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THE Honourable George Vincent Angus, ascending by means of the automatic lift to his rooms, which were situated in the upper regions of the Bellevue Flats, caught the gleam of a brilliantly polished oblong strip of brass affixed to one of the dark mahogany doors on the first floor. He touched the button which arrested the progress of the elevator, and, stepping out, crossed the thickly-carpeted corridor and studied the very neat, obviously new, name-plate.
"Mr Peter Bragg," he murmured to himself. "What a name!"
Whereupon he rang the bell, which was immediately answered by a most correct-looking manservant of middle age.
"Is Mr. Peter Bragg at home?" the visitor enquired.
"Have you an appointment, sir?" the man countered.
"I have no appointment," Angus confessed, "but I have a great desire for a word with Mr. Peter Bragg. My name is of no consequence. I shall not detain your master for more than a few minutes."
"I will enquire through the secretary, sir, whether Mr. Bragg is able to see you," the butler conceded. "Will you step into the waiting-room?"
He threw open the door of a small but handsome apartment on the right-hand side of the hall—an apartment furnished and panelled throughout in light oak. A table stood in the middle of the room piled with magazines, few of which appeared to have been opened. There was a general air of stiffness and newness about the furniture—as though it had been bought for show and not for any practical use.
"What the devil does this fellow want a waiting-room for?" Angus reflected, as he stood on the hearth-rug gazing around him. "Doesn't look as though anyone had ever been inside the place either."
The butler, reappearing before he had time for any further speculation, bowed respectfully.
"Mr. Bragg will see you, sir," he announced, with the air of one bringing good news.
Angus was ushered into a large, impressive-looking apartment opening out from the waiting-room. A man was seated at a handsome rosewood desk nearly in the middle of the room, with his back to the light—a desk upon which stood a telephone, a set of push-bells, a pile of papers arranged with methodical care, several cardboard folders similar to those used in Government offices, and very little else. He looked at his visitor through horn-rimmed glasses without changing his position.
"You wish to see me?" he enquired. "My name is Bragg."
Angus acknowledged the information courteously and sank, uninvited, into a high-backed chair placed at a convenient distance from the table.
"Very glad to make your acquaintance." he murmured.
Mr. Peter Bragg coughed slightly. He was short and inclined towards a certain rotundity of figure, clean-shaven, of pink and white complexion, and of singularly youthful appearance—an effect which his glasses seemed designed to counteract. He was wearing the right sort of clothes, but in a sense he seemed almost as new as his furniture.
"What might be your name and the nature of your business?" he enquired.
"Business? Oh, I haven't any business," Angus admitted carelessly. "Mere matter of curiosity, my looking you up. Seemed such a queer thing, you see, a fellow having a brass plate outside his door in the Bellevue Flats. Of course you know that no doctors or dentists or those sort of people are allowed here."
Mr. Peter Bragg had the air of one endeavouring to be patient with an impossible person.
"Do I understand you to say that you rang my bell and introduced yourself here for the sole purpose of asking me why I chose the most ordinary means of indicating my exact whereabouts to my friends?"
"Something like that," Angus assented, with unabated good-humour. "It's a very nice plate—lettering in quite good taste, and all that, so long as you have to have it. Unusual name yours, by-the-by. Seems to me I've heard it before somewhere."
"Will it be of interest to you," the young man at the table asked gently, "if I confess that I find your visit something of an intrusion?"
Angus smiled at him pleasantly, and the smile of a young man as good-looking and agreeable as the Honourable George Vincent Angus was a hard thing to resist.
"Don't get huffy," he begged. "Have a cigarette?"
Mr. Peter Bragg waved away the proffered case.
"Thank you," he declined. "I seldom smoke during the daytime."
Angus selected a cigarette for himself, tapped it on the arm of his chair, lit it, and, leaning a little further back, assumed a more comfortable position. His involuntary host watched him with impassive expression.
"Quite a friendly call, I can assure you," the former continued. "I'm a sort of neighbour, as I explained, only I camp out in the attic. I say, you wouldn't mind taking off those spectacles for a moment, would you?"
Mr. Peter Bragg hesitated, but finally complied. His visitor rose to his feet, sat on the edge of the rosewood table, and, leaning over, patted him on the shoulder.
"Pudgy Pete, by Jove!" he exclaimed. "I knew there was something familiar about you. I believe I christened you myself. Fancy your not remembering me!"
"I remember you perfectly," was the composed reply. "You are the Honourable George Vincent Angus, second son of Lord Moningham, and you were expelled from Marlowe's during my second year."
Angus indulged in a little grimace.
"No need to drag up those trifling indiscretions of youth," he murmured deprecatingly. "You went on to Harrow afterwards, didn't you? That's where I lost sight of you."
