Although no definitive bibliographic record of publication in a periodical could be found, it is assumed, on the basis of information in the Foreword, that the stories in this collection originally appeared in The Piccadilly Magazine. This weekly, which began publishing in London in April 1929, initially under the editorship of A. Spenser Alberry, is described at the "Galactic Central" web site as:
"[A] glossy society paper full of photographs of the rich and the famous and the inevitable débutantes' page. It ran mostly chatty gossip columns, but also ran a few stories, plus an interesting column by T. Stanhope Sprigg."
It was not possible to ascertain when it published the stories collected in And Still I Cheat the Gallows.
RGL presents And Still I Cheat the Gallows to its readers courtesy of Gary Meller, Florida, who scanned his personal print copy of the book and donated the files used to produce this e-book
THE four men, shaken from the dignified composure of their day-by-day life, too nervous even to remain seated, were grouped together at the end of the long table in the board-room of the famous publishing house. Henderson, the general manager, a dour Scotsman, cautious, but a man of brains, was the first to speak.
"I would take a chance," he declared, banging the table with his fist, "I would publish the man's stuff just as you have read it to us, Steele. I wouldna' hesitate the fraction of a second, even if it were the devil himself who had dropped the manuscripts down on our counter. Wrong he may have done, and that he admits, but he is repentant and that is the great thing, after all."
Fairfax, sandy-haired, youthful, with an almost uncanny reputation for recognising with unerring judgment exactly what the world of fiction-readers demanded, screwed up his eyes. He was a big man with an unexpectedly gentle voice.
"We should be mad, Steele, if we let that stuff go," he pronounced. "The style may be rotten, the stories may sound commonplace, but, my God, the man who tells them has been through it! They get you just in the place we want to get our readers."
"What do you say, sir?" Steele, the editor-in-chief of the world-renowned magazine, asked Sir James Brusson, the chairman of the board.
Sir James, portly, dignified, genial, a man of presence and very nearly a peer, hesitated for several moments.
"I should like, Steele," he said, "to have you read again the message which accompanied these stories."
Steele took up the square sheet of notepaper which had already been passed round to each member of the little assembly and read the typewritten words slowly and distinctly. There was no address—only the date:
"The accompanying manuscripts are for publication in the 'Piccadilly Magazine,' if the editor should find them suitable. It has occurred to the sender that readers of modern magazines must be weary of the cut-and-dried detective story of the present day, in which the Scotland Yard man or the amateur sleuth is inevitably successful.
"These stories are criminal records written from a different angle. They are a true account of ten events in the life of one who here makes sorrowful and ashamed confession that he has devoted his career to crime and has never yet had his finger-prints taken, or entered a police court. In the ten stories, you will find the solution of at least two undiscovered murders and the truth about four of the most famous jewel robberies of recent days.
"I, the narrator, am leading at the present moment a life seemly and dignified in the eyes of all my acquaintances and neighbours. I am truly repentant. I am rapidly earning the reputation of being a good citizen, interested in good works and charitable to the full extent of my means. I continue to be, as I always was, a model husband and an excellent father to my children. I am aware that I run a certain risk in addressing you. You will probably give Scotland Yard an opportunity of studying the finger-prints upon this parcel, the string with which it was secured, the paper itself and the typing. Do so, by all means. My career of crime is ended and with that ingenuity which sometimes I am inclined to bitterly regret, I have destroyed completely every shred of evidence which could connect me with my past misdemeanours.
"The matter or payment presents no difficulty. Wherever it has been possible to do so safely, I have repaid the victims of my various exploits to the last farthing. To do so has cost me a large fortune but it has brought me peace of mind and it has cleared my conscience. Provided you use the stories, I shall ask that great philanthropist who presides over your destinies to select the hospital in London which he considers to be the most deserving and the most in need, and to pay over to them the full amount of their indebtedness to me.
"In case you decide not to publish the stories, kindly destroy the manus class="typewriter"cripts. You will understand the reason for my adopting a pseudonym and I shall sign myself simply
Sir James stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"This appears to me," he observed, "to be a queer position for the editor and proprietors of a famous periodical to find themselves in, but so far as I am concerned, I am in favour of publishing."
Steele, an elderly man with a fine face—heavy, almost leonine in type—drew a breath of relief. An ample conscientiousness, however, forced him to add a few words.
"You understand what we shall be doing, sir," he pointed out, gripping the manuscripts a little tighter in his hands. "These stories were left in our reception bureau by a person who simply laid them on the counter and disappeared. There's not a soul in the place who could identify him. If we publish them we shall be dealing with a man whose words ring most terribly and fearfully like the truth, and who has been probably, if he is to be believed, the greatest undetected criminal Scotland Yard has ever had upon its books. Are we justified in having dealings with such a person?"
Sir James Brusson tapped a cigarette upon the table and lit it.
"So far as we are concerned," he pronounced, "I consider that the complete repentance of the criminal and the restitution which he has made to his victims and the fact that the money we shall pay over is to go to charity, completely absolves us. So far as regards the matter between the law and ourselves," he went on, "you must preserve the letter and the manuscripts and every scrap of communication which we ever receive from the soi-disant Lester Groves. Every word we receive from him, direct or indirect, must be imparted, if they desire it, to the police. It is their job to hunt the fellow down if they can—not ours. Following scrupulously along these lines, I can only repeat that you have my permission to publish the stories."
The word of James Brusson, as the word of a millionaire usually does, prevailed. The first story contained in the manuscripts which Steele was still gripping, appeared in a forthcoming number of the magazine for which these men were responsible.
IF the girl's hair had had a little more of that bronze tint and fewer of those threads of gold, Ronald Magnay might have been alive to-day and it is doubtful whether the girl and I would ever have exchanged a single word. The trouble was that never in the course of a misspent life, devoted chiefly, in those days of my folly, to yielding to suitable temptations, have I been able to resist eyes that drooped from underneath a flame of gold. The girl called to me, too, as eloquently as lips can call that remain speechless. I obeyed the summons. I finally brought my Lancia coupé to rest by the side of the kerbstone, a few yards beyond where the taxicab had deposited the man and the girl, and I, too, after a few seconds delay, made my way up the ill-lit passage along which the two had passed and disappeared. I could see no door any form of entrance, at first, and those were the days in which London was a strange city to me. I turned quickly round before the taxicab had had time to disappear, and hailed the driver.
"Can you tell me what this place is?" I asked him. "Is it a night club or anything of that sort?"
He looked at me strangely.
"What are you doing coming here, if you don't know?" he asked pertinently.
I slipped a half-crown into his grimy but not unwilling hand.
"I am a stranger to London," I explained.
"Then keep away from that place," he advised me. "They wouldn't let you in, anyway."
"I might wangle my way in if I knew what sort of a place it was," I argued smoothly.
The man leaned a little from his seat. His engine was a noisy one.
"We taxicab drivers," he confided, "pick up a bit here and there, especially when we are on night duty. One thing I have learnt is that when I bring people here I keep my mouth shut about it."
I dropped another half-crown into his hand just as his foot was playing with the clutch.
"Is it a club?" I persisted.
"What's it called?"
"I know what us chaps call it," he answered, leaning a little forward and gazing up the tunnel-like entrance. "We call it the 'Murder House.'"
My hand went once more into my pocket but I was too late. The man had slipped in his clutch mid his taxi was already coughing its way down the street. I hailed him, but in vain. If I had shouted loudly enough to wake the dead, I don't believe that he would have come back, and somehow or other, as I looked up and down, it seemed to me that this might indeed have been a street of the dead. The houses had blank windows; the shop fronts—miserable little affairs—were closely barred and showed no lights behind. We were barely a hundred yards from the Tottenham Court Road, but we might as well have been in another world. All the same, from my point of view, the criminal's, I found the place intriguing.
I was not out for business myself, that night, but there are two things I was never accustomed to be without after dark. One was the little pug-nosed friend I patted in my sleeve pocket, the other the torch which I took into my hand as I retraced my steps down the entry. I easily found the door, but it was evidently no ordinary entrance, for I heard no sound from behind it nor did there come from anywhere a glimmer of light. I listened more intently. It was queer but I fancied that every now and then I could catch the sobbing of a violin, then it died away and there was silence. A few moments later it was the rhythm of dance music of which I seemed to detect a far-off echo. The sound, however, was so faint that I could scarcely decide whether it was real or imaginary. I examined once more the solid front of the entrance. This time I found at last what I had been searching for—the small knob of a bell-push, painted exactly the same colour as the panel and carefully arranged on the same level. I pressed it and the double door slid open in front of me, and closed automatically as I passed the threshold. I stepped into a small, dimly lit waiting-room. There was a divan in the corner, two easy chairs, a thick handsome carpet and some sporting prints upon the wall. Almost immediately, the curtains in front of me were pushed aside and a young man came forward. He closed the doors behind him so quickly that I had barely time to catch the sound of the tinkling of glasses and the rhythm of music. He was an unpleasant looking person and there was no welcoming smile upon his lips.
"What is it that you require, sir?" he asked.
"Someone to take my coat and hat and show me into the place," I told him. "I arrived with some friends who passed in while I was parking my car."
The young man looked at me suspiciously. He must have trodden on a bell or something of the sort because the doors behind him reopened and a tall attendant, dressed in sombre black, came noiselessly out and took up a threatening attitude in the background. I looked from one to the other.
"Not exactly hospitable, are you?" I observed.
"Why should we be?" was the curt retort. "This is a club where only members are admitted."
"What of it?" I demanded with a sudden illuminative flash of memory. "I am a member."
My vis-à-vis was on the verge of being angry. He glanced over his shoulder at the attendant, who took a step forward. A nasty looking fellow, that attendant, six foot four at least, broad, with the florid, clean-shaven face of a Ukrainian peasant.
"Perhaps you can tell me the name of this club to which you claim to belong," the young man sneered.
My rejoinder was a piece of blind inspiration, but it came off.
"If you are an official here you should study your membership list now and then," I told him. "What about this?"
I carried always a large pocket-book with me for various reasons. From an inner compartment I drew a small, oblong black envelope. It had remained where it was undisturbed for over a year. I passed it over to him and he stared at it as though his eyes were falling from his head.
"That contains a Life Membership ticket," I pointed out. "It was given me in New York by your principal."
The young man lifted the flap of the envelope, withdrew the strip of gelatinous ivory with its gold lettering and glanced at the mystic sign in the corner which indicated my qualifications. He wrapped it up again with trembling fingers.
"Stay where you are, please," he begged.
He disappeared. I spoke to the attendant, who took not the slightest notice. Presently the inner doors rolled open again and a tall, broad-shouldered man made his appearance. He was dark complexioned, he wore a red carnation in the buttonhole of his dress coat and his almost jet-black hair and overhanging eyebrows gave him an almost sinister appearance.
"I am Major Ronald Magnay," he announced, "secretary here. I understand that you carry a badge of Life Membership presented to you by the Chief."
"And well earned, believe me," I assured him, with a faint smile which seemed to cause him some perturbation.
"I have no doubt of it," he replied with chill politeness. "Your first visit?"
"My first," I admitted. "London is not one of my favourite cities. I am beginning to doubt," I added, "whether it quite deserves its reputation for hospitality."
"I offer you my apologies, sir," was the somewhat nervous reply. "Your visit was so entirely unexpected. Let me show you round. John, take the gentleman's coat and hat."
I followed my guide through the inner doors. The place at first sight was disappointing. Its heavy magnificence was inartistic. The people, though, were interesting. I know my world as well as most men but at first I could not place them.
"A whisky-and-soda?" my companion suggested.
I walked to the bar with him. By degrees I was getting my bearings. After all, it was between three and four o'clock in the morning and the limelight was wearing off. I began to recognise one or two of the people by whom I was surrounded. There was no one I knew. I had been a student of the picture papers all my life but my own photograph has never yet appeared in either the Tatler or the Bystander.
"Over here for long?" my host asked curiously.
"I never stay anywhere for long," I told him. "I was in Bagdad three weeks ago and I hope to be in Buenos Ayres in a fortnight if the German plane is still running."
He finished his drink.
"Care to see over the place?" he enquired.
"I would like to look into the dancing-room," I said.
He led me there with some reluctance. At a table just inside the door I found the girl of whom I was in search. From the hastily pushed back empty chair by her side I gathered that it had been occupied by my present companion. There were four other people at the table—two very beautifully dressed women and two men, one of whom had probably never seen me before in his life but whose history I could have told to an astonished little company. There was the usual cramped space for dancing, a small orchestra playing with wonderful skill and half-a-dozen couples performing lazily. There was a doped air about the place. No one was talking loudly; the men and women seemed as though they came out of some gigantic play-box filled with marionettes of the social world. There was only one human face there for me. I saw a gleam in her eyes as she raised them for a moment and recognised me. I saw her clutch at the tablecloth. I watched the eager quivering of her lips, the second half-terrified glance. Then chance flashed an opportunity across at me. The man and the woman on either side of her got up and joined the dreary little procession upon the floor. With Ronald Magnay's chair still unoccupied, she was in a measure isolated. I uttered a little exclamation of surprise, muttered a word of apology to my companion and stepped directly over to the girl. She looked up half in terror at my approach and bow, but she was clever. She responded at once.
"Get up and dance with me," I said under my breath, after a word of conventional greeting which left her a little dazed.
"What shall I call you?"
She rose immediately and her smile of recognition was an artistic piece of work.
"Lady Ann," she whispered. "Leave it at that. Of course I will dance with you."
I turned to Ronald Magnay.
"You permit that I have one turn with Lady Ann?" I said. "We are old acquaintances."
For some reason or other I could see that he hated the necessity of that murmured monosyllable of assent, but we were already on the floor. The few people who were dancing took no notice of us. Nevertheless, I kept on the fringe of the little circle, and lowered my voice.
"How can I help you?" I asked. "You are in some distress."
"How on earth did you get in here?" she demanded breathlessly. "No visitors are allowed."
"Never mind. Don't waste words on trifles. What is the trouble?"
"Do you know me, or Major Magnay, or anyone here?"
"Not a soul. It is not my world."
"Why did you follow me in?"
"Because of the colour of your hair," I told her quickly. "A spasm of sentiment—anything you like. I am an adventurer in life. If you are in trouble I will get you out of it, but you must tell the naked truth."
Her face seemed somehow to have grown lighter. She followed my lead.
"I am Lady Ann Merlin. I am to be married to a very great man indeed next Tuesday. This man Ronald Magnay has been a worthless hanger-on of my people for years. He got me here one night. They made me a member. The place is terrible. He threatens to tell the man I am going to marry that I am a member, that I have been coming here with him, unless I give him more money."
"You have given him some already?"
"Nearly ten thousand pounds. He professes to be in love with me. That is even worse trouble than the money. He has given me till to-night."
"Definite—be definite," I implored.
"I am to go up to his rooms when I seem to leave here," she went on with a little choke in her throat, "and I am to sign a promissory note for more money. In exchange he will cut my name out of the members' book."
"Explain that," I snapped out.
"This is a club unique in the world. There is only one book of members. No written list, no notices are ever sent out. The book is a great parchment affair with vellum covers and the name, qualifications and a photograph of each member, and all sorts of rubbish, is engrossed. The book is kept in his room. There is no other record of membership. You see, that is why I want the page on which my name appears. No member is allowed to ever divulge the fact in conversation or, anyhow, that he has met another member here. If I have that page, my membership becomes a myth. Henry will never know. I shall be saved."
"He is asking a wicked price for that page," I muttered.
"God knows he is," she groaned.
We were forced into a moment's casual conversation by Magnay's angry stare. I wheeled away from it, still following the music of the dance.
"I shall find a way to help you," I whispered. "First of all, though, is there any suggestion you can make?"
"I could give you the key to his rooms," she said breathlessly. "There is nothing mysterious about them. The door leads out of the waiting-hall on the left."
"There is another entrance?"
"If you go to his rooms, if you pay his price for that page, you will use that other way?"
She was twisting her handkerchief round in her long delicate fingers. I never saw fingers that spoke so clearly of agony.
The music changed into some minor-keyed, joyless rumba. We were forced once more into a few sentences of spasmodic rubbish. We had both caught another glimpse of the huge, black-haired man glaring at us from the round table by the door.
"Reverse to the left," she whispered. "There is a small lounge behind the tables there. We shall be out of sight for a moment."
I obeyed. Things happened very quickly in the next few seconds. She had thrown herself on to a divan and pushed a gold bag into my hand. I stepped further back and opened it. I drew out a small flat key and my fingers—they were always curious fingers—strayed around the silken lining. There was something else which interested me.
"I think he is coming," I heard her gasp, as she leaned forward. "If he is rude, please be careful here."
She looked away again. My fingers were busy for a moment. I looked at the key and touched her on the shoulder. Why it should have seemed any business of mine, or what I was prepared to do that night, I cannot tell, but the psychology of a human being is a strange affair.
"Lady Ann," I asked her gravely, "have you ever used this key?"
Her eyes met mine and they were like the eyes of a child.
I fastened the bag and handed it to her.
"Nothing shall happen then," I promised her.
We made our way once more on to the dance floor. Ronald Magnay was cutting straight across towards us. I waited and abandoned my position as Lady Ann's partner.
"I find everything about the club delightful except your strange dance music," I told him. "Lady Ann has been very patient with me. I shall now ask you to excuse me."
I raised the girl's fingers to my lips with the empressement of an old acquaintance, nodded to the man and slipped away. I could judge what his thoughts were as he watched me leave the place. That little cabalistic sign which gave me Life Membership of the club was a grim portent to him.
It was half-past three when I stepped outside, having recovered my coat and hat from an empty cloakroom. I spent a moment or two mastering the intricacies of the opening bell, then I let myself out, and though I have the knack of seeming never in a hurry, I moved swiftly. I drove through the empty streets into some mews near Park Lane in a few minutes. A quarter to four struck as I drove out again in a very different-looking car—an old-fashioned covered-in coupé. Four o'clock had not struck when I turned down that narrow street once more. I extinguished my lights, pressed the knob which opened the doors, ran up the stairs on the left of the empty waiting-room and softly opened the door facing me. I was in the salon of a man's suite, empty and in darkness until I turned on the switch. On my left, the entrance to a bedroom was dimly exposed and a shaded light gave me a view of the bed and the bathroom beyond. On the round table of the salon was a small tablecloth, a bottle of champagne in a pail, two glasses and some sandwiches. I turned out the light and moved to the side of the wall behind the door. The music was still going on below. Four o'clock struck. The affair was beginning to interest me. I heard muffled voices in the waiting-room below. Someone was mounting the stairs—two people. I smiled in anticipation of their entrance. They came in exactly as I had hoped. He came first and drew her into the salon. Then he closed the door and moved towards the electric switch. The room was in darkness and even the girl had not yet seen me. I gathered that he tried to draw her into his arms.
"Ann, my darling!" I heard him mutter. "At last!"
I heard her quick breathing. "Wait—please wait," she begged. "Where is the book?"
He laughed—a most unpleasant laugh. Then he turned on the light and found me standing a few feet away, balanced carefully for movement in any direction, ready for whatever might come.
"What the devil—" he began. "This is not part of the club," he went on, addressing me fiercely. "What are you doing in my private rooms?"
"A little business I have here on behalf of the young lady," I explained. "You saw the sign upon my card, Ronald Magnay. You know that I am not to be trifled with. I want the leaf of your members' book on which Lady Ann's name appears."
His face was like the face of a savage animal. His eyes seemed to be measuring the distance between us. His hand was stealing downwards.
"Stop!" I snapped out, "Up with your hands—both of them—against the wall!"
He looked into the muzzle of the small gun I was holding out and he didn't like it. His hands went up.
"You saved your life by a second that time," I told him quietly. "You have heard of me, I daresay. You know one thing about me, at any rate, which should make you careful. I don't take risks. Where is that members' book?"
"In the club safe," he growled.
"It is a lie," the girl intervened. "There it is on the table. Look—he has it all opened. That is the page with my photograph. The engrossment there is a copy from Debrett. Every member is supposed to have more or less their life's history written under their names."
"Go and tear it out," I directed. "We will make a start with this business at any rate. If you move," I went on, lowering my voice a little but with just that soft threatening note in it which I have never known a coward to face, "if you move an inch you are a dead man. Be reasonable. Think over what you know of me. Am I likely to break my word? Do you think that my guns have forgotten to talk?"
The man was shivering—a great pale-faced lout if a fellow he looked, crouching back against the wall. He said something but it was barely intelligible. Lady Ann had snatched a pair of scissors from her bag and I could hear the crisp cutting through the parchment.
"No hurry," I encouraged. "There will be no one to interfere with you. Good," I added as I heard the final snip. "Be careful what you do with that page, Lady Ann. Keep it as it is. Fold it and put it in your bag. Is it there?"
I heard her quavering, triumphant whisper.
"Let me hear the bag snap. I am not taking my eyes off this fellow."
I heard the snap. Then came the fateful moment of that night. I shall never know the precise truth—no one will know it—but one of two things happened. Either the man fainted through sheer cowardice, or his hands shot down towards his hip pocket because he had decided to make one desperate effort. Anyhow, his hands were suddenly lowered. There was a gentle spit of the weapon I trusted more than any other I had ever owned in life, and that was the end of it. He lay on the floor and the single groan he uttered was the only sound he ever made again. Still, I kept my eyes upon him for a second or two. Then I turned my head. Women, of course, are always unexpected at such moments, but my first impressions were that there was something glorious in that girl's face. Anyhow, there was worship in her eyes as they met mine.
"Is he dead?" she asked.
"His own fault," I replied. "He committed suicide, if ever a man did. You must now please do exactly as I tell you."
"I will," she promised.
A grim sense of humour, I suppose it was, led me to chuckle as I thought of her pronouncing those two words in a week's time at Westminster Abbey. Afterwards, I thought of nothing but my task. I was already wearing evening gloves so I had no need to play about as I tugged out the gun from his hip pocket. I looked at it. It was loaded in one chamber only. I pushed open the window softly and discharged that one barrel. Afterwards, I placed the gun in a perfectly natural position by his side. When I stepped back to see the effect I was satisfied. If ever they submitted the bullets to a specialist there might be trouble, otherwise it was at any rate a possible suicide. I turned to Lady Ann.
"You are all right?" I asked.
"I am all right," she answered steadily. "What do we do now?"
I looked at the members' book.
"We cannot leave this," I told her, tucking it under my arm. "The first thing they will realise is that it is your page that has been torn out. Come with me."
We left the room by the way I had entered it. There was no sound below. I opened the swing doors easily and drew them together again as we passed out into the street. In a moment she was by my side in the coupé. We glided off.
"I shall take the book somewhere and destroy its contents," I told her. "If the rules and etiquette of the club are strictly adhered to, it will be very difficult indeed for any trouble to arise from to-night. The only thing we have to do now is for me to take you to a place—"
"The first door on the left in Grove Street, leading out of Grosvenor Square," she interrupted. "I have a latchkey to the tradesmen's entrance. Everyone is quite used to my coming in late. I shall be perfectly safe. But tell me—who are you? Tell me your name—tell me what I can say to you?"
"You have seen a man killed," I remarked, watching her curiously. "You are not afraid?"
"No one of my family," she assured me, "has ever known what fear is."
I pulled up a yard or two past the door she had pointed out—a very picturesque-looking affair of dark red, with a brass knob—let into the side of one of the few great mansions left in the square. She caught me by the shoulders.
"I shall give you what I have given no man yet," she said, her lips pressed joyously to mine....
I had lived long enough to know that in a crisis like ours it is the seconds that count. I opened the door of the coupé and waved her across the pavement.
"My dear," I whispered, "it is the moment of your life. There is not a soul—not even a policeman—in sight, and remember that what I have done to-night for your sake I have done many times before for less worthy reasons."
She was like a dream picture standing there upon the pavement as though reluctant to disappear, her eyes shining, the light rain falling around her, her jewelled and silken-clad body wraith-like in the silvery mist.
"Good-bye, my cavalier!" she cried, with a little wave of the hand.
"Good-bye, Ann!" I answered cheerfully.
It was an hour later when, after a few minutes delay, during which I had vanished into a wood by the side of the road, I drew slowly to a standstill under some trees at the top of a hill a good many miles away. From the large flat pocket at the side of the car I produced a leather case, a glass, a flask of whisky and a bottle of soda water. I mixed myself a drink with firm fingers and a clear conscience. When I had finished, I lit a cigarette and I gave myself a few minutes to admire the wonderful prospect. Eastwards the sun was on the point of rising into an atmosphere a little grey and misty, thick with the fumes ever rising from the vast city, lurid with the paling lights which for the thirty miles which I could see before me were disappearing as though an unseen hand were sweeping them into oblivion. There was a fleecy little fragment of violet cloud at the back of St. Paul's which suddenly drifted past and seemed to change into magenta. I watched it float over the dark line of river and I drew in a long breath of the fresh, sweet air. There was something about a lonely sunrise like this which always filled me with a sense of deep content.
Then the roar of an express passing about fifty yards below broke in upon the heavenly silence. I sighed, thrust my hands into my pockets and for the first time looked at what I had drawn from the depths of Lady Ann's bag. I held it in my hand and examined it from every side. I fetched out my torch and looked at it more closely still. There was no man living who knew more about jewels than I did, and I realised very well that the diamonds in that bracelet were almost beyond price. With deep shame I confess now that the thought filled me with unalloyed satisfaction. I replaced it in my pocket, thinking only of the pile of notes I should undoubtedly receive from that greedy jeweller in Amsterdam. Afterwards I paused for a few moments' reflection. For a man who has some claim to be considered an artist I am possessed of exact habits, and I went carefully backwards through the latter portion of the night and early morning. The members' book of the club existed no longer. It was more than disintegrated. It was annihilated. The key by which I had gained access to the secretary's rooms lay with it at the bottom of one of the deepest lakes near London, and, although I had parted with that more reluctantly, my gun, too, had disappeared.
So I leaned forward in my seat and pressed my thumb upon the starting button of the car. With a light heart I set off on my way homewards, but the road I took, the neighbourhood into which I penetrated and the welcome I received, are not matters with which this story is concerned.
THE man came lumbering along the pavement of the Rue de Maupon and sank into the vacant chair at my table—a heavy, loutish fellow, known to the cosmopolitan colony of artists who frequented the Café Antoine as Jan the Dutchman. His action left him exposed to the little cascade of rain which every now and then slithered down from the heavy top of the canvas awning, so I moved my chair a few feet in order that he might benefit by its shelter. His muttered monosyllable of thanks sounded more like a curse than anything, but he availed himself at once of my offer. At closer quarters I took a strong dislike to the fellow. I looked at his hands—blunt-fingered, nervous, revealing. I knew at once that he was, at any rate, a potential murderer. No man could possess hands like that who was not trained in evil ways.
He gave a surly order to the garçon, produced from an inner pocket a bilious and unwholesome-looking cigar, the end of which he bit off, and commenced at once to smoke. A more unpleasant neighbour I had never encountered during my visits to the place. He was still wearing the old blue smock in which, apparently, he had been at work—covered with spots of plaster, faded, torn and with its last button hanging by a single thread. He was heavy-jowled, with pale cheeks and small deep-set eyes. His mouth was large and yet peevish. He was bareheaded and badly needed the services of a coiffeur. By the time I had completed my scrutiny, I decided to change my place. I had risen to my feet for that purpose when to my surprise he addressed me.
"You will drink a bock with me—yes?"
There was only one answer to the question, in that particular neighbourhood.
"With pleasure," I assented, resuming my seat.
He gave the order and we raised our glasses. He set his down empty. I signed to the waiter and it was refilled.
"The work goes well?" I enquired politely.
"Damnably," he answered. "I have lost my touch. I see nothing. My chisels are as blunt as my brain."
"We all feel like that sometimes," I told him. "As for me—I paint. It is, at any rate, a simpler craft."
He turned and looked at me—a vast, unpleasant stare. The lines collected like crows' feet at the corners of his peering eyes, his lips parted in crooked fashion. It was the sort of look one must either forget or expect a nightmare.
"I will show you something," he said. "Come with me. It is not far."
I hesitated. I had no wish even to cross the street with him.
"Just to my studio," he went on. "Opposite. There is something there I would have you see."
It was the one invitation in that colony of Bohemian outcasts which no one ever refused. If you are invited to inspect the work of a fellow artist you accept at all hazards. I buttoned my coat up to my neck and I followed him across the boulevard, down a narrow street to where a grimy building stood alone, with a small empty space by its side upon which the rubbish of the neighbourhood seemed to have been deposited. He pushed open a door.
"We mount," he said.
We mounted—two, three flights. He unlocked a door on the third étage and half pushed me in. A more hideous apartment I have never seen. There was no carpet upon the floor, the furniture was of the commonest description and the few rugs thrown here and there were simply mouldy remnants. A cooking-stove in the corner was dilapidated and cold. Apparently it had not been used for days. Dominating all the other atrocities of the place, however, was a figure, unfinished, but grotesque as it stood—and hideous as it promised to become—the figure of a nude woman. Her limbs had all the heaviness of a would-be Epstein without talent or humour, her lips—thick yet cold lips—were parted in the grimmest travesty of that divine enigmatic smile which had made the picture hanging only a few hundred yards away across the river world famous. He looked at me, his hands deep in the pockets of his smock, its foul stains still clearly visible, his head a little on one side, his oblong, alert eyes full of jealous enquiry, his sardonic leer the gesture of a lunatic. "Eh bien?" he demanded.
"Abominable," I pronounced. "The most ghastly piece of work I ever saw."
He was pleased with my answer. A bitter but well-satisfied smile relieved the horror of his expression. He nodded as though acquiescing in my judgment. Then he moved toward the distant corner of the dais and pulled away with curious, almost reverent care the linen sheet which concealed another figure. His last twist of the wrist seemed like an act of legerdemain. The sheet lay on the floor. The nude figure of another woman gradually grew into shape as my eyes became accustomed to the grey, unwholesome light. This time it was I, "the imperturbable one," as they called me, who staggered upon his feet. For a moment my senses swooned. I am an artist, and in that miserable, foul pigeon loft I saw beauty. Never could I describe what no eye under the same conditions will ever see—the delicacy of the moulding, the one long exquisite limb, the half-finished mouth, the gently swelling bosom timidly covered with such a hand as I have never seen in sculpture. There was the promise of all the glory of heaven in those unshaped limbs, in those unattempted features.
"Merciful God!" I cried. "That is your work?"
