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THURLOW and I were lounging in great easy-chairs, smoking a last cigar in one of the smaller tête-à-tête rooms of the Hyacinth Club—Bob Thurlow, of the Guards, to his friends—Lord Robert Algernon Marsh Thurlow to the Society papers and the world in general. He was a good fellow, but a trifle democratic in his tastes.
"I wanted you to stop for a bit, Maurice," he remarked, after a quarter of an hour's silence. "I've something to tell you! Draw in your breath! You'll want it all. It is a piece of news concerning myself that'll astonish you!"
But I had an inkling of it since the morning, so I only nodded.
"Fire away," I said encouragingly. "The whisky is good, and my nerves are tough."
He flicked the ash off his cigar.
"I am going to cut the Army!" he commenced slowly.
"Jolly sensible, too," I muttered <I>sotto voce</I>.
"The fact is I'm broke."
"So am I, very nearly," I observed under my breath.
"I'm stone broke," Bob continued, gathering courage from my undisturbed tranquillity. "The fact is, no fellow with less than five thousand a year can keep his head above water in our regiment. There's the drag, and the mess—beastly expensive mess—and no end of things. My pay is £500, and the Gov'nor allows me another £500. It means starvation."
"For your creditors," I ventured softly.
Bob stroked a fair, silky moustache, and refreshed himself with a long drink from the whisky and Apollinaris by his side.
"Don't be rude," he said. "Of course, it has been rather rough upon my creditors, but their patience is about to be rewarded. I'm preparing a surprise for them."
"You are not going to pay them," I exclaimed.
"I am; that is exactly what I propose to do."
I set down my glass and looked at him. Apparently he was quite sober.
"It isn't matrimony,is it?" I inquired with bated breath.
He shook his head.
"No, that or suicide I have always left for a last resource. I'm gong to be more original than that; I'm going into trade."
"The mischief!" I ejaculated.
"I'm going to join a firm of wine merchants," Bob went on steadily. "It is to be Hobbs, Son, and Thurlow. Richard Hobbs, James Hobbs, and Lord Robert Thurlow, you know, in small, black letters up in the corner. They are paying me a good deal for my name, and, of course, I shall draw a salary. I have sent in my papers, and I am going to pay up and make a fresh start, There!"
I held out my hand, which Bob grasped warmly. He appeared both relieved and gratified that I approved of his action. He, doubtless, forgot that I, too, was one of his creditors.
"Good, old man," I said. "You stick to it. Depend upon it, it's a jolly good thing to have something to do. Keeps you out of no end of mischief. I only wish that I had been brought up to a sensible profession."
I sighed meditatively. We had been brothers in arms until an unexpected accession to the family estates had brought about my early retirement. But the prospect before me was by no means cheerful. I was expected to become a politician, and politics in a general way did not interest me.
"The Army is certainly Tommy-rot when there is no service going," Bob remarked.
"But aren't they all as bad?"
"What should you call a sensible profession?"
I threw away my cigar, and leaned against the chimney-piece.
"I should have liked to have been a detective," I said quietly.
Bob looked at me open-mouthed. He was evidently incredulous.
"Don't talk nonsense, Maurice," he exclaimed.
"It is not nonsense," I answered, deliberately. "I can assure you that I am in sober earnest. First of all, let me tell you this - that all your preconceived notions as to the ethics of espionage are utterly wrong. There is nothing sneaking or underhand about it. That, to begin with, is a vulgar error. On the contrary, it is a magnificent profession, or, rather, I should call it a science. There is no pursuit in the world which requires such delicate tact, such fine insight into human nature, such self-control, and such courage. Furthermore, it needs ingenuity, invention, and originality. Now, ask yourself seriously how can a career which makes such demands upon us be a degrading one to follow? It is an absurd prejudice. To be a perfect detective one must be an artist. The lights and shadows of human nature must become a close and constant study. Detecting, as a science is only in its infancy, and the reason is obvious. It is because, up to now, it has only been followed by men of inferior calibre. It should be lifted to a place amongst the fine arts. If I were free to follow my own bent, that should be my mission!"
"Maurice, are you serious? You're such an odd chap, I never know whether you're chaffing or not."