"I went to Harrow." Peter Bragg admitted. "Owing, I suppose, to family influence, you were received into Walter's, and afterwards at Eton."
"Family influence had nothing whatever to do with it," Angus protested cheerfully. "My cricket worked the oracle. Besides, all that I had done was to lock old Marlowe up and take his class the day he wouldn't let us go to see the football match."
"A gross act of insubordination in which I am thankful to remember that I took no part," Peter Bragg declared.
"Oh, shut up!" his visitor enjoined. "Anyway, here we are now, and let's get back to it. What the devil do you mean by sporting a brass plate outside that magnificent mahogany door of yours, and why have you what your butler calls a 'waiting-room'? I can understand a pal dropping in to see you now and then, but why on earth should anyone 'wait' to see you?"
Peter Bragg leaned back in his chair. The tips of his fingers were pressed together. His nails were almost too well manicured.
"You always were a curious, interfering sort of chap, Angus," he remarked. "I see you haven't changed."
"Not in the least," was the prompt admission. "Just the same as ever. Pudgy. If a thing interests me, I like to know all about it. Now be a good little man and tell me what you are up to."
"I have established myself," Peter Bragg announced, with an air of some dignity, "as a consulting detective."
"As a what?" the other gasped.
"As a consulting detective, or investigator, if you prefer the word. My headquarters are in the Strand, where all the routine work is done. This is my West End branch, where I interview important clients."
Angus stared at his late schoolfellow for a moment incredulously. Then he suddenly began to grin, and afterwards to laugh. He laughed long and pleasantly, but his mirth was apparently not infectious.
His companion's frown deepened. Angus slid from the table, resumed his chair, crossed his legs, and leaned back with the air of one whose sense of humour has been pleasantly stimulated.
"Come to remember it," he reflected, "you were always reading detective stories at school. Marlowe must have taken a whole library away from you at different times. Tell me. Pudgy—I'm not mistaken, am I?—you were at the bottom of every class there, weren't you?"
"I believe so."
"There was some question before my unfortunate little affair of your being asked to leave, eh? 'abnormal lack of intelligence,' the old man use to say you displayed."
"I was not a success at school," Peter Bragg condescended to admit. "Many men, though, who have prospered in the world exceedingly, have commenced life in the same fashion."
Angus nodded sympathetically. He had still the air of a man moved to gentle but continuous mirth. A twinkle of humour remained in his eyes. The idea of Pudgy Pete as a detective appealed to him irresistibly.
"I trust for your own sake, Peter," he said, "that you are not—er—dependent for your livelihood upon success in your profession?"
"My livelihood," Peter Bragg confided, "is already secured. My uncle—"
"My God, of course! Bragg's Knife Polish, wasn't it? The old man left you a matter of half a million, didn't he?"
"He left me a considerable fortune," was the somewhat stiff admission.
"I see," Angus murmured. "So you're taking this up just as a hobby. Any clients yet?" Peter Bragg coughed.
"You will excuse me," he begged, "if I refrain from discussing the details of my business with you. A certain amount of secrecy—"
"Oh, chuck it, Pudgy," his visitor begged, lighting another cigarette. "You always were a funny boy, and with all that money why shouldn't you play at doing what you want to? Won't you get a little bored with it, though—sitting here waiting for clients?"
"I don't anticipate having to wait very long," was the calm reply. "I took over the business of Macpherson's, Limited, with all their staff, and there is always plenty doing there in a minor sort of way. They consult me occasionally, and I deal with the important cases here."
"You mean to say that you have already an established organisation?" Angus demanded.
Peter Bragg made no immediate reply. He rang one of the bells by his side, and almost at once, through a door communicating with an inner apartment, a young woman appeared. She was plainly dressed, and her dark, chestnut-coloured hair was brushed severely back from her forehead, as though to attract as little attention as possible to the fineness of its quality. She was creamily pale and she wore tinted glasses which one instinctively felt were unnecessary. In movements and speech she was a study of quiescence.
"Has number seven report come in yet. Miss Ash?" her employer asked.
"Ten minutes ago, sir."
"Bring it, please."
Her errand was completed in an incredibly short space of time, considering that she had not once given the impression of haste. Peter Bragg opened the folder which she had brought, straightened his spectacles upon his nose, and, after a glance at his visitor, commenced to read.
"At three o'clock yesterday afternoon," he began—"having lunched at the Ritz, by-the-by—you arrived at Ranelagh intending to play polo against the Incogniti. You found, however, that a back had already been chosen, and you decided to wait for Saturday's match. In the bar afterwards—"
Angus was leaning forward in his chair. His indifferent expression had vanished. He was staring at his erstwhile school-fellow in frank amazement.