"Mine," the Dutchman acknowledged, fierce pride in his tone. "And that," he added, pointing with his blunt finger towards the other, "that is mine, too."
He paused for a moment as though in doubt. The momentary light had left his face. Once more he seemed bestial and unclean. He was swaying slightly upon his feet and his eyes were fixed upon that alcove by the side of the dais concealed by a soiled and tattered strip of carpet hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly he seemed to make up his mind. He strode forward and drew on one side the curtain. Lying on the floor, with her miserable rags of clothing huddled up by her side, was a nude woman, her hands bound together, a gag in her mouth. Her terrified eyes looked eagerly into mine. She was too weak to utter a sound.
"That, too," he shouted, "that is my work!"
It took me an hour to wash clean the wounds she had made sprawling around to try and escape, to arrange her clothes upon her with some show of seemliness and to bring the slowly flowing blood back into her veins with the help of the flask of brandy I had in my pocket. All the time she was too stupefied and weak for coherent speech. All the time there came from the studio the terrible sounds of a man temporarily mad, engaged, as one rapid glance had shown me, upon some fierce work of destruction. Our two tasks came to an end at the same moment. I had her sitting up on an old cushion leaning against the wall and essaying feeble speech just as the Dutchman tore down the strip of carpet and we saw the remains of the terrifying monster he had created littering the floor. Many of the fragments had been smashed into dust. There was not a recognisable limb left. Curiously enough, the man himself had found sanity. At the sight of him, however, the girl began to tremble. She clung to my arm as I stood between them.
"It is done," he declared, speaking once more like a rational human being. "What my hands have created my hands have destroyed."
She was sobbing with her head upon my shoulder.
"What devil's game have you been up to here?" I asked him. "Do you know that this girl would have been dead in another hour?"
"If I had not for a moment forgotten her, I should have killed her long ago," he replied simply. "I ask you—you have seen for yourself—"
He pointed to the statue in the corner.
"It will give happiness to thousands," I told him. "You have sought for it in a strange place, but you have found beauty. You will be famous. All the same, you have narrowly escaped being a murderer."
Great tears streamed down his cheeks.
"Ninette—forgive!" he cried.
She clung the closer to me. Notwithstanding his hard guttural accent, his occasional lapses into broken English, there was tragedy in his lament.
"I paid her twenty francs an hour," he went on. "It was more than anyone else pays around here. Everything I possessed in the world I sold as the statue grew. There came a time when I had borrowed from every man or woman I knew, even by sight, but I had not eaten or drunk for two days. I was in that state when I finished the finger. Monsieur, look at it! Ach! She came—she demanded money before we began. My waistcoat and ties had gone the night before. My pipe and my spare chisel had gone for a cup of coffee. I showed her what was left. She flung the coins in my face. I went on my knees to her. I pointed to the work. Fifteen years I have slaved and failed, and then, no one knows how those things happen, the light came and I made that. 'Two more days, Ninette!' I prayed her. She laughed. Before I realised that she was going, I heard her footsteps on the stairs. Then, monsieur, I went mad. I went out, I stole a bag a woman was carrying and went off with it in broad daylight. No one would lay a finger on me. They were frightened, I drank brandy and I ate bread and I came back. I had that other slab of plaster, too coarse a quality to sell. I stood in front of what I had made and the devil entered into me. For forty-eight hours I worked and I made what you have seen me destroy. Then I went out to the streets, and I found Ninette. I brought her here with me. I held her by the shoulders. I pointed. 'That is how,' I cried, 'you have poisoned my genius. You have killed the only flash of real light I have ever seen!' I tied her up. I threw her down. I made up my mind to have one drink then, to come back and kill her. I drank with you instead. Now you know all."
He threw up his hands. We had finished. It seemed to me that we had arrived at an anti-climax. For all he knew, I was only a struggling artist like himself. How much was he the better or the worse off for having told me this story?
"You have brains and skill," I told him. "You have created something—something which will live. What made you fashion that monster which you have just destroyed?"
"I meant to drag Ninette here, as I have done, and show it to her. I meant her to see what sort of a lunatic she had made of me. I could have made her the most famous model in Paris. I could have won honour for myself and fame and decoration. What has she done? The money I gave her she spent on her lover and when it came to an end she refused—she who has seen my work—she refused to pose even for an hour or two without her pay!"
"Something," I said, "must be arranged."
Ninette shivered and her fingers seized my arm.
"I will not come back to this studio," she cried. "Never, so long as I live, will I mount these stairs and enter this vile place with him alone!"
I lit a cigarette and pondered. There were many things to be considered which were not for their knowledge. I indulged in a brief inspection of these two. The man was awful. The girl, as only a Frenchwoman could, wore her rags so that one forgot them, I rose from the box upon which I had been seated.
"Wait," I enjoined. "It is possible that I may have a proposition to make."
I left them for a moment while I crossed the room and stood in front of the Dutchman's unfinished work. It took me only a few minutes to realise that I had made no mistake. This man, if he lived, would become famous. This statue, if he finished it, would create a sensation. I sauntered back. The Dutchman was leaning forward talking to the girl. She may have been listening but she seemed unconscious of his words.
"Listen," I said. "I do not offer alms—that is not done amongst us—but besides being an artist I am a dealer in objets d'art. I shall take a financial interest in the completion of that figure."
His exclamation was unmusical but expressive. Even the girl showed some faint curiosity.
"Have you any clothes one could wear at the Café Antoine?"
"They are pawned," he told me eagerly. "Sixty francs and ten francs interest."
I handed him a hundred-franc note.
"Is there anywhere in the vicinity," I asked the girl, "where you can replace every single garment you have with the clothes such as are worn nowadays?"
"Not a hundred yards away!" she exclaimed, signs of life at last appearing in her face.
"I shall expect you," I went on calmly, "to visit a coiffeur. Your clothes must be of good quality, your stockings silk, you must present the appearance of a prosperous young lady of your profession. It is understood?"
"C'est entendu, monsieur," she whispered, her eyes growing larger.
"How much?" I enquired.
She made her calculations deliberately. There was that little gleam in her eye which a Frenchwoman can never hide when it is a matter of clothes or money.
"For five hundred francs, monsieur," she confided, "you shall say to yourself—'This is the Ninette of my own creation! I will never let her go.'"
I handed her seven hundred.
"It is now," I pointed out, "five o'clock. I shall be drinking an aperitif outside the Café Antoine at seven. If I do not see you, it will not trouble me. If you come—both of you—I will make a proposition."
For a moment the look of fear came back to the girl's face.
"Never again," she declared, "will I mount to this studio with him! I have seen death in his eyes. You heard him confess it—he would have killed me but he forgot."
"Those days are past," I said. "In any case, an arrangement must be made."
She caught hold of my arm. As we neared the door I was suddenly conscious that the rain had ceased. A streak of sunlight was shining through the bare but dust-encrusted windows. It even reached that quiet figure on the dais. I pointed it out.
"You cannot have been a model for long," I admitted, "but you must have learnt something. You have a soul somewhere, little Ninette? Jan the Dutchman is a rough fellow, but it is he who brought life and beauty into this foul place. Look!"
There was a change in her face for a moment.
"I see," she whispered. "But, oh, monsieur, the fear is in my heart! When that is past it will be easier."
Ninette arrived a quarter of an hour before the time I had appointed. I watched her anxiously as she threaded her way between the tables. All was well. With the throwing away of her rags, she had lost nothing of that queer, half-hidden air of self-mocking spirituality which Jan the Dutchman, with those miserable little eyes of his, had discovered and dragged into life. In a cheap way she was smart, she was chic, her clothes were chosen with good taste. She remained a gay and attractive little cocotte, but she had preserved her hidden self. She kissed me on both cheeks, demanded a pernod and produced a newly acquired vanity-case.
"I please you like this?" she whispered, her lips almost touching my ear.
"You please me very much indeed, Ninette," I assured her. "But remember this—Jan also is to be humoured. I am not spending my money because I have a sudden passion for you, little one, attractive though you are, nor am I doing it out of good fellowship for Jan—a most repulsive fellow. I am doing it because I have two passions in life. One is connected with my profession, and of that I shall not speak. The other is my love of beauty. Jan the Dutchman has ministered to that and I should sin against my creed if I did not aid him to finish his work."
She indulged in a most attractive little grimace, held her glass to her lips with the fingers of one hand while she sipped her pernod, and held tightly to my arm with the other. So we were when Jan the Dutchman arrived. He dragged a chair up to us and there was a scowl upon his face. His appearance, however, was markedly improved. I summoned a waiter and ordered the best dinner the place afforded. The waiter looked doubtfully at me as he took the order.
"Have no fear, Charles," I told him. "That dinner is nothing to the wine I am about to order. Good burgundy, clos vengeot of a vintage year, mark you, and perhaps champagne. Listen, my friend, I have sold a picture!"
The man's face cleared.
"Ah, mais c'est bien cela, monsieur!" he exclaimed with a smile of congratulation.
I thrust a note into his hand.
"That is something on account of the dinner," I said. "Come, my friends," I added, rising to my feet—"We will commence upon the hors-d'oeuvres and with them a final aperitif."
"With the hors-oeuvres I shall ask for a glass of schnapps," the Dutchman observed, rising with truly remarkable alacrity.
"And I shall be in the fashion of the other side," the girl laughed as she, too, rose. "A martini sec—and we are to drink real wine?"
"You are to drink wine to-night," I assured her, "such as you have never tasted before."
It was a quaint meal, that, and if I had not been so set on my purpose it might easily have ended in disaster, for the Dutchman at times showed signs of an almost vicious jealousy and Mademoiselle Ninette's beautiful eyes grew larger and softer with every glass of wine she drank. We almost reached an impasse once.
"Nothing," she declared, and there was a very firm ring indeed in her tone, "will induce me to mount the stairs again with Jan. How do I know that he will not break out once more if I fail to please him? I have seen death coming once in that studio. Not again."
There was only one solution and reluctantly I at last adopted it.
"How long do you sit at a time?" I asked Ninette.
"Four hours—with a few minutes rest now and I then and a cigarette when there are any," she replied.
"Very well," I said. "I have finished my picture. It has gone already to the salon. How many more sittings do you require, Jan?"
"At least five."
"I will bring my newspapers and a bottle of wine to your filthy shanty," I told him. "I will attend Mademoiselle Ninette as chaperon until she has regained her confidence in you, but you must have the studio cleaned and the windows repaired and the rubbish thrown away before I come."
"On Monday, then, at four o'clock in the afternoon," the Dutchman acquiesced. "All shall be as you wish."
"I shall call here for monsieur," Ninette declared.
So the matter was arranged.
Those séances had their vivid moments, but on the whole I was glad when they were over. The work was finished. Jan, who had been working like a man in a dream for days, himself swept away the sheet with which he had jealously concealed his work. I knew then that my sacrifice had not been in vain. I watched the tears gather in Ninette's eyes. Perhaps, after all, he could have had no greater tribute.
"The wagon will be here at eleven to-morrow morning," he announced. "I go myself to the salon. We meet afterwards?"
"Without a doubt," I assented.
Ninette clung to my arm. Every night, save the one when, by arrangement, I had sent Charles, the waiter, in my place, we had left the studio together, we had gone straight to the café, taken a drink together and silently separated. That night, Ninette, although it was against our rules, followed me to the fringe of the crowd who were seated about listening to a stray musician who had found his way to the place.
"Listen," she said earnestly. "I know this is to be farewell. You have been so generous I shall leave the quarter. I shall cross the river. I shall find a home where Jan will never reach me. But our last night—will you not have a little dinner of farewell? I have saved money. I will dress as you wish. No one shall guess where I come from. I will not tease you—I will just take away a memory."
I deliberated for a moment. It was not my intention to leave Paris until the following day. There was no harm in what she suggested. I acquiesced, although the flame in her eyes should have warned me.
"Where shall I fetch you?" she whispered. "Not here."
I hesitated. Not a single soul in Paris knew of my modest apartment. Still, there was no harm. My work was done, my plans were made, down to the minutest detail, for leaving to-morrow night. It was, in fact, a matter of great importance that I should leave at that precise time.
"Number seventeen Rue de Granet," I told her. "Troisième étage."
"It is a quarter of millionaires," she said smiling.
"Did I ever tell you that I was not a millionaire?" I laughed.
So we parted.
Ninette certainly kept her part of the bargain that evening. She wore a perfectly simple costume of unrelieved black. She had discarded all her effective but flamboyant jewellery. Strange though it may seem, she had the air almost of an ingénue attending her first party. I took her to dine at the Château de Madrid and it amused me to watch the difference in the nature of the attention she received from my sex. She was always certain of admiration, but she received it to-night tempered with respect. Our dinner was a delightful memory, our farewell as distressing as I feared it might be. Then, just as I had finished packing the small valise which was the only part of my luggage remaining, I heard a sudden quiet but impatient tapping at the door. I opened it, frowning. It was Ninette, distraught, tragedy in her face. She caught at my hands. She was breathless and from the state of her shoes I knew that she had been running. She pressed her hand to her chest. Somehow or other, words seemed to pour out from her.
"Maurice," she cried. "Listen! You knew that before we met I had a lover?"
"You knew that, of course. I found him waiting for me to-night. I have never told you this—he is a sous-officier in the gendarmerie and he seems to spend all his time wandering about watching people. To-night I found him waiting for me."
"Compose yourself, Ninette," I begged. "What you are to tell me will be of little consequence."
"Oh, but I am not sure," she went on. "He asked me questions about you. He brought out his note-book. He asked me whether you were in the studio with Jan and me on Thursday at the usual hours from three till seven. I told him yes. He asked me again. I repeated it. He closed his book and he snapped the elastic band around it. 'That seems strange,' he said, 'for I have been to Jan the Dutchman and Jan the Dutchman has told me that he sent a substitute to watch over your safety that afternoon. Every other day he came. That day he was absent!'"
I remained silent. My mind was wandering far beyond Ninette's somewhat alarming disclosure. I have never been a film fan—I prefer to read books—but there is one marvellous advantage, from a dramatic point of view, which the films possess. Scene after scene is flashed out, needing no chain of words or explanation. Between five and eight on Thursday! There it was in black and white before my eyes. I saw Jacques Rossier, the great banker, gagged, bound and only partially conscious, lying on the carpeted floor of his strong room. I saw the jewels over which he had been poring flowing through my fingers like a glittering cascade into the bag I had placed upon the table. I saw myself, a cigarette in my mouth, strolling up the hill from the famous mansion of the millionaire banker to the boulevard, beyond which was safety. A wet night it was. I could see the slanting rain beating upon the pavement. I wore a mackintosh but I carried no umbrella. One hand gripped the bag, the other was in my pocket. The scene faded out. Another took its place. I was nearing the top of the street. I was listening to footsteps behind. I leaped on one side in time to save myself from being garrotted. The man who had missed his spring—once he had been thought the greatest jewel thief in the world, but lately he had lost his touch—was many seconds feeling for his gun. He never reached it. I fired at him twice—quite unnecessary, but I was always a believer in safety. He fell in a heap across the pavement. There was no one in sight on the same side of the street. Some people on the other side had passed on without turning their heads. I continued to climb the hill. I continued to smoke my cigarette. I stepped into the car which was waiting at the corner. Not a whistle—not a sound.... The scene faded away, giving place to another. I was in the salon of my apartment in the Rue de Granet—alone—three packets on the table before me sealed up. My valise was already half-filled with clothes. I looked out of the window. There was not a soul in sight. I descended to the street, the three packets in my pocket. There was another flash. I was in the post office. I handed over my three packets. They were stamped and registered. I left by another entrance. That was the end of my excursion into filmland.
"Maurice, Maurice!" Ninette cried, tugging at my arm. "Do you not understand? What were you doing on that Thursday afternoon?"
I patted her cheek.
"Nothing that need concern you, little one," I assured her. "Nothing that need concern that officious young sous-officier. Compose yourself, I beg of you. Jump into a taxicab and return. Yours is the true story. I was with you and Jan. A pity that Jan is so crazily jealous."
"You are not in any danger?" she asked me eagerly.
I laughed, and my heart was light as I answered her.
"There is never any danger for me, except occasionally, when my company is too pleasant, I might miss a train."
I held open the door and she flew down the stairs. An hour later I was enjoying a cigarette and a bottle of wine in the empty restaurant car of the Rapide on its way to Marseilles. It was good-bye to Paris for me that night.
The Chef de la Sûreté was puzzled for many months over that affair. They very soon identified the dead body in the narrow street as the body of Jean Leduc, the famous jewel thief, and they had evidence as to his stealthy entrance into the apartment of Jacques Rossier. But, where were the jewels? How had the phantom thief cheated this master of crime and who was he? These things they never discovered.
I think that, upon the whole, this was the one crime in my long list of misdemeanours for which I felt the least remorse. The value of the jewels was nothing compared to the immense wealth of Jacques Rossier and I had deliberately chosen to run the risk of leaving him alive. As for Leduc, his record was the blackest of any criminal whose exploits were recounted in the secret books of the Chef de la Sûreté in Paris. He killed when he could for the sheer love of killing. For all his cleverness, he was absolutely and entirely inhuman—a creature without a heart, without sensibility, a being who left even the criminal world a cleaner place when he quitted it.
The only serious inconvenience I ever suffered from the officious interference of Ninette's lover was when, four years later, I arrived in Florence for a brief holiday amongst some of my favourite pictures. On the very first day I saw a stout, middle-aged gentleman, dressed with truly bourgeois respectability, with a young woman by his side whose walk was instantly familiar. I watched them from a distance. I entered the hotel. I watched until they had summoned the lift and mounted. Then I spoke to the chef de reception with whom I had a pleasant acquaintance.
"Could you tell me the name of the gentleman and lady with whom you were talking a minute or two ago?" I asked.
"But certainly, signor," he replied. "That is a very well-known man—Jan van Stratten—the famous Dutch sculptor. He has been decorated and is a member of the French Academy. I have heard it said that there are times when his work is finer even than the work of Rodin."
"And the lady?"
The clerk smiled at me.
"His wife, signor," he assured me. "They registered with great care. They have two addresses—one in Paris, one a château near Amsterdam. Il signor is proposing, I trust, to pay us a little visit?"
"Next month," I answered. "At present I am on my way to Rome."
We exchanged civilities. I took my leave. There was not one chance in a thousand that the great Dutchman would ever have recognised me, for I change my whole personality with the seasons. But a girl like Ninette—she had memory! One can never trust them to forget. I stopped the luggage porters who were taking my trunk from the car, handed them a pourboire and resumed my seat.
"On my return," I said, with a little wave of the hand.
"Grazia, signor, grazia."
So I went on to Rome.
THERE is no one, I am sure, who has a more genuine admiration than I have for that beautifully uniformed and extremely intelligent body of men, whose headquarters are situated not far from the Embankment. Our ordinary policemen are, without a doubt, splendid fellows; our criminal investigation department has attracted some of the most highly-developed intelligences of the day, and to those who have reached the topmost places, whose names are spoken of only in a bated whisper, I take off my hat with the deepest respect. On the other hand, even in my most unregenerate days I was not afraid of them. In my own inner consciousness I always felt that if any outside force should bring to a close my hitherto successful career, it would be one of the shining lights of my own fraternity. Perhaps that is why I always preferred to work alone, to shrink from any sort of alliance with other members of the same profession; perhaps that is why I felt, if not feared, a certain presentiment of coming danger when I saw an unknown visitor, wearing the traditional two woodcock feathers in the band of his tweed hat and swinging a shooting stick jauntily as he walked, climbing up the drive and approaching the front door of my temporary residence.
"What does the gentleman want, Marston?" I asked the butler who presented me with the orthodox visiting card.
"He is one of the syndicate who have the shooting the other side of Hill Farm, sir," the man replied. "He just asked if you were at home."
"Show him into the library," I directed.
Marston left me. I wiped the grease from my fingers—I had been in the gun-room engaged in rather a favourite pursuit of mine, cleaning out an old pair of twenties for some woodcock shooting in the morning—and proceeded to meet my caller.
He rose to his feet at my entrance, an olive complexioned, black-haired, pudgy little man, who made a very poor figure in a rough knickerbocker suit and soft leggings, and whose appearance was not improved by a spurious regimental tie of amazing newness.
"Mr. Edward Jarvis, I believe?" he began, addressing me by my pseudonym of the moment. "My name is Tullingham."
"Glad to see you, Mr. Tullingham," I said, avoiding his hand by stooping to pick up the shooting-stick which he had dropped. "You have the land on the other side of the valley, I understand."
"Quite so, Mr. Jarvis. Five of us there are. A very pleasant men's party. We thought it would be very nice indeed if you, Mr. Jarvis—we heard you were alone here—would come over and dine with us one night."
"Very kind of you," I replied, "but I am here with the sole idea of a few days shooting and when I have finished at night I am too tired to stir out."
Mr. Tullingham seemed disappointed but not baffled. He continued almost as if he had not heard.
"A very pleasant little company of sportsmen you will find us," he went on. "We don't shoot late, we like our contract bridge or our poker and we brought Jackie Noyes down with us—the chef from Collins's. You remember him, I daresay, Mr. Jarvis?"
I shook my head.
"I'm afraid not," I told him.
My visitor coughed.
"Patsy Grimmit is one of our party and Major Hayes," he went on. "You remember them—yes?"
"I not only don't remember them," I told him, "but I am quite sure that I never heard of them in my life. Can I offer you a whisky-and-soda or a cup of tea?"
My caller chose the former. He watched Marston curiously whilst he was being served.
"Nice-looking man of yours," he remarked.
"I take over the few servants that belong to the place when I come down," I confided. "It saves trouble."
"Yes, very nice," he repeated in a puzzled tone. "But you don't find it a little too dangerous, eh?" I looked at him in surprise.
"Why should I?"
Mr. Tullingham fixed upon me those twinkling dark eyes which were all the time asking innumerable questions. I received their message but I remained blank and without understanding. He sipped his whisky-and-soda thoughtfully. He seemed at a loss what to say next. Suddenly he made up his mind.
"They sent me down here to talk to you, Mr. Jarvis," he confided.
"They? Who?" I asked.
"The rest of them—the gang. There isn't one of them you don't know, really, by reputation. We're all here, you included, on the same errand. You are one against five. There's enough for all of us. We would like to have you come over and dine and have a business talk."
I laughed very softly, very quietly, but I watched the scowl deepen on my visitor's face as he saw those little lines round my eyes.
"You find the idea funny?" he asked, with sudden harshness in his tone.
"Not the idea itself," I explained. "That is reasonable enough. A queer sort of stranger at the feast I should be, though, shouldn't I?"
Mr. Tullingham placed a hand upon each knee and leaned forward in his chair.
"You ain't too well off here by yourself," he pointed out. "I believe you are right about the servants. It's just as you say. You're here alone. You can't send for the local cop if there's a little trouble. You can't very well ring up Scotland Yard and ask for protection, can you? Come to think of it, Jarvis, I shouldn't say you are holding all the aces in this game just yet."
"I am inclined to agree with you," I told him frankly, rising to my feet as he finished his drink, "I think I am in a devil of a tight corner, but then, as you seem to have taken such a kindly interest in my career, you may happen to remember that I have found my way out of one or two in my time. No rough stuff, though, if you please, Mr. Tullingham. You are doing enough brutal work amongst these poor pheasants, leaving scores of them half dead and half alive about the countryside. If you want to fight me, let it be a battle of brains. One brilliant idea, if it happens to be the right one, is better then half-a-dozen bullets. Good-day to you, Mr. Tullingham, and a pleasant season's sport. Marston, the door."
That was the end of my first visitor from the shooting-party on the other side of the valley, but when I considered afterwards that list of names and my own unprotected state, I was forced to realise that the sooner that brilliant idea of which I was in search materialised, the better for my safety it would be. If Mr. Tullingham and his friends were down this part of the world on the same errand as I was, there was trouble brewing for me.
The following night I dined with the Marquis of Garendon, Lord Lieutenant of the County, husband of one of the most beautiful women in Europe and owner of the Ostrekoff emeralds, which it was my intention to steal. I was obscurely placed, as was only natural, for there were forty people at the table and I was a casual guest invited out of courtesy to a shooting tenant. Nevertheless, an accident in the arrangement of the table, which was shaped like a cross, brought me very close to my host and not a long distance from a young woman whose name I had not heard, who was, without a doubt, exceedingly attractive but who in some faint way reminded me of my yesterday's visitor, Mr. Tullingham. It was only by accident and the loud conversation of a young soldier cousin of our hostess that I learned her identity. She was Lena Faire, a young actress who had just made a great success in musical comedy, which, she had followed up by an even more sensational one upon the films. I was somewhat astonished, all the same, to find her in such a galère and I listened with interest to the lady whom I had brought in to dinner—the wife of a local squireen—who, in reply to a casual remark of my own, instructed me upon the matter.
"Well," she sighed, "I suppose before long the vacant thrones of Europe, if there are any, will be occupied by film queens, but I must say I am a little surprised at the marchioness. She is usually so very strict. There must have been someone here who became sponsor for the young lady."
I looked at her thoughtfully. She was talking quietly enough to her neighbour, a clergyman from Exeter, and she seemed very little interested in anyone else at the table. Once, her host leaned forward and addressed a kindly remark to her, which served also as an introduction to the distinguished soldier on her left. Afterwards, she talked placidly to both of them and displayed nothing of the Delilah-like arts associated with her profession.
"She doesn't seem to know anyone specially, either," my neighbour continued. "She was alone in the drawing-room until I came in. I am not even sure that she is staying in the house. Are you a bridger, Mr. Jarvis?"
My answer was a carefully emphasised negative, whereupon she lost interest in me. Rather to my surprise, during a temporary pause, the girl leaned over and addressed me.
"You are not the Mr. Jarvis who trains racehorses, are you?" she enquired.
"No such luck," I told her. "Mine is a far less lucrative pursuit."
She showed no further interest. In due course the banquet came to an end. In obedience to the customary signal from the marchioness, the women left us, we moved our chairs up towards our host and faced the ordeal of waiting for our first sniff of tobacco whilst we sipped the port. The clergyman opposite me fingered his collar.
"My father used to tell me," he said, "that Garendon was famous for three things: its amazing vintages of port, the glorious family jewels and the beauty of the women who have always worn them."
The marquis sipped his wine slowly.
"Well, I don't know that the bishop was very far wrong," he admitted. "Our cellars speak for themselves and no one of the family seems ever to have neglected his duty in laying down a promising vintage. Our menkind have had a natural taste for beautiful women and perhaps our beautiful women have something to do with the family collection of jewels."
"The emeralds are your contribution, are they not?" another of the guests asked.
For some reason or other the marquis seemed scarcely to relish the question.
"Yes," he confessed, "it was I who acquired them, Their value, I fancy, is a little exaggerated. They are a striking collection, but they do not compare in beauty with the pearls and sapphires in her ladyship's coronet. . . . Now you have drunk your first glass of wine, my friends, the veto is withdrawn. You can smoke a cigarette, if you will, and after your second glass Kinnersley will bring you round cigars. . . . Certainly, Bishop, we will excuse you," the marquis went on to the ecclesiastic who had taken the place by his side. "And you, too, Anselm," he added in response to a glance of enquiry from another of his guests. "Any of you, in fact, who are not smoking. I saw my invaluable secretary taking down your names for bridge, and her ladyship is, I know, looking forward to playing. Just please yourselves, gentlemen. Coffee will be served in the billiard-room, her ladyship's drawing-room and the lounge. We shall all meet later."
I was glad of the little shuffle up of places because it brought me quite close to the marquis, in whose personality I was interested. He was certainly one of the best looking men I had ever seen, but notwithstanding the underlying strength of his face and his aristocratic carriage, there was something about his lips and his rather foreshortened chin which confirmed my own impression of him. A man of letters, beyond a doubt; a sportsman; a lofty thinker, but with more than a touch of that sensuality which reminded one of Caesarean days.
"I am glad to have an opportunity of congratulating you upon your shooting this afternoon, Mr. Jarvis," he said with a pleasant smile. "I am afraid you were given rather an awkward stand, especially with the west wind, but you did us very good service there."
"I found the shooting very enjoyable," I told him.
"An awkward corner, yours, though," he repeated, raising his glass and sipping its contents with the air of a connoisseur. "With a strong wind behind them we sometimes lose a great many birds with a weak gun there. We are close to the boundary and I am afraid that my neighbours, or rather their keepers, in that direction are occasionally a little difficult. I hope you will be able to give us another day, Mr. Jarvis. Cocks only, after next week, I'm afraid. They come very high at that corner. My head keeper, I know, would like to see you there."
I murmured my appreciation but I did not think it worth while to mention that I hoped, before the morning, to be on my way—well, to a not too distant seaport. My host devoted his attention to a neighbour on the other side. A pleasant half-hour drifted away; then the signal for dispersal arrived. I was one of those who, when asked by the secretary, had decided against any fixed form of amusement and I made my way into the library. It was one of the show rooms of the castle. Like so many of that period, it had been built with long arms stretching at right angles for some distance towards the centre of the apartment, so that there were seven or eight cubicle-shaped recesses lined with books on either side.
Although I make no claim to being a bibliophile, I sank back into an easy chair and found a queer sort of aesthetic pleasure in the half-mouldy, half-aromatic odour of the masses of calf-bound volumes with which I was surrounded. The spot where I was seated was interesting, too, from another point of view. It was directly opposite an opening where the shelves ended abruptly and a door in the wall led to a winding staircase mounting to the strong room where most of the famous collection of jewellery was kept. I had a complete plan of the castle, compiled after one of my midnight wanderings and drawn with the utmost care on a sheet of drawing paper, which had long since become a pile of grey ashes but every line of which was committed carefully to memory. If I had taken the trouble to prepare myself for the task in an obvious manner on this particular evening, I could have walked from where I was, opened the door leading to the staircase, the door of the strong room itself and even probably have opened the safe. This, however, was one of those affairs which presented other difficulties.
The castle was over-full of servants, watchmen and guests. There was no possible form of ingress to or egress from the strong room except through the private apartments of the marquis or through this library, in which, from midnight to daylight, there were always two watchers in the garb of librarians and one employed by a great insurance company. More than a year ago, when I had first seriously contemplated the matter of the Ostrekoff jewels, I had come to the conclusion that no ordinary burglarious means could be successfully applied towards their acquisition. Even the door which led from the marquis's bedchamber into the strong room was fashioned of solid steel and the single key in existence, a key of most complicated design, never left its owner's possession. I thought it all out myself again as I leaned back in the chair and I came to the same conclusion. Yet, in the semi-darkness that night, the gothic-shaped door, just as black as ink against the white walls, entrance to the treasure chamber of millions, seemed to possess a singular and inexplicable fascination. I sat there looking at it, with folded arms. I seemed to be plagued with an absurd idea that if I looked long enough the problem would be solved.
