picked up her purse, favored me with a little nod and strolled off.
A table at the Café de Lyon in those days was worth a ten pound tip to any maître d'hotel attached to the place, but there was no hesitation when I presented the card which I had found in my room that morning. Julie and I were ushered to the same places we had occupied previously. This time, however, we were just units in a packed mass of West End sightseers. It was with the utmost difficulty that enough space had been kept for the performance. Dancing by the diners was out of the question, the place was jammed.
"I have never seen anything like this in my life," Julie cried.
"There has never been such a hit in my memory," I agreed. "I don't know why. The show is dramatic, of course, but it's rather horrible."
"It is exciting," Julie said in a low tone but with sparkling eyes.
I wished that I had never given the promise to come.
"I believe you are excited, too," Julie laughed. "You are so pale. But your eyes I like, to-night."
"I simply detest the whole show. The sooner it is over, the better I shall be pleased," I assured her.
Julie, very light-hearted and happy, chattered away and gradually I became more normal. Nevertheless, I shivered when I saw the two conspirators in their dinner jackets take their places near us. The lights grew dim One heard a fluttering sigh from the closely packed audience. Down the stairs Ed was crawling, looking furtively from side to side His face seemed ghastly pale against the shadows. He was more like an animal than a man.
He was nearing the bottom stair when I heard half-stifled exclamation and knew that Myra was coming. She made her way slowly. Now and then she touched a table as though to balance herself, for the passage had grown narrower and narrower. Just behind the front row, a man was seated alone by the side of a pillar, a long, lean-faced man with black eyes. Her fingers, it seemed as though by accident, touched his arm as she passed. Then she paused and with one swift forward step was on the floor. The music was playing a little louder and it seemed, as their arms went out towards one another, that she had leaped straight into the rhythm of it. Like the wind, she seemed to have found his embrace and the dance began.
I watched, and there was not any doubt at all that Ed was the most marvellous dancer in the world. It was the same performance over again, but with the nearing of the climax. I felt the sense of excitement grow almost unbearable.
The crisis came at last. Both the men in their dinner jackets had levelled their revolvers. The shots spat out. I found myself still listening. I could have sworn that I had heard three, but the men who had fired were doing their stunt, racing for the back exit. Ed had once more collapsed, the sinister spot was showing on his shirt front. Myra's shriek supplied the last thrill of horror and the little procession passed up the stairs.
The music went on, hesitated and then went on again. The time for the triumphant descent by the other flight of stairs had arrived. Ed should have been there in his clean shirt and his evil, mocking face. There was no sign of him, but there were indications of trouble behind. I felt a sudden catch in my breath. I looked towards the table by the pillar. The man who had been seated there had disappeared. The wine from a bottle which had fallen to the floor was creeping in a thin stream across the carpet.
"What is it, Charles?" Julie gasped. Gustave was standing half way down the stairs holding on to the banisters. His voice was broken. "Ladies and gentlemen—an unfortunate accident...There will be no more performance to-night. If everyone would kindly leave without undue haste."
There was a volume of eager shouting. The orchestra left their places. I called to Gustave and he came towards me, his face as white as chalk. I capped the small table by the side of the pillar.
"The third shot," I told him, "came from the man who was seated here."
IT was perfectly well understood at the Milan Grill Room that, unless I telephoned by at least an hour before the usual time for luncheon, the third table on the right against the wall as one entered the room was reserved for me. It was somewhat of a shock, therefore, to enter the place on a certain eventful morning, glance towards my table and find it occupied by perfect strangers. I turned to a favorite maître d'hôtel who happened to be passing.
"What is the meaning of that?" I asked severely.
He shrugged his shoulders as only a Provencal can do.
"C'est Monsieur Louis." he confided. "Another table has been prepared for Monsieur."
I turned round to where Louis was seated at his pulpit-like desk. He beckoned to me with his usual respectful gesture and I knew at once that there was some reason for this unexpected happening. I leaned towards him and indulged in a word or two of remonstrance. He stopped me at once.
"Monsieur le Capitane." he said. "I ask your pardon for having changed your position to-day. I am begging for your help. A young lady, whose father was one of my most valued clients, has embarked upon an enterprise which fills me with misgivings. I cannot dissuade her from it. She lunches here in a quarter of an hour under conditions which I consider highly dangerous. She needs supervision; if necessary, a strong arm and a quick wit. I have ventured to give you a table next to hers in a more secluded corner of the room and I am also considering the matter of asking you to accept the companionship of another man whom I think you know slightly."
"Is it to lead anywhere—this affair, Louis?" I asked him.
Louis, although he appeared to the world to be nothing more than the head waiter at the Milan Grill Room, was a man of importance in many other ways. Scotland Yard trusted him with their inquiries. A certain Secret Service branch of considerable importance, of which I myself was a humble member, made frequent use of him. He shook his head firmly.
"This is just a little drama such as you love to watch happening in the very midst of the turmoil of life." he said. "Intervention may be necessary—I trust not. The luncheon party in which I desire you to take an interest will be of two, then there will come a third. It is my hope that it will end with you and the man who shares your table at luncheon also included."
"Never in my life. Louis," I confided, "have you sent me to luncheon in such a confused state of mind. I don't know what to look for or what to expect."
Louis smiled at me in kindly, almost fatherly fashion. I could not help thinking to myself what a handsome picture he presented with his black hair, his finely-shaped features and complexion of that waxen pallor which seemed to have nothing whatever to do with ill-health. He waved his hand to a waiter who was lingering below. I was escorted to my new quarters, a table neatly arranged for two, next to one in the most secluded corner in the room.
The change from my usual surroundings was so complete that I could scarcely believe that I was in the same restaurant, yet in a moment or two the old associations asserted themselves. There was another larger table, but laid only for two people, in the corner, and in the background there was our giant maître d'hôtel, Jose, a born fighter, who did very little waiting indeed, although no one's black tie or shirt front was more immaculate, but who was always hovering round if trouble came. In these surroundings I took up the menu and ordered my lunch. Even though the gloom of this sunless corner was a little depressing, there remained the thrill of coming adventure which Louis' guarded words had inspired.
I am afraid that my response to Sub-Commissioner Parkinson's pleasant greeting, as he paused at my table before I had even finished my cocktail, was not an entirely cordial one. Apart from my conversation with Louis, it happened to be just one of those days when, for other reasons, I was not particularly anxious to be seen on intimate terms with a representative of Scotland Yard, however distinguished.
"All alone?" I inquired grudgingly.
"I am in that unfortunate position," the Sub-Commissioner, who was a tall, hatchet-faced man acknowledged. "That isn't all, either. I am on just one of those jobs when it doesn't do to attract attention, and there is nothing which makes one so conspicuous as to be lunching alone in a place like this."
I summoned a waiter and ordered him to bring another cocktail. My uninvited guest handed his stick and hat to a passing cloakroom attendant.
"The trouble about you, my dear Lyson," my companion remarked, as he took up the menu, "is that you have too many activities. You are a valued member, I understand, of M17B which brings you at times into touch with my own organisation, and you are also a cock-a-hoop Journalist."
"Cock-a-hoop fiddlesticks!" I answered resentfully. "I am on a job now which, if you hadn't come blundering along, and if Louis hadn't rather upset my scheme, would have provided me with an excellent story."
"Let me set your mind at rest at once," the Sub-Commissioner remarked. "This time, at any rate, our interests are not so far apart. I am not going to steal your thunder. You are not going to interfere with my sleuthing. In other words, we are both here as observers of the same possible drama."
"I might have guessed it," I muttered. "We are the tools of that great man who watches us from his seat of vantage. Perhaps you can tell me a little more of what it is that we have to expect."
The Sub-Commissioner shook his head.
"I know very little more about the affair than you yourself," he assured me. "I gather from what I have heard that our friend Jose, who for the moment is out of sight, will be hanging round as a bodyguard in case there is actual trouble, and that you and I are to take such part in the adventure as our chivalrous instincts may dictate. Louis is rather like that. He loves a dash of mystery."
"You might give me an idea of what we have to expect," I suggested.
Parkinson shook his head regretfully.
"There again, the man of mystery prevails." he said. "You are to pick up what you can of the affair by listening and watching. As a matter of fact, Louis doesn't know what is going to happen any more than we do. So now to our muttons."
The broiled sole which Parkinson had ordered came along at that moment and with the serious business of luncheon established our conversation, after a few words of mild invective on my part, became a trifle desultory. Suddenly my companion stopped in the middle of a casual sentence. I knew from the keen light in his eyes—rather sunken eyes—that what was happening in the room close at hand was interesting him. I, too, looked up. A girl, well but quietly dressed, with an interesting, thoughtful face and sorrowful grey eyes, had taken her place at the corner table close to ours. Her companion was a middle-aged man of an utterly different type. He was obviously either a successful business man, a stockbroker or someone engaged in a similar occupation. His keen blue eyes darted here and there, as though in search of acquaintances. He handed the menu to his companion with an exaggerated gesture of devotion. His voice—not wholly a pleasant one—reached us distinctly.
"Whatever you fancy, my dear. Oysters are in season now, remember, and if you don't fancy them, they always serve good caviare here. A roast pheasant I should suggest afterwards, and what about a glass of champagne?"
The girl, it seemed to me, shivered slightly. Her companion was turning over the pages of the wine list and noticed nothing. He had the air of a man who was very likely to make mistakes when in the company of a sensitive person. We heard her softly-spoken reply.
"Thank you, I never drink champagne in the middle of the day. I should like half a dozen oysters, a little cold pheasant and some salad."
"And to drink?"
"A light Moselle, or water."
The man gave his order, then he leaned across the table and began to talk in a lowered voice. She sat back in her chair listening, apparently, but with a far-away look in her eyes and with an expression about her lips which was completely baffling. They had glanced carelessly at us as they had taken their places, and it was clear that neither of them had recognised either Parkinson or myself.
"You are right," I told my companion quietly. "All the same, if these are two of the puppets in Louis' little drama, I cannot see how I could possibly be concerned. I never saw either of them before in my life."
The Sub-Commissioner remained silent, and I knew just enough of his methods to realise that it would be better to follow his example. My restraint was rewarded. A moment later he went on speaking in that soft velvety tone of his which usually meant that he was interested.
"I happened to know that the young lady would be here between one and half-past two to-day," he confided, "I rang her up in the name of an intimate friend, asking her to lunch. I found out that she was coming here, and from Louis I found out in whose name that particular table was booked."
"How did you know that she was going to sit there?" I asked.
"Louis showed me the plan of the room, of course. If you want to know the name of the man, though, I will tell you. That is Sir Julien Fairhaven."
"Never heard of him," I admitted.
"That seems odd," Parkinson observed, tapping a cigarette upon the tablecloth and lighting it. "He's a baronet and I'm not sure that he's not a Privy Councillor. He's a director of more companies than I could ever remember the names of. He rules in, a dominion which you or I perhaps, don't know much about. It is a certainty that his finger-prints have never been asked for in Scotland Yard, nor has that scandal mongering newspaper of yours ever had occasion to write of him with bated breath or hat in hand. He commits no sins, and he subscribes to every hospital in London. He loves to hear himself described as a sportsman, and I believe he owns racehorses, but for the little he knows about the turf or any other game, he has to pay dearly."
"What relation is he to the girl?" I asked.
"None at all that I know of. She had a fiance who used to work on half-commission for a stockbroking firm Sir Julien was interested in. Perhaps that's how they became acquainted."
"Is there a Lady Fairhaven?" I inquired.
My companion looked at me with shocked surprise.
"My dear Lyson!" he exclaimed. "I thought even you knew a little more about the social world than that. Lady Fairhaven was a Moray!"
A mutual acquaintance who paused to gossip with us broke off our conversation. When we were alone again it was Parkinson who asked me a question.
"You lunch here every day, don't you?"
"Generally," I admitted, "I came this morning, though, because I wanted to see something of a young man with rather a queer history behind him, who I understood was to be let out of prison at eleven o'clock this morning and had told the warder that he would have his first luncheon here. I think Louis knew something of him and I thought if he felt inclined to talk I might have got some copy."
"What was his name?" Parkinson asked.
"Lenwood," I answered. "Malcolm Lenwood."
"Small world," the Sub-Commissioner observed, lighting another cigarette. "Malcolm Lenwood was the name of the fiance who used to sell stocks and shares on half-commission for the House in which Sir Julien had an interest. So you see, after all Lyson, my butting in and Louis' little scheme have not interfered so much with your luncheon plans, especially," my companion concluded, stiffening a little in his chair and depositing his cigarette in the ash-tray, "as the young man is walking straight into your Journalistic arms."
For a brief space of flying moments it seemed as though the stage were set for drama. The young man, tall and handsome, although the complexion was unhealthy and expression furtive, dressed in the correct attire of the moment in clothes that were almost painfully new, was a likely enough actor in any scene of violence. The girl, who awaited his approach, had lost her listless manner. She was leaning a little forward, and one felt that she was vibrating with the pent-up desire for action. Her companion, heedless of the Nemesis which was closing upon him, was engrossed in the very excellent meal which she so far had neglected. In the background I saw Louis, who had raised himself in his strangely-shaped cubicle, watching intently and with a queer look of apprehension, the young man's fateful progress. He, like Parkinson and myself, seemed to have grasped the grim possibilities of the next few seconds...
Everything of drama was, as a matter of fact, to be curiously delayed. That was because one frail girl was able to dominate both an agitated young man torn by a thousand furies, and an obstinate, conceited and cowardly pedagogue who, if he had known what risks he was running in those few seconds, would have forgotten alike his self-conscious dignity and his frenzied regard for appearances, and would have been pushing his way towards the door with his coat-tails flying behind him.
The young man came to a halt. The girl, who had risen to her feet, held him by both hands and drew him nearer to her. I noticed the slight awkwardness in his acceptance of her gesture and a glint of metal under his coat-sleeve. As yet, however, he had not realised the sinister element in the situation She was whispering in his ear, talking quickly and inaudibly, and he was listening intently. She was making some sort of an appeal to him, to which he was listening in puzzled silence.
Suddenly expression crept into his features. He would have shrunk away, but she was holding him. One hand was free, the other she gripped. He forced himself to swing round. He recognised for the first time the man who was sitting at the table. Once more expression claimed him His eyes blazed with sudden anger. It was to be her triumph, however. Her little laugh was so amazing that both men seemed paralysed. The paroxysm of fear passed from Sir Julien's face, and the fury from the young man's. They leaned upon her words. She raised her voice a trifle and this time I heard what she said.
"A kind of nudism of the passions, isn't it?" she observed. "Malcolm came in to kill you, Sir Julien, and his gun is safely in my bag. He doesn't want to kill you any more. We are going to arrange things differently."
Sir Julien laid down his knife and fork. I could see that his hands were trembling. His appetite was failing him. It was clear that he was both angry and terrified.
"I think," he said, "I shall ask to be excused."
"No you will not," the girl insisted. "You will keep your promise, sit this luncheon out and be civil to any additional guests I may ask to join us."
"And if I don't?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Then I shall give Malcolm back—"
Her voice suddenly dropped. I heard no more. Perhaps the consciousness of being an eavesdropper, even though there was nothing personal about the affair, brought its sudden quota of shame. I leaned over towards Parkinson.
"Your wealthy baronet," I remarked, "doesn't seem to appreciate the young man's butting in to his party. I hadn't noticed before that the girl is really beautiful."
"You will have a better opportunity of observing her in a minute or two," my companion replied. "You heard her speak of additional guests, perhaps?"
"Those additional guests are to be you and I."
Parkinson was right. It was barely two minutes before a maître d'hôtel brought us a few scribbled lines on the back of a menu card. Parkinson laid it on the table in front of me. They were written in a woman's bold, clear handwriting:
"I shall ask you to fulfil your promise to Louis. Come please, and bring your friend, Captain Lyson."
I followed Parkinson's example and rose cheerfully to my feet. After all, it seemed to me that I might get my story. We crossed the few feet of vacant space and made our bow. The girl nodded to us both in friendly fashion. Jose, hovering in the background, pushed up chairs for us.