"Let me finish, I beg of you," Peter Bragg went on, with an expostulatory wave of the hand. "In the bar afterwards you met a Captain Milner with whom you had a somewhat prolonged conversation, chiefly concerned with a string of polo ponies which are up for side somewhere in Gloucestershire. Later you found your father, Lord Moningham, on the lawn, and had tea with him. Then, at Lady Sybil Fakenham's urgent request, you made up a four at tennis. You had your flannels in the dressing-room, but you were obliged to borrow some shoes. Towards six o'clock you drove back to town, dined at Moningham House and returned to your rooms for a short time, where you received a visitor. Afterwards you supped at the Embassy with friends, called in at your Club, and arrived back here shortly after two. Correct, I think."
Peter Bragg pushed the folder away from him and leaned back in his chair. Angus had risen to his feet. He was a little bewildered, more than a little inclined to be angry.
"Will you explain," he demanded, "what the devil you mean by having my footsteps dogged?"
"There is no law, you know, against anything of the sort," was the good-tempered reply—"nothing to prevent my having your movements watched if it amuses me. Let me remove any anxiety you may feel, at once, though. We have nothing against you. You are not one of our cases, nor, I hope, are you likely to be. The fact of the matter is that I never allow our City staff to be idle, and whenever we have a man doing nothing I turn him on to the first person I can think of, and demand a report. He never knows whether the thing is serious or not and it keeps him from rusting."
The position as between the two men had become curiously reversed. It was Peter Bragg now who was good-humoured, airy, and indifferent, his companion whose face had darkened, and who had shown signs for several moments of annoyance if not of anger. Suddenly, however, the humour of the situation appealed to him. He burst out laughing.
"Do you mean, after all, then, Pudgy," he exclaimed, "that I am to take you seriously? Gad, I wish you'd take me into partnership,"
Peter Bragg took off his glasses and wiped them, looking more ridiculously youthful than ever.
"Oh, I'm in this thing seriously enough as you may find out some tiny or another," he declared. "I have proved to you that I have an organisation. Perhaps you'd like to be present whilst I interview a client. Sit down again, do. Light another cigarette if you want to,"
He touched a bell. The butler entered almost immediately. "Is Miss Burton in the waiting-room?"
"You can show her in."
Angus rose uncertainly to his feet.
"I say, if she's really a client, she won't want me here," he observed. "I'll toddle off."
Peter Bragg motioned him back.
"I have a particular reason for wishing you to remain," he confided.
There was no time for further protest, for the door had already been opened and the young lady was being ushered in. Both men rose to their feet. She came timidly forward.
"This is Miss Burton, is it not?" Peter Bragg said. "My name is Bragg. I am very glad to meet you. Please take a seat. Permit me to introduce my friend, Mr. George Angus. I will explain his presence later."
The girl accepted the chair which Angus had offered her. She looked up at him with a timid little smile.
"You remember me, Mr. Angus?" she asked.
"Of course I do," he answered, with a sudden wave of recollection. "You were governess to my sister's children, weren't you? Spent a summer at Moningham once?"
"Your sister was always very kind to me," she said. "Unfortunately, as the children grew older my French wasn't good enough. I have been for two years now with Mrs. Goldberg in Gloucester Terrace."
Angus looked at her kindly. He had indistinct but pleasant memories of the timid, blue-eyed young woman whom his nieces had adored. He turned towards his old schoolfellow.
"I think I'll be getting along, Peter," he suggested. "If Miss Burton wishes to consult you, I am sure she would rather see you alone."
"Unless the young lady feels that way about it, I should prefer you to remain," Peter Bragg announced. "Two heads are better than one, and I have an idea that you may be interested in her story. Have you any objection to Mr. Angus's presence, Miss Burton?"
She shook her head. The look of trouble which had been in her face when she had first entered the room had returned. Her eyes were dim and her forehead wrinkled. She was obviously very nervous.
"I don't mind in the least, Mr. Bragg," she assented. "I don't know whether anyone can help me, though. It all seems so terrible."
"Please tell your story." he directed. "Tell us in as few words as possible, but leave nothing out."
She clasped her hands in front of her. She sat looking at neither of them—looking at one particular spot in the wall.
"I am quite poor," she began. "The few relatives I have are not very near ones, and they are also poor. I was happy at Lady Cranston's. I have been miserable ever since. A few months ago piece of very good fortune came to me. The only nice man who ever visited at Mrs. Goldberg's, began to take some notice of me. To my surprise, one day he asked me to marry him. We were to have been married next Thursday."
She paused and showed signs of breaking down.
"Now the trouble, please," Peter Bragg demanded briskly.