It was solved—although not in any fashion I had dreamed about. Even whilst I was watching it, the door was thrust open from the inside. The marquis, stooping a little to pass through the low aperture, made his appearance. He turned round, locked the door and crossed the room towards where I was seated. He waved me to keep my place.
"Please do not disturb yourself, Mr. Jarvis. You are here, I hope, from choice. I always leave young Molton, my domestic secretary, to see that my guests are amused."
"Molton was very kind indeed," I confided. "He tried to get me to play bridge, he offered me a game of pool. I told him that my one hobby, apart from my work and shooting, was books, and he turned me loose here."
The marquis looked over my shoulder.
"Froissart," he murmured. "Ah, those were gallant day.... By the by, you are occupying the lodge, are you not, Mr. Jarvis?"
"I am indeed, sir," I told him. "Very comfortable I have found it."
"You are not leaving just yet?"
I glanced at my watch.
"I was proposing to pay my respects to her ladyship at eleven o'clock, sir."
"Don't go without seeing me again," he begged, turning away with an amiable little smile. "I might have a small commission for you, if you would be so good as to undertake it."
He made his way to a writing-table in a distant corner of the room. I sat down, my book still open, my attention considerably diverted. The marquis had stood, for the few moments he had been talking to me, with his hands behind his back. Turning away, I saw that one hand was holding a worn morocco case, which I fancied that I recognised. Only a week ago I had paid half a crown towards the funds of the County Hospital to inspect the precious belongings of the house and there was something curiously familiar about the faded orange shade of that worn leather case.
The events of the next half-hour, although full of interest to me, have always been a little difficult in arrange in their chronological order. The relation of the simple facts, however, is easy enough. The marquis, in the act of strolling towards the door, paused. He had heard, probably, what I had heard—the sound of voices in the hall beyond. His hand distinctly wandered towards the pocket of his tail-coat, then he proceeded on his way and seated himself at the writing-table. He drew a sheet of paper towards him, but before he could commence to write, the door was thrown open and the marchioness, with a young lady to whom I had been presented before dinner—Lady Elsa Haringway—entered. The marquis rose at once to his feet.
"So we have run you to earth at last, my dear Charles," his wife said. "We come as suppliants."
The marquis smiled. I could not refrain from thinking how handsome he looked leaning slightly down towards the two women.
"It's that little film girl whom Elsa loves who wants so much to see the Ostrekoff emeralds. Do you think it would be possible?"
"You see," Lady Elsa put in, "I have never seen them myself properly and Lena is going back to town to-morrow."
I could hear every word they said distinctly. The overhead lamp, too, was shining on the marquis's face. I could almost trace the nature of those disturbed thoughts which accounted for his momentary hesitation.
"My dear," he explained thoughtfully, "there are difficulties."
"Not very serious ones, please," the girl begged.
"They are not, perhaps, insurmountable," the marquis admitted. "You see, I have not a key to the door into the strong room and our night-watchmen don't come on duty until midnight."
"We can use your private key," the marchioness intervened. "You have that always on your chain."
"I have that, it is true," he admitted, with a slight contraction of his fine eyebrows, "but you know how seldom I use it."
"I have promised Lena she should see them," the girl pleaded, "and I do so want to have just a glimpse of them myself."
The marquis smiled indulgently.
"What do you say, dear?" he asked, addressing his wife. "If I part with the key—I really don't think I have ever done so before—will you take Elsa and Miss Faire yourself and lock up when you leave the room?"
"Of course I will," the marchioness promised. "Sweet of you, really, Charles. I know you hate parting with it but we will be terribly careful."
The marquis detached the single gold chain from his trousers button and handed it to his wife. Attached to it was a long, curiously shaped key, a thin gold watch and a tiny cigarette-case of ivory and gold.
"Very well," he agreed. "I will trust you all. You will probably find me in the billiard-room when you come down. You needn't hurry," he concluded, "but you must remember that it is a long way round to my apartments. You have to make almost a circuit of the house."
Elsa kissed him on the forehead.
"You are a dear," she said as they swung away to leave the room. "Now I can keep my promise."
They departed, closing the door behind them. The marquis remained for a moment listening, then he took a few swift paces and stood by my chair. There seemed to be a new gift of firmness in his speech, of rapidity without any sense of haste.
"Mr. Jarvis," he said, "you are a stranger to me, but they tell me you have been an explorer. I am sure you have plenty of nerve. Will you help me through a difficult and rather delicate situation without asking questions?"
"Certainly I will, sir," I promised.
He sat down before the writing-desk and drew a sheet of paper towards him. Whilst he wrote with his right hand he pointed with his left to a long drawer.
"You will find paper and string there," he said.
I brought them out. With perfectly calm fingers, without even undue haste, he produced from his pocket the worn leather case with its beautifully stamped coronet.
"Wrap this up, please."
I did as he told me. My task was finished just as he had completed his note.
"There is sealing-wax," he pointed out. "Seal the string."
I obeyed. When I had finished, the jewel-case was quite a respectable package tied up with string and with a great dab of sealing-wax hissing over the knot. The marquis leaned over, pressed his signet ring tightly upon it, then sealed also the flap of the envelope into which he slipped the letter he had just written.
"I congratulate you, Mr. Jarvis," he said. "You are a man of nerve, as I am. You have the gift of silence, which I much appreciate. Now be so kind as to put that package in your pocket."
"I will make your excuses to the marchioness," lie went on. "You will leave now, please. Drive home at once and deliver the package you have, with the note, when the person to whom it is addressed calls for it. Is that clear?"
"Supposing—any inquisitive person who had the right to do so should stop me and ask questions?" I ventured.
"A pertinent question, young man," the marquis replied, "but I think that we have a good margin of time in hand. The note which is with it will be your complete absolution, if the worst should happen. Here, however "—he scribbled across an envelope, folded it and handed it to me—"is the only possible thing which you might find necessary. Here is your laissez-passer from the castle and grounds. No one will stop you while you have this. You are running no real risk but you are doing me an immense service. I will communicate with, you later. It is all clear?"
"Perfectly, sir," I answered, smoothing down the pocket in which I had placed the parcel.
"Where is your car?"
"In the servants' courtyard. I asked your butler, when I arrived, where I should leave it, as I was driving myself."
"That," the marquis declared, "is most providential. It almost gives me time to offer you a drink before you start. Perhaps not, though. It does not do to trifle with fate. Come this way."
He led me to a door at the farther end of the library, and hurried me along a stone passage which led into the courtyard. It was almost empty, for the idea of driving their own cars had seemingly not presented itself to any other of the guests. I took my place in the coupé.
"Let me ask you one thing again, sir," I begged, leaning out of the window. "I am not to attempt to deliver this packet anywhere?"
The marquis held up his finger.
"Certainly not," he insisted. "Just lock it up in your desk and keep it until somebody comes for it. See that the person is the person whose name is upon that envelope, and if so, hand it over. For a further expression of my thanks, wait, I beg of you, for a few days."
He held out his hand. We shook hands as a beneficent host and appreciative guest might.
"An awfully good shoot, sir," I said. "And if you'll forgive my saying so, marvellous port."
"You will find it nowhere else," my host declared, raising his voice a little as my engine started. "Cockburn '97—a small vintage to start with and now almost unknown. Turn to the right. It is really only a cart track—the back way out, but there isn't even a gate to open. Good-night once more."
I reached home in less than half an hour, made my way to my very comfortable den and poured myself out a hurried whisky-and-soda. Marston, stifling a yawn, presented himself at the door.
"Do you require my services to-night, sir?" he asked.
"Not to-night, Marston," I told him. "You can go to bed as soon as you like."
I heard him lock up and I wasted no more time. I opened my writing-desk and without a moment's hesitation broke the seal and unwrapped the parcel which I had been carrying in my pocket. Six of the most marvellous emeralds in the world lay in their time-worn beds of satin—glorious to catch even a glimpse of in that dim light. Then I unlocked the bottom drawer of my desk and drew from it a morocco case of about the same size. I opened it quickly and with my cambric handkerchief I polished up a little the six apparent emeralds of exactly the same size and general appearance, until they, too, assumed a faint brilliance of their own. I placed them carefully in the worn orange leather case bearing the splendid coronet and coat-of-arms of the marquis's family. The real gems I thrust into the shabby morocco case and into my pocket. But after I had tied up the parcel again, I regretfully committed an action which I avoid as often as possible. I have conscientious objections to tampering with another man's correspondence but in this case the circumstances demanded it. I melted the wax and with careful fingers drew out the marquis's note. It was not long but it took my breath away.
I keep my word as ever. On Wednesday I will be at your rooms at the Ritz at five o'clock, and amongst other even pleasanter duties I will give you my views as to the mounting.
P.S. I trust that the shock was not too great when you climbed to the strong room and found the emeralds missing.
I read the note through again and I frankly admit that I had never been more surprised in my life
I thought for a moment of the marquis, so dignified, so kindly in his momentary recognition of a little film lady honoured by an invitation to dine at his table, and I smiled regretfully. It would have been a gesture which would have given me the greatest satisfaction to have replaced or destroyed that letter. But alas, in those few written words lay my security. On a plain sheet of paper I made a perfect copy of the original. The original itself I folded up and placed in my pocket-book. Then I drew a sigh of relief, lit a pipe, replenished my glass and sank back in my easy chair. I was ready fur whatever might happen.
Everything was cleared away—cut string, debris and sealing-wax, all consumed in the brightly burning log fire. Myself in a black satin dressing-gown, my pipe still in evidence, a tumbler of whisky-and-soda half emptied by my side, I rose to my feet with equanimity when, about half an hour later, I heard a car stop at the door. I drew the bolts, turned the key and welcomed my visitor. Her great eyes shone anxiously out at me through the darkness.
"Well," she demanded.
"I have a letter for you, Miss Lena Faire," I told her. "Shall I bring it you here or will you come in for a moment?"
"May I come in?" she begged.
The chauffeur opened the door. She stepped out and gripped my arm. I led her into my sitting-room.
"Is it only a letter?" she whispered as she crossed the threshold.
I pointed to the table. She gave a little gasp of joy.
"There you are," I said, placing the packet and envelope in her hand. "I was bribed to bring it with the promise of another day of that wonderful shooting."
"Do you know what it is?" she asked with devouring intensity.
"No idea," I replied without flinching. "Nor," I added, looking at her fixedly, "is it any of my business."
She crammed the letter and case into her pocket and raised the short veil she was wearing.
"You cannot imagine what I have been through the last hour," she said as she held out her hand. "I thought—oh, no matter what I thought! You will give me a whisky-and-soda? You did this wonderful commission—I give you one kiss—yes?"
I laughed. She gave me the kiss and I gave her the whisky-and-soda—-and the packet. I wonder sometimes whether she was as well satisfied with the bargain as I was.
I HAD realised, from the moment I had received that somewhat cryptic note written on plain paper and without any hint of official origin, that the interview to which I was now committed was likely to be a trifle difficult. I realised it even more fully when I was shown into a small, barely-furnished apartment tucked away at the end of a long passage in a hidden corner of one of the great Whitehall buildings, A tall, grey-haired man with weary eyes and lined face looked up from behind his desk at my entrance. He nodded a more or less courteous greeting and waited until the commissionaire had departed.
"Will you bring up that chair nearer to me, Mr. Armstrong?" he invited.
Armstrong was the name by which I was passing at the moment, a good, non-committal sort of name which went very well with my present appearance. I had grown, during my politic absence in one of my favourite corners of Europe, a slight moustache, and I had allowed my hair to grow a little long at the sides in the old Spanish manner affected a few years ago by gigolos and romantic shop assistants. I brought the chair to the side of his desk as desired and waited.
"I shall be very frank with you, sir," my companion began. "I do not wish to know your real name nor do I wish you to become acquainted with mine. For conversational purposes you can call me Colonel Guy. I wish to assure you first of all that although I may be said to hold an official post, it is not one which has any affiliation to Scotland Yard or the administration of our domestic criminal law. You understand me, I trust?"
"I think so, sir," I assented.
"I represent the last resource used by my employers in any vital emergency. When such is put into my hands it is understood that I may use any means I think well—legal or illegal, moral or immoral. Is that perfectly clear?"
"The fact that you may be or are a criminal does not interest or affect me," the man who had called himself Colonel Guy continued. "If you accept the enterprise I propose, I shall have no objection to your using criminal means to obtain results, but it will be entirely at your own risk."
"That is reasonable," I admitted.
"Very well, then, here is the position. One of the most prominent of our statesmen, whom it is our duty to protect, was induced by means which I need not for the moment enter into to write an extremely indiscreet letter to a certain European potentate. The letter was written with an honest desire to promote the cause of peace. Since then, there has been a lightning-like change in the situation. That letter, if made dishonourable use of, would almost inevitably result in war."
"The letter is now in whose possession, and where?" I asked.
My friend with the tired eyes leaned forward to a stationery rack and drew from it a slip of perfectly plain paper. He wrote a single line upon it and held it up for my inspection. I nodded, whereupon he destroyed the slip of paper and threw the fragments into the waste-paper basket.
"There only remains to discuss the commercial side of this enterprise," he went on. "For what sum will you undertake the task of obtaining, or attempting to obtain, that letter?"
"If I succeed, a thousand guineas," I told him.
"And if you fail?"
"The thousand guineas shall be paid to you the day you hand over the letter."
I picked up my hat. For the first time, a gleam of some sort of expression was manifest in my companion's worn features. He appeared a little surprised.
"You don't require any Government permits or visas for your passport?" he asked. I shook my head.
"Thank you," I replied, "those I can arrange for myself. I am perhaps more at home on the continent than in this country."
"You must understand clearly," he concluded, "that if you should get into any sort of trouble, however serious, the British Government knows nothing of you. We could not intervene on your behalf even to save your life."
"My life I can look after myself," I assured him. "The British Government means no more to me than any other client on whose behalf I might be working."
"Excellent," he approved. "Do you require an advance of money for your expenses?"
"I can finance myself," I told him.
"Good morning, then," he wished me.
"Good morning," I echoed, making for the door.
It certainly seemed as though my new enterprise had started badly. Four days later I was seated on a plain bench, my back to a white wall in one of the dreariest of prison cells. Through the barred windows, at least ten feet out of my reach, came a glorious vision of deep blue sky, the perfume from innumerable baskets of sun-kissed flowers and herbs from the market across the way, occasionally the cheerful hum of busy voices. To spoil my complete appreciation of this pleasant suggestion of a gay city outside, however, I was, for the first time in my life, subjected to the indignity of handcuffs, and a short distance from me, one on either side, were a couple of picturesquely attired but savage-looking equivalents of the British policeman. The position was all the more uncomfortable because I had not the faintest idea from what direction the misfortune had arisen. I had been seated happily in a café not fifty yards away, enjoying the sunshine and a Vermouth Rossi, when I was suddenly surrounded by what seemed to me to be half the police force of the city. My name was demanded by the sergeant in charge and without the slightest hesitation I had been marched off to my present lodging. I had met with checks before in many of my enterprises; once in Mexico I had been in far worse straits, but nothing like this had ever happened. Notwithstanding my bewilderment, however, I kept calm and maintained a rigid silence. I have always believed that there is something to be gained through professing ignorance of the language of one's captors and I was hoping all the time that from the conversation of my guards I might discover the reason for my present plight. It seemed considerably longer but it was scarcely more than an hour when the tension of the situation was broken. From outside, the key clanked in the lock of my prison apartment. A policeman of apparently superior rank made hasty entrance, followed by a man in dark clothes whom I afterwards gathered to be a high official in the Italian secret service police. They had accepted the supposition that I spoke no Italian and the latter addressed me in German.
"The gentleman will kindly accompany us. The magistrate, Signor Bettini, is holding a court."
The manacles were removed from my wrists. That, at any rate, was a step in the right direction. I was led through several passages into a sombre apartment where an elderly and corpulent Italian, who was sweating profusely at the forehead, was seated before a table. To my surprise, he rose at my entrance and bowed.
"Signor Armstrong," he said in German, handing me a passport and some other papers which had been taken from me at my arrest, "permit me to return these. A mistake has been made. The apologies of the court are due to you. The clerk will return the money and other contents of your pockets."
"I am free?" I asked,
"The signor is perfectly free," the magistrate asserted, and it struck me that he was in deadly fear of something or other. "I trust that the signor will accept this expression of our profuse regrets. A similarity of name. Most unfortunate."
A packet, presumably containing the remainder of my personal belongings was thrust into my hands. I was escorted from the police court as though I had been a prince. The guards in the outside hall all saluted me. The magistrate himself walked by my side.
"I may hope, sir," he said, bending towards me, "that this incident will be forgotten. It is unfortunate that the alias under which the noble Baron is for excellent reasons paying his brief visit to the city resembles very closely the name of an Englishman for whom all our police were watching and who came to our city, without a doubt, with criminal intentions. That particular individual has shot himself at the hotel, on being arrested. He was occupying, by a singular coincidence, the adjoining apartment to you, signor, number 387."
"Do you mean to say that the man in the next room to mine at the Excelsior is dead?"
"It is quite true, signor," the magistrate replied. "The number of your room, I think, is 388. This man was occupying 387. Signor Vasili, of our secret police, came here at once on receipt of my telephone message. Is there anything I can do now to make amends?"
I hesitated, for it was a somewhat embarrassing moment. I was wondering who the mischief had been shot in my place. However, I was always something of an opportunist and I seized my chance.
"You can give me a note signed by yourself," I suggested, "which I can show in case a similar mistake happens again. I am a perfectly harmless person and the touch of those handcuffs was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life."
"The signor will wait one moment," the magistrate begged. "What he asks is perfectly reasonable."
He stood up at the desk of the outside courthouse and he wrote me a eulogy which took my breath away. I gathered that I was of noble birth, that I was a great friend of Italy's, personally known and vouched for at court and the Papal headquarters, and a person in favour with the great ones of the land. It enjoined all Italian citizens who were good Fascists to render me aid in any disturbance or trouble I might meet. To all this the magistrate set his signature, set the great seal of the court, placed it in a long envelope and inside the rubber band of the passport.
"This, dear sir," he said, holding out his hand, "will save you from any further trouble. Be so kind as to give me your assurance that this little contretemps is forgotten."
I accepted his hand.
"It passes entirely from my mind," I assured him.
"I thank the signor for his courtesy," was the magistrate's grateful acknowledgement.
Then I emerged once more into the thronged streets of Rome, called for a taxicab and sitting stiffly in my place was driven away.
My first direction to the driver had been the large and magnificent Excelsior where I had taken rooms. On the way there, however, I changed my mind. The experience through which I had passed baffled me. I determined that before I reached the hotel I must try and arrive at something approaching a solution. I directed the man to drive to the Galleria Colonna. There I dismissed him and, finding a quiet spot in an absolutely empty corner, I glanced first of all at the passport which had been returned to me and which I had been carrying, believing it to be mine. Enlightenment came like a flash.
The photograph was more like me than any photograph I had ever had taken in my life, but the name was Baron Albrecht von Hertzfeld; my profession, I gathered, was that of private secretary to the Foreign Relations Committee of the German Government, and my address in Berlin! The passport was stamped as of diplomatic issue carrying with it many privileges in various countries. I glanced at the papers. They were all in German and to do with matters of which I knew little, but the importance of which I recognised. I tore open the little packet of my personal belongings and found myself now the proud possessor of a gold and platinum cigarette-case bearing a large coronet on one side and a regimental coat-of-arms on the other; letters of credit for a large amount upon two German banks in Rome and a formidable roll of thousand-lire notes, besides some small change. There was a passionate love letter signed 'Magda', which I refrained from reading at the moment, and a card which informed me that a very great man next to the Dictator, the greatest in Italy, would grant me an interview at seven o'clock that evening. I was begged to come informally and to keep my name and mission secret from any members of the Press who might approach me. There was also a small pocket-book in which I found the key to a short cipher and I also found what gave me some faint inkling as to what had happened—in a secret compartment a few private visiting cards on which appeared solely the name of Johan Armstrong, Importer of Foreign Wines, with an address in Berlin.
I left the gallery without even stopping to glance at one of my favourite pictures, and, walking the distance of several streets, took a taxicab from a stand near the river. Once again I collected the whole of the baron's possessions and submitted them to careful examination. Then I made my plans. I might have to change them suddenly. I might meet with disaster. But at any rate I felt all the old tingling in my blood which came to me when I was really walking in the land of adventure. The next half-hour, I felt, would probably decide my fate. I had taken great chances in life before, but these were almost the greatest odds I had ever faced. I looked at myself in the mirror of the cab, straightened my hair, gave a little more martial twirl to my moustache, disposed of my belongings in my various pockets and told myself most emphatically that I was the Baron Albrecht von Hertzfeld and that I was in a temper, or soon should be. Then I drove underneath the porte cochère of the Excelsior, paid off my chauffeur and, approaching the broad mahogany counter, asked for key number 388. It was passed over to me at once with a smile and bow from the concièrge and I mounted to the third floor, swinging it in my hand. As I strode along the corridor, I noticed several servants outside the door of my former apartment talking excitedly amongst themselves. I ignored them, however, opened the door of number 388 and closed it behind me. Everything here was as I had anticipated.
There were two large suitcases on luggage stands, each ornamented with a coronet. There was a great vase of roses, the bathroom was filled with luxurious etceteras to a man's toilet. Then, as though noticing the sound of voices outside for the first time, I opened my door and looked out.
"What is it that has happened there?" I asked, pointing to the seal upon the adjoining door.
A waiter stepped forward.
"We are forbidden to say a word, signor," he said. "If you would be so good, Gnädiger Baron, to ask at the office—"
"The office be damned," I answered. "Let them come to me."
I strode to the telephone. I demanded 'Enquiries.'
"It is the Baron von Hertzfeld who speaks," I thundered out. "Send me the manager at once."
I strolled about the room, taking careful note of everything so far as I could. To my relief, I came to the conclusion that the baron was travelling without a manservant. In a minute or two the manager, flurried and anxious, made his appearance.
"What is the meaning of all this commotion?" I demanded.
The manager signalled the waiter to leave.
"Monsieur le Baron," he said, "I appeal to you. Be lenient with us. A tragedy has happened in the room adjoining yours. Its occupant was found this morning—dead—in the corridor. I fear there is no doubt that he was assassinated for political reasons, although the doctors are willing to look upon it as a case of suicide. What makes the matter more unfortunate," the manager went on, gaining courage, "is that the valet who waited upon the two rooms became so thoroughly confused at the enquiry which took place here after the tragedy had been discovered this morning, he broke down altogether. It seems that there was some likeness between you, Baron, and the Mr. John Armstrong of England who occupied the other room. You, neither of you, it seemed, were travelling with personal servants and in brushing your clothes and replacing them he confesses that he got absolutely confused. The police inspector was perhaps a little severe with him. At any rate, he broke down and was carried away to hospital. He was suffering from shell-shock when we accepted him here but we thought he had every chance of recovery. Now it is impossible to say."
"I have plenty of clothes here," I declared impatiently, "and an odd suit or two makes no difference, in any case. I should like to know a little more about this fellow who was murdered and who also called himself Armstrong."
"So far, Gnädiger Baron, the matter is a complete mystery," the hotel manager declared. "The British Consul has been informed and beyond that we shall do nothing. If you would care to change your suite," he suggested, "to another part of the hotel—"
"Not worth while, thank you," I answered. "I will not detain you any longer, signor. I wish to change my clothes and keep an appointment."
The manager took his leave. I rang for a waiter and ordered a bottle of Scotch whisky and Seltzer water. I made myself a stiff drink. Several possible complications of this affair had already presented themselves to me. The one consoling fact, however, was the nearness of the date when Orlino would receive me. Seven o'clock that evening. I glanced at my watch. It was already past five. I went through all the baron's papers once more, then I selected one of his overcoats, a black Homburg hat, a pair of gloves of very superior quality and a cane. As I passed the enquiry office on my way out the clerk hurried towards me.
"This despatch has just arrived, Monsieur le Baron," he announced.
I tore it open without hesitation. It consisted of one word only—'Subito'—and I saw that it had been handed in at Berlin. I made my way to one of the writing-tables and from the baron's pocket-book I drew out the small code. It took me less than ten seconds to trace the word.
'SUBITO: Report progress immediately.'
I took out a form and turned to the other side of the code. This was easier still. I found a single word for 'All goes well' and added 'Hope settlement Thursday.' I arranged this in code, addressed it according to the instructions and handed it over the counter. The clerk who accepted it waved away my money.
"It will be on the bill, Baron," he told me, "I will see that it goes off at once."
I passed out, called a taxicab and in half an hour I was deposited at the great aeroplane works near the boundaries of the city. I asked to speak to one of the principals. It was fortunate, they told me in the office, that the Chevalier Tonelli was still in his office. In reply to a remark of mine about closing, he only smiled.
"We have been open night and day for four years, signor," he told me.
I found myself in a few minutes shaking hands with the virtual manager of the place, a slim, rather gaunt-faced Italian whose name was becoming famous all over the world in connection with his newly designed war planes. I drew from my pocket the note written by the magistrate.
"I will just explain, signor," I said, "that I am here on a mission of great importance and I have an interview which will conclude my business in an hour or so. You have my card there. Perhaps you would care just to look through this letter."
I handed him the few words scrawled by the magistrate, begging all good sons of Italy to render every assistance possible to the distinguished bearer. Signor Tonelli smiled as he folded it up and handed it back.
"It is not necessary, this, Baron," he assured me. "My entire services are at your command. If you wish for anything possible it shall be done. If you wish for anything impossible it shall also be done. Proceed, if you please."
"My interview is at seven o'clock," I said. "I shall be ready to leave Rome at nine o'clock. I wish to purchase from you," I produced my pocket-book, "one of your Silver Lightning passenger planes with twin engines. It must be one that has already been tried and it must be ready to take me to Berlin to-night."
Signor Tonelli smiled.
"And for a moment," he remarked, "I imagined the Baron was going to ask me something difficult. The plane will cost you 12,000 lire. Will you permit me to show you the one I suggest?"
He led the way out into the works. We seated ourselves on a small trolley and in a few minutes found ourselves in a huge arched room. There were a dozen glittering monsters of aluminium and steel, monsters to look at but little chambers of luxury when one had mounted the steps.
"This one on the outside came in yesterday morning from its trials," Signor Tonelli confided. "Guido!"
One of the foremen hurried up and saluted.
"Can you have number seventeen there ready for Berlin by nine o'clock?"
"I can have it ready in half an hour, if you desire, sir."
"You would like to make a close inspection?" the manufacturer asked me. "Here is a pamphlet with all the particulars," he went on, taking one from a stand. "We can guarantee you, I think, one hundred and seventy-five miles an hour. You will, I presume, require a pilot and a mechanic."
"For this flight, of course," I assented. "I have had some experience in flying but I shall need to keep your pilot and mechanic for at least a week and you must explain to them that they are entirely at my disposal during that time."
Signor Tonelli looked at me for a moment shrewdly.
"Well," he reflected, "I suppose that is reasonable. I shall come myself to see you off. You will ring up this number when you are free and come straight to our private enclosure at the Campagna Flying Grounds. It will take you a half-hour by motor from anywhere in the city."
I counted out the money, adding a margin for the services of the pilot and the mechanic and for the fuel required. Signor Tonelli shook hands with a smile
"I think," he confided, "that that is the quickest sale I have ever made. The money in my pocket, the engines already being tuned up, you in the air to-night. One lives. It is great business."
I drove back to Rome. I kept away from the Excelsior, but I went to a small cafe where I ate a hasty meal. Precisely at seven o'clock I descended at the magnificent residence of Signor Orlino. On the production of my card I was led at once to a very beautiful library from which the great statesman was supposed to mould the mind not only of his master but of many other famous men of Europe. He welcomed me cordially.
"Our first meeting, I think, Baron," he remarked. "I am very happy to have this opportunity. Come, we are not going to hurry over this séance, you know. Make yourself quite comfortable in that easy chair and let us be as human as possible. Here on this tray," he added, turning to a solemn-faced butler who had just entered bearing a silver salver, "you will find a flask of our old Orvieto, which we Italians think the greatest wine there is, two glasses and some of our Pampalini sandwiches. If you wish for cigars they can be obtained. These are my favourite cigarettes."
"A most delightful accompaniment to our conversation, signor," I said. "I seldom smoke cigars."
"We will drink the first glass," Signor Orlino proposed, watching them as they were filled, "to our complete understanding."
We drank together, our right hands extended. I decided that my host was the most likeable fellow. I remembered those few lines of instructions which I had read. I was in no hurry to talk.
"Signor," I confided, "I am here with unusual powers, it is true, but in the first place and the last I am a listener. With as much detail as you can afford to give me, I desire, in the secrecy of this apartment, that you reveal the basis of this proposed arrangement."
"It is a joyous task," Orlino assured me. "But first you shall feast your eyes upon this, the wickedest letter ever written by any great statesman. You will understand then the reasons for our proposal and at the same time its justification."
Orlino unlocked a drawer of his desk and produced a small black coffer of some sort of metal. He unlocked this and took from it a sealed packet, broke the seal, drew out a letter written in pen and ink in thin, spidery handwriting, very clear and distinct, and handed it over to me. I read it from beginning to end, carefully affecting not to notice the fact that Orlino's fingers inside the drawer were resting upon a small revolver.
"The letter itself is not for our discussion. It is our justification," he observed.
"It is enough," I said.
Orlino replaced the letter in the envelope, resealed it and returned it to the coffer.
"Now," he went on, leaning a little across the table, "these are the plans of my illustrious master. They are the product of his brain—not mine. I take no credit for them. I am his spokesman."
"That is understood," I agreed.
Orlino cleared his throat and fixed his attention entirely upon me. For an hour he spoke, during which my interruptions were monosyllabic and trivial. I will admit that I was fascinated by the man. What he said has no part in my story and I shall never disclose it, but its subtlety, its logic, its plausibility, lacked nothing in the telling. I watched him with increasing wonder. His expression seemed to change every second. His face, so still and composed at my entrance, seemed to have developed rubber-like qualities. His gesticulations drove home his words. It was a wonderful yet a fruitless effort. I kept myself firmly in hand. I told myself that this must be played out to the end without a backward thought, yet twice, when the telephone rang and his sole gesture was to remove the instrument without a break even in his tone, I was conscious of a faint shiver. I knew so well that although this far-reaching scheme could with great propriety be communicated to the private and trusted envoy of Germany, the Baron von Hertzfeld, the Englishman—myself, a stray unit without a nation at the back of him, sitting there with a false passport in his pocket and nothing to excuse his mad impersonation—was face to face with eternity with every buzz of the telephone, with every second ticked out by the clock on the mantel.