"I never was more serious in my life!" I answered. "If I were not the Earl of Wendover, and had the family name and position hanging round my neck like a millstone, I should be Mr. Wendover, of Chelsea, or the Strand, 'Private Detective.' And let me tell you this," I continued, lighting a cigarette, "I should not be ashamed of it—not one little bit. Of course, when I use the word detecting, I mean the detecting of crime, not the parasitical work of the Private Agent and such gentry. I mean the lightening of the burden from the shoulders of the innocent, and fastening it on the shoulders of the guilty. That is the work no man need be ashamed of. I wish I had the chance—"
The cigarette dropped from my fingers, and lay smoking on the floor. Only a few minutes before I could have sworn that we were alone in the room. But some time or other during our conversation the man who stood before us must have made his noiseless entrance. No wonder that we were startled. The electric light had burned low, and the room was full of shadows. Standing amongst them with his fiercely bright eyes fixed upon us was a man, whose features, in those few moments of half-alarmed surprise, were only vaguely familiar to us. His face was the face of a boy, smooth and beardless, but its intense pallor and the black lines underneath his bloodshot eyes had transfigured him.
His evening clothes were all awry, his white tie had slipped up behind his ear, and the flower in his coat was crushed into a shapeless pulp, his shirt was crumpled, and his clothes were splashed with mud. He stood, a grim, dramatic figure, only a few yards away from our touch, glaring at us like a wild animal face to face with its captors. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked for thirty seconds, and still our lips were sealed. Then Bob rose from his chair, and gasped out his name.
"By God, it's Reggie!" he cried. "What—what, in the name of all that is horrible, is the matter, boy? Are you ill?"
He tottered rather than walked towards us, and stood still, with shaking hands resting upon the little table. He looked first at Bob and then at me, but when he opened his mouth to speak no words came—only a dry, harsh rattle from the back of his throat. He was like a man whom torture had driven to the furthermost bounds of insanity.
I caught up my half-filled tumbler of whisky and Apollinaris, and forced some down his throat. He drank it with a little gasp. I helped him into a chair, and drew it up to the fire. He was still shaking all over, but his appearance was more natural.
"You look a different man now!" I said, quietly. "What's wrong? Tell us all about it. I thought you were thousands of miles away. Are you home on leave?"
He did not answer. Bob came over, and laid his hand heavily upon his shoulder.
"Have you been drinking, Reggie?" he cried. "What the devil is the matter with you, man? Brace up, and tell us, can't you?"
Still there was no answer. The burning light died out of his bloodshot eyes. He sank back wearily in his chair, and without speech. He appeared to be utterly exhausted by excitement and intense nervous strain. Bob and I looked at one another in dismay. It was hard to believe that this was the Honourable Reginald Thurlow, one of the smartest and most debonair of our young foreign attachés.
Bob stood over him with his arm round his neck.
"Reggie, old chap, pull yourself together!" he said kindly. "Make a clean breast of it. Is it anything wrong at headquarters—a row with the chief, eh? Maurice and I will stand by you. You know that! Come! out with it!"
Reggie looked up at us with white face and trembling lips. He caught hold of his brother's hand, and held it.
"Close the door, Maurice!"
I went and closed it. He followed me with his eyes, and then looked searchingly around the room. I began to fear that the boy's brain had given way.
When he spoke again it was to me he turned, and not to his brother.
"Maurice," he faltered, "I was in the room just now—I heard what you said about detecting. You were in earnest. I could tell that! I want a detective—at once—to-night but I dare not go to the police! I dare not trust anyone! Will you help me? For God's sake, don't say no!"
"Of course, I will help you!" I answered, readily. "Tell me all about it!"
"All about it!" He shuddered. "No, I can't do that now!"
"Something has happened at headquarters?" I suggested.
"Yes! I have been robbed. There was a burglary at the Embassy, and I was robbed of some papers."
A light commenced to break in upon me.
"State papers, I suppose?"
He shook his head with a groan. "Worse than that!"
The light faded away. I was more puzzled than ever.
"Worse than State papers?" I repeated vaguely.
He looked all round the room again. His voice sank to a whisper. He took hold of our hands and drew us to him. I felt his finger- nails burning in my flesh.
"Swear, both of you, you Maurice, and you Bob, upon your honour, your sacred honour, that what I am going to tell you shall never pass your lips—that you will lock it down—deep down—in your memories! Swear!
"Honour, Reggie!" said Bob, softly.
"Honour, Reggie!" I echoed.
His voice sank to a husky whisper. His eyes were afire.
"They were the letters—of a woman—whom I loved—who loved me!"
"A woman!" Bob exclaimed, with visible relief in his tone. Why, Reggie—"
Reggie held out his hand.
"You do not understand! Those letters were mine! They have been stolen from me! It is a plot of her enemies! They were written by a woman who cared for me; they were written impetuously without prudence, signed with her name! I told her that they were destroyed. I lied, for I kept some of them. I could not bear to part with them all! They were precious to me! If I do not get them back at once, I shall blow out my brains! But, God help her! God help her!"
"Have you any idea where they are gone?" I asked. "You have come to England. Do you think that they have been brought here?"
"She has enemies!" he muttered. "My servants must have been in their pay. It must have been he, and he has come to England. I followed, but I cannot find him—I cannot find him!"