"These are two friends of mine, Sir Julien," she said. "Mr. Parkinson" (she laid a certain amount of stress upon the "Mr.") "and Captain Lyson. I asked them to join us for coffee because I think they might help clear up this little affair."
Sir Julien bowed stiffly.
"I am pleased to welcome any friends of yours, Miss Rodney," he said, in a tone which reeked of displeasure, "but surely this discussion into which you have dragged me is a private one? Besides, I should imagine that Lenwood himself is scarcely in the humor to make acquaintances just now."
There was an underlying sneer in Sir Julien's voice, but the girl ignored it.
"I really don't see why not," she observed. "Mr. Lenwood will, I hope, soon be meeting all my friends. Mr. Parkinson and Captain Lyson, I should like you to know my husband. He has only been out of prison three hours, since when we've been married, so you must forgive him if he seems a little dazed."
There was an instant's silence. So far as I was concerned, I could think of nothing to say. Sir Julien, on the other hand, seemed troubled in the opposite direction.
"This is absurd!" he exclaimed. "Perfectly ridiculous! How can you have married him?"
"I found the arrangements all quite easy," the girl assured him. "I had the certificate in my bag when I met Malcolm this morning. I had a little difficulty with him," she went on with a faint smile, "because he knows I have a great deal of money, but he is getting more reconciled. I am afraid that my stage management of this little meeting, too, has not been very good. The poor fellow hasn't had lunch yet and that is his first cocktail...Waiter, another Dry Martini...I insist, Malcolm. In ten minutes you will be able to have your lunch."
"Will you tell me what all this fooling is about?" Sir Julien demanded angrily. "Why have you made me promise to sit out your wretched party? I am a man of my word, but there are limits."
"And there are reasons, Sir Julien," the girl assured him. "Believe me, I am not disposed to waste many words at this function. Perhaps you will feel more inclined to listen patiently if I can tell you that I am in a position to claim, if I chose to claim it, the reward of £1000 you offered for the return of your private diary and ledger and several other documents which were abstracted from your personal safe at the office—let me see—somewhere about four months ago."
Fortunately most of the people at the adjoining tables had left, and there was scarcely anyone who was in a position to see that anything unusual was taking place among our small party. I have never seen such a change in a man as took place in Sir Julien. A moment or two ago his face had been scarlet and the veins were standing out on his temples. Now, almost with the rapidity of moisture vanishing from a looking-glass, the color was fading from his cheeks, his lips were trembling, he had the appearance of a man on the verge of a stroke.
"What do you know about the burglary?" he gasped.
"I wouldn't call it by so harsh a word," the girl remonstrated. "Some of the books and documents stolen were scarcely your property, were they? Malcolm's account book, for instance, which contained a note of all the transactions authorised and initialed by you which he undertook on behalf of the firm...No, don't interrupt me," she went on. "The book, of course, had vanished when you let Malcolm down, denied any responsibility for the bargains he had made on your behalf, and gave evidence which sent him to prison.
"With the rest of the business I shall not trouble these two gentlemen. You know it and I know it. Malcolm's story was word for word the truth. You made a huge mistake in entering into that rubber speculation. You saddled Malcolm with the result, and let him go to prison sooner than face a loss of a few hundred thousand pounds which you could have well afforded. You are a very conceited man, Sir Julien, and I think that the loss of your personal prestige counted for even more than the money."
There was another curious little silence. The young man for the first time seemed aware of the cocktail which stood by his side. He raised it to his lips and drained the contents, smiling as he felt for the girl's fingers and drew her hand into his. He seemed to have recovered his manhood just as the man at the head of the table seemed to have become a shrunken effigy of his former self.
"Why have you dragged these two strangers into this business?" Sir Julien asked harshly.
"Well, for this reason," the girl explained. "I have a paper drawn up here for you to sign, exonerating Malcolm; confessing your grave error in having overlooked certain circumstances which throw a different light altogether upon those transactions. You will take him back into the office in his former position for, say, a month—he won't want to stay longer—and you will take the chair at the dinner which his friends will give him to celebrate his return and the clearance of his name."
Sir Julien's eyes were fixed upon Parkinson's and there was fear stamped upon his face.
"If I agree?" he muttered.
"Well, I have paid several visits to Scotland Yard," the girl continued, "and I have also consulted a criminal lawyer. It is a matter of doubt whether actually the law has any hold upon you, Sir Julien, and I think the feeling is that if you do your best to make amends for your various mistakes, you will have nothing to fear in the way of prosecution." The girl paused for a moment and the Sub-Commissioner bowed his assent. "As regards Captain Lyson," she continued, "he represents a' newspaper with the owners of which you are not on the best of terms and his version of this little luncheon-party would. I am afraid—"
"Stop!" Sir Julien called out. "I'll sign. If there's to be no trouble outside, I'll sign."
"I appear here as a private individual altogether," Sub-Commissioner Parkinson intervened. "As a matter of fact, I am retiring from the Force almost at once. Still, I am able to tell you that as a result of a consultation at headquarters, it has been decided that unless strong pressure is brought upon us by Mr. and Mrs. Lenwood, and the various books and documents in the case, which as yet we have not seen, are laid before us, we can make no move in the matter."
The man's eyes moved questioningly towards me. Something of that light of fierce and terrified inquiry had gone; the anxiety still lingered.
"In the circumstances," I assured him, "you are safe from publicity so far as I am concerned, Sir Julien. I must confess that I should like to make a story of the whole business, but I shall follow Mr. and Mrs. Lenwood's wishes in the matter."
Sir Julien raised the glass with which his nervous fingers had been fumbling so long, and drained its contents.
"I'll sign," he announced as he put it down empty.
The girl, who had never for one moment lost her self-possession, laid a half-sheet of typewritten foolscap before him and produced a fountain pen. He made an attempt to use his monocle, but the nervous twitchings of his face made it impossible. He fitted on a pair of spectacles and read.
"This is awful," he groaned as he came to the end. "It will be published?"
"It will be published," the girl assured him. "But," she added, and her voice was as hard as granite, "it is a very lenient punishment."
"I would rather take Lenwood back on an increased salary," he suggested.
"Malcolm will find something better to do than work for you, or anyone else in the city," she told him. "I didn't hold on to my job with you because I needed the money. I happen to be a very rich woman."
Her late employer signed. His fingers trembled, but his signature was clear enough. The girl blotted the document and placed it in her bag.
"For three years, Sir Julien," she said, "ever since I accepted a post in your office, you have pestered me with invitations to lunch and dine, which somehow I have evaded. Now at last you have had your luncheon and I hope you have enjoyed it. Perhaps you will be so kind as to pay the bill."
REGGIE gave me rather a shock when he made his casual announcement.
"As a matter of fact, I didn't come in to see you, old chap," he observed, "I am dining with that charming girl, Julie."
"The devil you are!" I exclaimed, genuinely startled "When did you fix that up?"
"I saw her in the lounge last night at supper time," my younger brother explained straightening his tie before my mirror. "Jove! She did look pretty, too. We got talking and I asked her if she'd dine to-night. I was afraid she wouldn't—those French girls have such queer ideas about that sort of thing, she said 'Yes' like a shot. I'm to meet her down below in about ten minutes."
I suppose I showed that I was a little surprised. Reggie, who was now engaged in mixing himself a cocktail on my sideboard, looked round.
"Nothing against it, is there, Charles?" he asked. "Of course I know old Louis is only a maître d'hôtel and that, but the girl is quite presentable and this is the Bohemian side of London, anyway."
"You infernal young cub!" I answered indignantly. "Of course there is nothing against it, if she's willing."
"Well, after all," Reggie went on, lighting a cigarette, "her father is maître d'hôtel here, isn't he?"
"He has an important position in the hotel management," I replied. "He could be a director any day, if he chose. Apart from that, he was well educated, he comes of an excellent family of its sort and his girl has been strictly brought up. There's no reason in the world why anyone should not dine with her. Louis is one of my particular friends. There is no one for whom I have a greater regard."
"You're not sweet on the girl yourself are you, Charles?" the young man asked.
"I happen to be nearly twenty years older than she is," I replied stiffly. "Besides--"
The telephone-bell rang. It was Louis speaking at the other end.
"I should like you to come down. Lyson," he said. "I am about to receive a visit which puzzles me a little, from a man who puzzles me a great deal. There is an affair which might develop."
"I'll be down in thirty seconds." I promised him.
I hung up the receiver.
"Well, you go to your dinner, old man." I told Reggie, "but remember--no playing about with that young woman. She wouldn't understand it anyway, and another thing--well. I have Just told you that her father is a great friend of mine--"
"I say, you are not suggesting--" my brother began in an aggrieved tone.
"Shut up!" I told him rather irritably. "I know what you young men on leave from Sandhurst are like. You get above yourselves sometimes. You can't help it--that's why I have given you a word of warning...See you later."
I left him there and hurried down from my seventh-floor flat in the Milan Court. I saw Julie sitting in a corner of the lounge looking, even to my prejudiced Judgment, extraordinarily pretty. She waved her hand to me, but made no movement when I crossed the little hall and made my way to her flat. As a rule she was there ready to welcome me if I paid a visit before going in to dinner. Louis' voice bade me enter. I found him apparently on the point of leaving to take up his accustomed position in the Grill Room. He looked at me curiously.
"You were up late last night, mon capitaine?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Nothing to confess," I assured him. "I went to the ballet with my young brother. He joined a party of young friends here for supper and I went to bed. To-day I have had three games of squash with the professional, and here I am. As a matter of fact, I'm in the pink. What is the trouble?"
"It is not exactly trouble," Louis replied, "but one of the most extraordinary men in Europe, who some years ago seemed likely to become one of the most famous, has arrived in London. I heard from Scotland Yard that he was expected. He has telephoned for a table tonight. They brought me word, and I replied that we were full. Since then he has telephoned again and I gather that he is on his way here."
"Who is he?" I asked.
"Keretsky," Louis confided. "One of the mystery men of the world. Ten years ago, after he had been absolutely nominated dictator of Russia, he suddenly dropped out of life, and all that we know about him lately is that he has been paying frequent visits to Trotsky in Norway. The Moscow authorities seem to have got it into their heads that he is planning to get back to Russia and that he is concerned in a plot to upset the present regime and to occupy the post he ought to have taken years ago.
"There has been very little about it in the Press, but M17B have definite information that an attempt was made upon his life three weeks ago."
"I heard about that," I confided. "The young Russian who told me was terribly excited. He seems to have looked upon Keretsky as Russia's one hope of salvation."
"I do not understand the politics of Russia," Louis remarked, "nor, I imagine, does anyone else, but I do know that the hotel authorities here want to keep out of anything in the shape of trouble, and when he applied to the hotel for a room there was nothing doing."
"Supposing he turned 'up now. What are you going to do about it?" I asked. "At the present moment there are dozens of unoccupied tables."
"I shall have to persuade him to go away quietly," Louis replied. "If he is a man of common sense he will see the importance of doing so. London just now is full of commercial envoys who favor the present regime, and if Keretsky escaped assassination--and M17B have reason to believe that he is in danger of that--if he were involved in any sort of a disturbance, that would suit them just as well. He would be deported and never heard of again."
"Do you know him by sight?" I asked.
Louis shook his head.
"I have never even seen a picture of him," he replied. "I sent for you, Captain, because there is no harm in showing you his record presently and I know it will interest you even to catch a glimpse of a man who has lived such a life."
"What if he comes in now, makes his way to an empty table, and sits down?" I asked.
"He would not be allowed to remain there," he replied. "I have brought Jose up to the main entrance and Marco is looking after the far side."
There was a tap at the door. In response to Louis' invitation it was thrown open and Jose, our giant maître d'hôtel who acted as unofficial watchman over the place, and who had only lately been a famous Hungarian wrestler, made his appearance, ushering in a stranger.
"This gentleman requires a table in the Grill Room for dinner, Monsieur Louis," he announced. "I have explained that we are full up tonight."
Even Louis, the man of infinite savoir-faire, found no words for a moment. Neither could I do anything but stare. I thought of that long record of crime and fierce, lustful adventure at which a certain section of the Press had always hinted, and I gazed incredulously at the pale-faced little man of studious appearance, with bent shoulders and the ingenuous expression of a child, who had crossed the threshold carrying his black Homburg hat in his hand. His hair was silvery white; his eyes, disguised under thick spectacles, were still obviously blue; his legs and arms seemed to be the limbs of a schoolboy; his mouth the wistful, sensitive mouth of an elderly lady used to the gentler walks of life. Of necessity, it was he who spoke first, for neither Louis nor I could find words.
"My name is Paul Keretsky," he announced, addressing himself to Louis. "I am very disappointed that there is difficulty about a small table for me. I have made an appointment to meet a friend here and I have long wished to find myself in this famous restaurant and to make the acquaintance," he added, "of its director."
Louis' manner was more than courteous. He was almost kind.
"I am sorry, Monsieur Keretsky," he said, "but we have a very large clientele here--a regular clientele who use the place as a club and come from day to day. With them and the guests who are staying in the hotel, whom we have to consider, we are always over-full."
The visitor smiled a little pathetically.
"I am not a very large person," he said, "neither is the guest whom I am expecting. We are not people of fashion, and an out-of-the-way corner would content us."
"Monsieur Keretsky," Louis explained, "in this matter I am not entirely my own master. We have a good many kind friends who like to take their meals here in peace, and who do not wish to be confronted with unusual patronage. The last time you entered an hotel in Warsaw, for instance--"
"But I can assure you that in that case I was guiltless," the little man interrupted eagerly. "In Warsaw they were afraid of me because of certain information which had come into my possession, and the man whom I shot had been sent from Russia with instructions that I was to be made away with at the first opportunity. He missed me with his first cartridge, and naturally I shot him. Would you have had me submit myself to death at the hands of an assassin? A weakly man like me must protect himself."
"You will understand, Monsieur Keretsky," he said, "however much you may have been in the right, a visitor who is likely to have murderers upon his track is not a desirable visitor in any hotel or restaurant."
The white-haired little old gentleman seemed almost on the point of bursting into tears. He restrained himself, however.
"I make enemies," he complained, "because I have genius and read the secrets of many men without rifling despatch boxes or corrupting their secretaries. I know that I carry with me a great deal of dangerous knowledge. I make no use of it, however. If I take my own risks, is there any reason why I should be shut off from communion with my fellows?"
"I am not your judge," Louis replied, "but I do not wish you in my Grill Room. You must dine elsewhere, if you please."
For a moment or two our visitor seemed plunged in the depths of dejection, then apparently he resigned himself.
"What about the companion who may arrive at any time between now and seven o'clock?" he asked.
"You can leave a message," Louis suggested. "We will tell your friend where to find you."
"It is a lady," he confessed a little hesitatingly. "May I sit and watch for her in your small lounge here?"
Louis seemed to consider the matter.
"Will you give me your word, Monsieur Keretsky," he asked, "that you are not carrying any form of weapon?"
Keretsky shrugged his shoulders.
"Monsieur Louis," he said. "I do not tell falsehoods. I know that my life is in continual peril. I sleep with a revolver under my pillow and never move without it when I leave my room. It is in my hip pocket at the present moment."
"If you like to leave it in my keeping," Louis proposed, "you may wait until your friend arrives, on condition that you take her away at once, without offering her a cocktail and without any attempt to enter the Grill Room."
The unwanted visitor drew himself up in dignified fashion.
"You are asking me to place my life in the hands of my enemies, Monsieur Louis," he pointed out. "I will not consent."
"Then if you leave the lady's name here, she shall be told," Louis suggested.
"The lady's name may not be mentioned," was the quiet reply.
He drew a plain leather case from his pocket.
"If your decision is fixed, Monsieur Louis," he said, "I will ask you to send one of your men to intercept the lady whose portrait is here. She will need only to be told that I have returned to my rooms in Number Five, Barrymore Gardens, Bloomsbury. She will understand."
"And this little picture?" Louis asked, with the case already in his hand.
"It can be returned to her," Keretsky replied.
"Your commission shall be accomplished." Louis promised.
The little man made a bow to both of us--a gesture not devoid of dignity.