"Eighteen months ago," she went on, "I met a man in the Park, where I used to walk sometimes in the evening. He looked nice and he obviously wanted to speak to me. My life with Mrs. Goldberg was very unhappy. I never had a moment's pleasure, or anyone to say a kind word. I let him speak to me. We became very friendly. He was always sympathetic, and that counted for so much. He didn't want to marry me—I think he was married already, but separated from his wife. I went on seeing him even after I knew. We had dinners together, and very often he used to beg me to go away with him. I never meant to. I don't think I ever should have done, but my life was so dreary that I couldn't break off with him altogether. I used to write him letters—foolish letters, and a great many of them. One day, as I was reading the morning paper, I had a terrible shock. I saw that he had been run over by a taxi-cab in St. James's Street and killed."
Angus ventured upon a murmured word of sympathy: Peter Bragg remained silent.
"We were leaving for Scotland the next day," she went on, "and when we came back after three or four months, Mr. Poynton, the gentleman I am engaged to, began to call. I suppose it was very heartless of me, but I had almost forgotten about Mr. Sinclair—that was the other gentleman's name—when last week I received this letter."
She handed it across the table. Peter Bragg smoothed out the folds and read aloud:
"It is dated," he announced, "from number eleven, Dinsmoor Street, West Kensington, and it is signed," he added, turning over the sheet, "by Philip Drayton, Major—
"My dear young Lady,
"I am writing you with the utmost reluctance a letter which I fear may distress you, and which certainly treats of a very disagreeable affair. An old servant of mine, George Roberts, lies ill in a London hospital. He is penniless and has apparently a family dependent upon him. He has in his possession a packet of letters written by you, addressed to his late employer, a Mr. Sinclair, who was killed in a taxi-cab accident. The scoundrel should, of course, have returned them to you, and he assured me that he fully intended to do so. Now, however, he has met with unexpected reverses, and although I must do him the justice to admit that he seems heartily ashamed of himself, he insists upon having a thousand pounds far them, or inviting a Mr. Poynton, to whom I think you are engaged, to purchase them at that price. I did my best to make Roberts see the enormity of his proposed action, but he insists upon it that his first duty is to his wife and family whom he is leaving penniless. I have persuaded him to entrust the letters to my care, and I think you had better come and see me and discuss the matter.
Peter Bragg folded up the letter and returned it.
"The matter," he pronounced, "is one of blackmail pure and simple. Scotland Yard would deal with it in a moment. The trouble is, as you have no doubt already realised, that you would become involved in the publicity which would follow."
"That is why I came to you," the girl explained eagerly. "I don't want to prosecute."
"Have you any money at all to pay for the letters?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"Not a penny," was the despairing reply. "I had thirty pounds saved, and I have spent that for my trousseau."
"Are the letters very compromising?" Angus interposed. She blushed slightly.
"They would seem so to Mr. Poynton," she admitted. "He is very strict indeed. They were very foolish. Anyone reading them might easily misunderstand what had really happened."
"Did you go and see this Major Drayton?" Peter Bragg asked.
The girl shook her head.
"I came to you instead. It didn't seem to be any use. I couldn't raise a thousand pence."
Peter Bragg touched a bell and rose to his feet.
"You will return here, Miss Burton," he directed, "immediately I send for you. Until then, leave the matter entirely in our hands. Go on, of course, with the preparations for your wedding, and, unless there is anything which you ought to confess—and I gather that there is not—do not mention the matter at all to Mr. Poynton."
The butler was already on the threshold. With a confused word of thanks, she took leave of the two men and left the room.
"Well, I'm damned!" Angus exclaimed, as soon as the door was closed. "Old Phil Drayton, of all men in the world! Belongs to one of my clubs—or rather one I used to belong to. Doddering old fellow, he seems, but I should never have thought that there was any harm in him. Makes a bit buying and selling antiques—generally fakes. Well, I'm damned!"
"We have now to consider," Peter Bragg mused, "how we can get hold of those letters."
THE young man in the dark clothes, and with the upper part of his features obscured by a black silk mask, subsided with a little sigh of content into a well-worn easy-chair in the shabby back room of number eleven, Dinsmoor Street, West Kensington. He buttoned his coat and patted a slight protuberance in his breast pocket with satisfaction. The man seated opposite to him—a white-haired, pathetic-looking figure—made some slight movement, only to shrink back shuddering in his chair as he looked down into the very ugly black cavity of the bull-nosed automatic pistol.
"Put that thing down," he begged tremulously. "I can't do more than I have done. I've given my word of honour not to move or raise my voice."
"For a military man, Major," his vis-à-vis observed, "you seem to be a little nervous."
"You know me, then?"
"Quite well by reputation. Until now, I must confess, only as a retired military man of limited income with a passion for collecting antiques. I regret that I cannot view with similar sympathy your latest exploit."
"If the young lady had come to see me herself," the Major declared, "I should not have been hard with her. I can assure you that I would have shown her every consideration. In trying to arrange the matter between her and Roberts, I was acting entirely in her interests."