"Are they very bad?" I asked; "or are they only indiscreet?"
"They are more than compromising!" he gasped. "But it is not that they are so bad, it is—who she is!"
We were all silent. Reggie's face was ashen. Bob and I looked helplessly at one another.
"If I am to be any use to you, Reggie," I said, "I must know - her name!"
He half rose from his chair, clutching at the arms. His voice was hysterical.
"It is a little packet!" he cried, with a sob. "There are only four letters and a ring! But with them goes the honour of a Queen!"
AT first the same thought flashed into the mind of both of us. We looked at one another questioningly. There could be no doubt about it. The boy was mad.
"This is too serious a matter to be discussing in a club, even with closed doors!" I said, gently. "Come home with me, and let us talk it over. My carriage is waiting. We shall be there in a few minutes!"
He obeyed without hesitation. We drove swiftly through the grey, dawn-lit streets, towards my house in Bruton Street, and, as I leaned back amongst the cushions, gazing with half-closed eyes at Reggie's wan face, a sudden memory rose up before me. I thought of a long visit of his years ago to the capital where he was now attaché, and of certain half-jesting allusions to the beauty of a certain Princess, which Reggie had taken very ill, indeed. There had been a paragraph in a certain Society paper, scandalous, but vague—somebody had shown it to him, and Reggie's language had been awful to listen to. These things came back to me, and dimly suggested others. For years, English society had seen very little of Reggie. His vacations were mostly spent at the capital to which he had taken special pains to be appointed at his entry into diplomatic life. With contemporary history, I was sufficiently well acquainted to know the Princess had become a Queen. Conviction came to me with a rush. He had spoken truth. I felt the perspiration stand out in beads upon my forehead as I recognised his terrible dilemma.
The carriage drew up with a jerk at my door, and, taking Reggie's arm, I hurried him upstairs into a little sitting-room, leading out of my dressing-room. First of all, I made him sponge his face. Then I rang for some sandwiches, and opened a bottle of champagne. He ate them and drank two glasses of wine, one after the other. A faint colour came into his cheeks.
"Reggie," I said, dragging up a chair, and sitting opposite to him. "I want the whole story, please! If I am to be any use to you, I must hear it all! Out with it!"
He began at once.
"It is a packet of letters and a ring which have been stolen from my room. They were kept—"
I held out my hand.
"Reggie, forgive me, but I must know! Were they written before her marriage or after?"
"All, save one, before. I have had some letters since—a few—on my promise that I would destroy them as they came. I kept that promise faithfully until last week. Then I was horribly tempted! I could not see her for several days. A letter came! I was foolish, but the letter meant so much to me!" he groaned. "I kept it for an hour or two, meaning to destroy it at night. It was stolen with the others!"
Bob and I were almost as white as Reggie. The situation was, indeed, horrible.
"Give me full particulars of the theft, Reggie," I said.
"I kept the packet in a safe, let into the wall of my room, and fastened with a cipher Bramah key, exactly the same as the Chief has for the treaty-safe. The letter I speak about I received on Sunday morning. I had it with me all day. At eight o'clock I went out to dine. I left the letter with my other packet in my safe. The key never leaves my person. I have a hollow gold band around my arm, and the key fits in it. When I came home everything was as usual. I opened my safe, meaning to read the letter over, and then destroy it. It was gone, and with it a packet and a ring. I rang a bell. There was no answer. I rushed through the Embassy, shouting for Shalders, like a maniac. He was my servant. No one knew anything about him. At last I heard news. He had been seen to leave the house soon after me, carrying a bag. He left for England by the nine o'clock train. I traced him early to London. At Charing Cross he disappeared. All day long, since early daylight, I have hung about the streets, in and out of public-houses, ransacking every mortal place I have heard him speak of. All in vain! He has vanished! I cannot find him! God help me!"
"That key never left your person! How do you suppose that Shalders opened your safe?" I asked.
"I cannot imagine. All I know is that it was done with a key, and the only other one made has never been out of the Chief's possession, or at any rate out of the Secretary's room. Sir Henry assured me that. How he could have opened the safe, and how he could have guessed the cipher. I do not know. It makes my brain whirl to think about it."
"How long has Shalders been with you? Has he been a good servant?"
"He has been with me for years. I should have trusted him with my life."
"Where were your rooms at the Embassy?"
"On the third floor."
"Anybody else near you?"
"Sir Henry's private secretaries, Dick Colquhoun and a fellow named Harris."
Dick was an old schoolfellow. I passed him by without a thought.
"Harris," I repeated thoughtfully. "Isn't he a connection of the Foreign Secretary's?"
Reggie nodded. "Nephew."
"Were you on friendly terms with him?"