"I wish you good evening, gentlemen," he said and, escorted by Jose took his leave. Louis was a man almost without personal curiosity He passed me the case without opening it.
"Would it amuse you to await the arrival--if she ever comes--of this lady?" he asked.
I stretched out my hand and tool it into my keeping.
"Delighted," I acquiesced. "I'll report later."
I took up my position in a corner of the lounge facing the entrance, ordered a cocktail and, glancing round to be assured that no unattended young woman was about, I opened the case.
I don't remember that the picture at which I glanced had any striking effect upon me during those first few moments. I simply visualised it as the portrait of a young woman of attractive appearance, with mystery in her face--mystery and repressed humor--and a provocative curl to her lips. Her hair was brushed back from her forehead and apparently arranged in plaits behind.
I gathered that she was fair. It was obvious that she must be beautiful. I closed the case with a snap and glanced around. There was certainly nobody in the lounge who resembled in the least degree the picture of Keretsky's friend.
My cocktail arrived. I sipped it and lit a cigarette, then I yielded to a sudden impulse and opened the case again. This time I studied the face more carefully and the longer I looked the more I was conscious of that curious little emotion, which must have been born at my first glance.
No one could say from such a rudely executed portrait whether the girl was beautiful or not, but one thing was certain. She was unusual; she was exciting; she was full of humanity.
I raised my glass to my lips with my right hand and drained its contents. All the time, I held the portrait in my left hand and my eyes never wandered from it. I don't remember whether it was seconds or minutes that I sat there studying it. Suddenly, I was conscious of a curious little waft of perfume--something that reminded me dimly of the East, of scented green tea and japonica lily. I realised that someone was standing before my chair. I sprang to my feet I was standing face to face with the original of the portrait.
"You will forgive me," she said, speaking in a very pleasant voice with some trace of a foreign accent, "but I find you looking at a picture which belongs to my uncle--a picture of me, and my uncle is not here. I feel that you may have perhaps some message, yes?"
"You will forgive me," I begged. "I was so interested in looking at the picture that I forgot to look out for the original."
"An excellent excuse," she murmured; "but why were you looking for me?"
"Your uncle found himself unable to dine here," I explained. "He asked that someone should await your arrival and tell you that he had returned to Number Five, Barrymore Gardens, Bloomsbury."
She was clearly disappointed.
"I wanted so much to sit in that Grill Room," she sighed, looking through the plate-glass windows. "Will you tell me, sir, please, how it comes about that you are the bearer of his message?"
"Allow me to introduce myself," I begged. "I am Captain Lyson, retired, late of the Grenadier Guards, and at present of no occupation. I am a great friend of Louis, the maître d'hôtel here, and I chanced to be in his office when Mr. Keretsky was brought in. Louis explained that every table in the restaurant was taken and your uncle asked that someone should keep a look-out for you and deliver the message."
"I do not quite understand why you were selected, though," the girl remarked curiously.
"I volunteered. I was meaning to dine here anyhow, and to sit in the lounge and drink a cocktail, so it was a simple thing to do. I have been amply rewarded."
She looked at me with a little twitch at the corners of her lips.
"Is that a truthful speech?" she asked.
"It is the truth," I assured her. "By the by, may I not offer you a cocktail?"
She uttered a little exclamation of relief. I drew up another chair to the table and she sat down.
"I was hoping so much that you would take pity on me," she said smilingly. "I should like, if you please, a Kirsch and bitters."
I ordered the concoction, and another dry Martini for myself. She seemed a little amused at the situation. She was entirely without any awkwardness.
"This," she said, as she toyed with the small biscuits which I had ordered, "is very much pleasanter than turning away from that inhospitable door and pushing my way through the crowds back to Bloomsbury."
"It is also very much more agreeable for me," I ventured, "than to have taken my cocktail alone."
"You live here?" she asked.
"I have a very small flat on the seventh floor in the Court," I told her, "up in the attic almost."
"Then you are very fortunate," she said slowly. "I have not been inside, but everyone tells me this is one of the few places in London that preserves an atmosphere."
I thought of Louis, I thought of Jose, I thought of the directors of the hotel, and I didn't care a rap.
"It would be possible for you to see more of it if you are really curious," I suggested.
"How?" she asked promptly.
"If you will give me the pleasure of dining with me."
Suddenly I saw that she had beautiful soft hazel-green eyes--hazel which matched the beautiful sheen of her hair.
"But you mean it?" she cried Joyfully.
"I am a little shabby," she confessed, looking up at me, "is it not so? I have better clothes which I would have worn if I had known it was to be with you and not my uncle that I was to dine."
I said one of those absurd things that men do say on those occasions and she laughed gaily into my face.
"But this mighty autocrat of yours--Louis?" she asked "Will he allow me to enter?"
I quaked inwardly, but with her eyes upon me I flouted this suggestion.
"Louis would never take exception to a guest of mine." I assured her.
She finished her cocktail.
"Let us then explore." she proposed.
I rose with well-simulated courage and led her into the room. Louis behaved just as I knew he would. His eyebrows were slightly raised as I passed his desk, and he directed one swift, searching glance at my companion. Afterwards, however, the customary smile of welcome lightened his face. We passed the rostrum and I conducted my guest to my table, placing her in the seat which I usually occupied, from which one had a very fair view of the room.
"But I do think that this is marvellous," she said, in her slow, deliberately spoken English. "I am happy to be here, Captain Lyson. You have been very kind to me, a stranger."
"I should like," I said with a smile, "to be a stranger no longer."
She looked puzzled for a moment, then a dazzling smile broke over her face. No wonder she was attracting so much attention. Notwithstanding her clothes, and the somewhat careless arrangement of her hair, she was beautiful.
"You wish to know my name!" she exclaimed. "Indeed you shall, I am called Nadine and I come from the wild country of Georgia. In my own land I am called differently. Here I am Miss Collitzoff."
She ordered dinner, and I noticed that it was Jose who made a sudden appearance at our table and took the order. He avoided my eye. I had an idea that I was in disgrace. Only a few tables away, Julie was sitting with my young brother. My companion ordered caviare with iced vodka, lobster cooked in some fashion of which I had never heard, but which Jose seemed to understand, and a salad of mixed fruit and vegetables.
"And to drink?" I inquired.
"Might I," she begged, "could I have just two glasses of champagne? Since this is to be a fete day dinner, I do as you desire. I ask for things I like most."
"That pleases me," I assured her. I ordered a half bottle of Bollinger, a plain lobster, and some cold meat for myself, with a whisky and soda. Then she leaned back in her chair and began the serious business of gratifying her curiosity by looking about her. Soon I heard a little gurgling cry. Her dark eyebrows, so curious and yet attractive a contrast to her hair, were drawn together, her mouth had hardened, there was a cold, angry light in her eyes. She counted rapidly.
"The seventh table from here under the window," she pointed out. "The dark man with the loose face and shining clothes. He is my uncle's enemy. It is he who has sworn to get him back into Russia, knowing very well that if he ever crosses the frontier he passes to his death."
"A nasty piece of work." I observed. "Who is he?"
"In the world he comes from there are no names," she said. "He is Number Nine. His task in life is only finished when my uncle leaves it."
The service of dinner began and, from whatever shadowy and mysterious past my companion had emerged, she seemed to forget all her troubles when she heard the tinkle of the ice in her glass of vodka.
After all, I told myself, although without conviction, I was behaving like an impulsive fool. I had known a moment of madness and given in to it. She belonged to that very different world which Louis, with excellent reasons, was determined should find no footing in his restaurant. I looked at the man. He was a gross, unpleasant brute.
Dinner drew towards a close. My companion had reached the stage of drinking her coffee, and sipping a Kirsch liqueur. Conversation with her had not been easy. All the time her thoughts had seemed a little far away. Suddenly she turned towards me and laid her beautiful fingers upon my wrist.
"Captain Lyson," she said. "I do thank you very sincerely for the best dinner I have eaten for very many years. It was so wonderful. You may think I am greedy?"
"On the contrary," I insisted, "I admire your epicurean taste in eating and drinking. I think it is a gift to be cultivated."
She smiled and she patted my wrist again almost caressingly.
"You are a nice man," she said. "If I knew you more, I should like you very much. I think perhaps I was very careful about my dinner tonight because it will probably be my last. I am afraid that you will think me very ungrateful, because what I shall do will not please you."
Her other hand had been wandering in her bag. She withdrew it with a quick motion, but it seemed to me that the bag had a shrunken appearance. There was no sort of farewell from her, simply one haunting look, the glimmer of a smile. She walked down the narrow carpeted avenue between the tables, and reached her destination before I could rise to my feet. She was standing in front of the stout man with the loose face and the sneering mouth almost before I realised that she had left me.
He saw her coming, but his only movement was to shrink a little back in his place. He called out one monosyllable in a language I knew nothing of and then once, twice, there came the smothered, almost velvety report of a silenced revolver. A spasm seemed to pass down his frame as he fell all on one side.
It seemed to me in those few seconds that worse things were happening, for I saw her deliberately turn and point the revolver to her left side. As she did it, however, Jose towered over her. He caught her wrist. The weapon fell noiselessly to the carpeted floor. Above the tumult of voices, I heard her reproachful cry as she realised that she was in the hands of a giant.
"That was not kind of you."
It was much later that night before I saw Louis. I was tired out in body and mind when I returned from my evening's pilgrimage, but I went straight to his room. He was engaged, the little maid told me, in making out his sheet for the evening. Louis looked up from his task. His face was inscrutable.
"I am sorry, Louis," I said simply. "Of course I ought to have just given the girl the message and left. You see I didn't. Unfortunately, I invited her to dinner."
"Would it be an impertinence," Louis inquired, "If I were to ask you why?"
"Not in the least," I assured him. "I asked her because I have Very seldom in my life met a woman who made such an impression on me. I obeyed an irresistible impulse. All I can say is that I am sorry."
Louis remained tantalisingly not committal.
"Might I ask what has become of the young lady?" he inquired.
"She is in prison," I confided. "They declined to let me see he but they assured me that friends were already at work and her lawyer was engaged."
"Dear me," Louis observed. "You are very much behind the times Captain Lyson. It appears that I know more than you."
He took pity upon my obvious eagerness and went on:
"They have found plenty of proof already that the dead man is one of the worst of the Russian Communist spies who ever set foot it this country. They have already deciphered his instructions, which were that he should not leave the country until he had disposed of Keretsky."
"Then, if she had not shot him--?" I began eagerly.
"Quite so," Louis agreed. "If she had not shot him, he would have killed her uncle on sight. I might perhaps have been a little more frank with you, for I knew something of this, and it was one of the reasons why I refused to let Keretsky have a table."
"What will happen to her, then?"
"Very little--if anything," Louis replied. "She is an aristocrat with important connections in Paris. She will undergo a nominal imprisonment and be deported."
The old sympathetic gleam was shining out of Louis' pleasant brown eyes.
"I have not yet had an opportunity of telling you," he continued, "that if I had been in your position to-night I should have done precisely what you did."
He spoke down a tube to one of his maîtres d'hôtel.
"Two champagne cocktail at once," he ordered.
"For you and me?" I gasped.
"To drink the health," Louis said with a smile, "of Paul Keretsky and La Belle incognita."
IT was by the purest chance that I happened to have paid my monthly call at Scotland Yard and was seated with Inspector Hearnshaw when the red telephone upon the table nearest to his elbow suddenly tinkled.
I knew Just enough about that room to understand the significance of this. I saw the sudden change on Hearnshaw's face. He gave me a swift glance as he lifted the receiver. I made for the door, but he motioned me back. What I heard of his terse comments and orders during the next two minutes made me an admirer of the man for life. He set down the receiver with a touch as soft as velvet, then he pressed down the last in a little row of buttons.
"Number Three Service Car. Squad Number Three, all accessories. Supply vacancies with substitutes if anyone away. Start in ten minutes," he ordered. "I will give the driver directions." He nodded and I took up my hat.
"I'll get off, Inspector," I told him. "There's nothing doing down our way. Louis sent his compliments, but we have no report to make. Another time will do for our gossip. A big Job?" I asked wistfully.
"Two men—a wealthy stockbroker and his valet—murdered in Berkeley Square. A dressing case full of jewels stolen and only one man in the job."
"And that man?" I gasped.
"Wheadon, the swine," Hearnshaw answered with considerable heat.
I had half finished changing for dinner that night when an urgent message arrived from Louis, the maître d'hôtel who was so invaluable to Scotland Yard. I found him still in the sitting-room of his small flat on the ground floor of the Milan Court looking more worried than I had ever seen him in my life.
"You have perhaps seen the evening papers, Captain?" he asked me.
"Not yet. I was going to look at one over my cocktail before dinner. I know about the double murder and jewel robbery, though. I was at Scotland Yard when the news came in over the telephone."
"What time was that?"
"About twelve o'clock."
"Up to half an hour ago," Louis said gravely, "there had been no arrest."
"If this man Wheadon is really responsible." I observed, "that isn't so very surprising. It is his thirteenth or fourteenth job and they have never laid a finger on him up to now."
"There is much disturbance here," Louis told me. "The hotel is crammed full. More than half the guests are rich people. An affair like this makes everyone nervous. See—" He drew a bunch of keys from his pocket and unlocked a drawer. From it he he took a well-worn manuscript typed in large characters.
"This is a copy of criminal messages worked out by Scotland Yard during the last few years," he confided. "It comes from the cipher room there. This clipping is from the agony column of last Monday's Times. It commenced with a text and ends: 'So loved our holiday and looking forward to Broadstairs!' Worked out by an expert, the message reads: 'Shall be at Milan Hotel from ten o'clock Wednesday night for three hours. W.'"
"The fellow wouldn't dare to come here," I exclaimed.
"Well, your friend, Inspector Hearnshaw, believes that he would dare anything," Louis replied. "Hearnshaw was in here not an hour ago—a wreck of a man. He had been on a wild drive. He was shaken to pieces and could scarcely speak for anger. They had had two smashes and after the last one, which was not far from Norbury, he swears that he actually saw Wheadon, driving a racing coupe, turn into a side street and dash away. The fellow even waved his hand before he disappeared!"
"It seems a pity that he was able to give them the slip when they got so near to him." I remarked a little tritely.
"It is more important," Louis rejoined, "to decide where he has got to. There is no doubt that he changed his route three or four times during the chase, but not one of them, with the exception of Norbury, led him to any of the great ports. Hearnshaw has drawn what is almost a foolproof cordon around the whole circle, somewhere inside of which the fellow must be. They are moving that cordon inch by inch towards London. If Wheadon escapes it will be the greatest blow the prestige of the Yard has ever suffered."
"Well, it isn't exactly our show, is it?" I pointed out. "So far as we know the fellow has never set foot in the Milan."
Louis looked at me reflectively. "I told you about the cipher message in 'The Times'." he reminded me. "To-night is the twenty-second. Hearnshaw has a theory that his man was not trying to get away. He was trying to double back upon London."
"The devil!" I muttered.
"You begin to understand, yes?" Louis asked. "He really means to keep his appointment here at the Milan Hotel."
"How are your bookings for tonight?" I inquired.
"Three-quarters of the dinner bookings are for regular clients," Louis replied. "Of the others I have made a list and Scotland Yard is placing them so far as it can in a short time. For supper the situation is more difficult. As you know, people drop in here almost indiscriminately."
"Has Scotland Yard any descriptions of Wheadon?" I asked.
For the first time during our conversation the vestige of a smile flickered across Louis' face. He drummed with his fingers upon the table and looked at me reflectively. "There are half a dozen descriptions," he said. "I will read you one." He opened a small memorandum book.
"'James Wheadon. Age about 36. Complexion moderate, inclined to be fair, generally slightly sunburnt. Heavy light brown hair, well brushed back from forehead, a slight curl over the ears. Height 5ft. 11in. Eyes blue. Carriage a little stiff as though from military training. Manners easy. Speech rather deliberate, voice of a good tone. Carefully dressed. Excellent hands, well manicured. Slightly military moustache. A few freckles.'"
"Is it my fancy?" I ventured.
Louis' smile deepened. "Anything strike you about his description?"
"Well, they say we never see ourselves as other people see us, otherwise I should say that it is a very fair description of myself."