"It is a subject," the marauder observed, rising in leisurely fashion to his feet, "which we will not discuss. I am always willing to believe the best of everyone."
"Who the devil are you?" the Major demanded abruptly. "Every now and then your voice sounds most unpleasantly familiar."
"Don't worry to find out, my dear sir. You will only waste your time. Look upon me as a nightmare of your fancy who has paid you a brief visit and departed with your priceless vase. As for the letters, you can always believe that you threw them on the back of the fire—a generous action. Major, but why not? I am quite sure that at some time or another during your life you were capable of it."
The Major sighed.
"I have not always been a pauper," he confided bitterly. "Poverty is a cruel taskmaster."
The intruder slipped his pistol back into his pocket and picked up from the table by his side a porcelain vase of strange orange and blue colourings. He passed his hands over it critically.
"So this is Armadi porcelain?" he observed. "A strange design and texture. You must not fret about your loss, Major. After all, as our interview has passed off without disturbance and I am able to depart without leaving indications of my burglarious effort, I imagine—"
He broke off. His whole frame seemed suddenly to have become rigid, hid expression one tense effort at listening. There was no doubt about it. Down the front stairs, outside in the hall, came the sound of soft, descending footsteps. He glanced at the clock. It was five minutes past one.
"I thought you told me there was no one else in the house except yourself?" he said swiftly.
"No one except my niece," the Major reminded him. "I warned you that she might hear us. That is she coming down the stairs now."
The masked man picked up the vase, moved quickly across the room and turned off the light. He stood a little away from the door his back to the wall, watching. The major, still carefully refraining from any sort of movement, showed fresh signs of terror.
"My niece may be difficult," he faltered. "She is young and impetuous. Be careful with her, and for God's sake don't carry that vase as though it were a ginger-pot."
"What do you mean by difficult?"
"She has courage."
The door was suddenly opened, and the marauder's scheme of darkness was frustrated by the light from the hall which shone full into the room. Framed in the doorway stood a very handsome and very determined-looking young woman, wearing a rose-coloured dressing-gown and slippers, and with her dark hair gathered together with a ribbon of the same colour. She looked into the room with amazed eyes, at the bureau still in disorder, her terror-stricken uncle, the masked man with the vase. A cry broke from her lips.
"Madam," the burglar assured her, "you have nothing to fear."
"But you have," was the swift retort. "Put up your hands!"
The girl's arm flashed out—a very beautiful white arm where the wide sleeve of her dressing-gown had fallen away. Gripped in her fingers was an ancient, but still formidable-looking revolver. The masked man obeyed her behest but in a fashion of his own. He held the vase which he had been carrying in front of his face.
"Young lady," he warned her, "if you shoot you will destroy what I am credibly informed to be a most priceless example of Armadi pottery."
"What are you going to do with it?" she demanded. "It belongs to my uncle."
"Alas," the other replied, "it did! At the present moment, it belongs to me—by right of possession. We collectors are compelled sometimes to use violent measures. Will you be so good as to step a little to one side?"
He moved closer to her. The hand which still gripped the pistol trembled noticeably.
"Stay where you are!" she ordered.
"But why should I?" he protested. "I want to go home. It is, believe me, past my usual hour for retiring. It is one o'clock—very late for a member of my profession. You should know that all burglaries which are in the least up-to-date nowadays are committed between eight and ten in the evening."
He spoke slowly, with a note of banter in his tone, yet all the time she felt his eyes watching her, felt that he was seeking his moment for escape.
"Put down the vase and you can go," she proposed.
"My dear young lady," he protested, "do you realise that, for the purpose of acquiring this unique specimen of porcelain, I have run the incredible risk of breaking into your house to-night and of terrorizing your uncle. If you shoot me the vase is smashed. For that reason I possess myself of a spurious courage."
She raised the pistol once more, but it was too late. The burglar had risked everything upon one moment of incredible swiftness. There was a firm grip upon her wrist, an arm around her shoulder. She was completely powerless.
"Need we argue about this little matter?" he continued persuasively. "I have the vase. It is on the carpet for the moment, but it is now my property. Your uncle is resigned to its loss. Let me pass. If I might give you a word of advice, in future see that there is always whisky and soda upon the sideboard. The modern burglar appreciates such attention."
She struggled in his grasp, but she was helpless. He did not at once make his escape, however. His right hand stole out, and he brought the door to within a few inches of closing, so that the room was in darkness. She felt him bending over her, caught the faint perfume of verbena from his shaven chin or hair. His eyes with their grim setting flashed into hers, and what she saw there seemed to drain the last atom of strength from her limbs. She felt her heart throbbing.
"Don't be foolish," he whispered. "The vase is mine, fairly taken in open warfare. Better resign yourself. It is always possible for you to return my visit, to come and fetch it back."