"Not particularly," Reggie answered. "He was not a sociable fellow. He was away on a week's leave, shooting somewhere."
"When was he expected back?" I asked.
"The day I left."
"None else on your floor?"
"Not a soul."
"You had no difficulty in tracing Shalders to London?" I remarked.
"He did not seem to make any attempt to conceal his destination?"
"One question more, Reggie. Have you warned her?"
He covered his face with his hands and groaned.
"Is she taking any steps?"
"She has interest with the secret police. They are tracing Shalders."
"Can you communicate with her?" I asked.
"Indirectly, yes. I have had three telegrams from her to-day."
"Sit down and write her a telegram."
He obeyed without a word. I placed pen and ink and forms before him.
"Say: 'Is Harris at Embassy?'"
Reggie thought for a moment, turned it into a cipher, and wrote it slowly out. I rang the bell which communicated with the stables and ordered a carriage.
"Go and despatch that yourself, Reggie, and see whether there is any message for you," I directed.
He rose wearily.
"I don't see any object in sending this," he protested. "It is ridiculous to think of Harris in connection with it. He wasn't even there. Shalders took the letters. There is no doubt about that. What I want to do," he concluded, with a little feverish burst, "What I want to do is, to find Shalders."
"Send it, anyway," I answered, "and if you think it is any good, wait for a reply. I suppose your third party will be all right?"
He left the room. Bob and I were alone.
"You think he is in his right mind?" Bob said.
"I am sure of it," I answered gravely. "Have you seen the evening paper?"
Bob turned away to the window. He was fond of his younger brother, and his eyes were dim. He answered me rudely.
"Damn the evening paper."
"By all means," I answered, tapping him on the shoulder, "but read this first."
He shrank back as if he had received a blow.
Not—not yet," he cried. "Not yet, surely."
I handed him <I>The Globe</I>, which I had brought away from the club in my pocket. He snatched it from me eagerly. The paragraph to which I pointed was headed:—
MYSTERIOUS MURDER IN SOHO
Early this morning the body of a man was discovered in a bedroom of No. 19, Francis Street, Soho, under circumstances which are fully described in another column. He had apparently been stabbed in the heart several times with a fine-pointed dagger, which was found by the police in another part of the chamber. The circumstances leave no room for doubt that a murder of the utmost brutality has been committed. The statement of the landlady given to our reporter is as follows:—
About half-past three on Tuesday afternoon, a lady, described as elegantly dressed, and very handsome, speaking with a strong foreign accent, called at No. 19, Francis Street. She engaged the best rooms in the house, which had only been vacated that morning, for her husband and herself, and took possession of them at once, paying a week's rent in advance. Her luggage consisted of one small trunk only. At seven o'clock she changed her dress, and sent for a cab which she ordered to drive her to the Savoy Restaurant. Before leaving she asked for a latch-key, remarking that she might not be home till quite late. About one o'clock she was heard to let herself in, and the footsteps of two men were noticed upon the stairs with her. One of them, however, said good-night on the first landing, and, after a short conversation which seemed to be carried on in a friendly and even in a jovial spirit, he descended the stairs again, and the front-door was heard to open and shut. The presumption is, however, that the woman was a decoy, and that the murder was committed by this man, who remained concealed in the house. The pockets of the murdered man were rifled, but a good deal of loose money was still lying about. Nothing that could lead to his identification was found upon his person, but from a card and other documents discovered in his overcoat pocket it appears that his name was Frederick Shalders, and that he was a valet, either in the present or recent employ of Lord Reginald Thurlow.
Bob read no more. He was trembling with excitement.
"It was Shalders!" he cried. "He was murdered for the letters."
"Doubtless!" I answered. "But by whom, and what was more important, had he parted with them, or were they still in his possession? Supposing that he met this woman at the Savoy at eight o'clock, he would still have been in London long enough to have accomplished the purpose of his journey. I wonder—"
I commenced to drum upon the window pane. Bob looked at me in surprise.
"You are thinking of something else!" he exclaimed, quickly. "What is it?"
I recalled my wandering thoughts.
"I am afraid that this Soho murder will not help us very much!" I said "Let us wait until Reggie comes. He may have some news!"
Almost as I spoke, my horses turned into the north end of Bruton Street and drew up below. Reggie came up the stairs three at a time. He closed the door behind him, and held out two telegrams. His expression was one of blank bewilderment.
"Listen to this!" he cried, holding out one of the telegrams before him. "It has just come!"
Your servant, Shalders, discovered in attic at Embassy, gagged and chloroformed, Was attacked in your room on Sunday evening. Cannot identify assailant. Very weak and exhausted, but will probably recover.
Reggie looked piteously at me, holding one hand to his forehead.