"To use one of your own colloquialisms." Louis admitted, "he is the dead spit of you. In Paris he always uses an eyeglass, which changes him a good deal, but he was pointed out to me as a dangerous character on the lawn at Longchamps once and I have never forgotten the likeness. Then at Deauville he scarcely ever removed his sun spectacles, but the likeness was always there."
I felt my chin doubtfully. "This isn't going to bring any trouble my way, I hope?" I observed.
"I think monsieur may rest without disquietude," Louis smiled.
"Anyway, I am dining with your daughter this evening," I went on. "She ought to be able to identify me."
"I am happy to hear that Julie will be so well occupied," Louis said a little drily. "Nevertheless, I trust that you have not the intention of leaving us to-night."
"I think Julie's idea was to dance downstairs," I told him. "After what you have told me, though, I shall be here for supper, I promise you. Julie won't mind."
Perhaps because I knew that among these sleekly groomed, suave looking people in the foyer and in the great dancing-hall below there were at least fifty doughty men from Scotland Yard, who carried death in their hip pockets and who were prepared to deal it out without hesitation if they should come in touch with the man they sought, the Milan seemed to me to possess an unreal aspect that night. Everywhere the spirit of disquiet with which I myself was infected seemed to have found a disturbing place among the whole company. Julie became a little annoyed with me.
"To-night, my dear Charles," she complained, as we danced in the main restaurant, "you are not yourself. You make conversation. All the time' your eyes search the different tables."
"You are a sensible girl, Julie," I said, as we reached the far end of the floor and were in comparative seclusion. "I don't mind telling you that it is true, my dear."
"You have something on your mind?"
"I have," I confessed. "Those people who ought to know have assured us—your father and me—that James Wheadon is likely to visit the Milan some time to-night."
She drew momentarily away from me. There was horror in her face. There was also eagerness. "Charles, are you in earnest?" she exclaimed.
"It isn't a subject to joke about—"
"But how could they suspect that?"
I shook my head. "There is some information, of course."
"But who is there to give him away?" she asked. "They say he is always alone."
"He must dispose of the spoils somewhere," I reminded her. "He might be meeting a buyer here, or his message may have been one of sheer bravado."
"I wonder what he is like?" she queried.
"Well, according to your father, who has seen him," I replied, "he is rather like me. I never thought I had much of a criminal appearance, but he is about my height and complexion and all that sort of thing."
Julie's piquant little face was suddenly lit up with joyous mirth. She threw back her head and laughed. "Charles, my dear, it is absurd!"
Perhaps one of the most foolish things I ever did in my life was to answer that measured tap on the door of my room in my suite in the Milan Hotel where I had gone to freshen up.
A young man was standing in the dimly lit corridor, and a single glance at him almost took my breath away with astonishment. He gave me no time to recover. With a movement which was forceful but not obviously discourteous he pushed past me into the room, closed the door and stood facing me. Just a second or two too late I realised what was happening.
"You have the name of being a man of common sense, Captain Lyson." he said. "You will show it now. You may never have an opportunity again."
"What do you want me to do?" I asked.
"Get further back into the room, keep well away from the telephone and bells, fold your arms and listen."
I did as I was bidden. I could see where he had me covered from the little bulge in his overcoat pocket.
"I want your passport," my visitor announced crisply.
"Help yourself," was my curt reply.
"Where is it?"
"Where you are not likely to find it."
His eyes flashed. Except for that one moment of ferocity even his expression seemed to have been patterned upon my own. The likeness had almost taken my breath away.
"Look here," he exclaimed, "we won't waste words. You probably know who I am. I have had you under observation for some time. You realise that I am almost your exact double. I am wearing a coat from your tailor, a hat from your hatter, shoes from your bootmaker, my hair has been cut by your coiffeur.
"Where is the passport?" he asked again.
"In a drawer of my writing desk."
With two swift paces he was there. He removed the telephone and placed it out of reach, he cut the cord of the bell switch and threw the stand into the wastepaper basket. All the time the bump was pointed in my direction.
"Where are your keys?" he demanded.
"In my pocket," I answered.
He came close up to me. I took a quick step on one side and went for him. The bullet seemed to burn my cheek and flick my ear, but it was a bullet fired in vain and I felt convinced that I was the stronger man. The straight left, however, which should have gone crashing into his face was averted by a lightning-like parry. In a moment we were locked in one another's arms. I entered into the struggle rather fancying myself as a wrestler. It was all over in thirty seconds and I discovered that I knew nothing at all about that science. I was on my back and the snout of his vicious-looking little revolver was pointing straight into my face.
"You are a fool, Lyson," he cried, "and a dead one unless you do exactly as I ask. Do show a grain of common sense, man. I am a professional killer. You haven't a chance against me. Throw me your keys."
I did as I was told.
There is a chambermaid at the Milan Hotel, Nellie Moore by name, whose savings bank book still contains evidence of her amazing shrewdness and enterprise on the night when I was left unconscious in my room. Unlike the valet and the waiter who, finding the door locked, had made only casual efforts to deliver messages to me, she insisted on seeing one of the floor managers with the consequence that an hour or so after I had been left by my double and when I was on the point of asphyxiation I opened my eyes to welcome the sweet rush of cold air through the wide-flung windows and felt life stirring once more in my pulses. I was helped into a chair and I think that among the tangle of questions and exclamations around me the thing which brought me finally back to consciousness was a remark of the waiter.
"This is a queer show," I heard him say to the floor manager. "It's not ten minutes ago since I saw the Captain having supper with Miss Duquesne down in the Grill Room!"
I staggered to my feet. I was a pretty haggard sight as with nervous fingers I strove to rearrange my tie before the looking-glass.
"What's it all about, Captain Lyson?" Antonelli, the floor manager, asked me anxiously.
"It's Wheadon," I groaned. "He wanted my passport and he's got it. Let Louis know, for heaven's sake. IH be down directly." Antonelli sighed as he moved towards the door.
"For the love of heaven don't let the man who is having supper with Miss Julie leave the Grill Room!" I cried. "He has murdered two people already to-day!"
The floor manager was puzzled. "But, Captain Lyson," he exclaimed, "surely I saw you supping with Miss Julie yourself as I came through?"
"Don't you understand, you fool," I half sobbed, half shouted, "the blackguard's trying to get away on the strength of his likeness to me? With my passport hell manage it if you idiots are not quicker!"
I was weaker than I thought; for I had to be helped to the lift. My hand was resting on Antonelli's shoulder as I staggered to the plate-glass windows in the small cocktail lounge which led into the Grill Room. My table was only a few feet away and clearly visible. Seated at it was Julie and the man for whom all Scotland Yard was searching that night. Wheadon was leaning forward in his chair—even his attitude, the poise of his head—seemed fashioned on one of my own eccentricities. The signet ring upon his finger was mine.
They were evidently on the point of departing, for he had scrawled his initials or rather mine—upon the bill which lay on a plate by his side. Julie's fingers were toying with the fastenings of her ermine cape; in her eyes there was a great perplexity. She seemed to be breathing quickly, to be listening almost as one spellbound.
"Give Louis the word," I whispered to Antonelli. "He will know how to act. Tell him I am here. Wheadon is hemmed in by men from the Yard. They are only waiting for his move."
I stood a little back from the window and I watched the floor manager approach Louis and whisper in his ear. Louis listened with a smile which perplexed me. The man's message seemed to have little significance for him. He just nodded, broke off to wish an impressive good-night to some departing guests and dismissed Antonelli.
Julie and her escort were now on their feet. ''Tie latter leaned over with a smile to help her fasten her cape and with a little Jerk of the shoulders, which might at any time have been mine, he followed her to the door. Louis looked up unperturbed, smiled his adieu to Julie and nodded a friendly good-night to my double. I felt the perspiration breaking out on my forehead. If Antonelli had been disbelieved or if Louis had misunderstood him, the man had only a few more yards to go with Julie to be on his way towards freedom! They came into the lounge. I shrank back in the corner, one hand grasping the revolver I had snatched from the drawer just as I left my room.I shrank back in the corner, one hand grasping the revolver I had snatched from the drawer just as I left my room. Wheadon threw the cloak which was given him over his shoulder, gave his pourboire to the cloakroom attendant and turned to the valet, who was waiting to help him, with another ticket. I could hear him distinctly from where I stood.
"I have a bag there," he said. "Will you take it out to my car? You will find the car just a yard or two from the entrance, a new Rolls Royce."
"Certainly, Captain Lyson," the man answered.
He took up the morocco leather dressing case, and followed them down the lounge. Was everyone mad, I wondered. Then all of a sudden I drew a deep breath of relief. The man who was carrying the bag had never been a cloakroom attendant at the Milan! The two or three dark figures who were now guarding any possible attempt at re-entrance to the Grill Room were familiar enough, but they had nothing to do with the place, and each of those two doors by which one could pass from the little hall out into the courtyard were blocked now—two men standing on the threshold of each—and though as yet there was silence there was something portentous about the atmosphere. Julie, evidently according to plan, had slipped down the stairs into the ladies' room. She was safe. I thought with relief.
Then from that other door which led to Louis' flat, two dark figures came out and even as realisation came to Wheadon, even as he knew that he had walked into a trap, they were upon him from behind. Their fingertips could scarcely have touched the sleeve of his coat before he made his spring. I think that as he jerked the revolver from his pocket he recognised me, but if so it was a recognition that passed like a flash of no import. He had already looked down the avenue leading to death, and they were carrying his body through the open door in a matter of seconds after the bullet from his weapon had ended his life.
Julie was the heroine of the night, we all decided, as we sat in Louis' sitting-room until the small hours. Everyone agreed that it had been one of the most dramatic captures Scotland Yard had ever brought off. Wheadon's plans had been almost foolproof. The car outside would not have landed him at Heston but at a deserted farmhouse on the Wiltshire Downs, which was the real whereabouts of the plane, within an hour and a half of leaving London, and the plane itself was fuelled for a thousand-mile run. Julie, still at times shivering, was seated by my side on the divan gripping my fingers tightly.
"At first, Charles," she confided, "it was simply uncanny. I could not believe that it was not you. I even felt a little thrill when he looked at me sometimes in just the same way as you do! Then he became serious, or perhaps it was a pretence, and I was frightened. It was terrible! He wanted me to go with him to Paris. We could be married to-morrow. All sorts of wonderful adventures he talked about. Then I was really afraid. I struggled on. I believe he thought that I was on the verge of consenting. I was to give him my answer in the car when we were alone When we stood up to leave the place and mon pere there just smiled and wished us good-night I nearly screamed! I could not have borne it for many more seconds!"
"And where," I asked, still in a measure bewildered, "did you imagine I was all this time?"
Louis smiled apologetically.
"There's a certain grim humor in that, Captain Lyson," he pointed out. "I wrote a note begging you to go to your club and stay there until alter midnight. You were better out ol the way. Everything had been so elaborately prepared and a single slip might have ruined the whole business. That note I gave to Marius himself to be delivered into your hands."
"I never got it."
"No, but Wheadon did," Louis said grimly. "When he came in. Marius never hesitated. He had just been starting for the lift, but directly he saw Wheadon he handed the note over to him."
I put my hand to my forehead My head was as yet none too clear. "But when Wheadon came in," I said, "Marius must have realised that he had made a mistake."
"Of course he did! Fortunately he came straight to me and I was in time to prevent his making a fool of himself. You can't blame the police. They knew they had Wheadon but they wanted the jewels, too."
I looked around at the little gathering. There was Inspector Hearnshaw, Louis himself, Julie, clinging to my side, Parkinson, an ex-Sub Commissioner, and Sir Edward Rastall, the managing director of the hotel. I looked last at Julie and I realised the truth. "You knew all the time," I exclaimed breaking a somewhat strained silence.
Her arms went around my neck. "You must forgive me, Charles." she whispered, her beautiful eyes pleading. "They persuaded me. If you had known it would have been so much more difficult. And just fancy—three hundred thousand pounds worth of jewels in that dressing case!"
Louis, who had been watching my face a little anxiously, drew a breath of relief. He summoned his own servant from the next room. "Fill the glasses once more, Angelo," he ordered and turned back to his guests.
IT was a typical luncheon-time crowd who were swarming in through the portals of the Milan Court, filling the small lounge and finding their places in the Grill Room beyond. I paused in my conversation with Louis the omnipotent maître d'hôtel, to watch some of his apparently endless stream of clients. They were of all classes, from the politician hurrying along from Whitehall, the man of business descending from his taxi often flushed with excitement of money getting, a sprinkling from the theatrical world, a much larger and more motley crowd from the cinemas, and the usual nondescript medley of foreign residents in the hotel or casual visitors. It was a fascinating task sometimes to put them in their places.
It seemed easy to classify everybody until the three strangers pushed their way through the swing doors and stood within a yard of Louis' desk, looking around them curiously and with the air of having drifted into unfamiliar surroundings?
There was a friendly rivalry between Louis and me as to our ability to classify easily the various types who found their way into the kingdom of this most famous maître d'hôtel in London. In this case it was he who came to a conclusion more easily than I. He leaned forward with something more than his usual urbane smile. There was a touch of human kindness in his simply-asked question.
"Can I do anything for you, sir?" he asked the eldest of the three, a thin, white-haired gentleman in semi-ecclesiastical garb.
"You are very kind, sir," was the pleasant response. "We were intending to take our luncheon here, but the place seems very full."
"I can give you a table." Louis replied, beckoning to Jose. "Have you any preference as to its position?"
"We should like," the girl by his side suggested timidly, "a table somewhere near the one usually occupied by Mr. Marketin."
"Marketin?" Louis repeated, with some hesitation.
"You must know him very well," the girl continued. "We read in the paper only last week that he lunched here nearly every day."
"He is," her elderly companion ventured, "a great power in the cinema world."
I whispered in Louis' ear.
"I should let them have their own way," I suggested. "He can't bite their heads off."
"The papers said that he lunched here nearly every day," the girl repeated.
"That is perhaps a slight exaggeration," Louis said pleasantly. "However, of course I know the gentleman you mean. He usually sits at one of that group of tables on my left, and there is one there now laid for two, but it could easily accommodate three. You would like to have it?"
"If you would be so kind, sir," the elderly gentleman replied with a sigh of relief.
It was a very exceptional thing for me to interfere between Louis and his patrons, but I felt impelled to ask a question. The nervous old gentleman, the girl with her intriguing abstractions, and the handsome but bucolic looking youth were all unusual in their way, and I was interested.
"Have you any acquaintance with Mr. Marketin, sir?" I inquired.
"I cannot say that we have," was the somewhat hesitating reply. "My daughter, however, read in this article she speaks of that Mr. Marketin was always looking for new types for the—er—cinema plays which he produces. I had the idea that I might venture to introduce myself."
My curiosity amounted to impertinence, but I persevered.
"On account of the young lady?" I asked.
"Oh, no." she replied promptly. "We never dreamed of such a thing. It is my brother here who wishes to go on the films. Everyone in our part of the world thinks that he ought to."
I looked at the young man who certainly had all the assurance which the other two lacked. He was dressed in a different fashion to them for the girl wore the clothes of a village dressmaker, but she could have worn a smock and remained a creature of grace.
Her brother wore what appeared to be a ready-made suit from the emporium of an outfitter in a market town, clothes of sporting cut which hung reasonably well upon his shapely figure, but which left him lacking the air of distinction certainly possessed by the other two.
"Forgive me if I seem inquisitive," I said, "but I was wondering how you proposed to approach Mr. Marketin if you haven't a letter to him."
"I myself have raised that question," the elderly gentleman remarked.
"Is he very terrifying?" the girl asked.
She came out on to the platform and stood there patiently, looking inquiringly into my face. "What is it, please?" she asked softly.
"I scarcely know him." I confessed, "but I believe he has the reputation of being a little difficult. However," I said, feeling that I had gone far enough, "I wish you good fortune."
With a gesture of farewell I left them and went over to my table. A few minutes later I saw Jose usher them to their places. The elderly gentleman gave up his hat with reluctance to an insistent vestaire.