Orlino was pleased with himself. He was so inspired by his subject that quite unconsciously, I am sure, he finished with the peroration of an orator. He had spent so much of himself that he rose to his feet at the finish and passed a scented silk handkerchief across his glistening forehead. I played up to him, filled with a grim resolution to keep this duologue true to life. I, too, rose to my feet and grasped his hand.
"It is magnificent," was all that I trusted myself to say.
His eyes glittered.
"Your master?" he demanded. "Tell me, as man to man, how will he react to this?"
It was my moment. I threw myself into my part to the utmost of my ability.
"Signor," I said, "have no doubt of one thing. He will be transported—he will be in a frenzy—but remember he is a man without imagination. After his first outburst of approval, I can see the shadow come over his face. He will remember that all this is built up, has been justified, glorified even, by one page of handwriting. He will stretch out his hands as though to grip the air. He will say: 'Show me that letter!'"
"But you," Orlino protested, "you are his other self. You have seen the letter."
I was catching some of his excitement. I gripped his hand once more.
"Signor," I cried, "he would not trust his own mother if she came out of heaven and told him those words had been written by that man! He would demand to see them. Oh, I know that suspicious nature—all that stands between him and real greatness, but it is there. What does it matter? Let him see the letter. In forty-eight hours it shall be back again."
He seemed stricken aghast by my request.
"You demand the impossible!" he exclaimed. "You do not realise what the possession of that letter means. It means the downfall of Great Britain's stiff-necked, hypocritical government. It will be like the writing upon the sky for future generations, the proof that England and England's statesmen are no more to be trusted. No excuse will ever wash out the shame of it. It may have been written in a moment of madness, but that matters little. The written word cannot be denied."
"The letter will be as safe with me for a few hours as though it were in that coffer," I argued. "It will pass straight from my hands into the hands of a man for whom it will be a writing in letters of gold. It will bring about what has long been the ambition of every mid-European statesman. Think of it, signor! Germany, France and Italy united and allied against Great Britain, and Russia our benevolent friend in the background! You take her colonies when you choose. You will bring her people to the verge of starvation in less than a month. All this is true," I concluded passionately, "and yet, signor, I can only repeat that you do not know my master. He reads that letter once and the affair is concluded. All that you have spoken of will happen. But—he must see with his own eyes."
It was clear that I had made an impression. Orlino drank his wine thoughtfully. He refilled my glass and his own. Twice his hand went out to the telephone, only to be withdrawn. He rose to his feet and paced up and down the few yards behind his chair. It was I who broke the silence.
"I regret, signor," I said, "that I have given you such cause for disturbance. I can, if you wish, return to-night. I can repeat, so far as my poor choice of words will permit me, all that you have said. I can assure him that I have seen the letter, but I can tell you now most surely what the answer will be—either you must come to Berlin or he must come to Rome. He will not act unless he has seen with his own eyes what I have seen."
"And yet you—you," he muttered, "are supposed to be his trusted envoy."
"Signor," I rejoined, "I do not think there exists a man in the world who would trust another's eyesight in this matter."
"You have seen the telegrams to-night?" Orlino demanded. "You realise that if England and France come together over this Spanish business our great opportunity will have passed?"
"The more reason," I told him boldly, "for you to speed me on my mission."
I think that was the moment when Orlino made up his mind. He spoke through his telephone earnestly. Then he rose and took me by the arm.
"I cannot leave even you here alone," he said. "Come with me. I speak with the Chief himself."
We walked into a small soundproof chamber lit only by a single electric light, without windows and only the one door through which we had passed. He left me in a distant corner and for five minutes he conversed in muffled tones with his unseen master. Presently he hung up, led me back to the other room, unlocked the coffer, drew out the letter, placed it in another envelope and sealed that.
"Your plans for leaving here?" he asked.
"Are made," I told him. "I have worked it all out. I ask for no more than forty-eight hours."
"My life is pledged on your safe return," he said.
He touched a bell. My audience was at an end. I left him seated at his desk, his thin features drawn as though with pain. He was a man in anguish. Until the door was safely closed I feared every moment that I should be called back. Nothing untoward happened, however. I was escorted to the street by bowing servants. The motor-car placed at my disposal by Orlino was waiting in the street. At the flying ground the wonderful engines of my plane were already humming as I drove down the long level way towards the hangar. I held my watch in my hand as I ran up the steps.
"Avanti—subissimo!" I ordered.
I felt the air beneath me. I had a brief panoramic view of the buildings below, the busy streets, the little knot of spectators who had seen us off. There was no sign of any disturbance, but as we reached the clouds I fancied that I heard a gun below. I was busy with the wireless, however. It took me only a few seconds to put it out of action. The pilot's bell rang.
"The route, signor?" he demanded.
"Croydon," I answered.
I saw the pilot lean towards his mechanic. They talked together. I touched the signal bell.
"It is understood," I said, "that I have purchased the machine and that you are acting under my orders?"
"Si, si, signor," was the prompt reply.
"Understand then," I continued, "that I desire to call first at Croydon. I know the route."
There was another brief hesitation, then they both glanced round; they both nodded.
"A hundred pounds extra if we are there before daylight," I promised.
From underneath their visored helmets I seemed to catch their genial acquiescence. We were well above the clouds now and travelling at a great speed. I watched the needle of the compass. Our course was properly set. I tested the wireless. It was inoperative. There could be no sleep for me, however. I sat with folded arms rigidly awake whilst the stars paled, the inky clouds dispersed and the grey lights pierced the darkness behind. The mechanic in front pointed exultingly downwards. We seemed to be approaching a dark chasm with irregular lights. I nodded understandingly. It was the North Sea.
I am not sure that I did not value more than the notes I was presently to handle, the complete change in Colonel Guy's whole appearance as I sank a little wearily into the chair by his desk. I was wearing grey tweeds, permitting myself the use of a monocle, my linen was from Bond Street and showed no signs of disarray and I had a bunch of violets in my buttonhole. I drew off my chamois-leather gloves and handed him the packet. For a moment he forgot to open it. The tired look seemed to have faded from his face, the little pouches had disappeared from under his eyes, his mouth was slightly open. He stared at me just as though he were looking at an impossibility.
"Who in God's name are you?" he muttered at last.
"Ah," I reflected, "that requires consideration. If you looked in my pocket you would see my cards are engraved in the name of Reginald Salter. All quite in order, I can assure you. I am a bona fide member of the club you would find in the left-hand corner, and the chambers in John Street are also mine. If you went into particulars you would even find that my linen and underclothes were all properly marked 'R.S.' You see," I continued, "I never entered into this business as an amateur, Colonel. I had to provide for every contingency."
"But I have just heard from the Consul," he protested. "John Armstrong—-your description exactly when you left here—an unknown Englishman found dead in a corridor at the Excelsior Hotel."
"That, I am afraid, was another man altogether," I confided, "although he had the misfortune to greatly resemble me. You need have no fear, however, that I have been indulging in promiscuous bloodshed. His assassination was purely a political affair. I had no hand in his killing, although it has put me very much on my guard. You observe that I no longer wear a moustache and that my appearance is greatly changed."
"I'm damned if I should have known you anywhere," the colonel admitted, "but you don't mean to say—"
He seemed suddenly to realise what that envelope before him meant. He literally fell upon it, tore the seal away and drew out the letter with trembling fingers. He read a few lines and I heard a little gulp in his throat. It is my belief that he was as near hysterics as any man I have ever seen. He raised himself with difficulty to his feet, swung open the door of a small safe, deposited the letter there, reset the combination and closed the door again. When he sat down in his chair he was breathing heavily. He gazed at me with fascinated eyes.
"The man who lies dead at the Excelsior," I observed, "carried my passport, it is true, thanks to the blunder of a shell-shocked valet, and was found outside the bedroom allotted to me, but as I daresay they may discover some day, he was a German—Baron von Hertzfeld—who bore, most unfortunately for him, a strong resemblance to me. He was a special envoy from Berlin."
The colonel held up his hands.
"No more, I beg of you," he said, unlocking a drawer by his side and bringing out a pile of notes.
"I am afraid," I told him, conveniently forgetting that little packet of lire notes, "that I shall require a few extras. I had to buy a very expensive plane and I had to promise the mechanic and pilot a considerable sum—a hundred pounds—to reach here by dawn. The price of the machine was 12,000 lire. That I paid for. Considering the gentleman whom I interviewed on behalf of the government explained that this letter was worth several hundreds of millions of pounds—"
The colonel was recovering himself. He was jotting figures down hastily. He pushed a bundle of notes across to me.
"Five thousand pounds, Mr.—er—"
"Salter," I reminded him.
"Thank you," he said. "Will you accept that as sufficient recompense and undertake to pay what is necessary in your own way and in your own name, keeping us entirely out of it?"
"I will do that with pleasure," I promised, "and I will accept the balance as you suggest. To tell you the truth, though," I went on, "I am not quite sure whether I am taking on any more political business. I can get all the excitement I want as a straightforward criminal."
The colonel looked at me and there was something of that appearance of shock still in his face.
"Young man or middle-aged man, or whatever you are," he said, "the sooner you get out of this place the better. You have done a wonderful stroke of work, but I pray to heaven that we never see or hear of you again."
I sighed, buttoned up my pocket-book and picked up my cane and gloves.
"A trifle ungrateful, Colonel," I remonstrated. "I have been murdered by proxy, walked on the brink of eternity for three days and used up one of my best and soundest identities. As I remarked before, I think in future I will stick to my own line of business."
The colonel waved his hand in silent adieu. As a matter of fact, as I descended the stairs I realised that I was wandering far from the truth. There was a pleasant sense of buoyancy about my whole being—I held my head high, I had tasted adventure, fierce, maddening adventure. I had succeeded in my enterprise against terrible odds and there was no sense of shame to mar my triumph. This was one of the days when I felt the change that was coming. I walked up to Trafalgar Square puzzled, a little worried. For once, I was scarcely honest with myself. I found myself wondering whether some day I might unlock the gates and walk with other men in the world where the prizes were fewer but the burden less grievous.
THROUGHOUT my life I have been governed and warned by instinct. Even as I acceded to the genial-looking butler's invitation and stepped into the luxurious hall of the Brockman place somewhere on the far edge of Long Island, I knew that I had made a mistake. To all appearance, nothing could have been more harmless or less sinister than the butler himself or his surroundings. The atmosphere of the place was luxurious and homely, from the grandfather's-clock ticking melodiously in the corner to the row of sporting prints and the pleasant decorations so entirely reminiscent of an English country house. Neither was there anything in the least forbidding in the appearance or the expression of the man who, in a loose tweed suit and with a spaniel at his heels, had just strolled out from one of the rooms on the ground floor. The butler turned to him with a respectful bow and explained the situation. "This gentleman has lost his way, sir. He called to ask if we could direct him to the Merryways place."
The newcomer frowned and looked at me dubiously. In a sense, he was of unusual type, for although he was no longer young, there was scarcely a wrinkle on his face and his brown hair was only slightly streaked with grey.
"The Merryways place," he repeated. "Why, yes, I know that, of course, quite well. Often over there myself. It is not easy to direct a stranger, though. Just step into my library with me for a moment, will you, and I'll show you a map."
I thanked him, the butler took my hat and I was ushered into a very pleasant library.
"I was told that the Merryways place—" I ventured.
"Yes, yes," my host intervened. "First of all, do you mind telling me your name?"
"Clarence Hobson," I replied.
That was the name upon my passport and my visiting cards.
"You arc an Englishman?"
"And what is your real business here?"
His tone had lost its first kindly note of hospitality. I began to scent trouble at hand even before I had anticipated it.
"Precisely what I have explained," I answered. "I am sorry if you consider it an intrusion, but I had hopelessly lost my way and I called, hoping one of your people might be able to direct me."
He was looking at me searchingly.
"I saw you, I think, talking to three of my guests in the grounds."
"I drew up and asked them the question I have asked your butler," I told him. "I thought it would save me the trouble of coming to the door. They explained that they were strangers."
"Were they strangers to you?" he persisted.
The question puzzled me.
"They most certainly were," I replied. "There was a young man, a young lady, who appeared to me to be a foreigner, and a girl. No one else."
"And you had never seen one of them before?"
"Never in my life," I assured him.
"You may be telling the truth," my host observed. "If you are, nothing serious is likely to happen to you. If you're not, you are a very, very foolish person."
I rose to my feet.
"If you are not inclined to direct me to my destination," I suggested, "perhaps I had better relieve you of my presence."
"I'm afraid your departure will not be quite such a simple matter as all that," he said. "I regret having to seem discourteous, Mr. Hobson, but you have blundered into a little affair which does not concern you and we cannot afford to let you go just yet."
He was standing looking at me with menace in his eyes and he had the air of a man who was very much in earnest.
"I certainly chose the wrong person to ask the way to the Merryways place," I remarked.
"You certainly did," was the cold rejoinder. "But it is as well for you to get this clearly into your head. There are five men in this house engaged upon a somewhat unusual scheme and, although bluster is not one of our weapons, we all carry the means to enforce our will upon strangers. If you get—troublesome—or too inquisitive, out you go."
"Nothing I should like better," I assured him.
"We are at cross-purposes," my companion observed, striking a match and lighting a cigarette. "I mean that you—er—disappear. Shall I explain further?"
"For heaven's sake, no," I begged. "Try to give the conversation a lighter tone if you can. What time do we lunch, for instance?"
He pressed a bell upon the table. Almost before he could remove his thumb a servant was standing on the threshold.
"Two double dry martinis, James," my host ordered. "This gentleman—for the moment I forget your name, sir?"
"Hobson," I reminded him. "Mr. Hobson will be lunching."
"Very good, sir."
The man withdrew.
"Meet Henry J. Brockman," my vis-à-vis announced. "For your information I may tell you that I am not an habitual criminal, but there are two or three others in the house who are. This scheme I have spoken of is being worked for big stakes and I should count a half-a-dozen men's lives as no more than a snap of the fingers if they got in the way. You have blundered into it—blundered, that is to say, if you are telling the truth. I wanted no one to see that girl. You arc the only person who has seen her since we took her out of New York. You'll have to stay right here now until we've finished."
I looked around me.
"Well," I remarked, "you appear to have a few books here and I like the sound of that order you just gave your servant."
"You will be treated as an honoured guest, if you play the game. If you try any funny business you will slip out of this world as quickly as any man could after he has been strapped in the chair at Sing Sing," Mr. Brockman told me suavely but bluntly. "Your instructions are to play the dummy. You are Mr. Clarence Hobson, a guest of the house. You are to take no part in what is going on. You will be present and hear nothing. You will see things and remain passive. You will hear other people talk and remain silent. Do you understand?"
"But I like to talk," I complained.
Mr. Brockman smiled sardonically.
"You will have to deny yourself for a time. You have plenty of nerve, I see. Nerve generally goes with brain. Use your brain and save your life. Play the perfect dummy till I say the word. It may be three, it may be five, it may even be seven days, but the time will come when you will find your car outside and you can go where you damn' well please. If before that day you interfere in what is no concern of yours—well, you know the consequences."
The cocktails were brought in. They appeared to me perfectly mixed, the glasses were expensive, the salver was of silver, and the almonds were crisply toasted.
"It's a bargain," I decided.
There were six of us who sat down to lunch at a canopied table out upon the terrace which commanded a magnificent view of some very wild country. To each one of the others I was duly presented.
Mr. Higgins, a bespectacled, worried-looking young man of frail physique, appeared to be Mr. Brockman's secretary and spent half his time at the telephone.
The pale, dissipated-looking youth was introduced as the Marquis Eugène de Forêt. He had a mass of black hair, an unwholesome complexion, he was without any distinction or presence and his accent was much more the accent of Broadway than of Paris.
The governess, Mademoiselle Lachaise, was dark, with rather an elegant figure but untidy in her dress and with the manners of a demi-mondaine.
The girl, with a piquant little face, very blue eyes and sunburnt cheeks, was the only one except our host with the slightest claim to any distinction. It seemed, however, as though her natural high spirits were under a cloud. She looked across at me once or twice half wistfully, but she talked scarcely at all and ate very little.
Mademoiselle chattered away incessantly but met with scant response from anyone. Our host indulged in an occasional sentence of formal conversation but his attention was continually diverted by scraps of paper which his secretary brought him—the results of the latter's frequent visits to the telephone. The lunch was well cooked and excellently served. The light Moselle was the best wine of its sort I had tasted in the States. The coffee, too, was very good. When the meal was over, Brockman drew me away from the others and led me into the library. He was still carrying the slips of paper in his hand.
"You have an excellent chef," I remarked lightly, as I lit a cigarette.
"Glad you approve. Please take careful note of my advice to you, Mr. Hobson. The crisis which is going on in this house does not concern you, but you may very likely, from your powers of observation, and from the fact that I have not attempted to keep you isolated, arrive at an understanding as to what it means. I have no objection. I will even tell you this much. I am fighting a great battle against an ancient opponent of mine upon the New York Stock Exchange. He is out to ruin me, and to protect myself I hold as hostage—his daughter. Does your moral sense revolt at such a position?"
"I have never cultivated a moral sense," I told him indifferently. "I am a cosmopolitan and I take life as I find it."
"You tolerate even kidnapping?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"At any rate you have not robbed the cradle," I murmured.
"Until this crisis is over," Brockman continued, speaking slowly and with his eyes fixed upon me, "you will remain here. You will have the freedom of the house, to a certain extent, but I prefer that you use only this library, the small study opening from it, your own bedroom and the billiard-room. The grounds are at your disposal, but you must not touch a gate that leads out of them. You will find it useless if you do and I must warn you that you will be watched from the moment you leave your room in the morning until the moment you go to bed. If you play the part of the dummy as it should be played there is a very fair chance that you may get away from this place alive. If you make any attempt to interfere with my plans—well, I think that I need not threaten."
"You need not," I assured him. "Is the use of the telephone, may I ask, allowed?"
Mr. Brockman smiled. The question appealed in some way to his sense of humour.
"Well," he replied, "I think it best if I say at once that it is not allowed, but let me tell you this—if by any chance you fancied yourself alone and cared to take the risk, you could telephone—well, until you were tired of it—without result. Every call from here and to here goes through a private receiving station of my own. One of our foremost financiers thought out the scheme a few years ago, and I have adopted it."
"Then the long and short of it is that I am a prisoner."
"A fortunate prisoner, I hope you will realise," my self-appointed guardian declared. "You have the bathing pool, the tennis courts, and my library entirely at your disposal. If you desire to occupy your ingenuity, your mental ingenuity perhaps I should say, you will have a very interesting problem to solve. You can work out for yourself just the nature of the crisis which is going on around you. Why not have a nap under that cedar tree? Another cigarette before you go?"
I took the box which he handed me. They were an imported brand and of the finest quality tobacco.
"Am I to take your suggestion as a challenge?" I asked.
"As you will," he answered. "It might well be one of those cases, however," he added after a moment's pause, "in which success would be more dangerous than failure."
I spent three most interesting days under the roof of Mr. Henry J. Brockman. To all appearance I was obeying instructions and making of myself the perfect dummy. As a matter of fact, I had never made such calls upon my intelligence, I had never shown more ingenuity in some of my designs, I had never been treated more kindly by what we call luck in some of my tentative enterprises.
The most poignant recollection I have of those three days, apart from my own activities, was the astonishing change manifest in so short a period in the appearance of my companions. The girl, who at that first luncheon had seemed a somewhat anxious but high-spirited young schoolgirl, was creeping about the place now with that furtive expression of fear in her face which seemed entirely unnatural for a child of her age. The governess was nervous and jumpy but even more flamboyant, reeking with cosmetics, her questioning eyes never at rest. The youth Eugène resembled more than ever a drugged and spineless young parasite. Brockman had new lines in his face, a grim set about his mouth, a malevolent, sinister gleam in his eyes. His rather effective presentation of the country gentleman had disappeared. There was something criminal and unwholesome in his look. The least affected of all was the secretary, who spent his time, as before, gliding backwards and forwards between the various telephones, whose secrets I had still failed to solve.
On the morning of the fourth day, I was seated in his study with Brockman, who was waiting for his usual batch of telephone messages. We heard light footsteps upon the terrace. The girl timidly entered. Her face was white and drawn. She had evidently summoned up all her courage.
"Mr. Brockman, if you please," she said, "will you tell me why I am being kept here?"
Henry J. Brockman had discarded his mask of geniality. He smiled at her question but it was the smile of a hypocrite. Fear shone out of the girl's eyes.
"How old are you, Betty?" he asked.
"I am fifteen."
"Have you ever heard of little girls, and boys sometimes, who have been stolen—kidnapped—by bad men?"
"Of course I have," she answered.
"Well, you have been kidnapped, my dear," her questioner confided.
She looked at him in blank horror. She turned towards me but there was no expression in my face.
"What nonsense!" she cried. "I am too old to kidnap."
"Perhaps I used the wrong word," Mr. Brockman acknowledged. "I have come to the conclusion that your father is too occupied in business to look after you properly. You are here to be married."
"Married?" she repeated incredulously.
"To my young friend the Marquis Eugène de Forêt. He has a French title but a good American heart. He is very fond of you, Betty."
"That is ridiculous," she scoffed. "I never saw him before and I don't like him. I am going to marry Luke Campbell as soon as he leaves college, and I wouldn't marry Eugène," she went on with a contemptuous gesture, "for anything in the world."
"Dear me," Mr. Brockman sighed, "this is very unfortunate. After I have gone to so much trouble, too!"
The girl began to cry. She was without a doubt more terrified than ever. I saw Brockman look at me out of the corner of his eye. My complete impassivity seemed somehow or other to have disturbed him.
"I must have a little time to think this over," he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Run away and leave us for a time, my dear."
He waved his hand towards the window. The girl turned reluctantly away after one appealing glance in my direction, to which I refused to respond. Brockman looked across at me.
"Let's cut it short," he enjoined curtly. "Have you tumbled to the game yet?"
"Not altogether," I admitted.
"Well then, you're a bigger fool than I thought you," he snapped out. "You know that we're kidnappers—Eugène and I. Now what about that?"
I shrugged my shoulders and tapped a cigarette thoughtfully upon the table.
"Yes, I know that," I admitted. "Kidnapping, I understand, is one of the professions legally recognised out here. If it pays you and if you are getting any sport out of it, carry on with the good work—but why drag me into it?"
"You blithering fool, can't you see that this marriage game is not only a bluff? We've got hold of a real parson and we mean business. If the girl's father holds out another twenty-four hours they're going to be married, those two. Not only that, but they are going off together on their honeymoon."
"What do you expect to get out of that?" I asked.
"Have you ever known a parent hesitate when the knife is at his child's throat?" he demanded. "The old man will give in at the last moment. He has only to pull one string. In five minutes the market is back where I want it. Then he can have his daughter."
"It's a dangerous game to play," I remarked.
"That's why I'm talking to you straight," he said savagely. "There are five men in this house and we all carry two guns. What's more, we've got 'em handy and we've got the house rigged up for the job. If you get fresh—out you go."
"You told me all this when I first came," I complained, "except that you have become a little more explicit now. Have you anything to grumble at in my behaviour? I consider I have been a perfect dummy."
We stared at one another for a moment. If he had been harbouring any suspicions of me I think they faded away.
"Do you mind if I play a game of tennis with the young lady?" I concluded. "I've walked round your garden until I'm sick of it."
"Go and do what you damn' well please so long as you keep your mouth shut and remember what I've told you," he muttered, waving me towards the window as Higgins, the secretary, entered the room with a handful of paper slips.
I crossed over to the garden seat where the girl was sprawling alone.
"What's become of the young man?" I asked.
"Necking with Mademoiselle in the shrubbery," she answered with a contemptuous movement of the head. "Watching me at the same time, I expect."
"What about playing me a set of tennis?" I suggested.
She looked at me doubtfully. Her impudent little smile was childishly attractive.
"Can you play?" she asked.
"I'm out of practice," I replied. "I'll give you thirty."
The smile re-established itself. I tossed her for service and won, selected a racquet and achieved my purpose. She called me up to the net.
"Say, who are you? Perry, by any chance?"
"Never mind about that. You want to get out of this place?"
"I'll die, if I don't," she answered with a pathetic choke in her voice.
"How did you get here?"
"Mademoiselle. We go for a drive every afternoon. She brought me here. Are you going to help me get away?"
"I've been thinking about it for the last three days," I told her.
She looked at me tearfully. Her voice shook. I always have a feeling when I'm being watched and I felt it then.
"Go back to your place and serve," I said.
She obeyed and I played pat-ball with great care for some time. She came to the net breathlessly at the end of the set.
"Say, you are good!" she exclaimed. "I never saw anyone like you. Have you ever played at Wimbledon?"
I laughed softly.
"Listen," I enjoined, "we'll have another set. Someone is watching us. I'll owe thirty as well, this time."
We played energetically for half an hour. I let her win a point now and then and every time she scored she screamed with joy. When we had finished, the colour had come back to her cheeks and her really very beautiful hair was streaming in the wind. For a time, at any rate, she had forgotten her fear. We walked up towards the house together. I had not the heart to stop her from holding my arm.
"You will think of something, won't you?" she begged. "Mademoiselle leaves me alone after dinner and I get more and more frightened every night."
"I'll do everything that I can," I promised.
I waved her on to the house and returned to the tennis court, took up a few balls and practised serves. Mademoiselle, smoothing her hair, hurried after her charge. The young man came sulkily towards me.
"Want to play a game?" I asked him.
"I guess not," he replied. "I hate games. I should think you make your living by them, don't you?"
"You appear to be making yours in a pretty filthy fashion," I told him.
He swung away. I pulled him back and he squealed with pain as he felt my fingers on his wrist.
"Stay here until I've finished with you," I ordered. "What I should like to know from you is why you are playing this rotten game with that child, pretending you are going to marry her and rubbish like that when there's a beautiful girl around like Mademoiselle Julie?"
I thought for a moment that he was going to burst into tears.
"It was Julie who got me into this," he confided.
"She used to come to Toby Hawkes's night club. She's not a governess really. She's a nice girl, all right," he added truculently, "but her father had lost all his money—"
"How much are you getting for this game?" I interrupted.
"A thousand dollars," he admitted sulkily, "and another five hundred because I found the parson."
"You're running a hell of a risk," I warned him. "First of all, you are marrying a girl whose father is a millionaire and will pretty soon buy you into cold storage, and secondly, directly you leave this house with her for a honeymoon, the law will have you for abduction."
"Brockman is going to look after all that," he assured me.
"Not a chance," I answered. "He will be a pauper by the time he has finished this little juggle in stocks. The girl's father is out to smash him."
"Anyhow," the young man groaned, "I can't get out of it now."
"Yes, you can," I insisted.
"Listen carefully," I went on. "If you give me away I'll kill you. I came down to help myself to the Merryways pearls. There's something better to be done here. I'll let you in, if you like. I'll double your rotten thousand dollars, but if you split I'll kill you—sure as you live. I don't often threaten, but I've never threatened yet without keeping my word."
"I won't split," the boy faltered. "What can you do, though? Brockman is in with Toby Hawkes and that lot. He's got four tough guys down here, patent automatic locks on every door and gate and men on duty all the time."
"There's a back door leading from the kitchen garden into the garage," I told him, communicating one of my recent discoveries. "Could you get into the garage that way?"
"Sure, but I couldn't get out—not with the car. The main doors are fixed so that nothing can open them."
"You've only two things to do," I impressed upon him. "Listen—you know the room where the child sleeps?"
"Yes, Mademoiselle sleeps there, too."
"Mademoiselle does a little sleep-walking," I confided dryly. "Don't look so scared. She will probably be having a last cigarette with Mr. Brockman at a quarter to twelve. Betty's door cannot be locked from the outside, so Mademoiselle will have to leave it a few inches open. At five minutes to twelve Betty will be waiting for you. Bring her straight down the back stairs and out to the front of the garage, tumble into the car and wait there."
"I don't like it," the young man declared.
"You'll have to like it," I told him firmly. "I'm going to leave here to-night and I'm going to take the girl with me—and you—and if you funk it—well, look what's coming to you."
Very slowly my hand crept out of my jacket pocket.
"My God!" he gasped and his teeth were veritably chattering. "Who are you?"
"It's the wrong question but I'll give you the right answer," I said with a smile. "I am the man who keeps his word."
I waited for Eugène in the billiard-room after dinner and pretended to show him some new shots.
"Listen," I whispered, "we are only just in time. I heard part of Brockman's instructions to Higgins over the telephone this evening. He's given Betty's father a savage ultimatum. Unless he lets up on his shares to-morrow morning at opening time, you are to be a married man and off on your honeymoon. If they cop you after that, my lad, it's Sing Sing."
"I'll do just what you say," he whined.
"You'd better. Listen, Mademoiselle goes down to Brockman every night to make what she calls her report, at a quarter to twelve. You know what you have to do. You will bring the girl down the back way and into the garage. I shall have finished my job then. The doors will be open and we shall be off."
"But how do you get out into the road?" he asked feverishly.
"Wait and see," I told him. "I'm getting on the road to-night all right, and I'm going to leave you at your night club with two thousand dollars in your pocket before daylight, so long as you stick it out."
"I'll stick it. Wish I knew what your own game was," he muttered.
I made no answer, because, curiously enough, I did not know myself. Very soon, by the passage which I had discovered earlier in the day, I was in the garage. The place was in darkness and I let it remain so. I was born with the eyes of a cat. I opened the great tool box at the back of my car, slipped back its false bottom and drew out the black case which contained the most perfect set of tools any man engaged at times in nefarious pursuits had ever possessed. I worked breathlessly but I had only a minute or two in hand when I at last had severed the little needle of steel which was the centre piece of the mechanism. I swung the door quietly open, put out my bead and listened. Not a sound, but a joyous, mildly drenching rain and darkness which I blessed. I pushed the car gently out across the covered way, possessed myself of a spare gun from the tool chest, tested the petrol and the oil, and crawling back to the garage I glanced at my watch by the light of the tiny torch no bigger than a pencil, which I carried on my watch-chain. It was precisely midnight. The boy Eugène, shaking in every limb, crept through the door. I took him by the arm, pushed him outside and half lifted him into the dicky of the car.