She felt his breath upon her face, an odour of lavender as though the mask had been kept in a perfumed drawer. Another whiff of that cleanly verbena. Then there was a wild, impossible second. His arm had held her even more tightly. His lips had brushed hers, lingered there, clung for one long, breathless moment. Then she gave a little gasp. She was free, and outside in the hall she heard the sound of rapidly retreating footsteps, the closing of the door.
THE attractively secretive young lady who filled the post of secretary to Peter Bragg came noiselessly into the room where Angus and he were engaged in close conversation on the following morning, and laid a slip of paper before her employer. The latter glanced at it and passed it on to his companion, whose lips were pursed for a moment in a reflective whistle.
"The devil!" he exclaimed, under his breath.
"You can show Miss Drayton in," Peter Bragg directed.
Angus glanced uneasily towards the door.
"The question is whether I hadn't better make myself scarce," he muttered.
Even as he spoke, however, there was ushered in a remarkably handsome and apparently very angry young lady. Both men rose to their feet. She acknowledged their greeting and accepted a chair.
"You are Mr. Bragg, I suppose," she said, addressing him. "I have come to consult you upon a private matter."
"I am entirely at your disposal, madam," was the measured rejoinder, "and I can see you alone if you prefer it. This gentleman and I, however, were discussing a prospective partnership. Permit me to introduce Mr. Angus—Miss Drayton."
"I have no objection to Mr. Angus's presence," the young lady conceded, looking hard at him.
There was a moment's silence. The frown upon the girl's face seemed to deepen. Angus, however, remained entirely at his ease, and presently she looked away.
"The matter upon which I have come to consult you, Mr. Bragg," she began, "is a curious one. My uncle, Major Drayton, is, for his limited income, an ardent collector of works of art—especially of Oriental porcelain, last night our little house in West Kensington was broken into and a very beautiful vase, which my uncle valued highly, was stolen. We saw the burglar, in fact, he rifled the room in my uncle's presence, and he got away with the vase. He was armed, and although I threatened him with an unloaded revolver, he only laughed at me."
"Why then have you come to me and not to the police?" Peter Bragg asked bluntly.
"Because, for some extraordinary reason, my uncle absolutely refuses to report his loss," the young lady explained. "He won't allow me to go to the police station, or to give any information. I know that he is fretting all the time so I thought that I had better come to you."
"You have shown, if I may say so," Peter Bragg declared, "an unusual amount of common-sense."
"An unusual amount," Angus reiterated fervently. "These antiques are almost impossible of recovery in the ordinary way. The police might possibly have traced the burglar, but you would never have seen your Armadi vase again."
She looked at him fixedly.
"How did you know it was an Armadi vase?" she demanded.
"But my dear young lady," Angus pointed out, without hesitation "you described it as such directly you spoke of your loss."
"I don't remember doing anything of the sort," she declared.
"If you will allow me to say so," Peter Bragg interposed, "I think that my friend Angus is right. I certainly heard the term."
"It seems very extraordinary," the girl murmured, still a little uneasy. "I shall begin to believe that I talk in my sleep next."
"Did the burglar leave anything behind which would afford you a clue, or have you any noteworthy recollection of him?" Peter Bragg enquired.
"He was young," she replied, "and rather tall. He wore a mask over the lower part of his face, so it was difficult to get any definite idea about him, but I should think that he was what would be called in his world, a somewhat superior person—a dealer in antiques himself, perhaps, or something of that sort."
"No other impressions?" Angus ventured.
"None, except that he used either a shaving cream or a hair-wash perfumed with verbena."
Angus moved slightly further away.
"It isn't much to go on," he remarked. "Would you know his voice again, if you heard it?"
"I'm afraid not," she acknowledged. "It was a voice which had some quality, but it was obviously disguised."
"At what sum does your uncle value the vase?" Peter Bragg asked.
"Well, he is rather vague about that," the girl admitted. "He bought it very cheap indeed, but I believe he was hoping to get five hundred pounds for it. We are very poor and I know that the loss is worrying him."
"I think that he can spare himself any undue anxiety," Peter Bragg pronounced. "An Armadi vase can scarcely be concealed. Your description of the young man is helpful, too. Now tell me, which do you want the more—the return of the vase or the punishment of the burglar?"
The girl's eyes were lit for a moment with something which was half anger and half a curious sort of regret.
"The young man was for a moment terribly rude," she declared—"most offensive—yet on the whole I think I would rather have the vase back again."
Peter Bragg touched the bell.
"You shall have a report from us in twenty-four hours," he promised. "In the meantime our fee for a consultation—"
"But I haven't any money with me," she exclaimed in alarm.
Angus leaned over and whispered; the other nodded gravely.