The girl, as she sat there facing me, smoothing her gloves and looking about her with awed interest, was, I realised, subtly but unquestionably attractive. Her boyish figure lost very little of its charm in the simple clothes she was wearing, her almost over large eyes were full of languid interest, her manner as she spoke first to her father and then to the young man was calm, but perfectly self-possessed. It was easy to see that it was she by her encouragement who was setting them both at their ease. She held the menu in her hand as one accustomed to order luncheons, and Jose received her commands and ventured upon several suggestions with his best air. A carafe of water was placed upon the table...I finished my cocktail, ordered my grilled sole with a Riz Diane to follow and made my way back to Louis' desk.
"I see your proteges have settled down." I remarked.
He looked at me with that benevolent smile once more upon his face.
"There is something that one might consider pathetic." he confided, "about that trio."
"Did they tell you their names?" I inquired.
"The gentleman's name is Spenser. He is not a clergyman as I thought but an ex-schoolmaster. I think that he has been persuaded to come to town by his daughter for the sake of her brother. They live in a village with about forty inhabitants on the edge of a moor in Devonshire, twenty miles from even a market town. The young man has a post in a bank. He has also the accent of the local school where he was educated. It is indeed a little pathetic."
"I hope Marketin will let them down lightly," I ventured.
Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"Marketin is a man of uncertain temper," he said. "For the rest, you know him as well as I do. If it had been the young lady who was anxious to go upon the films I think I should have tried to persuade them that Mr. Marketin was a stranger here."
"Why?" I asked.
"I do not pretend at my time of life," Louis answered with a smile, "to be an infallible judge, but it is my opinion that the young lady, whose name, by-the-by, is Lorna, is far too attractive and too unaware of the fact to be drifting about in these circles with a scholarly simpleton and a conceited lout."
"What can one do?" I asked the presiding genius of the place.
He answered me literally.
"I—nothing," he admitted. "With you it is different. You have a bowing acquaintance with Marketin."
"No more than I can help," I muttered
"Never mind—it is sufficient. You belong to the class with whom he is always seeking to ingratiate himself. I suggest that, out of kindness to those three strangers, before they have had an opportunity of making a faux pas, you go up to speak to him and, finding them there, present them as acquaintances of yours."
I considered the matter without enthusiasm.
"I don't like putting myself under an obligation to Marketin," I objected.
"You need not," was the prompt reply. "He will be only too flattered at your addressing him."
I indulged in a little grimace, but, of course, I consented.
With my promise to Louis in mind I watched Marketin curiously when he made his appearance. He was a short, thickly-built man, who wore heavy tortoiseshell rimmed glasses and had a habit of doing everything in life at express speed.
He passed through the lounge, holding his stick and hat out to the vestaire, who had to follow him into the room to gain possession of them. He nodded to Louis and strode down between the tables to the one he generally occupied. Arrived there, he took off his glasses and looked around to see if any of his business acquaintances were in the vicinity. Apparently there was no one he knew, so he sat down, snatched up the menu, hit a glass with the edge of his knife to secure the attendance of a waiter, gave an order in apparently one breath, readjusted his spectacles, and propped up a paper in front of him. He ate the first course of his luncheon at top speed, pushed back his chair, and called for another dish. He disposed of that in about the same length of time, drew a cigar from his case and called for coffee. During the whole performance he had scarcely taken his eyes off the script he had propped up in front of the menu before him.
There was something like consternation upon the faces of his three neighbors when he tapped upon the table and evidently snapped out a demand for his bill. Perhaps I should have made no movement but I caught a glimpse of the girl's face. A few seconds later I was on my way down the room.
"Good morning, Mr. Marketin," I said, pausing at his table.
He looked up with a frown.
"Morning," he replied, regarding me doubtfully.
"My name is Lyson. I have met you at some of these film shows and at Lady Trehsam's last week," I continued, plunging deep into the mire of snobbery.
"Lady Tresham's? Ah—h'm. Yes, I suppose I was there. One forgets," he went on rapidly.
"I know you are the busiest man in London," I said. "Could you find time just to say how-do-you-do to three friends of mine from the country who have come up purposely to see you?"
"I never talk business in a restaurant," he said. "Where are they?"
"Here," I answered. "Mr. Spenser," I said, turning towards him, "this is the gentleman you were asking me about—Mr. Marketin. He would like to make your acquaintance, but he is the busiest man in town. Just shake hands and tell him what you want."
They all three sprang to their feet and ranged themselves at the table. It is my conviction that he was flattered by their promptness.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
Mr. Spenser laid his hand upon his son's shoulder.
"My boy wants to go in for the films," he said.
"So do a hundred and fifty thousand others," was Marketin's comment.
"I am only asking for a screen test," the young man put in eagerly "Just one."
"Friend of Captain Lyson's, eh?"
I caught the pleading in the girl's eyes and I answered quickly.
"You shall have it. Write your name and address on the back of this card," he went on presenting one. "Come to my office at four thirty this afternoon and I will send you to one of the studios. Excuse me now, please," he added, pocketing his change and dropping a shilling on the table.
"We are so grateful," the girl said softly.
Marketin was without a doubt the biggest bluffer in the profession, but he was not an utter fool. The sound of that soft, velvety voice, the light flowing out from her eyes kept him for a moment rooted to the spot.
"What about the young lady?" he demanded.
"My daughter," Mr. Spenser smiled, "has no ambitions towards film work."
"Why not? She may have gifts. You never can tell. Come with your brother, young lady. You shall both have screen tests."
She hesitated. She glanced at her father and then at her brother, whose face had clouded over.
"But I don't—"
He brushed her protest away.
"Both of you or neither," he snapped out. "Good morning. Good morning, Lyson."
He was gone before anyone could speak. One almost looked to see the dust rise from the well-shaken carpet under his flying heels...
On my way out I paused to speak to Louis.
"I did a silly thing," I confessed.
"Et puis alors?" he murmured.
"I introduced them to the fellow. The young man is going to have a screen test."
"Marketin made it a condition that the girl went, too."
Louis frowned. He glanced at the three empty places.
"Do you know where they are staying in London?" he asked.
"Not an idea," I told him.
"What you did I was responsible for," he said. "We must hope for the best."
I was seated at my usual luncheon table at the Milan a week or ten days later studying the menu when I was conscious of a whirlwind of approaching footsteps. A waiter was pushed impatiently away.
"Can I have a word with you—at once—Captain Lyson?" the newcomer demanded in a harsh, unpleasant voice.
I looked up in surprise and recognised Marketin. He was still wearing his hat and overcoat, from the pocket of which was protruding a strip of highly-glazed photographs, and his appearance was rendered less attractive than usual by reason of the perspiration which had broken out upon his forehead and the vicious turn of his lip.
"Won't you sit down?" I invited. "Or are you in a desperate hurry?"
He did not answer me for a moment. Those spectacles were very enclosing, but I had an idea that the man felt ill.
"Are you lunching here?" I inquired.
"I don't know. I suppose so."
"Then why don't you go and remove your coat and hat," I suggested, "and come back and lunch here? We could talk at the same time."
He looked at his overcoat. He felt his hat. It seemed as though he were just realising the condition in which he had presented himself. He left the room and when he came back he had the air of a man who had made a great effort. He had bathed his face and eyes and he spoke without his habitual cascade of words.
"I'm sorry to have interrupted you," he said. "I sit down with you here—yes?"
"Certainly," I answered. "Have a cocktail?"
"I had two outside," he confided. "I felt the need of them. I will have another—yes—but no more to drink with lunch. Something cold with a salad," he ordered, waving away the menu. "I can eat, perhaps, when I see the food, but I cannot order it. Captain Lyson," he went on, leaning across the table, "where did you find those three fiends?"
"What on earth are you talking about?" I asked him.
"Strange words, I know," the man muttered, "but they are strange people. I am a Hungarian, Captain Lyson. I am used to peculiar types—to women who thrill and stab and hurt, to men who laugh and are gay and play to the fool, and to their elders who say nothing but whom no one can break. I have never met anyone like those three."
I was staggered at the man's appearance and speech. I thought of that simple little trio—the quiet, half sulky girl with her fragile air and voice like the ripple of a Devonshire stream, the boy with his cheap good looks, and the old schoolmaster with his soft, gentle manners. I came to the conclusion that Marketin was a little mad.
"I'll tell you the truth," I confessed. "I know nothing about them. I liked their appearance. They seemed to me simple people who had come to London on an absurd errand and I tried to make it easier for them."
"I can't get rid of them," he complained.
"What do you mean you can't get rid of them?" I demanded.
His lunch was brought—cold chicken and ham, I think it was. He fell upon it with his usual furious haste while I was watching the filleting of my sole. Suddenly he broke off. His knife and fork remained suspended. He could have used his napkin to advantage. He just talked.
"You are a man of some consequence, Captain Lyson," he said. "For that reason I glanced at the young man. Pah! The studios of London are overcrowded with that type. I should have shaken my head and walked away. But the man—the elderly man—his fingers were on my coat sleeve and I turned round. The girl was looking at me. The first impression I had of her was that she was plain and ill-dressed, and then I saw something else. Where it came from I don't know. We Hungarians are supposed to have a sort of second sight. I tell you, Captain Lyson, I saw something in that girl's face which might have set multitudes swaying and rocking, which might have lifted the roofs of the theatres into the air! I saw it, caught it for a moment in those ruminating eyes as she looked at me. Of course, the effect did not last. I was smiling even as I Stood there, but I could not go away without making sure that she came to my office. That was why I agreed to make a screen test of the young man."
He fell upon his food again, finished everything upon his plate and sat wrapped in gloomy silence.
"I have seen nothing of them since that day," I reminded him. "Tell me what has happened."
He caught at a waiter who was passing.
"Bring me a half flask of Hungarian claret—Carlowitz," he directed. "Some cheese," he ordered from another waiter. "I will tell you," he went on, turning back to me and pushing his empty plate unceremoniously away. "They came—all three of them. The girl scarcely spoke, yet every time I raised my eyes she was looking. They call me a hard man in my office, Captain Lyson. Mine is a hard job. I have to behave like a wild animal sometimes. I gave them a card to a man who owns a studio and I sent them away in my car. The tests were to be sent to me as soon as they were finished. Do you know that since I then I have been sick with longing to hear their footsteps, the knock at the door, their names announced?"
They brought him the wine and he drank half a glass eagerly but with more restraint. The frozen look had gone from his face.
"I do myself good with talking," he said. "It is good that I found you here. Now listen. The screen tests came back. The young man? horrible! The girl's—look."
He drew a little roll from his pocket, just ordinary sheets of photographer's proofs already worn a little through constant handling. I looked them through but even as I commenced I uttered a little exclamation.
"This isn't the girl," I cried.
"It is the girl," he assured me with a groan. "Just look at what seems to be shining out of those eyes," he continued, tapping on the second of the photographs with a forefinger which was none too clean. "Look at that pose—look at those curving lips. Look at the next one—look at the tenderness of them! She is like one of the strange flowers from that strange country she raves about—where she lives. And here here—further on. That is the woman who could send men mad with a snap of the fingers or beckon them to her without a movement. Elisabeth Bergner—all these others that we crawl about on our knees to—they do not belong—they have not got it! She has."
The man's words sounded as though he were ranting but he was earnest—that was the strange part, ol it. His face was lit up like the face of a prophet and the longer I looked at those cheap, glazed pictures the more impressed I felt with the truth of those broken words of his. Nevertheless, it was incredible.
"Look here, Marketin," I reminded him. "I saw the girl. I saw nothing like that."
"You did," he almost cried out. "Wait," he went on, shaking his fist almost in my face. "Think—think hard. You saw her there. Now, you tell me—there was something strange about her? There was something behind those calm, set little features, some fire behind those placid eyes which came and went, some power from heaven or hell which twisted that mouth to tell a different story with every second. Here, if you are so blind that you cannot see," he concluded, "give me back those photographs."
I shook my head. To tell you the truth, I hated the idea of parting with them.
"Marketin," I said, "I realise a little what you mean, but remember this sort of business is all out of my life. All the same, these photographs—frankly, they are wonderful. I find it hard to believe that they are photographs of that girl and then all of a sudden I look and there—there is no doubt about it. Get on with your story. Tell me about them. What did you do when you realised?"
Marketin's face was suddenly almost reverent.
"I felt," he confessed, "as though I had been living in darkness and there was suddenly light. I saw fame and glory opening up before my eyes. It was I who would present her—the greatest genius of the century! I felt it was almost too much for me. However, I steadied down. JSent a formal note. Addressed it to the father. I said—would he come and bring the girl. I said nothing about the young man. They all three appeared. The moment they walked into my little office I felt the place had become what it is—a shabby little den, smoky, ill-ventilated, with hideous daubs upon the wall and common furniture. They sat down and I felt that I was transported into a palace. Look here, Lyson," he said. "I know I am talking like a madman. I am not mad. You are the first man I have been able to talk to about them. You must realise how I felt to understand."
"Of course," I soothed him. "Go on."
"I was not quite so unnerved then as I am now," he continued. "I told them the screen tests had arrived. I could not show them the pictures for the moment. The young man's, I said, were good in their way, but the film studios in London were full of his type of actor waiting for employment. I could offer him nothing definite. As regards the young lady, I told them, if she was content to stay here and work she could commence her salary from the end of the week. I offered her ten—twenty—pounds a week, any sum sufficient to keep her while she was taught something of the technique—a week or two would be ample time—otherwise I would give her an agreement for the first film she acted in and for three years afterwards. Salary would commence at twenty-five pounds a week, I told them, when she was acting. When I had finished they were all three sitting there mute. It was the young man who exploded first. I will not tell you what he said. He got up and was going to walk out of the office, but his sister clutched his arm. Their father, too, he did his best to soothe the young man. There was a good deal of wild and useless talking. The girl was almost dumb. She sat there, her hands folded in her lap, listening to her father and the boy and me. Then she got up and patted her brother's shoulder affectionately."
"'This is all very absurd,' she said. 'There has been some stupid mistake, Clarence. I have not the slightest desire to act on the films. I should be perfectly hopeless.'"
"What did you say?" I ventured to ask Marketin.
"You will not believe me, Captain Lyson," he groaned. "All my life I have tried to get the best talent and the best stories cheap. I have tried to get them at a quarter or a half of what they were worth. That has been my life. I made that girl listen to me—I don't know how. I only said a few words. I told her that she had a gift which as yet she did not understand. She had a body of which she had no knowledge. She had a personality which one of the unknown powers of the world had given her and with which she could succeed in becoming, if she wished, the greatest artist of our days. She only laughed at me. Her father looked at me as though I were crazy. I wrote out an agreement and even wrote a cheque with trembling fingers for two hundred and fifty pounds! She had only to sign. The money was hers. She refused. The old man looked at me as though—as though—oh, well, that doesn't matter.
"'We are rather wasting time,' she said at last. 'Do you really mean that you can do nothing for Clarence?'
"'Nothing at all,' I told her savagely...
"I sat in my chair and I watched them go. The walls of the room seemed to close in upon me. The palace had gone. I was sitting in my own filthy little office. The light had gone out."
"And since then?" I asked.
"I have not seen them. I have been a half-a-dozen times to the shabby hotel where they stay and they will not see me."
He rolled up the photographs and secured them with a rubber band.
"The hotel," he told me, "is called the Western Counties Hotel. It is in the street leading down to Paddington Station. Will you go there and see what you can do. Captain Lyson?"
"I'll go there this afternoon," I promised him.
A gleam of light was in his face as he rose to his feet.
"I shall be in my office until seven o'clock," he said as he left me.
The Western Counties Hotel was a shabby, grimy-looking building, a languid conversion from a tall, cheaply-built dwelling-house. There was a familiar smell of stale cooking as I entered, oilcloth on the floor, a decrepit reception desk from behind which a middle-aged woman in black, with brass-colored hair and many Jingling ornaments, came forward to greet me with an ingratiating smile. Her face fell as I made my inquiry.
"Mr. Spenser and his son and daughter left half an hour ago," she announced, glancing at the clock.
"Did they leave any address?" I asked.
"Not that I know of," was the indifferent reply. "They Went to the railway station."