"Lie down," I ordered. "If there's any shooting you'll be safe."
He collapsed on the floor. Wrapping a rug about him I made my way back. There was a step as light as a fairy's upon the stairs leading into the passage. I picked up the girl, closed the garage behind us and after a moment's hesitation I placed her in the front of the car.
"Squat on the floor," I told her. "Presently you can sit up by my side."
"I'm not afraid," she whispered. "So long as I'm not in that house I'm not afraid."
I slipped straight into third speed. When she felt herself moving, she gave a little sigh which was almost lost in the beating of the rain upon the leaves, and we glided down the avenue. Silently though we went, dark though the night was, the man who was leaning against the gate heard us.
"Hi there!" he called out.
I turned on all the lights simultaneously and in those few seconds, when he was temporarily blinded, I sprang from the car and pressed my gun into his side.
"Look here," I threatened. "It's hell for you if you open your lips."
Perhaps he had been in a tight corner before. Anyhow, he was dumb enough. I went over him quickly, threw the gun I found in his pocket far out into the shrubberies and pointed to the gate.
"Unlock that," I ordered.
"Who the hell—"
"That's where you'll be, if you say another word," I told him, and he must have seen the flash of metal in the great headlight. "I know where to find you at Hawkes's. There will be five hundred dollars if you give me a start and a hole in your chest if you begin yelling. Get me?"
"Yep... I get you, boss," the man whispered hoarsely.
I let him go—somehow I seemed to have impressed him, for he unlocked and pushed open the gates and we shot forward. In a few minutes we were doing sixty—seventy—eighty—-round a corner at ninety and fairly away. The house from the road was invisible, but it remained a house of silence.
The rest was just a picnic. On the outskirts of the city I pulled up for a moment, shook the mass of wet clothing in the dicky and helped Eugène out. His teeth were chattering. He was a pitiable-looking object. I pushed a bundle of notes into his hand.
"Here's your night club," I told him. "Get inside and have something to warm you up. There's your money and you'd better be thankful all your life you've got out of this mess. It's dirty work meddling with children."
He mumbled something—I didn't stop to hear what it was. It was dawn now and I could see that his fingers clutching the notes were blue and there were rings under his eyes. If ever a man had nearly died of fear, it was the soi-disant Eugène, Marquis de Forêt.
We drove on into the city and I began to slacken speed.
"We're getting near home," an agitated little voice by my side whispered.
"I know," I answered. "Three or four more blocks and you'll know where you are."
She had been gripping my arm for the last hour or so. Very slowly she drew away. She was wearing no hat and the tears were streaming down her queer, child-like face. The horrible, stricken fear seemed to have been washed away but she was still subdued.
"You won't leave me?" she begged.
"Not yet," I answered.
I knew her house—I had looked it up in the directory—sombre and magnificent at the top of Riverside Drive. I pulled up slowly as we drew near there.
"Betty," I said, "I have risked a good deal for you. Will you do everything I ask you now, please?"
"Will I not?" she whispered.
"I shall wait here in the car," I continued, "while you run up the steps and I will wait until the door is opened. Then I must go. Will you say good-bye to me now, please."
"I can't," she sobbed. "You must come. You must let my father see you. You must hear—"
"Betty," I interrupted, "there are things about me you must never know. I am not quite as bad a man as I think Mr. Brockman is, but I don't belong to the world you live in."
She threw both her arms round my neck, an action which did not matter very much as we were almost at a standstill. She pressed her warm child's kisses on my wet cheek. I lifted her on to the pavement.
"I don't care who you are," she sobbed. "I shall love you and pray for you as long as I live and do, do tell me, isn't there any message I can give to Dad? He'd give you anything in the world if he only knew how. Is there nothing he could do?"
I suddenly remembered some fusty old shares, the drop in which had inconvenienced me more than I liked to confess.
"A rise in Steel Files for say three days, selling at opening on the fourth, would do me a certain amount of good," I told her.
"Hurrah!" she cried joyfully. "Dad'll tickle 'em up for you all right. That's a promise, 'Mr. Perry.'"
Then turning round all the time to wave her hand, she ran up the steps. I think that she must have touched a bell outside, for the lights blazed through the opened door and I saw a servant standing there and others running into the hall. I slipped in my clutch and my foot sought the accelerator. In front of me was a rolling mass of white fog coming in from the river. In two minutes I was lost.
When I telephoned my broker that morning I already possessed five hundred Steel Files which cost me $70 and at the time were quoted at $55. I bought five hundred more, as soon as I saw the kick was coming, at $90, and another thousand later at $100. When I sold out at opening on the fourth day, I sold at $205.... Philanthropy sometimes pays!
Yet when I came to think over the whole affair, afterwards, I found myself more than once completely forgetting that stock exchange transaction. I thought only of the child with her sunburnt cheeks and the strange, unearthly look of terror gleaming pitifully in the depths of her blue eyes; I felt her lips; I saw the joy of her flight up those granite steps. I realised with a little quiver of pleasure that it was as much for her happiness as for the gain of a few thousand dollars that I had remembered those discarded shares.
I THINK that I was the first to rise to my feet as the raucous strains of that absurd anthem, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," subsided, merged into a rumble of light-hearted alcoholic conversation. The dinner was over, the semi-annual dinner of the Worshipful Company of Gaiter Manufacturers, and my one idea was to reach the cloakroom quickly, find my hat and coat and escape. I took no account, however, of the vinous but violent friendship which my neighbour, Mr. Harold Rawson, a manufacturer of those uncomfortable and unsightly articles whose existence we had been celebrating, had obviously conceived for me.
"Here, don't you leave me alone, young fellow!" he exclaimed, clutching at my arm. "Which way are you going? I'll give you a lift." I shook my head.
"Sorry," I apologised, "you'll have to excuse me. I have another engagement."
Mr. Harold Rawson was having none of it. He clung to my arm all the way to the cloakroom and staggered up the stairs after me. He pushed me on one side as I told the commissionaire to call me a taxi and led me out on to the pavement where a chauffeur was holding open the door of a de luxe automobile.
"Anywhere you like to go," he offered expansively. "Rolls Royce, too. One of the best. Say the word."
His clutch on my arm was like a vice. On those few occasions when I make anything approaching a public appearance, I am careful to avoid being mixed up in any sort of a disturbance, especially if there are any police in the vicinity. I looked at my companion's flushed cheeks and bulbous eyes, his silk hat on the back of his head, and I abandoned my idea of resistance, at any rate upon the pavement of Northumberland Avenue. I took my place meekly in the car. My companion missed the step, sprawled into the gutter and was assisted, swearing like a trooper, into the seat by my side by the commissionaire and his chauffeur. I slipped a tip into the hand of the former and nodded in response to a wink from the latter. We drove off without a word. As though by magic, Mr. Harold Rawson's mood seemed to change. He disposed his dumpy frame amongst the cushions of the car and favoured me with a fatuous smile.
"I'm tight," he confided.
"You'll be all right when you get home," I consoled him.
He considered that point carefully.
"Not sure that I want to go home," he declared.
"Must be done," I told him. "There are other evenings, you know."
"Want to go round the town," he whispered thickly.
"Well, you can't."
"You're not in a fit state," I explained. "I'll drop you wherever you live and if you take my advice you'll put your head in a basin of cold water, have someone take off your clothes and go to bed."
He drew away and regarded me with cold distaste.
"Not sure that I like you as much as I thought I did," he muttered. "Why are you coming with me in the car, anyway?"
"Taking you home," I replied. "I hope it's not far."
"What do you mean—you hope it's not far?" he broke out. "You know who I am. I'm Harold Rawson and I tell you I'm not far off being a millionaire. I live in Cramleigh Square, number one. Best house in the square. I could live anywhere I liked. Buckingham Palace, if I wanted to—" he added, as final proof of his position in life.
"That's all right," I told him. "Cramleigh Square isn't far. Brush your hat and straighten your tie. Your wife won't be pleased to see you if you go in like that."
He had already commenced to brush his hat, when a thought seemed to strike him. He paused and looked at me fixedly.
"My wife," he declared, "is the most beautiful woman in England."
"What do you mean by 'really'?" he asked truculently. "I know what I'm talking about, don't I? She's my wife. She's the most beautiful woman in Europe. You shall see her."
"Another time," I begged him.
He was already looking out of the window. Some instinct seemed to have told him where we were. We drew up a minute or two later.
"What did I tell you?" he asked, turning to me in triumph. "Number one, Cramleigh Square."
"Good night," I said. "Your chauffeur will be able to see you in. I must hurry off. May I take your man as far as a taxi-stand?" I added, looking out at the driving rain.
"Take him where you like," my companion assented. "Tell you what—I'll make you a present of the car. I've got another one—new model—coming along."
The chauffeur threw open the door. With great difficulty Mr. Rawson found the pavement. The chauffeur was staggering under his weight and looked at me imploringly.
"This gentleman's coming in with us, John," his master announced. "Hurry up, young fellow."
If I could have driven off and left the two of them I would have done it with pleasure, but it was a limousine car and I had no way of reaching the wheel. I stepped out just too late to prevent Mr. Rawson's subsidence on to the pavement, dragging his chauffeur after him. I helped pull them up. Mr. Rawson was entirely undisturbed. He seemed to regard the incident as unavoidable but slightly humorous. With my help and the chauffeur's he staggered to his feet. Again I felt that grip upon my arm. We made our way slowly to the very imposing front door. The chauffeur produced a latchkey and threw it open.
"There, you'll be all right, now," I said, pausing.
"You've got to meet my wife," he reminded me. "You know what I told you—the most beautiful woman in Europe. I'll tell you something, young fellow. What's your name? I've forgotten."
"It doesn't matter," I replied. "I'm going to wish you good night, now."
"You'll hear what I've got to say first," the manufacturer of gaiters insisted, dragging me into the hall. "I said she was the most beautiful woman in Europe. I'll tell you what—she's the most beautiful woman in the world!"
"You are a very lucky fellow, then. Good night."
There was a cunning gleam in his watery eyes. It was obvious that he had no intention of letting me go. The chauffeur had pushed open a door on the left and my companion dragged me into a gorgeous drawing-room-lounge, of the type favoured by the nouveau riche.
"You tell the missus, John," he insisted. "Never mind if she says 'no.' I want her to come down."
Then I heard a voice. Someone had entered from the other side of the room. It was not the sort of voice that belonged to the gewgaw splendour of the apartment. It possessed both music and purity, but I found no impulse towards admiration. I felt myself growing stiff. There was another and more dangerous quality that voice possessed—the quality of familiarity. I wrenched myself free from my drunken host's clasp. It was too late, however. She was crossing the room towards us.
"The Nightshade" she used to be called in the old Dorchester House days, because of those deep violet eyes, the perfect dark brown hair and eyebrows, the intoxicating yet somehow sinister charm of her long, sinuous body.
"What's the matter with your master, John?" she asked. "And this gentleman?"
"I apologise for my intrusion, madam," I said. "I sat next your husband at dinner. The heat—perhaps, too, the wine—has upset him. I brought him home. I shall now wish you good night."
There was a moment's silence—a deep, hateful silence for me, for I now realised I had failed. The woman, if she had not absolutely recognised me, was full of suspicions. There was the old smile upon her lips. She was looking at me fixedly, and there was something in her eyes which made me glad that her husband was not sober.
"Can't go yet," the latter declared. "Introduce you to my wife. Very nice fellow, this, Deborah. I've forgotten his name—my wife. We want a drink."
She dismissed the chauffeur with a little wave of the hand.
"You won't mind a taxi, will you?" she said to me. "There are always plenty of them on the stand and John has been up late two nights following."
"I should prefer it," I assured her. "Won't you let me help you with the tray?"
So there we all three were—her husband, who had sunk back on to a divan so soft and so broad that it would obviously be some time before he would be once more upon his feet, holding with both hands a tumbler of brandy and soda; the woman, still looking at me with that inscrutable enquiry in her eyes, and I, with a glass of neat brandy in my hand and a fury of anger in my veins.
"So my husband has forgotten your name, already?" she remarked. "He has a shorter memory than mine."
"Your husband is drunk," I reminded her curtly.
"So I perceive."
His glass had slipped from his pudgy fingers and half of its contents was spilt over the cushions. His eyes were closed. He appeared to be asleep.
"A disgusting sight," she went on, with a little shiver of distaste. "Fortunately I am not often obliged to witness it. Do we meet as friends or enemies, or what?"
I bowed to her politely as I raised my glass to my lips.
"Madam," I replied, "I fear that you are making a mistake. We meet for the first time here and I permit myself to hope that it is not in enmity."
She yawned ever so slightly.
"So you intend to continue that bluff?"
I touched the glass with my lips and set it down.
"Madam," I said, "I have done what a man of the world recognises as his—shall I say Christian?—duty. I found a drunken man and I brought him home. My folly consists in the fact that I listened to his babble about possessing the most beautiful woman in the world for a wife, and stayed to see her. He told the truth. I have accomplished my task. I beg that you will excuse me."
She followed me out into the hall. Her cry to me as I stood there with my fingers upon the handle of the door had in it something insistent, something so vital that I dared not altogether ignore it. Unwillingly I waited for her. She gripped my arm. Now there was another light in her eyes and I read its message correctly.
"If you wish to save your life," she said, "come here."
I let her lead me back to the large room I had just quitted. She pointed to the divan. It was empty. I looked around. My drunken friend was nowhere visible. She pointed to the small ante-room beyond, with its half-drawn curtain.
"The telephone!" she whispered.
She made no effort to detain me. I was across the room in half-a-dozen strides. Rawson was standing before a desk, holding a telephone receiver to his ear. His voice was agitated but it was as clear as a bell.
"Can't you understand—an urgent call—a police call. I want—"
That was just as far as he got. He needed a shock and he had it. A bullet passed within a foot of his head and he jumped more than that distance into the air. He turned round and I think that he was almost scared to death.
"Hands up!" I warned him. "I shot that time to frighten you. Next time it will be to kill."
His hands went up all right and it seemed amazing to me, now that he had ceased to act the part of a fool, that I had not recognised him before. We were face to face, about twelve paces apart, and he knew very well that his life was mine for the taking. The woman lingered in the background.
"Deborah!" he called her. "Deborah!"
She moved slowly forward.
"I'm here," she answered. "What is it that you want?"
"Can't you see, you fool?" he spluttered. "Get to a bell somewhere—the other telephone. This man wants to kill me."
The same voice, she had been little more than a child when I had heard it last, but there was the same liquidness, the same underlying contempt.
"Rather asking for it, weren't you?" she drawled.
The telephone on the table was ringing now. He looked at it longingly. He looked at his wife in a very different fashion. I knew quite well that he was aching to call out to her to run to one of the other instruments, to make a dash for the hall into the street.
"You're right," I said to him. "I can see you reckoning up things in your mind. If your wife made a bolt—well, I should have to make the best of it. I shouldn't shoot her. On the other hand, I should certainly shoot you, so you really would not be any better off."
"I can't hold my hands up any longer," he muttered. "I have a weak heart."
"Let him sit down," the woman suggested. "If you care to take my word for it, I can assure you that he hasn't a gun, or if you like, I'll turn his pockets out before you."
"If he has a gun," I said, "he couldn't reach it while he was still alive. Sit down in that chair, Mr. Timothy Luke."
I pointed to one about five yards away. He dropped his arms and staggered towards it.
"Give him some brandy," I told his wife.
She obeyed. Watching them all the time, I cut I he cord of the telephone. Then I sat on the edge of the desk. It was astonishing to me that I had not recognised the man before. Notwithstanding his very excellent impersonation of the drunken reveller, notwithstanding the fact that he had put on at least three or four stone and from a man of youthful middle-age had become this elderly roué, with an unseemly paunch, high-coloured cheeks, bulbous eyes and at least one neck too many, it was still remarkable that I had not recognised Timothy Luke, the one-time low comedian but later on the moving spirit in the Marlow Gang, as they were called in criminal circles.
"I'm afraid, Timothy Luke," I said, "I shall have to shoot you. Supposing you have guessed rightly, you are the only man in a good many years who has divined my identity. Naturally, I cannot afford to leave you alive."
"Why not?" he asked. "Supposing I have recognised you, supposing I do know that you are—"
He broke off short and shrank back in his place. He was looking into the muzzle of my revolver.
"The moment that name passes your lips," I warned him, "even though we were a hundred times alone, you die."
"Well, supposing I do know who you are, then," he went on. "You know that I am Timothy Luke."
"Thank you," I replied. "It would be not the slightest consolation to me, if I were in Dartmoor, to know that you were in the next cell, or, if my progress into the next world were expedited, to know that you, too, had gone to breathe a purer atmosphere. That doesn't work out at all."
"What's the use of killing me?" he cried. "You couldn't get away with it. My chauffeur has seen you—and there's Deborah here."
"I admit that the problem has its difficulties," I said, "but you must remember that I am not really a manufacturer of gaiters. I have other identities, any one of which I could step into ten minutes after I left this house. The gaiter manufacturer of Fenchurch Street would simply go up in smoke."
Rawson's nerves got the better of him. His appeal sounded like an hysterical wail.
"Shut up this talking! I can't stand any more of it. If you're going to kill me, do it."
"I really think—" I began.
"May I have a word?" the woman intervened.
I tightened my grip upon my gun. The fact that I had walked blindly into this trap had disturbed me more than I had cared to show. I was only keeping calm, myself, with an effort.
"Say what you want to and then you'd better clear out," I told her. "Your husband was a fool to have tried this game on with me. He has to pay for it."
The perspiration was running down Rawson's face, his eyes seemed like great inflated beads.
"I'm not such a fool as you think," he called out eagerly. "I've had a hell of a time for the last three years. They pretty well tumbled on to me at Scotland Yard. The trouble was they couldn't prove anything. They have been waiting—watching me all the time. Then one day the chief sent for me and asked some questions. Your name came up. You are the one man who has beaten Scotland Yard at their own game; the one man who has never even been in a police court, whose finger-prints have never been taken, whom they know to have been guilty of half-a-dozen crimes and yet whom they have never been able to lay their hands on. The chief—well, I won't give him away too much, but this is what he said to me: 'If you want to blot out the whole of your past with one sweep of the sponge,' he said, 'find me—'"
"No names!" I barked out.
"Well, he mentioned yours. The name you are known by at Scotland Yard, at any rate. You have been damned clever, but I was almost sure I recognised you at the business meeting of our company, although you sat right away in a corner and never opened your mouth. It was I who sent you the ticket for the dinner. I wanted to be absolutely certain. Now do you understand?"
"I understood all the time," I told him. "Pretty clear, wasn't it, when I heard you shouting for Scotland Yard just now? That's why you have to die. You were handing me over to death. I happened to come back in the nick of time and the tables are reversed. That's all there is about it."
"Give me my own gun and let me shoot myself," he pleaded. "I'd sooner go that way. Deborah, you know where it is."
Unhurried, she rose to her feet, a smile of approval upon her lips. She moved to a drawer of the writing-desk and drew out a revolver.
"This killing is rather a stupid business, anyway," she said, "but if it has to be done . . . Load it for me, please," she added, turning to me, the revolver with its open breech in one hand, a handful of cartridges in the other.
I had moved over to her side the moment she had produced the revolver and, wrapping a handkerchief around my hand, I loaded and closed it.
"I am afraid—" I began.
"No, you're not," she interrupted. "You have never known fear in your life. You know perfectly well what is going to happen. If you don't— watch!"
"If you have any queer ideas in your head," I told her, "remember this. Before you could raise that revolver to the level, if it were pointing in my direction, you would be a dead woman."
She laughed almost musically.
"You don't believe I could be such a fool as that! Wait! I'll show you what I'm going to do."
She crossed the room to a work-basket and pulled out a pair of lace evening gloves. She drew them on and, holding the gun by the barrel, carefully wiped the butt which she had been grasping with the corner of a tablecloth. Then she resumed her grip and re-crossed the floor. All the time her husband watched her with a strange mixture of expressions—a curious skein of hope, expectation and fear.
"Ring the bell, can't you?" he shouted. "Ring all the bells! Shoot—shoot him—anything! Get someone in to help. He wouldn't kill you."
"You don't know him so well as I thought you did," she answered scornfully. "You're ready enough to risk my life, I notice. Here—do as I tell you."
She bent close over him.
"Hold that," she ordered.
He grabbed at the butt of the revolver.
"Stand clear," he sobbed. "Debbie, stand clear. Steady my arm."
I crept a little nearer—a yard to the left-hand side. There was no need for me to concern myself. She was supremely mistress of the situation. It was he who held the revolver, he whose fingers groped for the trigger, but it was she who guided his hand. The long expected report came at last. He sank back in his chair without a cry. The revolver fell with a dull thud upon the carpet. I moved swiftly up to the two. There was that little telltale hole in his shirt-front through which a few spots of blood were slowly oozing. The man was dead. Deborah was busy removing her gloves. She looked up at me.
"You'd better not stay for a moment," she said calmly. "Get home and away—where you will. In a day or two you can put an advertisement in The Times and I shall know where to find you."
I hesitated, for the thought of leaving her there scarcely appealed to me.
"I must clear up around here," she interrupted. "I know exactly what to do. I have thought it all out. Go quickly and move as soon as you can into that next alias of yours. Try something a little more romantic," she added with a soft little laugh, "than a manufacturer of gaiters! Go out of the front door. Don't take a taxi from the stand: wait until you get near Piccadilly."
That was the first time in my life, I reflected with a momentary impulse of revolt, that in a crisis a woman had given me directions. Nevertheless, I did exactly as she had bidden me, with the exception of putting that advertisement in the "Agony Column" of The Times. I passed out into the night of driving rain and for all the world ever heard of him again in connection with that affair, the manufacturer of gaiters who had been so kind as to escort a drunken man to his home, had stepped off the edge of the world.
I am not, as a rule, when living in a foreign country, a great reader of home newspapers, but having succeeded on this occasion in making a perfect disappearance from England during the early morning after the semi-annual dinner of the Worshipful Company of Gaiter Manufacturers, I permitted myself one day about three weeks later, whilst temporarily established on one of the islands of the Greek Archipelago noted chiefly for its delightful climate, its deep orange-coloured native wines of great potency and its vile foods, to purchase and carry to my luncheon table a soiled and somewhat dilapidated copy of the weekly Times. There I read in condensed form the sad story of the suicide of an English millionaire—-a Mr. Harold Rawson. The widow, whose appearance had obviously created great sympathy in court, told her story in restrained but touching fashion.
"My husband and I had been married," she recounted, "for seven or eight years. He very seldom went out without me, but on the Thursday night in question he went to a City dinner. I sat up for him and he arrived home, as I regret to say was his habit at times, having drunk too much wine. He brought with him a man who was a complete stranger to me. They were both in a very excited state and I gathered that the stranger claimed to have recognised my husband as one of a gang of thieves with whom he had come in contact many years ago, and threatened to denounce him to Scotland Yard. My husband confessed quite frankly in my presence that the accusation was to some extent true, and added that as he had been found out he would confess to the police himself. He even went to the telephone to ring up Scotland Yard but just as he was calling the number, the stranger pulled him away from the telephone and cut the cord. Then they became a little calmer and finally made an arrangement to meet the next day. The stranger left—I let him out myself. All that I can remember of him is what I told the police—that he seemed to be about my husband's age but of exceedingly disagreeable appearance and very ill-mannered. It was raining fast, I remember, and there were no taxis and as he himself had cut the telephone cord I could not call for one for him.
"I went back to the drawing-room to find that my husband had mixed himself another huge drink. He was almost demented. I did my best to soothe him and promised that whatever happened I would stay with him and help him all I could, but he suddenly opened a drawer, produced a revolver when I was at the other end of the room and before I could stop him he had shot himself. I had to ring up the servants and I really don't remember anything more. I tried to drink some brandy but I'm afraid I fainted. It was not until the doctor had been with me some time and I found myself in bed, that I was able to think or speak again. It was all so horrible,"
In another part of the paper I read that the jury, after having examined carefully the whole of the evidence, including a statement of a representative of Scotland Yard, had returned a unanimous verdict of suicide during a fit of temporary insanity, which seemed to be quite satisfactory for all the people who were concerned in the case. A sense of gratitude is probably one of the qualities which have been denied to me in life, for notwithstanding her lack of ill-will towards me, I felt nothing for this very accomplished lady but a strong desire to keep out of her way. I could imagine no human being of Deborah Rawson's constitution and temperament who would come so far east for sunshine and amusement as the island where I was at present established, but there was a small resort, I recollected, on the banks of the Black Sea, even a little further removed from the fringe of civilisation. That night I packed up my trunks and moved on.
IN that moment of furious, maddening excitement with a crowd of thousands, white-faced but silent, crammed into the street below, half suffocated by the deadly volumes of smoke through which I had crawled, and faced now with the failure of my foolish enterprise, I suddenly felt a spasm of acute mental activity, a vision of my past, the irony of the fact that I alone of that crowd should have risked a horrible death to save the life of the girl who hung over my shoulder, limp, mercifully unconscious of the hell which was threatening us. So far, I had performed a great physical feat, even for me, a trained mountaineer. One hundred feet above the street, I crawled along that stone coping with nothing but the rough edges of the masonry to clutch at now and then, and once or twice an iron hook to grasp with bleeding fingers whilst I drew a breath. Ten yards ahead of me, the other side of the window, the coping broadened. Arrived there, I could have rested my burden for a moment, I could have drawn a long breath, perhaps even have found safety in that last window. Then, warned by the roll of that smothered groan of despair from the crowd below, I saw hope disappear and what seemed to be the certainty of death take its place. From out of that last window, not ten yards ahead of me, had come the belching smoke, the flames were licking now around the sill. We crouched there a giddy distance above the packed crowds below, the goal of my mad climb—those few inches of window-ledge—invisible now, the cement cracking, a little tongue of flame already scorching my left leg. Why I hung on, I cannot tell. Perhaps it was the momentary consideration of that problem: was it more merciful to throw the girl through the window or to let her fall to certain death? It was then that I heard it—the roar of voices in the streets beyond caught up suddenly below, a wild shouting of voices, and down the clear avenue in the street the tearing motor with its long tube of canvas.
There were still a few moments passed in some queer state, half of coma, half of swiftly-acting brain. The top of the tube crashed along the side of the house. It reached me. Already there seemed to be human beings crawling up it but there was no time to wait. I dropped the girl. I saw her body sliding down. There were shouts from below which broke through the wall of my unconsciousness.
Automatically I obeyed. I, too, found myself passing through the air with the canvas all the time beneath me. Well, that was the end of it for that night, so far as I was concerned.
It speaks well for the subtlety and care which I bestowed upon that alias of mine that I escaped what might have been the greatest danger of my life. Nicolas Collingwood, commercial traveller, staying at the Hôtel de l'Étoile, with no near relatives, was about all they could make of me. There was something a little mysterious about my business in the town, but no one was disposed to question it. They did their best to make a hero of me and failed. Whole piles of newspapers I threw into the fire of my sitting-room and I declined absolutely either to be interviewed or to receive any one of the shoal of visitors who besieged the hotel during the next few days. In a week, except for a partially amputated finger on my left hand, I was myself again. The girl, according to the nurses, was on the road to recovery and asking for me night and day. Her father haunted the place, arguing with the authorities against my refusing to see a soul. The mayor of the city showed every sign of persisting with his threatened banquet, notwithstanding my blunt refusal to accept anything in the nature of public recognition. Nevertheless, the streets were impossible for me. Strangers dogged my footsteps or came over and insisted upon shaking hands. To have been one of that great crowd seemed to have given every other citizen of the place the right to stop me in the street and embrace me. The situation was maddening, I ended it in the only fashion possible. I sacrificed a portion of my effects and, stealing away early one morning, I brought off successfully one of my famous disappearances. Nicolas Collingwood, the melodramatic hero of that hideous fire, vanished apparently from the face of the earth. Philip Hamel, a little grudgingly, took his place—a gentleman at large on his way to the Riviera, prepared to carry into effect, as soon as the opportunity arrived, the enterprise so rudely disturbed in the ancient city of Dijon.
There was a little stir at the roulette table where I was seated one afternoon soon after my arrival in Monte Carlo, happily engaged in my favourite recreation. I waited until I had placed my stakes before I looked up, then I realised that the commotion was due to the establishing in her place of a presumably important client. I watched her for a moment or two. She was a young woman, a vivid blonde and in her way beautiful. She wore too many rings for present-day taste but they were rings such as I had seldom seen before worn at a public place and in the afternoon. Her plain black costume was buttoned high at the throat, and her necklace of pearls was sufficient in itself to attract a small crowd of onlookers. Behind her stood a dame de compagnie who was arranging a little pile of mille-plaques and other counters for her mistress. She accepted the attentions of the croupier by her side, the chef on his high chair and the valet who brought her a footstool, graciously, but her accent was bad and her manner a little distant. She gave me the impression of having passed recently through a severe illness. The manager of the rooms came down to pay his respects. She answered him indifferently and I had no longer any doubt as to her transatlantic origin.
"A wonderful season you have, monsieur," she remarked.
"Indeed yes, mademoiselle," he replied with a bow. "The best the Sporting Club has known for many years. Mademoiselle will pay a long visit?"
"It depends," she answered, "upon my father. He is not very good, nowadays, at settling down anywhere. It depends upon many things."
He passed on his way. When I looked up, her eyes were fixed steadily upon me. They were very beautiful but peculiar eyes—the palest blue I had ever seen, yet they had expression and there was plenty of it there at that moment. As for me, after those first few seconds of uncertainty, I was suffering the tortures of the damned. My self-control had never been put to such a test. There was a stabbing pain in my heart. I, who prided myself upon my lack of imagination, fancied that I could hear the roar of voices down below the roulette table, down in the bowels of the earth. They were praying for me, those people, that white-faced, shivering crowd, and the girl's body was drooping from my shoulder, still faintly throbbing. . . .
"Messieurs et Mesdames, faîtes vos jeux!"
For the moment I felt that a mille would have been an inadequate pourboire for the croupier. I was back again in my place and the people at the table were all strangers. I felt my eyes and my lips harden. I threw on a stake but I forgot to watch the wheel, I forgot to listen to the singsong announcement of the winning number. I just sat still, content to feel the blood running freely once more through my veins, to realise that the moment of paralysis was passing. The croupier's rake tapped gently in front of me. His soft, courteous voice completed my recovery.