"What, in God's name, does it mean?" he cried.
"Read the other telegram," I answered.
He held it out.
"There is nothing in it!" he declared. "It is only about Harris! D-n Harris!"
"There have been wishes," I murmured, softly, "whose accomplishment has been more distant. Reggie, it is six o'clock. We are all going to bed for three hours. Until nine o'clock I will not hear another word about this matter!"
"But, Maurice, how can I sleep?" Reggie protested. But I refused to listen. I bundled them both off.
AT nine o'clock punctually, we three sat down to breakfast. Reggie, who had sent to his hotel for some morning clothes, was quieter and more composed. But we were both shocked to see in the clearer daylight how ghastly a change the anxiety of the last few days had wrought in him. His eyes were set in deep hollows, his cheeks were thin and haggard. However it might end, he would carry these marks of agony to the grave. He made a pretence of eating, but all the time his eyes kept following me. After I was satisfied that he had eaten a little, I set him in an easy chair, and made him light a cigar. Then I placed <I>The Globe</I> in his hand.
"Read that carefully, Reggie!" I said, "and tell me what you think of it!"
He read it with a sort of fierce joy, mingled with amazement. His eyes glittered with an unnatural light. I saw that action of some sort was absolutely necessary for him. He was on the verge of madness.
"Very good! Very good!" he exclaimed. "It is the man who robbed me whom they have killed! Very good! Fancy our own secret service being equal to an emergency like that. Dead, is he? I am glad!"
"Reggie, this means work for you!" I said. "If it is not Shalders, we must know who it is who robbed you, and who has paid the penalty."
He sprang up at once.
"I am ready," he cried. "What shall I do?"
"Go to the Soho Police Station, give your card, and ask to be allowed to identify your servant. If it is Shalders, and your telegram is wrong—well and good—say so! If it is not, be very careful that you show no surprise!"
In five minutes he had left the house. In half-an-hour he was back again. I spent the interval smoking a pipe and reading certain numbers of <I>The Times</I> which Bob sorted out for me.
He came in trembling all over. He looked at me almost with awe.
"I believe you knew," he cried; "you knew who it was!"
I nodded. "It was Harris, I suppose?"
Reggie sank into a chair.
"Yes! it was—Harris!" he said, with a little shudder. "Do you suppose that it was he whom I followed to England? Who stole the letter?"
"Not the least doubt about it!" I answered. "The shooting party was a myth! He came back either with, or without, an accomplice, opened the safe with the Embassy keys, or with a false one, which he could easily have made. He gagged and chloroformed your servant Shalders, and, when he was helpless, got him somehow up into the attic. Then he started for England, giving the name of Shalders to put you off the scent. He was followed by the secret police you spoke of, and the woman with whom he dined at the Savoy, and who took him to her rooms in the Soho, was a decoy in their pay. We know that such things exist even in these days, although we seldom come in touch with them. Now comes the question which is all important to us. Had he your packet in his possession when he was murdered? If he had, you may depend upon it the letters are now on their way back to—to the writer. If he had not, where are they—into whose hands have they fallen? We must know this at once! Do you think that he intended to hold them for blackmail?"
Reggie shook his head.
"He would not dare! The risk would be too great!"
"Neither do I think so! Frankly, Reggie, if Harris has parted with those letters, matters are in a very critical state. Unless we can recover them within the next twenty-four hours. I am afraid that we must give up all hope! There is just one chance, and I am going to follow it out. I want you to describe to me the packet, as carefully as you can."
"It is about eight inches square," Reggie said. "Quite thin, and is tied up with white ribbon. The packet itself is of Japanese white silk, stained a good deal with violets. It was a fancy of mine. I used to keep it smothered with Parma violets. The loose letter was just folded up and slipped underneath the ribbon. The ring is inside, up in the left-hand corner."
"Thanks, that will do. Now, go and telegraph at once. There is just a chance, you know,that the package was recovered with Harris. I am afraid it is a very slender chance, but, at any rate, I should find out. Don't try and find me until one o'clock. I shall be either here or in the Park riding, by that time. If I am in the Park, and you come there, don't speak to me if I am with anyone. Better perhaps, not to notice me at all. I shall be able to tell by your faces which way the news is. You go, too, Bob. Come back here and wait afterwards. I shall be doing my best, and don't despair, Reggie."
It was half-past ten when they left me I had a bath and a pipe, and at twelve o'clock ordered my horse round. Soon afterwards I was riding slowly down the Row. I met a good many people whom I knew, but avoided them all, or exchanged the barest of greetings. I was there for a special purpose, and as time went on I began to grow anxious, and looked at my watch repeatedly. Just as I was turning at the corner, however, I came face to face with two girls, riding slowly, and followed by a groom. The elder one, a dark, moderately handsome girl, but without any special distinction, bowed to me graciously, and to her evident surprise I reined in my horse beside hers.