"Their baggage?" I inquired.
She smiled contemptuously.
"There wasn't much to speak of," she said, "and what there was they carried. If you want to see them particular their train don't go until four. They're off to Devonshire or somewhere."
I thanked the woman and hurried out. Arrived at Paddington I bought a platform ticket and hastened to where the express was standing. I saw with relief that there were still twenty minutes before it started. The long train was packed, but I found them at last the three of them—huddled together in a third-class carriage built for six and already full to its complement. I opened the door. The boy scowled at me. Mr. Spenser greeted me courteously but with marked surprise. The girl, looking wanner and paler than ever, just smiled. I think she guessed why I had come.
"May I speak to your daughter for a moment?" I asked Mr. Spenser.
He stood up to allow her to pass. She came out on to the platform, and stood there patiently, looking inquiringly into my face.
"What is it, please?" she asked softly.
"I think you can guess, Miss Spenser," I told her. "I have come from Marketin."
She shook her head.
"He wants me to stay in London and play in films. He is quite wrong, believe me, Captain Lyson. I have no desire for that life. I should be a failure. I am aching—aching in my heart—here—" she said, her bare hand pressed to her bosom, "to get home."
"But are you sure that you understand?" I asked earnestly. "It is not only the money, but fame is a great thing. You could make a name. Marketin is not a man who makes mistakes. He is willing to sink a great deal of money—all he has in the world—to start you. There is no fear of failure. Think how different a life you would have."
"How do you know what my present life is?" she asked, with that peculiar little smile already forming at her lips.
"Only from what I have gathered," I persisted. "Your father told us frankly that his income was eighty pounds a year. Your brother is earning less than his keep. That must mean poverty for you."
"Well, I suppose we don't seem opulent," she admitted, "and yet I, at any rate, and I believe my father, when the work goes well with him or he has caught a few trout, are happy."
She glanced at the clock.
"Listen," she went on, "I will tell you where we live. There are only four rooms and the cottage is terribly uncomfortable, but it is built on the side of what we call in Devonshire a Coombe. I go to sleep at night with the sound of the stream in my ears. I wake sometimes and there is a grey mist shrouding it and hiding us from the world. Then the sun rises and the mist fades away in silver and gold. And we have the most beautiful trees growing up towards the low-lying clouds that are so often on the moor. And when they become sparse, there is the heather and the yellow gorse, or in winter the grey skies and the booming wind. That is when I look upwards, and when I turn round and look the other way to where the stream is biting its way, tumbling and rolling towards the bottom of the Coombe, then there is the sea and its sound is always there. It soothes me to sleep. It wakes me in the morning. Just so long as I want to be awake it keeps me awake and when I want to go to sleep it soothes me to sleep. Then we have flowers—wild flowers—all around us so that we need no garden. And the scent of everything! Captain Lyson, did you walk into the hall of our little hotel?"
"Yes," I answered.
She half-closed her eyes.
"I am an ill woman," she went on, "till I get back to the scent of the Devon earth, until I hear the swaying of the trees and the song of the birds. How anyone can live up here I cannot imagine. How anyone can think here. All one's thoughts must be grotesque. There is nothing beautiful to see or touch. It may be the life for some people big cheques and theatres and beautiful restaurants and motor cars and houses with parks to them. That may suit some. It would not suit me."
There was a terrible finality about her words, a queer look of shining happiness in her face as she talked. It was all foolishness, of course. It was all because I could not make her understand, but what was I to say? The very things which Marketin had divined in her, the things that belonged to another world which it seemed a miracle that he, the little half-mad Hungarian, should have divined, were there like an impassable barrier.
"My father is like me," she murmured. "He is very happy. He is writing his book on cheap paper with a scratchy pen, but while he writes he is in the world he loves, and when he is weary he stands at the edge of the stream and listens to all the sounds I, too, worship and watches the birds come out and the fish rise and the water come tumbling down He is also content."
"If you stayed," I pleaded, "you would be famous even before your first picture was produced. Think what you could do for your brother."
She shook her head.
"I could do nothing for him that would be for his good," she said. "If I bought him a salaried place—would that help him? What sort of a life could he have drawing money he could not earn? Your little friend, Mr. Marketin, told me the truth about him. It may seem terrible selfishness to you, Captain Lyson, but if we are truthful to ourselves we must always be selfish. I could not help him. I have but one life to give away, and that I shall hold for myself. I must."
"You never think of marriage—of the larger places in life?" I asked.
She smiled and looked at me pityingly.
"Why should I trouble about such possibilities when I am already happy? I have so many more beautiful things to look at and marvel at and enjoy than anything connected with myself. Good-bye, Captain Lyson. It has been nice of you to take all this trouble. Your little friend may be right in a way. I may have a gift I know nothing about. If so, I am content not to use it."
I helped her back into the carriage. Her father courteously held out his hand and gripped mine.
"If you change your mind—" I said to the girl.
"You must come and see our stream some time when you take a summer holiday or a winter one for that matter, Captain Lyson," she interrupted quietly. "It never changes its mind."
A thin little hand waved out ol the window. The train gathered speed, started smoothly on its long Journey. I went back to Louis. His face fell as I told him of my failure.
"I don't understand," he admitted "You told her everything—you explained?"
"I said very little," I acknowledged. "It would have been of no use."
"Why are you so sure?" Louis asked me curiously.
"I think," I told him, "that I must have seen what Marketin saw."
I telephoned to Marketin. Often afterwards I wished that instead I had gone to see him. An impulse, I suppose it was of pity, led me to drop him a line to his office that evening and invite him to luncheon on the following day. But Marketing days of lunching at the Milan Grill were over. The last edition of the evening papers paid him the tribute of a placard—
WELL-KNOWN CINEMA AGENT FOUND SHOT IN HIS OFFICE.
The morning papers had a sympathetic little memoir. There was nothing in his affairs which offered any explanation of his suicide, but then Marketin, after all, had some touch of genius which accounted for his queer ways. I wondered whether the newspapers ever found their way into that lonely corner of Devonshire, whether the girl herself would spare a stray thought for her would be prophet as she listened to the ceaseless tumbling and music and thunder of her beloved stream falling into the sea.
JULIE sometimes calls me an old maid. I admit that I have fixed habits as regards the greater part of my dally life.
It was consequently rather a shock to me to wake up suddenly at half-past seven one morning and discover, towering over me by the side of the bed, a huge giant of a fellow with a fair beard cut rather short, very blue eyes, and an air of patient amiability such as I have seldom seen equalled. This vision held out a huge hand to me. I shook it before I realised what I was doing. Then I sat up in bed.
"What the mischief do you want?" I asked. "Who are you?"
With a beatific smile he produced a card and handed it to me. Upon it was engraved with many flourishes:
"Baron Conrad von Corberg."
"Well, what do you want with me at this hour of the morning?" I inquired. "And how did you get here?"
"I came in through your sitting room," he confided. "I have asked the valet respecting your habits, and I find that you do not rise until eight o'clock. That does not suit me. I have another case at eight-thirty. I am obliged to take you at half-post seven."
"Do you mind telling me what you are talking about?"
"I will tell you while we work," was the cheerful answer. "I looked in the bathroom and I discovered that you have plenty of warm towels. Will you kindly remove your pyjamas—see, I will assist you—and lie flat upon the bed? Yours is the right type of mattress, I am glad to see," he went on approvingly. "It has hard springs—not too much give. So," he demonstrated, pushing it down with his fist. "I now fetch a towel. Everything else—powder, the special preparation of my own that I sometimes use, I have ready here."
"But what the mischief is all this about?" I persisted. "What do you propose to do to me?"
He seemed a little hurt. He looked at me with wide open eyes filled with a gentle reproof.
"Why, to massage you," he explained. "It is for that I have come."
"But I never ordered you," I expostulated. "I don't want to be massaged. I am not going to be massaged. Who sent you here?"
"No one," he admitted cheerfully, his fingers all the time occupied with the buttons of my night attire. "So. That is excellent. A good chest, but, alas, it is always so—at thirty or afterwards—and your neck, that needs attention. Stomach is not so bad. Still, we shall improve that."
He was at it before I could remonstrate further. I lay still for a few momenta and felt his hands travelling over me with what I realised to be the inspired touch of the trained masseur.
"You see, it is good, that—yes?" he asked with the eagerness of a child. "Soon you will never be able to rise without your morning massage. You will respond, too. You have an excellent frame, Captain Lyson. You are just a little short of exercise, otherwise I should say in perfect condition."
Since it seemed that Fate had ordained that I was to be massaged, I left off arguments and allowed him to proceed. At three minutes to eight he finished, pulled the bedclothes up to my neck, took the tea tray from my astonished valet and placed it by the side of the bed.
"You would like me to make your tea for you—yes? Sugar—cream? Afterwards you will rest for ten minutes, then you take your bath as usual."
He disappeared into the bathroom.
"You excuse?" he called out, as I heard the toilet basin being filled. "I wash my hands—so. You are a good subject, Captain Lyson."
He came back to me, his face beaming. He put on his coat and came to my bedside.
"Four days a week I shall wish to come," he announced. "Which four days would you prefer?"
"What I should like to arrive at is, who told you to come at all?" I persisted.
"But no one," he explained. "How could you know whether you wanted massage or not until you tried? Most of my patients I get in this way. I mark them down myself as likely. Sometimes I find their names in the list of members of a well-known club, sometimes I come across them at the restaurants, more often than anything I visit the actors and the cinema-men and those who have to study their appearance greatly."
And how did you arrive at my name?" I asked.
"It came with others," he replied. "I do not remember."
"Do you find that everyone submits as meekly as I do?"
"I seldom have any trouble," was the well-satisfied reply. "Sometimes I find that a man may take months and months making up his mind to embark upon a course of massage, although he knows all the time that it would be good for him. That is what first gave me the Idea. I choose my clients. I find out their habits. I appear. You are a client of mine now. I come to-morrow morning or Thursday—which?"
"What do I pay for all this?" I asked.
"For the massage that you have received, my dear sir," was the prompt reply, "nothing. Nothing at all. It is my gift—my introduction to you. Henceforth the fee will be one guinea, and if you wish my services oftener than four times a week there might be some reduction allowed."
"You mean that the massage I have just received—"
He smiled a broad, happy smile.
"It is a gift," he repeated. "It is my own idea. No one else has built up a connection as I am building it up in just the same manner. I shall be here on Thursday at the same time, and I am sure that I shall find you happy to receive me."
He picked up a small bug and a rather well-worn black felt hat. Then he walked happily away
On the morning of my impromptu massage I motored a friend down to Woking, where we had a pleasant round of golf, and returned to my small flat in the Milan Court just before one. Before going to my table, I paused to talk for a few minutes to Louis, who was seated at the desk from which he superintended the destinies of the famous restaurant.
"Louis," I inquired, "do you notice anything special about my appearance this morning?"
"Nothing very special, Captain," he replied "You are looking very fit."
"It's going to cost me a guinea a morning to look as fit as this all the time," I confided. "Do you know that a ruffian whom I had never seen before barged his way into my rooms this morning, insisted upon massaging me, and went away without charging me a penny? I gathered, however, that he has adopted me as a regular patient at a guinea a time!"
"It appears to me a little unusual that he should come without any arrangement," Louis observed.
"He is a very unusual person," I declared. "Here's his card," I went on, laying it upon the desk before him. "Where, may I ask, is Mademoiselle?"
"In the flat I believe," Louis replied, "Go in and have a cocktail with her, Captain Lyson. She will be delighted."
"I certainly will," I agreed.
I knocked at the door of Louis' little flat, which was only a few yards away from the entrance to the Grill Room.
Julie herself admitted me.
"Dear man!" she exclaimed. "Do tell me that you have come to ask me to lunch."
"Nothing was farther from my thoughts," I assured her.
Her face fell.
"Méchant! And I am so triste to-day. Madame Gandin has gone back to Paris."
"Of course I came to beg you to lunch with me," I said. "Julie, look at me, please. Well? Anything special?"
"You look very well, and I like your tie."
I told her of my morning's adventure. She laughed heartily.
"I think it is delicious," she said. "Fancy that great strong man standing over your bed, holding you down whilst he pummelled and rubbed you!"
"It sounds exaggerated," I admitted, "but it isn't. If he hadn't looked so frightfully good-natured, and so pleased with himself, I should have wriggled away somehow. As it was, I just lay there like a lamb."
We drank our cocktails and indulged in a little gossip—Julie was a great friend of mine—and presently strolled out to my table. Louis, leaning over his desk, detained me as we passed. He was still holding in his hand the card I had given him.
"One moment, Captain," he begged. "This name—it sounds somehow familiar to me. Corberg. A foreigner, I imagine."
"Scandinavian, I should think," I told him. "Most of the good masseurs are."
"Is he coming again?"
"There would be no harm," Louis suggested, lowering his voice, "If you asked him a few questions as to why he singled you out as a likely patient."
"I certainly will," I promised. "It's something I don't understand myself."
* * * * *
So on Thursday morning, at three minutes to half-past seven, when I heard a gentle knock at my door, I made up my mind to solve the mystery of the Baron von Corberg's unsolicited attentions. The question which was already framed upon my lips, however, was never asked. There was the Baron von Corberg right enough, with that delightful smile upon his lips, and just behind, looking into the room with an air of amused curiosity, stood the most beautiful feminine replica of the man it was possible to conceive.
The Baron introduced as proudly. "I take a liberty, Captain Lyson," he said. "I present you to my sister—Greta von Corberg. Sometimes I bring my sister with me on my rounds."
I drew the bedclothes a little tighter around me and sat upright.
"I—er—charmed, of course," I rejoined. "But really—I must apologise, Miss von Corberg. I may have the pleasure, perhaps, of seeing you later on."
If she noticed my embarrassment, she completely ignored the irritation which accompanied it. She came over to the bedside and held out her hand. Her smile was completely and utterly disarming.
"I am very happy to meet you, Captain Lyson," she said. "I like to know my brother's clients, then we can talk about them later in the day, when he has finished his rounds. You excuse that I come into your bedroom? We are not so strict, perhaps, in those ways as you are in England."
"Well, it's not exactly usual, you know," I ventured.
"I wait, if you permit, in your salon. It is a liberty, perhaps, that I have taken?" she asked, looking at me anxiously. "I am so sorry."
"Not in the least," I assured her. "Delighted to see you. In fact, I should have been disappointed if you hadn't come in. Will you make yourself comfortable in my sitting-room?"
"Of course," she replied. "It is very kind of you. I will be quite quiet, and not disturb anyone."
"You will find the morning papers there," I told her. "Come along, von Corberg," I added as he appeared from the bathroom, "We must not keep your sister waiting too long."
"My sister would not wish that I should hurry," he assured me. "I thought it might give you pleasure to see her, Captain. Might I," he went on, hanging up his coat and turning up his cuffs, "take one further slight liberty?"
His expression was that of a wistful, shaggy-haired dog.
"Of course. Go ahead."
"She is hungry, my sister," he confided. "She has magnificent health, but just now she is failing a little. There was some difficulty about our coffee. Excuse—"
"Do ask her to ring the bell and order anything she wishes from the waiter," I interrupted. "And get to work now, there's a good fellow."
He was across the room in three strides and, opening the door, he spoke a single sentence to the girl in a language which was strange to me. Then he returned eagerly to his task. No more smiles. No conversation. Very soon my whole body was in a glow.
"A beautiful response," he declared. "Your body reacts marvellously. You play the game of golf—yes? When I have done with your arms, they will be like elastic. You will drive the little white ball farther than anyone has ever driven it before. So."
He recommenced. Once he paused for a moment and held his head on one side as though to listen. We heard the clatter of china in the next room.
"My little Greta," he murmured, "she has her breakfast. That is good."
"Does she do anything?" I asked. "Any professional work?"
He looked shocked.
"My sister," he said. "No. She is of a noble family, you understand, Captain Lyson. She could not possibly mix with the people of the studios. Sometimes, when things go not so well, I have wished that there was some way that she could honorably earn a little money for her frocks. I do not mind wearing old clothes myself, but a girl so beautiful as my sister should not be shabby. She herself, however, does not mind. Some of her things," he continued, his tone becoming one of reverent admiration, "she makes herself."