"Pour le sept. Monsieur. Monsieur a gagné. C'est pour le cheval quartre/sept."
I gathered the seventeen oblong plaques and added them mechanically to my pile, then I drew a long breath. I glanced down the table. I glanced at the girl opposite. I looked at her as I looked at the others and it was a table of strangers. At a guess I should have said that my opposite neighbour had passed through something of the same crisis as I had. Her recovery, however, was slightly longer delayed. Her head had drooped. She seemed to be counting her jetons mechanically. The dame de compagnie was watching her with obvious anxiety. Once more that cry:
"Faîtes vos jeux, Messieurs et Mesdames.... Le jeu est fait.... Rien ne va plus!"
Mademoiselle, too, had staged a recovery. I carefully avoided meeting her eyes or watching her closely, but I could see that she had commenced to play. We were both staking maximums, both meeting with varying success. I had just won an unusually large coup, for me, when I felt a touch on my shoulder and looked up into the smiling, handsome face of General Rodenski, the director of the Sporting Club.
"A very nice win," he remarked. "Come and take an apéritif with me. Your place shall be reserved."
It was almost a command. I rose to my feet and walked across the room with him. He entered the bar and chose a remote corner.
"With the knowledge that I meet fifty new acquaintances a day," he began, "I will make no apologies for having forgotten your name."
"Philip Hamel," I answered tersely.
"Mr. Hamel," he continued, "I am going to ask you a favour."
"I thought you were offering me a drink."
He called to the waiter and gave an order. All the time, I felt that he was studying me curiously.
"That goes without saying," he said. "I have been placed, though, in rather a difficult position. I have disturbed your game and brought you out here after a winning coup, which, at the tables, I may tell you, is unpardonable, at the request of a lady."
I said nothing. I waited but I remained silent. At length he continued.
"Do you know the young lady seated opposite to you?" he enquired.
I smiled, but he would have been a wonderfully clever man if he could have guessed anything from that smile.
"I have not the pleasure."
"Her name is Miss Felicity Holman," he went on. "She is the daughter of Mr. Bannister Holman of New York. Does that convey anything to you?"
"Wealth," I replied. "Nothing more."
"Mr. Bannister Holman is one of the richest men in the States. His eldest daughter married the Duc de Valence. He has estates near here. His youngest daughter was seated opposite to you. She was one of the unfortunate guests of an hotel at Dijon—the Hôtel de l'Étoile—which was partially destroyed by fire during her visit a short while ago. She was one of the last saved and indeed she owed her life to what the newspapers have called an unparalleled act of heroism on the part of another of the guests."
"Really," I remarked. "Somehow or other, she seemed to me as though she had been suffering from a nervous shock."
"Mr. Bannister Holman," he went on, "is a great asset to us in the principality here. The influence of his family, too, is very strong. A request from one of them is almost a command to me. The young lady has just sent me a few inexplicable lines. She asked me to come and find you, to bring you in here and to introduce her."
"I am very much flattered," I said.
"You will remain where you are for a moment?"
"Until my drink has arrived," I assured him, "I am a fixture."
The young woman was already standing upon the threshold looking into the room. Rodenski sprang to his feet, hurried over to meet her and brought her to the table.
"Mr. Hamel," he said, "I want to present you to Miss Felicity Holman. Miss Holman, may I leave you in Mr. Hamel's charge for a minute or two? I have just been sent for from the bureau."
She merely smiled and sank into his place. She had not offered her hand and I was still standing.
"Will you please sit down?" she invited. "Do you mind very much talking to me for a moment?"
"I shall be delighted," I told her.
"If you cannot guess how I feel," she continued softly, "no words that I could utter would make you understand. You have been the hero of my minutes and hours and days since that memorable night. I didn't send for you to tell you that, though, because you must know it. You must know, too, that my heart is full of the things I want to say. You must know, too, that you have been, since your blind act of heroism, a little cruel."
I looked around. We were well out of hearing of everyone.
"Mademoiselle," I rejoined, "you exaggerate terribly the service I rendered you. It was a great happiness to me but it suited me and my life and my future to act as I have done."
She bowed her head.
"I do not understand that," she confessed. "At any rate, there are two questions you must answer."
"The first is—why have you treated me like this, why would you not come and hear the things which have nearly strangled me because I have had to keep them locked up in my heart? And the second is—what were you doing in my room when the fire broke out? Why were you there?"
"Mademoiselle," I told her gravely, "both of your questions are answered by my reply to your second. I was in your room to steal your jewels. I am a world-famed jewel thief. I have been following you and your father for months, always in the distance. I pitched upon Dijon as the safest place to bring my schemes to fruition. I was in your room, having arrived there by means of skeleton keys, and if the fire had not broken out, in ten minutes you would have found your jewel-cases empty and you would never have set eyes upon my face again. You permit me to offer you this glass of sherry? It has just arrived and has not been touched. And I ask your pardon, too, if what I have told you has been disturbing."
She was indeed looking for a moment ghastly ill. She took the glass and she drank its contents.
"Forgive me," she begged. "You must understand—you must—that this is a shock. You have lived in my thoughts so constantly as a hero."
"It was to save you from the pain of discovering to whom you owed your life and to secure my own safety," I went on, "that I avoided publicity and left Dijon. Now that you know the truth, will you tell me that you forgive me, please, my evil intentions and allow me to return to the tables."
"I cannot do that," she insisted.
"You think it your duty perhaps—"
She pushed out her hands as though I had blasphemed.
"Whatever you were going to say, don't say it," she pleaded. "If yours is the profession of a jewel thief, then it is the finest profession in the world, or rather makes the finest men. Don't you understand that I care nothing about that? I love my jewels and I love more my life, but I love most the great quality of bravery. I thought I was unconscious all the time. I was not. I was dumb but it was with fear—with wonder. I saw you stepping, as it were, through the air, clinging to the thin edge of nothing, all the time holding me in your arms, carefully—almost tenderly. Death was there all the while, if your feet had slipped. Three times you could have gotten rid of me and escaped. It never seemed to enter into your head. You crawled straight on until we reached what seemed as though it must be the end."
"My dear young lady," I begged, "forget that, please. You are still ill with the shock. You will never be well until you have put the memory of that night behind you. You will respect my confidence. I had the joy of knowing that I saved your life. It is our bargain—may it be our secret?"
She gave me her fingers. I lifted them to my lips.
Icy cold they were. It was one of the few moments of exaltation I have ever known. I left her and went back to the tables, where I continued to win. The place opposite to me remained empty. At eight o'clock 'Les trois derniers' was announced. I cashed in my winnings, drank a couple of cocktails and made my way to my small suite. The corridor was lined with trunks.
"New arrivals?" I remarked to the valet who had laid out my clothes and who was occupying himself now with my bath.
He turned smiling around.
"C'est Monsieur et Mademoiselle Bannister Holman," he confided. "They have been in the hotel for a week but this afternoon the young lady took a dislike to their rooms. They are occupying now the suite next to yours. It is the best in the hotel next to the one they have left."
"Why did they move?" I asked.
"A caprice of Mademoiselle's," he explained. "These rich people—they are never satisfied. We have had royalty twice this year in the suite they have given up. This one is nothing out of the way. The room of Mademoiselle," he concluded, "adjoins Monsieur's."
I opened the French windows of my balcony and stepped outside. The next balcony—hers—was only a few feet from mine. I turned back into the room.
"That seems a very strange move of Mademoiselle's," I remarked.
"These Americans!" the valet replied with an expressive gesture, "Nothing else would suit the young lady."
"And what about her father?"
"Monsieur did not desire to move," the man continued, "but Mademoiselle has had an illness. Everything has to be as she wishes."
"Who occupies the other rooms?" I asked.
"It is the room of Mademoiselle adjoining Monsieur's. Then there is her little salon, after that there is the bedchamber of Monsieur, her father, a salon and a dining-room. Opposite, are the rooms of his private valet and Mademoiselle's maid, but they are not to be occupied until to-morrow. One knows Monsieur does not care for neighbours," the man concluded, "but what could one do? These Americans—they have all the money in the world. Monsieur finds everything he needs?"
I dismissed him with a little nod. Afterwards, I bathed and changed in leisurely fashion. Then, as I make it a rule to avoid bars as much as possible, I rang for a cocktail and made my way into my small salon. There I was confronted by a genuine surprise. On my table was a glorious bowl of red roses and by the side of it a package wrapped up in brown paper.
"Where did these come from?" I asked the waiter who had brought my cocktail.
"There was no card with the flowers, monsieur," the man replied, "nor any word with the parcel."
"You know about the flowers, though?"
The slight hesitation in his manner was unmistakable.
"I think, monsieur, I may be mistaken, but I fancy that I saw the maid of Mademoiselle Holman with them in the corridor an hour ago."
I waited until he had left the room, then I unfastened the packet. The interior consisted of a plain wooden box in which, to all appearance, jewellery had at some time been sent from Paris. I raised the lid. Inside were two keys, one an ordinary hotel affair, number 271—the room adjoining mine—the other a smaller one, gilded and of fancy design. By their side was a note written on the hotel note-paper and addressed to Monsieur Philip Hamel. I tore it open. There were just a few lines scrawled across the page.
The roses should bring their own message, my Prince of Thieves. The large key—you see from my handwriting how my fingers shake when I tell you—is the key of my room. From nine o'clock this evening until midnight it will be empty. My father and I are dining out. My maid and his servant have already left for the pictures. Shall I be disappointed when I return, I wonder? Will you have scorned all that I offer or will you have taken all that you desire from me and passed on? I can see those cold, fierce eyes of yours asking a question. Well, here is the answer.
The first part of my enterprise that evening was simply boring. At about ten o'clock I made my way into Miss Felicity Holman's bedchamber, turned the key in the door in case of an intruding servant and switched on the light. Everything was as I had expected to find it, except that the young lady had been more than usually thoughtful. The door communicating with her salon was locked and I discovered that even my excursion down the corridor had been unnecessary, for the door leading into my own small suite was unbolted. On the dressing-table was a large jewel-case. I opened it with the smaller key and, hardened as I am to such sights, I was for a moment stupefied. There in the middle of the case were the famous Benares pearls which she had been wearing during the afternoon. By their side, more famous still, were the world-renowned Crown rubies of Siam, which had never yet reached the open market. There were the Marsham diamonds, the whereabouts of which had been kept a secret, and a sapphire necklace which I recognised as one which Cartier had been offering a few months previously for fifteen thousand pounds. It was with the greatest difficulty that I recovered my scattered wits. I lifted the pearls from their place and felt them. Their smooth milky softness seemed to set my finger-tips tingling. I held the rubies up to the feeble light. Their glow was like a falling fountain of red stars. Probably the wonder of handling and examining in this easy manner the most amazing collection of jewels I had ever seen in my life, dulled my wits for a moment, left my senses a little befogged. Anyway, I came back to earth during the next few seconds just as suddenly as I had drifted away. The sapphire necklace which I had picked up fell back into the case. I felt a momentary paralysis of limbs and voice. Simultaneously, I was conscious of two things—the perfume of very choice, Turkish tobacco close at hand and the boring into the middle of my back of something hard and painful.
"Say, I shouldn't move if I were you," a quiet, well-bred voice advised. "This new type of six-shooter is apt to go off at a shiver. Just a trifle oversensitive, you know."
The advice was good and I took it, I stood for a moment perfectly silent, perfectly motionless. Even my brain was helpless. All that I seemed to be slowly realising was that I had walked into the most outrageous booby-trap that bad ever been laid for a man of my craft. I kept perfectly rigid, however. The one thing in life which I would have loathed was to have been shot in the back.
"Do you mind telling me who you are?" I asked. "You observe that I am not moving, nor do I intend to at present."
"No objection at all. I am the father of the young lady whose possessions seem to interest you so much. How does that sound, eh? You will admit that I have a certain right to interfere."
I don't know why, but at that moment the sense of humiliation that crept over me was bitterer even than the knowledge that I was in the tightest corner of my life.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked. "You'll have to ring the bell or something of that sort, I suppose."
"Say, I'm damned if you're not a cool hand. Are you carrying a gun?"
"I didn't think that there was any necessity," I answered. "I understood that you and your daughter were dining out."
"I guess I'll just have a feel, all the same," the voice continued quietly. "I'm going to step back a yard. You'll admit that I have you covered."
"Turn round then."
I obeyed. Somehow or other, the spring seemed to have gone out of me, but in any case I recognised the fact that the moment for my effort had not yet arrived, I found myself face to face with a tall, pleasant-looking man with a long, lean face and keen eyes, not at all the sort of person to be trifled with. He held his gun like a man who was used to firearms, and to judge from the slightly amused smile with which he was regarding me, his nerves were at least equal to my own.
"H'm. You have nothing in your hip pocket and I cannot see anything else likely to turn into a weapon anywhere about your exceedingly well-fitting dinner jacket. Perhaps you would be so good as to explain your presence here," he suggested,
"I came to steal these jewels," I told him.
"You amaze me!" he replied. "You have the coolness and the figure of a professional, but the clumsy methods of an amateur. We shall have to see what the French police think about you."
He had already taken one backward step towards the bell when the door communicating with the sitting-room was thrown open. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Felicity flung herself into the room. Her cheeks were burning, her eyes were on fire, her voice was furious with anger.
"What are you doing here, father?" she cried.
He indicated my presence with a brief gesture.
"Trying to save a few million dollars for you," he answered.
She wrung her hands desperately. In a moment she had reached her father's side. She wrested the revolver from him. I heard the quick click of the safety catch and she flung it on to the bed.
"Come here!" she cried.
Her father seemed as paralysed by surprise as I had been a few minutes before. She led him unresisting to where I was standing.
"Put your hands down, you idiot," she enjoined. "Give me your left one. There—"
She held the hand out by the wrist. It was useless to try to conceal the fact that one of my fingers was artificial, excellent though the substitute was.
"Now don't you understand?" she went on, her voice ablaze with anger. "This is the man you spent nearly five thousand dollars advertising for, the man who risked his life a hundred times over to save mine the night of the fire at Dijon."
Mr. Bannister Holman was like a man possessed.
"It isn't possible!" he cried. "Why, he was here to steal your jewels!"
"Of course he was," she replied. "I invited him to come. He was in my room trying to steal my jewels the night of the fire. Poor dear," she went on, glancing at me affectionately, "he could not have answered our advertisements if he'd wanted to. Don't you understand? He's a burglar! That's why he couldn't answer any of our advertisements. He has to keep his photograph out of the papers. I arranged to-night for him so that he could have a nice comfortable time, and you've gone and spoilt it, listening to that sneak of a valet, borrowing his key and slinking home without telling me."
The whole thing suddenly became clear. I realised what I must do. Whether I hated doing it or not is another matter.
"Fortunately you were just in time, Miss Holman," I said, an attempted cheerfulness in my tone. "I could still steal the jewels, or perhaps a part of them," I suggested.
"Poor lamb, of course you can," Felicity declared, patting me on the arm. "Don't you understand. Dad, he won't take money for having saved my life—he couldn't even let us know where he was. He has to keep out of the limelight all the time. Look at me," she went on, throwing back her cloak and turning towards me. "Not a single jewel—not even a ring. That is because I wanted you to choose just what you preferred."
Mr. Bannister Holman plumped into an easy chair. He was holding his head with both hands.
"But let me get this straight, please," he begged. "Am I to understand, sir, that you are really a burglar by profession?"
"Absolutely," I assured him.
He reflected for a moment.
"I see," he murmured. "Felicity recognised you, I suppose, left all these jewels here for you, probably wrote a note—"
"Of course I did, Dad," the girl interrupted. "I left the whole of my jewels at home, a nice little letter for Mr. Hamel and the key of my jewel-case. Under the circumstances I think it was the least I could do. You ought to apologise for butting in and nearly spoiling the whole show."
Mr. Holman wiped his eyes. From what emotion he was suffering I could not entirely determine.
"But tell me," he asked, "what do you propose to do with them? We shouldn't say a word, of course, but how could you get famous jewellery like that past the Customs?"
I saw a chance of bringing the business to an end and grabbed it.
"We'll call the thing off," I proposed. "After all, it isn't worth the risk."
"We'll do nothing of the sort," Felicity declared firmly. "You help many a young man in business, Dad, and I'll show you how to help Mr. Hamel and very likely he'll feel like retiring and settling down. Come into the salon."
She led the way, with the jewel-case under her arm. I made a quick attempt to help her, for the case was heavy, but I withdrew, fearing my effort might be misunderstood. She rang the bell and ordered wine and sandwiches.
"Now I'll tell you what I propose," she said, with her father on one side and me on the other, a bottle of champagne in the background and our glasses filled. "There's a great deal of stuff here of which no one could tell the value. The pearl necklace, we know, is worth what Dad gave for it—five hundred thousand dollars. The rubies are worth more, but we'll put them down at five hundred thousand dollars and we might squeeze the diamond bracelet in and the necklace for say two hundred thousand. That ought to be a pretty good night's work, oughtn't it, Mr. Hamel?"
"Marvellous," I admitted.
"Very well, then," she went on, "you have those things for disposal. Monte Carlo's an awkward place to be stuck with them. Daddy shall buy them back from you. He can give you a cheque and take you up to the bank to-morrow morning."
Mr. Holman drew a long breath.
"No wonder I made three fortunes, with Felicity in the family," he muttered. "What a brain! Are you satisfied, Mr. Hamel?"
"Perfectly," I answered. "It will save me quite I great deal of trouble."
Felicity's proud father rose to his feet.
"I will fetch my cheque-book," he announced, passing through into his bedroom.
Felicity leaned towards me.
"One million, two hundred thousand dollars is quite a reasonable sum," she observed, looking up at me hopefully. "Don't you think you could afford to retire and settle down?"
"What—retire from this life with all its wonderful adventures?"
She scoffed at me.
"Adventures indeed! Where would you have been if I hadn't raced home after I found that Dad had given me the slip?"
"I should have got out of it somehow," I assured her.
"Not a chance," she declared. "You'd have been star boarder at the Monte Carlo prison and the police would have traced your past year by year by year—"
"Don't!" I interrupted. "Horrible!"
"How old are you?" she demanded.
"Not as old as I felt half an hour ago."
"Quite so," she agreed. "Your nerve is going. How do you like the look of my naked hand?" she asked, placing it upon mine. "Not a ring, all stripped off—for you. And I always had a fancy to wear one ring. I went out to-night without a shred of jewellery in case I might take anything you fancied."
She was feeling meditatively the fourth finger of her left hand, just then her father reappeared with a cheque-book.
"You had better sleep with that under your pillow," he said, handing me a cheque. "I will meet you downstairs in the lounge at eleven o'clock to-morrow morning."
"And I will invite you both to lunch afterwards," Felicity declared.
I imagine it was just about at that period that Mr. Bannister Holman decided it was time to take a more deliberate view of the situation. He held out his hand.
"Until eleven o'clock to-morrow morning, then, Mr. Hamel," he said. "And after the bank—luncheon," Felicity persisted as her bare fingers hung on to mine for a moment.
But there was no luncheon. When we left the bank I led Mr. Bannister Holman into a small café towards Beausoleil. It was empty at the time and I took him to a retired corner. There I produced a small morocco photograph-case, opened it and placed it in his hand.
"My wife and daughter," I told him. "My daughter, as you see, is about the same age as your own."
He studied the two figures intently. "Alive?" he asked.
"Alive," I answered. "You are the first person in this world to whom I have shown the picture. I run a great risk in carrying it with me. I have shown it to you for a purpose."
He gave me back the case. I returned it to a hidden pocket.
"You have something like two and a half millions in notes there," I said. "I do not wish to burden myself with such a sum. Will you give me what I ask for and help me to leave this place?"
He looked at me curiously.
"Yes," he agreed.
"Will you promise to tell your daughter that I have accepted a portion of this money, without telling her how much?"
"Yes," he echoed.
"Very well, then," I continued. "You think that you owe me something. You do, most assuredly, owe me your daughter's life. In return I ask you to remember that picture, of which you can tell her when you choose. You can tell her also that I accepted a portion of this money and you can tell her that I have gone—just that I have gone."
"I agree," he said simply.
"Then give me a thousand dollars," I said. For the first time he hesitated. He patted the bundle which he was holding. "Halves," he suggested.
"One thousand dollars," I repeated firmly, "and the quickest transport you can give me to Africa. I could get away but it would take me time."
He passed me a thousand dollars, which I buttoned up in my pocket. We drank a mixed vermouth solemnly and, finding it a little insufficient, we drank a second. By one o'clock I was in the famous Bannister Holman aeroplane, which I accepted as a farewell present, flying from Cannes to Alexandria.
THE first call I made on the morning after my arrival at Bath was naturally upon Miss Fiske. I found her establishment about half-way up the broad, stately street, whose grey Georgian buildings were impressive with their reminiscences of past splendour—a veritable collection of antiquities which had wholly escaped the museum touch. One knew from the guide-books that the House of Fiske had carried on for generations their business as dealers in antiques of every description and period, but there was no commercial note to disturb the almost Sabbatical peace and calm which reigned in those few beautiful showrooms with their Adams fireplaces, frescoed ceilings, and gracefully displayed examples of the work of Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Chippendale half-hidden in a distinguished gloom.
An individual accosted me as I stood looking around me, a little confused by an atmosphere so remote from that of the sunny street I had just left.
He wore a black coat and he possessed a genteel air of reticence. He asked me no question. It was sufficient that he had appeared.
"I should like," I told him, "to see Miss Fiske."
He looked at me as though I should have removed my hat before mentioning that name.
"You have an appointment, perhaps?" he asked.
"Not at all," I assured him. "I saw sketches and read the description of a panel of Watteau's in this month's Connoisseur and as I happen to be in Bath and am a collector in a small way, I thought I should like to see it."
"Do you represent a business house, sir?" he enquired.
"I do not. I am a private collector. The article gives no hint as to whether Miss Fiske desires to dispose of her panel. In any case, I should like to see it."
He bowed slightly with the air of one making a great concession.
"I will take your card in to Miss Fiske," he suggested.
The alias under which I was living in those days was an excellent one for the purpose. I handed him a slip of very expensive pasteboard, upon which was engraved the name of Mr. Maurice Whetham. In one corner there was the intimation that I might be found in the Temple and the other the name of a little known but exclusive club, a list of whose members it would have been very difficult to obtain.
"I will enquire whether Miss Fiske will see you, sir," the individual promised doubtfully.
Apparently the matter required discussion. It was quite five minutes before he returned and silently beckoned me to follow him. I passed on into the second of the suite of sales-rooms and from there to what was really an annexe rather than a separate apartment. At a beautiful Sheraton desk, with a vase of flowers on one side and an ormolu inkstand with bronze figures—a genuine collectors' piece—on her left, in a chair of the same period as the desk, sat the most dignified figure I had ever seen or imagined. She was apparently of from fifty to fifty-five years of age. Her hair, a dark brown colour streaked with grey, was brushed back from her forehead; her complexion was almost Italian in its not unhealthy but waxen pallor. Her features were excellent, but the face itself was rigid by reason of its complete inexpressiveness. She wore a plain black dress and at her throat a beautiful cameo brooch. She inclined her head very slightly in response to my bow and motioned me to a chair by the side of her desk.
"You wish to see my Watteau panel, I understand, Mr. Whetham," she began.
"I should like to see it very much," I admitted.
She touched a button upon the table by her side.
A young man appeared, apparently from nowhere. His likeness to Miss Fiske was more than impressive—it was almost ridiculous—but he lacked entirely her sense of dignity and deportment. His fingers twitched nervously, even when he was standing still. He wore black trousers and a black velvet coat. The woman's white thin hands flashed in the air for a moment before her face. He disappeared.
"My nephew," she explained quietly, "although he possesses great intelligence, is unfortunately deaf and dumb."
"An unhappy affliction!"
"If you will change your chair, Mr. Whetham, and take that one in line with me," she continued, pointing it out, "you will obtain a better view of the panel when my nephew displays it."
I did as she suggested. In a few moments he reappeared and set up in front of me an expanding easel. A girl—one of those silent figures I had noticed in the showroom—came with him. He hung a piece of velvet of a glorious old bronze colour over the easel and unwound with meticulous care a strip of canvas some four yards long. The girl took one end of it, the young man reverently unwound the remainder and arranged it upon the easel. I gazed at the canvas long and silently. The background displayed a Fête Champêtre in a famous park near Versailles. The foreground was occupied by exquisitely painted figures—men and women in the Court dress of the period. They were engaged in a dance, and the genius of the work instantly revealed itself in that sense of light and delicate movement to joyous music. The happy indifference of Watteau'a marionettes was beautifully depicted. I studied it in very genuine admiration. We must have formed rather an impressive tableau, seated there with every scrap of our attention riveted upon those figures, that exquisite representation so completely reproducing the spirit of past days. It was the woman who broke the silence.
"You find it all that you expected?" she asked, her deeply set eyes fixed upon mine.
"I find it a wonderful piece of work," I replied. "It has given me a new idea, new to me although many others must have noticed it. The sophisticated French boy seems to have been intrigued by the spirit of the greater master. Even through those stiff costumes there seems to flash the inspiration of The Springtime."
The woman assented gravely.
"Something of the same sort was said by a very famous man whom I heard lecture once at Bristol," she said. "It seems a far distance, though, from Botticelli to Watteau."
"I am permitted," I asked, "to examine more closely?"
She glanced again at my card.
"Do you come as a possible purchaser, Mr. Whetham?" she enquired.
"That might develop," I told her.
She waved me towards the easel. I changed my heavy glasses for others less unwieldy and more penetrating, and went over the painting from one end to the other. When I had finished, I gently lifted the corner. Even as I did so, I felt conscious of a change in the atmosphere, I felt somehow that the speechless lad and the girl with the strange eyes had developed some sort of unregistered emotion. The woman in the chair sat on—sphinx-like, unmoved. I examined both corners and, turning away, resumed my former seat and my heavy glasses. They were all looking at me, Miss Fiske with cold intensity, the other two calmly enough but with something mysterious in their thinly-disguised discomfiture. It was Miss Fiske who broke the silence with a question.
"Well, Mr. Whetham," she asked, "what do you think of my masterpiece?"
"I think, madam, that it is a very beautiful piece of work," I replied. "For your information, in case you do not know, I should say that it was painted somewhere early in the present century by a very accomplished copyist." The deaf mute was watching my lips intensely
He broke into a curious little gurgling cry. The girl was grasping the easel with both hands and staring at me. Miss Fiske's expression, so far as she allowed herself to evince any emotion at all, was one of mingled surprise and contempt.
"You are a very ignorant man, Mr. Whetham," she declared icily.
"That may be so, madam," I acknowledged calmly. "I admit that I am only an amateur."
I picked up my hat and gloves and paused for a moment in front of her desk. If she were bluffing, I decided, she possessed a marvellous genius for the task. The waxen pallor of her face was unchanged and a sensation of unmitigated contempt seemed expressed by her fine lips, the stony stare of her brown eyes. She waved me to the door. My farewell salutation met with no response.
I paused on the threshold of the shop. The girl had caught me up. She was obviously agitated. Her thin bosoms were rising and falling fast. There was a streak of colour in her cheeks, a gleam of terror in her eyes.
"Mr. Whetham," she asked breathlessly, "when do you leave for London?"
"By the first convenient train."
"Will you please wait until four o'clock?"
"Lionel and I wish to speak to you in private."
"I scarcely see what you can have to say of any interest to me," I replied dubiously. "Nothing in the world could alter my judgment as regards that panel."
The girl clutched at my arm.
"Mr. Whetham," she begged. "I dare not stay away. Miss Fiske will be calling for me. Please promise—please be human—say you will not leave before four o'clock."
"Lionel and I will come and see you then," she went on breathlessly. "Where are you staying, please?"
She was very attractive in some indefinable fashion but it was sheer curiosity which led me to assent.
"I have a small sitting-room at the Empire Hotel," I told her. "You can present yourself there, if you have anything to say, at four o'clock. As a matter of fact, I don't suppose that I shall be leaving to-day at all."
The girl gave a little gasp of relief and darted away.
At precisely ten minutes to one that same day, I turned in at the avenue of Brampton Court and after about a mile's drive through a most picturesque park, drew up in front of a massive Georgian house, with whose architectural beauties I had already been made acquainted through the guide-book of the district. A butler threw open the door and showed me into the fine hall.
"Sir Somervell is expecting me," I told the man.. "My name is Whetham."
"Quite right, sir," was the respectful reply. "Please to come this way."
We met my prospective host on our way to the library. He was a tall, thin man of aristocratic appearance, with a slight stoop, sandy complexion and fair hair streaked with grey. He was wearing a loosely cut tweed suit, thick brogue shoes, and a couple of spaniels followed at his heels. He greeted me affably but with a certain amount of restraint.
"Very glad to meet you, Mr. Whetham," he said. "Will you come with me to the winter garden for a few minutes? Serve us with some of the old Amontillado in there, Parkinson," he added to the butler, "and see that Mr. Whetham's chauffeur is looked after."
"I drive myself, Sir Somervell."
"You possess one accomplishment, then," he remarked, "which I have never mastered."
He led the way to a magnificent conservatory with a great dome-shaped roof. It was filled with a variety of exotic flowers and shrubs, the odour of which remained with me for days afterwards. We were served with sherry which was a revelation to me, although I considered myself an epicure of wines, and I was permitted a cigarette.
"I gather that you are a private collector, Mr. Whetham," my host observed. "It is odd that I do not remember having come across you at Christie's."
"I buy generally through an agent," I explained. "As a matter of fact, there is very little that interests me nowadays. I read in a magazine this month that there was a fine example of Watteau's work on view at Miss Fiske's antique shop, and when I arrived last night I saw in the guide-book that you, too, possessed Watteau—hence my telephone message and your kind invitation to lunch to-day."
"They say that Watteau crossed the Channel and lived in Bath for several months," my host confided. "I do not myself consider the story wholly proved but there is no doubt as to the specimens of his work which remain in the county."
"All genuine, you think?" I enquired.
Sir Somervell coughed slightly.
"I do not know that I should mention this," he said, "but in strict confidence I may tell you that I have heard doubts as to the authenticity of the panel in the Fiske galleries. You must accept that, however, merely as hearsay."