"Good morning, Miss Ogden," I exclaimed. "I was beginning to think that you had given up your morning rides. You were not here yesterday, were you?"
"Yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that," she laughed. "There are so many people, and you seem to know them all. You can't expect to see everyone, can you? You were riding with the Countess of Appleby yesterday. I think that if I were a man, and riding with the Countess of Appleby, I should not see anyone else. She is very beautiful, is she not?"
"She is my cousin, so I am scarcely a fair judge," I remarked, tuning my horse. "May I come with you a little way?"
They were surprised, but frankly acquiescent. I had the advantage of belonging to a set of which they were not members, and which had the reputation of being at once smart and particularly exclusive. My offer, therefore, especially as my acquaintance with them was of the slightest, was surprising, but obviously welcome. Miss Ogden did not hesitate to admit their somewhat doubtful social position.
"It is quite interesting for us to be with someone who knows everybody," she remarked. "You see this is only our second season, and until last year papa never had a house in town. I suppose that is one reason why we know so few people outside the political set. Politicians may be useful creatures, but they are not amusing."
I laughed softly. Sir James Ogden was a politician, who had worked his way up from the ranks. He had been a provincial manufacturer, Mayor of his city three times, and knighted for a liberal entertainment of Royalty. He had gone into Parliament, and, with the aid of a fluent tongue and a large business capacity, had worked his way into office. His methods were not altogether to the liking of his Party, and he was yet, to a certain extent, unproven. But, on the whole, his success had been remarkable. Unfortunately, he had married early in life, and his social prospects were handicapped by a good-natured, but uneducated, spouse.
It was easy, therefore, to understand the somewhat anomalous position in which his daughters naturally found themselves.
I rode slowly down between the two girls, receiving a good many surprised salutations, and doing my best to make myself agreeable, a task which, under the circumstances, was not difficult. They fully expected, as I could see, that I should be leaving them in a minute or two, but I did nothing of the sort. I answered my cousin's imperious little movement of her whip with a bland smile and an indifferent wave of my hat, thereby offending her grievously, and remained with them until the people began to thin off. Then, as we were riding slowly and talking under the trees, a stout, red-faced old lady rose up from a chair and waved to us. Miss Ogden's cheek flushed, but she reined in her horse.
"It is my mother!" she remarked, with a distinct note of regret in her tone. "I quite forgot she was looking out for us! I suppose we must go to her!"
"By all means!" I answered. "By-the-bye, I have not the pleasure of knowing Lady Ogden. Won't you present me?"
"With pleasure!" she answered, readily. "Come, Cissy!"
We rode up to the railings, and I was formally introduced. If I was something of a snob that morning—well, it was for my friend's sake. It was a matter of life or death. The means were there, and I used them. It happened that I was a somewhat prominent member of a set to which they were exceedingly anxious to belong, and, in short, I traded upon it. When we rode off together, I was engaged to lunch with them, and there was a very becoming sparkle in Miss Ogden's bright eyes. Near Hyde Park Corner we came face to face with Reggie and Bob. A single glance into their faces told me that the news was bad. I rode on, heedless of Reggie's reproachful glance as he heard me talking and laughing to the two girls. I could feel that he and Bob were looking after me in amazement, but I did not even glance over my shoulder. Lady Ogden's carriage was close behind, and it did not suit me just then to know anything of the Honourable Reggie Thurlow.
At luncheon, we were joined by Sir James Ogden, with whom I had already some slight acquaintance. He was a shrewd and keen business man, who, having made a large fortune, had entered Parliament whilst comparatively a young man, and had devoted his undoubted mercantile talents to State affairs. An immense capacity for work, and a fine knowledge of the rudiments of intrigue had helped him on to political success, and in the present Administration he had a somewhat important post. At luncheon, however, I avoided politics altogether, although we were of the same Party, and talked entirely for the benefit of Lady Ogden and her daughters. I promised them cards for certain forthcoming local events (my promise by the bye was kept), and I was able to tell them a good deal that was interesting about the life which was going on around them.
Sir James listened with a somewhat forced air of interest, but, on the whole, I could see that my presence also gratified him. I have never quite forgiven myself for that morning, but at least I have done all that was possible to atone for it. The present social position of Lady Ogden and her daughters is largely owing to my efforts, and if Miss Louise looks at me a little reproachfully when I fail for several mornings to ride over and speak to her in the Park, at least she is frankly grateful for some of the services I have rendered them. Still, I fancy that none of them—except Sir James, who will keep his own counsel—quite understand that morning.
After luncheon—it was protracted as long as possible—Sir James proposed a cigar and a cup of coffee in his room. I took my leave of the ladies, and followed him into the library.