I had a reply ready for him, but it was just at that moment that he chose to make a vigorous and, so far as I could see, wholly unprovoked attack upon my stomach and for a few minutes I was speechless. When I recovered the gift of speech, it was to find the young lady leaning through the doorway. She waved her hand to me.
"I wish good-bye," she said with an enchanting smile. "Such coffee I have not tasted for a long time. I thank you for my breakfast, Captain Lyson. My life is saved! I make a promenade in the park till I meet my brother."
"You can have him when you like," I gasped. "I've had enough."
She laughed deliciously, waved her hand once more and disappeared.
"Your sister," I remarked, as soon as I had recovered my breath, "is extraordinarily good-looking."
"All our family," he confided gravely, "are the same. Good looks, however," he added with a sigh, "are not always a blessing."
"In your sister's case, so far as you are concerned," I observed, "I should think they are a great responsibility."
He made no immediate reply. When he had finished with me, however, he pocketed the guinea I had left by my bedside with a low bow. Then he made an observation which for the moment puzzled me.
"When I have saved enough money," he said, "I shall send my sister back to her own country and arrange for her marriage. Until then, I keep her so far as possible by my side. It is for that reason that I thank you for your hospitality of this morning."
"Bring her whenever you like," I invited as he put on his coat. "She can always wait for you in the sitting-room."
"It Is a great kindness," he assured me. "I shall take more care than ever of your health. Until Monday, then."
I took my bath, shaved and made my toilet. When I reached the sitting-room, I smiled at the state of the young lady's breakfast tray. Both rolls had disappeared, also every scrap of the butter, and the coffee-pot was empty. I rang the bell for my own breakfast and turned to my letters. Half-way down the pile I came upon an oblong envelope on the back of which was the very familiar O.H.M.S. seal.
I was about to open the envelope, in fact, I had already inserted the point of my knife, when I stopped short. I carried the envelope to the window, adjusted my glass firmly, and stared at the seal. I felt it delicately with my finger. It was unusually soft and there was a suspicion of warmth. I examined the letter next in the pile beneath. There was a tiny spot of red wax, not bigger than the head of a pin, which seemed to have dropped on to the envelope.
From the first, I had been conscious of a lingering reminder of the perfume which I had noticed when the beautiful Greta stooped over my bed. I sniffed vigorously round the place where the letters stood. There was no doubt about it. Notwithstanding the more exotic perfume, there was still a faint suggestion of the smell of sealing-wax. I examined the ashtray. A match had been lit, the remains of which were still visible. There was also, somewhat to my disappointment, a cigarette-stump which might have accounted for its presence.
"Put my tray down on a chair," I told the waiter. "Don't disturb the other table for a moment. You can come in and fetch the tray when I ring."
The man obeyed orders without any sign of surprise. My hand was straying towards the telephone-receiver, and he knew that I often had private messages. As soon as he had gone, however, I bolted the door and made a brief search in the vicinity of the table where the letters had been. There were distinct spots of sealing-wax upon the floor in several places. I had no longer any doubt that my private communication from M17B had been opened and sealed up again.
I paid a visit to my friend Louis that morning, Louis the patron saint of the Grill Room, and my confederate in many adventures.
I said nothing of my mission until our morning cocktail was gleaming in our glasses and the waiter had disappeared. Even then, I examined the three doorways which led out of the room—the one into the lounge, the one into Louis' bedroom and the one into Julie's quarters. He watched me, amused but perplexed.
"We are perhaps back in the old days when your Englishman wrote that great play 'Diplomacy'," he suggested. "Listeners at every keyhole, the perfume of a lady's handkerchief in a rifled drawer, deciding the fate of a whole continent!"
"Louis." I replied, "you are very much nearer the mark than you imagine. I begin to realise that the game is still played—on the Continent at any rate, if not so much over here. I have to-day been asked by a masseur to allow his sister to wait for him in my sitting-room, and the little cat opened one of my private letters and sealed it up again with a false stamp!"
"This is a serious business of which you speak," Louis said gravely.
"Not so serious as it might have been," I told him. "The letter which the young lady opened was from M17B, and it contained the information that within three days there would arrive a record of important changes in the cipher code between ourselves and Seventy-seven Quay d'Orsay."
"The information was given to you in cipher, the old cipher, I presume?"
"Certainly. But you know how simple it is, Louis. Anyone who had once mastered it could at any rate blunder through the message."
"What are you going to do about it?" he inquired.
"Inform the Chief, of course," I said, "Afterwards I shall toy with the matter."
Louis glanced at me keenly.
"This sister of the Baron's?" he asked.
"Take note that I do not say the most attractive," I replied, "but she is without a doubt the most beautiful woman I ever saw in my life. The Baron confided to me as he punched my ribs this morning that to walk with her in the streets was an annoyance. People stopped upon the pavements and stared."
Louis looked thoughtfully for a minute at the point of his cigarette.
"You know, my dear Captain Lyson," he said, "how great is the confidence I repose in you, but I ask myself whether it is as well for you to take this matter so lightly."
"Louis," I explained, "to put it frankly, we do not get much out of our job. It is ill-paid, at times hopelessly dull, now and then highly dangerous. An odd thrill comes as a surprise. We generally have to be content with sending in reports and letting other people finish the job. I have a fancy that I would like to see the denouement of this one."
"The Department does not like it," Louis reminded me uneasily.
Monday morning at a few minutes before seven-thirty found me with a dressing-gown over my pyjamas, turning over the recently arrived letters in my sitting-room. I turned my head at the soft knocking on the door.
"Come in," I invited.
The Baron and his sister entered. She gave a little start as she saw me sitting there, and it seemed to me that her eyes went swiftly towards the pile of letters in front of me. The Baron appeared disturbed.
For the beneficial application of the massage, Captain Lyson," he warned me, "it is inadvisable to occupy the brain or body first. You permit me to suggest that you preserve the rest of your correspondence."
"Unfortunately," I told him, "I cannot do that. I have a communication of some importance to study here," I went on, tapping a long envelope. "I shall ask you to postpone my massage until to-morrow morning. As I did not let you know—I searched for your address, but it was not upon the card—you will allow me to pay."
I pushed a pound note and a shilling towards him, but he shook his head.
"That I could not accept," he said. "Permit me to come when you change for dinner."
"At half-past seven, then," I said. "You will excuse me now, please. As you see, I am occupied."
They both turned reluctantly away. The girl looked over her shoulder from the door. I waved my hand.
"Good morning, Mademoiselle," I said. "Sorry to hurry you away."
The changed cipher was among my correspondence and I realised at once its importance. It was unlikely that I, personally, should be affected, but, as I had learnt on the previous day, communications were passing every hour between the Quay d'Orsay and Whitehall concerning important affairs in Europe. I locked the papers away in my safe, which I had had removed during the previous day into my bedroom, and made my toilet.
During the morning I went round to Whitehall, and I ascertained that nothing was transpiring which would involve any communications with me. From another branch which I also visited I failed to obtain the slightest, information concerning the Baron or his sister.
"New to the business, I should think," Louis remarked, when I talked to him after lunch. "All the same, if you are sure about the tampering with your official letter, I should report the incident to headquarters and tell your masseur that his ministrations do not suit your health. It is always a dangerous game to play," he went on, "to try to deal with these affairs alone."
"Right, as usual," I acknowledged. Perhaps I was wrong not to have told him that I was expecting the Baron von Corberg at seven-thirty.
Within a few moments of half past seven there came a soft tap at the door. In response to my invitation it was slowly opened and Greta von Corberg entered. I rose to my feet, finding it a difficult matter to conceal my admiration. Her white evening frock was shabby, but seductively fashioned, and her wealth of golden hair was naturally and gracefully arranged.
"Where is your brother?" I asked.
"He is not coming."
"Then why are you here?"
8he closed the door behind her and approached the desk before which I had been seated.
"I am in trouble," she confided. "I have left my brother."
"He has been very unkind," she told me, her beautiful eyes seeking eagerly for mine. "He says that I bungle, that I am fit for nothing. He is very angry."
"Because you left drops of sealing wax all over the place?" I asked.
She stared, momentarily.
"What do you mean by drops of sealing-wax?"
"When you went through my letters the other morning you removed the seal of one envelope and replaced it," I told her. "You were not very careful."
She clasped her hands together.
"It is all new to me," she said. "I did what I was told. I was clumsy. Now Conrad has sent me away."
"What are you going to do?"
"I have come to you," she replied.
"You must take care of me. I will work for you—anyhow you like. I will go on with this stupid spy business if you wish, or I would rather do your letters and type them."
The allurement of her soft voice with its slight foreign accent, the eager pleading of her eyes, were almost Irresistible.
"Thank you," I acknowledged. "I don't keep a seminary for young girls, you know."
She came nearer, and for the life of me I could not have moved. Her arms went, suddenly round my neck.
She was strong—strong as a young lioness—but I too have muscles. Soon I was holding her wrists firmly. She looked at me reproachfully.
"You are hurting," she pleaded. "Please let me go."
I shook my head. She waited eagerly for my words. I was listening, however, to an unusual sound in the next room. Perhaps she heard it too, for she threw herself suddenly into my arms.
"Do not shake your head at me," she begged. "It is not kind that you do that. I am very unhappy. You must be my friend, please, or I do not know what will become of me. Please—please—"
I disengaged myself as gently as possible, and took a step towards my bedroom door.
"No, no!" the called out. "You must not leave me."
"I think," I told her, "that it is almost time I went to see how your brother is getting on in the next room."
"No, no!" she cried passionately. "I will not be left here alone!"
I opened the door and directly I saw what was happening in the bedroom I closed and locked it behind me. The Baron was kneeling before my safe with a huge bunch of keys in his hand.
"No luck, Baron," I remarked pleasantly. "It's a devil of a lock."
He was scared, but he disposed of the keys somewhere in his pocket.
"I come to give you your massage," he said as he rose.
I rang the bell. There was the sound of a key in the lock almost instantly. Inspector Hearnshaw stood upon the threshold. I beckoned him into the room. The Baron stared at him in horror.
"You give me in charge?" he exclaimed in a hurt tone
"Nothing so old-fashioned," I assured him. "Half an hour at the Passport Office, perhaps, a quick train to Southampton and a little voyage back to where you came from, you know, Baron. That's the idea. You will find Mademoiselle in the next room, Hearnshaw."
Hearnshaw was back again in a moment, looking a little perturbed
"The young lady has fainted," he announced. "Better ring for a chambermaid."
The Baron and I hurried in. Greta was stretched across my couch, her arms hanging limply down, her dress disarranged. Her cheeks were ghastly pale.
"Do not be alarmed, Captain Lyson," the Baron enjoined. "That is the best thing that Greta does," he went on.
"Greta, my dear, I fear this gentleman would not leave you here, even if Captain Lyson permitted it. We are to be deported."
To my amazement, she stood up. She resembled a beautiful, sulky child.
"I do not wish to be deported," she protested. "I will do no harm here."
The Baron shook his head sadly. "The gentleman from Scotland Yard would not permit it," he told her. "You have been a foolish girl. We return home."
I pointed to the door, which Hearnshaw was holding open.
"You must go," I said firmly, "and you too, Baron. If you take my advice, you will stick to massage."
He thrust another card into my hand.
"If you are ever abroad," he murmured.
FANSHAW of the "Home Notes Department," as it was jocularly called at headquarters, bustled into the room where I was passing the time talking to Inspector Hearnshaw.
"Hello, Lyson," he greeted me. "Is this your note?"
He held it out to me--a crisp, though slightly crumpled, banknote for one thousand pounds.
"Well, I wouldn't like to go as far as that," I said, perhaps a little wistfully, "but I brought it here. Hearnshaw knows exactly how I came into possession of it."
"It's a damned queer story," the Inspector admitted.
"What about the note?" I asked.
"Absolutely genuine," was the decision. "Paper, ink, every mortal thing O.K. That's a Bank of England note for one thousand pounds, and I don't mind telling you that I shouldn't at all mind having the spending of it myself. Catch hold."
He handed the note over to me. I folded it and placed it in my pocketbook.
"What does one do now?" I asked.
Hearnshaw looked dubious.
"Seems to me anything you did would be risky," he remarked. "I should say--spend it quickly, but you might be called upon to refund it!"
"Tell us exactly how you came into possession of it," Fanshaw suggested, passing his cigarette case.
"Simple as ABC," I answered. "I always sit at the same table for luncheon and very often for dinner at the Milan Grill Room. I walked in for luncheon the day before yesterday. In due course I shook out my napkin and this was coiled up inside it. Of course, I thought it was a joke but as no one could see any indications of the note being a false one I brought it round to your department here. Now you have just told me it's good."
"Anyone owe you a thousand pounds likely to return it in that peculiar manner?" Hearnshaw asked.
"Not a soul in the world," I told him.
"Well, if you ask my advice," he decided, "I should stroll into your bank, fill in a credit slip and pay it in. They will give it another test, you may be sure. If they credit it--well, then you had better sit back and see if anything happens."
I picked up my hat and gloves, made my adieux and drove my small coupé round to the West End branch of a famous bank. The cashier welcomed me courteously and accepted the note I passed across.
"Will you credit my account with that, Mr. Ashe?" I asked him, filling in a credit slip.
"Certainly, Captain Lyson. A one-thousand-pound note. Not too many of them going about."
"You had better make certain it's O.K.," I suggested.
"It looks all right," the cashier remarked. "I'll just let our expert have a glance at it if you have any doubt yourself."
I waited for only a few moments. The man came back smiling.
"Perfectly all right," he observed. "Bring us as many more as you can of them, sir. Anything else we can do for you?"
I cashed a small cheque and called round at the club where I played a rubber or two of bridge. It was about seven o'clock when I arrived at the Milan Court, knocked at the door of Louis' small suite on the ground floor and was promptly bidden to enter. Louis, the beneficent manager of the Grill Room, leaning upon his stick, was watching Julie, his daughter, manipulating a cocktail shaker. She turned eagerly towards me as I entered.
"The note?" she exclaimed. "Was it really genuine?"
"Absolutely," I told her. Julie clapped her hands.
"That means roses for me--or chocolates perhaps," she laughed. "A thousand pounds! But it is a fortune!"
"Yes, but where did it come from?" I asked. "No one that I know of owes me a thousand pounds."
"Never mind where it comes from," Julie protested. "Where is it going to? What are you going to do with it? There are many ways," she went on, looking at me with an ingenuous smile, "in which a young man, already wealthy, might spend generously an offering like that which has dropped from the skies. In my opinion the deserving poor of to-day are to be found amongst the class of young women whose fathers' ideas of a dress allowance are a little cramped, and whose one ambition in life is always to give pleasure to the young men who take her out."
Louis held out his glass for replenishment. He was looking more than a little worried.
"One must remember," he said, "that thousand-pound notes do not drop from the sky like this without bringing a message. If I were you, Captain, I should pay that money into the bank and sit upon it. You will probably have to return it to its owner before long."
"I shan't part with it too easily," I remarked, following Louis' example. "Two can play at a game like this."
Julie's large eyes flashed at me in joyous expectation.
"To-night," she reminded me, "you have asked me to dine with you. Is it not so?"
"Rather," I answered. "We are going to dine in the Grill Room, go on to the ballet and dance down in the restaurant for an hour or so afterwards."
"Such happiness!" she murmured. "Tell me, my cavalier, what shall I wear?"
"White," I replied promptly. "All colours become you but you are ravishing in white."
"I have worn my white gown with you twice," she meditated. "It has brought me no particular success."
"To-night," I told her, "I am in a susceptible frame of mind and there is that thousand-pound note lying at the bank, consequently I am possessed of an extraordinary sense of opulence!"
"I shall be ready at a quarter to eight," she promised.
I turned and spoke to Louis for a moment a little more seriously.
"Have you ever known anything like this happen before?" I asked.
"Never," he assured me.
"Is there any reasonable explanation which occurs to you?"
I fancied that there was the slightest possible hesitation about his manner. Nevertheless, his reply was decisive.
Julie was waiting for me in the lounge when I descended and made a little curtsey in response to my glance of admiration.