The butler announced luncheon. I abandoned my sherry glass with regret and followed my companion into a superbly-appointed small dining-room opening out of the banqueting-hall. The pictures here were few but impressive, the Jacobean round table was a gem, and the high-backed oak chairs severely ecclesiastical with their worn tapestry and carvings. The luncheon that followed was perfect of its sort—trout from the stream that ran through the park, a deliciously cooked pheasant, a soufflé of which the chef of any London restaurant might have been proud, and strawberries. The wine was Romanée Conti of a classic vintage and the brandy served with our coffee was equal to any I had ever tasted.
"You are an epicure in living, as well as in art, I see, Sir Somervell," I observed.
"They go together, I think—a taste for all that is best in life," he said. "Come now, I know that your time is limited, I will show you my fragment of Watteau."
We made our way into a long gallery, chiefly remarkable for the many empty spaces where it seemed pictures had hung and been removed. The masterpiece of which we were in search was visible from the entrance half-way up the outer wall, a small table on which stood a vase filled with roses directly below it, a wood fire burning in a huge fireplace exactly opposite. With each step I took I was conscious of growing surprise. When at last I stood before the canvas, I found difficulty in making any remark whatever. The subject, the size, all these unimportant details, were exactly the same as the panel I had seen during the morning, but there the likeness ended. The figures were stiff and graceless, one or two were even grotesque. The blue of the sky, the green of the trees and the lawns, were all dingy with a dinginess which lacked the dignity and gentle tempering of age. I put on my professional spectacles but closer scrutiny revealed only one thing. Down in a corner, so faint as almost to be invisible, was the signature—Antoine Watteau.
"You are not impressed?" a coldly polite voice asked, close to me.
I hesitated to reply. I was deeply engrossed in one of those, to me, always pleasant but sometimes puzzling problems, namely, how to turn a peculiar situation into a profitable one for oneself.
"You seem to have given a very prominent place to your treasure," I remarked, looking up and down the half-empty room.
"Why not?" he demanded. "Watteau is fairly well represented in the Louvre and in our own National and Tate Galleries, but there are remarkably few specimens of his work in the hands of private owners."
"Is it for sale?" I enquired.
"In these days everything is for sale," was his rather bitter reply. "At the end of each year I sell a picture. It is the only way I can keep my estates."
"And the price?"
"Twenty-five thousand pounds."
I showed no sign of surprise but after a long and lingering glance I turned away. He accompanied me towards the door, walking by my side with his hands behind him.
"A good example, you think?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Not one of the best. Still, the whole world knows that Watteau went on painting even until he was on the point of death and his work all the time grew worse."
"I am inclined to agree with you," he admitted. "Still, the name is there. Do you care to make me an offer?"
Again I shook my head.
"I should require to think the matter over," I told him. "If Watteau had painted all his Court scenes like that he would never have been a king's favourite."
On the doorstep he hesitated.
"If you feel inclined to make me an offer of anything over twenty thousand," he said just at the last moment, "I will consider it."
I nodded, raised my hat and drove off.
Punctually at four o'clock the young man and the girl were shown into my sitting-room at the Empire. The girl was looking white and anxious but quite composed. The young man was more nervous than ever. He sat on the edge of the chair, toying with his handkerchief and making queer noises with his fingers.
"Mr. Whetham," the girl began, "may I ask you a question?"
"Did you realise, when you were talking to her this morning, that Miss Fiske was stone blind?"
"I certainly did not," I replied in genuine astonishment. "How on earth can she carry on a business in antiques?"
"She has amazing gifts," the girl confided, and for the first time I noticed in her rather sing-song speech a touch of that Somersetshire burr which is almost like a foreign language. "She can tell furniture and bronzes and even silver by the feel. She can take a Georgian silver cup, for instance, and handle it all over in a queer sort of way, like no one else I have ever seen, and she can describe it to you exactly. And listen, because this is strange, she will never accept advice from anyone. If she is offered something about which she cannot make up her mind, because she cannot see it, she will not buy. She will make some excuse but there is no business. There is not an article in our place which she has not bought herself and there is no antique shop in England which has fewer faked or trade pieces. This panel of Watteau's is her only huge mistake and even now we are not sure—Lionel and I—that she ever made a mistake."
"We think that she was tricked."
"Explain, please," I begged.
The young man's hands flashed out, his lips were damp, he was in a perfect passion. I know just a little of the deaf-and-dumb alphabet and I could see that he was pleading with the girl, insisting that she held her tongue. She soothed him as well as she could and she kept her hand upon his wrist as she went on.
"There were two of these panels reputed to be by Watteau discovered about the same time. They were brought to England by a French nobleman who settled down near here soon after the Revolution. He was a collector of paintings and was fortunate enough to get many of his things across here. Some years ago the last of the family died and there was a sale. Miss Fiske bought one of the panels and a gentleman who had been a great friend of hers and who has an estate not far away bought the other. Some months ago, the gentleman who bought the other sent up his car and a hasty note to Miss Fiske begging her to send back by the messenger her panel, as there was a dealer staying with him who would probably buy both. He was an American and he had to leave from Southampton that night. Miss Fiske packed the panel with her own hands and sent it down. It came back the day before yesterday. It had just been unpacked when you saw it."
The girl paused in her narrative. I saw that she was becoming agitated, almost hysterical.
For the moment it seemed as though she were about to break down. She recovered herself, however.
"Something had happened," she faltered.
"It was the same painting?"
"The same," she acknowledged. "There are heaps of little things about it which no one could fail to recognise, but the signature—the signature seems to have disappeared altogether."
The boy was making incomprehensible noises, was wringing his hands. She stroked his fingers, talked to him with her own, patted him on the shoulder. Soon he became pacified. She turned back to me.
"This is an extraordinary story," I said to her. "Do you mean to say that you suspect the person to whom Miss Fiske sent the panel for sale of having defaced it?"
The girl shivered for a moment, her eyes grew larger, she stared at me.
"Hush, please!" she begged. "You must not suggest such a thing. No one would believe it possible. He is the greatest gentleman in the county. He is High Sheriff. He could have been Lord-Lieutenant if he had wished. It is impossible he could have done a thing like that."
"It seems to be still more impossible that anyone else did it," I observed. "Why did he not come here to Miss Fiske and borrow the panel to show to his American friend, or bring him up?"
"There has been a quarrel," she said slowly. "He never comes to the shop. He and Miss Fiske never meet."
"A very interesting little story," I remarked, glancing at the clock, "but where does it all lead to? What do you expect me to do? Your panel looks more like the real thing than the other, I admit, but the one Sir Somervell has is signed by Watteau himself, or anyway has the identifying marks he used, and the other one is signed in his own name at the back by the copyist. What am I to do or say? There are the facts. Anyone who wishes for a beautiful piece of creative work should buy the copy. Anyone who wants something of historical and tangible value should buy the original. What was the quarrel about between Miss Fiske and Sir Somervell Glyde?"
The youth had turned away. He was standing looking out of the window beating the palms of his hands together.
"The boy," she told me. "He is Miss Fiske's son. Sir Somervell refuses—"
She tried to go on and failed. I nodded.
"You know what no one else in the world knows, now," she continued. "The panel has come back and she has no suspicion that it is different in any way. She has had suffering enough. Some day or other, when a purchaser comes, she will find it out, but until then, unless someone tells her, she will never know of the false inscription."
"I see," I murmured. "That was why you and the boy nearly flew at me when I was about to point it out to her."
"It would have killed her," the girl declared.
I lit a cigarette and considered the matter for a few moments. There was still only one aspect of it which interested me—how was I to deal to my own personal advantage with this curious story? It was, to say the least of it, a difficult problem.
"You are quite certain," I asked, "that Sir Somervell and Miss Fiske are not likely to become reconciled?"
She looked at me in horror. The boy was standing by the window, looking more helpless than ever. She had no need of speech.
"Very well," I went on, "I will do nothing for a day or two. I will come and see you again before I leave Bath. What is your name?"
"My name is Barstow," the girl confided. "Maureen Barstow."
"And the boy," I enquired, dropping my voice, "does he pass as Miss Fiske's son?"
She shivered and shook her head.
"He is supposed to be the son of a younger brother who died in Barbados," she confided.
"I shall stay here probably for a couple of days," I told her. "Where can I send for you if I want to ask any more questions?"
She scribbled an address on a card and handed it to me. The two went out together and I watched them from my window crossing the road. She had her hand through his arm and he seemed to be perfectly calm.
It has never been my wish to present myself to the reader of these stories, which might almost be called my autobiography, in anything but the true light. The situation, as it existed, concerning Miss Fiske, the girl, the deaf mute, Sir Somervell Glyde and the two panels, interested me only so far as it was possible for me to make use of the information I had received for my own benefit. I was not greatly in need of money, but the acquisition of it in a certain fashion, without resorting to any act of violence, has always supplied the element of sport in what narrow-minded people might call my life of crime. The problem which I faced after the departure of my two young visitors was briefly this—how to deal with the information I had collected to my own advantage. I thought out and rejected several plans. In the end, as usual, I was successful. I allowed four days to pass before I paid another visit to the famous Fiske establishment. Miss Fiske was easily persuaded to grant me an interview, although her reception of me was frigidly cold. I knew at once that the blow had fallen. The waxen pallor of her cheeks was a real thing; her eyes were as brilliant as ever but they seemed to have sunken; in her tone, when she spoke, was a great weariness.
"I have come," I told her at once, "to make you an offer for your copy of the Watteau panel."
"An offer?" she repeated.
"Of how much?"
"Two thousand pounds."
Her eyes were fixed upon me for a moment in stony silence. Then she sent for her 'nephew.' The painting was brought from its hiding-place and stretched again upon the easel. She moved it so that her fingers could touch the smooth surface and in a moment or two they rested on the space where the signature should have been.
"Maureen," she said, "I feel nothing there."
"There is nothing there," the girl echoed sadly.
Miss Fiske turned over the corner of the threadbare canvas. Once more her fingers went unerringly to the correct spot. She drew them slowly across, pressed a little and withdrew them.
"And nothing there?" she asked.
"There is something there," Maureen acknowledged.
"Tell me again what it is," she continued.
"The name of Nicholas Gimblett, copyist," the girl murmured.
"You are still willing to pay two thousand pounds for this copy?" Miss Fiske asked.
"Certainly," I replied. "I buy it as a beautiful piece of work, not as an article of merchandise."
"How do you propose to pay?"
I produced my pocket-boot and counted out the notes.
"Isn't two thousand pounds rather a large sum for a self-acknowledged copy of a painting?" she enquired coolly.
"I do not buy for the name," I told her. "I buy for beauty."
"You can take the panel away," she said. "I wish to God you could take away with it the pain that it has brought into my heart.... Maureen, give them instructions in the packing-room according to this gentleman's wishes. See that he has a receipt for this money from the counting-house."
"Why are you selling this panel to me, Miss Fiske?" I asked, lingering for a moment. "You know yourself that it is very beautiful work."
"It is very beautiful," she said, "and I believe that it is genuine, even though a miracle has happened, but to me it represents only a terrible memory. So long as it remains in my possession the suffering would grow deeper. Take it away."
There followed what was certainly the most dangerous and difficult part of my task. At two o'clock the next morning when, in the studio which opened from the picture gallery at Brampton Court, I found the bottle of which I was in search, filled a little phial with a blowpipe and proceeded to carry out the purpose of my visit, I was certainly running more risks than I usually permitted myself to encounter in an adventure of such small significance. Treading lightly on my rubber-soled shoes, I entered without difficulty the gallery itself. I moved slowly and cautiously, for a preliminary investigation had already shown me the danger of a perfect network of cunningly devised burglar warnings. I reached the painting in safety, however. Here I paused for a moment or two. The silence in the great house was unbroken. I switched on my pocket torch and, leaning towards the panel, raised the bottle with its rubber tubing and bulb and sprayed lightly over those few inches where the signature lay. In a second or two the miracle was working. The letters disappeared as though they had been drawn out by some magnetic force. I touched the place with a brush dipped in another small phial filled with a musty-looking liquid. In less than five minutes altogether my task was accomplished. I stole out of the long room with its haunting array of shadows and once more I succeeded in avoiding every one of those cunningly placed little knobs in the floor. I dropped from the studio window, opening and replacing the sash with gloved fingers. Keeping close in the shadow of the house, I reached the dark obscurity of the avenue and glided down the hill in my car. Soon I was well on my way to London, but I did not choose to follow the Great West Road.
On the whole, the adventure, with its curious mixture of simplicity and subtlety, satisfied me, although it cost me one of my few remaining aliases—Mr. Whetham, with his somewhat vague address in the Temple and his legendary membership of an exclusive club, disappeared from the world. The owner of the panel which realised twenty-two thousand pounds at Christie's, was a very different person and, thanks to the contents of that little bottle I had brought away with me from the studio and my skillful use of the liquid, no one ever questioned for a moment the authenticity of the painting. The faked panel which was discovered in the same country house in Somersetshire, has not yet, to the best of my knowledge, come upon the market.
THE social life on board the thousand-ton motor-yacht Silver Queen was distinctly of a Bohemian order, but during my four days' stay I had not yet got used to these flying visits from my host's daughter, Monica de Peyton, on her way to the smoke-room before dinner. This evening she arrived just as I was finishing the arrangement of my tie and curled herself up on the divan facing me.
"Hate my dropping in like this, don't you?" she remarked as she tapped a cigarette upon the table. "I can't bear the noise in the smoke-room, though. Dad seems to spend half his time walking about Montego asking everyone he meets to come in and have a cocktail before dinner. I wish he wouldn't do it. The guests are bad enough without all these outside people."
I struggled hastily into my coat and took the place by her side. We were all very friendly on the Silver Queen and she seemed to think nothing of imprisoning my hand.
"Shall we have a quiet cocktail down here before we go up to that bear garden?" she suggested insinuatingly.
I rang the bell for the steward.
"Personally, I shall love it," I agreed. "I hate all that noise. What about your father and your step-mother, though?"
She looked at me with kindly scorn.
"Even for an Englishman," she declared, "you are a little extra dumb, aren't you? Do you know that I am twenty-four years old and my step-mother would no more dream of interfering with anything I did than of throwing herself off the ship. As to father, he has simply given up caring. He works hard enough in New York, I believe, but when he gets on one of these cruises there's no holding him."
The steward made his appearance. It was Monica who gave the order.
"Two White Ladies, Henderson, with just a dash of Passion Fruit Juice in them, Gordon's Gin and a fresh bottle of Cointreau. Oh, and you might bring some caviar sandwiches," she added. "Certainly, miss."
"And what's all the commotion in the smoke-room?" she asked. "One would think the yacht was an excursion steamer."
"A launch arrived a few minutes ago with some gentlemen friends of Mr. de Peyton, miss," the steward replied. "They have been calling on Mr. van der Bergen the other side of the harbour and stopped here on their way back. I'll bring the cocktails at once, miss."
The man disappeared. During the brief moment of his passing through the door, we were more than ever conscious of the mingled hum of voices and raucous laughter in the smoke-room. Monica's pretty eyebrows met in a frown.
"I can't think where father meets all these people," she complained. "He must go round to every bar in the place. What are you looking so thoughtful about, Mr. X?"
"To tell you the truth," I confided, "I was just reflecting that the van der Bergen's yacht left early this afternoon, so this last launch full of visitors can't have come from there."
"Seems to me no one tells the truth in this place," she observed. "Anything to get a free cocktail and make acquaintances. However, if it pleases Dad I suppose it's all right."
"When are you going to leave off calling me Mr. X?" I asked.
"When you tell me your full name."
"I shall call you John," she decided.
"It is not respectful," I objected. "Don't you realise that I am about thirty years older than you are?"
She looked at me closely for a moment. The lines in my face helped out my statement, but she seemed a little incredulous.
"All I can say is you don't act as though you were," she said. "You play these silly games better than anyone on board and I like your type of narrow face, even if there are a few lines. What do they mean, John? Have you seen a great deal of life?"
"More than I should like to reveal," I assured her.
"Sometimes you puzzle me," she reflected. "Have you been a good boy always, John?"
The arrival of the steward with the cocktails saved me from a somewhat embarrassing reply. Again, as the door was opened, there came that little wave of hilarious voices and now and then shrill peals of feminine laughter.
"Any women with these visitors?" Monica asked.
The steward shook his head.
"Just seven gentlemen, miss. I suppose they are gentlemen," he added a little doubtfully, "but they're a pretty tough lot."
"So long as they've not brought their womenkind with them I don't mind," the girl decided, helping herself to a sandwich. "Before you ring the dinner gong, Henderson, don't forget to announce that their launch is waiting."
"Very good, miss."
"You may just as well make yourself comfortable," my companion continued, as soon as we were once more alone. "I'm not going into that smoke-room until those men have gone. I don't like the sound of their voices. We'll ring for another cocktail down here. Why are you looking as though you had put a mask on your face?"
"I'm trying," I assured her, "to register indifference. As a matter of fact, I was wondering whether Mr. de Peyton doesn't run rather a risk in asking all these people who are practically strangers to him on board. Montego Bay isn't exactly a resting-place for the Pilgrim Fathers, you know, and I should think your step-mother and those two friends of hers have jewellery enough to bring crooks from the other side of the world."
"What about me?" she demanded. "I have my pearls, you know. It is Dad's great weakness. He will have his women wear jewellery. . . . Let's have another cocktail down here. We can go straight in to dinner then when the gong sounds."
We were half-way through that second cocktail when there was a sudden lessening of the tumult in the smoke-room. I drew away from Monica to listen. She held on to my arm.
"I know what it is," she confided. "Dad's been up to his usual tricks. He has asked them all to stay and dine and they're considering it."
I had ideas of my own and I was not wholly satisfied.
"Excuse me a moment," I begged. "You stay here, Monica. I'll just go and see that everything is all right."
I opened the door, stepped outside and mounted to the boat-deck. Quick though I was, I heard Monica's soft little laugh in my ear as I paused opposite the wireless-room.
"You're not quite slick enough for that, John," she cried. "If there's any trouble going on, I would like to know about it."
It was too late for argument. The door of the wireless-room was locked and a small card was affixed to the panel: "Gone to Dinner. Back at 8.30." I stepped quickly up the entry leading to the Marconi-man's cabin, but I held out my hand to Monica following me.
"Wait one moment," I begged. "Just let me see that there's nothing wrong."
There was plenty wrong, however. The Marconi youth was lying on the floor of his cabin unconscious, with a nasty wound in his head, a gag in his mouth, his arms and legs securely fastened. I bent over him for a moment and dashed some water into his face. He groaned but made no effort to open his eyes. I stooped a little lower and cut loose the cord which bound his hands. It was perhaps an injudicious action. The connecting door between the office and the young man's cabin was thrown back and a very sinister-looking individual, clean-shaven, in neat but ill-fitting dinner clothes, confronted me.
"Get to hell out of this," he ordered. "Get the young woman out of it, too, unless you're looking for trouble."
I think he had the shock of his life. The drawing of a gun was never more than a matter of seconds with me, and the lining of my pocket was of silk so that it slipped out easily.
"Up with them!" I advised him. "I would sooner shoot than not. Quick!"
His hands went up quickly enough but I could see the shape of the gun in his coat pocket and there was no time for fooling round. I stepped in and hit him on the jaw so that he fell backwards amongst the débris of the receiving set and the other instruments in the room, all of which seemed to have been deliberately smashed. Then I caught Monica by the wrist and dragged her after me down the steps.
"Look here," I said to her firmly, "there's been some sort of trouble about, evidently. Go to your room, please, and lock the door."
I never heard a more self-assured laugh.
"Not on your life, John," she declared. "I have been years waiting to see a scrap like this."
There was no reasoning with her, so I let her alone. She followed me closely down the steps and she was by my side when we paused breathless outside the smoke-room. So far as I could gather nothing as yet had happened. The tumult of voices continued, but there was more laughter going on than anything else. We came face to face with the chief steward coming out of his pantry. He looked a little worried but I saw that there were two huge trays full of cocktails behind him ready to be served.
"Has the gong gone, Martin?" I asked him.
"Not yet, sir," he answered. "Some gentlemen friends of Mr. de Peyton who called in a launch are staying for dinner. I think it may be a little late, sir, to judge by the cocktails they're drinking."
"Are the ladies down yet?" I enquired.
"Yes, sir. Everyone is down."
He stood on one side to let the stewards pass him with the cocktails and hurried after them himself. I turned to Monica.
"Look here," I told her. "That Marconi-man has not been knocked about for nothing. It's no good going to your father now he's surrounded, but there's going to be some trouble. Go back to your cabin. I'll come there the moment it's all over."
She laughed in my face.
"How do you know that you'll still be running about, if it really is a hold-up?" she asked. "The other women are in there, aren't they? Why should I stay away?"
I looked at her helplessly. She was wearing a daring and most attractive gown of white satin, the famous Padua pearls—two string; of them—around her neck, and on her fingers a single ring with a pearl which all the women had been discussing every night.
"Give me your jewellery," I demanded imperatively.
She obeyed without a moment's hesitation. Two hundred thousand pounds' worth of pearls slid into my inside pocket.
"Now let's go in and see the fun," she begged. "I would like you to take care of me, too, John, as well as the pearls!"
A retiring steward with an empty tray was holding open the door. We passed into the room. Joseph L. de Peyton, the owner of the yacht, a large, loosely built man with a mass of black hair sprinkled with grey, heavy features but keen, brilliant eyes, was lounging against the magnificent overmantel of the open fireplace, one hand in his pocket, a half-empty cocktail glass in the other. The seven men who were strangers to us were dotted about the room—one talking to Mrs. de Peyton, two others listening to stories from Miriam Crewe, the film artist, another explaining a chart which hung upon the wall to Mrs. de Peyton's sister, a famous musical-comedy actress. Of the remaining intruders, two were lounging about with an exaggerated air of being very much at their ease, and one who seemed to be of superior class, a slim, well-built man with a cultivated voice that indicated a college education had apparently just finished telling a story to his host.
None of the others were distinguished in any way, except for their mediocrity. The one whose appearance I liked least, had drawn a little apart and although he still held a cocktail glass in his hand, his eyes seemed to be darting everywhere and taking note of everybody. I decided that if this really was a hold-up he or the man standing by our host's side was the leader. De Peyton welcomed us with a little wave of the hand.
"Mr. Everard," he said, "and the rest of you gentlemen, this is my remaining guest—Mr. John Dawnay—and my daughter Monica. Can't remember all your names, so just throw kisses at one another and say how-de-do. Dawnay, there's a fresh tray of cocktails on the table there and another lot coming. Give Monica one and help yourself. Mr. Everard here," he went on, "has spent most of his life in England and he is interested in one of my investments over there."
I fetched Monica a cocktail and on the way paused to speak to one of the two strangers who were hanging about in the background.
"Did I hear that you had come over from van der Bergen's yacht?" I asked him.
"We've been aboard her. She's some boat, but not a patch on this one."
"And as for the cocktails," his companion added, "say, they're baby juice compared to these!"
"I thought the White Heather went out early this afternoon," I observed.
"Wallace there," my new acquaintance said, jerking his head in Everard's direction, "lunched on board. A few of us went over to fetch him. She's gone now, though. Pleasant little village, this, miss," he went on, addressing Monica.
She smiled at him encouragingly.
"Glad you find it so," she remarked. "We have been on shore twice but I don't fancy there's much to be said for it, except the bathing. That's great. If they would only clear the sharks out of the harbour so that we could bathe from the yacht, I just wouldn't mind how long we stayed here."
Monica's new friend withdrew his cigar from the corner of his mouth. I am quite certain that it was only a miracle which caused him to abandon the idea of spitting into the receptacle for that purpose close at hand.
"You tell the old man that, miss," he said, "and I guess he would buy the bay and have the sharks poisoned."
"Do you think he would?" she asked with an ingenuous little smile. "I don't think he's quite so fond of me as that, Mr.—"
"Gregory's the name," he confided briskly. "Pete Gregory, I come from way back west but we all know about your Dad. Wherever you go in our darned old country there isn't anyone who doesn't know all about Joe de Peyton. It's an honour to think we're going to have dinner here, I must say."
De Peyton removed the cigar from his mouth and looked across at his daughter.
"What's wrong with you to-night, kid?" he asked in a puzzled tone.
"Nothing that I know of," she answered. "I never felt better, Dad. I think this place agrees with me."
"I don't mean that. Seems somehow as though you hadn't—why, of course," he laughed. "Where's your necklace? I hate to see a daughter of mine go about looking like a schoolmarm."
"The old man's dead right," Monica's new friend declared, replacing his cigar in his mouth. "It does seem queer to see the daughter of a great millionaire like Joe de Peyton with none of those pretty sparklers on her. I guess you've got plenty, miss—what?"
"Jewels?" the girl exclaimed. "Oh, I have heaps of 'em, Mr. Gregory. I leave them off every now and then for a change. Don't you think I look just as nice without them?"
Mr. Gregory gave the matter his earnest consideration. He glanced around the room and shook his head thoughtfully.
"Young lady," he said, "I have had a bit of experience in my time and I tell you, however you may stand up in the first line for looks and figure and all that sort of thing, there's nothing sets a woman off more than jewels. Something exciting about them, you know. An ugly woman is an ugly woman always, even though she's tricked out, but a beautiful woman with beautiful jewels is just the goll-darndest finest thing you can see on this earth."
"Arc you interested in jewels, Mr. Gregory?" Monica asked innocently. "Are you a collector, I mean?"
Monica's voice was very soft, but for some reason or other, perhaps because there had been a lull in the conversation, her words seemed to travel across the room. Mr. Wallace Everard was laughing quietly to himself.
"Hear that, Pete?" he exclaimed. "Are you a collector of jewels, boy? I should say you are when you get the chance, eh?"
"That's right," Mr. Gregory agreed. "Show us what you've got, Miss de Peyton. Here, I'm going to have another cocktail," he went on, leaning forward and taking one from the tray. "I'm going to drink to what you can show us in the way of sparklers. There's Mrs. de Peyton there. I guess her diamonds are pretty good. There's the young lady they say is on the films. Well, she brought a million dollars' worth along with her from London and my! she looks as though she'd got them all on. There's the other dame, too, she's not forgotten her trimmings! See what you can do, Miss de Peyton."
She made a little grimace and looked across at her father.
"Dad," she said, "Mr. Gregory doesn't like to see me without jewels, in fact he is begging me to go and put some on. Why is he so fond of jewellery and seeing us all wear it? Why are we supposed to wear all our diamonds and pearls and precious stones because Mr. Everard and his friends are staying to have dinner with us?"
The daring of the girl, together with her quick apprehension of the situation, left me for a moment lost in admiration. Would her father see it? I wondered. Would the seven men who had been listening realise what she was driving at? I felt at that moment that I had never admired a woman so much in my life as this slim, elegant girl with the subtle smile, the super-innocent eyes and gently raised eyebrows, looking around the room from one to the other. Yet, gallant attempt though it was, it was a failure. Not one of the people that mattered seemed to understand the significance of the girl's warning. Of those seven men, Wallace Everard was distinctly uneasy, and another, who was continually changing his place, talking first to Mrs. de Peyton and then to Miriam Crewe, seemed to share his discomfiture. Not another soul in the room to whom the warning had been addressed had understood. I handed her a caviar sandwich and drew her a little nearer the porthole to watch a passing vessel.
"My congratulations," I whispered. "It was clever, Monica."
She laughed back at me.
"You told me," she said, "that you admired brains as well as beauty in a woman. Do you think I have brains, John?"
"You have proved it," I answered. "It seems a pity the others are all so dense."
Mr. Pete Gregory swaggered up to us. There was something almost threatening in his question.
"So you ain't going to give us a show, young lady?"
"Alas," she regretted, "I can't. You see, all these ladies here are a great deal older than I am. I have jewels, too, but I keep them for later on when perhaps I am married."
"Keep them where?" Mr. Gregory demanded a little blatantly.
"In the vaults of the Second National Bank in New York," she confided with a sweet smile. "I'm so sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Gregory."
That time I felt a little shiver of anxiety. Monica was certainly asking for trouble, but Gregory had not the wit to perceive it. He moved back to the cocktail tray with a discourteous grunt. Apparently his attention was now distracted. He was listening to the ship's bells. He turned to Monica.
"What time do you folks take dinner here," he enquired.
"Any time we feel like it," she answered sweetly. "We're not at all regular. Are you hungry, Mr. Gregory?"
He didn't reply. His eyes were fixed upon Wallace Everard, who seemed to be slowly disentangling himself from too close proximity to his host.
In the distance I fancied that I heard the booming of a gong. The smoke-room door was suddenly opened by the chief steward. He made his way up to de Peyton and saluted.
"Dinner is served, sir," he announced.
De Peyton nodded, the chief steward stepped back and the door through which he had entered was suddenly closed by an unseen hand. Wallace Everard, standing in the clear space in front of the fireplace, suddenly banged on the table before him. There was still a smile upon his lips but his voice had a sinister quality as his words pierced the sudden silence in the room.
"Hands up, every man here! Women sit still."
There was a sound like a long shivering breath, a warning of coming hysterics from the women. Two of de Peyton's guests, one a man named Gilligan, a New York broker, the other an Englishman, a casual acquaintance of Mrs. de Peyton, stood with their mouths open, disobedient through sheer lack of comprehension. Everard's voice rang out once more. One saw now that he had a gun in either hand. Both men were covered as he stood there.
"You two—hands up! Last chance."
This time they neither of them hesitated. Everard looked around and was apparently satisfied.
"No one is going to get hurt," he said, "if you act sensibly. All that we want is the women's jewellery. Go to it, you two."
Gregory, from one end of the room, and another of the gang the other side, each with an unexpectedly produced kitbag, commenced their task.
"If any of you ladies try to be funny," Everard went on, "slipping jewels down the insides of your frocks, or any tricks of that sort, you will be stripped bare on the spot and searched the way they do things in Chicago. If you sit quietly and hand over what you are wearing, you won't meet with even a spot of trouble."
De Peyton spoke up. He had lost altogether the appearance of having drunk too many cocktails. He looked like an angry man who was spoiling for a fight.
"If you think you're going to get away with this show, you blackguards," he said to Everard, "you're making a great mistake. I'll get you, if I have to follow you round the world. I warn you that you're trying this on the wrong man. Chuck it and get off on your blasted launch, and I'll treat it as a practical joke."
"You take my advice, Mr. de Peyton," Wallace Everard answered, "and keep your mouth shut. We don't look like practical jokers, do we? Anyone who gets that idea into his head is likely to suffer for it. If you do that again, madam," he went on, suddenly turning towards Mrs. de Peyton, who had thrown one of her rings to the other end of the smoke-room, "you will have your clothes stripped off you and I promise you won't bathe again this season or next."