"I have just one hour which I can call my own!" he remarked, wheeling out an easy chair for me. "To me it is always the most pleasant of the day! I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy my luncheon and a smoke afterwards!"
A servant brought liqueurs and coffee, and Sir James produced some cigars. I helped myself, and whilst I sipped my coffee looked around the room curiously. On the table was a black despatch box. Whilst I was lighting my cigar Sir James unlocked it and glanced inside. The match went out in my fingers, and my heart gave a quick beat. I was right, then! A strong perfume of violets floated out from the box into the room.
WITHOUT being in any sense of the word a politician, I had made several speeches in the House of Lords, upon subjects interesting to me, which had been listened to with attention, and one of which had provoked a considerable discussion. Sir James and I being of the same Party, there was no reason, therefore, why politics should be tabooed between us. A chance remark from Sir James paved the way. As carefully as possible I led the conversation up to the subject of our relations with a certain Power.
"If I were a genuine politician," I remarked, "that is to say, if I possessed the requisite ability to become one, I should be interested more than anything in foreign affairs. Diplomacy is by far the most fascinating branch of politics. I was interested by what I heard the other day—you can guess where—about a treaty with the Power in question. There are some peculiar complications, are there not?"
"There have been some very peculiar complications!" Sir James remarked, smoking his cigar with evident relish, and gazing with a faint smile upon his lips into the depths of the open despatch box by his side.
"Well, it's a pity," I remarked. "The advantages of the treaty to us are very obvious just now! Is it permitted to ask you—unofficially—whether the difficulties are insuperable?"
Sir James removed his cigar from his mouth. He leaned a little forward. I could see that he was about to become confidential.
"The whole history of our negotiations will never become really known!" he said. "The fact is, a certain Royal personage—not his Majesty—was very much opposed to the signing of the treaty. All along, we have had to contend with a strong antagonism from—I do not know why I should conceal it from you—from the Queen! Her influence, as you may be aware, is great, and while it remains so our relations are liable, at any moment, to become strained. It is one of the things that we have always had to contend with, of which the public know nothing at all, and for which, of course, make no allowances!"
"The public are hard taskmasters!" I remarked. "By-the-bye, you used the past tense. Is there any chance, do you think, of getting the treaty signed, in the face of such opposition?"
There was a slightly triumphant smile on Sir James's lips as he glanced into the depths of the despatch-box. It was standing at his elbow, and he had been carelessly playing with the lid. The perfume of violets, faint and sweet, seemed to be filling the room.
"The treaty will be signed within a fortnight!" he said, quietly. "I do not think that we shall ever have any trouble again in that quarter. Of course, you will understand that I do not wish this to go any further at present, but I may say that means have come into our hands which will put a summary end, now and for ever, to the opposition I spoke of. I cannot say more, even to you, at present, but the whole affair will be public property before long!"
I leaned back in my chair, and nerved myself for what was to Come.
"I trust not!" I said, slowly.
Sir James let fall the lid of his despatch-box with a bang, and looked up at me in amazement.
"I beg your pardon!" he said. "I do not quite understand!"
"I repeat, that I trust not!" I said. "The means to which you allude"—I looked hard into the despatch-box—"are means of which no use must be made!"
Sir James drew a bunch of keys from his pocket, and calmly double-locked the despatch-box. Then he rose to his feet and turned a frowning face upon me.
"I am utterly at a loss to understand you, Lord Wendover!" he said, coldly. "Be so good as to explain yourself."
"I am here to do so!" I answered firmly. "I am here for no other purpose. The means to which you allude are these! You have obtained possession of compromising letters, written by a certain personage to my friend, Reginald Thurlow. Those letters made public would be the ruin of any woman—even a Queen! You propose to make them public—and to ruin her! It is very simple. You are a patriot, and you would rise another step in the estimation of your country upon the wreck of a woman's reputation."
There was a bright light in Sir James's grey eyes. The lines on his face had contracted and hardened. He remained cool, but he was desperately angry.
"Diplomacy might sanction such use in such a case, if the letters had come into your hands by other means, Sir James," I continued. "They were brought to you the day before yesterday by a young man named Harris, a distant connection of your own, and one of the Embassy secretaries at the capital in question. Now, I know you to be an honest as well as a shrewd politician, Sir James, and I am perfectly sure that you have been misled as to how those letters came into Harris' possession!"
"He found—never mind! I will hear what you have to say, my Lord, first."
"He doubtless assured you that he found them! He did not. His zeal in your service led him further than that. He, or an accomplice, chloroformed and gagged Reginald Thurlow's servant, and abstracted the letters from his private safe, opened with the Embassy keys. In other words, he committed a gross and criminal burglary! It is in your interests I bring the information, Sir James. I think you will admit that such methods are going a little too far!"