"My friend here," he announced, "is interested in your case. He has an idea that he can bring it to a successful conclusion. We will therefore waive the matter of a fee for the moment."
The young lady held out her hand gratefully. Angus remained in the background and contented himself with a bow. Nevertheless, she looked at him for a moment steadily before she left the room.
"I'm afraid you're rather an amateur at this sort of thing, Angus," Peter Bragg remarked coldly, as soon as they were alone. "You were giving yourself away the whole of the time."
Angus was gazing out of the window, watching the street.
"A damned good-looking girl, that!" he murmured. "Did you notice her eyes, Peter? I can assure you last night when she came into the room in that rose-coloured dressing-gown—imagine her in rose-colour, Peter!—I nearly dropped the beastly vase, and chucked the whole show."
Peter Bragg glanced at him suspiciously.
"I trust," he said, "that you are not in the habit of allowing sentiment to interfere with business. By-the-by, you were just going to tell me about this vase. Where does it come in, and what on earth made you bring it away?"
"Curiously enough, to please the old boy," Angus explained. "He's obviously a beginner at this blackmailing game, and he was terrified to death lest his niece should guess what it was he's been burgled for. He knew very well that the vase was a fake and practically valueless, so when he realised that the game was up and that I was going to have the letters he begged me to pinch it. The old boy's no fool, either. He'll tell everyone he's been burgled for the sake of his vase, and they'll think he gets hold of some good stuff now and then."
The secretary glided in, and once more handed a folded piece of paper to her employer. He looked at it and passed it on to Angus. The two men exchanged startled glances. Angus indulged in a low whistle.
"This is a sort of situation," his companion murmured, with an air of satisfaction, "which I love to handle. Let the gentleman be shown in."
The girl made her silent exit, and a moment later the butler threw open the door.
"Major Drayton," he announced.
The Major, in the strong morning light, was a wan, almost a pathetic figure. His thinness seemed more noticeable than ever. His clothes, though carefully tended, were shabby. He returned Peter Bragg's greeting nervously, and accepted the chair into which he was waved, with diffidence.
"You wish to consult me, Major—er—Drayton?" Peter Bragg enquired, glancing at the slip of paper in front of him.
"In the strictest confidence," the Major replied, gazing hard at Angus.
"That is just as you wish, of course. Mr. Angus, however—by-the-by, Mr. Angus—Major Drayton—is at the present moment discussing the matter of a partnership with me. I am showing him some of the details of my business, and I can assure you that you can speak with the utmost freedom before him."
"I believe," the Major murmured, "that I have met Mr. Angus. There is something about him which seems to be curiously familiar," he went on, gazing across the room in a puzzled fashion.
"We have met not once but a good many times, Major," Angus assured aim. "I used to be a member of the Stadium Club, which you sometimes, I believe, frequent."
The Major appeared relieved.
"I remember, of course," he admitted. "I wondered where it was I had seen you. Certainly if Mr. Angus is likely to become associated with your business, Mr. Bragg, he can remain. I am not proud of my story—it might, almost be called a confession—but such as it is, gentlemen, I should like to get it off my chest."
Angus resumed his seat, and the Major continued.
"I had a friend," he explained, "named Sinclair—Tom Sinclair—lonely sort of chap, but a good fellow in his way. He was run over by a taxi-cab three or four months ago, and he sent for me. I was just in time. He was desperately ill, but quite conscious. He seemed to have no relatives, but there was a little girl of whom he was very fond. He hadn't much money to leave, and it happened, as he had just sold out his share in a business, it was all in the bank. Whilst I was there he sent down an open cheque for two thousand pounds, put the notes in an envelope as soon as he received them, and handed them over to me."
The Major paused to dab his forehead with his handkerchief. Angus was sitting very still, his cigarette burning unnoticed between his fingers; Peter Bragg's face behind his big glasses was expressionless.
"Nasty job, telling you this," the Major continued, his voice shaking painfully. "Sinclair handed me over, too, a packet of the girl's letters he wanted me to return to her, and I was to let her have the money with his love. We made a parcel of the lot. I took them home with me, and—well, for a time nothing happened."
"Do I understand," Peter Bragg asked, "that you made no effort to find the young lady?"
"I rang up the address in Gloucester Terrace the next morning," the Major confided. "I can assure you, gentlemen, that if I'd got into touch with her that day she'd have had notes and letters straight away. It turned out, though, that she was a governess with some people called Goldberg, and that they had all left for Scotland a few hours before I rang up. They seemed uncertain about giving me the address, and I am afraid I didn't press them. I decided to wait until the girl came back to London."
The Major threw away his cigarette. Somehow the taste of it was wrong. The sound of his own words and the silence of the other two men distressed him.