Mrs. de Peyton stood looking around her with flashing eyes.
"Can't any of you do anything?" she cried. "Some of you are men, I know. Colonel Harker—"
The man to whom she had turned shrugged his shoulders.
"Madam," he said, "we would risk our lives with pleasure if it would do you a mite of good, but it wouldn't at this stage of the proceedings. All I can promise you is—and I know there is not a man in the room who won't back me up—that if any of these blackguards touch your clothing we will go for them. They may have half-a-dozen murders to answer for but we'll get one of them at least, and I know which one it will be."
"That's the way I like to hear a fellow-countryman talk," Everard declared. "Believe me, Colonel, I would be the first man to be sorry if we had to expose any of these ladies to humiliation, but I'll ask you to remember one thing—this is our business we're out upon. If we succeed, I reckon we are made for life. If we fail, it's going to cost us our lives, anyway. That's why we're in earnest."
"Old dear, the Colonel, isn't he?" Monica murmured in my ear. "Can't you think of something, John? You look to me like a man with ideas. Haven't you got a hunch?"
"Heaps," I whispered. "You wait a little time. Look out now—it's our turn."
Gregory was standing in front of us—an ugly man with a hard face which, save for drink and soft living, would have been a remarkable one. He grasped Monica by the arm in familiar fashion, then suddenly caught sight of the hands that I was holding upright. My fists had slowly clenched. I think he realised what might be coming to him.
"Suppose you tell me what made you come up without any shiners to-night?" he demanded. "Perhaps they've slipped down your frock, eh?"
I calculated my distance exactly before I spoke.
"It will cost you your life," I said calmly, "if you try to find out."
He turned on me fiercely. It was Everard's intervention which saved his life and probably mine.
He spoke across the crowded room and his voice was crisp and clear, but with the snap of real authority in it.
"Get on with your job, Gregory."
The man pushed by us and made his way to where Mrs. de Peyton's elder sister, who was by way of being chaperon to the party, was seated. She unfastened her necklace with trembling fingers and held it out to him. He threw it into her lap contemptuously.
"Lucky Aunt Jean!" Monica sighed. "Everything she possesses is as false as her teeth. You didn't do so badly, John," she went on softly. "When is the hunch coming? When are you going to break up this little show?"
"It's only just beginning to be funny," I remonstrated. "What I want to see is how Everard plans to get his men away."
"There's a launch," she reminded me.
"Yes, there's the launch," I admitted, "hired in Port Antonio, with a local pilot—an old friend of mine, by the by—in charge. I saw him as I went up to the boat-deck. Shouldn't think he's ever been away from Jamaica in his life."
"Perhaps they'll take possession of the Silver Queen," she suggested, "and turn us into the crew! . . . I'm so hungry, John. I wonder whether we are going to get any dinner."
"I should think it extremely likely," I assured her. "Mr. Everard and his helpers are evidently men of action. The collection, as you can see, is finished. Mr. Everard is about to address us. I wish I knew what he was going to do with all that jewellery."
"Idiot!" Monica scoffed. "What difference does it make to you?"
An awkward question! I preferred to ignore it. I was lucky, inasmuch as at that moment Everard banged the table.
"Listen, all of you," he said, "we are now going to search the cabins and if you hear any shooting it will simply mean that the stewards have been making fools of themselves. In the meantime these doors will be locked, and although I should much prefer to carry out this enterprise without any ill results save a little inconvenience and the loss of your jewellery, we shall shoot in a moment if any passenger is caught outside this room. Is that clearly understood?"
There was a murmur of sullen acquiescence. Everard glanced across at de Peyton, who had said nothing.
"Understood?" the former repeated.
"Any objection to the bartender shaking us up another lot of cocktails," de Peyton enquired gloomily, "and may we ask, too, how long you are going to keep us waiting for our dinner? Perhaps you still intend to do us the honour of joining us?"
"Another night we may, with pleasure," Everard replied. "On this occasion we are a little pressed for time. As regards your cocktails, where are they made?"
De Peyton pointed to the little trap-door which opened from the steward's pantry.
"They are made in the steward's room behind there and they can be served, in an emergency, through that panel."
"Does the door of the steward's pantry, which opens on the gangway, lock?"
"Where is your bartender?"
"Here I am," I answered, promptly stepping forward. "Our host should have explained to you that our bartender was dismissed for incompetence three days ago, and every guest on the ship is taking a night at cocktail shaking. It is my turn to-night and, as a matter of fact, I was doing very nicely until Mr. de Peyton fetched me away."
I had spoken purposely in a loud voice and rapidly, and it appeared that my fellow guests, on this occasion at any rate, were for the most part quick-witted. No one said a word.
"Go back to your job, then. You can serve cocktails till you hear the launch pull off."
Everard unlocked one of the doors and looked out. There was no member of the crew in sight but one of his men stood holding a gun in one hand and a heavily laden kitbag in the other.
"Hand the bag over to Gregory," Everard ordered. "Have you been through every cabin?"
"All but one," the man replied. "It's got a private lock and I can't get into it."
"Who's in it?" Everard demanded.
"They say it's the owner's and there's a safe there."
Everard's eyes flashed.
"We'll have to look into it. This way, boys," he added, locking the door of the smoke-room. "Here, Gregory, go into the steward's pantry with this guy and lock the door. Wait there till we come back."
He unlocked the door of the steward's pantry and pushed it open. Gregory, with the bags, followed me in. I don't think anyone noticed that Monica had slipped out behind my back and vanished into her cabin. Everard stepped lightly out on to the deck and whistled softly. A voice from the launch answered him.
"Get her going," he called out. "We'll be aboard in three minutes."
There was a cheerful "Okay" from the coloured man. Gregory set down his bags just across the threshold of the pantry and leaned across for a bottle of gin. Before he could reach it he felt my gun sticking into his back.
"If you move a foot, Gregory," I warned him, "you're a dead man."
"For the love of Mike!" he muttered. "I'm not moving."
With my left hand I helped myself to a small armoury from his pockets and threw them out of the porthole. I then sprang back. We faced one another. I had a gun in my hand. Gregory had nothing.
"Come a little nearer to me," I ordered. He obeyed hesitatingly.
"Say, you're not going to shoot? It's murder!" he cried.
"I'm not going to shoot," I answered, "but you're going to have what's coming to you."
I got him well on the point of the jaw and except for a long sigh he never made a sound. Someone banged at the trap-door. There was a bawl for cocktails from the smoke-room.
"Coming in a moment," I called out. "I've got to crack the ice."
I bent over Gregory. He was motionless. It took me thirty seconds to open the door. I looked out. There was no one in sight. With a bag in either hand and one under my arm, I stepped out on deck and on to the launch. Sam, who was standing at the wheel, recognised me with a joyous smile.
"Away you go," I ordered. "The others are staying to dine."
He looked at me blankly. I pushed him away from the wheel. Luckily the launch was fitted with Thornycroft engines, the one make which I thoroughly understood.
"Sam," I said, "you're a good fellow."
"That's so, suh," he grinned. "Ain't the other gentlemen coming, though?"
"They're staying to dinner," I told him. "We're going to take a little run first. Meanwhile, I'll talk to you."
"That's all right, suh."
We were a hundred yards away cutting through the water before we heard the first of a strange hubbub of voices from the Silver Queen.
"You see, Sam," I explained, "I have pinched this boat."
"Oh, yes, suh?"
"I'm going to give you a thousand dollars in five minutes' time and another thousand when we reach our destination," I continued.
"My, Mister Dawnay!" he murmured breathlessly. "That's money!"
"What crew have you got?"
"Only me, suh," Sam replied. "The others are on board. They all look smart and togged out in them gentlemen's clothes, and there's two there—why, they ain't nothing but mechanics dolled out."
"You mean that you and I are alone?"
"I guess that's so, suh."
"Can we do it?" I asked him.
"I'll say we can, suh, just as far as you want to go, even if it's to Panama. There's reserve tanks of gas we can turn on when we want it and oil enough to go round the world."
He pointed to a rack above.
"They're all there, suh."
"Gallons and gallons," he answered, his eyes rolling.
"Get me a whisky-and-soda, Sam," I ordered, "then I'll have the chart of the Caribbean Sea."*
[* N.B. to Ed. The story could end here if preferred].
"And I'll have one, too, please, Sam, with plenty of ice," a demure voice said from over my left shoulder. "Not such a bad hunch of yours, after all, John."
My knees nearly gave way beneath me but I managed to turn around and retain my grasp of the wheel. Monica, clad in a neat blue sailor suit, threw the match away from the cigarette which she had just lit. Upon her face shone the joyous beam of a spoilt young woman who has succeeded in having her own way. To all appearance she was starting out on a happy picnic-party.
"How the—" I began.
"Don't be blasphemous," she interrupted. "I threw my little parcel on board as soon as I guessed what your hunch was. On the whole," she went on, standing by my side and peering seawards, "you are much safer with me on board."
We parted a few days later, having landed on the wharf of one of her father's great estates in South Florida. I found Monica quite invaluable. She even undertook the transport of those embarrassing kitbags. At the moment of farewell, with a tactfully hidden sigh of regret, I hung about her neck the Padua pearls and placed upon her finger the priceless ring. Her smile contained a certain quality of half-sarcastic, half-humorous gratitude.
"Sure you can spare these, John?" she asked.
For once in my life my self-control faltered. My voice, when I answered her, was not altogether steady. She threw her arms around my neck and pointed to the kitbags.
"That's all right," I told her. "Take them along."
She drew away and looked at me in amazement.
"Take them along? What do you mean?" she cried. "Do you think I want those filthy pickings of Mr. Everard's?"
"They belong to your people, most of them."
She shook her head.
"John," she said, "what one robber has the pluck and brains to take from another robber, especially when it is one man against ten or eleven, belongs to the one who cuts in. I'll take care of the bags, all right," she added, looking up to the great house and watching the servants who were streaming down. "They will be in the Fifth Avenue Chandler's Bank in a week, in the name of John Dawnay, and I shall be waiting around the Ritz for you to give me lunch when you have cleared them," she concluded as she hastened away.
She kept her word, too. The bags were there, packed in cases and sealed up, left by Miss Monica de Peyton herself, as the officials told me with many obsequious smiles. I always thought, though, that Monica knew something when, after the most wonderful lunch, she drove me in her Flying Packard across the city to the docks, pushed a ticket into my hand and hurried me up the private gangway.
"You will find all your baggage in suite number fifty-five," she whispered. "Hurry down and lock yourself in. . . . Meurice's, Paris, next month," she called out, standing on the edge of the dock and waving her hand. "Bon voyage!"
CHIEF INSPECTOR DRAKE, a largely built man of slow and gentle speech, leaned back in his chair, tapping gently upon his desk with a fountain-pen and regarding me the while with the kindly interest one seems sometimes disposed to bestow upon a casual visitor of not displeasing appearance.
"It is good of you to favour me with this call, Mr. Hammond," he said. "I should scarcely have ventured to suggest it but, as you may have read in the papers, if you ever waste your time on them, I am retiring from my post here after some thirty years' service and I am doing so with only one regret."
"It seems a pity that you should have any regrets at all," I told him. "Yours must have been a very interesting career."
"Very," the inspector agreed. "Yet, as I have said, I leave with one regret. With a single exception, all the criminals who have loomed large in our history have been, during my time, what we might call accounted for. They have either died, disappeared from civilisation altogether, been stricken with illness or brought to the contemplation of their past misdemeanours in one of our—er—governmental health resorts."
"Prison?" I suggested with a smile.
"Precisely. Others have paid the severer penalty of the law they have—er—defied. In any case, all have been accounted for in my time save one only."
"And he is still at large?" I asked.
"He is still at large," the inspector admitted. "One by one I have put my cleverest men upon his tracks and one by one they have brought me their records of failure. I have drawn, as I thought, an impassable cordon around the circles in which he must live and have his being. He is probably still within that circle and it is, as I was saying, the one regret with which I leave my present post—that we have never once been able to bring him to justice. There is a long list of crimes against him—at least we have come to the conclusion that they were committed by the same man. We have evidence enough even to hang him, but—I am making a confession to you, you see, Mr. Hammond—we do not know who or where he is."
"It seems almost incredible," I observed.
"In the archives of Scotland Yard," the inspector confessed, "there has never existed any similar case. When I first took command here I decided that my predecessors had simply made up their minds on presumptive evidence that any undiscovered crime was committed by this man. I was wrong. In each case, there has been something to connect him with the other affairs and yet—I will go no further than to tell you this, Mr. Hammond—-we have never been able to pull all those various strings of evidence together and bring the criminal himself to justice."
"I sometimes think," I ventured, "that if you were to take the British public a little more into your confidence, with regard to a case like this—"
"Impossible," was the curt interruption. "But I am letting myself run away. I must remember that you are probably a busy man. I asked you to call, Mr. Hammond, because I wondered if you could help us a little more about that curious blue chrysoprase."
"I wish I could," I replied. "I told you exactly the stall I purchased it from in the Caledonian Market, in fact I think I took one of your representatives there."
"You did indeed," the inspector assented, "and I assure you we are most grateful. With some difficulty we traced it from that man back to a dealer in antiques who until lately was doing business in the Whitechapel Road. The name was Solomon Kampf and we found many things connected with his establishment which were highly suggestive and, in confidence, Mr. Hammond, somewhat irregular."
"Well, I am glad that my information was of some assistance, anyhow," I said. "As a rule, the police have means at their disposal of obtaining the information they require, when once they have found the right person. You examined his books?"
"He keeps none," the inspector replied dryly. "At least, he declares that he keeps none. The statement in itself is absurd, when one considers the amount of stock he has, but, alas, there is no law to compel a man to keep accounts, Mr. Hammond. I wondered whether, by the merest chance, you—having a taste for beautiful antiques—had ever come across this Solomon Kampf?"
"I never came across him in my life," I confided, "and I am afraid, as a collector, I am almost nonexistent. It was by the purest accident that I saw this blue stone and bought it. I meant to send it to a niece of mine but, to tell you the truth, I forgot it."
The inspector rose to his feet. He held out his hand and touched a bell with his left forefinger.
"At any rate, Mr. Hammond," he said, "we are exceedingly obliged for your information so far as it has gone. Solomon Kampf will be a very interesting subject for us in the future. We have an idea that a good many secrets would rest within the covers of his ledger if we knew where to find it."
The inspector waited with me to the door and handed me over to the care of a commissionaire.
"Come in and see us again, Mr. Hammond," he invited as we parted, "especially if you ever happen to hear anything about Solomon Kampf."
"I will with pleasure," I promised, "but I don't even know the man by name."
In the yard I found the spot where I had parked my car and I drove slowly along the Embankment, over London Bridge and out towards Blackheath. Before I had gone very far, I knew exactly what I wanted to find out, and a heavy blow it was. All the time since leaving Scotland Yard I had been followed by that alert-looking man in plain clothes who had been toying with the engine of an official car when I started.
Within a few hours, Mr. Hammond, the stockbroker, had made a perfectly reasonable and dignified departure from his small office in the City, his rooms in Blackheath and various other haunts where he was sometimes to be seen. Within a week, Mr. Felix Lott, a neatly dressed, brusque but shining example of the best type of American business man, reappeared in those usual resorts which he had quitted a little abruptly some twelve months ago and announced in the strictest confidence to the few acquaintances whom he met that he was thinking of floating a film company in the West End. In parenthesis he added, to such people as were sure to pass on the information, that it was not capital he wanted, but a script and English talent. It was amazing how quickly he became popular in such centres as the Milan Grill Room, the Embassy Club and kindred institutions. Needless to say, it was I under that somewhat unattractive pseudonym who was ordering my lunch at a corner table in the Embassy Restaurant when Meurice, the genial manager, brought up Mr. Wilfred Bolsover and presented him.
"You will excuse the liberty, Mr. Lott," he said, "but as you have been out of England for so long I thought perhaps you might not have seen any of Mr. Bolsover's work. He is quite one of our new stars. This is Mr. Lott," he went on, "an American gentleman interested in films."
The young man, who was of the usual type, became at once floridly verbose. I listened to what he had to say with some apparent interest.
"I have seen your show," I interrupted. "Quite good. But what about the films?"
"I have done three pictures," he confided. "Goldwyn says he will probably want me next month for a new Priestley production but I am not fixed up yet."
"Milan Court 129," I told him brusquely. "Send me your screen tests."
I dismissed him with a wave of the hand. Meurice still fussed around.
"Do you know who the two gentlemen are who have taken the next table, sir?" he asked. "They came in when you were talking to Mr. Bolsover."
I glanced around at my new neighbours. For a single moment I held my breath, then I answered as carelessly as possible.
"Never saw either of them before in my life."
"Two of the chiefs of our Scotland Yard police," Meurice confided. "The one nearest you is retiring this week. They are giving him a big dinner and presentation. That is Sub-Commissioner Crowell with him. He is not so well known but he is very high up in the service."
"I am more interested in film stars than cops just now," I told Meurice. "The fellow next me, though, has an interesting face. Send my sole along, there's a good fellow, Meurice. I have a busy day."
A gushing young lady, who by some miraculous chance was free—it seemed that she had thrown up her part in an important production owing to the too amorous advances of the producer—paused to chatter with me for a time and glanced more than once at the empty place at my table. I kept her in conversation for a few minutes, chiefly to let Inspector Drake have the opportunity of hearing my slight but quite distinct American accent. When she had gone, however, I devoted myself to my lunch and to a strenuous effort to hear what Inspector Drake and his companion were talking about. The longer I listened the more completely I escaped from that inferiority complex which had depressed me so when I realised that I had been followed from Scotland Yard down to Blackheath. Not a word of Hammond, not a word about that poor little stockbroker who might have been someone else. . . .
Meurice, that morning, was certainly playing the part of my good angel. Once more he stopped before my table, this time a little more diffidently. He was ushering to their places Adolphus Cray, the great portrait painter, and a woman who, if she was not the most attractive, was certainly the most remarkable-looking I had ever seen. Her complexion was dark, almost swarthy, she was utterly without self-consciousness but she carried herself as though the restraint of clothes was strange to her. Her eyes and features were beautiful, her carriage and figure perfect.
"You will forgive me, Mr. Lott," Meurice said eagerly. "You know, without a doubt, Mr. Adolphus Cray, the great portrait painter."
I rose to my feet.
"Mr. Cray," I replied, "is known to the whole world, but we have never met, I think."
"The lady," Meurice continued, "is the Princess of Hebor, who has come over to England to be painted by Mr. Cray."
I bowed. The woman permitted herself a faint, rather intriguing smile.
"The fact is," Cray explained, "the Princess would like to do a picture for one of the film companies, if a suitable script can be found. I have painted her because, without flattery, I consider her the most beautiful creature alive. Meurice here tells me that you are interested in films."
"To some extent," I admitted.
"Can you do anything about it?"
The Princess seemed already to be posing. She was leaning slightly towards me and although I am not a susceptible man, her beauty was of a quality which no one could have denied her—a magical and savage beauty, but without a doubt compelling.
"If the Princess will consent to submit to a screen test," I said, "I will send her the name and address of a studio and a letter to the producer. I should think she would find no difficulty in taking her place amongst the film stars, if that is really her ambition."
"See a little more of her before you go too far," Adolphus Cray grunted. "To-night I am giving a party at my studio because I have finished my picture. Rather a wild sort of show, but come if you want to, Mr. Lott. Midnight till daylight, they call my routs."
"I shall be pleased to present myself about midnight," I agreed.
They passed on and I resumed my seat. A lucky morning for me, without a doubt. Chief Inspector Drake would no longer have any suspicions as to the identity of Mr. Lott, the cinema magnate, even if he had been disposed to have any. Furthermore, I had succeeded in obtaining an invitation to the one function in all London which I was anxious to attend. Already there reposed in my pocket-book a plan of Adolphus Cray's studio in Chelsea and several newspaper cuttings referring to the loan to him for one month by the South Kensington Museum of the famous Hebor jewels. I signed my bill and left the place with a great load off my mind. From the moment I had read of the loan to Adolphus Cray of these marvellous jewels to be worn by the Princess during his painting of her portrait, I had decided that their acquisition would be an achievement not only worthy of my talent but also a great financial coup, and I had been slowly perfecting my plans for gaining possession of them. A genuine invitation to the studio was a godsend. My success was now a certainty. I was ready for what might well turn out to be the greatest enterprise of my life.
The greatest enterprise or the most complete debacle! The issue was still undecided just before four o'clock the following morning, when I was left—apparently the only thoroughly conscious person—in that huge studio. Adolphus Cray was dead beyond a doubt. He lay a few yards away from me at the foot of the canvas around which fifty or sixty of his wildest boon companions had been dancing half naked only an hour or so ago. The party was still going on in the house at the top of the garden. Through the open window and down the tunnelled passage came sounds of revelry, of wild music, the shrieking of feminine voices, peals of laughter. So far as I knew, there was no one in the studio except myself. Then, for the second time that evening, the blood ran cold in my veins as I heard that soft, velvety whisper in my ears. I turned my head. It was the woman who had been the inspiration of the orgy, who had driven half the men at the party crazy with the seduction of her glances, the witchery of her movements—the woman whom Adolphus Cray had brought home only a short time ago from Tunis. She was holding around her the garment in which she had danced, her breath was still coming quickly, her bosoms were heaving, the fire had not yet passed from her eyes. She pointed towards the room at the top of the garden, through the wide open window of which there was a clear-cut vision of dancers like figures on a screen devising at every turn strange antics and grotesque contortions.
"Do they know yet—those mad people?" she asked.
I watched the shadows go by.
"For their own sakes I hope not," I answered.
"I was asleep," she murmured, pointing to the huge divan with its crumpled roll of tapestries and cushions beyond the screen. "Tell me what happened."
"You should know," I replied.
She laughed. It was like no human sound; it was like the passionate cooing of a pigeon beneath whose feathers breathed the disembodied spirit of a vampire.
"I slept," she confided. "I sleep so easily when once the passion of dancing or love flickers."
"He made you come out here with him alone," I reminded her. "No one in the house was allowed to follow. He locked the door of the corridor."
"How did you know that?"
"I was in the room."
"You followed us?"
"I was here first," I told her. "I knew the trick of that window through which we see the dancing."
"You wanted to see me dance?" she asked, leaning over till her hot breath was on my cheek. "Was that why you stole away and hid here?"
"Do you think that there is any other man in the room who would not have come if he had known how to enter?" I whispered. "I pushed back the shutters. There was a secret catch. I stepped in and I hid."
"And you saw me dance?" she asked eagerly.
Her fingers, lithe and beautiful, were stealing towards the inside of that garment in which she was wrapped. I remembered the mad gossip of the studio—her history. I was wise.
"Princess," I told her, "I dared not look. You had given me no permission."
"You were right," she admitted. "He broke his word and he suffered for it. I danced for him alone in the darkness here and I gave him his will. I let him make his picture of me and I wore the jewels which had belonged to my ancestress—the Priestess and Queen of Hebor. When the picture was finished the jewels were to be mine. To-night I asked him for them and he laughed at me. They belonged, he told me, to a great museum in London. It was because he is the greatest known painter of women that they were lent to him for a month. All the time they were—what you call it?—insured. I do not understand these things, but a man came to fetch them every night. There was one an hour ago. The man from Smith's, he was called. Perhaps it is you who are the man from Smith's. Have you the jewels? If so—give them to me. They are mine."
"The jewels themselves I have never seen," I assured her. "I saw the picture with all the others when it was unveiled to-night. I saw the picture of them on your neck and arms. No more."
"Then where are they?" she demanded. "I came from my home in Africa because he," she went on, pointing to the dead man, "came there to paint and he went mad. He promised that if I came with him to England he would give me the jewels of the Queen of Hebor, the great queen who was head of my tribe before the English found their way into my country. I wore them whilst he painted and though night by night they were taken from me, I thought that he would keep his word, and now the last night has come and I have danced for his friends and I have danced for him unveiled and my body is there on the canvas. I asked for my jewels and he shook his head. Perhaps, after all, it is you who have them?"
I took her hands and I drew them over my body and pockets. There was nothing there but my gun. She looked at me like a sulky child.
"I desire my jewels," she persisted. "It was for them I came to this country. They were to be mine to-night. I paid the price. I have watched him. He has them not. When I asked for them he told me that they were with the man from Smith's, the man who has haunted the studio since I came. Bring him to me, that man. I shall explain to him. I shall take my jewels."
"Listen," I begged her earnestly; "if you take my advice you will forget about the jewels for a time. Go and put some clothes on. Soon they will come back here to the studio. You see, they are flagging with the dance already. When they come and find Cray dead with that knife in his chest there will be trouble."
She lit a cigarette she picked up from a table close at hand.
"It interests me not," she said.
"They will be uncouth people, some of them," I warned her. "They will not respect the fact that you are a Princess of Hebor and a priestess in your country. The men—they are all drunk now—they are savage. They scarcely know what they are doing."
"He who lays a finger upon me, without my will, will die," she declared calmly.
"Nevertheless," I begged her, "listen to me. Behind that screen is your dressing-room. Put on some clothes and I will take you to find the man from Smith's."
Unwillingly she consented. She threw me a backward glance as she swung round the screen.
"I disrobe," she called out softly. "I will wear the garments of your women, if you will have it so. Then you must bring me the man from Smith's. Kill him if he will not part with the jewels. You shall bring me the jewels—yes?"
She stood with her hand upon her hip, her single garment in perilous disorder, held in its place now only by the tips of her fingers.
"Yes?" she repeated, and never a spoken monosyllable in the world could have held more witchery.
"I'll see if I can find him," I promised, and very bald plain words they sounded after the music of her sulphurous whisper.
I knew just where to find the man from Smith's, for I had seen Adolphus Cray, blinded with passion, goaded on by the fury of the woman on the other side of the darkness, steal after him to that side door, and I had heard his cry as he had received his deathblow. He was lying crumpled up, just as he had fallen, the great sword with which the blow had been struck by his side, the blood still dripping to the floor from his wound, the satchel of jewels only a few feet away. I looked down at the man and, although it has never been my custom to yield to emotions of any sort, I placed him, in case there was still life in his body, in a more comfortable position. Then I heard the tumult from the house suddenly grow louder and realised that Adolphus Cray's guests were trooping out towards the studio. I picked up the satchel, hurried down the back passage, let myself out into the Mews and stepped into my car. I glided noiselessly away, passed over Battersea Bridge, and shot out to the open country. My getaway was, as usual, perfectly conceived, and never had things run more smoothly. I was even free from anxieties. The girl had killed Adolphus Cray with her own dagger, her finger-prints must be clear upon its hilt. She would confess to the crime the moment she was questioned. As for the man from Smith's, if he recovered—well, he would remember that it was the dead painter who had struck him down, and if he died—well, Cray's sword was lying by his side, torn down from its place upon the wall—the obvious weapon of destruction. All that I had to do was to get those glorious jewels safely to their destination. On the way, I disposed completely and satisfactorily of the satchel. I stowed the jewels away in my pockets, I used my patent appliance to change the numbers of my car and, with another of my own devices which I had never patented, a canvas hood took the place of my sedan top.
So I passed on to safety—safety of the body, that is to say, but to infinite and amazing turmoil of the mind. Never during the years which have passed since that night have I been able to arrive at any clear understanding as to the paroxysm of spirit which, without the slightest warning, seized me in those hours of rushing through the darkness. Never had my brain seemed clearer. The evening was a clean-cut record of skilful and successful accomplishment. Reason mocked at the birth of even a single qualm. Perhaps it was because I had never known fear that a spasm of madness seized me that night.
I drove on till just before dawn, drove on in the teeth of such a gale as I have never felt or dreamed of before. Just as a few streaks of light paled the black masses of cloud, I sheltered by the side of a ruined barn. I ate the carefully-prepared sandwiches from the pocket of my car and drank a very pleasant whisky-and-soda. I flashed my torch for a minute on to the map. I knew exactly where I was. I drove on. The time came just before the actual daylight when I passed through the worst of the storm. I saw trees uplifted, loose boughs torn off and rising in the air like live things, travelling like witches' broomsticks until they came down in the distance. At one place the thatched roof blown from a cottage barred the road and I had to drive across the moor for almost a mile. The dawn which had shown itself in those thin streaks of light amidst rolling masses of cloud behind me seemed blackened out once more by the growing violence of the hurricane. Always the thunder in my ears grew louder. There came a time when I was forced to pause and use my torch before I moved. I left the car then behind a ruined fragment of wall and stood up for a moment facing westwards. The gale caught me and I was flung over, blown into a mass of thickly growing heather. I crawled out of it, and slowly, yard by yard, on my stomach all the time, I moved nearer and nearer to that enormous chasm of darkness. The roar of it now was stupefying.
Very soon I had reached a spot where the spray from the boiling cauldron of sea below stung and burnt my face. I lay with my arms knitted round the gnarled roots of that clump of heather and I watched the slow cleaving of the darkness, the grim twilight which took its place. I held out my hand. The wind for a moment seemed to have lost its hurricane strength. I lifted my face. A lull in the storm had come. Then I peered forward and I saw a marvellous sight. I saw the inky black sea hundreds of feet below surging and rolling beneath me—waves of mountainous height, fountains of white spray rising like snow-storms up towards the skies. There was a gleam of lights from passing ships now and then, visible as they rose and fell in the trough of the waters. One fell and I never saw it again.... The blackness had gone. I stood up. It was possible to stand now. With one arm locked in the toughest of the roots, the wind burned my face and tore the buttons from my coat. It was as though the world had gone mad with the fury of the storm, but so far as I can remember the wildness of those hours, it was only my body that joined and responded to the fury of the night. My mind remained as clear as at any moment during the strangest night I ever passed. I knew exactly what I was going to do—without thought, consideration or hesitation. One by one I threw the Hebor jewels into the crashing, thunderous chasm below. Diadems, strangely shaped ornaments, bracelets, stones of every colour—away they went. I seemed to have a superhuman strength. I threw them sometimes so high that they came down like falling silver stars, to disappear. The last one was gone. I drew a long breath. After ten minutes of stealthy and patient effort I succeeded in lighting a cigarette. I stretched out my arms. It was as though I had received a gift of passionate freedom. I made my way back to the car. I finished my sandwiches, drank more of my whisky and set my course for a new world.
I arrived there. A world it is of repentance, of regrets, sometimes of depression, yet—I write the word with a faint impulse of shame, perhaps—it is also becoming a world of happiness.