Sir James resumed his seat. His hard worn face was puckered up with thought. He was silent for a moment or two. I could see that I was correct in my supposition. What I had just revealed was news to him. Harris' story had been a very different one.
"My nephew's conduct was indiscreet and exceedingly ill-advised," he said, looking up at last. "If necessary he must answer for it. I cannot shield him, nor should I attempt to do so. At the same time, the violence that was offered was within the walls of our own Embassy. That is the crux of the matter. I admit that the means were deplorable, but the end that has been gained is great. I am sorry for your friend, Lord Wendover, at whose instigation I suppose you are here. But in the face of the great national gain, the welfare of individuals must go to the wall. I shall hold to my course"
"Mr. Thurlow has many powerful friends," I reminded him. "They will not let the matter drop. The story will get about. Our methods will be decried by the whole civilised world. You must admit that the letters were stolen. With this knowledge, shall you dare to use them?"
"I am ignorant of the fact that they were stolen," he answered, very coolly. "I have no cognizance of it. It is not necessary. The letters are here. As an officer of the State, I owe no one any explanation as to how they reached me. It belongs to the Secret Service department. I have not investigated or acknowledged any theft. I hold the letters for my purpose—and you will pardon my adding, that I have no more to say to you, Lord Wendover."
He laid his hand upon the bell, but I checked him.
"Then, prepare yourself for a further shock, Sir James!" I said. "Last night your nephew paid the penalty for his over-zealousness. He was murdered in a Soho lodging-house!"
Sir James sank into a chair, pale to the lips. I took <I>The Globe</I> from my pocket, and showed it to him.
"There is a full account of the murder," I said. "I am very sorry to shock you, Sir James, but—"
"The name is Shalders!" he exclaimed, suddenly. "I read this last night! It has nothing to do with Bert!"
"It has everything to do with him!" I answered, gravely. "I suspected that the name was a false one. Mr. Thurlow has been to Soho police station this morning, and identified the body. There is no room for any doubt in the matter!"
"My God!" he murmured to himself, "My God!"
"Your nephew had laid his plans well!" I continued. "He took the name of Shalders when he left for England, and he intended to keep his visit here a profound secret. He had a fortnight's leave from his chief, and was supposed to be absent on a shooting expedition!"
Sir James rose to his feet. He had regained his composure, but he was evidently shaken.
"You have those letters, Sir James," I continued. "Good! Now ask yourself what they have cost you! First of all, a burglary with violence—then a life! The life of your own nephew! If they had been quietly stolen, and the thief was unknown, I admit that you might have used them safely. As it is, I warn you that to use them is to terminate, once and for ever, your career as a politician. We do not live in the days of Richelieu and his school. Such methods as have been used in this matter will never be tolerated by our own country or international opinion!"
"It is impossible to connect me in any way with my nephew's blunder!" he answered. "I was not even the instigator. The letters were placed in my hands. Of this history I am completely ignorant. I shall not give them up!"
"Very well, Sir James," I declared, "your refusal leaves me but one alternative. I have an audience with the Premier at four o'clock. It is now ten minutes to. I shall go to him, tell him all I know, and get him to wire orders that the seals which I have had placed on your nephew's belongings are not disturbed until a special envoy has been through his correspondence. You may not have been his instigator. That is to be proved. In any case, Sir James, your resignation will be demanded within the next twenty-four hours!"
Sir James walked to the window and came back again. Slowly he drew from his pocket a bunch of keys, and unlocked the despatch-box. With the little packet in his hand he lingered for a moment as though even now loth to part with it. Then, with a slight bow, he handed it to me across the table, and the perfume of crushed violets had never seemed so sweet to me!
"You are quite right, Lord Wendover!" he said, drily. "My position is untenable. Present these letters to your friend with my most profound apologies, for the manner in which they came into my hands. You can understand the reluctance with which I part with them, but I would like to assure you of this. I simply advised poor Harris, from time to time, that any means of weakening the Queen's influence would be grateful to me, and would tend to his own advancement. Such means as he adopted were utterly unsanctioned by me. The limit of my instigation I have told you. In justice to myself, I desire to make it clear! Permit me to ring for your carriage!"
We parted without formal leave-taking. I drove rapidly home, and, mounting the stairs, found Reggie and Bob waiting for me. Without a word, I held out the packet. Even now, I sometimes fancy that I can hear the echoes of Reggie's hysterical cry.
Together we watched the flames consume it. Over the ashes we clasped hands.
"It is over, Reggie!" I said. "Promise?"
"On my honour," he sobbed, while scribbling on a telegraph form.
And I believe that he kept his word.
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