"I've been damned hard up all my life," he went on, "but never harder up than the day those two thousand pounds came into my hands. I was practically living on a pound or two a week belonging to my niece. Mind you, I didn't touch the money, but when the girl came back, instead of doing the honourable thing, I became nothing more nor less than a dirty criminal. I wrote her—I tried not to frighten her in my letter, but I invented some lie about Sinclair's servant. I said nothing about the money, but I told her that I had the letters, and that his servant wanted money for them. I asked her to come and see me. The trouble was that she didn't come."
"What exactly was your scheme if she had come?" Angus asked curiously.
The Major seemed to have shrunk in his chair. The words left his lips with difficulty.
"I was going to make her pay a thousand pounds for the letters out of the two thousand," he confessed. "I reckoned that the thousand pounds she would have left would be a godsend to her. She was going to marry a rich man, and I was almost a pauper. There's a pottery sale next week with some wonderful pieces, and I've never had enough money—but there, we'll leave it at that! I've no excuse. The worst of my story is to come."
"The worst!" Peter Bragg murmured.
"A tragedy has happened," the Major groaned. "Last night my house was broken into. The burglar discovered the sealed packet and went off with it."
"The notes and the letters?" Angus asked.
"Both. He was armed and there was nothing I could do. She lost her money, and God knows where the letters are."
There was a long silence. The Major's head disappeared in his hands; his shoulders heaved convulsively.
"There was also a little matter of a vase," Peter Bragg remarked presently.
The Major looked up and stared.
"How did you know anything about that?" he demanded.
"Your niece has been here," Peter Bragg explained. "She wanted us to try to get the vase back again for you. She knew nothing of course, about the rest of the business."
The Major's hands were shaking; his voice too, was tremulous.
"I begged the burglar to take the vase," he confessed. "I didn't want Marjorie to think that there was anything else I had worth taking."
The sliding door was softly opened. Miss Ash, crossing the floor with noiseless footsteps, laid another slip of paper before her employer. Across it was written in every possible place, "Urgent."
"The little governess!" Bragg whispered.
There was a moment's silence. Then Peter Bragg left his place and laid his hand not unkindly upon his client's shoulder.
"Major," he said, "we may be able to help you. Please be so good as to step into the waiting-room for a minute or two."
The Major rose unsteadily to his feet and allowed himself to be led into the waiting-room. Little Miss Burton came in like a whirlwind, her blue eyes wide open, a roll of banknotes in her hand.
"My letters!" she exclaimed. "They were all in the packet you sent, and look what else! Money! Bank-notes! Two thousand pounds!"
"Can you," Peter Bragg asked, "bear a shock, provided it is a pleasant one?"
"I have my letters back," she cried in ecstasy. "I can bear anything."
"The notes are yours," Peter Bragg confided. "They were left for you by Mr. Sinclair. He seems to have died without friends or relatives and he wished you to have his money. There has been a little delay in handing it over, and a little trouble about your letters because the trustee was not quite honest. Now that you have both, are you prepared to forgive him? He seems thoroughly repentant."
"But how did you do it, you wonderful people?" she cried, throwing her arms around Mr. Bragg's neck. "Forgive him? Of course I will. I'd forgive anyone for anything, I'm so happy."
Peter Bragg disengaged himself.
"Gratitude of this sort," he said stiffly, "is due not to me, but to my friend here, Mr. Angus, who undertook the adventure of recovering the letters and stumbled upon the notes."
She stretched out her hands towards him. Angus grasped them and raised her fingers gallantly to his lips.
"It was nothing at all," he assured her. "We arrange little affairs like this every day."
"And now," Peter Bragg suggested, "if you will come into the next room, you will find Major Drayton—the person who kept you temporarily out of your money and letters—waiting to beg for your forgiveness. You must remember that you are very young," he went on, in his most middle-aged tone—he was himself twenty-six—"so please allow a man of experience to give you a word of advice: when restitution has been made and genuine repentance shown, forgiveness is an excellent quality."
She looked up with shining eyes.
"My letters and two thousand pounds!" she exclaimed once more. "I'm brimming over with forgiveness."
Peter Bragg ushered her into the waiting-room, closed the door and came back.
"Events," he remarked, "appear to have developed along satisfactory lines."
Angus laid his hand upon his friend's shoulder.
"Pudgy," he confided. "I think I should like this business. If you're really in earnest about a junior partnership, I'll come in."
The Major walked home jauntily. He had argued for half an hour, but in his waistcoat pocket reposed the price of many a spurious Armadi vase. Then, in his niece's drawing-room he met with a further surprise. Upon the little table in the centre of the room was the Armadi vase, filled with the most amazing profusion of dark red roses, and before them stood Marjorie with a rapt expression upon her face.
"My vase!" the Major exclaimed.
"And roses," she murmured—"from the burglar!"