"How I shall survive the evening I don't know," I confessed.
"I hope you won't," she answered. "I am tired of being an old maid."
We made our way into the Grill Room, exchanged a word with Louis, who I thought had rather a preoccupied air, and approached my table. It was laid for two and in the napkin in front of my chair was a very beautiful dark crimson carnation.
"Tiens!" Julie exclaimed. "The money ceases and flowers arrive. Look quickly, Charles. There is perhaps a billet doux with it."
There was no billet doux there nor any written message of any kind but wrapped around the stem of the carnation was another crumpled but obviously veritable thousand-pound note! I must confess that I felt a little helpless. The second anonymous thousand-pound note within twenty-four hours! I turned towards my companion. She seemed dazed but was promptly helpful.
"What do we do now?" I asked her.
"We break our rule and order a second cocktail while we consider the matter," she suggested.
I obeyed and the cocktails duly arrived.
She folded the note carefully in four.
"You place that in your pocketbook," she directed. "And lean over, please."
She picked up the carnation and arranged it carefully in my buttonhole. We toyed with our cocktails whilst we waited for our first course. Julie lit a cigarette.
"The next step, please?" I enquired. "No banks open, you know."
"We drink these cocktails to the welfare of your heavenly benefactor," she declared, "and after that we ask the advice of my wise parent. Until then we do not speak again of these miracles."
"Excellent," I agreed. . . .
As soon as we had finished our meal and I had signed the bill we made our way towards Louis' desk. I noticed that all the time during our approach his eyes were fixed upon the carnation in my buttonhole. It may have been my fancy but he certainly seemed to me to be looking more than ever disturbed.
"You found that in your place?" he asked, indicating my adornment.
"I did," I answered, "and there was not a single one of the waiters who either put it there himself or saw anyone else do it. And with the carnation--" I tapped my pocketbook.
He drew himself up and, with the help of his stick, descended.
"We are not very busy to-night," he said. "José, keep an eye upon the door. I shall be in the flat."
We followed him there. I had been so engrossed in my own affairs during the last few days that I had scarcely given a thought to anyone else and I was shocked, as he sank into his easy chair, to see the dark rings under his eyes and the even more striking pallor of his face with its finely cut features. He seemed, if such a thing were possible, to have grown thinner during the last twenty-four hours.
"Another thousand-pound note," he muttered, looking up at me, and I could see the veins on the backs of those delicate hands of his standing out as he gripped the arms of the chair. "And the carnation."
Julie suddenly, regardless of her toilette, dropped on her knees by the side of his chair, her left arm embraced him, with her right hand she caressed his cheek.
"Mon père," she whispered, "you are distressed! You know something. You suspect something. Is there a disaster behind these strange happenings? If there is Charles will face it bravely. You distress yourself too much, mon pauvre!"
He smiled at her tenderly. Her words apparently gave him courage.
"It is true," he admitted. "The whole affair has revived an ancient fear. Perhaps I take it too seriously."
"Nothing to be alarmed about anyhow that I can see, Louis," I said reassuringly. "If this is the beginning of a conspiracy what can anyone hope to gain by it?"
"It is a strange way of doing things," he reflected. "In this world, though, there are many strange people."
"Too mild a word," I insisted. "Lunatics! No sane person would play such tricks."
Louis looked up at me suddenly. There was something of the prophet in his still set face and firm voice.
"It is no lunatic who is dealing with you, Captain Lyson," he assured me.
"Then you have an idea who it is?" I rejoined swiftly.
"I suspect," he admitted. "But even then I could give you no coherent explanation. When I think that it is good for you to know the little that I surmise I shall tell it to you. Meanwhile," he concluded, rising once more to his feet, "I must go back to my place and you must be off to your ballet."
He waved us away.
"Upon your return from Covent Garden please come to me," he begged. "If I am not at my desk I shall be here."
We promised and went on our way light-heartedly. I could find no tragedy in these strange happenings and Julie was looking adorable. It was not until the curtain went down on the first part of the programme and Julie and I were promenading amongst the crowd of notabilities in the foyer that it suddenly occurred to me that I might be entering upon the next chapter of my fantastic adventure. Strolling amongst the others was a tall, slim man of distinguished and unusual appearance. He walked in a fashion of his own with his hands behind his back. His face--he was clean-shaven with excellent features--was a little worn and more than a little lined. His height enabled him to look over the heads of most of the crowd but now and then he returned a greeting and vouchsafed a smile. In the lapel of his dress coat he was wearing a carnation of exactly the same unusual dark crimson as my own! Julie, whose fingers rested after the fashion of the foreigner upon my arm, suddenly tightened her grip.
"Charles," she asked me softly, "who is that?"
I shook my head.
"I seem to have seen him before," I admitted, "but I can't remember where."
"You noticed his carnation--yes? It is exactly like yours. There is not another one in the place."
"I noticed that," I confessed, "and I notice something else at the present moment," I added. "I believe the curtain is going up on our comedy drama. The stranger is about to speak to us."
I was right. With a courteous bow the latter paused in front of us. He addressed us as though we were old acquaintances. His voice was pleasant but his speech slow. There was just the suggestion of a foreign accent.
"A very beautiful performance," he remarked. "Matveich to-night is at his best. A genius and at his best. We are fortunate."
"It is the first time I have ever been in the audience when he has conducted his own music," Julie confided.
"Well, I congratulate you," our new friend said.
"The dancing--well, he has chosen perfect marionettes, but their interpretation is so graceful that one can forgive. So you, Captain Lyson, I am glad to see," he went on, turning to me, "are wearing the insignia of your new order."
"In complete ignorance, if I may say so, as to its significance," I ventured.
"You are curious?"
"Isn't it reasonable that I should be? Naturally I want to understand the meaning of these mysterious gifts."
"And I," Julie interposed, "being a woman and possessed of even greater curiosity would like to know your name, sir, and why Captain Lyson has been tormented in this strange manner?"
"Tormented is, I trust, too cruel a word," our friend objected. "I may have piqued his curiosity a little. It was necessary to incite his interest."
"And your name, please?" Julie persisted.
"That is a very simple affair," he replied. "My name is Alexander."
"Alexander," she repeated. "Alexander what?"
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "Who is there of us who would be willing to disclose at a moment's notice all the dear secrets of his life even to so charming a young lady as Louis' daughter? I have been called Prince Alexander, I have been called General Alexander, I have been called plain Mr. Alexander. You can take your choice. Any one of them would be more or less correct."
"And the thousand-pound notes?" I asked.
"They constitute your entrance fee and your first year's subscription to the most exclusive club in the world," he confided. "It is a club, too, which has exceptional conditions. For instance, in most institutions of the sort the member pays his entrance fee and pays his subscription. In the case of the club to which you have been elected a member the club pays you."
I was assailed with a sudden sentiment of mild irritation.
"I am elected a member of a club, then, without knowing even its name and it pays two thousand pounds for the privilege of my membership?" I asked incredulously.
"Neatly put," was the faintly ironic rejoinder. "Spend the money if you like. It is yours. In the meantime you will be asked to present yourself at headquarters within a few hours. A slight formality. Nothing that need disconcert you."
"But supposing I don't wish--"
"Ah, we will not suppose anything like that," our new acquaintance interrupted, showing signs of departure. "If you have any doubts ask my esteemed friend and, I gather, yours--Louis. Au revoir, Mademoiselle. My compliments, the compliments of Alexander, to your father. And to you, sir--à bientôt."
A Cabinet minister was waiting for him a yard or two off. They walked up the broad stairs together. Julie caught once more at my arm.
"But this," she exclaimed, "I adore! And where in this world before have I seen a man so chic, with such a delightful presence? Alexander! Charles--tell me what uncrowned monarchs are wandering about the world?"
A ray of hope suddenly presented itself.
"Come along," I suggested, hurrying towards the doorway which led to our places. "We have your father to fall back upon. Hurry, Julie," I went on as a ripple of applause around us quickly deepened into a roar. "Matveich is taking his place."
That night an extraordinary thing happened. Louis, my old friend Louis, showed distinct signs of wishing to avoid me. He left his desk as we arrived from Covent Garden and before I could intercept him he had entered his flat. When we returned from dancing in the restaurant below, although there were still people supping in the Grill Room, Louis had deserted his post. Julie was herself distressed.
"What can be the matter with mon père tonight?" she exclaimed.
I hesitated. She easily read my thoughts.
"You must come in with me, of course," she continued. "We will ask what he means by hiding from us."
We entered the flat. Louis was not in the tiny reception room. He was not in his study. Julie passed through into his bedroom closing the door after her. I waited for a few moments, then, as neither of them appeared, I went back into the little reception room and mixed myself a whisky and soda. I was so much a friend of the house that I kept a pipe in Louis' rack by the side of the fireplace. I helped myself to some tobacco and settled myself in an easy chair. It was at least a quarter of an hour before Julie reappeared, during which time the telephone bell had been ringing all the time in the bedroom. When she came she seemed a little flushed and I fancied that she had been engaged in some sort of a dispute.
"Papa will come immediately," she announced.
"He is all right, I hope?" I asked.
"I think so," she replied. "He has been searching for some papers. He is expecting an important visitor."
"Had I better go?"
She shook her head.
"It is your affair, I think. Since you are here he wishes you to remain."
"I would like to stop," I admitted frankly.
"Because you hate to leave me?" she asked with one of her provocative gestures.
"Chiefly," I replied. "There is also another reason. I could not sleep a wink unless I had at least a glimmering of an idea as to what all this is about."
Then Louis made his appearance and I was relieved to see that he was altogether a changed man. He established himself in his favourite chair and Julie hastened to mix his usual nightly beverage--a concoction of lime juice, tonic water and gin. He glanced at his watch and then at the clock.
"I have ten minutes for explanations," he began. "I think, Captain," he went on, "that I can explain a good deal of what must seem very mysterious to you."
"Go ahead," I begged. "I'm all for it."
"You met the Personage whom I will call Alexander to-night at the ballet, I understand?"
"That is true," I replied. "He came and spoke to us. He spoke of my having joined some club or another."
"You need not take that too seriously," Louis assured me. "Things have changed during the last few hours. As to Alexander, I think I am one of the few people in Europe who really know who he is. He is one of the great ones of the past world. He was Chief of Staff to the Grand Duke Michael and notwithstanding the fact that he was a very young man then he was practically responsible for all the Russian victories against Austria. He is the one remaining aristocrat of the old regime who still possesses ideas and the courage to fight."
"What can he do in these days?"
"He can fight against the one power in the world which he loathes and detests, the power which has ruined and corrupted his country," Louis went on gravely. "Never mind where the money came from--he is enormously wealthy. The whole of his wealth and his great influence--great, although he keeps it all the time underground--is devoted to one purpose, to fighting anarchists and the whole doctrine of communism in its worst phases wherever it springs up. He has already advanced over two millions to help the Spanish rebels. He is the most hated and dreaded man living amongst the Bolshevists of Russia. I tell you now a serious thing. He holds his hand at nothing when he is fighting against the leaders of these people. There is one who has still maintained a European influence. That one Alexander has sentenced to death. He needed the help of a brave man of adventurous spirit and I think, Captain Lyson, that you were the person whom he was going to call to his assistance. Fortunately it has become unnecessary."
"I suppose you mean Trobenitzky?" I asked.
"Heinrich Trobenitzky," Louis agreed, "Sometimes, however, the rats fight it out amongst themselves. The powers in Russia have become afraid of Trobenitzky. They have chased him out of his hiding place. He had plans for going to France but those plans have not matured. He took a risk and landed here with a false passport. He was arrested to-night--Hearnshaw was here--in this place. I have just heard from Hearnshaw that bail was refused."
There was a soft knocking at the outer door and, without waiting for a reply, the man who had introduced himself to us in the foyer of the opera house made his appearance. Louis, leaning heavily upon his stick, rose to his feet and greeted the newcomer with every mark of respect. He motioned me to wheel out an easy chair.
"You will permit me for a moment, sir," he begged, "to offer a few words of explanation?"
It seemed to me that this strange visitor stiffened visibly. He was taller even than Louis and he looked at him as a prince might look at a courtier who had taken a liberty.
"Do I need explanations from you, Louis?" he asked.
"Circumstances have so decreed it, sir," was the respectful reply. "They have also delivered into your hands exactly what you desire--only through a different channel."
Louis paused. Alexander remained grimly and haughtily silent. Louis faced his task gallantly.
"Trobenitzky spends to-night, sir, in an English prison."
This time it was Louis who had scored. His listener, who was wearing a silk-lined cape over his evening clothes, threw it suddenly back as though short of breath. His cold eyes flashed. There was something splendid about his poise, something which seemed to suggest the eagle raising its head to scent the battle from afar.
"Trobenitzky!" he repeated. "In an English prison! Repeat that, Louis."
"It is true, sir," Louis assured him. "For reasons which you will understand better in a moment I have spent the whole of the last few hours upon this affair. Trobenitzky fled in terror from the home which has sheltered him lately dreading the arrival of assassins from Moscow. France is not ready for him. Germany will have nothing to do with him. He landed in England."
"Ah!" Alexander muttered--a long drawn-out syllable.
"They had news of his coming," Louis proceeded. "Just now English statesmen are not looking for trouble of that sort. His passport was out of order. He was arrested to-night in my Grill Room and taken to Bow Street. To some extent it was a technical matter but it was sufficient. When I say that he is spending the night in an English prison it is the truth. He may leave it to-morrow but he will not step outside the cordon which the English police are drawing around him."
"If they knew what I know," Alexander said calmly, "he would hang."
"It is scarcely likely," Louis continued, "that he will leave this country alive. Still--will you hand this to our august visitor, Lyson?"
I took the narrow strip of paper and passed it to Alexander. It was an open cheque signed by Louis for two thousand pounds!
"I wish to point out to you in great respect and humility, sir," Louis went on, "these facts. Captain Lyson, although he has retired from active service, still holds a commission in the British army. He has remained a member of our military Secret Service. He also has liaison connections of which we do not speak with Scotland Yard. It would be the end of his career if he joined your society, sir. He loves adventure. He hates like poison that monster you hate, sir. But--"
Alexander held up his hand.
"I understand," he said.
He looked at the cheque and he glanced across at me.
"Is it true, Captain Lyson," he asked, "what Louis has just told me?"
"It is, sir," I admitted.
He tore the cheque in two.
"A pity," he sighed.
"Trobenitzky will be remanded to-morrow, of course," Louis explained. "He will be granted bail but he will be under police surveillance for the whole of the time he is allowed to remain in England. His campaign in France is already brought to an end."
"And his life on this earth," Alexander said, "will soon follow. ... In the midst of tragedy we blunder into comedy," he concluded, turning towards me with a smile. "Captain Lyson, you will do me the honour of joining my club as an honorary member and I hope you will give me the pleasure of dining one night with Mademoiselle."
"It will give me great pleasure, sir," I replied.
That was the end of it all. The finest-looking man I have ever seen took his leave with a slight comprehensive gesture of farewell. Julie and I dined with him in great splendour a few nights later and the matter of the two thousand-pound notes became the subject of a friendly argument between our host and myself. The matter was decided whilst Julie was engaged in conversation with a very charming lady at the next table to whom we had been presented.
"An idea occurs to me, my friend," Alexander declared. "I will accept your offer to return those notes on one condition. It is this. I have noticed--you will excuse me--some signs of an affectionate understanding between you and the daughter of my old friend Louis?"
"We are great friends certainly," I admitted.
"Very well," he went on. "One can never tell how these things go, of course, and I trust that nothing I say will seem to you in the least presumptuous, but if by any chance I should hear that 'a marriage has been arranged' between you two young people you agree that this money which you have thrust back upon me shall be devoted to a wedding gift?"
Julie was returning to the table so I had to make up my mind quickly.
"I agree. A princely gift it will be if ever the occasion arises," I acknowledged in some embarrassment.
So those two thousand-pound-notes were temporarily returned to the great anti-anarchist war chest of which Alexander holds the key. The dark carnation, however, which he had placed in her hand upon leaving the little flat a few nights before, Julie refused to part with.